Drama thrives on the conflict not between right and wrong but between different kinds of right

In this entry I will look at how conflicting views of what is ‘right’ creates the drama in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Euripede’s Iphigenia at Aulis.

This post will examine Iphigenia At Aulis (Euripedes) and Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare) where conflict arises through the different beliefs of the ‘right’ course of action, especially regarding murder. We can easily identify the differences between what is morally right and wrong, these views are usually linked with things which are legally right and wrong. We recognize that doing the right thing is obviously the correct action to take, and that we should oppose the wrong action. So when different opinions of right go head-to-head, which is the best action to take?

In Iphigenia At Aulis, Agamemnon is torn between doing right by his family, and doing right by his country. If he does not sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, his army cannot sail to war. We accept that murder is morally and legally wrong, and to intentionally kill one’s child, filicide, is extremely immoral. On the other hand, we realise that sometimes the greater good of a country, with many people, is more important than an individual. If he decides to save Iphigenia, he is disregarding his duties as leader of the Greek army and is also disrespecting Greece, but if he sacrifices her, he will upset his wife and her mother, Clytemnestra, and lose his eldest child. At first, Menelaus believes that Iphigenia should be sacrificed, because it is Agamemnon’s duty, as their leader, to take them to war. Their conflicting views leads to a heated argument between the two brothers. Yet when Menelaus thinks about the situation more thoroughly, he sees it is not right for Agamemnon to execute Iphigenia, but in spite of this, Agamemnon is now convinced he should sacrifice his daughter, “we have come to a point where necessity dictates our fortunes”(p98, 511-512). By taking the life of his daughter, Agamemnon believes that they can do the right thing: save the Greek wives that are being raped in Troy, and retrieve Helen. The reader knows that Clytemnestra and Iphigenia will not agree with Agamemnon’s concept of ‘right’ and therefore disagreements will take place between the two sides. Clytemnestra indeed feels betrayed by her husband and this leads to another argument;

“I, who have been loyal to your bed, shall be robbed of my child, and the woman who sinned will get back her girl under her roof in Sparta and find happiness” (p120, 1202-1205).

The conflict in Iphigenia at Aulis arises from Agamemnon’s shifting loyalty between his family and the Greek army. The play’s drama happens when the characters have different opinions of what ‘right’ is, and are trying to change the outcome of Iphigenia’s future. Where there are opposing views of right, conflict appears.

In Titus Andronicus there are also conflicting beliefs of what is ‘right’ over murder as a right of sacrifice, and loyalty to his army. Titus returns from war. His sons have been killed in battle and he has taken Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons Alarbus, Chiron and Demetrius, and Aaron the Moor as prisoners. Titus reveals that he will kill Alarbus as a sacrifice, in respect to the men who have died at war. When Tamora begs him for Alarbus’ life, he says to her;

“for their brethren slain, / Religiously they ask a sacrifice. / To this your son is marked, and die he must, / T’appease their groaning shadowsthat are gone.”(1.1.126-129)

Titus believes it is the right thing to do by his surviving and deceased army members. Unlike Agamemnon, he is not hesitant in his actions. The Latin phrase “Ad marnes fratrum” (1.1.101.) which means “to the shades of our brothers”, shows the ritual-like act that they are about to carry out, which Lucius later describes as their “Roman rites” (1.1.146). Nevertheless, we accept any murder as wrong. Alarbus’ murder, however, will pacify the Roman brothers who have died, which is very important to them and something we can relate to, which is why funerals are so important after the death of a loved one. The sacrificing of Alarbus acts as a catalyst to the drama in the rest of the play. Without this, Tamora would not have sought for vengeance and the subsequent drama would not have followed. Tamora seeks to avenge her son through murder, just like Titus avenges his sons through murder.

Titus also kills his daughter, Lavinia, in the final scene. He has asked Saturninus, the Emperor, was it “well done” (5.3.36) i.e. right, of Virginius to kill his daughter after she was “enforced, stained and deflowered” (5.3.38). Saturninus said that it was, because “the girl could not survive her shame” (5.3.40). Titus’ ‘right’ decision to kill his daughter after her rape and dismemberment, contrasts more modern beliefs that she should not be killed because of this, it was not her fault, and therefore should feel no shame. We are shocked that Titus has killed Lavinia as it is very sudden and although was obviously planned between Lavinia and Titus, the audience were not aware of this. In the cultural context of this play, the killing of Lavinia seems reasonable and just, yet is conflicting with the view that any murder is wrong. The murder of Lavinia reveals to Saturninus that it was Chiron and Demetrius who raped and amputated Lavinia. The death of Tamora, Titus and Saturninus ensues, in a scene that if full of drama. Titus feels he has taken vengeance for Lavinia’s ordeals, something that is right, yet he has murdered, he feels justly, to do it. The distinctions between various opinions of right create the drama in Titus Andronicus.

Drama occurs through the opposition of different beliefs of what is ‘right’. If every person had the same principles of what is right and wrong, there would never be any disagreement, and therefore no conflict. We believe it is simple to tell the difference between what is wrong and right, yet it is when there is more than one version of right, conflict takes place. In Iphigenia At Aulis it is Agamemnon’s adjusting loyalty creates the conflict, whereas in Titus Andronicus it is the character’s strong opinions of wrong and right that create conflict. Diversities of moral, and sometime legal, values creates drama in a play.

Side note: Even if you aren’t very interested in reading Shakespeare, I urge you to watch the 1999 film Titus directed by Julia Taymor. It is quite long but it is an amazing piece of work and depicted in a way that I haven’t seen in any other Shakespeare film adaptations. All of the Titus Andronicus pictures I have used are screenshots from the film. 

  • Shakespeare, William. (1995) Titus Andronicus, ed. Jonathan Bate. London :The Arden Shakespeare.
  • Euripedes. (2008) Iphigenia At Aulis. In Bacchae and Other Plays, trans. James Morwood. New York: Oxford World Classics.