Examine The Ways In Which Titus Andronicus and The Tempest by William Shakespeare Articulate a Critique of Authority

The forces of power, vengeance, colonial suppression and social dominance are re-occurring themes that are present in both Titus Andronicus (1593-94) and The Tempest (1611-12) by William Shakespeare. Though they were written nearly twenty years apart, at different junctures in Shakespeare’s career, the critical reception for Titus Andronicus, generally, has been as dismissive as The Tempest’s praise has been panoptic. Despite critical polarisation, both plays are decidedly similar in their focus on the individual and his ability to cope with adversity and emotional traumas rooted in extreme acts of betrayal from with in a supposedly stable society or family unit. The plays also make similar though not identical points about authority being dependent upon knowledge and the individual’s exercise of this power being the defining element of their character. Both Titus and Prospero have a remarkable amount in common in terms of their situations with in the plays; both are mired in complex political power struggles, both are tormented by “barbarian” characters and conversely by their own barbarian primal instincts and both are rigidly controlling and idolatrous towards their daughters who in a sense they both lose to death and carnality. 

The subject of women during the Renaissance, a time of radical change in; science, politics, art and education, for contemporary historians has been a hotly contested area of understanding which can only be contextualized by the art, literature and historical events we have knowledge of. On the one hand women in the higher echelons of society were generally becoming more powerful evidential in that there were more female patrons of the arts who had the wealth and authority to commission new and inspiring art to express their dynastic power, and on the other hand their existence as defined by their dynasty was a huge restriction on their personal liberty. Women of this strata had two choices; they could either enter a convent or marry a man of their family’s choosing. Their behaviour was scrutinised and translated as having a direct bearing on their family’s social standing which was of paramount importance at this time.

A recurrent theme throughout Shakespeare’s plays is that of the problematic father-daughter relationship. The Tempest and Titus Andronicus both portray fathers with an excessive level of control over their daughters through their freedom of expression, their relationships with other characters and to some extent their relationship with the audience. In The Tempest Miranda is unerringly obedient to her father’s wishes until she meets Ferdinand. Prospero plots for her to marry Ferdinand in order that he may re-establish his Ducal legacy in Italy, as her heirs will become the rulers of both Naples and Milan. Prospero does intend for Miranda and Ferdinand to marry, yet he manipulates both of them into believing that he objects to them being together. This is presumably to ensure that Ferdinand remains respectful and humble towards Miranda’s virtue, which is essentially the only form of respect Prospero allows her. Although this is a clear display of masculine dominance over Ferdinand in the emphasis of his ownership of her, Miranda and Ferdinand’s genuine feelings of love for one another undermine Prospero in the only mode that is successful for any character with in the play, language. Miranda’s rebellion is two-fold; firstly through her use of language and then in her knowledge that it is a transgressive act in itself against her father Her passionate language is one of the first forces that starts to cause cracks in Prospero’s own perception of his authority, as it is not just the restrictions of patriarchal authority which Miranda is, if not consciously rebelling against, then out growing, as her loyalties are increasingly divided. It is unclear whether Prospero is in fact encouraging this division of Miranda’s filial loyalty in order to make the transition easier for both of them, after such a long time as companions. On the other hand, Prospero does seem genuinely angry about her unexpected challenge to his treatment of Ferdinand and threatens her with the kind of treatment the audience have previously only seen him exhibit towards Ariel for his “ingratitude” towards his servitude, “Silence! One word more/ Shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee…Hush”

Miranda and Ferdinand’s language is interesting as Miranda constantly refers to Ferdinand as an equal and is clearly the more powerful in the relationship shown by Ferdinand’s frequent use of servitude imagery, “My heart fly to your service, there resides/ To make me slave to it, and for your sake am I this patient logman”. Ferdinand’s treatment of Miranda is sharply contrasted with Prospero’s, as Ferdinand cherishes her with words of voluntary subjection, where as Prospero greets her protestations of mistreatment of Ferdinand with contempt and derision Though Miranda is easily the most sheltered heroine in Shakespeare, having only seen three men in her entire life, she nevertheless has a very defined sense of right and wrong and a will of her own which is evidential through her use of language. She refuses even to contemplate, though she is young and in love, relinquishing her status as an honourable woman and instead offers herself either in marriage or as a virtuous servant, these are Ferdinand’s only choices. She is far more in control of herself compared with Ferdinand’s confused and emotional state.

Where Miranda’s virtue allows her to gain power over Ferdinand, Tamora consciously exploits her sexual power in exchange for political power as Roman empress over the impressionable and vain emperor, Saturninus. She too employs language as a source of power but to emotionally blackmail and dominate those around her. Tamora’s sustained dominance over every character for almost the entirety of the play, makes her one of the most powerful women in all of Shakespeare, shown by her spatial ascent from prisoner to empress in the first scene by her procession up to the balcony above with Saturninus, whilst the Andronici, Bassianus and Lavinia escape through the opposite door offstage leaving Titus, who had been a powerful presence centre stage a moment before, alone and powerless. This is just one example of the transitory nature of authority that develops through out the play exposing the transitory nature of power. Tamora as the leader of the Goths, is the instigator of almost every act of violence on the Andronici, yet she at no point becomes immediately involved in the physical acts of violence herself, though she is more than willing. However, there is no need given the level of respect her sons and lover Aaron have for her in her campaign of hate against the Andronici. Her sons have a disturbingly competitive love for their mother and great emphasis is placed on this by Tamora in a warped competition of cruelty to earn her love, this idea is also discussed by Birbing in terms of the psychological cohesion between mother and sons. This unity into a single force is seemless in its savage ingenuity yet when Tamora is compromised by the birth of their moorish half-brother, they panic that she will be killed and they will have lost their leader. In the end this unit is finally conquered not by cruelty but by cunning. Titus pretends that he has lost his mind to grief in order to lower Tamora’s guard and then ritually slaughters Chiron and Demetrius, Tamora then eats the pie made of their heads and ultimately, their unit grows so arrogant in its’ power that it becomes complacent and literally consumes itself.

Lavinia, is portrayed as the personification of beauty and the honour of Rome, yet unlike Miranda she is hardly a character at all, but a living doll who is defined by the interpretation of her universally male family and society. Here Shakespeare may be commenting on the silence of women with in his own times as, during the Elizabethan era, women were demonstrably absent from public life where they were impersonated by boys on stage and excluded from; politics, a choice of profession, a thorough education, even from the nursery where wet nurses were commonly employed to care for their children. Womens’ ability to express themselves was almost entirely confined to Classical female characters in art and literature, which is perhaps why after she is raped and disfigured by Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia uses Ovid’s Metamorphosis to explain what has happened to her and is constantly compared to the mythical heroine Philomel. However, Lavinia is even more powerless than Philomel in that she has no hands to weave a tapestry and whose need for justice is ignored by her family who also chooses not to consult her about the way in which the Goths will be brought to justice for crimes against her. Lavinia’s only choice is to live in shame under the tyranny of her family who presume to interpret what they can never even begin to appreciate. Prospero also controls Miranda through her language in an equally disturbing way when he stops her natural questions about how they came to be stranded on the island by forcing her to fall asleep until he has further use of her. In his anxiety over his own position, which was previously usurped because of his own inattention to duty, he starts to become monstrous in his exertion of control. Prospero describes the loss of Miranda as a form of death because he cares for her so deeply, for Titus to the loss of Lavinia is perpetually connected with death. Titus experiences this first in Lavinia’s disfiguration where he loses control over his ability to express his grief and then when he kills her himself in the final scene. By this point he has transcended his grief to a point where he is enslaved as well as empowered by his need for revenge. He no longer cares for any other consequences and kills his daughter as the finale to the dramatic banquet, designed for Saturninus to figuratively ingest all the injustices he, as the symbol of Rome, has allowed. Regardless of what their loss is to both fathers, it is an escape from filial submission for their daughters in which Prospero and Titus ultimately set them free.

Returning to the first scene of Titus Andronicus in which Saturninus proclaims that he will marry Lavinia, neither Saturninus nor Titus consult Lavinia on who she is to marry and even more conspicuously Lavinia at no point objects, complies or even comments on the rapid turn of events, though she is at the centre of this domestic and political melee. It is only after her husband is killed and she pleads to Tamora to let her die so she may be released with her honour, that we see any real demonstration that Lavinia thinks or feels for herself at all, she hardly stands as a real character as she is a reflection of the place of women in a masculine-centric society. Tamora ignores Lavinia’s pleas, prior to her sons’ assault in which they cut off her hands and cut out her tongue, this is a poignant example of the symmetrical structure of the play as it replies to the lopping of Alarbus’s limbs and the inattention of Titus to Tamora’s pleas. This symmetry of brutality is what promotes the play’s discussion of the paradoxical nature of public revenge: it is both outside the law and within in it, after all, what were public executions during the Elizabethan era if not Senecan-esque displays of public revenge? Both plays ultimately ask who should have the power to rule and who the right to punish.

The Tempest has been panoptic in its artistic influence and global popularity through the centuries since its first performance c.1610-11. It has been used particularly in the twentieth and twenty-first century as a metaphor to explore racial and colonial issues from the African slave trade to the British occupation of Ireland. Titus Andronicus too, includes the contentious and conspicuous presence of the slave. Aaron and Caliban both demonstrate the dependence supposedly strong European countries have on the abject and other and the slave’s capacity as a fellow human to be equally as wicked or as loving, despite their brutal acts, Caliban loved Prospero in the beginning and Aaron finds that he cannot help loving his child. Typical of Shakespeare’s plays no character is ever irredeemable. Also the prominence of the servant-master relationship allows for the discussion of power and the dynamics of authority on an almost boundless scale. It has never been more relevant than at out present point in history, as in the last three years we have seen the first black President of the USA, The Arab Spring uprising and a significant rise in global power in the East.

It was theorist and critic Michel Foucault who first introduced the idea that power is not an isolated act of domination by a group or individual but is a constant, or “meta-power”, which is pervasive over every civilization yet which is in a constant state of evolution. This is because every society has a different set of accepted values which is their “truth”. Foucault uses the phrase “power/knowledge” to show that power is an expression of a collective truth or “knowledge”. This may explain why Caliban, who is not unintelligent, is so easily fooled by the fool. Stephano becomes his new lord and Caliban enters into a comical servitude to him because he has no way of distinguishing between personalities of genuine authority figures and drunken butlers. However, though Caliban is without a society and therefore without the codes of that society to operate within, he can still recognise that Prospero’s power comes from his magical books which he urges Stephan and Trinculo to, “First to possess …for without them/ He’s but a sot, as I am…”. Before his exile, Caliban is cared for by Prospero and Miranda until he unknowingly breaks a code of European behaviour by his attempted rape of Miranda. From his reaction to the accusation of rape, it is possible to understand Caliban’s actions not as malicious and vengeful, in the way Aaron’s certainly are, but as an emulation of Prospero’s obsession with legacy and colonial dominance as master of the island, all be it in an unpleasant and crude form,“I had peopled else/ This isle with Calibans”. Prospero’s hostility may then stem from anxieties over spacial and masculine subversion which he experienced when his brother Antonio ousted him as Duke of Milan. This paranoia is projected on to Caliban who is the embodiment of Prospero’s suppressed fears and primeval desires which, on some level, he may confront in the final scene in what Psychiatrist’s today would call “a break through” when he says, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine”. Caliban reportedly has no language when Prospero and Miranda first come to the island and so they teach him theirs. This is an inversion of the prevailing Western concern of cultural contamination from the racial other. Shakespeare shows that language is a medium that frees but also enslaves as it binds one to expression only with in that culture and so is a great responsibility, Caliban recognises the curse they have given him.
Though Prospero’s treatment of Caliban may seem by modern audiences as a little drastic if not racist, we can better understand Prospero’s attitude by contextualising it in the mood of the time. Slavery was literally the life blood of an ever-expanding trading empire, yet with this grew a sense of racial difference and a need to impose authority and control, this naturally lead to anxieties over racial purity. This is voiced explicitly in Titus Andronicus by Bassianus about Tamora and Aaron’s sexual relationship, Bassianus says, “your swart Cimmerian/ Doth make your honour of his body’s hue/ Spotted, detested, abominable” This corresponds with Prospero’s anger towards Caliban seeking to “Violate the honour of my child”. Both men are talking of the honour of the individual as well as the “honour” of being white in contrast to the contamination it is open to by black slaves such as Aaron and Caliban.
Thus far we have looked at physical and linguistic forms of control and subjection yet there is another form which takes a far more illusive role in The Tempest, psychological manipulation. Prospero exercises his will over Caliban and the shipwrecked Neapolitans, not through his own prowess as a magus, but through surveillance intelligence gathered by his spirit Ariel. Ariel’s power allows him to see, control and punish Prospero’s enemies by dividing and conquering.
Foucault used the Panopticon in his seminal work Discipline and Punish as a metaphor for the modern ocularcentric society in which one observes without being seen, examples of this today include CCTV, Facebook, Big Brother and The Truman Show. The island itself can be seen as an early model of the Panopticon as Prospero too uses separation to isolate his prisoners; Prospero acting as the central guard tower, Ariel as his sight of the incarcerated. However though Prospero is in control of everyone he describes his own living area as a “cell” in the final scene perhaps showing that he is a victim of his own regime. Many critics have discussed the extent to which Prospero is a reflection of Shakespeare’s character towards the end of his playwriting career and given the retrospective similarity of the Panopticon to the Globe theatre it could be interpreted as an ending to his God-like mastery of the stage which has both empowered him and humbled him.

Russian writer and activist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Solzhenitsyn writes of the chaos and complexity of human nature as Shakespeare does in The Tempest and Titus Andronicus. Prospero’s summoning of the tempest and the brutality of Titus Andronicus reveals the power of good and evil with in every human; the power to enslave, the power to love, the power to dream and the power to punish. If all authority is power in essence, and all power according to Foucault is knowledge, then surely if anything Titus Andronicus and The Tempest demonstrate that all authority over others begins with authority over ones self. Titus channels his grief and betrayal into revenge because it is the only satisfying outcome he can achieve in a life that has been ruined by the vengeance of others as much as himself. Prospero on the other hand begins where Titus’s story concludes, with total control of those around him but none over himself. The only sphere of control Prospero has not conquered is, paradoxically self-control of his controlling nature, which he realises must be obtained if he is not to become a monster, “with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury/ Do I take part. The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeance” Prospero forgives in order to move on which is his salvation as well as Miranda’s. Titus in comparison cannot move forward because he becomes locked in a vicious cycle of revenge ending not in forgiveness or justice, but in blood, sorrow and political instability, mirroring the beginning of the play and the absence of authority.




Crampton, JW. and Elden, S. (2007) Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucalt and Geography. [e-book] UK: Ashgate Publishers Ltd.. p.p49. Available through: Myilibrary [Accessed: 17/11/12].

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Foucault, Michel, and Alan Sheridan.Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Penguin, 1977.

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