A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Titus Andronicus and (Dis)Honor Killings


In Titus Andronicus, we are in ancient Rome in the period of the late empire. Roman civilization is declining and Germanic or "barbarian" tribes are arriving from the east. Whether the arrival of the barbarians was the cause of the fall of Rome is a question Shakespeare does not seek to answer. He was wise to avoid it, since even today we are unsure whether the cause was imperial overstretch, cultural decadence, the arrival of the Antonine plagues (possibly from Central Asian plague-carrying rodents and possibly due to the opening of the Silk Road), or even chronic disease caused by Rome's use of lead water pipes.

But I digress.

Shakespeare, instead, is interested in the clash between Germanic tribal culture and Roman civilization. He presents Titus returning to Rome in military triumph as the head of the Andronici, a Roman clan. On the Germanic side we have Tamora, the matriarch of what you could term either a very, very extended Gothic family or a horde of Goths. Tamora's horde is responsible for killing Titus' son in battle and Titus starts the bloodshed off early by ordering the ritual revenge killing of Tamora's son Alarbus:

Titus: "These are they whom your Goths beheld
Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain
Religiously they ask a sacrifice.
To this your son is marked, and die he must
T' appease their groaning shadows that are gone."

Sounds reasonable. But not to Tamora, and in short order Titus loses two sons, has his daughter Lavinia raped and mutilated (her hands and tongue are cut off), and even has one of his own hands cut off in the bargain. Halloween stores must be appealed to for false blood each time a production company attempts to stage this play. Here's Titus in Act V scene III, seeking counsel on how to set things right:

Titus: "Was it well done of rash Virginius
To slay his daughter with his own right hand
Because she was enforced, stained, and deflowered?"

Saturninus: "It was, Andronicus."

Titus: "Your reason, mighty lord?"

Sat: "Because the girl should not survive her shame,
And by her presence still renew her sorrows."

Titus: "A reason mighty, strong, and effectual;
A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant
For me, most wretched, to perform the like,
Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee,
And with thy shame thy father's sorrow die!"
. (He kills Lavinia).

Whoops! Well, I guess that was one way for Titus to go. And in Pakistan last week Nazir Ahmed, a 40-year old laborer, went in the same direction. While his 25 year old step-daughter Muqadas lay sleeping, he slit her throat with a machete, motivated by her husband's accusation of her infidelity. (Neighbors claim she was in fact abused by her husband and forced to work in a brick-making factory, but I suppose that's not really the crucial point.) Ahmed then slit the throats of his own three daughters, Bano, Sumaira and Humaira, aged (forever) 8, 7, and 4 respectively, reasoning that it was inevitable that they would grow up to emulate their step-sister. Tamora, witnessing Titus do the same, speaks for us all:

Tamora: "Why hast thou slain thine only daughter thus?"

Sadly, Titus, answering Tamora, speaks only for Ahmed:

Titus: "Not I, 'twas Chiron and Demetrius,
They ravished her and cut away her tongue,
And they, 'twas they that did her all this wrong."

Sat: "Go fetch them hither to us presently."

Titus: "Why there they are, both baked in this pie,
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed…".

Titus means this. He had already killed and baked Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius in a pie which he had then served to Tamora.

So where were we anyway, Rome in decline or Pakistan? And does it matter? The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has recorded over 260 such "honor" killings in the first 11 months of 2005.

The true model for all this is the Ku Klux Klan, a program of local terrorism designed to keep a subject population subjugated, though in this case it is women instead of blacks. The fact that Ahmed probably did not plan or discuss his family bloodletting with the other 259 of this year's Pakistani (dis)honor killers is not really relevant. The effect is the same, and has been for centuries.

The hooded domestic terrorism America saw arise in the South after the Civil War and run for a century before being stomped out has been running for millennia in other parts of the world. Shall we retreat with Representative Murtha and let millennia more pass by? And how safe will our own women remain from a re-infiltration of such practices, one way or another, if we set ourselves not against them?

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