Titus Andronicus (Vol. 27)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Titus Andronicus, see SC, Volumes 4 and 17.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,critical study of Titus Andronicus focused primarily on the question of Shakespeare's authorship of the play. While the debate over authorship has continued in the twentieth century, a shift in critical emphasis suggests that most modern commentators are willing to accept Titus as Shakespeare's work. In addition to producing a re-examination of the relationship of Titus to other plays in Shakespeare's canon, the contemporary focus on the play's dramatic elements has brought new insights into its dramatic structure, its use of medieval and classical sources, and the relationship between its lyrical language and its violent action.
While critics such as M. C. Bradbrook (1951) and Bernard Spivak (1958) explored the relationship between Titus Andronicus and medieval literature, others examined the play's Roman setting and its rich use of classical sources, particularly Ovid's Metamorphoses and, to a lesser extent, works of Vergil, Seneca, and others. In an essay published in 1955, Eugene M. Waith suggested that Shakespeare was attempting in Titus to develop "a special tragic mode" that would dramatize the Ovidian theme of transformation through passion. The playwright failed, Waith maintained, because his Ovidian material was incompatible with the medium of drama. Alan Sommers (1960) defined the play's fundamental theme as the struggle between "ideal civilization," represented by Rome, and "the barbarism of primitive, original nature," symbolized by the forest and personified in the characters of Tamora and Aaron. More recently, commentators have maintained that Shakespeare uses Roman civilization to examine the inconsistencies and inadequacies of received ideas. Andrew V. Ettin (1970) saw in Titus a testing of the classical literary models available to Renaissance writers. Ronald Broude (1970) detected a similar questioning of Roman values. Arguing that the Elizabethans considered themselves heirs of both the Roman and the Germanic, or "Gothic," traditions, he suggested that Titus enacts a providential regeneration of a decadent society, as Gothic valor unites with traditional Roman values of justice and mercy to restore order at the end of the play. Heather James (1991) related Shakespeare's handling of classical sources to his use of images of mutilation and digestion. In Titus, she suggested, Ovid's Metamorphoses is used to comment on Vergil's account of the origins of Rome and to expose the roots of Rome's decay in its founding moments.
Scholars have also examined the discrepancy between the play's lyrical language and its hyperbolically violent events. While John Dover Wilson (1947) regarded the contrast as an attempt at parody, more recent commentators have put forward other explanations. In a pair of articles (1974 and 1976), Albert H. Tricomi drew attention to the close and often grotesque relationship between theme, imagery, and action in the play, which he saw as an original but ultimately unsuccessful experiment in integrating poetic language and dramatic action. For Ettin, Richard T. Brucher (1979), and Grace Starry West (1982), the disparity between the play's elevated language and its brutal action dramatizes the limitations of classical Roman models in confronting the human potential for passion and violence. A metatextual explanation for the conflict between language and action in the play was offered by James L. Calderwood (1971): Titus, he maintained, reflects the young Shakespeare's sense that his poetic language was violated when placed at the service of the theater. R. Stamm (1974) also offered a metatextual reading, suggesting that Shakespeare uses Lavinia's muteness to explore the sometimes conflicting claims of verbal and non-verbal dramatic expression. Lawrence Danson argued that in Titus and in his subsequent plays Shakespeare dramatizes the difficulty of human attempts to find expressive modes adequate to experience. Both playwright and characters are faced with the incapacity of rhetoric to frame an adequate response to the play's horrific events, which can find sufficient expression only in violent action and death. S. Clark Hulse built on Danson's observations, suggesting that, as civilized modes of behavior collapse into barbarism, Titus gradually relinquishes a language of words in favor of a non-verbal "language of signs." It is only after he has abandoned verbalized grief for the act of revenge that order can be restored to Rome and language can be restored to its normal function.
The play's female characters have also attracted extensive critical commentary in recent decades. David Willbern (1978) presented a psychoanalytical reading of the play that focused on its "manifest sexual, symbolic, and sadistic elements" and treated Titus's final revenge on Tamora as an enactment of the Freudian threat of the devouring mother. For Heather James, Tamora and Lavinia are made to embody threats to Roman order that must be contained. Marion Wynne-Davies (1991) examined the figures of Tamora and Lavinia in the context of late sixteenth-century rape legislation and the emerging concept of female selfhood. She concluded that while both characters emerge briefly as independent subjects, their destruction reasserts traditional limitations on female autonomy and self-expression.
Nicholas Brooke (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "Titus Andronicus [1593?]," in Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1968, pp. 13-47.
[In the following excerpt, Brooke argues that Titus Andronicus displays a greater formal and thematic unity than has previously been perceived.]
Titus Andronicus has for a long time been the most unpopular of all Shakespeare's plays: but its general execration dates only from the eighteenth century. In Shakespeare's lifetime it was very popular indeed. When it was at least twenty years old, in 1614, Ben Jonson commented ironically on its lasting reputation in the Induction to Bartholomew Fair:
He that will swear Jeronimo [i.e. The Spanish Tragedy] or Andronicus are the best plays yet, shall pass unexcepted at, here, as a man whose judgement shows it is constant, and hath stood still, these five and twenty, or thirty years.
That is only the most considerable of many references attesting both to its popularity, and its old-fangledness. The Restoration could still stomach the play, and Ravenscroft's 'improved' version (1687) held the stage regularly until 1725. But that seems to have been the end; thereafter it had scarcely been seen at all on the professional stage until the well-known revival at...
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The Classical Tradition
Andrew V. Ettin (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's First Roman Tragedy," in ELH, Vol. 37, 1970, pp. 325-41.
[In the following excerpt, Ettin suggests that in Titus Andronicus Shakespeare uses his Roman setting and sources to explore the limitations of received artistic and intellectual ideas.]
Even the many critics who regard Titus Andronicus as definitely a work of Shakespeare find it in many respects atypical. Yet I believe we can detect in this early work a characteristically Shakespearean habit of mind: the exploration of the conflicts, contradictions, and insufficiencies in received artistic and intellectual traditions and images. Always fascinated with testing the literary conventions that attempt to structure experience, Shakespeare seldom permitted them to remain simple "counters" that could conveniently signify an expected set of responses. One need think only of the ways in which he tests and complicates the mode of pastoral romance in As You Like It, or of the complex relationship he evolves between the Henry IV plays and the traditional dramatic chronicles of Tudor ascendancy. That this tendency was not a late development should be obvious from Shakespeare's poems. Venus and Adonis, based of course on Ovid, is generally discussed in terms of its affinities with the pornographic and comic love poetry of the period. But if we bother to...
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Albert H. Tricomi (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Mutilation in 'Titus Andronicus,'" in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakepearian Study and Production, Vol. 27, 1974, pp. 11-19.
[In the following excerpt, Tricomi remarks on the close relationship between metaphor and action in the play and suggests that Titus Andronicus represents an experiment in unifying poetic language and dramatic action.]
When T. S. Eliot so flamboyantly denounced Titus Andronicus as 'one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written' [in Selected Essays, 1917-1932, 1932], he naturally invited rebuttal. But while an apology for Titus can certainly be erected, the fact is that the imputed stupidities of the tragedy attract far more interest than any of its mediocre achievements. Indeed, if we would only persist in the study of those very 'stupidities' that many critics would rather forget, we would discover that the ways in which the figurative language imitates the literal events of plot makes The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus a significant dramatic experiment. In the play's spectacularly self-conscious images that keep pointing at the inventive horrors in the plotting, in its wittily-obsessive allusions to dismembered hands and heads, and in the prophetic literalness of its metaphors, Titus reveals its peculiar literary importance....
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Charney, Maurice. "Titus Andronicus." In his All of Shakespeare, pp. 211-18. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
A brief summary of the plot, characters, themes, and critical history of Titus Andronicus.
Dessen, Alan C. Titus Andronicus. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989, 123 p.
Comparative study of several of the most successful productions of Titus Andronicus, emphasizing the range of interpretations to which the play lends itself.
Green, Douglas E. "Interpreting 'Her Martyr'd Signs': Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus." Shakespeare Quarterly 40, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 317-26.
Examines the roles of Lavinia and Tamora, as female "Others," in relation to Titus's development as a tragic figure.
Haaker, Ann. "Non sine causa: The Use of Emblematic Method and Iconology in the Thematic Structure of Titus Andronicus." Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama XIII-XIV (1970-71): 143-68.
Suggests that Shakespeare enhanced the thematic content of Titus Andronicus by using scenes and settings derived from sixteenth-century emblems that had well established connotations.
Hunter, G. K. "Sources and Meanings in Titus Andronicus." In Mirror Up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, edited by J. C. Gray, pp. 171-88. Toronto:...
(The entire section is 559 words.)