Titus Andronicus Essay - Titus Andronicus (Vol. 27)

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 Stratford-on-Avon in 1955, produced by Peter Brook, with Laurence Olivier as Titus and Anthony Quayle as Aaron. Otherwise it survived three nights in London in the mid-nineteenth century, nine at the Old Vic, as part of a complete cycle of all the plays between the wars, and a few more recently. The Stratford revival was, however, a different matter: it coincided with some revival of interest among scholarly critics, though this hardly impinged on the newspapers who ascribed its success entirely to magical powers in actor and producer. This, I think, was quite wrong: only at one point can I recall the producer departing from the text noticeably, when he brought the ritual murder on to the stage; and the significance of this might well have escaped a modern audience if this had not been done.

Taste and sentiment in the eighteenth century recoiled from a play which was so obviously 'good' in neither. Ravenscroft indeed, introducing his improvements, described the original as a 'rubbish heap', and said that he had been told that Shakespeare did not write it. Theobald, in the early eighteenth century, accepted that gladly: in both, the wish was plainly father to the thought; and so it continued to be for almost all editors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Early in the twentieth J. M. Robertson, the supreme disintegrator of Shakespeare's texts, did a very thorough job on Titus, and found contributions in it from almost every known Elizabethan dramatist. This, however, proved a reductio ad absurdum, and since then the field has narrowed to Peele. Dover Wilson, in the Cambridge New Shakespeare edition (1948) believed that Shakespeare revised and expanded a play of Peele's; J. C. Maxwell, in the new Arden Shakespeare edition (1953), suggested that Peele wrote Act I of a play which Shakespeare planned. Critical judgement still fathered scholarly opinion: Dover Wilson thought the play 'rottenly planned', and so ascribed it to Peele (who couldn't construct); Maxwell thought it 'admirably planned' and so ascribed it to Shakespeare (who could). It is plain that we need a truce to all this conjecture: scholarly statements about authorship have the weight to crush critical inquiry; and when they are based on nothing but critical opinion, the circle is vicious indeed. Francis Meres in 1598 listed the play as Shakespeare's; Heminge and Con-dell, his literary executors, printed the play as his in 1623. There is no good evidence to question this, and I shall proceed on the working assumption that the play is entirely Shakespeare's; indeed, it will become apparent that the play seems to me to have a coherence and unity of structure and writing scarcely possible in casual collaboration.


The unpleasantness of the play has become proverbial, and it is certainly obvious. Lavinia (off stage, but only just) is raped, has her tongue cut out and her hands cut off: in this condition she is led on stage by her satisfied violaters, and stands there while her Uncle Marcus descants on what he sees in elaborate rhetoric:

Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy
Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame,
And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with three issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encount'red with a cloud.
(II. iv. 21-32)

This is certainly unpleasing, in its baroque development of bloodiness: 'a crimson river of warm blood, like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind' or, 'a conduit with three issuing spouts'. Lavinia is turned to stone in the formalized language of the poetry; and yet the vision is the more horrible for occasional reminders that she is alive, for instance 'warm blood'.

That is only the beginning of the extreme horrors on the stage: Titus, in Act III, cuts off his own hand; Lavinia picks it off the stage with her teeth (because she has no hands), and finally Titus, with 'gentle' Lavinia's help, cooks up the Empress's sons in a pie, and causes her to eat it.

This is bloody stuff indeed; add to it the evident truth that Marcus' speech quoted above is static, undramatic, not at all the stuff of which stage plays are made; and add to that the oft-repeated statement that the structure of the play at large is chaotic—and all in there would seem to be a sufficient case against it.

I shall return to the structural point later; it seems best to begin now at the crux of the problem of taste, which I take to be this speech of Marcus', and consider more carefully what it is. First of all, I have called attention to the fact that the verse, however formal, is not frigid. One can point as well to:

Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encount'red with a cloud.

Here, 'encount'red' means firstly only 'meet', and then 'be covered up'; but it is also the standard word for the accosting of a prostitute, and it is that source which is the root of Lavinia's blush, the shame which (however complete her innocence may seem) drove Lucrece to suicide. Such writing is certainly not the frigid blundering of a hack. Nor is it the work of somebody being funny, as Dover Wilson believed. The basis for his contention about this passage is the close parallel between it and two stanzas of The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Lucrece, also raped, has just knifed herself in the presence of her husband and all the nobility of Rome:

Stone-still, astonish'd with this deadly deed,
Stood Collatine and all his lordly crew;
Till Lucrece' father, that beholds her bleed,
Himself on her self-slaught'red body threw,
And from the purple fountain Brutus drew
The murd'rous knife, and, as it left the place,
Her blood, in poor revenge, held it in chase;

And bubbling from her breast, it doth divide
In two slow rivers, that the crimson blood
Circles her body in on every side,
Who like a late-sack'd island vastly stood
Bare and unpeopled in this fearful flood.
Some of her blood still pure and red remain'd,
And some look'd black, and that false Tarquin

Comparing this with Marcus' speech in Titus, Dover Wilson remarks [in Titus Andronicus, 1948], that Lucrece is a period piece, 'nevertheless the unquestionable product of a serious artistic impulse'; whereas he sees the other as 'a bundle of ill-matched conceits held together by sticky sentimentalism'. 'Is it not clear,' he asks, 'that the whole speech is caricature?'

To me it does not seem in the least clear; but there is, certainly, a difference. The conceits of Lucrece can be developed more freely, because the narrative poem is not restrained by physical facts; hence the emblematic mingling of red blood and black. This kind of thing is not so freely available in Titus, because here the visual imagination is restricted to what is seen, on the stage; and on the stage, all blood is red. I can sympathize, too, with Dover Wilson's impression of 'sticky sentimentalism': The Rape of Lucrece is written in a carefully (and, as Hazlitt remarked, coldly) detached tone of narration, in which the personal situation is kept remote from our feelings; whereas in Titus the problems arise, it seems to me, from trying to fuse that tone, with a living situation on the stage, that of an uncle addressing his deflowered niece. Hence in Lucrece even the relation of her father to Lucrece is formally represented and does not become absurd; but in Titus the pronoun 'thy' has immediate personal force: the speech is punctuated by personal addresses—'Why dost not speak to me', 'Shall I speak for thee', and so on—which disconcertingly wrench the formal development of the poetry back to the personal application.

So that, if we reject Dover Wilson's theory of burlesque (in this context; I shall return to it in other ways later), but accept his general criticism of the two passages, the fact of this parallel with Lucrece (it is only the most considerable of several) remains important, for it is suggestive of what Shakespeare is attempting in Titus Andronicus. I have remarked on the red and black blood, which is not a physical fact (however superstitiously believed); and in Lucrece one does not mistake it for fact. It is the clearest instance in this passage of what is obvious everywhere in the poem, that the images are emblematic, and that emblems are made out of the figures of the poem. Shakespeare's Lucrece is, in poetry, the figure Sidney described from a painting:

… such a kinde of difference, as betwixt the meaner sort of Painters (who counterfet onely such faces as are sette before them) and the more excellent, who having no law but wit, bestow that in cullours upon you which is fittest for the eye to see: as the constant though lamenting looke of Lucrecia, when she punished in her selfe an others fault. Wherein he painted not Lucrecia, whom he never sawe, but painteth the outwarde beauty of such a vertue.

(An Apologie for Poetrie)

The human figure in Shakespeare's narratives (even in the erotic Venus and Adonis) is only slightly more definitely a thing of flesh than the allegorical projections of The Faerie Queene (which can also become, in its own way, highly erotic); and, in fact, both of Shakespeare's verse narratives get very close to allegory. In such a poem, the 'narrative' becomes anything but 'story-telling': it develops an interpretation and commentary through emblematic elaboration; it calls for the reader's alert judgement, and hence the detached tone which I commented on.

This is what is happening in Titus Andronicus. Marcus' speech is an attempt to adapt the techniques of The Rape of Lucrece to the stage (and not a wholly successful one). It is, therefore, a comment on the action, and realizing that, one can see its place in the play more clearly. The speech occurs at the very end of Act II, an Act which has developed the major crime against Lavinia (and a number of other crimes too), and so this stands in the place of a choric commentary on that crime, establishing its significance to the play by making an emblem of the mutilated woman. This function would have been clear, if the speech could have been labelled 'chorus', and allowed a divine knowledge of all events. As it is, the speech is not only partially disguised as dramatic utterance (the disguise is more opaque for readers than audience: an actor is obliged to speak it out as a set piece); it also has the complication that knowledge has to be passed off as Marcus' guesswork. This produces the clumsy sequence of rhetorical guesses: 'But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee'—he is, rather absurdly, right first time; and the guess and the commentary have to be worked into the stage situation of Uncle and Niece, so that the passage I quoted is preluded by 'Why dost not speak to me', and succeeded by 'Shall I speak for thee? shall I say 'tis so'.

The 'sentimentality' of which Dover Wilson complained, derives entirely, I suggest, from the juxtaposition of the narrative manner with these snatches of dialogue, forcing too immediate a personal application on the lines. If one omits them, and reads only the main matter, it is not sentimental at all. In tone, it is precisely like The Rape of Lucrece, granted only the diffusion of blank verse; the advantage, for such formal writing, is certainly with the formality of a rhymed stanza.

Recognizing the kind of poetry in which this speech is composed has important corollaries for considering the play as a whole. This speech itself lies nearer to non-dramatic poetry than anything else in the play, because its function is to develop a major theme out of the central action; in this it resembles Clarence's dream of human guilt, the slimy bottom of the deep, in Richard HI. But it is evident, here, that the use of poetry that Shakespeare is experimenting with in Titus is similar to that in Lucrece, itself derived from Spenser's achievement in The Faerie Queene: formal in structure and tone, relying on emblems to fuse imagery and moral idea, and responding to Ciceronian ideas of decorum in matters of style, related to the form of emblem used. Such an adaptation of what is essentially non-dramatic verse to the stage involves difficulties, as we have already seen, and we should expect to see more of this elsewhere. But on the whole we should expect to find variations of style and tone as large and deliberate as those which occur in The Faerie Queene, for instance between Book II and Book VI, or, more startlingly, between the two halves of Canto vi of Mutabilitie, contrasting the modes of epic and pastoral. In such a context one would expect not only the poetic language to have a deliberate formality, but to find that echoed as well in a formality of dramatic structure.

This I shall try to demonstrate. There is also another legacy of emblematic verse to the stage, the use of the stage picture as a visible emblem. This I have suggested is poor Lavinia's case, dumb and unmoving like the wood-cuts in an emblem book, while Marcus provides the interpretative verses that were usually printed beneath. It is certainly effective, even though here embarrassing; but it is characteristic of the use of the stage in this play. Titus grovelling on the floor while the State of Rome passes by in III. i; or leaving the stage at the end of the same scene, headed for Revenge's cave, bearing the heads of his dead sons while Lavinia carries his own hand in her teeth; or in IV. iii shooting arrows to the stars—all these, and many more, are visual images of a kind that may be more familiar in descriptive verse than actually seen on a stage; but they are powerfully effective in establishing emblems of the play's significance. They lead naturally into the emblematic punishment allotted to Aaron:

Set him breast-deep in earth, and famish him.
(V. iii. 179)

and to the strange and moving conclusion which the discovery of the first quarto [in 1904] restored to the play:

Her [Tamora's] life was beastly and devoid of
And being dead, let birds on her take pity.

That final reference to pitiless birds is not fortuitous: it makes the last in a chain of references to Ovid's account of the rape of Philomel, which first becomes explicit in Marcus' speech under discussion:

But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy
(II. iv. 26-7)

Tereus raped his sister-in-law, Philomel, and cut out her tongue to prevent her revealing the truth to his wife, Progne. Philomel, however, sewed the story into a sampler, and then helped Progne to achieve a beastly revenge. In Ovid's tale, they are all metamorphosed into birds. This initial reference is not casual: it is developed later in the speech:

Fair Philomel, why, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen-leaves upon a lute,
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touch'd them for his

In that, there is nothing funny in the least. Ovid is used again in IV. i to identify the criminals, and at the denouement Titus explicitly states:

For worse than Philomel you us'd my daughter,
And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd.
(V. ii. 194-5)

This thread of reference to Ovid is by no means merely an exhibition of classical erudition; nor is Ovid used as a source for the action (apart from a few details): it serves to interpret the action, and to unify the play's structure. Eugene M. Waith [in Shakespeare Survey, 1957] has shown that Golding, and other Elizabethans, regarded Ovid's tale as moralizing the deterioration of men and women, under the stress of revengeful passion, into beasts; and Ovid himself spoke of 'a plan that was to confound the issues of right and wrong' when the victim outdoes her violator in bestiality.

This is the central theme of Shakespeare's play; and the character of Marcus' speech, whatever its limitations, is finally to be understood in this translation of the events of the second Act into a thematic statement of the play's formal concern. I have milked the speech pretty well dry, in order to illustrate this, and to establish the kind of unity which the play has; a unity which transcends all questions of divided authorship, and utterly repudiates the idea of a mere burlesque.


A deliberate choice of tone and control of action is certainly striking at the beginning of the first Act. Saturninus and Bassianus are shown in the full pomp of a Roman election to the Emperorship: a ceremonial scene, centred on the crown itself, held by Marcus Andronicus 'aloft', that is, on the upper stage with the other tribunes, while the candidates and their followers enter one from each of the stage doors to complete the symmetrical composition:

Princes, that strive by factions and by friends
Ambitiously for rule and empery,
Know that the people of Rome, for whom we
A special party, have by common voice,
In election for the Roman empery,
Chosen Andronicus, surnamed Pius
For many good and great deserts to Rome.
A nobler man, a braver warrior,
Lives not this day within the city walls:
He by the senate is accited home
From weary wars against the barbarous Goths,
That with his sons, a terror to our foes,
Hath yok'd a nation strong, train'd up in arms.
(I. i. 18-30)

The ceremonial staging is echoed in the pomp of utterance. The verse is not distinguished, but its stiffness is a consequence of function, not mere inexperience. Rome has always for Shakespeare the emotive suggestion of political greatness, and also of political curiosity: his interest in a society different from Tudor England is manifest here in the presentation of a fusion of democracy with Imperial power that pre-figures the political interest of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus.

The pomp of Rome is contrasted with 'weary wars against the barbarous Goths', and this opposition echoes throughout the first Act, finding its sharpest statement towards the end, when Marcus pleads with Titus:

Thou art a Roman; be not barbarous.

That is the theme: the contrast of the 'Roman' nobility of Man, and the 'Gothic' barbarity; or in common Elizabethan terms, between man proper, and man-near-beast: these are the terms which dominate Act II, and emerge at the end of Act I where Titus issues his invitation—

To hunt the panther and the hart with me

—two emblematic beasts that shadow Tamora and Lavinia.

But before the play can arrive at even that degree of explicitness, a great deal of exposition is required, and with that Act I proceeds rapidly. First of all, there is the ceremonial build-up for Titus' elaborately magnificent entrance to the tomb:

O sacred receptacle of my joys,
Sweet cell of virtue and nobility.

So far, the impressive staging, theatrical effectiveness and the political interest have struck one. Now something else intrudes: the tomb suggests a morbid aspect to Roman greatness (like Coriolanus' preoccupation with his wounds); Lucius extends that feeling:

Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh,
Before this earthy prison of their bones,
That so the shadows be not unappeas'd,
Nor we disturb'd with prodigies on earth.

The high style is maintained, reinforced with Latin; but the effect is strongly coloured by the colloquial 'hew his limbs', a vivid intrusion that is sustained in the contrast between 'his flesh' and 'their bones'. A latent brutality is strongly felt: this Roman, Titus' eldest son, is almost barbarous himself. When Tamora has pleaded eloquently for her son, and Titus has refused mercy (with the splendidly inadequate words 'Patient yourself, madam'), he claims the death of Alarbus as a ritual murder:

Religiously they ask a sacrifice.

But religion yields to a cruder revenge as Lucius repeats his phrase:

Let's hew his limbs till they be clean consum'd.

Tamora exclaims at this 'cruel, irreligious piety', and one of her surviving sons comments:

Was never Scythia half so barbarous!

and another retorts:

Oppose not Scythia to ambitious Rome.

Scythia was for the Elizabethans, as for the Romans, the land beyond the fringe of civilization, full of wild beasts. Titus' claim to religious revenge gives cause for a bloody retort, and the tragic irony of this thinly disguised Roman barbarity is stressed on Lucius' re-entry:

See, lord and father, how we have perform'd
Our Roman rites: Alarbus' limbs are lopp'd …

Lucius matches his previous 'hew'd' with the equally brutal 'lopp'd': and it is these two words which Marcus brings up again to describe the mutilated Lavinia at the end of Act II:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Hath lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body
bare …
(II. iv. 16-17)

This analysis makes it clear, I hope, that the shifts of tone and diction are deliberate, repeated, and echoed significantly. The root of the tragedy revealed here is not simply the meeting of Roman and Barbarian, but the emergence of barbarity in the Romans themselves, of the beast in (the noblest) Man. Further, though the Goths will turn out to be barbarous indeed, they are at this point able to score a dignified retort; and thus to hint one of the play's strongest developments, when the villainous Aaron blazes out in Act IV with more humanity than either his Roman or Gothic superiors.

This first hint of the tragic pattern must be registered, for there are other shifts of tone to follow, and another (more obvious) tragic blunder to be established. Titus is offered the Empery, and declines it; but he accepts the role of arbitrator between Saturninus and Bassianus. So far, both their utterances have been colourlessly dignified; now, as Titus proceeds to blind acceptance of primogeniture (the political question had obvious relevance to the problems of Elizabeth's successor), an effective dramatic irony is developed in the violent and stupid interruptions from Saturninus, contrasting with Bassianus' moderation:

Saturninus: Andronicus, would thou were
shipp'd to hell,
Rather than rob me of the people's hearts!
Lucius: Proud Saturnine, interrupter of the
That noble-minded Titus means to thee!
Titus: Content thee, prince; I will restore to
The people's hearts, and wean them from
Bassianus: Andronicus, I do not flatter thee,
But honour thee, and will do till I die:
My faction if thou strengthen with thy
I will most thankful be; and thanks to men
Of noble minds is honourable meed.

Titus persists in appointing the boor Saturninus to a post for which he is so patently unfit, and the tragic consequences of this blunder immediately unfold. Saturninus offers to marry Lavinia, a gesture which Titus accepts. But the next irony emerges in Saturninus' evident lechery for Tamora:

A goodly lady, trust me, of the hue
That I would choose, were I to chose anew.

Capell marked this 'Aside '; but the couplet marks it as a formal compliment, containing the pressure of concealed feeling. The trap springs at once: Bassianus claims Lavinia as his betrothed and carries her off with the support of Titus' family; one of his sons, Mutius, covers their exit, and the formal tone of the scene is violently changed:

Titus: What, villain boy,
Barr'st me my way in Rome?

The brutality already apparent in the play is now revealed in Titus himself: the barbarity within the Roman has come out, and that theme is now associated with the obvious blunder of electing Saturninus.…

No doubt Act I is crowded and involved (it has taken some time to analyse); but it is neither confused nor slip-shod. On the contrary, it is remarkable for deliberate control; perhaps too deliberate: each 'discovery' (in Aristotle's sense) comes pat upon its anticipation (e.g. the revelation of Saturninus' boorishness at the moment when Titus decides to elect him). And the structural control is reflected in the language, in the shifts of tone, as well as in the implanting of ideas essential to the subsequent development. The weakness of this Act, then, is in over-elaboration, excessive self-consciousness. The discoveries are brilliant, but there are too many of them. It is also true that the stress on brutality tends to overlay the more subtle development I have tried to reveal, but this is not necessarily a criticism. Only two murders are committed, but the tale of Titus' innumerable sons extends this violence over the whole Act, and the obsessive effect is endorsed by the stress on ritual murder, 'our Roman rites'. In 1590 blood feud was by no means uncommon; and in this respect the Roman play had a reference to Elizabethan England which is no longer part of our society. Violence, however, is another matter.


[In Act II], As in Act I, effective use is made of surprise. The 'gentle' Lavinia enters with her husband and taunts Tamora for her lust:

'Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning,
And to be doubted that your Moor and you
Are singled forth to try experiments.
(II. iii. 67-9)

The vulgarity of tone is at once cheap, stupid, and dangerous. It is as unexpected as Lucius-the-Roman's barbarity in Act I. And it is as convincing: it would be sentimental indeed to look for a nice little heroine in this play. Lavinia, here, has the beastliness of conscious virtue, and her vindictiveness anticipates the later action. She is to be dumb and helpless, and careless readers may therefore forget her presence in later Acts; but she is, like Ovid's Philomel, to be active in the vile revenge. Even in Lavinia, the paradise garden is also a barren detested vale.

The balance of response in this scene is very nicely controlled: Tamora the taunted reacts by destroying Bassianus; Lavinia the taunter is reduced to desperate pleading, not for her life, but for death. What she gets is deflowering, lopping, and hewing. Tamora's nature is fully revealed:

No grace? no womanhood? Ah, beastly creature.

Lavinia is brought back to the stage at the end of the Act to the accompaniment of the brutal jokes of satisfied lust:

Chiron: GO home, call for sweet water, wash thy
Cemetrius: She hath no tongue to call, nor hands
to wash;
And so let's leave her to her silent
Chiron: And 'twere my cause, I should go
hang myself.
Demetrius: If thou hadst to help thee knit the
(II. iv. 6-10)

The beastliness of man tends towards a sense of horrid farce.

That is the main development of Act II; it is alternated with the less interesting fate of Titus' sons in Aaron's trap. The twin disasters for Titus' family are achieved simultaneously (Lavinia off-stage, while Quintus and Martius are on stage), and it is left to Marcus to conclude the Act with the choric speech I discussed at the beginning of this chapter.…

Thus so far the play is very closely integrated: Act I establishes the dramatic situation with a thematic stress on Roman nobility versus barbarity; Act II develops that into the criminal action, with its thematic stress on the duality of nature, paradise, and hell. Hell-mouth itself is compared to the pit which Titus' sons fall into:

… this fell devouring receptacle,
As hateful as Cocytus' misty mouth.
(II. iii. 235-6)

The unity of each Act is ensured in a manner, like Spenser's, of dominant verse tones: Act I is heroic, whereas Act II is pastoral; complexity of idea being indicated by abrupt changes of tone within the general norm. The two Acts are to be taken together as the first part of the play, and so must not be allowed to fall apart because of their stylistic contrast. Hence the use of Aaron's speech to link them, and Marcus' final summary. But such extreme use of decorum does always (as in The Faerie Queene) tend to disunity; and there is some awkwardness in adapting the poetic technique to dramatic utterance. This first part of the play is superbly organized, and surprisingly complex in its development; it is also very deliberate in every move of action and speech, and perhaps the deliberation is sometimes too apparent.


The next movement is indicated at the end of Marcus' speech:

Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee:
O, could our mourning ease thy misery!
(II. iv. 56-7)

The dominant tone of Act III is elegiac: Titus on his knees before the State of Rome, ignored by them, and left half crazy with self-pity; and then Titus seeing Lavinia and descanting in a manner not unlike Richard II's laments; finally all the Andronici together as a chorus of despair. Elegy may seem to promise something even less dramatic than pastoral and in a sense this is true: Act III achieves a kind of stasis at the centre of the play, a pivot in the structure between the two main sequences of action, the beastly crimes before and the even more bestial revenge after. Thus its central action is hardly active at all, though superbly dramatic: the extreme change of mood when Titus caps the climax of Marcus' lament with a burst of laughter:

Marcus: Ah, now no more will I control thy
Rent off thy silver hair, thy other hand
Gnawing with thy teeth; and be this
dismal sight
The closing up of our most wretched
Now is a time to storm; why art thou
Titus: Ha, ha, ha!
Marcus: Why dost thou laugh? it fits not with
this hour.
Titus: Why, I have not another tear to shed. (III. i. 259-66)

That tears lie near to laughter is a cliché frequently experienced in the strained gaiety of funerals; it is a double experience as appropriate in its way to dramatic elegy as the duality of nature is to pastoral. This moment is the dramatic centre of the Act, indeed of the whole play, the point at which suffering drives Titus from passive grief to insane activity. It is anticipated, indeed provoked, by the grotesquely comic presentation of the lurid action in which Aaron persuades Titus to lose his hand. The offer of his sons' lives draws from Titus a barely sane recollection of the emblems of Act II:

O gracious emperor! O gentle Aaron!
Did ever raven sing so like a lark
That gives sweet tidings of the sun's uprise?
With all my heart I'll send the emperor my

The grotesque edge, here, develops into open farce as the Andronici fall to wrangling over whose hand should be cut off, allowing Aaron to point the absurdity:

Nay, come, agree whose hand shall go along,
For fear they die before their pardon come.

For Dover Wilson this is an instance of Shakespeare making fun of the melodramatic genre, and certainly our laughter sets us outside the action, seeing its mere absurdity. But this detached perception is not equivalent to repudiation: Chaucer's Troylus, safely removed to an outer sphere, sees the suffering actions of men in which he has been engaged, as matter for laughter. The suffering remains real enough; and so here, though the action which provokes the laughter and the suffering is heightened and improbable the responses of Marcus, Lucius, and Titus are probable enough. Almost more probable than Aaron's; and we are brought to see that we share our laughter with his exultant wickedness:

O, how this villainy
Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!
Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace,
Aaron will have his soul black like his face.

Aaron, I said, was placed outside the restrictive laws of life by his association with the empress, and still more by his conscious commitment to villainy; the enjoying laughter of this villainy is a further emancipation from the inhibitions of squeamish feelings. In this recognition Shakespeare is drawing on the experience of his predecessors, of Marlowe (in particular The Jew of Malta) and of popular drama leading back through the Vice of morality plays into the grotesque comedy of the miracle cycles; and the figure of Aaron is very closely related to Shakespeare's own Richard of Gloucester. With this range of popular tradition behind him, it is not surprising that Aaron stands out from the play with a vitality no other figure can rival.

The laughter here then is partly destructive of the solemnity (and thus far a relief), but partly the most horrible, and most profoundly real thing in the scene: for it is the laughter of witnesses to a mad house, or the Dance of Death: the point at which human civilization and dignity crumbles into farce, and becomes simply monstrous. It is thus a prelude to the more intense laughter of Titus sixty lines later, which marks his transition from object of sympathy to total alienation. Alienation of mind, because he is seen to be insane; alienation of sympathy, because he puts himself beyond the range of our approval. This is, effectively, his metamorphosis from man into beast, his noble nature transformed to a barren detested vale, where he searches for satisfaction:

Then which way shall I find Revenge's cave?

It follows that, contrary to the expectations of tragedy which Shakespeare himself established in later plays, the end here is a spectacle of human degeneracy by which may be appalled, but from which our sympathy is largely excluded. Here again I think Shakespeare is borrowing from an earlier dramatist's experience: Hieronimo, in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, makes a similar declaration of intent to revenge in his famous 'Vindicta mihi' speech in Act III, scene xiii; and like Titus's, Hieronimo's conscious repudiation of orthodox approval alienates him from the audience's full sympathy. It is true that Hieronimo is madder before this scene than after it; but his restored coherence of mind is devoted to a violent action more deeply insane than his simple confusion before. Sympathy was not a usual expectation of early Tudor tragedy, whether academic like Gorboduc or popular like Cambises. The difference is that Shakespeare, taking a hint from Kyd, makes this alienation a central idea in his play: that men may be driven by suffering, not to the ennoblement of Victorian belief, but to become sub-human revengers. Man metamorphosed into beast suffers too the collapse of human dignity into the farce of insanity that I have discussed.

This, then, is the dramatic achievement of Act III: its climax is in the superb dramatic irony of Titus' laughter when Marcus appeals for tears. Irony in the relations of the brothers becomes inevitable, for Marcus remains a touchstone of sanity and normal judgement, and must henceforth be excluded from Titus' plans. Retrospectively, we can perceive the ironic misunderstanding of Lavinia's kissing Titus after 1. 249: Marcus sees it as a gesture of comfort, but when Titus breaks his silence we discover it to have been a kiss of complicity, like Philomel inducing Progne to revenge. 'Gentle' Lavinia is the agent of Titus' metamorphosis, and she is his bestial accomplice in Revenge. The roots of bestiality we have seen in them both in the first two Acts; that is what emerges now as they leave the stage bearing the emblems of their purpose, the heads of Titus' sons, his hand between Lavinia's teeth. The scene ends with Lucius alone, announcing a more conventional and respectable revenge: he will collect an army to attack Rome, destroy Saturnine and Tamora, and so restore the order which we have seen so profoundly disturbed.…


Act IV, scene i, opens with a vivid reminder that Lavinia is linked with Titus in obsession: the boy Lucius runs frightened away from her intent pursuit. Her purpose is to reveal her fate, and its perpetrators, which she achieves by indicating Ovid's Metamorphosis in the library. Thus the Philomel theme is recapitulated, and brings from Titus another recollection of the emblems of Act II:

Lavinia, wert thou thus surpris'd, sweet girl,
Ravish'd and wrong'd, as Philomela was,
Forc'd in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods?
See, see!
Ay, such a place there is, where we did hunt,—
O, had we never, never hunted there,—
Pattern'd by that the poet here describes,
By nature made for murthers and for rapes.
(IV. i. 51-8)

Titus develops the beast emblems with hints of learning from Ovid what to do. His hysterical manner becomes a cloak for his intention, deceiving Marcus by an irony similar to the misunderstanding of Lavinia's kiss in III. i: the boy offers to stab Chiron and Demetrius, and Titus replies:

No, boy, not so: I'll teach thee another course.
Lavinia, come. Marcus, look to my house.

Titus means the cannibal banquet; but Marcus, thus excluded from the party, misunderstands:

But yet so just that he will not revenge.
Revenge the heavens for old Andronicus!

Like Hieronimo, Titus ought to leave vengeance to the heavens: that would be 'just'. But it is important here to feel Titus' withdrawal from justice, what Ovid called 'a plan that was to confound completely the issues of right and wrong'. We follow his revenge with an interest that is quite separate from moral approval; the more clearly so because it is contrasted with Lucius' independent plan for justified rebellion against the tyrant.

The hint of justice from the heavens is, however, fulfilled in crazy form in IV. iii when Titus delivers his threatening letters by shooting them on arrows over the walls, so that they drop on Saturninus from the skies. The scene is at once farcical and tragic as an expression of human impotence; but out of its mad gesture grows the reputation for irritating but harmless lunacy which enables Titus to trap Tamora in Act V. In the meantime, Titus' deterioration into bestiality in one sense, or his mad assumption of divinity in another, are both counterpointed by the brilliant development of Aaron in IV. ii. While the play seems to be breaking into fantasies of angels and devils, Aaron remains uncompromisingly human: not, of course, 'good', or in any way sentimentalized, but with a solid reality lacking in the other figures:

Pray to the devils; the gods have given us over.
(IV. ii. 48)

His speech has a far more flexible speech rhythm which at once distinguishes him:

Ay, just; a verse in Horace; right, you have it.
[Aside.] Now, what a thing it is to be an ass!

And this quality emerges in action when the empress's black baby is revealed. Aaron displays a magnificent contempt for the lives and worries of any one else:

Chiron: I blush to think upon this ignomy.
Aaron: Why, there's the privilege your beauty
Fie, treacherous hue, that will betray with
The close enacts and counsels of thy heart!
Here's a young lad fram'd of another leer:

Look how the black slave smiles upon the
As who should say, 'Old lad, I am thine

Paternal pride issues uninhibitedly into action to preserve the baby's life:

Two may keep counsel when the third's away:
Go to the empress; tell her this I said. [He kills
'Wheak, wheak!'
So cries a pig prepared to the spit.

Titus was metamorphosed into a beast; Aaron has no metamorphosis, he develops as a beast straight from the earth to which he will finally be condemned. But in this instinctual assurance of behaviour there is a power which seems impressively sane when contrasted with the derisive fantasy of what follows, Titus shooting arrows at the stars, loaded with evasive challenges to the emperor. With such superbly speakable words, it is not surprising that Aaron tends to dominate the end of the play. In the implied disturbance of values in this Act, this reversal of expectation is brilliantly effective; but as Titus is so firmly distanced from our sympathy, the human vitality of Aaron becomes a force that threatens the ultimate balance of the play. He is not simply part of the spectacle, and cannot be contained within the emblematic pattern of his punishment:

Set him breast-deep in earth, and famish him;
There let him stand and rave and cry for food.
If any one relieves or pities him,
For the offence he dies.
(V. iii. 179-82)

Aaron repudiates the pity:

I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done …
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

The quality of Aaron is something discovered in human experience, and learnt from Marlowe; he has a force that seriously disturbs the spectacle of tragedy in the play, of a kind that is more widely explored in Richard III. But scarcely more deeply, even there; a quality of humanity that cannot be absorbed in emblematic schemata has ultimately to be realized in the tragic hero himself before the tragic balance can be fully assured. In the tragic heroes from Richard II onwards, including Brutus, one can see an emergent wickedness that involves a wider range of our response.


Act IV ends with Saturninus and Tamora discussing Lucius' revolt, and the danger to Rome. This is sanity of another (and duller) kind than Aaron's. It leads to a clear stage, but not to a decisive Act ending. Act V opens with Lucius himself, and the revenge action is rapidly developed. There seem here to be signs of planning by Acts, IV being concerned with the plans for revenge, V with their execution. But it is by no means so clear as earlier divisions, and the play should surely be continuous here, so that Lucius and his Goths enter immediately after Saturninus and Tamora have left. My conclusion is that the play was planned in five Acts, with the last two probably continuous, as the first two certainly were; thus there are really two main movements to the play, with Act III standing between them as a pivot, with the central metamorphosis. Before that, Titus was noble man, Aaron a beast; after Act III Titus deteriorates into mad beast, while Aaron displays a kind of nobility: the issues of right and wrong are indeed confused.

But in Act V orthodox order has, of course, to be restored. That Lucius now represents (his brutality in Act I is long since forgotten), contrasted in scene i with the exultant villainy of Aaron. Scene ii carries the farcical development to its farthest limits, with Tamora disguised as the allegorical figure of Revenge in a mad game of pretence whose effectiveness is barely related to plausibility. But once Titus has killed Tamora's sons, his whirling words return to sanity in unfolding his plans and returning once again to Philomel and Progne:

For worse than Philomel you us'd my daughter,
And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd.
(V. ii. 194-5)

The final holocaust, in V. iii, like that of The Spanish Tragedy, brings the farce back towards the reality of tragedy rather in the manner of a masque, or a modern ballet. Kyd actually uses a dance, where in Titus it is more like grotesque comedy, with Titus dressed as a cook; in both it is the shock of death itself that restores a sense of reality to the stylized enactment of unleashed destructiveness. In these early plays the heaping of bodies on the stage is achieved in harmony with the formal development before; it is only later, in such dramatists as Webster, that the attempt to combine the universal destruction with realistic plausibility threatens tragedy with laughter that is out of place. Shakespeare only avoids this danger in his more naturalistic tragedies, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, by the intensely moving speeches that succeed the deaths.

Once the holocaust is achieved, Marcus takes charge and restores the political Order of Act I; Lucius is declared emperor, and passes judgement on Aaron whose unrepentance stands alone to question the complacence of the conventional ending. But Lucius' last speech is unexpected, leaving the play with a final stress on the images of nature that have dominated it:

As for that ravenous tiger, Tamora,
No funeral rite, nor man in mourning weed,
No mournful bell shall ring her burial;

But throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey.
Her life was beastly and devoid of pity;
And being dead, let birds on her take pity.
(V. iii. 195-200)

Faced with a damaged page in his copy, the printer of the second Quarto filled in with a conventional couplet on political order:

Then afterwards to order well the state,
That like events may ne'er it ruinate.

That sentiment (in less excruciating verse) is what one would expect; it calls attention to the strange quality of what Shakespeare actually wrote, creating a final emblem of the beast in man which can destroy humanity and substitute barbarity.


The transformation of Tamora from dramatic character into emblem for the play is once again like Spenser's usage in The Faerie Queene, most conspicuously at the end of the fabliau of Malbecco and Hellenore, when Malbecco in jealous fury throws himself over the cliff:

Yet can he neuer dye, but dying liues,
And doth himselfe with sorrow new sustaine,
That death and life attonce vnto him giues,
And painefull pleasure turnes to pleasing paine.
There dwels he euer, miserable swaine,
Hatefull both to him selfe, and euery wight;
Where he through priuy griefe, and horrour
Is woxen so deform'd, that he has quight
Forgot he was a man, and Gealosie is hight.
(Variorum, ed. F. M. Padelford, Baltimore,
1934, Book III, Canto X, Stanza lx)

I have emphasized this poetic stylization in Titus, for it is the unifying element in the play. Its ambitious multiplicity of tragic patterns—the political order destroyed and restored; the destructive sequence of revenges; the Marlowan aspirations of Aaron—all these are concentrated on the central interpretative theme of tragedy as the emergence of the beast in man. The alienation of sympathy inherent in this idea requires of the audience the same judicial detachment obvious in The Rape of Lucrece; but at the same time, to grasp the significance of this, we must be exposed to the shock of physical horror. The matching of these opposed reactions is not overall successful, just as it is not locally successful in Marcus' speech at the end of Act II. But though it may have been the violence which gave Titus its initial popularity, it is not a simple matter of serving a popular taste: the play is governed by an imaginative intelligence which later found the blinding of Gloucester necessary to the tragedy of Lear.

The experimental use of non-dramatic poetic technique has some brilliant successes: the emblematic view of nature in Act II is given greatly enhanced vividness by the sense of characters really seeing what they describe; and Titus shooting arrows at the stars, which in a narrative poem would be a literal incident, develops on the stage the complex sense of being at once a real protest against tragic life, a mad gesture, and a farcical impotence. On the other hand, reference to The Faerie Queene implies a limitation on the actor's use of human personality which only Aaron escapes. But this should not prevent our responding to innumberable points of individual experience: Titus' shock in Act I at Saturninus' rejection of him; Tamora's anger in Act II when Lavinia and Bassianus taunt her, and Lavinia pleading afterwards; the brutal humour of Chiron and Demetrius releasing their victim, Aaron with his black baby, and so on. They are many, and diverse, and they occur in unexpected places turning our attention in strange directions—towards Tamora and Aaron as well as Lavinia and Titus, and sometimes away from the latter in revulsion: and all these forming part of the tragic structure I have analysed.

There is, in fact, a tremendous inventiveness and intelligence active in this often despised play. It is, obviously, experimental in character, and in many ways it does not succeed. But it is characterized by a remarkable linguistic and dramatic vitality, and the reference I made above to Lear may serve to indicate how fertile these experiments ultimately proved.

Richard T. Brucher (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "'Tragedy, Laugh On': Comic Violence in Titus Andronicus," in Renaissance Drama, n.s. Vol. x, 1979, pp. 71-91.

[In the following excerpt, Brucher suggests that much of the violence in Titus Andronicus is darkly comical in nature and serves to expose unpleasant truths about human nature and the limits of social codes of conduct.]

Despite Thomas Heywood's contention [in An Apology For Actors, 1612] that tragedy depicts "the fatal and abortive ends of such as commit notorious murders, … aggravated and acted with all the art that may be, to terrify men from the like abhorred practices," the effect of Elizabethan stage violence may not be moral at all. Nahum Tate did not think so, because he was determined to "improve" King Lear. By concluding his adaptation (1681) "in a success to the innocent distressed persons," Tate made the ending more "just" and avoided encumbering "the stage with dead bodies, which conduct makes many tragedies conclude with unseasonable jests." The problem of the catastrophe causing laughter rather than pity, fear, or moral gratification is more acute in Titus Andronicus (1593?), in which the hero Titus, the "Patron of virtue, Rome's best champion" (I.i.65), becomes "a cook, placing the dishes" (V.iii.26 s.d.). Dressed as a chef, Titus feeds Tamora her two sons, whom he has baked in a pie, kills his daughter Lavinia, and murders Tamora, before being killed by Saturninus. The effect of the atrocities, which are conducted onstage with a savage wit, is baffling. With some justification, John Dover Wilson [in Titus Andronicus, 1948] compares Titus to a "cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells."

The comic effect of violence was a problem for the Elizabethans, too. In the Induction to A Warning for Fair Women (1599), the figure of Tragedy, brandishing "in her one hand a whip, in the other hand a knife" (1. I. s.d.), insists that her purpose is to stir the spectators:

To rack a thought, and strain it to his form,
Until I rap the senses from their course.
This is my office.
(11. 40-42)

But to Comedy and History, who vie with her for control of the stage, Tragedy is "a common executioner" (1. 6), and the stuff of tragedy is not exalted passion and moral instruction, but rant, bloodshed, and grotesquerie. Comedy sardonically suggests that the conqueror plays popular in the 1580s and '90s merely show "How some damn'd tyrant to obtain a crown / Stabs, hangs, impoisons, smothers, cutteth throats" (11. 43-44). The revenge tragedies go after more hysterical and fantastic effects:

a filthy whining ghost,
Lapt in some foul sheet, or a leather pilch,
Comes screming like a pig half stick'd,
And cries, Vindicta!—Revenge, Revenge!
With that a little rosin flasheth forth,
Like smoke out of a tobacco pipe, or a boy's
Then comes in two or three [more] like to
With tailors' bodkins, stabbing one another—
Is not this trim?
(11. 47-55)

Comedy points to an unpredictable, darkly comic effect that must be reckoned with. Some staged atrocities are so outlandish that they seem funny. I contend that the playwrights deliberately made some violence comic in order to thwart conventional moral expectations. I have in mind a form of violence which is shocking in its expression of power and evil, and yet so outrageous in its conception and presentation that it causes laughter as it disrupts our sense of order in the world. Titus Andronicus is an extreme play, but Shakespeare draws on a common interest in sardonic depictions of violent actions. In its crudest form, in a play like The Tragical Reign of Selimus, Emperor of the Turks (1594?), the comic savagery celebrates barbaric power. In its more witty and complex form, as in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1590?), the comic savagery reflects an ingenious malevolence which defines its own order in a world of doubtful values. This more sophisticated form of aesthetic, or artfully plotted, violence is at once more appealing and subversive, because it derives from a highly developed, if perverse, human intelligence. The aesthetic conception of violence creates a histrionic context which involves the audience more directly in the fun. Understanding both the crude and the subtle expressions of witty depravity helps us to grapple with the perplexing effect of the violence in Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare combines the two forms of comic savagery and directs the onslaught against sympathetic victims. Consequently, the audience becomes engaged in an experience of moral chaos which painfully tests assumptions about human values and behavior, but which cannot comfortably be called tragic.…

Comic violence vividly depicts the dissolution of commonly held values because it implies that there is no sane order in the world to make the violence seem legitimate. Our laughter signals our participation in the disorder. In both Selimus and The Jew of Malta, however, there are distancing devices which prevent the disorder from becoming too painful. In Selimus the stereotyping of the barbarians keeps the extreme violence from being an immediate threat to civilization. The Jew of Malta subverts values more completely because the witty villainy becomes a more persuasive expression of reality than Christian virtue, but the histrionic gusto with which the violence is presented makes the reality seem like a fantasy. Titus Andronicus is a more troublesome play because engaging histrionics and raw brutality coalesce. The comically savage depiction of violence arouses the same kinds of reactions as in Selimus and The Jew of Malta, but it brings them into conflict with a more fundamental recognition that violence which causes real pain ought not to be amusing. Consequently, the violence in Titus Andronicus is much more cruel than any encountered so far, and it evokes a more distrubing vision of the world.

Late in Titus Andronicus, Aaron the Moor reveals to his captor Lucius, Titus's son, the crimes for which he has been responsible:

murthers, rapes, and massacres,
Acts of black...

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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...

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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...

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Further Reading

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.


(The entire section is 559 words.)