Reading at the Seams in Titus Andronicus: Shakespeare’s “House of Fame” and its Virgilian-Ovidian-Chaucerian Resonances


In Act 2, scene 1 of Titus Andronicus, Aaron describes the imperial Roman court of Saturninus as a “house of Fame,” remarking that it is “full of tongues, of eyes and ears” (2.1.127-29). This article takes Aaron’s reference to the “house of Fame” as a multivalent Virgilian-Ovidian-Chaucerian allusion and, by extension, as an invitation to meditate on the structural and thematic resonances between Chaucer’s House of Fame and Titus Andronicus. Focusing primarily on Act 2 of Titus Andronicus, it begins by observing a curious macro-level feature that Shakespeare’s late-sixteenth-century play shares with Chaucer’s late-fourteenth-century dream vision: a Virgilian-Ovidian generic and tonal seam along which the figure of Dido is conspicuously situated in both works. Re-examining Titus Andronicus’s Virgilian-Ovidian hybridity through a distinctly Chaucerian lens, the article draws particular attention to Bassianus’s woodland greeting of Tamora as the goddess Diana in Act 2, scene 3. In so doing, it draws out the polysemy of Bassianus’s words at this transitional moment, tracing how an elliptical reference to the Virgilian-Ovidian-Chaucerian figure of Dido is merged with more decisively Ovidian references to the mythological story of Actaeon in this scene. Ultimately, this article proposes that, as in Chaucer’s anterior House of Fame, a number of fama-related thematic concerns coalesce along the Virgilian-Ovidian seam in Shakespeare’s work. These concerns include the various threats posed by “tongues, [and] eyes and ears”; the relationship between personal reputation and sexual (im)propriety; and the capacity of unchecked rumor to subvert political authority.

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