Shame in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: the ‘Ravenous Tiger’ versus the ‘Dainty Doe’

Author: Elisabeth Szanto, Sorbonne Nouvelle, PRISMES EA 4398

Project: “The Cultural Politics of Shame in the English-Speaking World”. ROUND TABLE 2 – “Shame and Gender in Early Modern England”. NB: For a summary of Shakespeare’s play, see below

Aristotle defined shame (aidos) as “a kind of pain, or uneasiness in respect of misdeeds, past or present, or future, which seem to tend to bring dishonour, and shamelessness (Anaishuntia or anaídeia (without aidos)) as contempt and indifference in regard to these same things”.1 Greek distinguished shame in the bad sense of “disgrace, dishonor” (aiskhyne) from shame in the good sense of “modesty, bashfulness” (aidos)2. In the 16th century, shame, very often associated with women, was considered to have an antithetical meaning: on the one hand it referred to disgrace, humiliation, guilt, self-disdain, physical abuse and loss of chastity. On the other hand, it alluded to modesty.3 In the Renaissance, modesty, a “womanly” virtue, was mostly related to chastity. It counted among the main qualities expected in a woman, together with obedience and discretion.4

Tamora and Lavinia, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, embody this ambiguous and antithetical definition of shame. Lavinia, the virtuous Roman, is shamed and obliterated. She is opposed to Tamora, the “shameless” Queen of the Goths and new Empress of Rome. The animal comparisons used in the play highlight the opposition. Lavinia is termed the “dainty doe”. The powerful vindictive queen, Tamora, is called the “ravenous tiger”. Though shame is associated primarily with these two women, the men in this play are also affected by the women’s shame or shamelessness. Titus emulates Lavinia’s shame and takes on her vindication. Tamora’s shamelessness is mockingly reflected by the cuckolded Saturninus. We may also highlight an interesting inversion in the character of Titus. At first, he is the victor and great protector of Rome. Later, he is shattered and made to assume what was socially defined as typically a “feminine” submissive supplicant stance before the tribunes (TA 3.1) to save his two sons, Quintus’s and Martius’s lives. A contrary inversion is at work in Tamora, who undergoes an abrupt ascension (“advance”, TA 1.1.393) from her Hecuba-like supplicant stance as Goth prisoner to that of Empress of Rome. This trajectory is socially unexpected. The shame and the humiliation of the position as supplicant affects both Tamora and Titus in turn when their appeals for the lives of their children are not granted, pointing towards what Shakespeare shows in the end to be a “genderless” form of dishonor and abasement.

Lavinia’s plight in a patriarchal society is a vivid illustration of women’s condition during the Early Modern period. As a woman, she is treated more like a “commodity of considerable value” – or a “changing piece” (TA 1.1. 309), to use the words that the character Saturninus applies to her – than a human being, She is successively “transferred by Titus to Saturninus, subsequently snatched by Bassanius, Demetrius and Chiron in succession, and then left to wander in the woods until picked up by Marcus and returned to her father”.5 However, she is not just handed down from one male to the following one. She also undergoes a tremendous metamorphosis because she becomes a raped and mutilated martyr. “Marcus’s words as he presents her to Titus are “This was thy daughter” (TA 3. 1. 63). The “transformation and alienation” is emphasized “most vividly”6 in the play by the animal comparison I have already mentioned in passing but that is further developed in the text : “Seeking to hide herself, as doth the deer / That hath received some unrecurring wound” (TA 3. 1. 89-90). It is as if the text put the “hide” (i.e. skin) of the animal on her to better help her hide her shame while she awaits death. Lavinia’s shame is linked both to the horrific physical abuse she has suffered, but also to the psychological destruction enforced on her with her husband murdered before her eyes, her annihilated voice, and her lost chastity, her brothers’ unjust execution, and the collapse of her entire world. The deer comparison (a traditional mystical animal symbol, used in reference to Christ) turns her into a full martyr, reactivating the ecce homo motif, the epitome of human pain and suffering.

Lavinia, the archetypal Renaissance woman, is doubly a victim, firstly because she suffers appalling physical abuse, torture and mutilations at the hands of Tamora’s barbarous sons, Chiron and Demetrius. But she is also a victim of herself, of her submission and obedience to the edicts of the male world, of her acceptance and application of puritanical principles conceived for females only. She is a victim of a misogynistic society altogether. Lavinia epitomizes the virtuous woman, the dutiful, fervent follower of rules, who cannot prevent herself from making puritanical reproaches to those who “shamelessly” choose to disregard the same rules. Emboldened by Bassanius’s offensive words addressed to Tamora during the royal hunt, she openly accuses Tamora of “horning” the King with her “swarthy Cimmerian” (TA 2.3.72) – a conduct she considers vicious, shameful and thus unacceptable, in stark contrast with her “Roman” virtue. Her “saucy” (TA 2.3.60) discourse is legitimized by her posture as a virtuous Roman matron against Tamora, the debauched foreigner and former enemy.

Whereas at the beginning of the play, Lavinia has almost no voice of her own and is only treated as an object of exchange between the Roman men, after her rape and mutilations by Tamora’s two sons, even if she no longer has a tongue to speak, she finds a true voice of her own in her overwhelming and cryptic silence everyone tries to decipher. The attitudes of the male Andronici before the horror of the “the map of woe” (TA.3.2.12), as Titus dubs the raped and maimed Lavinia, are diverse, from Marcus’s lengthy tirade studded with references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Titus’s utter despair and Lucius’s horror that finally portrays Lavinia as “This object [that] kills me” (TA 3.1.64). Only now will the male Andronici characters focus their attention on Lavinia and her woeful and enforced silence, compassionately trying to interpret her “martyred signs”, that is, the expression of the traumatic nature of her ineffable shame and suffering. But Lavinia now also represents the very source of knowledge that will enable the male Andronici’s revenge. She alone can designate her tormenters. This allows for a (however brief) empowering stance of a woman over men, who need to obtain her story to be able to act. In addition, Titus empathically offers to share Lavinia’s grief and shame, through his readiness to mimetically maim himself: “[…] shall we cut away our hands like thine? Or shall we bite our tongues […]?” (TA 3.1.130-1). But the empathy and focus on Lavinia are short-lived. As soon as Lavinia finds the means to designate the culprits, she is forsaken all attention and is caught in an inextricable and terrible fate she cannot escape from, until her death by the hands of her own father, Titus, following the ancient pattern. As Rome’s moral laws indicated: “Because the girl should not survive her shame,/And by her presence still renew his (her father’s) sorrow” (TA 5.3.40-1), her intimate shame thus socially reverberates upon her father’s reputation. She is a stain to be eliminated through death. As Titus declares, “a pattern, precedent, and lively warrant/for me […] to perform the like”7 (TA 5. 3. 43-4).

It may be inferred that Titus’s suffering from Lavinia’s shame and ruin, as if they were his own, could be explained by the fact that in early modern society, if a woman was raped, this was considered more of an outrage to her father or husband than to herself. Indeed women were considered the property of men, and thus a chaste woman was considered a “valuable possession”.8

Even if Lavinia has to rely on her father to carry out her revenge, she later on participates in the retaliation orchestrated by Titus against her torturers. The hunted “dainty doe” takes part in the hunt against her torturers. She takes an active part – as far as her mutilations allow her to do so– by carrying a bowl between her stumps to receive the culprits’ blood. Another very striking element is that she holds Titus’s cut off hand between her teeth. I interpret this act as a symbol of an attempted reconstruction by Lavinia of her own maimed female body thanks to a part (hand) of a male body (her father’s). This gruesome image of the mauled Lavinia carrying her father’s severed hand in her mouth underscores the lack of a female voice and the need for it to be mediated through a male voice, or a body part which might convey its authority to the authority-lacking female voice : the father’s hand becomes the substitute for her cut out tongue. Even if Lavinia’s physical mutilations aimed to “make her sure” – that is, to guard Tamora’s guilty secrets -, this destruction of the female body can also be seen as a symbol of the means male society employs to maintain women in an oppressed and submissive position. But Lavinia’s participation in her father’s revenge may sanction her psychological regeneration, creating a new re-empowered self that emerges out of the accomplished revenge, materialized through the aesthetic possibilities offered by the stage.

Witnessing Lavinia’s transformation from her “virtuous Roman” modesty into a state of utter shame seems to suggest how ambivalent SHAME is. It derives power from its ambivalence: even if it mutes the victim it also conveys a silent, sublime power to the latter, who is metamorphosed into something more than a simple human being by the pain of shame and the ineffable suffering. But in its “modesty” facet, shame represents a powerful tool of male domination.

Tamora, on the other hand, is a woman of power and influence, the embodiment of female royalty and what we might consider to be a progressive discourse concerning the link between woman and shame. Like Salome in Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam, she completely disregards marriage bonds and even uses her marriage to Saturninus as a means towards power and to take revenge on Titus. Tamora falls from her status as Queen of Goths to that of war prisoner and supplicant for her son Alarbus’s life, but her “sudden” (TA 1.1.318) marriage to Saturninus restores her high social status as Empress of Rome. Tamora’s deep hatred and vows of revenge against the Andronici result both from her bereavement as a mother, as well as from the disdain shown to her royal authority. The experience of shame and humiliation make her vow that she will “make them know what ’tis to let a queen/Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain” (TA 1.1.459-60). Tamora’s revenge against Titus is executed from and with the means of her position as Empress of Rome, the “ravenous tiger” roaming free through Rome. The “shameless” queen goes further than this yet as she entertains an amorous relationship with the “barbarous Moor” (TA 5.3.4), who eagerly “coin[s] a stratagem”, “a very excellent piece of villainy” (TA 2.3.5-7). Georgia Brown’s definition of shamelessness as “a denial of orderly behavior, a challenge to ideas of propriety and to the social and cultural systems that determine what is appropriate behavior”, “a way of breaking free from such constraints and asserting control over one’s actions”9 appears to perfectly fit Tamora’s circumstances. In this sense, Tamora’s character may be seen, at least by the modern reader, as adopting a “progressive”, empowering and daring stance for women in early modern times. Nevertheless, while Tamora engages in an implacable revenge against Titus for having ordered the sacrifice of her son, her vengeance plans are conceived and carried out by her black lover, the mastermind of evil, Aaron. Thus underscoring man’s crucial role in (both) vindication schemes.

The powerful scene (TA 2.3) between Lavinia and Tamora confronts the two female prototypes of (ambivalent) shame and shamelessness depicted in Titus Andronicus: Lavinia, the harshly criticizing and denunciatory “Roman” puritan, becomes a supplicant before Tamora, just as Tamora herself used to be before Titus, when she begged him to spare her son Alarbus’s life. Tamora appears merciless, beastly, cruel and barbarous, the very foe of the female gender, as Lavinia depicts her in her supplicant speech: “No grace, no womanhood? Ah, beastly creature,/The blot and enemy to our general name!/Confusion fall –” (TA 2.3.182-4). The “womanly” characteristics of pity, compassion and charity are completely missing / wiped away in Tamora, thus endowing her with what would have been considered a “man’s” stance: pitiless, vindictive and unrelenting. But this is only if we fully adopt Lavinia’s submissive point of view. Tamora can also appear, more positively, as unprejudiced, taking a black man, Aaron, as her lover. She is like Salome, in The Tragedy of Mariam, who has Silleus, an Arabian, as her paramour. Tamora epitomizes a transgressive prototype for a female, from the viewpoint of early modern society, a character who tends towards an appropriation of masculine characteristics.

The seemingly progressive character, the free, liberated, unprejudiced, Tamora, is at the same time a very negative protagonist, scheming and relishing in the execution of her revenge. On the other hand, Lavinia, the epitome of the powerless and submissive early modern woman, and who is apparently criticized as such, becomes the victim of a horrible aggression. But the ambiguity of these two stances still makes a feminist reading of the play possible, at least to a certain extent. One might say that Shakespeare indirectly criticizes the puritanically rigid patriarchal early modern society in so far as the only choice it gives is between these two opposed examples.

While Tamora is shameless and therefore really shameful10 in terms of propriety, Lavinia is shameful11 (subjectively) and therefore chaste. If shame was, during the Early Modern period, such a powerful tool of male domination, it was precisely because a woman was always considered shameful whether she integrated rules or rejected them to become a wanton decadent woman.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare,

Short summary

Titus Andronicus, a victorious Roman general, consents to the sacrificial slaying of Alarbus, eldest son of Tamora, vanquished Queen of the Goths, in honor of his sons who died on the battlefield fighting the Goths. Tamora begs Titus to spare the life of her son, but Titus does not show any mercy, arguing that this ritual sacrifice was requested out of piety for the dead.

Titus is nominated as “candidatus” but he declines the proposal and in turn names Saturninus Emperor, because the latter is the late emperor’s first born son. The new emperor Saturninus immediately frees Tamora and the other Goth prisoners, makes Tamora his bride and Empress of Rome, restoring her to power. Tamora then pledges to accomplish her revenge against Titus Andronicus. Her vengeance is based on the intricate schemes devised by Aaron, her Moor lover, followed by Tamora and her two remaining sons, Chiron and Demetrius.

During a hunt Tamora is discovered in the presence of her lover, the Moor Aaron, by Lavinia and Bassanius. Tamora’s adulterous secret risks being revealed to Saturninus. Following Aaron’s plans, Chiron and Demetrius abuse and mutilate Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, lopping off her tongue and her hands, to prevent her from bearing witness against them and their mother. They also stab to death Bassanius, her husband. Following another treacherous plot devised by Aaron, Tamora has Martius and Quintus, two sons of Titus Andronicus, condemned to death by Saturninus, for having allegedly slain his younger brother, Bassanius.

But Lavinia finally manages to designate her assaulters by holding a staff between her teeth and writing their names in the sand. Acting in retaliation to Lavinia’s rape and mutilations, Titus slays Lavinia’s two torturers. He then prepares a Thyestean banquet with Chiron’s and Demetrius’s remains, which he has baked in a pie. During the banquet, Titus also kills Lavinia so as to be relieved of the shame and dishonor her rape has brought upon his name. In the end, he also slays Tamora, and is slain in turn by Saturninus. To avenge his father, Lucius slays Saturninus. And restores justice also with respect to Martius and Quintus by putting Aaron to death. Ultimately, Lucius becomes the new Emperor of Rome.


Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, II. VI., p. 211, The Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, 1926

Bjork, Kiersten, “”And With Thy Shame Thy Father’s Sorrow Die”: The Rape, Mutilation and Murder of Lavinia as a Reflection of the Position of Women in Elizabethan England””,

Brockman, Sonya L, “Trauma and Abandoned Testimony in Titus Andronicus and Rape of Lucrece”, College Literature, Vol.44(3), pp.344-378, 2017

Brown, Georgia, Redefining Elizabethan Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Detmer – Goebel, Emily, “The need for Lavinia’s voice: Titus Andronicus and the telling of rape”, Shakespeare Studies, Annual, p.75(19), 2001

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Finn, Kavita Mudan, Schutte, Valerie, editors, The Palgrave handbook of Shakespeare’s queens, Palgrave MacMillan, 2018

Green, Douglas E., “Interpreting “Her Martyr’d Signs”: Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus”, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 317-326, stable URL:

Kelso, Ruth, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978

Laughlin Fawcett, Mary, «Arms/Words/Tears: Language and the Body in Titus Andronicus», ELH, Vol. 50, No 2 (Summer, 1983), pp. 261-277, URL:

St. Hilaire, Danielle. A., “Allusion and Sacrifice in ‘Titus Andronicus’”, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 49 (2), pp 311–331, Tudor and Stuart Drama (Spring, 2009), URL:

Willis, Deborah, “The Gnawing Vulture”: Revenge, Trauma Theory, and “Titus Andronicus””, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 21-52, stable URL:

1 Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, II. VI., p. 211, The Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, 1926


3 Georgia Brown, Redefining Elizabethan Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 6

4 Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978, p 105

5 Easo Smith, p. 327

6 Easo Smith, p. 327


8 Kiersten Bjork, “And With Thy Shame Thy Father’s Sorrow Die”: The Rape, Mutilation and Murder of Lavinia as a Reflection of the Position of Women in Elizabethan England”,

9 Georgia Brown, Redefining Elizabethan Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 12

10 Shameful OED, 3. That brings to shame; that causes or ought to cause shame; disgraceful, scandalous, degrading.

11 Shameful OED, 1.a. Modest, shamefaced, obs.

Cite this blog post
webmaster (2021, February 13). Shame in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: the ‘Ravenous Tiger’ versus the ‘Dainty Doe’. Shame Network. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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