Titus Andronicus (Vol. 43)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Titus Andronicus, see SC, Volumes 4, 17, and 27.
Historically among the most poorly regarded of Shakespeare's plays, Titus Andronicus has for the majority of its critical history elicited the ridicule of critics, among them T. S. Eliot, who called it "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written." Indeed the play, a bloody revenge tragedy set in imperial Rome, appears to have been popular in Shakespeare's day largely as a sensationalistic and visceral piece. And, although many scholars have endeavored to disprove Shakespeare's authorship of the work, evidence to the contrary appears to be overwhelming. Critical consensus sees Titus Andronicus as an example of the playwright's early apprenticeship, a play in which he synthesized the popular neo-Senecan revenge drama with other classical sources, including the writings of Ovid and Livy, for the Elizabethan stage. In the latter half of the twentieth century enlightened performances of the play, including Peter Brooks' 1955 Stratford production, have done much to revive serious critical interest in Titus Andronicus, proving the work to be a viable stage drama and a site of scholarly inquiry. Among the most fruitful of these explorations continues to be the study of its themes of violence, rape, and mutilation, while other areas, such as gender and textual issues, the play's sources, and its place in Shakespeare's canon as an early Roman play, continue to be of perennial interest.
The subject of violence in Titus Andronicus has proved to be almost critically unavoidable. Very few explorations of the play have been able to ignore its multiple mutilations, countless murders, and the sadistic rape of Lavinia that form the centerpiece of its thematic action. Many of the studies of violence in Titus Andronicus have focused on the play's stark imagery. Katherine A. Rowe (1994) has examined the plentiful images of severed hands in the play, and has linked them to the work's theme of failed or ineffective political action. Elsewhere, David Willbern (1978) has detailed the imagery of violence and sadism that colors the play throughout. Several critics have concentrated on the rape and mutilation of the innocent Lavinia done by Demetrius and Chiron (the two amoral sons of the captured Gothic queen Tamora), drawing parallels between Lavinia's violation and the social, linguistic, and interpretive shifts in the play. Derek Cohen (1993) has described Lavinia's rape as an indication of female victimization in a male-dominated society, while Karen Cunningham (1990) has argued that the rape calls into question the notion of justice and the accessibility of truth. Mary Laughlin Fawcett (1983) has traced the implications of Lavinia's rape and subsequent mutilation. She contends that with her hands chopped off and tongue ripped out, Lavinia symbolizes the limitations of language and adumbrates Shakespeare's complex theory of language, texts, and bodies.
Interrelated questions of gender and textuality are also of common interest to many critics. Douglas E. Green (1989), among them, has examined the primary female characters in Titus Andronicus, Lavinia and Tamora—archetypal victim and avenger, respectively—who symbolically wrest textual control from the central male figure in the play, Titus himself. The attack upon patriarchal and textual authority is additionally pursued by Heather B. Kerr (1992), who sees in the contrasting feminine figures of Tamora and Lavinia a subversion of male society and of the fabric of textual signification.
The subject of the Roman sources and subject matter of Titus Andronicus has additionally elicited much critical interest in recent years. Many scholars have particularly studied the considerable influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses on both the story and theme of Shakespeare's play. Leonard Barkan (1986) has concentrated on Ovid's telling of the classical story of Philomel as a touchstone to Titus Andronicus. Eugene M. Waith (1957) has likened Shakespeare's dramatization of the transformative power of violent emotion in the play to that in Ovid's tragic stories. While outlining Ovidian influences in Titus Andronicus, A. C. Hamilton (1963) was one of the first to point out the importance of the drama as it foreshadows the mode of Shakespeare's later tragedies. Hamilton uses King Lear as an example. A parallel line of thought perceives Titus Andronicus as a prototype of the Roman plays Shakespeare composed later in his career—Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Robert S. Miola (1983) has highlighted Shakespeare's incisive depiction of Rome and the prevalent themes of civil turmoil, political duty, revenge, and military honor that inform Titus Andronicus as well as the Roman plays. Miola argues (against many prior commentators) the affinities of these works with one of Shakespeare's fledgling and most frequently disparaged dramas, and typifies the general contemporary attitude to Titus Andronicus, which, despite its flaws, finds it a compelling and rewarding work.
Overviews: Gender And Race
Douglas E. Green (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Interpreting 'her martyr'd signs': Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 317-26.
[In the following essay, Green examines the intertwined workings of gender, revenge, and victimization in Titus Andronicus.]
Today we are questioning the cultural definitions of sexual identity we have inherited. I believe Shakespeare questioned them too, that he was critically aware of the masculine fantasies and fears that shaped his world, and of how they falsified both men and women.1
. . . by text we mean not something that is self-same on the page, not the intertness of an implacable letter, but rather those slippages and multiplications which determine and fix only to unmoor again, making all places provisional, all sites relational, all identity a matter of differences scarcely perceivable because forever changing.2
In Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus the parallels to other popular plays of the period are evident: bits of Marlowe and Kyd, for instance, abound. Shakespeare introduces Titus (1.1.70-295) as a Roman Tamburinine, with trumpets, triumphs, chariots, and domestic murders, but places this martial heroism in the context of a revenge tragedy.3 The analogies with plays...
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A. C. Hamilton (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "Titus Andronicus: The Form of Shakespearian Tragedy," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1963, pp. 201-13.
[In the following essay, Hamilton examines Ovidian influences on Titus Andronicus, and calls the play the archetype of Shakespeare's later tragedies.]
In this essay I shall challenge the usual reading of the play as expressed in Dover Wilson's judgment that it is "some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses", and in T. S. Eliot's remark that it is "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written."1 One word may sum up the reasons for rejecting this play: excess. Its plot tells
of murthers, rapes, and massacres,
Acts of black night, abominable deeds,
Complots of mischief, treason, villainies,
Ruthful to hear, yet piteously perform'd.
The S. D. "Enter . . . Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd" displays this excessive violence through its deliberate catalogue, especially in that last detail so needlessly insistent (how may she enter "ravish'd"?). This violence becomes only more horrific through the excessive artifice of the language. When Marcus sees Lavinia with her tongue cut out, he observes:...
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Qualities As A Roman Play
Robert S. Miola (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "Titus Andronicus: Rome and the Family," in Shakespeare 's Rome, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 42-75.
[In the following essay, Miola considers the Roman setting, themes, and sources of Titus Andronicus.]
Probably the most striking feature of modern critical reaction to Titus Andronicus is the persistent refusal to consider it one of Shakespeare's Roman plays. Early in the century, the abundant bloodletting and lurid action caused John M. Robertson to discern various hands in the play and to deny it a place in Shakespeare's canon.1 The disintegrationist furor having died down, most critics now emphasize the importance of Titus Andronicus to Shakespeare's artistic development, specifically to the histories and great tragedies that follow.2 Critics of Shakespeare's Rome generally follow the precedent of M. W. MacCallum, who relegates Titus Andronicus to a place apart from the Plutarchan tragedies:
It is pretty certain then that Julius Caesar is the first not only of the Roman Plays, but of the great series of Tragedies. The flame-tipped welter of Titus Andronicus, the poignant radiance of Romeo and Juliet belong to Shakespeare's pupilage and youth. Their place is apart from each other and the rest in the vestibule and forecourt...
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David Willbern (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "Rape and Revenge in Titus Andronicus," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 159-82.
[In the following essay, Willbern surveys Shakespeare 's imagery of sadistic sexuality and revenge in Titus Andronicus.]
Fresh from his recent victory over Hamlet, T. S. Eliot challenged Titus Andronicus. He must have found the play unworthy of critical combat, since he merely pronounced it to be "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written," and left it to die from the blow.1 Edward Ravenscroft, the seventeenth-century playwright who loosed the rumor that Shakespeare only "gave some Mastertouches" to a work not his own, would have agreed: he called it, simply, "a heap of Rubbish."2It has since taken the play some time to recover from the embarrassment critics felt when faced with the possibility of considering it seriously. Peter Brook's 1955 Stratford production, with Laurence Olivier as Titus, did much to revive critical interest, and since then several essays have appeared.3 Few, however, have discussed the manifest sexual, symbolic, and sadistic elements of the play in serious terms, perhaps because of that discomfort which often accompanies the explication of the obvious.4 By observing the central action of rape and the corresponding reaction...
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Barker, Francis. "A Wilderness of Tigers: Titus Andronicus, Anthropology and the Occlusion of Violence." In The Culture of Violence: Tragedy and History, pp. 143-206. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Offers an anthropological look at Titus Andronicus as a depiction of a "barbarous" and "primitive" Roman society.
Dessen, Alan C. "Two Falls and a Trap: Shakespeare and the Spectacles of Realism." English Literary Renaissance 5, No. 3 (Autumn 1975): 291-307.
Examines the difficulties in staging the "pit" scene in Act II scene iii in Titus Andronicus and claims the scene "could work on the modern stage if the actors and the audience can transcend the terms of realism."
Huffman, Clifford Chalmers. "Titus Andronicus: Metamorphosis and Renewal." The Modern Language Review 67, No. 4 (October 1972): 730-41.
Studies the resolution of Titus Andronicus in the context of Ovid's Metamorphosis, arguing that both works concentrate on "continuity through change."
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: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Acknowledges the Roman sources of Titus Andronicus, including the writings of Livy and...
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