William Shakespeare lived during the Elizabethan era into the beginning of the Jacobean era; a time of unrest in England as religious and political ideals shifted with the changing of leaders, poverty rises as capitalism begins to take root, and the public is lashing out in the form of revolts. It stands to reason then that this time of turmoil would have had a strong effect on Shakespeare’s writing. Armed with the knowledge that Shakespeare witnessed this unease and paired with the idea of him being a protest playwright, it is easy to understand why he so heavily focused on power struggles as being the root problems in his plays. Looking to Titus Andronicus as well as Coriolanus it is easy to see an image in which officials are ruthless and the public is indecisive will be revealed.
To start, Titus Andronicus shows how felty along with inaction can be perceived as fatal flaws. Titus is a military general who after a battle with the Goths is to sacrifice their queen’s son. After Tamora, the Goth’s queen, pleads him not to, he tells her “Religiously they ask a sacrifice. To this your son is marked, and die he must, T’ appease their groaning shadows that are gone” (1.1.124-126). In other words, because it is tradition, he must do it without question. It is important to realize tradition is what initially guides Titus’ decisions towards what he thinks will benefit Rome. For instance, he didn’t mind being in the military for 40 years or for losing 21 sons to war because those were part of his duty to Rome. This is why he turns down emperorship. In his eyes, he wasn’t fit to serve saying, “A better head her glorious body fits Than his that shakes for age and feebleness” (1.1.187-188). While he thought he was doing a noble thing at the time by rejecting most of the bloodshed in the play could have been avoided if he had taken power instead of refusing it.
Another time his loyalty blinds him is when Saturninus tried to marry Lavinia. She runs away with her lover, Bassianus. Her brother Mutius tries to stop anyone who comes after them. Titus, of course, is the first to give chase since the pair are defying Rome by ignoring the Emperor’s orders. Titus kills Mutius, his son, in the process but has no remorse over it, saying “Nor thou nor he are any sons of mine. My sons would never so dishonor me.” (1.1.300-301). Titus saw Mutius’ actions as defiance against Rome and thus saw him as traitorous. It isn’t until two of his other sons are to be executed for a murder they didn’t commit, and Lavinia appears to him after being raped and dismembered, that Titus starts to understand his errors. He says to Lavinia, “I’ll chop off my hands too, For they have fought for Rome and all in vain;” (3.1.74-74). This act of solidarity marks a turning point for Titus putting aside his loyalty to Rome and instead focuses on avenging his family.
Avenge he does, practically handed his daughter’s tormentors on a silver platter as he serves it right back. Towards the end of the play Chiron and Demetrius, disguised as ‘Rape’ and ‘Murder” are given to Titus. Titus sees through their disguise but takes them in. As soon as they are in his house Titus asks Publius if he recognizes them. When Publius confirms they are Tamora’s sons, Titus orders, “Therefore bind them sure, And stop their mouths if they begin to cry” (5.2.163-164). During the final banquet scene with Saturninus and Tamora, Titus tells of what happened to Lavinia and promptly kills her. Saturninus wants to see the rapists, to which Titus responds, “Why, there they are, both bakèd in this pie, Whereof their mother daintily hath fed” (5.3.61-62). Perhaps he went too far in serving Tamora her just desserts.
While Titus Andronicus shows how blind obedience as a bad thing, Coriolanus shows how the failure to be obedient can also be a downfall. Martius, like Titus, is a general with an upcoming promotion. Unlike Titus though, Martius seems to want the position of consul. The problem is he has to win the vote of the commoners who he doesn’t particularly like, saying to them, “You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate As reek o’ th’ rotten fens” (3.3.150-151). Though it shouldn’t be too hard for him to lie to them, right? Well, where Titus was loyal to a fault to Rome, Martius is equally loyal to himself: he’s too proud. It is such a known fact that before Martius is even introduced, some citizens are seen talking about him and one says, “very well, and could be content to give him good report for ’t, but that he pays himself with being proud” (1.1.31-33). Simply put, they don’t want to give him credit for his military service as they know it’ll inflate his ego. Sicinius and Brutus, the people’s tribunes, also notice his pride which can be seen in this exchange between the two:
SICINIUS: Was ever man so proud as is this Martius?
BRUTUS: He has no equal. (1.1.287-2880)
If he were to put aside his pride, all he would have to do is talk to the commoners and show them his wounds. Instead, the wounds seem to be a sore subject for him and are quickly dismissed throughout the play.
For example, when the senators and tribunes are talking about promoting Martius to consul, they want to talk about the many scars he received fighting for the country. Martius excuses himself and tries to leave the building saying, “I had rather have my wounds to heal again Than hear say how I got them” (2.2.79-80). Which at first seems like he is embarrassed to hear of his military conquests which wouldn’t make sense given his prideful nature. That is unless he sees those wounds as a failure. This is backed up by the fact they aren’t ever shown in the play. He also mocks the very idea of using his body to plead such as, ““I pray, sir?”—plague upon ’t! I cannot bring My tongue to such a pace. “Look, sir, my wounds!” (2.3.54-55). He doesn’t want to stoop so low as to beg for votes and he doesn’t want to use his body as a bargaining chip. His tune changes to, “Chide me no more. I’ll mountebank their loves, Cog their hearts from them, and come home beloved” (3.2.161-163) after his mother berates him. Though when that isn’t enough, he is willing to take back what was once his.
To continue, Martius, like Titus, is prepared to seek revenge when wronged. After being exiled he seeks the leader of the army who has been at war with Rome. The leader’s name is Aufidius, a man Martius has fought many times but can never beat. He goes to Aufidius telling him, “I will fight Against my cankered country with the spleen Of all the under fiends” (4.5.100-102). Aufidius accepts him and allows him to lead the army against the Romans. However, Martius has a change of heart, more on that later, and instead of taking Rome by storm, he signs a peace treaty between the two nations, a move Aufidius loathes. He tells Martius his oath broke like “A twist of rotten silk” (5.6.114) and then promptly has his men stab him for what they saw as treason against their cause.
What of the other elites in the play? Starting again with Titus Andronicus, Saturninus is the eldest son of the since deceased emperor and is then next in line to the throne. The play opens with him claiming that if he doesn’t receive the throne, he calls for his followers to “Defend the justice of my cause with arms” (1.1.2). Showing not only is he willing to take by force what he sees as his but that he also is impatient. This rashness can be seen again a short time later when he claims Lavinia’s hand in marriage. Titus, being Lavinia’s father, gives more gifts to which Saturninus asserts “And when I do forget The least of these unspeakable deserts, Romans, forget your fealty to me” (1.1.257-259). Which is a nice way to honor Titus’ contributions to Rome, but roughly fifty lines later he backpedals his admiration of Titus saying “No, Titus, no, the Emperor needs her not, Nor her, nor thee, nor any of thy stock” (1.1.305-306). He immediately disregards Titus and his family for one transgression, which by his decree would mean no one should remain loyal to him any longer. Though worse yet of his rashness is when he discovers his brother’s dead body in a pit. He makes Titus’ sons out to be the murderers which Tamora points out, “How easily murder is discovered” (2.3.288). It doesn’t add up, but it doesn’t need to. Someone had offended him, so he acted hastily to correct the wrong rather than let his honor stay marked any longer.
Tamora also uses her power to seek revenge. After becoming Empress, she makes a show of reuniting Titus and Saturninus, but to Saturninus, she says, “My lord, be ruled by me” (1.1.450) showing that she wants to take charge to handle these matters. In the same aside she adds, “I’ll find a day to massacre them all And raze their faction and their family” (1.1.459-460) showing that revenge is on her mind. The most damning of Tamora’s vileness in the pursuit of revenge is when she commands her sons to rape Lavinia, telling them “Therefore away with her, and use her as you will; The worse to her, the better loved of me” (2.3.166-167). It isn’t enough for her sons to do as they like, but she wants them to be extra vile. She does overestimate herself towards the end of the play. She tries to trick Titus by pretending to be the embodiment of revenge. He sees through it and says as much, but like Saturninus, she acts in haste and tries to keep up the charade saying, “I am not Tamora. She is thy enemy, and I thy friend. I am Revenge” (5.2.29). Her two sons are also disguised, and Titus talks her into letting them stay with him. Had she have not pushed her luck with the disguise gambit, her two sons wouldn’t have been turned into pies.
Furthermore, a character who may lack direct power, but makes up for it in manipulation is Aaron the moor. He is the one who told Tamora’s sons to “strike her home by force, if not by words” (2.1.125) regarding Lavinia. He has Tamora’s sons kill Bassianus while framing Titus’ sons for the crime. He also tells Titus to, “chop off your hand And send it to the King; he for the same Will send thee hither both thy sons alive” (3.1.155-157) which was a lie. Moments after Titus cuts off his hand, he receives his sons’ disembodied heads along with his hand returned. While It isn’t clear as to why Aaron is so diabolical, he does tell Tamora that “Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head” (2.3.38-39). Perhaps he is trying to get revenge for being slaved. This would explain why he has no remorse for his actions, telling Lucius in a confession, “But I have done a thousand dreadful things… And nothing grieves me heartily indeed But that I cannot do ten thousand more” (5.1.143-146). If it is revenge he is after, he would feel justified in his actions as well as feeling like he hasn’t quite rectified the wrongdoings against him. The connection between the three examples above then is each person uses their power to enact punishments when they feel slighted.
While the power struggles in Titus Andronicus are rife with bloodshed, Coriolanus relies mostly on political theater. The most obvious obstacle to Martius is not the people, but rather the two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius. They make it their objective to, “suggest the people in what hatred He still hath held them” (2.1.275-276), or in other words they want to remind the people of Martius’ hatred towards them so they don’t cast their votes to him. After Martius finally talks to the commoners in the marketplace, Brutus and Sicinius stay behind to remind the people that, “When he had no power, But was a petty servant to the state, He was your enemy” (2.3.197-199). They continue this as if they are speaking for the people, yet it comes off as them trying to flex their power. They speak of allowing the people to have a say, yet they direct the people on how to cast their vote; saying, “If I say “Fine,” cry “Fine,” if “Death,” cry “Death”” (3.3.21). When they finally get Martius exiled they dismiss the people and seem quite proud of themselves boasting, “Now we have shown our power, Let us seem humbler after it is done” (4.2.4-5). “Seem humbler” meaning they weren’t being humble to begin with, but rather proud; the same vice they faulted Martius for having. They were so caught up in trying to prove Martius wasn’t fit to serve they didn’t realize how similar to him they were. In the process, they come off as nothing more than hypocrites.
In addition, Menenius is another person to have considerable use of power throughout the play, usually trying to avoid conflict. He is respected by the people which can be seen in the opening of the play. The group that is forming a revolt sees Menenius and says, “Worthy Menenius Agrippa, one that hath always loved the people” (1.1.51-52). However, we don’t ever see him doing anything for the public other than talking to them respectfully. For this reason, Menenius seems to be a foil to Martius. Martius’s shortcomings are that he can’t lie or get along with the general public; two traits needed for being a politician. Menenius being respected by the plebians and elite alike shows that he is accustomed to living up to the expectations of being a politician and as stated above he can use his wit to sway others. To see Menenius being able to talk people out of conflict look to when Brutus and Sicinius are riled and ready to march to Martius’ house to kill him. Menenius talks them out of it reminding them that Martius, “has been bred i’ th’ wars Since he could draw a sword” (3.1.408-408) or in other words trying to kill Martius will be bloody and unpredictable.
Furthermore, another person with surprisingly substantial power in the play is Martius’ mother, Volumnia. While Martius is at war Volumnia mentions that she wouldn’t mind if he died in battle. She hammers this point home when she says, “I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” (1.3.25-27) to say another way, she doesn’t care how many sons she has that die in war as long as they die with honor and not living a safe life. This may not show her power, but it does set up how she views and uses Martius. She doesn’t want him to be, “picture-like to hang by th’ wall” (1.3.11-12) as herself when he can instead be a victorious warrior. She makes up for her lack of power in the world by having control over Martius and living vicariously through his actions. For instance, when Martius refuses to go to the markets and plead for votes it is her that gets him to go down there by telling him, “To beg of thee, it is my more dishonor Than thou of them” (3.2.152-153). He gives in to her begging and goes to the markets. She does this again when Martius defects to join Aufidius, the enemy, to launch an attack on Rome. Aufidius sums up the control Volumnia has when he tells Martius, “never admitting Counsel o’ th’ war, but at his nurse’s tears He whined and roared away your victory” (5.6.114-116). Martius ignored the warnings and advice of his fellow officers but backtracked and gave away victory when his mother scolded him, quite clearly summarizing the power Volumnia holds over Martius.
While this examines the royalty, what of the common folk and what, if any, power do they hold? The opening of Coriolanus starts with the improvised marching with clubs. Their enemy is Martius specifically and they are willing to “kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price” (1.1.10-11) showing their clear hatred towards him. So why is it that they gather up and cheer when he is to be promoted to consul? A messenger comes to get Brutus and Sicinius saying, “Tis thought That Martius shall be consul. I have seen The dumb men throng to see him, and the blind To hear him speak” (2.1.293-295) which even the messenger is confused adding “I never saw the like” (2.1.300). As brought up earlier Brutus and Sicinius have to remind the people they hate Martius and shouldn’t have voted for him. Martius seems to have his finger on the pulse of this issue as he mentions to the mutiny at the beginning of the play, “With every minute you do change a mind And call him noble that was now your hate, Him vile that was your garland” (1.1.194-196). At this moment Martius points out the fickleness of the commoners.
Additionally, a fickle public can also be seen in Titus Andronicus, albeit more subtle. As already pointed out, Titus at the beginning of the play denies emperorship. He instead asks the tribunes, “I ask your voices and your suffrages. Will you bestow them friendly on Andronicus?” (1.1.219). While the tribunes aren’t the lower class as seen in Coriolanus, they do have power here to sway the vote. They already committed to voting for Titus, so how then do they react? They tell him, “To gratify the good Andronicus And gratulate his safe return to Rome, The people will accept whom he admits” (1.1.222-224). They don’t decide to cast a revote. Instead, they allow Titus to pick who he thinks should be emperor. Of course, Titus being a stickler for tradition picks the eldest son, the man who was willing to fight anyone that stood in his way of the throne. What is the point of having a democracy if it only comes down to one person’s choice? Such a blatant attack against democracy undermines the whole principle.
These accounts put together a troubling view of democracy. On one hand, the general public is painted as being too fickle for their opinions to matter. On the other, even when the general public has made up its mind to cast a vote it can’t be said if that vote is genuine or not. Looking at the historical context of Shakespeare’s time Martius may represent Shakespeare’s own skepticism of the public. After the failed Midlands revolt Shakespeare likely lost faith in the people being able to take matters into their own hands while gobbling up the lies of the nobles. Though this isn’t to say that Shakespeare sided with the royalty either since he consistently paints them as bullheaded, hypocritical, and bloodthirsty. It may be fairer to say Shakespeare saw society as a sort of repetitive dance and show of unease and false promises.
In closing, the two plays show power as the hold that tradition has or the lust for revenge, while also exacerbating rashness and indecisiveness. In both, it may be too simplistic to point to power as a corrosive force. Instead of seeing power as something that leads to revenge, pettiness, and bloodshed, it is best to see that humans are already innately fickle and rash. Power then is merely a tool that allows one to more easily act on those base emotions, and since it’s a tool it can be taken. While the commoners of Shakespeare’s time did push back such as the Midlands Revolt or by attacking enclosures on common land, it could be that he didn’t believe they were doing enough. Imagine being part of the groundlings watching Coriolanus and hearing the line “You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?” (1.1.4-5) or hearing Saturninus opening remarks in Titus Andronicus and being told, “And countrymen, my loving followers, Plead my successive title with your swords” (1.1.4-5). It is as if Shakespeare is trying to rile up the commoners and get them to take action. Certainly, this ties in easily to the idea of Shakespeare being a protest playwright because what better way to protest than to call for a revolt?