David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s TITUS ANDRONICUS: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scenes 3-4

— 2.3 —

In a lonely part of the forest, Aaron, holding a bag of gold, stood by an elder tree.

He said to himself, “A man who has intelligence would think that I had none because I am burying so much gold under a tree and never afterward will possess it. Let him who thinks so badly of me know that this gold will coin a plot, which, cunningly effected, will beget a very excellent piece of villainy.”

He buried the gold under the tree and said, “And so repose, sweet gold, for the unrest of those who receive alms out of the Empress’ chest.”

The “alms” were the gold that he had taken from the treasure chest of Tamora, who was now the Roman Empress.

Tamora entered the scene and said, “My lovely Aaron, why do you look solemn and serious, when everything is making a gleeful display? The birds chant melody on every bush, the snake lies coiled in the cheerful Sun, and the green leaves quiver with the cooling wind and make a checkered shadow on the ground. Under their sweet shade, Aaron, let us sit, and, while the babbling echo mocks the hounds’ cries and replies shrilly to the well-tuned horns, as if a double hunt were heard at the same time, let us sit down and listen to their yelping noise, and after such ‘conflict’ such as the wandering Prince and Dido are supposed to have once enjoyed, when a happy and fortuitous storm surprised them and they then curtained themselves within a secret-keeping cave, we may, each of us wreathed in the other’s arms, our pastimes done, enjoy a golden slumber while hounds and horns and sweet melodious birds be to us as is a wet nurse’s song of lullaby to bring her babe sleep.”

The wandering Prince was Aeneas, the Trojan warrior who survived the Fall of Troy and who was destined to go to Italy and become an important ancestor of the Roman people. Before he settled in Italy, a storm blew his ships and him to Carthage. Hoping to keep Aeneas from fulfilling his destiny, the goddess Juno created the right conditions for Aeneas and Dido, the Queen of Carthage, to have a love affair. During a hunt, a storm arose, and Aeneas and Dido sought shelter in a cave, where they made love for the first time.

Aaron replied, “Madam, although Venus governs your desires, Saturn is the planet that is the astrological dominator over my desires. What signifies my death-dealing eye, my silence and my cloudy melancholy, my fleece of woolly hair that now uncurls even as an adder does when she uncoils in order to perform some fatal execution? No, madam, these are not signs of sexual desire. Vengeance is in my heart, death is in my hand, and blood and revenge are hammering in my head.

“Listen, Tamora, the Empress of my soul, which never hopes to have more Heaven than rests in you. This is the day of doom for Bassianus. He will die today, and his Philomela will lose her tongue today. Your sons will make pillage of her chastity, and they will wash their hands in Bassianus’ blood.”

Philomela was an Athenian Princess who was raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus, who cut out her tongue so that she could not tell anyone that he had raped her. Philomela wove a tapestry, however, that revealed the rape and rapist.

Aaron asked, “Do you see this letter?”

He handed it to Tamora and said, “Take this letter, which is written in a scroll and is integral to a deadly plot. Please give the letter to the King.”

He saw Bassianus and Lavinia coming toward them and said, “Now ask me no more questions; we are seen. Here comes a part of the booty we hope for. They do not yet fear the destruction of their lives.”

Tamora said, “Ah, my sweet Moor, you are sweeter to me than life!”

“No more, great Empress; Bassianus is coming. Be angry with him; and I’ll go and fetch your sons to back you up in your quarrels, whatever they are.”

Aaron exited.

Bassianus said to Tamora, “Who have we here? Rome’s royal Empress, unaccompanied by her appropriate escorts? Or is it the goddess Diana, clothed like Tamora? Has Diana abandoned her holy groves to see the many people hunting in this forest?”

Bassianus was being gallant in comparing Tamora to Diana because goddesses are more beautiful than any mortal woman could ever be.

The choice of Diana to compare Tamora to was, however, ironic. Tamora was cuckolding her husband, while Diana was fiercely protective of her virginity. In fact, while hunting with his hounds the Theban Actaeon unintentionally saw Diana bathing naked in a pool of water. Diana turned him into a stag with a human mind, and then his hunting hounds picked up his scent and ripped him to pieces.

As Aaron had advised, Tamora picked a quarrel with Bassianus: “Saucy critic of our private steps! Had I the power that some say Diana had, your temples should be planted presently with horns, as were Actaeon’s temples; and the hounds would fall upon your newly transformed limbs, unmannerly intruder as you are!”

Lavinia was angry and said, “By your leave, noble Empress, it is thought that you have an excellent gift for giving men horns.”

She was referring to the horns of a cuckold; an unfaithful wife was said to give her husband horns.

Lavinia continued, “It is also suspected that your Moor and you have separated yourselves from the others so that you can try sexual experiments. May Jove, King of the gods, shield your husband from his hounds today! It would be a pity if they should mistake him for a stag.”

Referring to Aaron the Moor, Bassianus said, “Believe me, Queen, your swarthy Cimmerian — a dark person who dwells in darkness — makes your honor his body’s hue: stained, detested, and abominable. Why are you separated from all your train of followers, and why have you dismounted from your snow-white, good-looking steed and wandered here to an obscure plot of land, accompanied by only a barbarous Moor, if not because of your foul desire?”

Lavinia added, “Your being intercepted in your sport with the Moor is a great reason for you to berate my noble lord for what you call saucy and insolent rudeness.”

She said to her husband, “Please, let us go away from here and let her enjoy her raven-colored love. This valley fits that purpose surpassingly well.”

Bassianus said to Tamora, “The King my brother shall hear about this.”

Lavinia added, “Yes, for these sexual slips of yours have long disgraced him. He is too good a King to be so mightily abused!”

Tamora said, “Why, I have patience to endure all this.”

She had seen her sons, Demetrius and Chiron, coming, and she knew that she would soon get revenge for what they had said to her.

Demetrius said to her, “How are you, dear sovereign, and our gracious mother! Why does your Highness look so pale and wan?”

Tamora replied, “Don’t I have reason to look pale? These two — Bassianus and Lavinia — have enticed me here to this place: You see that it is a barren and detested valley. The trees, although it is summer, are yet forlorn and lean, overcome with moss and baleful, parasitic mistletoe. Here the Sun never shines; here nothing breeds, except for the night-haunting owl or the ominous raven. And when they showed me this abhorrent pit, they told me that here, at the dead of night, a thousand fiends, a thousand hissing snakes, ten thousand poisonous toads that cause swelling, and as many goblins would make such fearful and confused cries that any mortal body hearing the sounds would immediately become insane, or else die suddenly.

“No sooner had they told this Hellish tale than immediately they told me they would tie me here to the body of a dismal yew tree, and leave me to this miserable death. And then they called me a foul adulteress, a lascivious Goth, and all the bitterest terms that any ear ever heard to such effect, and, if you had not by wondrous fortune come, they would have executed this vengeance on me.

“Revenge it, as you love your mother’s life, or henceforth you will not be called my children.”

Demetrius said to Tamora as he stabbed Bassianus with a dagger, “This is a witness that I am your son.”

Chiron took the dagger from Demetrius, stabbed Bassianus, and said, “And this is a witness for me, struck home to show my strength.”

Bassianus died.

Lavinia said to Tamora, “Yes, come, Semiramis — no, I should say barbarous Tamora, for no name fits your evil nature but your own!”

Semiramis was an Assyrian Queen who was known for her power, sexual appetite, cruelty, and beauty. Lavinia was insulting Tamora by saying that Semiramis’ name was not associated with enough evil to be suitable as a name for Tamora.

Tamora said to Chiron, “Give me your dagger. My boys, you shall witness and know that your mother’s hand shall right your mother’s wrong.”

“Stop, madam,” Demetrius said. “More belongs to Lavinia than her life. First thresh the corn, and afterward burn the straw. This hussy made an issue of her chastity, her nuptial vow, and her loyalty to her husband, and with that false and old-fashioned pride confronted and insulted your mightiness. Shall she carry her chastity into her grave?”

“If she does, then I wish that I were a eunuch,” Chiron said. “Let us drag her husband away from here to some secret hole, and make his dead trunk a pillow to our lust.”

Tamora said, “But when you have the honey you desire, do not let this wasp survive and sting both of you two and me.”

“I promise you, madam,” Chiron said, “that we will make sure that she can do us no harm.”

He said to Lavinia, “Come, mistress, now by force we will enjoy that nicely preserved chastity of yours.”

Lavinia began to beg: “Oh, Tamora! You have the face of a woman —”

“I will not hear her speak,” Tamora said to her sons. “Away with her!”

“Sweet lords, entreat her to listen to only a word from me,” Lavinia begged Demetrius and Chiron.

“Listen, fair madam,” Demetrius said to his mother, “let it be your glory to see her tears; but let your heart be to them as unrelenting and hard flint is to drops of rain.”

“When did the tiger’s young ones teach the mother?” Lavinia said to Demetrius. “Oh, do not teach her wrath; she taught wrath to you. The milk you sucked from her breasts turned to marble. Even as you sucked at her teats you learned your tyranny. Yet not every mother breeds identical sons.”

Knowing that Demetrius would not help her, Lavinia turned to Chiron and begged, “Entreat her to show pity to a woman.”

“What, would you have me prove myself a bastard?” Chiron replied.

“It is true; the raven does not hatch a lark,” Lavinia said to him. “Yet I have heard — I wish I could find it to be true now! — that the lion, moved by pity, endured having his princely paws pared all away. Some say that ravens foster forlorn children, while their own young birds stay famished in their nests. Be to me, although your hard heart say no, not nearly as kind as the lion or the raven, but show me at least some pity!”

Lavinia had referred to a fable by Aesop in which a lion fell in love with a woman and agreed to have its claws pared and its teeth pulled so that her human relatives would not be afraid of it. Once these things were done, however, the woman’s relatives drove away the defenseless lion.

She had also referred to a folktale in which a raven fed lost human children. In her version of the folktale, the raven’s nestlings went hungry.

Neither story was likely to be effective with Tamora and her two sons, especially since Lavinia had, in her fear, mistakenly referred to paring the lion’s paws instead of claws. Both stories also had bad consequences: The lion did not get his love, and the raven’s own nestlings went hungry.

“I don’t know what it means!” Tamora said. “Away with her!”

“Oh, let me teach you what I mean!” Lavinia said. “Let me teach you for my father’s sake, who allowed you to live, when he might well have slain you. Be not obdurate — open your deaf ears.”

“Had you personally never offended me,” Tamora said, “I would be pitiless for his sake.”

She said to her sons, “Remember, boys, I poured forth tears in vain to save your oldest brother, Alarbus, from the sacrifice, but fierce Titus Andronicus would not relent. Therefore, away with her, and use and treat her as you will. The worse you treat her, the better I love you.”

“Oh, Tamora,” Lavinia begged, “be called a gentle Queen, and with your own hands kill me in this place! For I have not begged so long for my life. I — poor me — was slain when Bassianus died.”

She knelt and hugged Tamora’s knees.

“What are you begging for, then?” Tamora asked. “Foolish woman, let me go.”

“I beg for immediate death,” Lavinia said. “And I beg for one thing more that womanhood will not allow my tongue to tell.”

Lavinia was begging not to be raped, but she did not want to say the word “rape.” She wanted Tamora to pity her and not allow her to be raped.

She begged Tamora, “Oh, keep me from their worse-than-killing lust and tumble me into some loathsome pit, where no man’s eye may ever behold my body. Do this, and be a charitable murderer.”

In her fear, Lavinia chose words badly. To tumble a woman meant to have sex with a woman.

“If I would do that, I would rob my sweet sons of their fee,” Tamora said. “They hunted you and so they are entitled to a taste of you. I say no to your request; instead, I will let my sons satisfy their lust on you.”

“Let’s go!” Demetrius said. “Lavinia, you have kept us here too long.”

Lavinia said to Tamora, “No grace? No womanhood? Ah, beastly creature! You are a blot and enemy to the name of woman! May ruin fall —”

She had been about to curse Tamora by saying, “May ruin fall upon you,” but Chiron covered her mouth with his hand and said, “You will say no more, for I have stopped your mouth.”

He said to Demetrius, “Bring the body of her husband. This is the hole where Aaron told us to hide it.”

Demetrius threw the body of Bassianus into the pit, and then he and Chiron dragged Lavinia away.

Alone, Tamora said to herself, “Farewell, my sons. Make sure that Lavinia can do no harm to us. May my heart never be merry again until all the Andronici are done away with and killed. Now I will go from here to seek my lovely Moor, and let my passionate sons deflower this whore.”

She exited.

Aaron arrived. With him were Titus Andronicus’ two younger sons: Martius and Quintus.

Aaron said, “Come on, my lords, put the better foot forward — hurry. Straightaway I will bring you to the loathsome pit where I saw the panther fast asleep.”

“My sight is very dim,” Quintus said. “It may forebode something bad.”

“My sight is also very dim, I promise you,” Martius said. “If it were not that I would be ashamed, I would be willing to leave the hunting and sleep awhile.”

Aaron had covered the opening to the pit with vegetation. He maneuvered Martius so that Martius fell into the pit.

Quintus asked, “What have you fallen into? What treacherous and disguised hole is this, whose mouth is covered with wild, uncultivated briers, upon whose leaves are drops of newly shed blood as fresh as morning dew trickling down flowers? This is a very deadly place, I think. Speak, brother, have you hurt yourself in the fall?”

“Brother, I am hurt by the sight of the most dismal spectacle that ever a seeing eye has made a heart lament!”

Aaron thought, Now I will fetch the King to find Martius and Quintus here, so that he will very likely think that these were the men who murdered his brother.

He exited to find Emperor Saturninus.

Martius said, “Why don’t you assist me, and help me out of this unholy and wicked and bloodstained hole?”

“I am bewildered by a strange fear,” Quintus replied. “A chilling sweat overruns my trembling joints. My heart suspects more than my eye can see.”

“To prove that you have a prophetic heart that is capable of discerning the truth, Aaron and you can look down into this den and see a fearful sight of blood and death.”

Quintus looked around for Aaron, but did not see him. He said, “Aaron is gone, and my compassionate heart will not permit my eyes once to behold the thing it imagines and trembles at. Tell me what it is, for never until now was I a child who feared something I did not know.”

Martius replied, “Lord Bassianus lies soaked in blood here, prostate, like a slaughtered lamb in this detested, dark, blood-drinking pit.”

“If it is dark, how do you know it is he?”

“Upon his bloody finger he wears a precious ring with a jewel that lightens all the hole. Like a candle in some tomb, it shines upon the dead man’s pale cheeks, and shows the harsh interior of the pit. So pale did shine the Moon on Pyramus when he by night lay bathed in his virgin blood.”

Pyramus loved Thisbe, and he arranged to meet her at night. Thisbe arrived first, and saw a lion. She ran away, leaving her mantle behind her, which the lion mauled. Pyramus arrived and found the mantle. He thought that a lion had killed Thisbe, and so he committed suicide.

Martius continued, “Oh, brother, help me with your fainting hand — if fear has made you faint, as it has me — out of this deadly devouring repository that is as hateful as the misty mouth of Cocytus, one of the rivers of Hell.”

“Reach your hand out to me, so that I may help you out,” Quintus said. “Or, if I lack the strength to do you so much good, reach your hand out to me so that I may be pulled into the swallowing womb of this deep pit, poor Bassianus’ grave.”

He pulled Martius’ hand, let loose of it, and said, “I have no strength to pull you to the brink.”

“And I have no strength to climb without your help.”

“Give me your hand once more; I will not let loose again until you are here aloft with me, or I am below with you.”

He pulled Martius’ hand, and then he said, “You cannot come to me, and so I come to you.”

He fell into the pit.

Aaron and Emperor Saturninus saw Quintus fall into the pit.

“Come along with me,” Saturninus said, walking over to the pit. “I’ll see what hole is here, and who he is who just now has leaped into it.”

He then called into the pit, “Say who you are who just now descended into this gaping hollow of the earth.”

From the pit, Martius replied, “I am the unhappy son of old Titus Andronicus. I came here in a most unlucky hour, and I found your brother, Bassianus, dead.”

“My brother dead!” Saturninus said. “I know that you are only joking. He and his lady are both at the lodge upon the north side of this pleasant hunting ground. It is not an hour since I left him there.”

Martius said, “We don’t know where you left him alive, but — I hate to say this — here we have found him dead.”

Tamora arrived with her attendants. Also accompanying her were Titus Andronicus and Lucius, his oldest son.

“Where is my lord the King?” Tamora asked.

“Here I am, Tamora, although I am wounded with killing grief.”

“Where is Bassianus, your brother?”

“Now you are probing my wound to the bottom. Poor Bassianus lies here murdered.”

“Then all too late I bring this deadly document,” Tamora said. “It reveals the plot of this untimely tragedy, and I wonder greatly that a man’s face can hide such murderous tyranny in the wrinkles of pleasing smiles.”

She gave Saturninus the letter that Aaron had given to her.

Saturninus read the letter out loud: “If we do not meet him at a convenient time and place — sweet huntsman, it is Bassianus we mean — dig his grave for him. You know what we mean. Look for your reward among the nettles at the elder tree that shades the mouth of the pit where we decided to bury Bassianus. Do this, and make us your lasting friends.”

He said, “Oh, Tamora! Have you ever heard anything like this? This is the pit, and this is the elder tree. Look around, sirs, and see if you can find the huntsman who murdered Bassianus.”

Aaron dug under the elder tree and said, “My gracious lord, here is the bag of gold.”

Saturninus said to Titus Andronicus, “Two of your whelps, cruel curs of bloody character, have here bereft my brother of his life.”

He ordered, “Sirs, drag them from the pit and take them to the prison. There let them stay until we have devised some never-heard-of torturing pain for them.”

“What, are they in this pit?” Tamora said. “Oh, what a wondrous thing! How easily murder is exposed!”

Some attendants got Martius and Quintus out of the pit.

Titus Andronicus knelt and said, “High Emperor, upon my feeble knee I beg this boon, with tears not lightly shed, that this fell fault of my accursed sons — they are accursed if it is proved that they have committed this fell fault —”

Ifit is proved!” Saturninus said. “You can see that it is obvious that they committed the murder.”

He asked, “Who found this letter? Tamora, was it you?”

She replied, “Titus Andronicus himself found it and picked it up.”

She had changed Aaron’s plan.

“I did pick up the letter, my lord,” Titus said, “yet let me be my two sons’ bail. By my father’s sacred tomb, I vow that they shall be ready at your Highness’ will to answer what they are suspected of even with their lives.”

“You shall not bail them,” Saturninus said. “See that you follow me.”

Titus Andronicus stood up.

Saturninus ordered, “Some of you bring the murdered body, and some of you bring the murderers. Let them not speak a word; their guilt is plain. By my soul, I say that if something was worse than death, it would be done to them.”

As Saturninus exited, Tamora said, “Titus Andronicus, I will entreat the King for mercy. Fear not for your sons; they shall do well enough.”

She exited.

Titus Andronicus said, “Come, Lucius, come; don’t stay and try to talk to your brothers or their guards.”

— 2.4 —

In another part of the forest, Demetrius and Chiron were taunting Lavinia, whom they had raped. They had also cut off her hands at the elbows and cut out her tongue so that she could not reveal who had raped and mutilated her.

Demetrius said to her, “So, now go and tell people, if your tongue can speak, who it was who cut out your tongue and raped you.”

Chiron said to her, “Write down your mind and in that way reveal what you want to communicate, if your stumps will let you be an author.”

Lavinia was flailing about.

Demetrius said, “Look at how she can communicate with signs and gestures.”

“Go home, call for perfumed water, and wash your hands,” Chiron said.

“She has no tongue to call for water, nor hands to wash, and so let’s leave her to her silent walks,” Demetrius said.

“If I were her, I would go hang myself,” Chiron said.

“If you had hands to help you tie the noose,” Demetrius said.

Demetrius and Chiron left Lavinia alone in the forest.

Marcus Andronicus, who was hunting, rode up on a horse, and saw Lavinia, who, ashamed, ran from him.

“Who is this?” he asked himself. “My niece, who flies away so fast! Niece, let me say a word to you. Where is your husband? If I am dreaming, I would give all my wealth if I could wake up! If I am awake, I wish that some planet would strike me down with its malevolent astrological influence so that I could slumber in eternal sleep! Speak, gentle and kind niece, and tell me what stern and cruel hands have lopped off and hewed and made your body bare of her two branches, those sweet ornaments, in whose circling hugs Kings have sought to sleep? These Kings could never find a happiness that would equal half your love. Why do you not speak to me?”

Lavinia opened her mouth, and blood poured out.

“Alas, a crimson river of warm blood, resembling a bubbling fountain stirred by wind, rises and falls between your rose-red lips, coming and going with your honey-sweet breath. But, surely, some Tereus has raped you, and, lest you should reveal his guilt, he has cut out your tongue.

“Ah, now you turn away your face because of shame! And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood, as from a fountain with three issuing spouts, still your cheeks look as red as the Sun’s face when it blushes as it encounters a cloud at dawn or Sunset.

“Shall I speak for you? Shall I say that it is so — that the man who raped you has mutilated you? Oh, I wish that I knew your heart, and I knew the beast, so that I might rant at him and ease my mind!

“Sorrow concealed, like an oven with its door shut, burns the heart to cinders.

“Fair Philomela lost only her tongue after Tereus raped her, but she painstakingly sewed a piece of embroidery that revealed what she had in her mind.

“But, lovely niece, that means of communication is cut from you. You have met a craftier Tereus, niece, and he has cut those pretty fingers off that could have sewed better than Philomela. If the monster had seen your lily-white hands tremble, like aspen-leaves, upon a lute and make the silken strings delight to kiss them, he would not then have touched them for his life!

“Or, if he had heard the Heavenly harmony that your sweet tongue has made, he would have dropped his knife, and fell asleep as Cerberus did at the Thracian poet’s feet.”

The Thracian poet was Orpheus, who traveled to the Land of the Dead in an attempt to rescue his wife. To get past Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hell, he played his lute and sang. Cerberus, put under a spell by the music, fell asleep.

Marcus Andronicus continued, “Come, let us go, and make your father blind, for such a sight will blind a father’s eye. One hour’s storm will drown the fragrant meadows. What will whole months of tears do to your father’s eyes? Do not draw away from me, for we will mourn with you. Oh, how I wish our mourning could ease your misery!”

He and Lavinia departed.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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