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Who Were the
Critical Appraisal of the Play
Titus as a Shrews
Study Guide Prepared by
Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Type of Work
Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is a
tragic stage play that has many
characteristics of black comedy.
The play was highly popular in Shakespeare's
time because of its depiction of extreme
violence and gore. Many Elizabethans enjoyed
bloody spectacles, whether on the stage or out
in the open air. For example, many people who
attended Titus Andronicus also
attended bear-baiting exhibitions in London
arenas. In these exhibitions, a bear was
chained to a post in an enclosed area.
Fighting dogs were then unleashed to attack
the bear. A bloody battled ensued. At times,
the bear was released to harry the dogs. Queen
Elizabeth I was among the spectators who
enjoyed this sport.
wrote the play between 1589 and 1594 (probably
1593). The earliest
known performance of Titus Andronicus
was at the Rose Theatre in the London borough
of Southwark on January 24, 1594. The play was
a hit at the box office and was performed
again on January 29, February 6, and at other
times in Shakespeare's lifetime.
Andronicus was published in two formats: quarto
and folio. The difference between them was size. A
quarto page was about 9½ inches wide and 12 inches high;
a folio page was much larger: 12 inches wide and 19
inches high. The play was printed in a quarto edition in
1594 by John Danter under the title A Romaine
Tragedy of Titus Andronicus for two book dealers,
Edward White and Thomas Millington. It was the first
Shakespeare play to see print. Other quarto editions
followed in 1600, and 1611. The 1594 quarto was a
relatively good rendering of Shakespeare's original
manuscript, but the other two quartos contain errors.
The play was printed again in 1623 in folio format as
part of a collection that included thirty-five other
Shakespeare plays. Because this book was the first
collection of Shakespeare's plays in one volume, it came
to be known as the First Folio. Other folios were
printed in 1632, 1663 and 1685. The 1623 folio edition,
like the 1594 quarto edition, was a close reproduction
of the original, proofread manuscript.
Shakespeare's main sources for Titus
Andronicus was Thyestes,
the Younger (4 BC-AD 65), a Roman dramatist of
Spanish birth and a tutor to Emperor Nero.
plays that described in elaborate
detail the grisly horror of murder and
contains murder, rape, and cannibalism.
Shakespeare also borrowed from Hecuba,
by the Greek playwright Euripides (480?-406
BC). This play centers on an event at the end
of the Trojan War, after the Greeks conquer
and burn the city of Troy. This event focuses
on the Greeks' capture and enslavement of the
queen of Troy, Hecuba. Over Hecuba's pleas,
the Greeks sacrifice one of her daughters,
Polyxena, to honor the memory of the great
Greek warrior Achilles. In Titus
Andronicus, the Romans capture the queen
of the Goths, Tamora, and sacrifice one of her
sons after Tamora begs the Romans to spare
him. Shakespeare also drew upon the story of
"Procne and Philomela" as told in Metamorphoses,
by Ovid (43 BC-AD 17). In this story,
Philomela is raped and mutilated, as is
Lavinia, the daughter of Titus Andronicus.
Shakespeare may also have imitated the
blood-and-guts horror and brutality portrayed
in The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd
The action of the play takes
place in Italy—including Rome, a forest near
Rome, and plains near Rome—after the Romans
defeat an army of Goths (a Germanic people
that frequently raided Roman provinces).
Titus Andronicus is fictional, but it is
set against real events that took place in
approximately the third, fourth, and fifth
centuries AD. At that time, the Roman Empire
was in decline and Goths from the north were
pushing southward and threatening Rome and its
Who Were the
Originally from Sweden, the
Goths later settled in regions around the Baltic
Sea and later the Black Sea, according to the
sixth-century historian Jordanes, himself a
Goth. Around AD 370, the Goths broke into two
groups: Those that moved eastward became known
as Ostrogoths; those that moved westward became
known as Visigoths. They gradually extended
power and influence in Europe and in 410 entered
and pillaged Rome.
Andronicus: Noble Roman general who has won
a long war against the Goths but lost many of his
sons in battle. Although he is at first a
reasonable man, events of the play transform him
into a madman bent on revenge.
Duplicitous and selfish older son of the late
Emperor of Rome. Saturninus succeeds his father
after Titus Andronicus, citing his advancing age,
declines to accept the throne.
Younger son of the later emperor and brother
of Saturninus. He is in love with Lavinia.
Queen of the Goths, who is unrelenting in her
desire to avenge the execution of her son Alarbus
at the hands of her Roman captors. Near the end of
the play, she unwittingly eats a meat pie made of
the flesh of her dead sons.
Demetrius, Chiron: Sons of Tamora.
A diabolical Moor and lover of
Tamora. Aaron is evil personified, but he has
a redeeming quality: love for his child. A Moor was a Muslim of
mixed Arab and Berber descent. Berbers
were North African natives who
eventually accepted Arab customs and
Islam after Arabs invaded North Africa
in the seventh century AD. The term
has been used to refer in general to
Muslims of North Africa and to Muslim
conquerors of Spain. The word Moor
derives from a Latin word, Mauri,
used to name the residents of the
ancient Roman province of Mauritania
in North Africa. To use the term
"black Moor" is not to commit a
redundancy, for there are white Moors
as well as black Moors, the latter
mostly of Sudanese origin. In placing
a Moor in a play about ancient Rome,
Shakespeare was guilty of a literary
faux pas. A Moor was a Muslim, or
follower of Islam. However, Islam was
not founded until the early seventh
century. Titus Andronicus is
set between the third and fifth
Innocent daughter of Titus Andronicus. She is
the victim of horrible crimes, including rape, the
amputation of her hands, and the excision of her
Tribune of the people and brother of Titus. A tribune was an elected official
dedicated to protecting the rights of the
common people, called plebeians, from offenses
by the privileged people, or patricians.
Quintus, Martius, Mutius: Sons of Titus
Andronicus. Lucius is the oldest of Titus's living
Lucius: Son of Lucius. He is identified in
the dialogue as "Boy."
Son of Marcus the tribune.
Valentine: Kinsmen of Titus. Valentine assists in the capture
of Chiron and Demetrius, who raped and
A noble Roman who acts as a
negotiator between the Romans and the Goths.
At the end of the play, he recommends that
Lucius be crowned as the new emperor.
Larbus, Demetrius, Chiron: Sons of Tamora.
Nurse: Woman who brings
Aaron his baby, the offspring of a tryst between
Aaron and Tamora.
Captain, Tribune, Messenger, Clown
Characters: Nurse, Senators, Tribunes,
Officers, Soldiers, Attendants.
By Michael J. Cummings...
Titus Andronicus returns to Rome after
defeating the Goths in a ten-year campaign,
the citizens hail him as a hero. Among his
captives are the Queen of the Goths, Tamora,
and her three sons, Alarbus, Demetrius, and
Chiron. Also accompanying Tamora is her lover
Aaron, a Moor. Titus has lost many sons in the
war and, when the tomb of the Andronicus
family is opened to receive the bodies, Titus
grieves deeply, saying:
receptacle [tomb] of my joys,
To give them a
fitting funeral, Lucius, the oldest of Titus’s
three living sons, suggests a human sacrifice.
Titus singles out Alarbus, Tamora’s oldest son.
She pleads for her son’s life:
cell of virtue and nobility,
sons of mine hast thou in store,
wilt never render to me more! (1.1.97-100)
Titus, rue the tears I shed,
that “die he must, / To appease their groaning
shadows that are gone” (1.1.130-131). Lucius and
attendants seize Alarbus and remove him to his
place of execution. There, they hew his limbs
and “feed the sacrificing fire” (1.1.150). The
death of Alarbus triggers a series of gruesome
murders and mutilations occurring throughout the
play. Lavinia, the gentle daughter of Titus,
then comes forth to greet her father, shedding
tears of grief for her brothers who died in the
war and tears of joy at the sight of Titus.
mother’s tears in passion for her son:
thy sons were ever dear to thee,
my son to be as dear to me! (1.1.110-113)
Meanwhile, it so happens that the imperial crown
is up for grabs, the emperor having just died.
When it is offered to Titus, he refuses it,
saying he “shakes for age and feebleness”
(1.1.196), and recommends Saturninus, the oldest
son of the dead emperor, for the crown. Titus
also recommends that Saturninus choose Lavinia,
Titus’s daughter, as his wife and empress.
Saturninus becomes emperor, Tamora's beauty
captivates him. He frees her and her sons. Then
Bassianus, the brother of Saturninus, objects to
the proposed marriage of Saturninus and Lavinia
because Lavinia is betrothed to him. With the
help of Lavinia’s brothers, he steals her away.
Titus is angry—so angry that he kills his son
Mucius when he bars Titus from pursuing the
lovers. Later, Saturninus decides that he
fancies Tamora more than Lavinia, then marries
Tamora and makes her empress. Tamora begins
plotting revenge against Titus for allowing the
slaughter of her son. Before the palace,
Tamora’s lover, Aaron, exalts Tamora, and
describes how he will serve her and “wanton”
her. He predicts that she will bring ruin to
I will be
bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
Demetrius and Chiron quarrel over Lavinia. Each
lusts after her, and each plans to claim the
right to take her from Bassianus. Aaron suggests
that they share the lovely Lavinia by taking
turns raping her in the seclusion of a forest.
The occasion will come during a hunt in the
woods for game. Emperor Saturninus, Queen
Tamora, and many others are to take part in the
hunt. On the day of the hunt, Aaron and Tamora
rendezvous in the woods. Tamora speaks of her
desire that they may soon lie down “wreathed in
each other’s arms / [and] . . . possess a golden
slumber'' (2.3.29-30). Aaron confides to her
that he is preoccupied with seeking revenge
against their enemies, then gives her a letter
she is to present to Saturninus. Its contents
will abet Tamora’s desire to bring down Titus.
upon this new-made empress.
said I? to wanton with this queen,
goddess, this Semiramis,
siren, that will charm Rome’s Saturnine,
his ship wrack [shipwreck] and his
When Bassianus and Lavinia
discover Aaron and Tamora together, Tamora fears
that the intruders will tattletale to the
emperor. So she calls out for her sons,
Demetrius and Chiron. When they arrive, Tamora
pretends Bassianus has threatened her. Ever
ready to defend mommy dearest, the sons kill
Bassianus, dump him in a pit, then drag Lavinia
off to satisfy their lust. But not only do they
rape her, they also mutilate her, cutting off
her hands and tearing out her tongue so that she
will not be able to speak or write their names
in attempting to identify her rapists. Aaron
leads Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius to the
pit where Bassianus lies dead under cover of
brush. Martius falls in. While Aaron goes to
fetch Saturninus, Quintus falls in, too, trying
to rescue Martius. Saturninus arrives with
Aaron. With them are Titus, Lucius, and
attendants. Martius, who has discovered the body
Bassianus, informs Saturninus that his brother
is dead. Tamora then presents Aaron’s letter to
Saturninus. It falsely implicates Martius and
Quintus in the murder of Bassianus.
Saturninus imprisons them. Judges later sentence
them to death in spite of Titus’s pleas on their
behalf. Lavinia, of course, cannot testify in
their favor, for she has no tongue. When Titus,
Lucius, and Titus’s brother Marcus discuss their
options, the evil Aaron arrives and tells them
that Saturninus will free the sons of Titus if
Marcus, Lucius, or Titus cuts off his hand and
sends it to the emperor. It is Titus, though,
who allows Aaron to cut off his hand and take it
to Saturninus. Within a half hour, however, the
emperor returns the hand, together with the
heads of Titus’s imprisoned sons, in a show of
scorn and contempt. Titus orders his son Lucius
to flee the city and enlist an army of Goths to
overthrow Saturninus. The loss of his sons takes
a severe toll on Titus: He begins to go mad.
Then Lavinia informs Titus and others about her
rape and mutilation by writing in sand with a
stick held in her mouth.
Meanwhile, Tamora has a
baby. It is obviously Aaron’s because it has the
dark complexion of a Moor. Worried that her
husband, Saturninus, will find out about it,
Tamora wants it killed. Aaron has other plans.
First, he kills the baby’s midwife and nurse to
keep secret the baby’s existence. Next, he
substitutes a white baby for his own, then
leaves with his child to go to the Goths to have
them raise it.
By this time, Lucius is marching on Rome with
his army of Goths. Aaron and his baby, who have
been captured, appear. Aaron agrees to tell all
he knows if his child is allowed to live. It is
now Titus’s turn for revenge. He cuts the
throats of Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron,
then has a pie prepared of their remains. At his
home, dressed as a cook, he serves the pie to
Saturninus and Tamora, who are seated at a
banquet table, unaware of recent events, notably
the deaths of Demetrius and Chiron. With Titus
is Lavinia, dressed in a veil. After welcoming
the emperor and the queen, he bids them eat of
the pie, which they do—heartily. Titus then
kills Lavinia to put her out of her misery. When
Tamora asks why he killed his own daughter,
Titus tells her that the deed was really done by
Demetrius and Chiron. “They ravish’d her, and
cut away her tongue” (5.3.61), he explains.
Saturninus then asks that Demetrius and Chiron
be brought before him. But Titus says:
they are both, baked in that pie;
He flashes the
knife he used to prepare the pie, then uses it
to kill Tamora. In retaliation, Saturninus kills
Titus, and Lucius kills Saturninus. Lucius takes
command of Rome as the new emperor. There is
unfinished business: Aaron. Lucius orders him to
be buried up to his chest, then starved to
their mother daintily hath fed,
the flesh that she herself hath bred.
Appraisal of the Play
Andronicus was a critically acclaimed
box-office hit in Shakespeare's time. In Palladis
Tamia, English author Francis
Meres (1565-1647) singled out Titus
Andronicus as one of
Shakespeare's "excellent" plays. The
play continued to please audiences
and critics in performances during
Shakespeare's lifetime and beyond. But
from 1700 until recent times, critics
generally criticized the work as foul and
vulgar, with few redeeming qualities. In
modern times, the play regained its popularity
with audiences and critics. Following are
excerpts from commentary of literary critics
about the play.
English critic and essayist
William Hazlitt described the play as being so
bad that he believed Shakespeare could not
have written it. He said, in part:
Titus Andronicus is
certainly as unlike Shakespeare's usual
style as it is possible. It is an
accumulation of vulgar physical horrors, in
which the power exercised by the poet bears
no proportion to the repugnance excited by
the subject. The character of Aaron the Moor
is the only thing which shows any
originality of conception; and the scene in
which he expresses his joy at the blackness
and ugliness of his child begot in
adultery', the only one worthy of
Shakespeare. Even this is worthy of him only
in the display of power, for it gives no
pleasure. Shakespeare managed these things
differently. Nor do we think it a sufficient
answer to say that this was an embryo or
crude production of the author. In its kind
it is full grown, and its features decided
and overcharged. It is not like a first
imperfect essay, but shows a confirmed
habit, a systematic preference of violent
effect to everything else. There are
occasional detached images of great beauty
and delicacy, but these were not beyond the
powers of other writers then living. The
circumstance which inclines us to reject the
external evidence in favour of this play
being Shakespeare's is, that the grammatical
construction is constantly false and mixed
up with vulgar abbreviations, a fault that
never occurs in any of his genuine plays. A
similar defect, and the halting measure of
the verse are the chief objections to Pericles
of Tyre, if we except the far-fetched
and complicated absurdity of the story. The
movement of the thoughts and passions has
something in it not unlike Shakespeare, and
several of the descriptions are either the
original hints of passages which Shakespeare
has engrafted on his other plays, or are
imitations of them by some contemporary
poet. The most memorable idea in it is in
Marina's speech, where she compares the
world to 'a lasting storm, hurrying her from
her friends'.—Characters of Shakespeare's
Plays. London: C. H.
Reynell, 1817. Online at Project Gutenberg
critic, essayist, and lexicographer Samuel Johnson
also doubted that Shakespeare wrote the play. In
Volume III of Notes to Shakespeare, he wrote:
The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general
massacre, which are here exhibited, can scarcely be
conceived tolerable to any audience; yet we are told
by [Ben] Jonson, that they were not only borne, but
praised. That Shakespeare wrote any part . . . ,
I see no reason for believing.
testimony produced at the beginning of this play,
by which it is ascribed to Shakespeare, is by no
means equal to the argument against its
authenticity, arising from the total difference of
conduct, language, and sentiments, by which it
stands apart from all the rest. [Francis] Meres
had probably no other evidence than that of a
title-page, which, though in our time it be
sufficient, was then of no great authority; for
all the plays which were rejected by the first
collectors of Shakespeare's works, and admitted in
later editions, and again rejected by the critical
editors, had Shakespeare's name on the title, as
we must suppose, by the fraudulence of the
printers, who, while there were yet no gazettes,
nor advertisements, nor any means of circulating
literary intelligence, could usurp at pleasure any
celebrated name. Nor had Shakespeare any interest
in detecting the imposture, as none of his fame or
profit was produced by the press.
American-British writer and critic T. S. Eliot wrote
that Titus Andronicus "is one of the
stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a
play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had
any hand at all." But Eliot also criticized one of
Shakespeare's greatest plays, Hamlet,
saying, "We must simply admit that here Shakespeare
tackled a problem which proved too much for him."
Bevington (1931- )
Encyclopaedia Britannica, American literary
critic and Shakespeare scholar David Bevington wrote
that Titus Andronicus "relates its story of
revenge and political strife with a uniformity of
tone and consistency of dramatic structure."
(Indiana) Shakespeare Festival
undated Internet article, Indiana's Richmond
Shakespeare Festival observed the following:
"Titus Andronicus is violent. It is gruesome.
It is probably inappropriate for children. But so
are most newscasts. And at the heart of Titus
Andronicus is a specific and all-too-familiar
form of human tragedy, in which the failure of
empathy and habit of violence propel well-meaning
citizens into cycles of ever-escalating revenge, and
give free rein to the worst of human inclinations."
Spencer (1955- )
Telegraph theatre critic Charles Spencer wrote
in December 2016:
of us Shakespeare is a fount of wisdom and beauty,
and it is shocking to discover him writing the
Elizabethan equivalent of a slasher movie. Yet if
you have the stomach for it, the play is
wonderfully gripping and seems to speak across the
centuries to the horrors of our own troubled
times, with its catalogue of dreadful violence and
In Titus Andronicus,
revenge becomes a rolling juggernaut that
destroys all in its path. Once revenge is set
in motion by the execution of Alarbus in the
first act, the play becomes a bloodbath of
revenge, with each side in the conflict taking
turns murdering, maiming, immolating, and
mutilating. The word revenge
and its forms, such as revenged, occurs
thirty-four times in the play, vengeance
seven times, vengeful twice, and avenge
once. Words associated with revenge are
spoken hundreds of times. They include blood
(and its forms, such as bloody),
thirty-eight; murder, twenty-six; kill,
nineteen; slaughter three; slay,
two. Aaron tells Tamora that he is preoccupied
with vengeance: "Blood and revenge are hammering
in my head." Tamora, enraged by a plot against
her, imposes revenge as a duty on her sons,
telling them that:
Had you not by wondrous fortune come,
the acts of vengeance in the play, the
protagonist, Titus, outdoes everyone, serving
Tamora and Saturninus a baked meat pie made of
diced Demetrius and Chiron, the sons of Tamora.
Presumably Titus used "corpse helper" to season
the pie, for Tamora ate her fill of "the flesh
that she herself hath bred."
vengeance on me had they executed.
it, as you love your mother's life,
be ye not henceforth call'd my children.
Betrayal is the handmaiden of
power. In good faith, Titus yields the throne
to Saturninus. Saturninus then turns against
Titus. Other characters betray one another for
their own selfish ends. Tamora even betrays
her own child (fathered by Aaron). Believing
that Saturninus will find out about it, she
recommends that it be put to death. Aaron,
however, wants the child and takes it to the
Goths to have them raise it. Before he leaves,
he murders the baby's nurse and midwife to
prevent them from telling others about the
existence of the child.
Evil for Evil's Sake
There are those who do evil
for evil’s sake, notably Aaron. He delights in
the bloody mayhem in the play, no motive
required. After cutting off Titus's hand—the
price Titus had to pay to secure a promise for
the return of his sons—Aaron says:
I go, Andronicus: and for thy
near the end of the play, he observes:
by and by to have thy sons with thee.
heads, I mean. O, how this villainy
fat me with the very thoughts of it!
Tut, I have
done a thousand dreadful things
Aaron's actions carry on the
tradition of the malevolent Duke of Gloucester
in an earlier Shakespeare play, Richard III,
and foreshadow the machinations of the
diabolical Iago in a later Shakespeare play, Othello.
As willingly as one would kill a
And nothing grieves me heartily
But that I cannot do ten thousand
Violence to gain revenge occurs
throughout the play. There are
beheadings, stabbings, amputations, the
severing of a tongue, the dismemberment
of bodies, and other gory events.
Apparently, the desire for revenge is so
great that it turns human beings into
beasts. Titus Andronicus is a
relevant in today's world in that in
reminds audiences that the kind of
barbarity depicted in the play is the
same kind of barbarity used by
terrorists--and even governments--to
pursue their goals. Tactics include
decapitation, immolation, torture,
assassination, arson, suicide bombings,
explosions, rocket attacks, knife
attacks, the slaughtering of children,
and shootings with automatic weapons.
Aaron is evil. There is no question
about that. But how did he get that way?
Perhaps prejudice against him turned him
against the world. Bassianus says of
queen, your swarth [dark; black] Cimmerian
kills a fly, Titus asks why he killed a harmless
creature. Marcus answers,
One of a race of people living in a land of
darkness at the edge of the world. Bassianus
is comparing Aaron to a Cimmerian.]
your honour of his body’s
detested, and abominable.
sir; it was a black ill-favour’d
"Then pardon me for reprehending
thee, / For thou hast done a charitable deed"
(3.2.71-72). When a nurse presents Aaron the
infant he fathered with Tamora, she says,
Like to the
empress’ Moor; therefore I kill’d him.
Here is the
babe, as loathsome as a toad
Aaron replies, ’Zounds, ye
whore! is black so base a hue? (4.2.72-75).
fairest breeders of our
sends it thee, thy stamp, thy
thee christen it with thy dagger’s
The climax of a play or another
literary work, such as a short story or a novel,
can be defined as (1) the turning point at which
the conflict begins to resolve itself for better
or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting
event in a series of events. The climax of Titus
Andronicus occurs, according to the first
definition, when Titus descends into madness in
Act III. According to the second definition, the
climax begins in the final act when Tamora dines
on the meat pie containing the flesh of her
sons. It continues when Titus kills Tamora,
Saturninus kills Titus, and Lucius kills
Saturninus and becomes the new emperor.
Tone and Conflict
The play begins in joy and sorrow--joy, because
the Romans under Titus Andronicus have conquered
the Goths; sorrow, because Andronicus has lost
sons in the war. "Hail, Rome," Titus says,
"victorious in thy mourning weeds [clothes]"
(1.1.75). But he burial rites become savagely
vengeful when Lucius asks for "the proudest
prisoner of the Goths / That we may hew his
limbs" and sacrifice him to appease the spirits.
Titus grants him the oldest son of Tamora, the
queen of the Goths. When he is sacrificed
forthwith, new conflict erupts between the
Romans and the Goths. Bitterness and rancor then
dominate the rest of the play as the foe each
plot revenge. Another conflict develops when
Saturninus, the son of the late emperor of Rome,
turns against Titus Andronicus after the latter
yields the crown to him.
humor is a form of comedy that parodies,
satirizes, trivializes, or exaggerates a morbid,
solemn, or tragic event. An actor performs black
humor with a deadly serious demeanor and a
deadpan face. In English literature, Shakespeare
became one of the earliest practitioners of
black humor when he debuted Titus Andronicus.
Following is an example of a darkly hilarious
scene in which Aaron tells Titus that he can
rescue two of his sons in exchange for one of
his hands, to be sent to the emperor. Titus
O gentle Aaron!
son Lucius, good boy that he is, then offers his
hand in place of his father’s; Titus’s brother
Marcus does the same. An argument breaks out over
who will part with a hand. While Lucius and Marcus
fetch an axe to sever one or the other’s hand,
Titus says, “Come hither, Aaron; I'll deceive them
both: / Lend me thy hand, and I will give thee
mine” (3.1.193-194). Aaron chops off Titus’s hand.
When Lucius and Marcus return, Titus coolly
ever raven sing so like a lark,
gives sweet tidings of the sun’s uprise?
all my heart, I’ll send the emperor My
Aaron, wilt thou help to chop it off?
Good Aaron, give his majesty my
knew the meaning of black humor long before that
term was invented. By the way, during
Shakespeare’s time, Titus Andronicus was
one of his most popular plays—if
not the most popular. At the end of the day, he
went home with a jingling pocket, recognition, and
a brain full of ideas for other tragedies.
him it was a hand that warded him
thousand dangers; bid him bury it.
spite of the gruesome plot, Titus Andronicus
contains much beautiful imagery, spoken often,
ironically, by villains. For example, Aaron hails
Tamora’s ascendancy to the queenship with nature
metaphors and an allusion to Apollo, the sun god,
driving his chariot across the sky:
Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’
Act 2, Tamora speaks nature metaphors to charm
out of fortune’s shot; and sits aloft,
of thunder’s crack or lightning flash;
above pale envy’s threatening reach.
when the golden sun salutes
And, having gilt the ocean with
Gallops the zodiac in his
overlooks the highest-peering hills;
her wit doth earthly honour wait,
virtue stoops and trembles at her frown.
My lovely Aaron, wherefore look’st
every thing doth make a gleeful boast?
birds chant melody on every bush,
snake lies rolled in the cheerful sun,
green leaves quiver with the cooling wind
make a chequer’d shadow on the ground:
their sweet shade, Aaron, let us sit,
whilst the babbling echo mocks the hounds,
shrilly to the well-tuned horns,
if a double hunt were heard at once,
us sit down and mark their yelping noise.
after conflict such as was supposed
wandering prince and Dido once enjoy’d,
with a happy storm they were surprised
curtain’d with a counsel-keeping cave,
may, each wreathed in the other’s arms,
pastimes done, possess a golden slumber;
hounds and horns and sweet melodious birds
unto us as is a nurse’s song
lullaby to bring her babe asleep.
Shakespeare sometimes wraps repulsive images in
pleasing ones or tucks them into rhythmically
pleasing lines. Lucius reports in Act 1
Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d,
Act 2, Martius, upon discovering Bassianus
dead in a pit, observes:
entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky.
Upon his bloody finger he doth
Act 2, Marcus greets Lavinia—whose
hands have just been cut off—with
precious ring, that lightens all the hole,
like a taper in some monument,
shine upon the dead man’s earthy cheeks,
shows the ragged entrails of the pit:
pale did shine the moon on Pyramus
he by night lay bath’d in maiden blood.
Speak, gentle niece, what stern
lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare
her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in.
are additional examples of figures of speech in
the play. For definitions of figures of speech,
followers, favourers of my
If I do
dream, would all my wealth would wake me!
If I do wake,
some planet strike me down, (2.4.16-17)
me, grave fathers! noble tribunes, stay!
For pity of
mine age, whose youth was spent
dangerous wars, whilst you securely
For all my
blood in Rome’s great quarrel shed;
For all the
frosty nights that I have watch’d;
bitter tears, which now you see. (3.1.3-8)
wretched stump, witness
these crimson lines;
trenches made by grief and
tiring day and heavy night;
sorrow, that I know thee
For our proud empress, mighty Tamora.
Speak, gentle niece, what stern
lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare
her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
of severed hands to branches and ornaments
map of woe (3.2.14)
of Lavinia to a map
Poor harmless fly,
with his pretty buzzing
here to make us merry! and thou hast kill’d him.
charitable murderer (2.3.183)
Lord Bassianus lies embrewed
on a heap, like to a slaughter’d lamb,
of Bassanius to a lamb
his bloody finger he doth wear
precious ring, that lightens all the
like a taper in some monument,
shine upon the dead man’s earthy cheeks,
of a ring to lighted taper
a crimson river of warm blood,
to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with
rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
of the accumulating blood to a bubbling
alluded frequently to Greek mythology and
history in Titus Andronicus, as well as
his other works, to invigorate the dialogue and
enrich his descriptions. His knowledge of
mythology was remarkable at a time when books on
the topic were in severely limited supply.
Following is a partial list of allusions in the
Aeneas (3.2.27): Trojan
warrior. After Troy fell to the Greeks at the
end of the ten-year war between Greece and Troy,
Aeneas escaped the city and sailed to Italy,
where he founded a new Troy, Rome.
Apollo (4.1.69): God of the sun, depicted as
driving a golden chariot across the sky. He
was also the god of prophecy, music, poetry,
and medicine. His alternate name was Phoebus.
Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, the
daughter of Titans. The Greeks highly revered
him and built many temples in his honor. One
such temple at Delphi was the site of a famous
oracle, the Pythia, who pronounced prophecies
as the mouthpiece of Apollo.
Ajax (1.1.393): Powerful
Greek warrior in the Trojan War, second second only to Achilles in
battlefield prowess among the Greeks. After
the war, he killed himself after failing to
win the armor of Achilles.
(2.3.242): River in Hades.
(2.3.76): Person residing in a region of
(2.3.65): Another name for Diana, the Roman name
for Artemis, goddess of
the hunt in Greek mythology. She was the twin
sister of Apollo.
Dido (2.3.25): Queen
of Carthage, who had a love affair with Aeneas
and killed herself after he abandoned her.
(1.1.338): God of marriage.
(4.1.69): King of the Olympian gods. Jove is an
alternate Roman name for Jupiter. Jove's Greek
name was Zeus.
(1. 1.394): Father of Odysseus, the wily Greek
who devised the Trojan horse.
son (1. 1.394): Odysseus.
Lucrece (2.1.118): Lucretia,
Roman woman raped by Lucius Tarquinius (Tarquin
the Proud). For more information, click here.
(4.1.69): Messenger god. His Greek name was
(2.1.1): Mountain abode of the Greek gods.
(4.1.69): Alternate name for Athena (Roman name,
Minerva), the goddess of wisdom and war.
Philomel (2.4.46): Another
name for a nightingale. Philomel is
derived from the name Philomela. In Greek
mythology. Philomela was a princess of Athens.
Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus
of Thrace. Not satisfied with only one of the
sisters, Tereus lusted after Philomela and one
day raped her. To prevent her from revealing his
crime, he cut out her tongue. However, Philomel
embroidered a tapestry depicting his brutality
and showed it to her sister. The two women then
plotted against Tereus and end up serving
him his son, Itys, in a stew. When Tereus
discovers what they did, he chases them with an
axe. The gods then turn Philomela into a
nightingale and Procne into a swallow.
(2.3.237): (The lover of Thisbe. These
Babylonians were the subject of a story by the
Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) in his long poem
Metamorphoses. When Pyramus thinks a
lion has killed Thisbe, he kills himself.
Thisbe is still a live, however. But when she
discovers the body of Pyramus, she also kills
(1.1.329): Alternate name for Diana (Artemis),
the Greek goddess of the hunt.
(1.1.85): King of Troy.
Queen of Troy (1.1.141):
Hecuba, wife of Priam, king of Troy.
Semiramis (2.1.24): Beautiful Assyrian queen of
the Ninth Century BC. After her husband, King
Ninus, died, she ruled for many years and
built the fabled city of Babylon.
(1.1.93): River in Hades.
(2.4.44): See Philomel.
(3.1.307): See Lucrece.
tyrant: Polymnestor. After he killed Hecuba's son, Polydorus,
Hecuba gained revenge by killing his two sons
and blinding him. (1.1.143)
(4.2.99): In Greek mythology, a monster with a
(2.3.33): Roman name of Aphrodite, the Greek
goddess of love.
Parallel With Othello
introduces an evil Moor named Aaron who
displays goodness near the end when he pleads
for his child's life. Othello
introduces an upright and righteous Moor who
displays evil when he suspects his wife of
infidelity and, at the end of the play, kills
her. Like Othello, Aaron is the brunt of
A Moor was a Muslim of mixed
Arab and Berber descent. Berbers were North
African natives who eventually accepted Arab
customs and Islam after Arabs invaded North
Africa in the seventh century AD. The term has
been used to refer in general to Muslims of
North Africa and to Muslim conquerors of
Spain. The word Moor derives from a
Latin word, Mauri, used to name the
residents of the ancient Roman province of
Mauritania in North Africa. To use the term
"black Moor" is not to commit a redundancy,
for there are white Moors as well as black
Moors, the latter mostly of Sudanese origin.
Titus Andronicus: Shrewd Shakespeare
my view, Titus Andronicus is a jolly good
play, a running hyperbole which, like Voltaire’s Candide,
gives us an unbelievable world in order to make
the real world believable. In the real world,
whether the real world of four centuries ago or
the real world of today, people rape, poison,
stab, shoot, lynch, torture, drown, cut off heads,
cut out tongues, declare war. Often, we onlookers
respond with passive acceptance: This is the
way of things. We must accept the fact that
there will always be “the slings and arrows of
bombs and missiles—raining
down on us.
By Michael J. Cummings..©
evidence that William Shakepeare was a shrewd
businessman and self-promoter. Aware that
Elizabethan audiences had a huge appetite for
bearbaiting, bullbaiting, dog-fighting, and
cock-fighting, he may have decided to give the
people what they wanted—another
he staged Titus. The play was immensely
When he wrote the play in his late twenties, he
was struggling for recognition in a city that
already had several established playwrights with
enormous talent, such as Christopher Marlowe,
Thomas Lodge, and George Peele. To get the
attention of the theatre-going public,
Shakespeare needed a play that would pack the
audiences in. Violent revenge plays happened to
be au courant at that time, especially
those written after the manner of the ancient
Roman playwright Seneca. Seneca's dramas were
grisly, verily hemorrhaging with gore. So
Shakespeare borrowed a few pages from Seneca’s
bloody book, including part of the story line of
Seneca’s play Thyestes and Troades.
The plot of that play originated in a Greek myth
about Thyestes, the son of Pelops of Mycenae.
When Thyestes and his older brother, Atreus,
were adults, Atreus became King of Mycenae after
Pelops died. Atreus then drove his brother out
of the city after the latter challenged him for
the throne. One account of this tale says
Thyestes had first seduced Atreus’s wife,
Aërope, to gain possession of a golden lamb that
conferred on its owner the rulership of Mycenae.
When Thyestes left the city, he took with him
Atreus’s child, Pleisthenes, and reared the boy.
One day, he sent Pleisthenes on a mission to
kill Atreus. But the murder plot was foiled and
Pleisthenes was killed. Atreus did not
immediately realize that his would-be murderer
was his own son.
However, after he discovered to his horror the
identity of the assailant, Atreus hatched a plot
to get even with his brother: He invited
Thyestes to a banquet, pretending he was ready
to reconcile with his brother. The main course
turned out to be the cooked remains of the sons
of Thyestes. Thyestes then laid a heavy curse on
the house of Atreus, which lasted for
Shakespeare drew upon Seneca’s adaptation of
this myth, as well as other works that discussed
it, to create his own version of the story. The
result was a horrific drama featuring
decapitation, amputation, cannibalism, excision
of a tongue, and rape. In other words, a bloody
good play—with a
meat pie to die for.
Of course, many critics in later times—from the 18th Century
play as “Shakespeare’s worst” because of all the
bloodletting; it was politically incorrect,
unfit for sensitive audiences. Samuel Johnson
(1709-1784) wrote of Titus: “The barbarity of
the spectacles, and the general massacre which
are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived
tolerable to any audience.” T.S. Eliot
(1888-1965) said it was one of the “stupidest”
plays in history. Joseph Sobran, a syndicated
newspaper columnist in the U.S., assessed the
play this way: "This is generally—more or less
as Shakespeare’s worst play. It’s so much worse
than anything else he wrote that many scholars
have doubted that he wrote it. The critical
consensus may be summed up in two words: it
stinks." Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom (1930-
), a humanities professor at Yale and New York
University and author of Shakespeare: The
Invention of the Human, argues that "Titus
Andronicus is ghastly bad. I can concede no
intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus.”
Before performing a bloody
play such as Titus Andronicus, actors
in Shakespeare's day filled vessels such as
pigs' bladders with blood and concealed them
beneath their costumes. Onstage, they had only
to pound a fist against a bladder to release
the blood and simulate a gruesome death.
and Essay Topics
character in the play is the most
despicable? Explain your answer.
- Are there
any admirable characters in the play?
Explain your answer.
- Write an
essay that analyzes the main character,
Titus Andronicus. There is plenty of
evidence in the play to draw conclusions
about him. For example, he recommends
Saturninus as the new emperor. But after
Saturninus accedes to the throne, he betrays
Titus. Does this turn of events suggest that
Titus is a poor judge of character? Also, in
a fit of anger, Titus kills his own son,
Mucius. Does this action suggest that he
cannot control his emotions?
- Tamora ostensibly seeks
revenge against Titus because he ordered the
execution of her son, Alarbus. Are there
other motives that fire ....her with vengeance?
- Titus kills
Lavinia to put her out of her misery. Was he
right to do so?
- Aaron has
no admirable qualities except his love for
his child. Is his love merely instinctual or
genuine and heartfelt?