Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
The great majority of English critics either reject this play altogether, upon the ground that in style and subject it is unlike any other work of Shakespeare, or accept as the true tradition of Ravenscroft, who altered the play in 1687, that "it was not his [Shakespeare's]," but that he only gave "some master touches to one or two of the principal parts of characters."
Says one critic: "Shakespeare's tragedy is never bloodily sensual;....this play is a perfect slaughterhouse, and the blood makes appeal to all the senses....It reeks of blood, it smells of blood, we almost feel that we have handled blood-- it is so gross."
Besides the tradition of Ravenscroft, the importance of the tragedy lies in the fact that, if Shakespeare wrote it, we find him as a young man carried away by the influence of the "storm and stress" movement similar to what urged other writers of the time. It belongs to the pre-Shakespearean group of bloody tragedies, of which Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy is the most conspicuous example.
It is Shakespeare's earliest and most notoriously violent tragedy, sensationally popular in his lifetime but only restored to critical favor in the late 20th century. The tragedy is believed by some critics to be written between late 1593 and early 1594...but most, including Ben Jonson, put the writing of the tragedy between 1588-90.
Script of the Play!
Cast of Major Characters (from The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, Ed. by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells, 2001)
(Shakespeare A to Z, Charles Boyce)
Titus Andronicus, a noble Roman, general against the Goths
A Roman General and central figure in the cycle of vengeance that comprises the play.
Initially, he is presented as an admirable patriot whose life has been spent largely in the service of his country, but his inflexible pride and overly developed sense of honor cause him to kill one of his own sons (Mutius) in a dispute over loyalty to the Emperor.
Tricked by Aaron, has two sons killed for a murder they do not have any part of, and sees daughter raped and mutilated as a retaliation for his sacrifice of Alarbus in Act 1.1. Has hand chopped off and returned, and his grief over the matter turns to madness and lunacy.
His revenge against Tamora is gained by the baking of her two sons into a pie that the mother is served at a banquet. He kills Lavinia before killing Tamora and then being himself killed by Saturnine.
Marcus Andronicus, brother to Titus
He discovers the ravished Lavinia, and in his seemingly incongruous response--distant and rhetorical despite the extremity of her plight--often puzzles modern readers. It is a good instance of a mode of formal discourse, intended to promote a sense of strangeness and unreality, that was highly prized in Renaissance times, but is now quite unfamiliar.
He kills a fly in 3.2, provoking so manic a response in Titus that he seems unbalanced by grief. Such mania is an important theme in a revenge play, which Titus Andronicus is. In the rest of the play, Marcus seconds his brother's sentiments of grief and his plans for revenge and mourns Titus at the end.
Lucius Andronicus, eldest son to Titus
Takes revenge for his father's strain upon Saturninus and Aaron the Moor.
Named emperor at the end of the play.
He is the eldest son of Titus and brother to Quintus, Martius and Mutius (order from old to young).
Major actions: Demands ritual sacrifice of Tamora's son Alabus; Banished from Rome and joins Goths; Returns in Act 5 as leader of Goth troops, and sentences Aaron to die.
Lavinia, daughter of Titus Andronicus
Her brutal rape and mutilation is the centerpiece of Aaron's revenge against her father. After her husband Bassianus, is stabbed and murdered, she is mutilated much in the same fashion as Philomela in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VI. Exposes Chiron and Demetrius by inducing Titus to look at a copy of Ovid's tales -- then by spelling the villains names in the sand with a wooden staff.
Is stabbed to death by father, emulating an old legend of a man (Virginius) who killed his raped daughter to expunge the family dishonor.
Saturninus, eldest son of the late emperor of Rome
Villainous Emperor. Becomes Emperor through the support of Titus, but turns against him, fearing his popularity. Becomes willing accessory to plots against Titus spun by the Empress, Tamora, and her lover, Aaron.
Sentences Martius and Quintus to death without a trial, presuming they killed his brother Bassianus.
In final scene, kills Titus and is killed by Lucius.
He is an early depiction by Shakespeare of an evil ruler who violates the ethics of kingship, an important issue for the playwright.
Bassianus, younger brother to Saturnine
The first victim to the plots of Aaron the Moor, he is brutalized in the woods by the sons of Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius.
The Goth Prisoners
Tamora, Queen of Goths
Villainous Queen of the Goths. Recedes from the forefront of the play and most of deeds are carried through by Aaron the Moor, though she helps to frame Titus's sons for murder and is particularly evil in refusing Lavinia's pleas for mercy (2.3).
Captured at beginning with her lover Aaron and three sons (Alarbus, Chiron and Demetrius), by Titus. Vows revenge of the ritual sacrifice of Alabus. Finds chance for vengeance when Saturnine, the newest Roman emperor, falls in love with and marries her.
In 4.4, she reproves the Emperor in a well-known speech which emphasizes the power of rulers -- after discovering Lucius has gained power of the Goth army.
Two remaining sons pose with her as Revenge, Rapine and Murder, in an attempt to sway or "enchant" the old Andronicus upon gaining vengeance for what has happened. Leaves sons with Titus, thinking she has convinced him, but sons are killed; they are fed to her in the last scene before Titus kills her.
Aaron the Moor, beloved by Tamora (chief villain in play)
The chief villain in the play, a vicious criminal who loves evil for its own sake. He is the lover of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths.
Begins revealing character in 2.1, rejoicing in the advancement of Tamora who is to marry the Emperor.
*The rich imagery of the first soliloquy (2.1.19-24) suggests that he is a villain who looks forward to catastrophe; having for him the allure of 'pearl and gold'.
Plans the appalling rape and mutilation of Lavinia, Titus's daughter, that is the centerpiece of the revenge upon the father. Not only is Lavinia brutalized, but her new husband, Bassianus, is murdered and two of Titus's sons are charged with the crime. Tells Titus his severed hand is required as ransom for the two sons' lives...Titus submits to the amputation, only to have sons heads, and his own hand, returned on a platter.
"O, how this villainy doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!" (3.1.202-3)
Aaron's blackness was a common symbol of evil in Shakespeare's day -- although Othello refuted this connotation -- as later in the play, a Nurse delivers to Aaron Tamora's new-born black infant, his child, calling it "as loathsome as a toad / Among the fair-faced breeders of our clime" (4.2.67-8). Aaron was told to kill the baby, but defends it at sword's point against Tamora's sons, and kills the Nurse instead; while sending the Empress's sons out to buy a white child.
**The black man's proud defiance of society reflects Shakespeare's awareness that villainy can have ingredients in common with heroism, regardless of race.
Captured while taking the infant son to friends among Goths, and is ordered to be hung with son by Lucius. To save son, confesses to all deeds, and is buried to the neck and starved to death.
Alarbus, the eldest son
His sacrifice is the crux of the revenge Tamora feeds upon throughout this play. It was Titus' inability to see how this would affect the queen of the Goths which resulted in the tragedies to follow.
Chiron and his brother Demetrius carry out the ideas of their mother and Aaron the Moor when they viciously set out on Bassianus and Lavinia in 2.3 and 2.4. Aaron encourages this, the day of the wedding ceremony for the brother's Caesar.
Their story becomes like that of the vengeful Procne to her son Itys in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Chiron is captured in 5.1 and is treated much like Itys in the famous tale...killed and consumed by the family at a formal dinner gathering.
With his brother Chiron, is a part of the appallingly horrific mutilation of Lavinia in 2.4. He is a follower of Aaron the Moor, and much like Saturnine, his belief is that since he is older, his ideas carry more weight in any decisions being made.
He is the other victim to Titus' counter revenge in the play's final scene.
Ameilius, messenger for the Goths
Noted for his delivering of timely, but standard messages from Saturnine to Titus in the play. He is a conventional character in that he simply provides the direct words of one person to another, without any real feeling or emotion.
Further Notation (from Shakespeare's treatment of Roman History, by J.L. Simmons, p473-476)
The prose work Titus Andronicus evokes Tacitus and Suetonius in its depiction of a corrupt imperial Rome in decline. The Goths clearly pointed to a fall and suggest barbarism is fast overtaking Rome.
Lavinia's rape and mutilation figure the Gothic assault as one upon the humanism of Rome. As chastity figure, she is Lucrece against the imperial lust of Tarquin as well as the beastiality of Tamora and her brutish sons. The Ovidian mutilation destroys that which traditionally distinguishes man from beast: speech.
Shakespeare synchronizes two Romes -- one imperial, one republican -- as his idea of a Rome continually at war with itself.
Shakespeare has given his noble hero the part of initiating the tragic confrontation in the historical terms of a flawed ethos -- even though human sacrifice was never practiced in Rome: even the barbarians can accuse him of "irreligious piety" (1.1.133). Shakespeare added Alarbus and Mutius to the image of pitilessness that always marked his depiction of chaotic evil, the murder of children. The first murderer is Titus.
Titus cannot rise above his sufferings; the catharsis (see Aristotle attachment) and expiation effected by the ritualized revenge are at best rudimentary.
The Lucius in Titus Andronicus is the nemesis figure who with the help of the Goths restores justice to Rome.
We can only assume that Shakespeare was drawn to the pseudohistory of Titus Andronicus because of the Senecan horrors it demanded. The play reveals that he certainly had a grasp on the real history. The structure and themes are relate to Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, as well as Julius Caesar.
Further Commentary (from Shakespeare A to Z, Charles Boyce)
Titus Andronicus is certainly the least satisfying Shakespearean tragedy, it is also his first attempt at the genre. Although it is inferior to later work, it is a fine play by the standards of 1590.
The play is based on ancient Roman drama; its format and general character were taken from Seneca. The violence and degradation to which the characters are exposed stand in marked contrast to the highly decorous language. References to classical literature abound, especially Ovid.
Shakespeare applied the tenets of Senecan drama in a polish and professional manner; content he was to attempt a standard melodrama, geared mainly toward box-office success. It is modeled on two immensely popular predecessors: (1) The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe, which had created a vogue for exotic villains
(2) The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd, the first great Elizabethan revenge play,
which along with Titus remained the two most popular English plays for the rest of the 16th century and into the early 17th century.
Glimpses of later, greater plays may be found in Titus. Hamlet uses the combination of shrewdly feigned lunacy with some real degree of insanity, which is applied rather baldly and unconvincingly in the depiction of Titus. Othello is anticipated by Titus in the show of a simple man out of his depth, a successful but easily manipulated military leader. Crimes committed in the name of honor precludes King Lear, but Titus never becomes aware of his errors.
Most importantly, Titus reveals Shakespeare's concern for political ethics. The question of heredity, succession to a throne, the crux of most of the later History plays, and concludes with the restoration of orderly rule after disruptions caused by human frailties.
However, Titus Andronicus in no way generates the powerful responses we associate with Shakespeare's great works. For one thing, there is no development toward a climax, but rather an assemblage of episodes, all rather similar in tone. Also, the extremely rhetorical dialogue inhibits the development of the characters, who do not reveal their feelings so much as describe them. The extremely melodramatic plot makes character development all but impossible; for one thing, more than half of the play's characters are killed, often on stage (including a prodigious three in four lines in the final scene).
This combination of academic formalism and blatant gore has appealed to few theatre-goers since the 17th century. Scholarly opinion used to deny Shakespeare authorship on the grounds that it was beneath the sensibility of a great writer. However, modern scholarship has rejected this assertion and reminds us that Shakespeare's taste was naturally that of his time. Titus Andronicus may be seen as roughly equivalent to today's horror movies. As such, it was a major success; it appealed to its audience, and it established the playwright as superior to most, if not all, of his contemporaries.
Study Guide Questions
1. From what is the Roman army returning at the beginning of the play?
2. With what is the river Styx normally associated?
3. Who has the Roman army returned with as their prisoners?
4. Which prisoner is taken for sacrifice? Why?
5. As Titus buries his sons which died in the war, of what does he lament?
6. Who are the two men campaigning to become Emperor of Rome?
7. Name the individual who has already been selected by the people of Rome.
8. Why does Titus talk of his years at war? Does this influence his decision to accept the role of Emperor?
9. Whom does Titus select for the role of Emperor? Is his decision influenced? If so, how?
10. Name who Saturnine select to be his bride.
11. Who is offended by this selection? Why?
12. What does Saturnine decide to do with the prisoners captured by Titus's army?
13. As Lavinia runs from the coronation with Bassianus, Titus follows. Who does he kill trying to get Lavinia?
14. Name the new Queen selected before the end of the Act.
15. What does Tamora pledge to do to the family Andronicus?
Act II=Rising Action
1. What are the questions answered, in Aaron's soliloquy, about his relationship with Tamora?
2. Of what are Chiron and Demetrius arguing?
3. Describe the plot contrived by Aaron to dispose of what lies in the princes way to Lavinia.
4. As Tamora and Aaron are together in scene iii, who sees them?
5. Name the falsehood told by Tamora to her sons, thereby escaping the shame of being with the Moor.
6. Who dispatches Bassianus? Why? How?
7. What does Tamora propose happens to Lavinia as punishment for her intrusion and words?
8. To what is Aaron leading Quintus and Martius during the hunt?
9. Tell what they 'fall' upon.
10. As Quintus tries to help, what happens?
11. Name the four pieces of evidence that leads to the accusation of Titus's sons for the murder of Bassianus.
12. The last scene reveals the catastrophe of this act. Tell what occurred.
1. For what is Titus pleading in the soliloquy that opens the Act?
2. Describe the analogy between the tribunes and stones.
3. For what offense has Lucius been charged? What is the punishment?
4. When Marcus enters carrying Lavinia, it is one of the most dramatic in the play. What news has he brought Titus of his daughter?
5. Upon discovering this, how does Titus feel about his country and his time in service.
6. Aaron, ever the contriver of misdeeds, arrives and proposes a solution to Titus' issue of his captured sons. What must Titus do to see his sons returned?
7. Who offers to carry through with the deed instead?
8. Whose limb is finally offered?
9. A messenger returns from the emperor with a 'gift'. What is inside?
10. Why does Titus laugh?
11. Where is Lucius sent by Titus? Why?
12. Scene ii shows a scene with Titus attempting to gain understanding of Lavinia's thoughts, when a fly is killed. What are the two sides of the story represented in this action?
Act IV=Falling Action (Catastrophe)
1. Why is Lavinia chasing young Lucius at the beginning of the first scene?
2. Describe the relationship between Ovid's Metamorphoses and the situation with Lavinia:
3. How does Marcus suggest they contrive the answer to the culprits of Lavinia's crime?
4. What is the reaction of Titus to the names presented?
5. Who are the three men present as scene ii opens?
6. What news does the nurse bring from the empress?
7. Describe the reaction of the entire room. The catastrophe of the play happens here: what is it?
8. As scene iii opens, tell what Titus says about Rome and what type of men they are within the city.
9. What do the men do with the arrows?
10. In scene iv, what does Tamora plan for Titus?
1. With whom is Lucius speaking as Act V opens?
2. Who arrives, captured by members of the Goth army?
3. What does Lucius force him to tell? What is the condition given to spill the information?
4. Describe the information provided by Aaron. What does it tell about the narrator's nature?
5. Where does the army head at the end of the first scene?
6. Who arrives at Titus' home? As what are they dressed?
7. At this point, it is still believed that Titus is mad. Does he truly believe everyone is who they say they are?
8. Why do the boys stay when Tamora leaves?
9. What does Titus have planned for the boys?
10. Discuss what happens to Lavinia. Why does this occur?
11. The immense slaughter of this scene represents the climax of this act. Name the major events that occur.
12. Who is the new emperor?
13. What happens to Aaron the Moor and Tamora?
14. What is the total number of persons slain in this play?
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