Although Titus Andronicus has been singled out by some critics as unworthy of Shakespeare’s genius—T. S. Eliot called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written”—recent performance history has shown that Titus can succeed brilliantly before audiences. In his memorable production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959, Peter Brook chose to stage the entrance of the ravished and mutilated Lavinia (Vivien Leigh) with scarlet ribbons trailing from her wrists and mouth, in a visual stylizing that gave to the violence an emotional seriousness even while it avoided gory realism. The long ribbons translated the text into visual symbols. Titus (Laurence Olivier) was a battered veteran from the start of the play, war-wearied, Lear-like in his suffering and agonies of disillusionment. Deborah Warner’s more realistic production, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in 1987 with Sonia Ritter as Lavinia, stressed the horror of rape and its painful relevance to a late-twentieth-century world deeply concerned with human rights and especially with the victimization of women. Interpretations of Tamora in this and other productions have variously seen her as exotic, sexually magnetic, cunning, playful, and deeply sadistic. Most recently, an innovative film version by Julie Taymor, with Anthony Hopkins as Titus, has intrigued a larger audience with this relatively little-known play about wanton violence. Hopkins shows how grim black humor can ironize the effects of gross cruelty and turn our laughter into an attempt to comprehend humanity’s apparently fathomless penchant for inhumanity. Recent criticism, too, has taken Titus seriously as a study in violence that is painfully relevant to our modern experience.
Titus Andronicus is unmistakably an early play. First published in quarto in 1594 “as it was played by the Right Honorable the Earl of Derby, Earl of Pembroke, and Earl of Sussex Their Servants,” it could have been written as early as 1590–1591 or even before. The allusion in theater owner and manager Philip Henslowe’s Diary for January 24, 1594, to a new production by Sussex’s men of “Titus & Ondronicus” could refer to a new play or to one newly revised or newly acquired by the company. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was thus widely separated in time from the great tragedies; Romeo and Juliet is the only other tragedy (excluding the English history plays) of the decade preceding 1599. Moreover, the play may not be en- tirely Shakespeare’s. The first three scenes (Act 1 together with scenes 1 and 2 of Act 2) and the first scene of Act 4 have been plausibly attributed to George Peele. The two dramatists seem to have worked on their separate stints independently, with some resulting discrepancies. Shakespeare was apparently responsible for the play’s overall design. Even so, Titus Andronicus was thus widely separated in time and in collaborative authorship from the great tragedies that Shakespeare would produce, most of them a decade or more later. How are we to respond to and appraise an apprenticeship in tragedy that is so isolated in terms of artistic career from the mature tragedies that we reckon among his greatest achievements?
Titus Andronicus is studded with bookish references to classical authors—another likely indication of an early date. No other tragedy, and perhaps no other Shakespearean play, reveals such direct evidence of youthful learning. Some of its many untranslated Latin phrases are schoolchildren’s favorites, such as the “Integer vitae” of Horace that is immediately recognized by Chiron. “I read it in the grammar long ago,” he says (4.2.23). Classical allusions compare the chief characters of the play with Aeneas and Dido, Queen of Carthage; Hector, King Priam, and Queen Hecuba of Troy; Ajax and Odysseus among the Greeks; Hercules, Prometheus, Orpheus, Coriolanus, Semiramis the siren Queen of Assyria, Pyramus, Cornelia the mother of the Gracchi, and Actaeon; and others. Yet these learned references are far from being a mere display of youthful learning; through a controlled and self-conscious artistry, they enable us to explore a tragic world whose moral dimensions are defined in terms of classical literary models. Especially significant are the references to victims of rape and vengeance: Virginia the Roman, killed by her father Virginius to save her from rape; the chaste Lucrece, ravished by Tarquin; Philomel, raped and deprived of her tongue by Tereus, whose name she then reveals by weaving the information into a tapestry; and Procne, her sister and the wife of Tereus, who avenges Philomel by serving Tereus’s son Itys to him in a meal.
Titus Andronicus does not record actual historical events. Shakespeare, assisted by Peele, seems to have put it together from a medley of sources, none of which provided a complete narrative model. An eighteenth-century chapbook called The History of Titus Andronicus, once thought to give a reliable version of an original to which the dramatists had access, has now been shown to be an expansion of the story based on a ballad of 1594 which in turn was modeled on the extant play, so that this play stands first in the line of succession. The dramatists drew from varied materials. Ovid’s Metamorphoses gave them a number of legends, especially that of Tereus, Philomel, and Procne. Seneca’s Thyestes offered in dramatic form a similar tale of vengeance, in which two sons are slain and served to their parent in a grisly banquet. One or even two plays about Titus may have existed prior to the text we have. Even if Shakespeare used such prose and dramatic sources in writing his major portion of the play, however, some scholars believe that one or even two plays about Titus may have existed prior to Shakespeare’s and that we can deduce their contributions to his work by examining two later continental plays derived from them: Tragaedia van Tito Andronico (German, 1620) and Aran en Titus (Dutch, 1641). Possibly one of these earlier plays was the “Titus & Vespacia” entered in Henslowe’s Diary for April 11, 1592, as acted by Lord Strange’s men. Even if the dramatists used such prose and dramatic sources, however, they also knew well the Ovidian and Senecan originals that had inspired them. Elizabethan revenge tragedy, containing some Senecan influences (though those Senecan elements should not be over-stressed), was a strongly formative influence, especially Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587). The phenomenal recent stage successes of Marlowe had left their mark: Titus’s killing of his son Mutius recalls Tamburlaine Part II, and Aaron’s Vice-like boasting of wanton villainy recalls The Jew of Malta. The dramatists’ reading of Virgil is evident not only in repeated references to the tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas but also in his choice of the name Lavinia (The Aeneid, Book 7 ff.)
As this sizable list of influences suggests, Titus Andronicus remains close to its models, however original it may be in its narrative outline. Although the play anticipates several motifs in Shakespeare’s later tragedies—the ingratitude of Rome toward its honored general as in Coriolanus, Roman political factionalism as in Julius Caesar, infirm old age confronted by human bestiality as in King Lear—Titus Andronicus is the kind of revenge play one might expect of a gifted young playwright and collaborator in the early 1590s. The successful models for tragic writing in those years were Kyd and Marlowe; Greene, Peele, and others paid these two the flattery of imitation. So, to an extent, did Shakespeare. We can best understand Titus Andronicus if we view it as a revenge play in the sensational vein of Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors, with substantial assistance by Peele and with generous additions of Ovidian pathos. We should not look to Titus Andronicus for that poetic density and complexity of vision we find in later Shakespearean tragedy; as a revenge play, Titus Andronicus focuses on violence and horror, and its mood is one of revulsion. The style, too, requires some adjustment in our expectations. Owing much to Kyd, Marlowe, and Ovid, it is replete with rhetorical figures and classical allusions in the manner of Shakespeare’s Ovidian poems from the early 1590s, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Even if its “early” features are manifest, the style works to good dramatic effect in highly wrought scenes, as when Titus pleads for jus- tice to the unresponsive senators (3.1.1–47) or lays a trap for Tamora and her sons under the guise of his supposed madness (5.2). The seeming incongruity of violent action and elaborately refined metaphor, as in Titus’s florid lament for Lavinia’s mutilation (3.1.65 ff.), is not, as Eugene Waith has shown (Shakespeare Survey, 1957, 39–49), without its purpose, for it evokes pathos on behalf of gruesome suffering in a deliberately Ovidian manner, abstracting and generalizing human torment. As in Ovid, the interest is not in moralizing lessons but in the “transforming power of intense states of emotion.”
Violence is an enduring feature of Titus Andronicus, and its function must be understood if the play is not to be dismissed as merely hyperbolical in its bloodshed. We are constantly aware of ritual human sacrifice, murder, and maiming, as in Titus’s sentencing of Tamora’s son Alarbus and his slaying of his own son Mutius, the massacre by Tamora’s sons of Bassianus and their ravishing of Lavinia, the subsequent execution of two of Titus’s sons wrongfully accused of Bassianus’s murder, the cutting off of Titus’s hand, the feeding to Tamora of her sons’ bodies ground into a fine paste, and still more. Savage mutilation is characteristic of many of these atrocities, especially in the lopping off of hands and tongue. The play’s climax is, in the manner of revenge tragedy, a spectacle of blood, with the deaths in rapid succession of Lavinia, Tamora, Titus, and Saturninus. These multiple slaughters cause revulsion in some viewers, such as T. S. Eliot, but to others the violence reveals a pattern and offers its own ethical stance on vengeance. Although we do not sense in this early play the same controlled perspective on human evil as in Hamlet, for example, we see that Shakespeare is intensely aware of the conflict between order and disorder. In the final scenes, Aaron the Moor is caught and sentenced to execution, Tamora and Saturninus are slain, Titus’s brother Marcus appeals to Roman justice for vindication on the grounds that his family had no alternative, and Titus’s last remaining son Lucius vows as the new emperor to “heal Rome’s harms and wipe away her woe” (5.3.148). Even if this resolution does not fully satisfy the ethical dilemmas with which the play began, it reveals Shakespeare’s disinclination to allow the fulfillment of private vengeance to be the play’s ultimate concern. Shakespeare is interested throughout in the ethical problems generated by revenge, and the play’s relentless horror may be a commentary on the self-defeating nature of a revenge code. Violence is also integral to the theatrical design of the play; its pattern of vengeance and counter-vengeance seems strikingly modern to us, attuned as we are to the twentieth-century “theater of cruelty” championed by Antonin Artaud.
The first part of Titus Andronicus functions to give the avenger a motive for his bloody course of action. Ironically, Titus is himself responsible for setting in motion the events that will overwhelm him. His family, the Andronici, are the first to practice vengeance, a fact that diminishes the sympathy they might later have been able to enjoy as victims and exiles. In fact, it is Lucius, ultimately to become the restorer of political stability, who first demands the ritual slaying of a captive Goth, Tamora’s son Alarbus, to appease the spirits of the Andronici slain in battle. Such a demand is understandable in terms of family honor, but it is also vengeful and pagan. Despite the Romans’ claim to be superior to the barbarians they fight (see 1.1.379, for example), their acts too often do not justify that claim to moral superiority. This irony is complete when the Gothic Queen Tamora and her sons become the spokespersons for godlike mercy. As Tamora’s son Chiron bitterly observes, “Was never Scythia half so barbarous” (1.1.131).
Equally violent and unnatural is Titus’s slaying of his own son Mutius for assisting in the abduction of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia. This tragic error stems, like the first, from Titus’s narrow sense of family honor. Titus has unwisely refused the imperial crown, bestowing it instead on the treacherous Saturninus, and has promised Lavinia as bride to the new emperor, despite her prior betrothal to Saturninus’s virtuous rival and brother, Bassianus. Titus’s reasons for these actions are never satisfactorily explained, but presumably arise from a misguided if honorable impulse to let others exercise political power while he, the valiant defender of Rome, plays the role of senior statesman. He is also, like King Lear, imperious and paternalistic in his own family, insisting on having his way. When Titus’s sons and Bassianus are driven to the expedient of abducting the lady, Titus cannot endure the shame of his violated promise and so kills Mutius in the ensuing melee. Yet, for this sacrifice on behalf of the Emperor, Titus receives only ingratitude and hostility. Moreover, he has taught Tamora and her sons to seek ven- geance.
Once the Andronici become the victims of Tamora and her supporters, they gain in sympathy. They suffer unspeakable atrocities. Hunted down by jeering sadists who amuse themselves through rape and mutilation, the Andronici band together in mutual tribulation and selflessly attempt to ease one another’s agony. They discover Rome to be a “wilderness of tigers” (3.1.54) in which the law blindly condemns Titus’s innocent sons for the murder of Bassianus. Still, Titus has committed the first barbarism and turns increasingly to barbarism in his desire for vengeance. Because the Andronici are too much like their enemies, the prevailing mood, as in most revenge plays, is more ironic than tragic. There is no strong sense (despite the capture of Aaron) that moral order is restored along with political order. The Andronici are vindicated, and they have gained some wisdom through suffering, but they are still the avengers who gave the first offense.
Equally unsettling is the play’s depiction of gender relations. Titus is a patriarchal figure who responds with violence toward his own son when that son challenges his authority to give away his daughter Lavinia to Saturninus. In the play’s bloody conclusion, Titus is the slayer of his own daughter as well, lest she “survive her shame” and by her presence continually remind Titus of the disgrace he has suffered by her rape (5.3.41–2). The archaic code of male domination insists that a father’s honor is paramount and that his daughter’s death is preferable to shameful life even if, as in Lavinia’s case, she is wholly innocent and victimized in losing her chastity. (In The Rape of Lucrece, an innocent wife must pay the same terrible price to vindicate her husband’s honor.) At the opposite end of the spectrum, Tamora personifies a masculine fantasy of the fearsome transgressing female. Because she is both wanton and domineering, her sexuality is intolerable to most noble Romans; she captivates Saturninus and Aaron with her sensual beauty, but ultimately in this play such a dangerous woman must be tricked into the gruesomely appropriate crime of eating her own sons. Roman order is reestablished at last. Even so, its patriarchal ascendancy has been responsible for the carnage to no less an extent than has the more overtly erotic violence of the non-Roman “barbarians” like Tamora, her sons, and Aaron.
Excerpted from Three Classical Tragedies by William Shakespeare. Copyright © 2008 by William Shakespeare. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Classics, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.