Let’s Talk about Titus Andronicus

I’ve just finished reading for the first time Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first tragedy and one of his earliest plays–scholars date its composition to circa 1589-1592, and the first Quarto version of it was printed in 1594.  The play’s style is very much in keeping with a subgenre of plays popular in the 1580’s, known as ‘revenge tragedies,’ Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy being one of the most commonly cited examples.  The subgenre is noted for its obvious theme, revenge, (specifically bloodline revenge), delay in avenging, feigned or genuine madness in the avenger, depiction of extensive bloodshed, and more–most all of which apply to Titus Andronicus.

And yet, for all the play’s ‘typical’ characteristics, I can’t say I’ve read any other play quite like it–quite so laden with mutilation and murder–at least not another play written prior to the twentieth century.  I found myself thinking often of the late Sarah Kane’s work.  While I recall David Greig (in his intro to the Methuen edition of her complete plays)  comparing some moments in her work to moments in Shakespeare (such as the soldier’s biting out of Ian’s eyes in Blasted in light of the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear), I wonder, too, if Kane’s work wasn’t also, perhaps, influenced by Titus–beyond just the graphic depiction of blood and horror in her plays, I’m thinking of moments, such as when the Tinker cuts off Carl’s hands in Cleansed, a moment that brings to mind the cutting off of both Lavinia’s hands and of Titus’ left hand in Shakespeare’s tragedy.  In short, of the plays I’ve read in the past few years, Titus is the only one to trouble me as much as Kane’s plays (which is not, however, a bad thing, as I’m a staunch defender of Kane, and for reasons I’m still trying to put my finger on, I actually am interested in Shakespeare’s Titus).

Titus, the title character, is in some ways an embryonic Lear, albeit a less developed and less sympathetic character.  Titus initially precludes our sympathy.  In the opening act (1.1.292), he dismisses the pleas of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who begs him to spare her oldest son, Alarbus’ life; Titus instead invokes an eye-for-an-eye punishment upon Alarbus in return for the Roman soldiers lost in battle to the Goths.  Next, Titus rashly  stabs and kills his own son, Mutius, when Mutius refuses Titus passage through a guarded door.  Titus takes Mutius’ barring of his entry as an affront to his authority and reacts severely, to put it mildly; in fact, Mutius was just helping his brothers ensure his sister, Lavinia’s safe departure.  Thus, egotism and rashness resulting in poor judgement are among Titus’ flaws.

Before long, however, the evildoings of several other characters in the play surpass in horror and sinfulness Titus’ initial wrongdoings, and we are made, ironically, to feel pity for the aged patriarch.  By act three, Titus’ life has become a living nightmare.  His daughter, Lavinia, is literally hunted down like prey, raped (in essence, gang banged), her tongue is removed, and her hands are cut off by the Goth brothers Demetrius and Chiron, the sons of Queen Tamora.  The evil pair spares her life, but not her chastity (read virtue) or her ability to divulge in spoken or written words the identity of her murderers.  The excision of Lavinia’s tongue is an allusion to what happens to Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: her brother-in-law, Tereus rapes her and cuts out her tongue for the same reasons as Demetrius and Chiron. Philomela eventually weaves her story into a tapestry.  Shakespeare amplifies the horrors inflicted on Lavinia by also having the brothers chop off her hands.  When Lavinia’s uncle, Marcus, discovers her roaming in the woods and returns her to her father, the paragon of virtue is reduced to a mute actor in a dumb show, and her family in turn becomes an audience trying to decipher her gesticulations.  Her sound literacy eventually affords her the opportunity to out her ravishers.  Ovid’s work is among the books her nephew, Lucius Jr., reads to her.  The sight of the book prompts her to wave her ‘stumps’ about, and her uncle Marcus, sensing the gesture signifies something of import, shows her how to use what remains of her arms to write her ravishers’ names in the dirt with a stick.  Of course, it is also Titus’ familiarity with this work of literature that compels him to murder Lavinia in the final act, as a supposed way of clearing her rape-tarnished virtue.

Titus is made to endure more personal loss when Aaron the Moor frames Titus’ sons for the murder of Bassianus, brother of Emperor Saturninus and husband of Lavinia.  Titus pleads on his sons’ behalf to no avail, and they are imprisoned.  A  messenger for Aaron next promises Titus his sons will be freed in exchange for either the hand of Titus, his son, Lucius, or his brother, Marcus. No sooner does Titus comply and offer up his own left hand, then does the messenger return with the heads of Titus’ recently and wrongly executed sons.

At 4.1, the play’s course of events takes a turn, when Titus decides to stop grieving and start responding to the evil to which he and his family have been subjected.  Instead of overtly vowing revenge, Titus takes what turns out to be a more metadramatic tack–he acts, convincingly feigning madness, baiting the Emperor and Empress to dinner at his home, where he serves up the Tamora’s sons (recently sleighed by his own, only remaining, hand) for the main course.  A bloodbath ensues. Titus kills Lavinia and the Empress; Saturninus kills Titus; and Lucius kills Saturninus.  Aaron the Moor, a character reminiscent of the vice figure from morality plays and anticipatory of Iago,who has served as the force behind so much evil in the play (urging Tamora’s sons to rape Lavinia, duping Titus into cutting off his hand, etc.) awaits his gradual death by imposed starvation–a death that seems too mild by comparison to the fates of others.  In total, FOURTEEN characters die.  At the play’s end, the much-liked, valiant Lucius, lives to ascend the throne.

But all is clearly not well that ends well in the world of this play.  For one, what of Lavinia? No one present, excepting Saturninus, reacts to Titus’ murder of her.  Are we just to accept her ultimate fate at her father’s hands as an act in keeping with the patriarchal times in which the work was written and condone what Titus does?  Is her character a commentary on the political trafficking of women’s bodies? And what of the racism directed at Tamora and Aaron? of the racism directed at the newborn offspring of Tamora and Aaron by Aaron himself?

What was your reaction when you read the play? Have you seen a production?

*Photo credit: 2006 Globe production, London.

2 Responses to “Let’s Talk about Titus Andronicus”
  1. Hello Nicole, since you ask in the post above for readers’ reactions to “Titus Andronicus”, I thought you may be interested in my own response to the work:


    I read this as part of a private project I had embarked upon to read, in the order of composition (as far as that order can be ascertained) all the plays in the Sakespeare canon. “Titus Andronicus” made upon me a most unfavourable impression, and I do not believe for a moment that it is representative of Shakespeare’s artistic vision.

    • nstodard says:

      Thanks for sharing your link! I agree that what Shakespeare was doing in TA was tied to box office demands, given the popularity of “blood” tragedies such as Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Some critics have suggested that TA may have been Shakespeare’s first play; if that were the case, it would make it a little easier to put the play in perspective in the grand scheme of his career.

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