Titus Andronicus | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Titus Andronicus | Themes

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Revenge

Titus Andronicus is an example of a revenge tragedy. Revenge is thus one of the play's most important themes. It is the motivation behind most of the characters' decisions, and as such it is the main plot driver. One of the first acts of violence in the play is the sacrifice of Tamora's eldest son to appease the spirits of Titus's dead sons. Despite her pleading, Titus gives permission for this sacrifice, causing Tamora to seek revenge. Tamora's revenge, in turn, will bring retribution from Titus. This tit-for-tat cycle, left unbroken, forms a chain of events with no end in sight. The only way it can truly end is for all those involved to die.

Beyond the role of revenge as plot driver, the play links revenge to the idea of justice. Many of the characters believe justice will only be served if those who caused harm are punished in a similar fashion. They pray to the gods for this justice but then mete out the punishment themselves. Revenge and justice serve the same purpose—punishment for the wrongdoer. There seems little difference, unless, as Publius claims in Act 4, Scene 3, Revenge is from hell and Justice is from heaven. Titus replies, "And sith there's no justice in Earth nor hell, / We will solicit heaven and move the gods / To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs." Yet the play offers no examples of constructive, rehabilitative justice, and Titus quickly takes revenge into his own hands. This suggests he may see a blurred line between justice from heaven and his own acts of revenge.

Family Obligations

The theme of family obligations runs throughout the play, beginning in the first scene. Titus's expectation of loyalty and obedience from his children drives him to kill his own son, Martius. Martius subverts his father by helping Lavinia marry Bassianus rather than Saturninus. Titus does not hesitate to use violence against a son whom he perceives as disloyal. And Titus's sense of family obligation is what drives him to take his terrible revenge on Tamora and her sons, who violated Titus's daughter Lavinia.

Yet in many ways, Titus fails to be a good father to his children despite his sense of family duty. He does, after all, kill his son and daughter. In a strange contrast, Aaron, an unrepentant and mostly uncomplicated villain, proves to be a protective father. He refuses to kill his own child and shields his baby from harm by confessing to his many crimes.

Tamora and her sons exhibit a unified sense of family loyalty. Chiron and Demetrius seem to be little more than extensions of their mother. They quickly jump aboard her revenge train and act against the Andronicus family, though their actions seem partially in service to their lust. But they never betray or harm Tamora, and she never knowingly hurts them.

Perpetuation of Violence

Gratuitous violence is an identifying—and controversial—feature of the play. The total body count is 14, higher than any other Shakespeare play. Add to this the appearance of Lavinia with her hands and tongue cut off, and a messenger carrying not only the heads of Titus's executed sons but also Titus's own severed hand. The final scene, in which Tamora is served her own dead sons' bodies in a pie, is quite gruesome.

Despite this spectacle of violence, the play asks important questions. Where does violence come from? The play's characterization of Aaron and its depiction of the Goths as barbarians would suggest violence is something people are born with. Aaron seems to have no reason for his many crimes—he simply delights in them. But the play also strongly suggests violence is a learned behavior. Aaron considers himself a tutor of violence when he convinces Chiron and Demetrius to rape Lavinia. And the number of allusions to stories of violence leaves open the possibility that violent behavior can be passed through the telling of stories—another kind of learning.

This nature-versus-nurture argument is not entirely resolved in the play. But one thing seems to be clear: violence can more easily be perpetuated when leaders are weak. The opening scene makes it clear Roman leadership under Saturninus is lacking in vision. Saturninus can't even make up his mind which woman he wants, much less how he will lead the empire. Lucius, after being declared emperor, promises to bring order to the chaos. The sense of a fresh start under a capable leader offers a glimpse of hope at the end of a very bloody play.

Questions for Themes

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