“I’ll Find a Day to Massacre Them All”: Tamora in Titus Andronicus and Catherine de Médicis


Queen of the Goths, Empress of Rome, Machiavellian and monstrous monarch: what literary, historical, or contemporary counterparts lurk behind Shakespeare’s Tamora in Titus Andronicus? Critics have associated Tamora with the many classical tyrants the play invokes, including Semiramis and Hecuba; with Elizabeth I, whose subjects were often threatened by the anomaly of a woman on the throne; or with the widespread cultural unease about female unruliness that marked the sixteenth century. While Shakespeare had examples of transgressive female power aplenty to draw upon—whether fictive or factual—this essay argues for a contemporary female monarch as prototype for Tamora: Catherine de Médicis, who ruled as queen consort, queen regent, and queen mother of France from 1547-1589 and whose legendary status as archetypal wicked queen had already gathered currency in her own life time.

This argument does not propose a political allegory or a unidirectional correspondence of the “old historicist” variety, for Shakespeare was seldom that explicit or reductive. But the resemblances between Catherine’s reputed monstrosity and Shakespeare’s wicked queen in Titus are striking, and suggest another example of the intertextual transmission so central to his creative process. Shakespeare, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it, “does not conceal his indebtedness to literary sources,” nor does he conceal the input of collective beliefs, cultural practices, and early modern foundational narratives, even if the latter influences are more challenging to trace. In this case, I argue that Tamora powerfully evokes the Catherine de Médicis as understood by popular and political discourse in late Elizabethan England and as represented in two co-texts: Anne Dowriche’s narrative poem, The French History, and Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Massacre at Paris. Moreover, examining the possible evolution of this particular dramatic character adds to our understanding of the process by which intertextual sharing transpired.

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