"Sumptuously Re-edified": The Reformation of Sacred Space in Titus Andronicus


Helga L. Duncan


Readings of Shakespeare’s grim drama of mutilation Titus Andronicus often focus on the play’s marred bodies. Recently scholars have argued that characters’ frequent allusions to martyrdom make the play a complex meditation on England’s bloody struggles over religious reformation. Despite the interest in sacrificial victimhood, there has been virtually no critical engagement with the sites that generate martyrdom. This essay focuses on the play’s representation of the sacred space of the grave and reads its preoccupation with martyrdom in terms of the profound spatial changes occasioned by the Reformation. Shakespeare’s tragedy—performed in the spatially complex and marginal medium of the public theater—is a drama of profound spiritual and material displacement. Reformers had substantially altered spatial perception and the believer’s place in the spiritual and material world—in particular the place of death. The drama’s generic heterogeneity produces abrupt locational shifts that explore the profanation of ancient sacred burial sites and the grotesque attempts at counter-reformation. Contesting arguments about the steady secularization of early modern England, ostensibly registered in the increasing secularism of burial and the secular representations of death and burial on the public stage, this essay contends that Titus Andronicus presents its tragically irreconcilable agendas of spatial sanctification and reformation to demonstrate the deep-rooted spiritual need for sacred space, but also to caution against rigid adherence to long-established codes of spatial sacrality. Finally it suggests that the play may also deliver a provocative call to rethink the place of the sacred—from the ostensibly profane public stage.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.