Rape and the Appropriation of Progne’s Revenge in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Or “Who Cooks the Thyestean Banquet?”

  • Karen Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Titus Andronicus centers on the family of Titus, a Roman general who disastrously refuses to accept the mantle of rule on his return from the conquest of the Goths and sparks the animosity of the new emperor, Saturninus, as well as the Goth queen, Tamora, whose son he sacrifices. Vengeance is visited on him through the execution of two sons falsely accused of murder, the amputation of his hand through a trick, and most spectacularly, the rape and mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia. Lavinia, seized in Act I, wed, raped, and mutilated in Act II, is presented as a spectacle of extreme suffering who outdoes her classical antecedents, Philomel, Lucrece, and Virginia. The emendations from the two primary sources in Ovid and Livy are signaled as piquant variations to surprise the audience.1 Like Lucrece, she is the virtuous wife whose rape exposes the sexual licence that contaminates the ruling family and precipitates their overthrow. Like Virginia, she has a father who removes the pollution of her rape by killing her. Yet, she becomes a Philomel with a difference, for not only is her tongue, like Philomel’s, cut out to prevent testimony against her rapists, but she suffers the further mutilation of the loss of her hands so that she will be incapable of weaving a cloth that reveals her rape.


Female Character Rape Victim Woman Writer Female Authorship Painful Movement 
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    Bate, ed., Titus Andronicus, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Rout-ledge, 1995), p. 90. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Titus Andronicus are taken from this edition.Google Scholar
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    Alfred Harbage and Samuel Schoenbaum, Annals of English Drama (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), pp. 38–39 record James Calfhill’s adaptation of a Corraro play, Progne, produced at Christ Church, Oxford, on September 5, 1566.Google Scholar
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© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Karen Robertson

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