The Punishment of Women in Shakespearian plays
A woman’s love is not always what it seems in a Shakespeare play. It often fails to satisfy individuals or to last for any length of time. Traditional representations of nurturing, compassionate, domestic females are abandoned in Titus Andronicus and King John—two Shakespeare plays where love is undervalued. Women attempt to survive in these worlds of patriarchy and brutal war by obtaining their own form of power or else they will succumb to traditional expectations of weaker feminine roles. Lavinia and Tamora in Titus Andronicus are women who are frozen by and suffer for their love and loyalty. Tamora transforms from devastated mother to cruel demon void of emotion while Lavinia’s devotion to her father and Bassianus renders her a vulnerable victim. Eleanor and Constance in King John are as ambitious as Tamora and their own tidings of love are equally complicated and insincere. If Shakespeare’s women are ambitious and threatening then they become monsters who lack compassion and the capability to express true love. Innocent women are equally doomed and must unfairly suffer alongside the genuinely malicious females. For these opposing sets of characterized women, love of any kind is not supported or encouraged, for it leads to bloodshed and tears.
In Titus Andronicus, initially Tamora has plenty of genuine love, particularly for her children. When Alarbus is taken prisoner by Titus and sentenced to die, Tamora pleads “[a] mother’s tears in passion for her son: / And if thy sons were ever dear to thee, / O, think my son to be as dear to me” (1.1.106-108) but Titus ignores her cries. Tamora hopes to strike a chord with Titus by appealing to his own role as parent. She is ignored and humiliated, forced to give up her son and become a slave to Rome. Her blood now boils with hatred; she is numbed with the desire for revenge and abandons compassion and love as a result. Tamora is focused on ruining the Andronici and is not distracted by human emotions. She is tremendously lucky that Saturninus, the new Emperor of Rome, chooses to marry her. Douglas Green points out “that her captivity is the sign of Titus’ power” (320) so her quick grab at Saturninus ensures her own rise to power to manipulate Titus’s fall. No longer a slave, Tamora promises Saturninus that if he “advance the Queen of Goths, / She will a handmaid be to his desires, A loving nurse, a mother to his youth” (1.1.31-33). She does not intend to spend her time truly loving him; she flatters Saturninus only to manipulate him later, needing only the power which accompanies their union. Manipulation and rhetoric are her impressive skills and Saturninus is easily fooled. He is much easier to convince than Titus, and so she will use her new husband to exact her revenge.
Any claim Tamora makes to “love” someone is easily proved false. In the six places where Tamora uses a form of the word ‘love’ her words drip with insincerity. She does not love—she lusts. Even her adulterous relationship with Aaron is not one of love. He does not hold a special place in her heart, especially considering that she is so quick to marry Saturninus for power. Tamora refers to her lover as her “lovely Aaron” (2.3.10) only to use the same pet name for her husband later as she flatters him: “[m]y gracious lord, my lovely Saturnine, / Lord of my life, commander of my thoughts” (4.4.27-28). She uses Saturninus specifically for his powerful position as Emperor while Aaron’s role is to satisfy her in bed. Saturninus is obviously a pawn for Tamora to use and abuse, and she does not even feel remorse for having her brother-in-law murdered. She has a child with Aaron and abandons it, letting its fate be decided by strangers. Even a mother’s love which she possesses in the beginning has tragically disappeared. Tamora is too focused on satisfying all her cravings and is unapologetic for her cold cruelty.
Lavinia is an innocent woman who desires love over ambition or power—the opposite of Tamora. She is an obedient daughter who praises her father: “In peace and honor live Lord Titus long, / My noble lord and father, live in fame!” (1.1.157-158) and Titus returns her love when he thanks Rome for keeping Lavinia “lovingly reserved/ The cordial of mine age to glad my heart” (1.1.165-166). Titus agrees to let Saturninus marry Lavinia to settle the unrest in Rome and unite the two great families and as the “silent pawn” (Green 322) Lavinia reluctantly submits. Saturninus wants “to advance / Thy name and honorable family” (1.1.238-239) and Lavinia must obey her father even if it means sacrificing her happiness with his brother Bassianus. Saturninus initially chooses her to be his wife but, after seeing Tamora he insults Lavinia, promising Tamora that “he comforts you / Can make you greater than the Queen of Goths” (1.1.268-269). If Lavinia shared Tamora’s ambition she would be bothered by his sudden interest in Tamora, but she has no desire for power. Instead, Lavinia is relieved that Saturninus is taken with another woman, for now she is free to love Bassianus once more. She does not mind that she is leaving an Emperor for a man with less power and authority: love is more important to her than power.
In her essay on children in Shakespeare Ann Blake claims that “in the world of Shakespeare’s plays the innocence of living children is constantly felt. They may tease and become tiresome but they never practice that thoughtless cruelty which appears in the imagery of the plays” (294). Although Lavinia is technically a young woman, her role as Titus’ daughter is maintained and she remains his innocent child to the audience. Blake acknowledges that many critics:
try to persuade readers to see these young women as in somehow
contributing to their own fate through weakness, stubbornness, or
pride. Those less willing to lay blame on these victims must acknowledge
that even the most virtuous…meet with tension and conflict. (301)
Lavinia’s importance as dependent daughter is even more frightening when, despite the power and influence of her family, her innocence is destroyed when she is raped and mutilated. Titus was mercilessness to Tamora and her children in the beginning of the play, unknowingly condemning his own daughter later. Tamora shows no mercy in her revenge: her sons kill Bassianus in front of Lavinia, leaving her vulnerable with no man to defend her. She is a woman who has always been protected; first by her father and then Bassianus. Tamora reaches a new low when she encourages her sons to rape Lavinia, ignoring the girl’s cries:
O Tamora, be called a gentle queen,
And with thine own hands kill me in this place
For ‘tis not life that I have begged so long;
Poor I was slain when Bassianus died. (2.3.168-171)
Not satisfied with simply murdering Lavinia, Tamora prolongs the pain, misery, and humiliation for as long as she can. Blake argues that it “is not necessary for innocence to be destroyed to have a powerful effect” (301), but in Titus Andronicus there is no other alternative. Lavinia remains a helpless pawn and her innocence has no chance of surviving. She represents how “the horror of violence [is] inflicted on those incapable of defending themselves, or even of understanding why they are to be hurt” (295). While Titus is spared the physical injury, he also suffers by seeing his daughter tangled in Tamora’s grip and from knowing that he is the cause of these horrors.
Lavinia’s attempt to overstep her boundaries results in her brutal punishment. Her slight attack on Tamora is a huge mistake—she is no match to Tamora’s strength and cruelty. Lavinia and Bassianus discover Tamora and Aaron in a sexual liaison and Lavinia “reveals a proud, baiting wit as she rebukes Tamora” (Green 322) for betraying Saturninus. Lavinia has no experience in vindictiveness and quickly becomes Tamora’s prey. When Bassianus is killed, Lavinia mourns this loss, for her weakness is love. If she had obeyed Titus and stayed with Saturninus she would be spared the pain of her true love’s death. She and Bassianus criticize Tamora’s seductive power and flash their love in her face which incites Tamora’s rage. Lavinia and Tamora are rivals and Tamora shakes with jealousy because she knows that she is incapable—or unwilling—to express real love. Her marriage is a farce and Aaron is just her casual lover, but Lavinia has Titus and Bassianus to love and protect her. Tamora must destroy these legitimate relationships because she has denied them herself.
In King John Queen Eleanor is as vindictive toward Constance as Tamora is to Lavinia. She tells King John that “ambitious Constance would not cease / Til she had kindled France and all the world / Upon the right and party of her son” (1.1.32-34). She tries to blame the political turmoil on Constance’s desire for power, yet it is Eleanor’s own jealousy and ambition on display. Eleanor rejects her female identity when she calls herself “a soldier” (1.1.150). She attempts to control her son’s sovereignty as best she can “[s]o much [her] conscience whispers in [his] ear” (1.1.43). Instead of presenting herself as an understanding, nurturing mother Eleanor is a constant nuisance, an example of Shakespeare’s “feminine voices becoming more insistent” (Racken 77). Phyllis Racken claims that if a female authoritative voice exists this means “[d]elineating a chain of inheritance passed down from father to son” (77). This threat to traditional patriarchy is why women frequently have no agency or are portrayed as villainous demons. John’s position as King is not the only one in jeopardy: Eleanor’s own survival depends on his role and she is determined not to succumb to ruin. Her son lacks strength and assertiveness, and so it is her responsibility to keep their power secure. Eleanor is not motivated by love but by self-preservation. She is as sterile and detached as Tamora becomes; her relationship with King John lacks the affection one expects between mother and son.
Female ambition continues to spark jealousy between women and their own compassion ceases to coexist with this desire to succeed. King John “opens a space where women can speak and act… [to] undermine the masculine historical project” (79) by illustrating their need for and ability to possess authority. Constance is desirous for her son to possess power as well, combating with Eleanor to “incite the war between England and France” (79). Although she is Eleanor’s rival and engages in heated conversations and insults, Constance lacks the same ferocity. Eleanor calls Constance a “monstrous slanderer of heaven and earth” (2.1.173) to which Constance fires back: “[t]hou monstrous injurer of heaven and earth” (2.1.174). While they argue and struggle for their sons’ success, Constance does proclaim love for her son as he approaches death:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
My boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow’s comfort, and my sorrows cure! (3.4.93-105)
For Constance, love remains more important than power. Eleanor, however, fails to realize this and never admits to any maternal feelings of her own.
The female victim in King John is Blanche who, like Lavinia, is given the role of a virtuous and innocent young woman. She epitomizes the very image of love:
If lusty love should go in quest of beauty,
Where should he find it fairer than in Blanche?
If zealous love should go in search of virtue,
Where should he find it purer than in Blanche?
If love ambitious sought a match of birth,
Whose veins bound richer blood than Lady Blanche? (2.1.426-431)
Eleanor sees that she can use Blanche to her advantage. She urges King John to marry Blanche to the Dauphin and to “[g]ive with our niece a dowry large enough. / For by this knot thou shalt so surely tie / Thy now unsured assurance to the crown” (2.1.469-471). Eleanor convinces her son to give Blanche to the Dauphin so their family can maintain a hold on power. Blanche submits because she is loyal to her family and “is bound in honour still to do / What [King John] in wisdom still vouchsafe to say” (2.1.522-523). She decides that it is not a union made of love, but she may learn to love in time. Blanche is similarly emotionless here because her actions are not her own; she must sacrifice her potential happiness and do what is demanded of her.
In these Shakespeare plays love is not every woman’s priority or her guarantee. If love does exist at one point, it quickly dissolves under the pressure of powerful forces. Because Tamora’s love-filled pleas are rejected by Titus she denounces any future claim to kindness. The devotion of Lavinia and Blanche becomes their undoing when more ambitious women take advantage of their innocence. Rivalry and insecurity renders Eleanor a cold-hearted soldier and Constance suffers from a mother’s grief for her son. Shakespeare’s women illustrate his emphasis on the failings of love—whatever diverse forms love translates to do not always produce satisfying results and are not guaranteed to last. A woman is best to guard her love or abandon it altogether to survive and compete in a man’s brutal, ambitious world.
Blake, Ann. “Children and Suffering in Shakespeare’s Plays.” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 23, 1993, pp. 294-304.
Green, Douglas E. “Interpreting ‘Her Martyr’d Signs’: Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 40, no.3, 1989, pp. 317-326.
Racken, Phyllis. “Patriarchal History and Female Subversion in King John.” King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino. Associated UP, 1989, pp. 76-90.
Shakespeare, William. King John, edited by R.L. Smallwood. Penguin, 1974.