Titus Andronicus | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Titus Andronicus | Context

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The Goths and the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire (27 BCE–1452 CE) began when its leader, Octavian, was made emperor and took the name Augustus in 27 BCE. Before that time Rome was a republic, where the people wield power through elected leaders. Its influence grew as it expanded over more than 400 years, until its territory spread throughout most of Europe and parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. For hundreds of years the Roman Empire enjoyed unparalleled power. But eventually this great empire collapsed due in part to the difficulty in ruling such a large geographic area, the strain of internal conflicts, and increasingly poor leadership. Titus Andronicus is set in the latter years of the Roman Empire, when the seeds of its decline and fall were already present. Rome's military engagement with the Goths forms an important political context for the play, though the events of the play do not have any basis in historical fact.

The Goths were a Germanic people who may have originated in Scandinavia before migrating and settling near the Black Sea in the 2nd century CE, where they formed extensive kingdoms. They were often in conflict with the Romans, frequently invading and raiding Roman-controlled areas during the late Roman Empire throughout the 3rd century CE. They were considered barbarians—more like wild animals than humans—by the Romans, an attitude that seems to be echoed in Shakespeare's portrayal of the vindictive Tamora and her bloodthirsty lover, Aaron. These two lovers are compared to wild animals several times in the play. Lavinia calls Tamora a "tiger" in Act 2, Scene 3. Lucius calls Aaron a "barbarous Moor" and refers to both Aaron and Tamora as "ravenous" tigers (Act 5, Scene 3).

Early Popularity, Later Disdain

Titus Andronicus is exceedingly bloody, and its poetry is not as nuanced and graceful as Shakespeare's later plays. These attributes have led some to conclude it is Shakespeare's worst play, that it could not have been written by Shakespeare, or that it must have been partly authored by someone else. Some scholars believe Elizabethan playwright George Peele (1556–96) may have collaborated on the play with Shakespeare. Scholars who have analyzed the language of the play believe its word choice and phrasing shows some similarities with Peele's other works.

However, when Titus Andronicus was first performed, it became highly popular. Life under Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) was generally peaceful, but the Elizabethan era's forms of entertainment tended to the violent. Bear baiting and bull baiting using dogs was one of the queen's favorite forms of entertainment. Public executions drew large crowds. Thus, Elizabethans did not have delicate sensibilities when it came to the stage: this was an audience that was accustomed to violent public displays, and they enjoyed the bloody spectacle Titus Andronicus served up. English playwright Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587), a play with a famously high body count and a great deal of bloodshed, was a favorite at the time, and Titus Andronicus may be viewed as Shakespeare's first attempt at the genre. He seems to have been determined to outdo Kyd in both gore and body count. Titus Andronicus contains the seeds of later revenge-themed tragedies, such as Hamlet (1599–1601), although it lacks the psychological nuance and deep feeling of many of the later plays.

Over time British audiences lost their taste for violence. By the 17th century Titus Andronicus was rarely performed, and when it was staged the bloodiest parts were cut, leaving an unsatisfying shell of a plot. This state of affairs continued for about 300 years. However, since the 20th century Titus Andronicus has enjoyed something of an uptick in popularity. A 1955 staging starred English actors Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. In 1999 a film version featuring Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins and American actor Jessica Lange was directed by American Julie Taymor. And in 2015 London's Globe Theatre staged a bloody production that caused two to four audience members to faint during each performance.

Revenge Tragedy

Titus Andronicus's early popularity makes a great deal of sense when placed in the context of similar popular works of the period. By Shakespeare's time, plays that revolved around a character's quest for revenge had been around for centuries. These became numerous enough to warrant their own genre: revenge tragedy. One of the earliest writers of revenge tragedy was Roman playwright Seneca the Younger (4 BCE–65 CE). Thomas Kyd brought the genre firmly into the English lexicon when his play The Spanish Tragedy was performed around 1587 and gained widespread popularity. Titus Andronicus capitalized on the popularity of the revenge tragedy, but it was far from the pinnacle of the genre. English playwrights John Marston's Antonio's Revenge (1599–1601) and Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) are just a few of the many plays with a revenge-driven plot and a stage littered with bodies at the conclusion. And of course, Shakespeare's own Hamlet is a premier, although more contemplative and less bloodthirsty, example of the genre.

Typically, a revenge tragedy includes

  • a main character driven by revenge against an antagonist
  • scenes in which a character goes mad or appears to be insane
  • a ghost or spirit who instigates or encourages vengeance
  • scenes of bloody, gory violence
  • death of the protagonist at the conclusion of the play

Titus Andronicus fits securely inside the genre. Its protagonist, for whom the play is named, is consumed by his quest for vengeance against Tamora and her lover and sons. Titus goes mad or appears to as a result of his deep grief over the rape of his daughter and the unjust execution of his sons. There is no ghostly visit from a vengeful spirit, as in Hamlet, but Tamora masquerades as the spirit of Revenge. And there are few, if any, plays with as much blood, gore, and death. Its conclusion includes, as any tragedy does, the death of the protagonist.

Sources and Influences

Titus Andronicus is loosely set in a historical period, but its events are completely fictional. Neither Titus Andronicus nor any of the other characters are historical persons, and none of the events bear any similarity to actual events. However, its Roman setting does inform some of its reliance on classical myth and literature. The most obvious example is the play's use of the rape of Philomel from Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses (c. 8 CE). In Ovid's telling of the story, Philomel—an Athenian princess—is raped by her brother-in-law, King Tereus of Thrace. He cuts out her tongue so she cannot reveal his crime. Not only does Lavinia's rape and mutilation nearly duplicate Philomel's story, the book itself is used as a prop in the play. Lavinia, seeing Young Lucius's copy of the book, manages to use her arm stumps to show others Philomel's story as a way to communicate the crime committed against her.

Another obvious source is Roman writer Seneca's Thyestes (c. 62 CE). In this play Olympian king Thyestes seduces the Mycenaean king Atreus's wife. Atreus takes revenge by killing Thyestes's sons and having them served to their father at a feast. Atreus then reveals to Thyestes the ingredients of the meal. Shakespeare uses this idea of revenge when Titus Andronicus kills the Goth queen Tamora's sons and serves them to her in a meat pie at a feast, revealing this deception to her after she has eaten.

The popular song "A Lamentable Ballad of the Tragical End of a Gallant Lord and of his Beautiful Lady, With the Untimely Death of Their Children, Wickedly Performed by a Heathen Blackamore, Their Servant: The Like Seldom Heard Before" (c. 1570) may be a source for the villainous plot of Aaron, the Moor in Titus Andronicus. Ballads, a form of popular song set to well-known tunes, were everywhere in Shakespeare's England, where they communicated everything from the news of the day to sensational fiction. In this particular ballad, a "Heathen Blackamore" takes revenge on his employer by raping his wife. When the "Gallant Lord" begs for his lady's life, the Blackamore tells him he will spare her life if the lord cuts off his own nose. The lord complies. In Titus Andronicus Aaron helps to plan the rape of Titus's daughter Lavinia as part of Tamora's revenge for the death of her son. He also tricks Titus into cutting off his own hand by saying this will convince the emperor to spare his sons' lives.

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