Enter the Empress’ sons with Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish’d.
Dem. So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who ‘twas that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.
Chi. Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
Titus Andronicus, 2.4.1-4
It may seem odd or improper to address the mutilation of the Andronici in the idiom of stigma, but those lopped bodies actually show us the original idea of stigma as it existed in the ancient world. It began as a punitive practice: criminals and slaves were branded or tattooed to identify them for others as untrustworthy and inferior. As such, stigma was equipment for cultural communication, shorthand that wrote the status of a person (criminal or slave) into that person’s identity by writing it onto his or her body in an effort to save others the trouble of interpreting an individual based solely on one’s knowledge of his or her actions. With respect to the mutilation of the Andronici, stigma in Titus Andronicus is not a theme that is explored in the drama but a technique that is employed by the drama. Like stigma in in the ancient world, the mutilation of the Andronici is a sign, Shakespeare’s sign to his audience, that the Andronici, as typified in Titus, have committed some crime, are in some way inferior. The mutilation of the Andronici can be thought of as stage stigma, as a visible mark or brand cast on a character by way of a costume to identify him or her for the theatrical audience as criminal or inferior. Indeed, though Shakespeare inherited the mutilation of the Andronici from his source, he went out of his way to invent a moral failing for them that was not present in that source: at the start of the play, Titus, having been elected Emperor of Rome by the people, refuses to assume this office, refuses “to set a head on headless Rome.” By inventing this error, and associating it with the imagery of mutilation, Shakespeare asks us to remember the mutilation of Rome later in the play when Titus chops off his own hand, when his daughter is raped and has her hands and tongue removed, and when two of his sons lose their heads. In doing so, Shakespeare exploited the analogy between political and natural bodies, between Rome and the Andronici, both disfigured and ravished, the one body signifying the other. Shakespeare had already seriously scrutinized the analogy between natural and political bodies in Richard III, but he seems to have recognized its real offensiveness for the first time in Titus Andronicus when he found himself raping and defacing Lavinia, an innocent, simply to supply his audience with a coherent metaphor. From this perspective, one thing Shakespeare shows in Titus Andronicus is the tragic consequence of actually implementing an idea like the punitive practice of stigma, an idea that may sound good in theory, but is horrifyingly inhumane when put into practice.
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