Desdemona, on the other hand, is only heard talking naturally with other people. Yet, she too is
developed through both the content and form of her speech. For example, Desdemona's
conversations with Emilia, particularly at the end of the play (IV, iii), reveal aspects of her
character as well as Emilia's character. Have students look at these and discuss what they reveal
about each of the characters.
When it was enacted upon the stage, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus was most probably received
by its 16th century audiences in much the same way as Dallas and Melrose Place are received by
contemporary 20th century audiences. Therefore it is important to remember that art does not
necessarily have to be haute couture in order to be an accurate representation of popular
ideologies. In fact, more often than not, it is the entertainment of the bourgeois that is a better
mimic of these ideologies. If we realize that Shakespeare's primary objective was not to make
social commentary or criticize his own culture but rather to entertain, we can observe how his
works, and indeed almost all works of art, as Frederic Jameson has stated, "as though for the first
time, bring into being that very situation to which [they are] also, at one and the same time, a
reaction." (Montrose essay, p.57) With this is mind I would like to reveal how Shakespeare's
treatment of the female character Lavinia in Titus Andronicus is a window through which can be
seen not only the objectification of woman in 16th and 17th century culture and some of the
problems which arise when the woman is viewed as an assignable property, but also the subtle
shift from the outward control of woman to the interiorizing of control of woman through her
own self-image.
Perhaps most easily recognizable is the objectification and assignability of 16th and 17th century
woman. By objectification and assignability I mean the near-universal notion, and in many cases
legal fact, that women, especially of the upper class, were accepted by their fathers, their
husbands, and the state, to be bought, sold, and treated as property. At the very beginning of the
play Lavinia is referred to as "Rome's rich ornament" by her suitor Bassianus (I.i.). When she
actually enters the scene she has eight lines of praise for her father's valor and honor and then,
after a cursory acknowledgment by him, she is silent. Meanwhile her father chooses the new
king, the new king chooses her as his bride, her father agrees (although he seems more proud to
be able to give his sword, chariot, and prisoners as gifts), and her new fiance almost immediately,
albeit inconspicuously, decides he has made a bad choice. After her initial eight lines, she does
not speak again until Saturninus asks her if she is "not displeased" to be the new queen, to which
she replies, "Not I, my lord," even though a mere sixteen lines later we discover she is already
betrothed to Bassianus. Lavinia has so given herself to patriarchal control that she abandons her
fiance without a word to the contrary and patiently accepts her assignability as a fact of life.
Lavinia starts the play as her father's daughter, to be given away as a token of his esteem.
Saturninus says he will marry her, "to advance [the] name and honourable family" of Titus. She
then becomes Bassianus' wife. For obeying her father and consenting to marry Saturninus even
though she was already betrothed to Bassianus, Saturninus calls her a "changing piece" for
allowing herself to be seized by Bassianus. The culture expected her to do as her father
commanded, but when she did so she appeared inconstant because she had to give up her
betrothed. Lavinia was caught in a catch-22.
Though not as overtly stated as in the case of Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew, one of
Lavinia's most alluring qualities is her silence. Apparently an Elizabethan audience would have
been much impressed that she could hold her tongue until Act II sc.ii, and then only to say that
she had woken up early, which is precisely what her husband wanted her to say. During the
interim one of her brothers was killed for defending Bassianus' claim to her, the emperor chose a
new queen, her father was accused of traitorously mocking the emperor, and she was accused of
sexual promiscuity. Like a batterred and abused daytime soap-opera heroine she would still have
been loved by her audience for being