One of the remarkable characteristics of Shakespeare's plays, particularly his tragedies, is that they are frequently incredibly violent. In many of his plays, this violence is seen abhorrent, with characters not only suffering societal consequences for their violent actions, but also experiencing deep regret and remorse for their violent actions. In fact, in many of his plays, Shakespeare's violent characters are impacted more by their own attitudes about the things that they have done than they are by any outside influences. However, not all of Shakespeare's plays feature the same approach to violence; some of them actually seem to embrace violence for the sake of violence, without placing any moral weight on violent actions. It becomes difficult to reconcile some of Shakespeare's later works, which focus on the immorality associated with violence, with the casual use of violence in his earlier works. To explore the differences in Shakespeare's approach to violence throughout his tragedies, this paper will focus on Titus Andronicus and Macbeth. Titus Andronicus and Macbeth are two of Shakespeare's most violent tragedies, but their approaches to violence are so dissimilar that they seem to come from two very different moral backgrounds. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare represent violence as a socially acceptable means to achieve power and exact revenge, without any suggestion that a character who engages in violence for these means must be immoral. However, Shakespeare treats violence very differently in Macbeth, where the titular character's use of violence as a means of gaining power was considered so immoral that it led both Macbeth and his wife into madness. When one views these plays against the backdrop of Elizabethan culture, the differential approaches to violence begin to make sense. During Shakespeare's time, Queen Elizabeth managed to dampen some of the religious-base violence that had plagued England, but Elizabethan England was still a society subject to outbursts of religious violence, political violence, and significant interpersonal violence. While the moral attitude towards this violence offered condemnation to the perpetrators, it generally only did so if the perpetrators were unsuccessful. Earlier Shakespearean revenge tragedies, like Titus Andronicus, seem to embody this attitude. However, there appears to have been a shift in Shakespeare's approach towards violence, if not in all Elizabethan attitudes towards violence. "His plays may be seen as following a trajectory that begins with a delight in representing violence for entertainment, continues in a series of plays that explore various aspects of the problem of violence, and ends with a searching study of human aggression in relation to self-control" (Foakes, pp.1-2). Titus Andronicus and Macbeth offer prime examples of these contrasting approaches to violence.
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's bloodiest plays, with Macbeth as one of Shakespeare's most troubling heroes. Acting on an ambition that does not even seem to be his own, Macbeth kills his mentor and king, Duncan, in order to ascend to Duncan's throne. This is an immoral act, one that Macbeth knows to be wrong. The wrongness of his action is highlighted in the beginning of the play when Duncan is discussing the execution of someone who planned treason and the man is described as embracing death because he had been plotting against the king. The background of that event prepares the audience for the idea that one who offers treason to the king is immoral. This idea is amplified by the fact that Duncan and Macbeth are not only king and subject; they are also kin. Even then, Macbeth's actions against Duncan might be understandable if there were some hint that Duncan had somehow mistreated Macbeth or that Duncan had somehow come into power in a dishonest way. However, this is not the case; in fact, Macbeth is the character who brings the audience's attention to the fact that his violence against Duncan is an immoral act. He admits, "I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself, And falls on th' other-" (Macbeth, I.vii.25-28). In other words, his plan to kill Duncan is not because Duncan has done anything to him, but simply because Macbeth wants to be the king. However, while Macbeth's ambition may be enough to cause him to commit murder, even knowing it to be an immoral act, it is not enough to permit him to feel no remorse about that murder. On the contrary, the murder is not simply something that is immoral; Shakespeare goes so far as to characterize it as evil, and Macbeth has to pay for that evil. In fact, "in no other play does Shakespeare show a nation so wholly occupied by the powers of darkness; and Macbeth is, for all its brevity, his most intensive study of evil at work in the individual and in the world at large" (Kermode, p.1307). Moreover, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who seemed cruel and inhuman at the beginning of the play, are not unaware that they have done something outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior, and they both exhibit tremendous guilt about Duncan's murder. Their guilt over his death actually drives them to madness. Moreover, it is clear that this will occur immediately after the murder. Macbeth asks, "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red" (Macbeth, II.ii.57-60). Initially, Lady Macbeth mocks her husband for his guilt, but it eventually overtakes her, as well, so that she feels as if she cannot wash the blood from her hands. "The suffering of the Macbeths may be thought of as caused by the pressure of the world of order slowly resuming its true shape and crushing them. This is the work of time; as usual in Shakespeare, evil, however great, burns itself out, and time is the servant of providence" (Kermode, p.1310).
As a result, one cannot escape the overwhelming moralistic message of the play, which suggests that even if one can accomplish one's goals through violence, one will not be able to enjoy the results.
In contrast, the violence in Titus Andronicus is not portrayed as intensely immoral behavior. The primary difference between Titus and Macbeth may be in how the two men approach the violence that they inflict. Macbeth commits murders knowing that they are wrong, while Titus commits murders and extracts his revenge without recognizing that he is behaving immorally. From the Christian backdrop of Elizabethan society, this immoral approach to violence alters Titus in a way that makes him more of a villain than Macbeth. "Titus as revenger must, on the official view that vengeance properly belongs to God alone, become something of a villain; and in his insistence on the sacrifice of Alarbus, his doctrinaire stubbornness over the election of Saturninus, and the rash killings of his own son, he forefeits sympathy" (Kermode, p.1021). However, while he engages in more senseless violence than Macbeth, Titus is not a failed hero, as Macbeth is; he accomplishes the goals he sets out to accomplish. Titus's violence may seem more acceptable because it seems to have more of a motive. Titus goes to war for a decade and returns home to find that only four of his twenty-five sons are still alive. He has brought with him Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, as well as her sons. He kills one of her sons as part of a Roman ritual, which causes her to desire revenge against him. She manages to arrange for Titus's sons to be beheaded and also has her sons rape Titus's daughter, Lavinia. Titus's only remaining son, Lucius, is banished. Titus, who begins the play as a loyal warrior who has done his duty to his country and seems to want to come home to some peace, evolves into a creature driven by the desire for revenge. Unlike Macbeth, Titus is not motivated by the desire for power; instead, he is a man whose sons have been murdered, his daughter raped and mutilated, and he wants revenge. The tragedy in his life, the terrible violence done to his family, changes him. Moreover, "if the violence of the play serves the theme as an emblem of disorder, it also serves as both agent and emblem of a metamorphosis of character which takes place before our eyes" (Waith, p.46). Titus becomes the living embodiment of revenge, but he is not the only character driven by revenge. Tamora is transformed as well. When asking Titus to spare her son's life, Tamora says, "Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge" (Titus, I.i.119). Yet, she, though a queen, shows no mercy to Titus's sons or his daughter. She is transformed by the violence done to her son, and she no longer sees any immorality in failing to be merciful. Likewise, though Titus approaches the death of Tamora's eldest son impersonally, it is the product of a war and he orders the death without passion or delight. In contrast, when Titus kills…