That Shakespeare often gives his wisest and most beautiful speeches to dishonorable characters and despicable villains is no secret. Caliban’s “the isle is full of noises” speech, Polonius’ “to thine ownself be true” speech and Edmund’s “excellent foppery of the world” speech are some of the most well-known examples. But he does this even in lesser plays, like Titus Andronicus.
Aaron the Moor is an over-the-top villain, so much so that many have considered him to be a parody of the type. Listen as he declares wasted those days in which he failed to commit some foul deed:
Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,–
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it.
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors, [...]
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
Later he brags that he is going to have Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, rape Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, and cut her tongue out.
But in spite of his unspeakable villainy (perhaps, because of it), Shakespeare makes him, above all characters in this blood-soaked play, a loving parent:
Stay, murderous villains! will you kill your brother?
Now, by the burning tapers of the sky,
That shone so brightly when this boy was got,
He dies upon my scimitar’s sharp point
That touches this my first-born son and heir!
Aaron then cuts a deal with the Romans in order to save his child’s life, promising to confess and sacrifice himself if the Romans will allow his child to live.¹
Shakespeare must have calculated that wise words are more memorable when they come from the mouth of a villain rather than the mouth of a hero? Alternatively, or additionally, Shakespeare may have wanted to show that human beings are never all evil or all good, but rather, complex combinations of good and evil.
¹ Of course, it very well could be the demon-child that he is hell-bent on saving, but that’s a topic for another day.