Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"I'll Find a Day to Massacre Them All": Tamora in Titus Andronicus and Catherine De Medicis

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"I'll Find a Day to Massacre Them All": Tamora in Titus Andronicus and Catherine De Medicis

Article excerpt

Queen of the Goths, Empress of Rome, Machiavellian and monstrous monarch: what literary, historical, or contemporary counterparts lurk behind Shakespeare's Tamora in Titus Andronicus? Critics have associated Tamora with the many classical tyrants or vengeful women the play invokes, including Semiramis and Hecuba; with Shakespeare's current monarch, Elizabeth I, whose subjects were often threatened by the anomaly of a woman on the throne; or with the widespread cultural unease about female unruliness that marked the sixteenth century. (1) While Shakespeare had examples of transgressive female power aplenty to draw upon--whether fictive or factual--this essay argues for a contemporary female monarch as prototype for Tamora: Catherine de Medicis, who ruled as queen consort, queen regent, and queen mother of France from 1547 to 1589 and whose legendary status as archetypal wicked queen had already gathered currency in her own life time.

This argument does not propose a political allegory or a unidirectional correspondence of the "old historicist" variety, for Shakespeare was seldom that explicit or reductive. But the resemblances between Catherine's reputed monstrosity and Shakespeare's articulation of the wicked queen in Titus--for he would go on to create other variations in later plays--are striking, and suggest another example of the intertextual transmission so central to his creative process. Shakespeare, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it, "does not conceal his indebtedness to literary sources," nor does he conceal the input of collective beliefs, cultural practices, and early modern foundational narratives, even if the latter influences are more challenging to trace. (2) In this case, I argue that Shakespeare's Tamora powerfully evokes the Catherine de Medicis understood by popular and political discourse in late Elizabethan England as well as the Catherine de Medicis represented in two pre-texts or co-texts: Anne Dowriche's narrative poem, The French History, and Christopher Marlowe's play, The Massacre at Paris.

Catherine was born in 1519 into the powerful Medicis family of Italy but came to France in 1533 as a pawn in a politically arranged marriage. When she was just fourteen, she married the Duke of Orleans, who became King Henri II of France in 1547. After Henri's untimely death in a jousting accident, Catherine ruled as queen mother and regent during the reigns of her sons Francois II (1559-60), Charles IX (1560-74), and finally Henri III (1574-89). In the last years of his reign, Henri III wrested some of the political control away from Catherine, but she nonetheless remained a dynamic force at court, and was arguably the most powerful woman in Europe for the latter half of the sixteenth century. (3)

Catherine died in January of 1589; Dowriche's poem was printed later that year. Scholars date the composition of Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris between 1589 and January of 1593, its first recorded performance, and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus anywhere from 1589 to January of 1594, when it was first performed. That these three works were written in such close proximity points to an intriguing intertextual relationship; that they were published so soon after Catherine's death suggests that her long and influential role in the politics of nearby France kept her in the forefront of English consciousness. Even more present than the collective perception of Catherine as a domineering matriarch and monarch was the most notorious event that occurred on her watch: the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in August of 1572.

The massacre took place on the occasion of the wedding festivities for Catherine's daughter, Marguerite de Valois, and Henri de Navarre, the next in line to the French throne after Catherine's sons, the Dukes of Anjou and Alencon. In marrying the Catholic Marguerite to the Protestant Navarre, Catherine hoped to end years of devastating religious conflict through a symbolic union of the two factions. …

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