2. Women in the Elizabethan Age
3. The construction of femininity
Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus is his most gruesome play. It has been harshly criticized for its exaggerated cruelty and was certainly not among his most popular works. However, the play aroused a somewhat greater interest within the field of gender studies and the feminist approach to literature. The simplified, objectified and polarized depiction of the female characters virtually stares the gender-conscious reader in the face; this is an open invitation for closer inspection. Though the virgin-whore dichotomy was quite common in Elizabethan literature, it is carried to extremes in Titus Andronicus.
In the following the construction of femininity and the female characters in the play, Lavinia and Tamora, will be analyzed against the background of the perception of femininity in Shakespeare’s time.
2. Women in the Elizabethan Age
Before discussing the roles of the female characters in Shakespeare’s play it is important to focus on the historical context and the roles of women in the Elizabethan Age. That era was marked by a vast contrast between Queen Elizabeth, the head of state and thus the most powerful person in England, and a society that was in general extremely misogynist and patriarchal. The presence of three powerful women in the 16th century – Queen Elizabeth, Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart – should not belie the fact that the common woman in that time was very much limited in her power and independence. Women in Early Modern England were dependent on men socially, economically and sexually. Married women in particular were not allowed to be in the public without their husbands, they were rather bound to the domestic area. Women in general were believed to be less rational than men and thus always needed male protection and guidance. As they were thought to be incapable of caring for themselves, it was the men’s duty to control their sexuality; the father had to guarantee that his daughter marries as a virgin and the husband had to control his wife to produce none but his heirs. Regarding this image of women it seems obvious that they were not supposed to trade and have their own business; on the contrary they were objects of bartering that men traded with and exchanged just like any other more or less valuable property.
Women were believed to be passive objects, men active subjects, or, as Carroll Camden puts it: “Man is the agent, woman the patient”. This idea of male dominance above women is represented in theology and philosophy and furthermore substantiated by medical science: “The fact that female sex organs were inside was viewed as a sign of female inferiority, of women’s colder and damper nature which had not produced the heat necessary to push them out”. The most powerful image showing the unequal distribution of power indeed comes from sexuality: The man is the one who penetrates, the woman the one being penetrated.
Women were expected to live according to the virtues “obedience, chastity, silence and piety”. Women not obeying these expectations were seen as a challenge for the patriarchal society.
3. The construction of femininity
Before starting to analyze the construction of femininity it appears necessary to clarify the crucial terms femininity and construction. Femininity means the summary of the attributes culturally and socially ascribed to women – contrary to femaleness, which describes the biological sex. Femininity as gender category is based on the female sex category, but it is merely a discursive construct, it is the socio-cultural superstructure to the biological sex. It is inasmuch constructed as it is based on ascriptions and expectations from women in general. Some scholars go even that far to claim that the discourse in which the category femininity was created is exclusively among men. The article ‘Femininity’ in the International Encyclopedia of Women says:
“Many commentators describe femininity as the ideal of womanhood, of being female, whereby women are defined as different from and inferior to men. To be feminine, in this view, is to conform to men’s images of what women should be and how women should behave.”
As denoted in the previous chapter the gender characteristics are explained and substantiated by the sciences. The aim of gender studies is to break such biologistic doctrines and analyze how gender is constructed, for which reasons and with which consequences.
Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus is very much dominated by male characters. These are moreover characterized as exceptionally masculine: emperors, soldiers, avengers. In contrast to the mass of men there are only three women appearing on stage, only two of them having an important role. Most interestingly these two women are constructed antithetically: Tamora, the powerful, cruel leader and lascivious mother on the one side and Lavinia, the powerless, obedient and innocent daughter on the other side. There is only one other woman appearing on stage, the nurse in act 4 scene 2 who is left out in the following as she doesn’t seem to be of great importance. She doesn’t even have a name and her rather short presence on stage ends with her being killed by Aaron.
Tamora and Lavinia are just like other female characters in Shakespearean plays presented in relation to male characters rather than independent; as Kahn observed: “Shakespeare depicts all his women characters as sisters, daughters, wives, or mothers”. This becomes understandable when we consider again that women in that time actually were dependent on men and were defined by their relation to a certain man. Jankowski claims that “it is virtually impossible to think of women except in terms how they relate to the marriage bond or their use by men: as virgins (unmarried women); wives or widows”. Tamora’s first appearance on stage is together with her three sons which defines her as mother from the beginning. Later on she is the wife of Saturninus, the emperor of Rome. She furthermore is never shown on stage on her own but always in company of men she is related to: her husband, her sons or her lover Aaron. Lavinia as well is labelled from the beginning as daughter of Titus Andronicus, the successful general of Rome and additionally as sister of her brothers, most of whom died as brave soldiers in war. The male characters on the contrary are shown as independent persons; Saturninus for example is an aspirant to the title of the emperor of Rome, shown without any familiar or other relations.
The female characters in Titus Andronicus are not only presented as dependent but they are also extremely simplified and stereotyped. Lavinia and Tamora are furthermore presented as two completely opposing kinds of women, the virgin and the whore. This polarisation was quite common in the Elizabethan theatre. Mann tries to explain that fact psychologically:
“The polarisation of female characters in Elizabethan drama […] also spoke to deep prejudices in the male psyche increasingly brought to the fore by the growing prominence of women in society and the ‘Problem’ this was perceived to create.”
The attributes of femininity are discursive constructs, constructed within an exclusively male discourse. In theatre it is obvious that this femininity is constructed, the author makes up the characters and embellishes them with certain attributes. However the characteristics are rarely completely made up and detached from reality, in fact they mirror reality and actual existing ideas that are predominant within a certain era. Characters in plays are thus created according to the existing images of men and women. In the case of the Renaissance woman these are constructed according to ascriptions by men as women generally did not take part in the public discourse.
Lavinia is the only daughter of Titus Andronicus, a Roman general who devoted himself to defending Rome and fighting the hostile Goths. The rest of the family is, at least as far as the reader gets to know, all male. Lavinia has 26 brothers, 21 of whom died on the battlefield; Titus himself and his brother Marcus apparently do not have wives and neither does Lucius though he has a young son to take care of. Lavinia is defined as the good and marriageable daughter, humble and chaste.
Lavinia corresponds to the role model of a good woman as it was expected by men in the English Renaissance. She is humble and obedient; her first action on stage, kneeling down in front of her father and praising him, is defining her as the good and virtuous daughter. She adores her father and acts according to his expectations. She does not even contradict when her father wants to hand her over to Saturninus for marriage although she is already engaged to Bassianus. When Bassianus raises an objection and claims his prior right of possessing Lavinia, who “in justice seizeth but his own”, Lavinia neither contradicts nor consents. She does not seem to have her own will, at least she does not articulate it. She merely submits to the men’s wishes. It is the men who fight out who is going to marry her; Saturninus and Titus on the one side, Bassianus and Lavinia’s brothers on the other. Her opinion is not asked for and thus she keeps quiet.
Obedience is one of the virtues Lavinia fulfils, chastity another one. There is no reason to doubt that Lavinia is virginal at the beginning of the play, This makes her desirable for marriage and thus valuable for her father. As displayed in the previous chapter a woman was supposed to be incapable of taking care for her own virginity, instead men are responsible for that. In Lavinia’s case it is apparently not only her father but also her brothers. They know about their sister’s engagement with Bassianus and make sure that she is not given to another man. Marital chastity is taken care of by the husband by never leaving her alone in public. It furthermore seems to be natural for Lavinia, she is proud of being chaste and obviously appalled by Tamora’s adultery with Aaron.
 Ina Schabert, ed, Shakespeare-Handbuch (Stuttgart: Alfred Körner Verlag, 2000) 25.
 Theodora A. Jankowski, Women in Power in the Early Modern Drama (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992) 24.
 Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (New York: Mamaroneck, 1975) 17.
 Merry E.Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: CUP, 2000) 56.
 Valerie Traub, “Gender and sexuality in Shakespeare”. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. eds. Margreta de Grazia and Stanly Wells (Cambridge: CUP, 2001) 129-146, at 130.
 Pamela Abbott, article “Femininity”, Routledge International Encyvlopedia of Women, Volume 2, eds. Cheris Kranarae and Dale Spender (New York: Routledge 2000) 704f, at 704.
 Copélia Kahn, “The providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family” Representing Shakespeare, ed. Copélia Kahn (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980) 217-243, at 217.
 Jankowski, Women in Power, 24.
 Cf. David Mann, Shakespeare’s women. Performance and Conception (Cambridge: CUP, 2008) 127.
 Mann, Shakespeare’s women, 130.
 William Shakespeare, “Titus Andronicus”, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (London: Norton & Company, 1997) 1.1.281.