In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the classification “revenge tragedy” sticks to the drama’s content as dried blood does to a sword-that is, the characters therein have no more consuming ambition, no desire with more staying power, than that of revenge. The issue of familial love in Titus is hewed and dried out early on, because though it is strong with Tamora and Alarbus, any focus Shakespeare has on love (familial or otherwise), despite being the impetus for the play’s vengeful motives, takes a back seat to the devouring desire of vengeance. Yet in Hamlet, similarly dubbed a “revenge tragedy,” there seems to be quite a different relationship between love and revenge. Namely, love appears to be a casualty of vengeful motives, seen most magnificently in the suicide of Ophelia, who cannot take the death of her father along with the simultaneous rejection of Hamlet. The impetus that drives Hamlet’s revenge does not seem to be in the form of love, at least not familial love, but a love characterized by a sort of duty-bound coercion, a sense of brutal honor-the honor code that dictates that killing, murder, must be paid in kind. This “revenge decorum,” in fact, is quite similar to the momentum that keeps the feud alive between the Montagues and the Capulets; some time, some where, a Montague wronged a Capulet (or vice versa) and the subsequent reprisals continued to mount until the families were locked in a vicious and never-ending circle of homicidal reciprocity-a technique that is diametrically opposed to the revenge dynamic of Hamlet, where instead of the power of love breaking a long period of familial revenge and effectively stopping violence, the clout of revenge ruptures the bonds of familial love and wreaks havoc on the family. Likewise Othello, the opening act of which remains light-hearted between the primary couple, Othello and Desdemona, and only foreshadows the doom to come by watching Iago hatch scheme after scheme; except Othello feels that he must revenge himself on Desdemona’s “murder” of marriage fidelity-a murder which most probably didn’t happen in the first place, and which was as preventable as Titus’ failure to have compassion when it would have served him best, by leaving Alarbus alive.
Indeed, Othello is the only play in which the title character enjoys an entire act of happiness and complacence. Before he dashes (metaphorically) himself and his wife on the rocks of Corsica, Othello is calm, collected, and-above all-content. Compare this with Hamlet, whose plot is structured quite differently; Hamlet at the very outset must contend with a dead father and an incestuous remarriage for his mother. Hamlet’s very first lines are cynical and distant, sharp but miserable, and the added torment of his father’s ghost and the revelation by that ghost offer a sadness to the drama that Othello makes up for in tragic irony when Desdemona finally dies, minutes before the truth of Iago’s treachery is revealed. Like Othello, Titus Andronicus enters into a drama with problems that are not the title character’s-yet unlike Othello there is not a person or group scheming to overthrow immediately. However, this is just a trick in perspective, as Shakespeare glosses over Iago’s snubbing yet goes into great detail over that of Tamora’s. In this way, Shakespeare makes apparent the villainy responsible for each man’s (Titus and Othello) downfall. The suggestion is, in actually providing the scene in which Tamora’s pleas are ignored by Titus, that Titus brought the subsequent tragedies on himself-in lacking compassion for others, he eradicated any compassion that may have saved him or his family. But in glossing Othello’s (unintentional) slighting of Iago, Shakespeare makes a statement on the stubborn and incorrigible evil in Iago, ignoring its (the evil’s) role in Othello’s actions, which instead creates a finer focus on one of the primary flaws that destroys him and Desdemona-self-doubt. But in Romeo and Juliet, there do not seem to be specific flaws that crop up in the drama that unravel the lives of the title characters. A fair amount of exchange between good fortune and bad between acts enlivens the plot thread and, contrasting starkly with the brooding plodding of
Hamlet’s-where the action is pulled by the expectation of some accomplishment-the structure resolves itself in the ceasing of action by whatever fate has decided to thwart (whichever “stars” are “crossing”) the young lovers.
In fact, in a brevitous examination of Romeo and Juliet the responsibility of the two lovers seems to be small in comparison with the vicious world around them, where not only are they hemmed in by their closest relatives, but also by unforeseen events in nature, such as the plague that prevents an all-important revelatory letter from reaching Romeo. This lack of accountability also seems to extend to the family as well, as Shakespeare depicts the feud itself as nearly as unshakable and unstoppable as a force of nature. Similarly, Hamlet’s dilemma (“to be, or not to be”) seems to be a human creation that takes a life of its own, pulling with an inexorable force towards doom. Granted, Claudius’ actions are indeed the culprit behind Hamlet’s need for revenge, but the in need for revenge itself, though a human construct, Shakespeare creates an inhuman, apathetic force, the weight of which crushes the spirit of Prince Hamlet. But not every villain in Shakespeare is an inescapable, metaphysical force, which seems to be the case for Titus in his post-war coldness towards the barbarous Goths. Titus does not so much “forget himself” as he does adhere to a war-time standard of insensitivity at a time when such insensitivity does not serve a higher purpose. The war against the Goths being over, Titus orders the slaying of the Queen’s son as a sort of recompense for the Romans’ own loss-a superfluous and damning move. In doing so Titus bears a hefty amount of responsibility for the ensuing tit for tat mode of revenge that eventually turns into a landslide of bodies, both Roman and Goth. So it is with Othello, for when Othello’s self-doubt rears its ugly head, it eclipses Othello’s reason. However, it is interesting to note that unlike Titus’ flaw, Othello’s is, perhaps, more forgivable in that he is not the only character has doubts about the old Moor. Othello is and has been in a strange environment, a racist environment, an atmosphere of disparagement wherein his military achievements are only a consequence of his barbaric attributes, a corollary of his inherent heathenism. Othello’s doubt in himself is the reflection of himself that he gathers from his Venetian surroundings, and while this does not fully absolve him from responsibility in take Desdemona’s life, it is certainly a large and integral part of his weakness that Shakespeare uses to subtly suggest the despicability and danger of racial disaccord.
But this racial disaccord is not treated in Othello’s character arc-instead, Othello’s arc, in parallel with his relationship with her, is intertwined with Desdemona’s. Since in the first act there is no strain on Desdemona and Othello’s relationship, the status of the two remains rather flat and unriled. Through Iago’s gentle poison of suggestion, however, Othello is the primary figure who urges action forward. His virulent distrust of Desdemona is shockingly immediate, and her recoil inversely matches his rising suspicion. Othello falls into traps set by Iago, but such traps remain harmless unless Othello lets himself get the better of him-which he does, dragging Desdemona down explosively and, in matching with the inverse relation of his own arc to hers, himself implosively. This rapid, self-propelled activity is paralleled in Romeo and Juliet, but perhaps more so, indicated by the short span of days in which the drama takes place; the pair is active in loving one another, a cardinal sin to their families-suffering, though they will have their fair share at the end, is supplanted by doing, for in inertia the strength of their love will apparently destroy them. Ironically, it also seems that the speed with which they consummate their love also has a hand in their deaths. Titus, however, remains on a rather flat arc for the duration of Titus Andronicus, as he never quite breaks out of his militaristic mindset. Back from war, Titus ought to begin the long process of retrograding from active soldier to inert citizen, or at least compassionate commander. Instead, ensnared by the spiral of events after Alarbus’ murder, Titus remains at war. First, it is a psychological war with Tamora, her sons, and Aaron-an epic battle he is not even aware of until the rape and dismemberment Lavinia, and even then not until she accuses the Goths with a drawing in the sand. Perhaps his interests would have better been served had Titus chosen to forego the ritualistic and pagan sacrifice of Alarbus, but as he does not he is forced to wage a battle with Tamora, a battle that is clear from the beginning and which can only end in the death-for one, the other, or both. Titus mirrors Othello in the immediacy of his reprisal, but differs in that it is not a trap he falls into but the viselike grip of reciprocity-a fall that Hamlet is all too familiar with. Indeed, Hamlet, rather than ending his misery, intelligently putters from one option to the other in debating on the rightness of killing Claudius. In so suffering he delays the triumph of reciprocity but wallows in the anguish that is its consequence by oscillating-for a matter of months-from decision to indecision, from “be” to “not to be.”
But indecision isn’t the only issue that’s raised in Hamlet, nor is Titus’ adherence to a martial attitude in “peacetime” the sole concern of Titus Andronicus. What’s foremost in the entire set of plays, Titus, Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, is the nature of revenge. In Romeo and Juliet, though revenge takes a back seat-and is indeed defeated by-the power of love, the theme yet governs the drama. The mindlessness of the revenge is treated in the enthusiastically insidious Tybalt, who represents not only a foil to Romeo but the spirit of vengeance with its crushing mechanical obstinacy. And though the love between Romeo and Juliet is fleeting, it is perhaps the “truest” kind of love-there is not enough familiarity to breed contempt, and it is by Juliet’s influence that Romeo easily puts aside the long-standing feud. That is, until Tybalt kills Mercutio and again turns Romeo against him. Yet there is a fundamental change; Romeo does not despise him for his name, but for his incorrigibility. Othello, too experiences a fundamental change but it is not via the power of love; conversely, it is through the reason-numbing influence of revenge that Othello destroys his love. The interplay between love and revenge in both Romeo and Juliet and Othello is what links them together under the classification “love tragedy,” but the seemingly extraneous role of love, in terms of how the title character parallels (or refuses to) it with fidelity, trust, and responsibility, sets Othello apart. Further along the spectrum comes the plight of the Androcini, born through reciprocal killing much as the generational conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets, but narrowed not only in the sense that the killing does not continue outside one generation, but more importantly in that the healing cannot begin through a link of love between the warring sides, but only by the death of the conflict’s progenitors, Tamora and Titus. The issues of revenge found in Titus Andronicus point to the self-defeating, circular nature of revenge, much as jealousy is depicted in Othello by Emilia. There is no winner in the game of revenge until all the players are dead-all practitioners of the foolish art are eaten alive. And this is precisely why Hamlet agonizes over his father’s murder. Paralyzed by the knowledge of what he must do and equally immobilized by his awareness of the multifarious consequences of revenge, even if it be deserved, the prince is mired irresistibly, much as Tybalt inexorably loathes the sight of any Montague.