“Shall I Speak for Thee?”: The Legacy of Philomela, Shakespeare’s Lavinia, and Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999)

CW (Content Warning): Rape and Violence
This article deals with issues of extreme violence, rape, and suppression. Please read at your own discretion

Philomela and the nightingale have a long and complex literary history. For the Romantic era, these figures were synonymous with grief and sorrow, and the nightingale’s song became a way to describe women’s pain (albeit from a male perspective). Considering this legacy, its easy to forget that Philomela’s story is rooted in blood, vengeance, and repression. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Philomela is brutally violated, but despite this violence, she finds a way to get her revenge. Shakespeare’s Titus and Andronicus incorporates this characterization by referencing and mirroring Ovid’s plot. The character Lavinia is a conscious reworking of Ovid’s Philomela. Together, Philomela and Lavinia complicate issues of femininity, assault, and resistance. This is particularly evident in Julie Taymor’s 1999 Titus film, which illustrates how the story of Philomela resonates in our current cultural landscape.

I believe that Lavinia’s connection to Philomela in Titus challenges her position as a passive victim, and suggests that both figures resonate with the Me Too movement.

Who Is Philomela?

Philomela’s myth is arguably the most violent and disturbing story in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It foregrounds human politics, perversions, and transformations. In Ovid’s Book 6, Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law Tetrus, who cuts out her tongue. Despite this violation and silence, Philomela weaves a message for her sister Procne, who comes to rescue her. Together, the women kill Procne’s son and feed him to Tetrus. Shortly after, these characters transform into birds, and Philomela becomes the legendary nightingale.

Works with Philomela traditionally foreground this nightingale transformation. Rather than portraying her as a disruptive or violent figure, the romantic image of Philomela focuses on her sorrowful position. This suggests that silence defines both Philomela’s narrative and her legacy as a nightingale. She is silenced in her story and remains silent in all subsequent works. Shakespeare’s work disrupts this image by comparing its character, Lavinia, with Philomela.

Ovid vs Shakespeare

One way that Titus and Andronicus recontextualizes Ovid is by directly citing Philomela’s story. The play is both an adaptation of Ovid and an ongoing conversation about his work. Specifically, the play develops the issues of shame and transformation.

Philomela feels ashamed in Ovid’s work, but this shame has no practicality, or as Procne notes “This isn’t the moment/for tears! It’s a sword that we need or still a more powerful weapon” (610-611). Shakespeare’s Lavinia contrasts this because her characterization relies on shame. Unlike Philomela, Lavinia is ravaged because of the shame it will cause her family. This means that Ovid’s work describes shameful actions, while Shakespeare’s creates shameful characters. This is the fundamental difference between Philomela and Lavinia.

While Philomela can transform and fly away at the end of the narrative, Lavinia can not. Lavinia is trapped in a system of male dominance, one which can not tolerate her shameful existence. As such, silent shame and violence motivate each of these narratives, but in dissimilar ways.

Cutting Ovid’s Work

Shakespeare’s play intensifies the violence and silence in Ovid’s narrative, as Lavinia has her hands cut off to stop her from weaving a message or communicating as Philomela did. However, Shakespeare’s characters also use Ovid to cope with their trauma, referencing Philomela as if she were an invisible character. This allows Lavinia’s family to classify her as something recognizable, as with lines such as “Fair Philomela, why she but lost her tongue” (38) and “A craftier Tereus…hast thou met” (41). These lines imply that Shakespeare’s characters are performing a textual analysis of Ovid. Because what happened to Lavinia is so extreme, the only way characters can understand her trauma is by comparing it to Philomela’s trauma.

The play also explores how silence creates a dynamic between absent and present characters. Lavinia frequently vanishes into the background of scenes. At the beginning of the play, she only speaks when spoken too. When Saturnius announces that he wants to marry her, Lavinia does not object. Later, when Bassianus kidnaps her, she has no lines. While these events are centred around her, Lavinia remains a silent and passive figure, or a prop. Saturnius summarizes this by describing Lavinia as a changing piece (310). This metaphor explains Lavinia’s unfixed position in the text, moving from one group to another, but also between passive and active.

After the rape, she becomes more absent because she can not verbally respond. This allows her family to translate her gestures and project their emotions onto her. When Marcus notes, “O, that I knew thy heart…That I might rail at him to ease my mind” (34-35), he focuses on his emotions and grief rather than hers. As a vacant body, Lavinia becomes what her family needs her to be, or as Marcus notes “Shall I speak for thee? Shall I say ‘tis so?” (33).

This line also applies to Lavinia’s position at the beginning of the play. Throughout Shakespeare’s play, Lavinia’s silence allows her relatives to both speak for and as her. For instance, in Act 1, Lavinia is referred to as “Gracious Lavinia, Rome’s rich ornament” (51), which implies that Lavinia is a decoration or emblem. She represents the Roman empire, its fertility, and her family. However, after her rape, this ornamentation changes. When Marcus discovers Lavinia, he notes, “Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments” (18), which implies that Lavinia can no longer be comfortably objectified. Her body has traces of violence, fractures which damage her value as an object. Lucius comments on this by noting “Ay me! This object kills me” (65). These lines imply that Lavinia’s personhood is at risk. Before, as an ‘ornament’, Lavinia was a way to demonstrate wealth and fertility. What can she be now?

The Wasp

However, Lavinia’s muteness and gestures also make her an active figure because they interject multiple scenes. Titus describes this as “Thou map of woe, that thus dost talk in signs” (12), which is Lavinia’s version of a woven message. Rather than simply writing what has happened, Lavinia maps her woe, giving it a specific start and end. She even comments on this trajectory by rushing to a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. By pointing to Philomela, Lavinia performs a type of textual analysis. Her gesture forces her family to pay attention to her. Therefore, Lavinia is both absent and present in the narrative, both victim and commentator. Like Philomela, Lavinia works within her muteness.

Lavinia the Wasp

Ovid’s demonstrates that women can both facilitate and threaten the social order. Procne and Philomela are unstoppable as a united force. Shakespeare’s work reconfigures this dynamic by removing Lavinia from feminine support. Instead of a sister, Shakespeare gives Lavinia a monstrous double; Tamora.

Unlike the other characters, Tamora recognizes that Lavinia is a threat. During Act 2, she tells her sons to kill Lavinia, noting “Let not this wasp outlive, us both to sting” (132). This implies that Tamora understands that death is the only way to stop Lavinia from speaking out. As such, Tamora recognizes that Lavinia is not just a vacant figure. Lavinia can become a wasp. Thereby, Tamora understands the agency Lavinia has even though she doesn’t exhibit that agency.

Lavinia’s final words in the play demonstrate this power, as she curses the play. As she is dragged away, Lavinia shouts “Confusion fall –“ (184) before Chiron interrupts her. This line summarizes the rest of the play, as the events become more complicated, and the figures more confused. By making this proclamation, Lavinia outlines the play’s tragic trajectory, just as Philomela enacted her revenge.

The Filmic Cut

Shakespeare’s use of Ovid can be read violently. The play carves a specific frame to focus on and reworks Philomela’s body. Taymor’s film Titus takes this adaption method further. Her film cuts various pages and lines from the play and creates a distinctly cinematic narrative. For instance, rather than depicting Lavinia’s rape, Taymor uses a series of surreal and abstract shots to express Lavinia’s horror. In one moment, we see Lavinia on a pedestal with a deer mask and legs, while Chiron and Demetrius lunge at her with tiger cut-outs. This moment symbolizes the human to animal transformation in Ovid’s work, taking parts of animals and imposing them on humans.

Likewise, the scene focuses on Lavinia’s internal state and depicts the emotional violence she undergoes. The violence we see is a surreal projection from Lavinia, her woven message. The scene also suggests that abstraction is the only way to represent these shameful characters, as neither animal nor human.

By cutting Lavinia’s body both physically and metaphorically, into animal parts, the film addresses how Lavinia functions in modern culture. Taymor’s Lavinia is no longer just a representation of Philomela. We see her in a Marilyn Monroe pose and a Venus de Milo pose. This modernises Lavinia’s trauma. We recognize these figures, and so Taymor’s Lavinia comments on both Elizabethan and current violence. This is uncomfortable as it suggests that we can not distance ourselves from extreme violence, as our culture is still complicit with it. It makes what happens to Lavinia current, confrontational, and extremely close.

This relates to what I believe is the most significant cut in Taymor’s script; “That womanhood denies my tongue to tell” (174). For context, Lavinia says this to Tamora just before her rape. She’s asking Tamora to kill her, but also referencing something that she cannot directly talk about. Even in this horrific scene, gender restricts Lavinia’s tongue and words. She can not say the word ‘rape’ as there is something too dangerous about it. Instead she refers to it as “one thing more” (173) and “their worse-than-killing lust” (175). This symbolizes Philomela’s cut tongue, as Lavinia wants to express something to another woman, but can only do so through indirect methods. As such, Taymor’s choice to remove this line implies that womanhood has changed somehow, perhaps heralded by Taymor as a female director.

This relevancy suggests that Lavinia has a part in the current Me Too movement. Although Lavinia’s narrative is problematic and dated, projects like Taymor’s imply that these themes continue to resonate. As such, Lavinia and Philomela are culturally relevant, particularly in the Me Too era. Despite their subjugation, these figures resist passivity and find a way to communicate. This implies that the sad song of Philomela and the nightingale continues to transform beyond Ovid’s narrative. It is not longer a symbol of Romantic era male poets, and it is no longer a lament.

The end of Taymor’s film embodies this shift. Here, the dead are covered in plastic sheets, as if to preserve evidence. Lavinia has a faint smile and is the only non-gruesome body. It looks like she is sleeping, especially when compared to Titus’ impaled form. During the shot we hear Lucius’ speech about Tamora, which includes the line “And being dead, let birds on her take pity” (198). This is the final line in Shakespeare’s play, and although it concerns Tamora, the appearance of the birds ties to Ovid’s work. Taymor’s film emphasizes this with her final shot, which includes the sounds of birds and sobbing babies. One way to interpret the shot is that the play’s violence will continue if left unchecked. It’s something we are still trying to work through, as hyper violence, revenge, and glorification continue in our literature and lives.

Final Thoughts

The continued reworking of this material is perhaps relevant now more than ever, as these figures suggest that the perpetuation of violent crime and revenge are possibly endless. Although Shakespeare’s play adapts and changes Philomela’s characterization, both Shakespeare and Taymor’s Lavinia continue this resistant model.

Ultimately, Philomela is no longer a mere icon of pity.

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