Titus Andronicus as Elizabethan black propaganda

Readers of this website who have studied Gregory Bateson and the art of black propaganda, or for that matter have understood the Flavians’ purpose in creating the Gospels as a pacifist message to radical Jews, will understand that the perceived bona fides of the information source are crucial to the effectiveness of the message. That is, the audience must believe that the source is one of their own, and is working in their benefit.

Noting that “Shakespeare” seems to have been a nom de plume, many skeptics have suspected a hidden motive for the plays, and focused their efforts on resolving the “authorship question”. However, from a black propaganda perspective: even if the Stratford man did not write the plays, still it is important to understand who he was; and (just as important) who he was perceived to be.

In Shadowplay (2005), Clare Asquith presents a spirited argument, not only that the Stratford man was Catholic, but that the plays were filled with coded messages that would have been transparently obvious to the beleaguered Catholics of the Elizabethan era.

To understand Asquith’s point of view, it is crucial to realize that the Protestant vs Catholic dialectic had taken center stage in Elizabethan England, contrary to textbook illusions that the English had promptly, universally and enthusiastically rejected all the trappings of ‘popery’. In reality, the situation was perhaps analogous to what would pertain in America if after every election, the winning party outlawed the losers, beheaded the opposing party leadership, and made it illegal to possess, alternately, red items or blue. Of course all the underlying disagreements, hatreds and fears can only be exacerbated by such events. In England, the entire country had been flipped from Catholicism to Protestantism under Henry VIII in 1533, back to Catholicism under ‘Bloody Mary’ in 1553, and flipped again in 1558, with turmoil and bloodshed at each turn. In the wake of Elizabeth’s accession, many Catholics in England remained emotionally committed to the old religion and its traditions (though not necessarily to the Pope himself) and some looked abroad to Philip II for rescue.

It was not illegal simply to exist as a Catholic in Elizabethan England — but it was, at least nominally, illegal to possess a rosary or other paraphernalia, to be a priest or harbor a priest, or to fail to attend Protestant church services. In many situations, a loyalty oath to the Crown as head of the church was expected. Stephanie Mann in “Supremacy and Survival: how Catholics endured the English Reformation” estimated that “During Elizabeth’s reign, 189 Catholics, 128 of them priests, were martyred for their faith.” Although a fearful total, this indicates that the vast majority of English Catholics survived the sustained purge without undergoing this ultimate penalty. Inasmuch as it was impossible to kill all the Catholics, it was necessary to convert them; a process in which I am arguing ‘Shakespeare’ played a major role.

In his essay Bardgate, Peter Dickson also notes “a growing suspicion among scholars who sense that the man from Stratford-on-Avon might have been living a ‘double life’ as a secret Roman Catholic.” According to Dickson, possibly the most notable biography supporting this viewpoint is Shakespeare: The Evidence (1994), in which author Ian Wilson cited the following:

1  The explicitly Catholic-style testament of John Shakespeare, the Stratford man’s father. Chapter 4 (44-58)

2  The fact that John Shakespeare’s name appears on the recusancy list for March 1592 (123) and the Stratford man’s daughter (Susanna) on a similar list for April 20, 1606 (320)

3  The Stratford man’s marriage to Ann Hathaway in Temple Grafton in 1582 in what appears to have been a Catholic ceremony (57)

4  The Stratford man in 1585 naming his twins after Hamnet and Judith Sadler, a couple well-known as Catholics (58)

5  The Bard’s dedications to the Earl of Southampton, who was raised a Catholic until age 8, but later became a staunch Protestant, a fact Wilson ignores (136-137)

6  “Shakespeare’s” impresa design in 1613 for the Earl of Rutland, whose Catholic orientation is overstated by Wilson (371)

7  The warning on the Stratford man’s tomb not to move his bones in violation of the Protestant practice of removing bones for storage after a period of time (394-396)

8  The Stratford man’s ties to Warwickshire Catholic families, some of which were deeply involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, drawing on research by Leslie Hotson and Peter Levi (314-320, 453- 455, 485)

9  Thomas Combe and William Reynolds, two Catholics who appear in the Stratford man’s will (391)

10  A note from the 1660s by Richard Davies, chaplain at Corpus Christi (Oxford), that the Bard “dyed a Papist” (410-411)

11  A Benedictine tradition that the Bard received the last rites of the Catholic Church (397, 450).

12  Purchase by Shakespeare in March 1613 of the Blackfriars Gatehouse, a haven in London for secret Catholics, three of whom (John Jackson, William Johnson, and John Robinson) appear as co-trustees or leaseholders of the property––Robinson also appearing in the Stratford man’s will of 1616 (372- 376, 396-297, 418)

An essay by Richard Wilson, “Shakespeare and the Jesuits“, collects the evidence that the Stratford man, who we will call ‘Shagsper’, spent some part of the “first lost years” from 1578 to 1582 in Lancashire under the alias of “William Shakeshafte”, in the company of Edmund Campion and Alexander Hoghton — where he became “a member of a household which was for six months, it seems, nothing less than the secret college and headquarters of the English Counter-Reformation.” The connections made there in Lancashire may have helped ‘Shagsper’ find his next position.

Sometime around 1590, ‘Shagsper’ joined the acting company of “Lord Strange’s Men” in London, and the plays which were later published under the name of ‘Shakespeare’ began to appear. The company’s patron, Ferdinando Stanley (Lord Strange, Earl of Derby), was suspected of being the beneficiary of Catholic plots to place him on the throne. The company itself was noted for its production of politically controversial plays. Later on, many actors from “Strange’s Men” went on to join the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”. In 1598, the company moved their operation to the Globe Theater in Southwark, a neighborhood which Asquith describes as a “dissident powerhouse“. The area was under the protection of Magdalen Montague, who was oddly able to overtly practice a pious Catholicism until her death in 1608 in an era when such practices would normally have led to serious penalties. She and her family used their considerable resources in patronage to other Catholics (such as ‘Shagsper’) whose loyalties were only thinly veiled in deference to the Elizabethan police.

Considering this network of connections, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that savvy Catholics of that era might have looked to the “Shakespeare” plays for secret Catholic messages. Of course, if anyone at that time had recognized that such messages were contained therein, they would in turn have referred to them in veiled terms which have gone undetected up until now, at least as far as I am aware. This is an area for future scholarship. Meanwhile, as these biographical hints have emerged, enterprising Catholic scholars have likewise been re-examining the plays, looking for a pro-Catholic subtext. Asquith’s Shadowplay is possibly the most ambitious of these efforts. Asquith fruitfully covers the entire Shakespearean corpus, and other such works have also appeared. Again, it is beyond the scope of this article to review all of Shakespeare’s work in this context; our goal is simply to study Titus Andronicus as it relates to the Flavian Gospel dialectic as well as the Catholic-Protestant dialectic.

Atwill argues that the true author of the plays (or, at least, the most important person among the authorship team) was Emilia Bassano, an ethnically Jewish woman who is known as the first female to have registered a poem for publication in England. Atwill shows that several Shakespearean plays contain a typological level which inverts the Flavian comic system hidden in Josephus and the New Testament. In this inverted typology, a Jewish person (or, occasionally, a ‘friar’ or some other nominally Christian person) causes the Gentiles to murder and cannibalize one another, reversing the ancient scenario in which the Jews were forced to engage in cannibalism by the Romans in the Jewish war. The scenario sometimes concludes with a Jewish person grafted into the Gentile royal lineage, inverting the Romans’ insertion of their own lineage into the Maccabee (Jewish royal) line. Viewed at this level, the Shakespearean literature may be seen as Jewish revenge literature, making Emilia Bassano a highly plausible authorship candidate.

As I mentioned above: in Shadowplay,  Clare Asquith detects a partisan pro-Catholic allegorical level in the Shakespearean literature. While at first glance this seems contradictory to Atwill’s position in Shakespeare’s Secret Messiah, at least it can be said that Catholicism and Judaism both suffered severely as targets of the Elizabethan police state, and followers of both were forced underground to survive during Elizabeth’s reign. Accordingly, both Catholic and Jewish authors would have had good reason to use veiled language to convey their messages. Since England had been so recently and so rudely converted from near-universal Catholicism, of course there was a much larger potential audience for materials dealing with the Protestant-Catholic dialectic. Also, the English elite identified themselves as “British Israel“, beginning as early as Henry VIII; so Atwill’s “Jewish” protagonists might actually represent the Elizabethan court’s own view of themselves, variously as ‘Jewish’, Jesuit, or other strong-armed characters. 

In the book, Asquith discusses a number of Elizabethan authors, including Edmund Campion, Robert Persons, Robert Southwell, Philip Sydney, Robert Chester, Edmund Spenser, Ben Johnson, and Thomas Kid, and argues that all of them participated in developing a hidden, coded style of subversive literature sympathetic to Roman Catholicism. This “plausibly deniable” literature, according to Asquith, reached its highest expression in the Shakespearean works. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail regarding this development process, but the reader is encouraged to go to Asquith’s book for further information about the related material.

Atwill states that of all the Shakespeare plays, the Flavian typology in Titus Andronicus is the most transparent, with dense and highly interpretable parallels to the Flavian comic system. In fact, its very title is an homage to the typological ‘savior’ of the Flavian system. This was the play that first alerted Atwill to this aspect of the Shakespearean literature.

In Shadowplay, Asquith also argues that Titus Andronicus is an ideal starting point for understanding Shakespeare’s Catholic symbolic framework. Asquith wrote:

Denial is the word that best sums up the later critical reaction to Titus Andronicus. How could Shakespeare have written such a terrible play? Terrible in every sense: not only do its many digressions make it appear, in the words of one seventeenth-century critic, ‘rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure’, but it is embarrassingly tasteless, alternating obscure debates with bouts of sadistic violence…

Many scholars have tried to prove that Shakespeare was not the author, but the consensus is that the play is unmistakably his, foreshadowing the themes of later dramas and closely related to the poems he wrote at the time. The current approach is that it was an experimental early work, and much ingenuity has gone into proving that it must have been written in the late 1580s or very early 1590s. However, the playhouse records mark it as ‘new’ in 1594, when Shakespeare was producing his most sophisticated work; and indeed there is a puzzling sophistication within the brutal framework of Titus Andronicus.

One of the revelations of the coded readings is that Shakespeare’s ‘bad’ work always has a purpose, albeit a purpose that relates to a topical context we no longer recognize. Of all his plays, Titus depends the most completely for an appreciation of its high degree of artistry on an awareness of the forgotten history of the times. It is the first of Shakespeare’s ‘Roman’ plays, all of which are directed primarily at the Catholic community. Like The Rape of Lucrece, though in more sensational style, it dramatizes the sufferings of England up to the year 1594; and the strange plot has clearly been devised around the hidden message — a passionate plea to the country’s dissidents to refrain from violent rebellion in spite of the now intolerable pressure, and to await the promised invasion. This message is identical to the instructions from Catholic leaders abroad, who repeatedly promised that diplomacy or invasion would one day bring rescue. 

(The above, and all following quotes from Asquith, are found in pp. 90-101 of her book.)

For a reader who is alert to techniques of black propaganda, this message “to refrain from violent rebellion in spite of the now intolerable pressure” looks like yet another gambit drawn from the typical playbook. That is, a diversionary message that benefits the status quo. So should we consider this Shakespearean literature as truly pro-Catholic, or is it a false flag propaganda attack against the dissidents?

In the remainder of this post, we will reprise the analysis of Titus Andronicus presented in Shakespeare’s Secret Messiah. Additionally, we will discuss Asquith’s discoveries, and show how they interact with Atwill’s earlier observations to produce a richer understanding.

Plot Summary

The plot is based on a struggle between the Romans and the Goths, who have been at war as the story begins. Although the Goths and Romans fought a series of wars throughout the fourth through sixth centuries, which ultimately led to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, the plot of Titus Andronicus is not in any way a historically accurate view of any of those wars. On the contrary, as Asquith and Atwill would certainly agree, Titus only becomes coherent when it is taken allegorically.

As the story begins, the warrior Titus Andronicus, victoriously returning to Rome, brings a group of defeated Goths in tow. The Goth royal family’s eldest son is brutally and gratuitously sacrificed to the memory of Romans who died in battle, as Tamora (Queen of the Goths) and her sons vow revenge.

Titus has been elected as the new emperor by the citizens. However, he yields the throne to Saturninus, the eldest son of the previous emperor. He then announces that his daughter Lavinia shall be betrothed to Saturninus. Titus is humiliated when Lavinia, already pledged to be wed to her lover Bassianus (brother to Saturninus), flees with Bassianus in defiance of Titus’ command. Saturninus, seemingly as much satisfied as humiliated, turns to Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, to be his bride instead.

At this point, Aaron the moor emerges as a central character. Captured in battle along with the Goths, he proclaims that he is Tamora’s lover, and that he will cuckold the Emperor and become the ruination of the commonwealth. Tamora and her sons, Demetrius and Chiron, become his willing and eager accomplices. They murder Bassianus, frame two of Titus’s sons for the crime, and have them executed. Aaron tricks Titus into allowing him to chop his hand off. Titus seemingly descends into madness.

Lucius, Titus’s only surviving son, goes in search of an army to complete the cycle of revenge. His men discover Aaron with a black child who he has sired with Tamora. With the rescuing army at hand, Titus murders Demetrius and Chiron, bakes their bodies into a pie, and serves them at a banquet. In the subsequent melee, Tamora, Titus and Saturninus are killed. Lucius emerges as the new Emperor, and Aaron is buried alive, but his child is spared.

Inversion of Flavian Gospel Typology

In a strikingly original interpretation, Joseph Atwill observed that the plot of Titus Andronicus is a reversal of the Gospel scenario, in which the Jewish royal line is ‘pruned’, the Jews are tricked into cannabalizing their Messiah, and the Roman dynasty is ‘grafted’ onto the ‘Root of Jesse’, and its spawn, the House of David. Thus, the emperor Titus Flavius becomes the new Christ. In Titus Andronicus, it is the Roman and Gothic lines that are ‘pruned’, their sons are cannibalized, and a Jewish ‘graft’ is inserted into the royal lineage.

Titus Andronicus and his brother Marcus are identified by ‘Shakespeare’ as the Flavians, Titus and Domitian, by a passage in which Marcus kills a fly with his knife (III, 2, 52-80) in a manner identical to Domitian (Suetonius, Domitian, 3). The name ‘Andronicus’ is familiar as another conqueror of Jerusalem identified in 2 Maccabees 4:30-38. Titus and his daughter Lavinia  have their limbs lopped in a manner similar to the many descriptions of atrocities committed by the Romans against the Jews, as described in Josephus’ Wars.

Aaron the Moor is established as a type of Josephus, and his son as a type for the Messiah, by a scene in which the child is hung on a tree and then brought down by Aaron (V, 1) in a manner reminiscent of the story of Joseph of Aramathea in the New Testament, and its echo in Josephus (Vita, 26). Also, Aaron’s activity in seducing Tamora and thus cuckolding the emperor Saturninus recapitulates Josephus’ Decius Mundus puzzle (Antiquities 18.3.4) in which a man named Saturninus is the victim of a similar scheme.

While Atwill’s view is very well supported across the entire Shakespearean corpus, with many very explicit verbal parallels showing a deep understanding of the Flavian typology on the part of whatever person wrote the plays, at the same time the Atwill theory cannot necessarily explain every plot device and every aspect of character development. In many cases, ‘Shakespeare’ also seems to have  inspiration from current events, even for major aspects of the plays.

In Titus Andronicus, for example, Atwill does not attempt to explain why the ‘Gentiles’ are divided into two major camps: the Romans versus the Goths. What does this conflict mean and why does it exist, aside from being the substrate for Aaron’s wickedness? The same problem exists for Atwill in several other plays — for example, Romeo and Juliet: if the Friar is the mastermind of evil, then what is the meaning of the conflict between Montague and Capulet? For Asquith, the answer is that the Romans in Titus, like the Montagues in Romeo, represent the Catholics; while the Goths, like the Capulets, are Protestants.

Romans vs. Goths

While Atwill sees the above characters and events as a typological reversal of the ancient Flavian Gospel narrative, Asquith sees the same text as a topical allegory of current events in Elizabethan England. She identifies Titus and his family as representations of the Roman Catholic church. Titus himself is ‘surnamed Pius’ (I,1,28)  and the names of Marcus and Lucius are, of course, the Gospel authors. Lucius is said to have had “twenty popish tricks and ceremonies” (V,1,76). In the person of Titus’ daughter Lavinia, Asquith sees the lost and blameless spirituality of English Catholicism, symbolized as a light-colored deer. Lavinia is lamented in terms similar to “thousands of images of the Madonna and the saints… still being mutilated in this way all over England…. Titus compares the bleeding but strangely unmoved Lavinia specifically to a picture, and later to the broken arches of a ruined church that once sheltered royal tombs…. She is associated with common images of the takeover — Lucrece, Philomel, the plundered hives of the monasteries, ‘pillage’. As with the church, the ‘heavenly harmony’ of her music has been silenced. Her spouts of blood twice evoke the word ‘martyrdom’.” (Asquith, pp. 93-94)

If Titus’ family represents the Catholics, Asquith reasons, the dangerous Goths must represent the Protestants. In the play, Titus brings the Goths’ undying hatred upon his head by gratuitously giving the order for the execution of Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus. He is given “Religiously” as a “sacrifice“. Titus’s four surviving sons, thirsting for blood, take Alarbus away swearing to “hew his limbs” and throw them into a fire “till they be clean consumed“. (I, 1, 138-146)  Asquith says this is “an echo of the martyrdoms of Protestants under Mary when some were burned, others hanged, drawn and quartered“.

Titus is the people’s favorite, and has been justly elected to become the new emperor of Rome, but he chooses instead to honor the rules of dynastic succession. Thus he turns the throne over to Saturninus, an obviously unscrupulous and undeserving scoundrel. Asquith argues that “Shakespeare is dramatising a central argument from Persons’s “Conference About the Next Succession”: the dangerously radical proposition that the legitimate heir to the throne was not necessarily the right choice.”  Compounding his errors, Titus attempts to sever a love match and a planned marriage between Bassianus and Lavinia, with the goal to force Lavinia to marry Saturninus, as his dynastic plans require.  Thwarting Titus’ plan, Lavinia flees with Bassianus. Saturninus quickly betrays Titus’ trust by choosing Tamora, the Goth, as his bride and queen, instead of Lavinia.  Thus, Titus himself has created the situation in which his own worst enemies are in a position of ultimate, unbridled power over his destiny. He has sealed his doom: by brutally murdering Tamora’s son, by choosing his successor unwisely, and by his hubris in thinking he can overrule the power of romantic love within his own family.

Hyper-Black and Hyper-White

If Asquith is correct that the Goths represent the Elizabethan royal court, then this was an “extraordinarily daring” literary gambit on the author’s part. The portrayal of the Goths in the play is hardly flattering. If Queen Elizabeth or her agents shared this view, their pique could easily have been sufficient to send the Stratford man to the gallows. (Unless, of course, ‘Shagsper’ was only pretending to be a Catholic, but was actually distributing black propaganda directed towards pacifying the Catholic population.)

Asquith argues that however daring this interpretation might be, it is also quite obvious. ‘Saturnus’ was a nickname of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief political advisor, Secretary of State, and Treasurer; while “her Moor who cannot change his color” was a title that Elizabeth bestowed upon her spymaster Francis Walsingham, on the occasion when he opposed her planned marriage to Francis duke of Anjou. As noted below, Aaron is also a moor who cannot change color. Asquith suggests that Aaron may be a compound character, also incorporating characteristics of Richard Topcliffe, a sadistic iconoclast who boasted that he slept with the Queen.

In her essayReading Like the Japanese: The Gothic Aesthetics of Horror in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus“, Adriana Raducanu points out that while Aaron is black, Tamora and the Goths are hyper-white, and thus also “other” with respect to the mediterranean Romans. She explains:

Saturninus’ reference to Tamora’s “hue”, his acknowledgement of her Germanic paleness and beauty, develops into a classical comparison of significant aesthetic value. Thus, he compares her with the pale goddess of the moon: “lovely Tamora, Queen of Goths, That like the stately Phoebe ’mongst her nymphs Dost over-shine the gallant’st dames of Rome” (I.i.315-320). Interestingly, Shakespeare appears to deconstruct complacency in automatically associating white with purity and beauty, by having Aaron, the black character, deride Tamora’s sons’ skin colour and the disadvantages this brings with it: “Why, there’s the privilege your beauty bears. Fie, treacherous hue, that will betray with blushing The close enacts and counsels of thy heart” (IV.ii.117-118). Instead, Aaron proudly seems to suggest that his skin colour matches up to the standards of beauty, conceived as fixed, ‘non-treacherous’, resistant and eternal: “Coal-black is better than another hue In that it scorns to bear another hue; For all the water in the ocean Can never turn the swan’s black legs to white Although she lave them hourly in the flood (IV.ii. 98-102).

The idea of pale, hyper-white Germanic “Goths” might suggest the foreign source of Lutheran and Calvinist ideas — an association that might have been obvious to the English of the time, even if ‘Shakespeare’ didn’t explicitly say so.

However, the black-white racial theme is not maintained without a sense of irony. Tamora, in the forest with Aaron and flirting amorously with him, compares herself and Aaron to (widow) Dido and her “wand’ring prince” (II, 3, 22). This is either a race or a gender reversal: Dido was Phoenician, while Aeneas was Trojan, that is, white. The comparison is also bizarre in that the relationship between Dido and Aeneas does not end happily. Later, Aaron, confronted with the birth of his black child, comes up with a scheme to prevent anyone from discovering what happened. Another blackamoor friend of his, Muliteus or Muley, has mated with a white woman, but their child is white. Aaron sends Chiron and Demetrius to this couple, carrying gold, hoping that a baby swap can be arranged. That way, a white child (carrying unexpressed black genetics) will be raised in the imperial family, while Muley will have a black baby to raise as his own (IV, 2, 150-164).

Ongoing Events of the Reformation

Following his murder, Bassianus’ body is thrown into a pit, and Titus’s sons are lured to fall into that same pit, leaving them in a highly incriminating position. A forged letter seals their doom. This pit is reminiscent of the famous dungeon of the Tower of London. Regarding Titus’s attempts to bargain to save his sons’ lives, Asquith writes:

This scene — where Titus loses his hand in exchange for two heads — reflects meek Catholic cooperation with the penal laws that banned priests and the Mass, laws that instead of leading to toleration were actually given new force by the 1591 ‘Proclamation against Recusants’. While presenting with physical accuracy Titus’s reaction to losing a hand, Shakespeare makes the scene historically accurate as well. In his secondary role as old England, Titus falls, a ‘feeble ruin’ while holding ‘one hand up to heaven’ (III, 1, 207-208), recalling the broken arches of the ruined abbeys. Next, his sighs and Lavinia’s dim the sky and blot out the sun, evoking smoke from the great fires rather than sighs. There follows one of Shakespeare’s most frequent images for the Reformation: Titus becomes a storm (‘I am the sea’) in which earth threatens heaven; and finally, retching was a metaphor used for the most awesome weather-event of Elizabeth’s reign, the earthquake of 1580, seen as a momentous physical symptom of the country’s spiritual upheavals. When Aaron returns the heads and the hand, adding insult to injury, Titus’s response is that of many in England: ‘When will this fearful slumber have an end’? (III, 1, 253).

Asquith contends that the play continues from this point forward as an exact allegory of the ongoing events of the English reformation. In Act III, scene 2, a sort of requiem mass is enacted by Titus in respect of the loss of Lavinia and his sons, suggesting “the claustrophobic world of Elizabethan catacomb Catholicism” of the early 1580’s.  At the end of act III, Lucius, seeking revenge for his family’s losses, goes abroad to seek an army to regain the country — just as English Catholics looked abroad to help from Spain or France. Meanwhile, in Act IV, scene 2, young Lucius is inexplicably sent on an errand from Andronicus to bring “the goodliest weapons of his armoury” to the Goths, which Asquith relates to a tax on Catholic recusants that was used to fund a war against Irish Catholics, and later against the Spanish armada.

In Act IV, scene 3, Titus Andronicus and his family stand outside the royal compound and shoot arrows towards the Emperor’s court, with messages to the classical gods wrapped around them. They then meet with a clown, and task him with bringing a ‘supplication’ to the emperor, along with two pigeons and a dagger. The clown goes to meet the emperor, tells him that the message is from ‘God and Saint Stephen’, and reads out the ‘supplication’.

As Atwill points out, a ‘supplication’ was in Roman times a synonym for ‘Gospel’, that is, news of military victory. The two pigeons fulfill the requirement in Luke 2:24 that two pigeons be sacrificed at the birth of the Messiah. However, if Atwill’s interpretation of the text seems incomplete, perhaps it is because the playwright was constrained by a simultaneous goal of representing the continued flow of current events in Elizabethan England. Asquith argues that the volley of arrows carrying classical references represents Robert Southwell’s romantic pro-Catholic poetry of ~1589, while the Clown’s message represents his Humble Supplication of 1592, along with Richard Shelley’s petition for toleration. The Clown is killed for his efforts, as were Southwell and Shelley.

 Saving Aaron’s Royal Child

As Aaron and his child stand before Lucius for judgment, Aaron now extracts the crucial pledge that his child will be allowed to live. As child of the empress, he will be the sole surviving claimant to the royal lineage (alongside Lucius and Young Lucius, whose claims seems to be political and spiritual rather than through regal descent.)


Lucius, save the child, And bear it from me to the empress. If thou do this, I’ll show thee wondrous things, That highly may advantage thee to hear: If thou wilt not, befall what may befall, I’ll speak no more but ‘Vengeance rot you all!’


Say on: an if it please me which thou speak’st Thy child shall live, and I will see it nourish’d.


An if it please thee! why, assure thee, Lucius, ‘Twill vex thy soul to hear what I shall speak; For I must talk of murders, rapes and massacres, Acts of black night, abominable deeds, Complots of mischief, treason, villanies Ruthful to hear, yet piteously perform’d: And this shall all be buried by my death, Unless thou swear to me my child shall live.


Tell on thy mind; I say thy child shall live.


Swear that he shall, and then I will begin.


Who should I swear by? thou believest no god: That granted, how canst thou believe an oath?


What if I do not? as, indeed, I do not; Yet, for I know thou art religious And hast a thing within thee called conscience, With twenty popish tricks and ceremonies, Which I have seen thee careful to observe, Therefore I urge thy oath; for that I know An idiot holds his bauble for a god And keeps the oath which by that god he swears, To that I’ll urge him: therefore thou shalt vow By that same god, what god soe’er it be, That thou adorest and hast in reverence, To save my boy, to nourish and bring him up; Or else I will discover nought to thee.


Even by my god I swear to thee I will. (V, 1)

The passage above is notable because it identifies Aaron as an atheist, while Lucius is a good (popish) Catholic who believes in God and keeps his oaths. Both Aaron and Josephus have questionable credentials as Jews: both seem lacking in any sense of moral compass, or respect for the Ten Commandments, much less the rest of Jewish law. Although Josephus claims to be a Jew, he moves with an uncanny degree of comfort within Roman imperial circles; persistent Internet rumors suggest that perhaps Josephus is really from the Roman Piso family. Whereas, according to Asquith, the Aaron character also  represents the Machiavellian spymaster Francis Walsingham, whose namesake and distant cousin was a noted Jesuit priest.

Young Lucius carries Aaron's child into the sunrise.
Young Lucius carries Aaron’s child into the sunrise.

Asquith interprets the ‘royal child’ as a symbolic representation of the future religion of England, as a changeling offspring of Protestant and Jewish parents, pretending to belong to the ancient Catholic lineage but really with little if any Catholic aspect at all. Nevertheless, she believes that the nature and the fate of this baby would have been of foremost importance and interest to the original audience. The baby’s rescue from the cross seems to be a hopeful sign. In Julie Taymor’s film Titus, Aaron’s child was carried into the rising sun by young Lucius, showing that she must have understood this symbolism at some level.

Agents provocateur, and a black mass

To quote Asquith’s analysis of the flow of events in act V, scene 2:

With a final glance at the role of government agents provocateurs in fomenting popish plots of revenge (Tamora’s attempt to persuade Titus that she and her sons are the figures of Revenge, Rape and Murder, ready to perform his will), Shakespeare’s account of the Catholic experience under Elizabeth has reached the early 1590’s — the point at which the play was written. In Act V, he moves on from exploring the history of suppressed English Catholicism to delivering a stark warning — on no account must they rebel, they must wait for rescue from abroad.

Like another celebrated figure of persecuted old England, Hieronymo, the hero of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, Titus has gone through three stages — long-suffering loyalty, suppressed rage and madness. Now, quite deranged, he stages a second banquet. Here again, there are specific echoes of the Mass, but this time a black parody of the Mass. In a bid to shock Catholic extremists into recognizing the evil of assassination, Shakespeare substitutes the divine sacrifice at the centre of the eucharistic ritual with a grisly sacrifice inspired by human vengeance. The horribly memorable spectacle could hardly be a more graphic illustration of the Catholic prohibition on murder: a sin that makes a mockery of everything the Mass celebrates.

The Mass text still refers to Old Testament precedents for Christ’s sacrifice. In the murder of Tamora’s two sons, Titus regresses to just such a primitive, pre-Christian ritual. The victims are bound and silenced like sacrificial lambs; Titus ceremonially cuts their throat while Lavinia, following the ancient Jewish custom, catches their blood in a basin.

The irony is that Asquith, as a devout Catholic, cannot recognize what the playwright undoubtedly knows: that the Catholic mass itself is also a cynical re-enactment of just such a grim scenario — the brutal treatment of the Jews at the hands of the Roman Flavian emperors and the actual fate of the Messianic rebel Jesus, if indeed there was such an historical person.


If act V scene 2 represents a horrific warning to Catholics, in scene three we enter a realm of Catholic fantasy or wish fulfillment. In the play, the events represent a stunning comeback for the Catholics. Although Titus and Lavinia meet their doom, Lucius has returned with an army to save the day. The Protestant sons Chiron and Demetrius are upended, slaughtered and cannibalized. Tamora meets the ‘knife’s sharp point’, and the vile Aaron is buried alive. Of course, in real life, such a rescue never came — although if the winds had blown differently for the Spanish Armada, who knows what might  have happened. At some level, elite figures such as Aaron don’t really care: they always win, no matter who loses.

Followers and fans of Atwill vs. Asquith might be tempted to argue over which interpretation is closer to the original playwright’s intention. Skeptics, of course, will think that both are seeing castles in the clouds, and that Shakespeare was simply a humanist with a knack for clever plot devices. However, doubters of Asquith’s theory, in particular, might also consider her analysis of As You Like It

Criteria such as distinctiveness, density, sequence, and interpretability have been suggested for evaluation of parallels. In my opinion: by such criteria, Atwill’s parallels are much more highly demonstrable, while Asquith is more vulnerable to criticisms of “parallelomania”. In “Shadowplay“, she briefly analyzes every play in the canon at breakneck speed, in most cases allowing only a few pages for each play, leaving plenty of room for future scholarship to explore the parallels (if any) in more detail.

I would suggest that both Asquith and Atwill might very well be correct.  If so, then the Shakespearean literature reflects a fascinating typological structure with a surface entertainment level, an allegorical level of black propaganda regarding Elizabethan current events, and a deep level carrying the Flavian typology.  

It seems clear to me that the vast majority of Elizabethan theatre-goers would no doubt have a similar reaction as modern audiences when presented with the play. That is, it seems to be a gory spectacle with a baffling, nearly meaningless and unintelligible plot. Nevertheless the audience would have been delighted with the special effects.

A few well-educated, politically savvy middle class members of the audience would have seen through the second level, as described by Asquith. They would have seen the depiction of the Catholics and Protestants, and would have experienced various emotional reactions depending on their own loyalties and their perceptions of the political struggles of the day. These struggles were, of course, a matter of life or death for the participants, and the interpretations would have been much argued over at pubs and parties. 

Orthodox and ethnic Jews might also have recognized Aaron as one of their own, however atheistic and hate-filled he might have been, and presumably they would have been angered by the anti-Semitic overtones (essentially, blood libel) in the unfair portrayal of Jewish villainy. A much smaller number might also have recognized the Josephus parallel, and Aaron’s hidden victory.

(Amusingly, the Oxfordian scholar Eva Lee Turner in her book “Hidden allusions in Shakespeare’s plays” (1931) expects the author to have Protestant leanings, and accordingly in Titus she sees the Romans as English protestants, Lavinia as Elizabeth herself, and the Goths as Catholic. Aaron is arch traitor Charles Arundel. While I personally find this analysis extremely strained and lacking in evidence, it is possible that ‘Shakespeare’ may have intentionally created enough mixed signals to leave such an alternate interpretation open.)

The deep level of typology discovered by Atwill, would have been visible at the time only by the most sophisticated, classically and historically trained sector of the population. Most likely, these would be members of the inner circle of the court, who were privy to the secrets of the government and the history of religious propaganda. In other words, they were the initiated and sworn members of the elite secret societies of the day. They would probably have recognized that the struggle between Protestant and Catholic was a false dialectic, stoked by the elite for the purposes of preventing the masses from organizing and asserting their rights. (We will expand on this theme in a future essay at this site.) The play shows the rival Catholic and Protestant protagonists destroy each other in an orgy of murderous revenge and counter-revenge, as orchestrated by the Machiavellian, atheistic Aaron who stands above the fray. At this level, the portrayal of Tamora, Saturninus and Aaron (that is, Elizabeth, Cecil and Walsingham) as dark, wicked and atheistic (if not Satanic) figures would also be recognized as a shibboleth for popular consumption, and nothing that anyone should take seriously. Or, perhaps, these elite figures took a certain gloating satisfaction at their portrayal. At any rate, it was understood that the playwright was doing a good job on their part, as part of the black propaganda team.

As to the identity of that playwright, the portrait of the Stratford man as a crypto-Catholic has emboldened some advocates of the idea that ‘Shagsper’ was, in fact, the true author. In their view, the ‘missing years’ might have been filled in with the sort of highly educational experiences that would have enabled the Stratford man to write the plays. This seems unlikely to me, because “no true Catholic” would ever be able to design the cynical Flavian typological aspects. That is, the existence of the deeply hidden Flavian level is the proof that the author was being duplicitous in any presentation of a Catholic layer, because the author of the Flavian layer was aware that Christianity (of any fundamentalist flavor) is a scam.  So, especially if ‘Shagsper’ was a devout (exoteric) Catholic, he could not have written the plays.

Furthermore, even if ‘Shagsper’ somehow picked up a suitable education during his ‘missing years’, it’s difficult to understand why he would let his daughter grow up illiterate.  Atwill argues that the author must be Jewish, but my feeling is that the Jewish vs. Gentile conflict is also a false dialectic, and the actual author could  have been above that fray as well. Someone with atheist, Jesuit or Freemason leanings could easily project a Jewish persona. Having said that, I would still argue that Emilia Bassano is a leading ‘dark horse’ authorship candidate. She had the requisite knowledge, experience of court life, and had the time available to do the work, while ‘Shagsper’ was busy as an actor and, presumably, as a ‘Catholic’ provocateur and double agent for the royal court. Christopher Marlowe might very well have been involved in the creation of the plays, if indeed his death was faked, as Peter Farey and others have suggested. The poet and statesman Thomas Sackville is another candidate with an unorthodox Catholic background, who was a significant poet in his own right, with style and vocabulary very similar to “Shakespeare”. Group theories are also very credible, and the Stratford man might have been a sort of literary secret agent for plays from a variety of sources.


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