While mistletoe has long been symbolic of life, renewal, hope, magic, and love, and was highly sought after by the ancient druids because they believed it had powerful healing properties, it is mentioned only once in all of Shakespeare’s works. Ironically, mistletoe does not make its single appearance in some romantic romp set at Christmas, but rather in the dark and violent atrocity-fest that isTitus Andronicus.
Titus Andronicus has quite the body count: 14 deaths, numerous severed limbs, a live burial, and instances of rape, physical mutilation and insanity. Of those deaths, two of them occur in a pie which is then served to the victims’ mother. That’s pretty intense, even if one could argue that all three of them had it coming as the consequence of their own actions.
So where does the magical, mystical mistletoe fit into all of that?
In Act 2, Scene 3, Tamora finds herself in the forest not with her lover, Aaron, but rather on the receiving end of a whole load of abuse and insult from Bassianus and Lavinia. When her sons Chiron and Demetrius show up, they notice she isn’t looking so good. She tells them that Bassianus and Lavinia have lured her to that desolate part of the forest and threatened to tie her to a yew tree to die before calling her all sorts of names. In doing so, Tamora observes that even though it is summer, the trees around them are “yet forlorn and lean / Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe”.
In this context, the reference highlights the parasitic nature of the plant rather than any of its positive symbolism. Just as the trees of the forest suffer at the hands of parasites, Tamora implies that she does too.
In response, Demetrius and Chrion both stab Bassianus, who dies. Tamora is keen to stab Lavinia, but her sons want to rape her instead– an act which she wholeheartedly encourages. Lavinia begs Tamora to show her mercy as a woman, if for no other reason, but Tamora refuses. The young men drag Lavinia offstage, and Tamora exits to go and find her lover.
There is absolutely nothing romantic or magical about any of that.