- Reading at the Seams in Titus Andronicus: Shakespeare’s “House of Fame” and its Virgilian-Ovidian-Chaucerian Resonances
When William Shakespeare, an author considerably separated in time and space from imperial Rome, sought to recreate (in particularly nightmarish form) this distant milieu for Elizabethan audiences in Titus Andronicus, he relied largely on textual reverberation to establish historical context. This strategy left his earliest tragedy so extraordinarily studded with the phrases, themes, and images of Roman literature that, as one recent critic has observed, it comes off as “a kind of canon-defining survey of Latin literary history.”1 Although scene-setting traces of another Titus—Titus Livius, or Livy—as well as Horace, Seneca, Cicero, and others have been detected at various points within the play, it is Virgil and Ovid who are most often identified as the key authorial precedents in Shakespeare’s hyperliterary version of Rome. Indeed, Titus Andronicus’s many allusions to the works of these two classical auctores have been called so unusually “definite and detailed” as to “almost giv[e] the impression that the author had his Ovid or Vergil open before him as he wrote.”2 This article argues that he likely had his Chaucer open, too.
It is, no doubt, because of the play’s showy classicism that Titus Andronicus’s Chaucerian resonances have been little remarked in prior scholarship. Yet, as Kurt Schreyer similarly suggests elsewhere in this special issue, Shakespeare’s first tragedy may be more medieval in character than its flamboyantly Roman veneer implies. Though Titus Andronicus does not, like Troilus and Cressida, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or The Two Noble Kinsmen, transfer a cast of recognizably Chaucerian literary [End Page 211] characters onto the early modern stage, it does share something with those three plays most often invoked in discussions of Shakespeare’s Chaucerian intertexts: its action unfolds against a “classical” backdrop seeded, it seems, by earlier imaginings of antiquity found in Chaucer’s late medieval poetry.
Consider that in Act 2, scene 1 of Titus Andronicus, when Aaron contrasts the Roman “Emperor’s court” with the “ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull” woodlands outside the city, he calls the former a “house of Fame” that is “full of tongues, of eyes and ears” (2.1.127–29). This moment has a long history of perfunctory identification by editors and critics as a possible reference to Chaucer’s House of Fame (or Boke of Fame, as it was better known in early modern printed editions). But, whereas some have confidently described the allusion as “almost certainly a reference” to The House of Fame, others have been far less committal, cautioning that his words “lack any precise Chaucerian resonance.”3 The latter group’s reluctance to definitively equate Shakespeare’s “house of Fame” with the Middle English House of Fame likely stems from the profoundly intertextual nature of Chaucer’s own work. It is well-established that this late fourteenth-century dream vision adapts elements from numerous anterior sources, most notably Ovid’s Metamorphoses 12 (which inspired the fanciful architecture of Chaucer’s adjacent Houses of Fame and Rumor) and Virgil’s Aeneid 4 (which provided a template for the work’s presiding “Goddesse of Renoun or of Fame,” who reputedly sports as many “eyen . . . / As fetheres upon foules be” and as many “upstondyng eres / And tonges, as on bestes heres”).4 Given the rich classicism of Chaucer’s text, who is to say, then, whether the foundations for Titus Andronicus’s “house of Fame” were, in fact, laid in The House of Fame as opposed to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or whether its alarming abundance “of tongues, of eyes and ears” is more profoundly Chaucerian than Virgilian?
Rather than treating the fraught question of Shakespeare’s referent as an either/or proposition—either assuming a strictly classical or a strictly medieval provenance—I want to propose that, when Aaron likens Saturninus’s imperial palace to the “house of Fame,” the comparison is best understood as a palimpsestic literary allusion. It is thoroughly classical and medieval. This chimes with a small but growing body of recent criticism that has sought to emphasize how “Shakespeare did not...