The Cook and the Cannibal: Titus Andronicus and the New World

By Goldstein, David B. | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

The Cook and the Cannibal: Titus Andronicus and the New World


Goldstein, David B., Shakespeare Studies


IN ANY DISCUSSION OF SHAKESPEARE and the New World, it seems The Tempest "must follow, as the night the day." I propose instead to analyze the use of American exploration narratives in Shakespeare's earliest tragedy. In its preoccupations with Rome, Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca, Titus Andronicus is usually read in dialogue with Renaissance humanism. Without discounting its classical context, we may profit by examining the play alongside representations of New World cannibalism in sixteenth-century writings about American conquest. These representations involve a distinctly different set of conventions from those of classical stories. Crucially, accounts of Old World anthropophagy emphasize the physical act of eating, while in visual and verbal depictions of New World cannibalism the act of eating occurs as an afterthought or a leftover of the ritual killing that precedes it. (1) The sources available to Shakespeare flame questions of anthropophagic behavior and ethics in ways that are highly relevant to the play's dynamics. An examination of these conventions sheds new light upon one of the play's cruces, the apparent anticlimax of the cannibal banquet scene that closes the play's action. An analysis of Titus in an American context shows us a play organized around misuses of cooking and eating with roots not only in classical literature but in the behaviors of Iberian, Brazilian, and Aztec warriors. Cannibalism, the play's central metaphor, provides a mechanism by which victims and victors debase each other, producing an ethical landscape controlled by variegated forms of devourment and dismemberment. In any act of eating, one organism is destroyed to serve another, and the resulting collapse of self and other provides sustenance and regeneration for both. In Titus, eating destroys, but produces neither sustenance nor regeneration for eater or eaten. In such a world, the collapse of the self/other boundary that eating necessitates does not liberate, but rather degrades all parties. In Titus, the heuristic of consumption is the uncovering of one's own inhumanity.

Revenge and Anticlimax

In the final scene of Titus, the title character presents the Gothic queen Tamora with a pie in which he has baked her sons, which she proceeds unwittingly to eat. When asked to account for the sons' whereabouts, Titus reveals his plot in the gloating tones of the Renaissance revenger:

   Why, there they are, both baked in this pie;
   Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
   Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
   'Tis true, 'tis true, witness my knive's sharp point.

He stabs the Empress (5.3.59-62) (2)

In the space of twenty lines occur Titus's killing of his daughter Lavinia, the twin revelations quoted above, Titus's murder of Tamora, the emperor Saturninus's killing of Titus, and the retaliatory stabbing of Saturninus by Titus's son Lucius. Tamora has only a few seconds of horror, and no time for anguished speech, before Titus kills her.

For most writers of revenge tragedy through the Renaissance, Shakespeare included, the dilated moment at which the revenger reveals the victim's crime and subsequent punishment constitutes a hallmark of the genre, inherited directly from Seneca and ultimately from Aeschylus. (3) Seneca's Thyestes, which Shakespeare used as a major source for Titus, draws out the revelation in an extended dialogue between Thyestes and his revenger, Atreus. Jasper Heywood's 1560 translation of the play dilates the revenge still further by giving Thyestes an extra scene in which he meditates on having eaten his children. In The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronymo volunteers a lengthy catalog of the events that have brought him to his revenge before killing the Duke of Castile and himself. The Revenger's Tragedy, which appeared over a decade after Titus, maintains and heightens the Senecan convention. Vindice spells out his careful revenge and its origins while poison slowly eats away at the mouth of his victim, the lecherous duke; Vindice then holds the duke down to witness the duchess's adultery before he dies. …

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