Tamora, Queen of the Goths: a tribute to a she-villain

Mirror, mirror on the wall…who’s the fiercest she-villain of them all?

“Unsex me here”: Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

The go-to answer is usually Lady Macbeth, and not without reason. She’s ambitious, and her words leave such an emasculating sting on Macbeth that he is driven to kill King Duncan. While he wants to reap the benefits of being king, it is Lady Macbeth who shows him that, to make a royal omelet, one must first crack a few crowns.

Lady Macbeth is most notable for her lack of stain-remover and for the heartlessness of the following rant:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

Lady Macbeth’s baby is one of those great Shakespearean mysteries. We know that Macbeth has no sons, and thus the crown will pass to Banquo’s, but what of that baby? Was it Macbeth’s, or Lady M’s by another man?  Has she already dashed that baby’s head into the concrete? We never really know, but her threat to “dash” the baby’s brains out has made her an eternally compelling she-villain.

“Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’ top” – Jessica Lange as Tamora

But now I’d like to make the case for Tamora, Queen of the Goths, the underrated she-villain of Titus Andronicus. Mother to four sons over the course of the play, she is the true embodiment of “Hell hath no fury like a Mama Bear scorned.”

Tamora’s first words are some of her most compelling, as she begs Titus to spare the life of her firstborn:

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother’s tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome,
To beautify thy triumphs and return,
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke,
But must my sons be slaughter’d in the streets,
For valiant doings in their country’s cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful:
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge:
Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son.


Tamora pleading with Titus in the Peacham drawing: the only surviving contemporary Shakespearean illustration

Tamora’s words are exceedingly moving, and even though it’s Alarbus’s entrails that are ultimately cut out, Tamora’s cries spring straight from the womb. Utterly devastated and intent on avenging Titus’s “cruel, irreligious piety,” Tamora vows to “find a day to massacre them all.” Clearly, those are fighting words.

Lady Ellen Terry as the most terrifying Lady Macbeth, ever.

Lady Macbeth betrays the softer side of herself earlier in the play than most of her fans would like to admit. We must ask ourselves: if she is so intent on Macbeth being ‘man’ enough to murder Duncan, and if she prays to the gods to “unsex me here, /
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty,” then why doesn’t she just do it herself? She offers a genuinely moving answer: “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t.” She could kill a king, but she’s a daddy’s girl at heart, and in the meantime bullies her husband to do her bloody bidding.

Jessica Lange, brooding as Tamora

Tamora, on the other hand, enjoys Aaron as a partner in crime, and together, they create a horrorscape in which they corner Lavinia and her husband Bassianus, framing them for accosting and threatening the queen in the forest. Like Lady Macbeth who goads her husband into proving his manliness through murder, Tamora tells her sons: “Revenge it, as you love your mother’s life, / Or be ye not henceforth call’d my children.” Like Lady Macbeth, Tamora does not commit the bloody deed herself, but that doesn’t mean she shows a shred of mercy. Lavinia pleads with her, as a fellow woman in a man’s world, to kill her on the spot and spare her the pain and infamy of being a victim of rape. But Tamora laughs in her face, saying, “So should I rob my sweet sons of their fee? / No, let them satisfy their lust on thee.” This, to Tamora, is fair revenge for the Andronici’s murder of Alarbus.

Moreover, Tamora is terrible because she casts her newborn son from her sight. Black like his father Aaron, the baby bears the stain of her infidelity against the emperor. Even worse, she tries to delegate the infanticide onto the baby’s father. Aaron’s tenderness towards the baby proves through contrast just what a selfish, unfeeling creature she’s become.

And of course, Tamora then goes on to eat her two remaining sons. (Okay, I know that wasn’t planned, but a woman eating her babies would make for a killer movie poster!)

Kabuki Tamora

After the corpse line-up at the end of the play, we learn of the impact of Tamora’s deeds based on her relative punishment. Lucius commands that his father, who “mercy-killed” his sister, be buried in the family tomb; Saturnine, a personal nemesis and all-out bad guy, is sent to the royal tomb, to be buried next to other Roman leaders, regardless of his supporting role in the course of events. But then there’s Tamora: Tamora gets a disposal unfit of for gentlewoman, standing in notable contrast to Saturnine’s vow earlier in the play that “Princely shall be thy usage every way.” Lucius, conversely, orders the following:

As for that heinous tiger, Tamora,
No funeral rite, nor man in mourning weeds,
No mournful bell shall ring her burial;
But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey:
Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;
And, being so, shall have like want of pity.

Ouch. Does she deserve this punishment? My extensive research on revenge tragedy (i.e., multiple re-watchings of the Kill Bill series with Mrs. Weinberg) shows that all avengers must be prepared to die at the hands of those wronged by their retribution. But in the end, what makes Tamora the best villainess is that her revenge comes not from motiveless malignity, or ambition, but from defending and protecting those she loves. That’s where her strength comes from and for that, I believe that Tamora deserves to be remembered as one spectacular she-villain.



1 Comment

Filed under Characters, Plays

One response to “Tamora, Queen of the Goths: a tribute to a she-villain

  1. Lawrence Cohn

    My favorite: Dame Judi, looking perfect as Lady M. One surprise in seeing the photo you’ve posted – she resembles here (not elsewhere) current actress Sarah Paulson – a connection I’ve never noted before.

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