Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s less well-known tragedies, a gory, dark tale of a disgraced general going to incredible means to take his revenge on the Goths who stole his position and mutilated his daughter, Lavinia. The relationship between Titus and his daughter Lavinia is perhaps the emotional core of the play; after Lavinia is brutally raped, Titus’ reaction is just as much for his sake as for hers – not only is he taking revenge upon her violation, but of the theft of his own position as celebrated Roman general. Of course, Titus’ parenting skills can be called into question when he ends up killing her, ostensibly for her own good – this adds to the gory horror of the play, as well as showcases Titus’ inherent selfishness. Titus’ relationship with his daughter Lavinia is complex and difficult to discern, vacillating between true sorrow and sheer, cold manipulation, as Titus uses her to enact some revenge of his own.
The true tragedy, however, happens to Lavinia herself – on the whims of Aaron, Chiron and Demetrius kill Bassianus, proceeding to rape and mutilate Lavinia in the woods and leaving her to die. It is interesting that the first person to find the violated Lavinia is her uncle, Marcus, who speaks most sympathetically of her and laments the things that have been done to her:
“Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle handsHave lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bareOf her two branches, those sweet ornaments,Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,And might not gain so great a happinessAs have thy love? Why dost not speak to me?” (II.iv.1-6).
With Marcus’ civilian perspective, he is much warmer to her and dwells more on the injustices done to her than Titus, who seems to roll the violation of his daughter into his overall plans for revenge at the evils done to him. To that end, Lavinia seems more and more to be merely a pawn in Titus’ ambitions instead of a daughter he truly loves.
“Gentle Lavinia, let me kiss thy lips.Or make some sign how I may do thee easeOr shall we cut away our hands, like thine?Or shall we bite our tongues, and in dumb showsPass the remainder of our hateful days?What shall we do? let us, that have our tongues,Plot some deuce of further misery,To make us wonder'd at in time to come” (III.i.9).
Titus seems to believe that sweet revenge will bring a measure of satisfaction to his and Lavinia’s lives, but it appears as though Titus is the one who wants to exact revenge the most. Instead of caring for his daughter and determining what is best for her, he chooses to carry on with the schemes that will bring him satisfaction instead.
The final expression of Titus’ manipulative relationship with Lavinia comes during the climax, in which Titus’ elaborate and psychotic plan of revenge comes full circle – having carefully cultivated a false sense of security through pretending to be made, he gets his just desserts (pardon the pun) immediately following his killing of Lavinia:
“Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee;And, with thy shame, thy father's sorrow die!” (V.iii.3-4)
In this couplet, Titus’ conditional sympathy and love for Lavinia is made clear; at first, he claims to kill her in order to spare her the ‘shame’ of having to live as a raped cripple. However, with that final line, he also likens her shame to his ‘sorrow’; by killing her, he also gets rid of his own sadness. By mentioning that last, it is implied that is the real reason he kills her – it is not as much about alleviating her pain as it is about lessening his. The revenge plot he so masterfully concocts is never wholly about Lavinia’s tragic rape; he merely thinks of that in terms of how it affects him and his humiliation from his station.
In conclusion, the relationship between Titus and Lavinia in Titus Andronicus is one of a father who values career and personal satisfaction over the love and approval of his daughter. At the beginning of the play, he is willing to have her married off against her will in order to protect his position in the Roman government, even killing one of his sons to do it. After Lavinia is raped and mutilated, he still only considers her condition another tragic blow to him, further fuelling his revenge. At the end, he is the one to kill his daughter, ostensibly to save her from shame (but ultimately to appease his own sorrow). While he does care about Lavinia as a member of his family, his priorities always fall toward him and his own station before anyone else. This dysfunctional relationship plays into the tragic nature of Titus Andronicus, and emphasizes the more horrific elements of the play, as Titus is driven mad and undone by his own selfishness and greed – a tragedy from which he never really learns.
Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. In The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Russ
McDonald. Pelican Books, 2002.