April 19, 2004
Reality Check: When the Ties That Bind Begin to Choke
At some level most human beings believe in the value of families and embrace the sometimes idealistic view that families are always positive conventions of society. There are few people in the world who choose not to form some type of family, and most would say the practice of forming families is a good idea. However, most people also experience some type of frustration or hurt caused by a member of their own family. William Shakespeare chose to emphasize this latter part of the human experience of families in his writing. While some literature celebrates families and the strong love bonds that unite people of the same blood, both of Shakespeare’s plays Titus Andronicus and King Lear do the opposite in many ways. In both plays the weak attempts at honoring family are unsuccessful and, either by being used as weapons or outright betrayal, most of the characters are destroyed more by their own family members than by their enemies. Lest human beings get too idealistic in their praise of families, Shakespeare points out the reality of the human condition. His plays reflect the reality that family members are often cruelest to each other despite their best attempts to do otherwise.
In both Titus Andronicus and King Lear characters make efforts to celebrate their families; however, in both cases these attempts are disastrous. In Titus Andronicus, Titus seeks to honor his sons killed in battle with the Goths by sacrificing the firstborn son of the queen of the Goths; he explains to Tamora, “Religiously they ask a sacrifice: / To this your son is mark'd, and die he must, / To appease their groaning shadows that are gone.” (1.1.124-126). While he is doing what he considers noble, he does not consider the consequences that his whole family will eventually face because of Tamora’s revenge. As a direct result of Titus’s refusal to show her mercy, Tamora sets out to and in fact succeeds at destroying the whole Andronicus family. She conspires with Aaron the Moor against Quintus and Martius, two of the three remaining Andronicus sons at this point in the play, and has them executed. She also orders her sons to rape, torture and maim Andronicus’s only daughter Lavinia, telling them, “Remember, boys, I pour'd forth tears in vain, / To save your brother from the sacrifice; / But fierce Andronicus would not relent; / Therefore, away with her, and use her as you will, / The worse to her, the better loved of me.” (2.3.162-166). The only attempt at family honor in the play is negated by its results. While he avenges the blood of some of his children, this action leads to the destruction of the rest of Titus Andronicus’s children because he incurs the wrath of Tamora.
In King Lear Lear’s attempt at family harmony has results similar to those of Titus Andronicus. He plans to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, which is not a malicious act in itself, however he has an ulterior motive and his “love test” proves disastrous for the entire family. He tells his daughters, “Tell me, my daughters—/ Since now we will divest us, both of rule, / Interest of territory, cares of state—/ Which of you shall we say doth love us most? / That we our largest bounty may extend” (1.1.49-53) in order to be praised by all three daughters, but also in hopes that Cordelia will tell him how much she loves him and agree to the marriage he wishes for her. He expects the flattering words of Regan and Goneril to be followed by the same from Cordelia, but receives no response to his question. He does not understand why Cordelia does not speak and banishes the only daughter who genuinely loves him, and trusts his well-being to the two who care more for power and the lies by which they receive it. This begins the spiral of bad events in the play. In two plays where attempts to preserve familial bonds are scarce, the two that are found produce negative consequences that destroy both families.
Most of the bad things that happen to characters in these plays are due to direct malevolence from family members or as a result of a family member’s actions. In Titus Andronicus children are used as weapons by which to destroy the enemy, and in King Lear family members betray one another in the cruelest ways. The conflict in Titus Andronicus is primarily between Titus Andronicus and Tamora, queen of the Goths, yet they survive until the final scene while the children of both are conspired against, tortured, shamed and murdered by the other, either directly or indirectly. The obvious example of this is Tamora’s declaration to “Ne'er let [her] heart know merry cheer indeed, / Till all the Andronici be made away.” (2.3.188-189). She follows through with this promise of revenge and Titus’s sons are framed for a murder and executed and his daughter is raped, maimed and shamed as well. In addition to this, Titus kills Demetrius and Chiron not only for their sins against his daughter, but also to get back at Tamora. While the children of these two major players cannot be seen as completely guiltless, especially Demetrius and Chiron, Shakespeare portrays them more as the victims of the feud between their parents than as characters who are being held accountable for their actions and deserve their fate. Both Titus and Tamora wound each other through their respective children, and the children seem to be pawns in the battle between these two characters. In this play characters outside the family are literally responsible for the downfall of most characters; however, the demise of these children comes as a direct result of the actions of their parents.
The characters in King Lear also do more to destroy their own family members than outsiders do. This concept is perhaps clearer because almost every malevolent act is done by the characters’ family members as deliberate betrayal. While in Titus Andronicus the parents ruin their children, in King Lear it is primarily the children who destroy their parents and each other. This is best represented by Edmund when he says, “The younger rises when the old doth fall.” (3.4.121), as he conspires against the “old” and causes him to fall. The main conflict of Goneril and Regan’s betrayal of their father and ruin of their sister is echoed in Edmund’s actions. Regan and Goneril kick their father out, go to war against their sister and eventually have them both killed in their lust and thirst for power. Similarly, Edmund lies to his brother and father, pits them against each other and tells Regan and Cornwall the plans Gloucester shared with him in confidence. This play is full of family turmoil and while it can be said that the parents are destroyed by their children, no one is guiltless. Both Lear and Gloucester make bad decisions in banishing their only loyal children and according to Kent “Kill[ing] thy physician, and the fee bestow[ing] / Upon thy foul disease” (1.1.165-166). In these plays the only characters punished directly for their own crimes are those without families. Except for Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, who has no family, all of the rest of the characters meet their ruin by either being used as a family member’s weapon against an enemy or by blatant betrayal of a family member.
Either through the failed attempts to celebrate families or through the destruction that comes to his characters because of their family members, Shakespeare stresses the reality that one’s family can be just as or even more hurtful than one’s enemies. In Titus Andronicus and King Lear families do more to destroy each other than anyone else does, and this is reflective of human nature. For whatever reasons, many people often take advantage of and treat their families worse than they treat strangers. Shakespeare takes this idea to a level most people never experience involving murder and conspiracy, making his message even more poignant. Despite the idealistic view of most that families are wonderful institutions, Shakespeare’s writing reflects the more realistic position that family ties sometimes choke and in Shakespeare’s case kill members of families.