In the world of tragic drama, we accept that every play will conclude with the death of at least one major character. What we find much harder to accept is that other characters, some quite peripheral to the main action, may also forfeit their lives: not because of some transgression they commit, or any fault of their own, but simply because they come too close to the maelstrom and are unable to escape. That such innocent figures pay the ultimate penalty for their unfortunate station leaves us both pained and puzzled.
Consider Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, his most brutal work and one gorged with slaughter and savagery. In the midst of the horror, a son is born to the villainous Moor, Aaron, and Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who is also the wife of Saturninus, Emperor of Rome. At the news of this birth, Aaron, until now a heartless schemer, becomes impassioned with love for his offspring, as when he cautions Demetrius and Chiron, Tamora’s sons, who have threatened to kill the dark-skinned child. They believe his existence shames their mother, but Aaron warns them to keep their distance:
Now, by the burning tapers of the sky,
That shone so brightly when this boy was got,
He dies upon my scimitar’s sharp point,
That touches this my first-born son and heir!
(IV, ii, 88–92)
Aaron’s devotion, though, does not blunt his violent edge. He is determined that his son shall survive, and therefore asks the nurse who has brought him the infant: “But say again, how many saw the child” (IV, ii, 140). When the nurse replies that, beside herself, only the Queen and the midwife know of the baby’s existence, Aaron instantly kills her. The