"What Is Written Shall be Executed": "Nude Contracts" and "Lively Warrants" in Titus Andronicus
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Criticism 45.3 (2003) 301-321



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"What Is Written Shall Be Executed":
"Nude Contracts" and "Lively Warrants" in Titus Andronicus

Thomas P . Anderson


Riotous madness,
To be entangled with those mouth-made vows
Which break themselves in swearing.
Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

SHAKESPEARE'S TITUS ANDRONICUS is structured around a series of promises or oaths. There are no less than fifteen appearances of the words promise, vow, and oath in the play.1 This article is concerned with how those vows or promises—oaths that link two participants—are entangled with the horrific violence that characterizes the play. The major characters in Titus Andronicus are implicated in a linguistic system that seems to exceed the character who speaks, or fails to speak. The play insistently equates this excess with brutalized body parts. Before we look at the integration of promissory language and violence, however, a seemingly minor but nevertheless revealing editorial quibble will indicate the deeply problematic nature of oaths and vows in Shakespeare's play.

In act three, scene two, Titus enacts the play's most extended vow of revenge with a grotesque promising ritual in which violence materializes in the form of bloody bodies and body parts piling up on stage. Titus's dismembered hand, his sons' severed heads and Lavinia's bloody body, remnants of earlier vows in the play, become part of a performance that appears to collapse the distinction separating word and deed. Once Titus has conceived of revenge for the murder of his sons Quintus and Martius, he gathers his remaining family into a circle in order to vow revenge in their names:

Come, let me see what task I have to do.
You heavy people, circle me about, [End Page 301]
That I may turn me to each one of you
And swear unto my soul to right your wrongs.
The vow is made. . . .
(III.i.ll.276-80)2

Circulating in the blood and gore of bleeding bodies and body parts, Titus's vow is gruesomely entangled with reminders of other promises that have been violated. The modern editorial apparatus that attempts to understand this vow is particularly telling. Titus utters the performative, "The vow is made," which indicates the execution of the vow that has just been enacted in the promising ritual. Despite the exactness in Titus's own stage direction, twentieth-century editors of the play curiously have tried to clarify the moment of the vow even further. The stage directions of Jonathan Bate's edition of the play (1995) read, "They make a vow," and in another edition, Bevington (1980) elaborates, "They form a circle around Titus, and he pledges each." Eugene Waith (1984) inserts into the scene the direction, "He pledges them," and he elaborates in a note that what the scene requires is "A simple ritual, such as handshaking." Dover-Wilson's 1948 edition of the play reads, "He (Titus) kneels, with MARCUS, LUCIUS, LAVINIA and the two heads round him; then raises his hand to heaven." Bate's edition reads, "[They make a vow.] / The vow is made." This repetition of the oath in the editorial apparatus suggests a critical dis-ease with the play's most embodied speech-act. The added stage directions combined with Titus's own voice create a stutter at the moment of the pledge. The stutter—evidence of the editorial tendency to exert control through repetition and elaboration—reveals, perhaps, an unconscious awareness in the critical heritage that the act of promising in the play is, indeed, dangerous and therefore requires editorial discipline.

Such controlling editorial emendations strive to efface the unpredictability implicit in the act of making promises. The force that the play simultaneously longs for and criticizes—specifically the power to fuse intention to effect—is transferred to the editor and specifically to the intrusive stage direction. The modern editors seem interested in collapsing word and deed at a moment in the play where Titus himself most explicitly associates his vow with the remnants of violence that are part of his promising ritual. Titus...