Titus Andronicus (Vol. 62)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Titus Andronicus, see SC, Volumes 4, 17, 27, and 43.
Titus Andronicus is commonly thought of as Shakespeare's most overtly violent and bloody play. Many critics, considering this violence completely gratuitous, have questioned Shakespeare's authorship of the play or charged the playwright with pandering to the “vulgar” and “blood-thirsty” tastes of an Elizabethan audience. Another controversial issue for a number of scholars is the inconclusiveness of any evidence regarding the source material for the play. Although Titus Andronicus refers in a variety of ways to classical authors including Ovid and Seneca, there is no direct antecedent for the savage revenge plot. While earlier critics have focused heavily on the authorship controversy, many modern critics have shifted their attention to the play's violence, including the atrocities suffered by Titus's daughter Lavinia, and the possible sources likely to have influenced Shakespeare's creation of the play.
The violence in Titus Andronicus is initiated with the ritualistic disemboweling and sacrifice of Tamora's son by Titus, in order to appease the ghosts of Titus's dead sons. The vengeful violence generated by this act stains the remainder of the play: Lavinia is raped and dismembered, Tamora's sons—Lavinia's rapists—are murdered, then prepared as a feast by Titus for Tamora, Lavinia is killed by Titus, Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus kills Titus, and Lucius kills Saturninus. Due to the horrific nature of the violent deeds done in the play, a number of critics dismiss Titus as “an immature exercise in sensationalism,” states Jack E. Reese (1970). Challenging this assessment, Reese finds that the play exhibits certain formal elements which diminish, or “abstract” the violence. Such elements include the depiction of characters as classical “types,” the repetition of imagery, motifs, and themes, and the stylization of the physical violence. Richard Marienstras (1985) observes that much of the play's violence occurs within the boundaries of sacrifice or hunting. The critic argues that by characterizing the violence in this way, Shakespeare explored the dichotomy between Roman civilization and the wildness of nature. William W. E. Slights (1979) discusses the “sacred” nature of the play's violence, maintaining that when sacred violence becomes vengeful the community experiences a “sacrificial crisis” which generates a revenge cycle. Only Titus's death ends this cycle, Slights maintains. Virginia Mason Vaughn (1997) demonstrates the way Roman civilization is contrasted with Gothic barbarity. Vaughn examines the depiction of Romans, who are supposedly civilized citizens, as committing barbarous acts, and argues that this depiction raised questions for the English citizens of the late 1580s and early 1590s about the meaning of civilization and about England's role as a colonizer.
As Lavinia is the object of much of the play's violence, a great deal of critical attention is paid to her character. Not only is Lavinia raped by two men, she is mutilated by them as well—her tongue and hands are removed as an attempt to prevent her from identifying her attackers. In the end, Lavinia is killed by her father in an effort to assuage the shame that her rape has brought upon herself and her family. Rudolf Stamm (1975) focuses on Lavinia's role in Titus, showing how she operates as a stimulating agent for the violence of her relatives and at the same time is allowed by Shakespeare to have a personal identity. Through Lavinia, Stamm concludes, Shakespeare honed the theatrical technique of the non-verbal expression of emotion. Bernice Harris (1996) notes as well that Lavinia's status in the play is symbolic. Harris argues that she operates as a token of masculine power, a “changing piece” (I.i.309) in the play's political exchanges. Likewise, Sara Eaton (1996) identifies Lavinia's symbolic role as a “changing piece,” demonstrating that Lavinia is a representative of upper-class, humanist-educated women, who during Shakespeare's time were the subject of much social tension. This type of upbringing taught self-expression, which was viewed by some as a social threat. Eaton contends that Lavinia, whose “unruliness” is considered a product of her education, is transformed through her mutilation into the idealized image of the pure, silent, and obedient wife and daughter.
Described by one critic as a “vile hash of Ovid, Seneca, Plutarch, and Virgil,” the issue of the source material for Titus is a vexing, though fascinating topic for many critics. The influence of Ovid, in particular the Metamorphoses, on the play has been examined by twentieth-century critics such as Eugene Waith (see Further Reading). Waith argues that the play fails in its attempt to dramatize the detached narrative style of Ovid, and that Shakespeare was striving to develop a particular “dramatic mode” in which concepts from Ovid were portrayed within the structure of Elizabethan tragedy. Waith concludes that the Ovidian principle Shakespeare borrowed—the transformation of individuals through passion and suffering—cannot be reproduced in the theater. G. K. Hunter (1984) analyzes the source debate, noting that the Roman “history” in the play is impossible to actually locate in historical time. Hunter does find, however, that Shakespeare's depiction of the decadence of “imperial family disputes” is influenced by Herodian's History. Like Hunter, Naomi Conn Liebler (1994) identifies Herodian's History as a source of Shakespeare's portrayal of Rome, stating that the political situation in the play includes references to specific situations depicted by Herodian. Liebler concludes that while Aaron, Tamora's sons, and the Andronicus family may be entirely fictitious, the Rome of Titus is definitely not.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Introduction to Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare, edited by Alan Hughes, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 1-47.
[In the excerpt below, Hughes surveys the various critical controversies surrounding Titus Andronicus, including the debates over the date of composition, sources, and authorship. Hughes also reviews the issues of greatest concern among twentieth-century critics, noting that the violence in the play receives a considerable amount of attention from modern scholars.]
The earliest reliable reference to Titus Andronicus comes from the Diary of the Elizabethan entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, proprietor of the Rose playhouse on Bankside. The Diary is really an account-book which records the share of the players' receipts which was the ‘rent’ Henslowe charged companies performing in his playhouses.1 According to the Diary, the Earl of Sussex's Men played a season from 26 December 1593 to 6 February 1594, probably at the Rose. On 23 January the play was ‘titus & ondronicus’; in the margin Henslowe wrote ‘ne’, which is usually taken to mean ‘new’.2 Two more performances followed, on 28 January and 6 February, after which a new outbreak of the plague moved the Privy Council to close the playhouses.3 On the same date, both ‘a booke intituled a Noble Roman Historye of...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: “The Alphabet of Speechless Complaint: A Study of the Mangled Daughter in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus,” in The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975, pp. 255-73.
[In the following essay, Stamm explores Lavinia's role in Titus Andronicus, viewing her as a “stimulus” for the expressions of violence performed by her relatives. Finding that Shakespeare endowed Lavinia with individuality, Stamm further demonstrates that Shakespeare used Lavinia to refine his theatrical techniques, specifically the non-verbal portrayal of emotion.]
In a recent article on Shakespeare's mirror technique in Titus Andronicus1 I tried to show how the young playwright, conscious of his power of language and his sense of the theatre and stimulated by the competition of Kyd and Marlowe, experimented in this play with various methods of coordinating speech and gesture, elaborate poetical patterns, and effective stage situations to create a poetic tragedy capable of satisfying the demands of the learned lovers of classical poetry as well as those of the naive friends of sensational spectacle and of uniting the two groups in a common theatrical experience. The problem was pursued in connection with a small group of scenes, all of them dominated by the titular hero, and little attention was paid to the most extraordinary...
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SOURCE: “A Woman of Letters: Lavinia in Titus Andronicus,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 54-74.
[In the following essay, Eaton suggests that through Lavinia, Shakespeare dramatized contemporary social tensions concerned with the value of humanist education. In particular, Eaton contends, Lavinia embodies the upper-class, humanist-educated woman who is perceived as a societal threat and who must consequently be silenced.]
I will learn thy thought; In thy dumb action will I be as perfect As begging hermits in their holy prayers. Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven, Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign, But I, of these, will wrest an alphabet, And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.
Titus speaks to Lavinia in my epigraph, and he terms her a “map of woe” whose body must “talk in signs” (3.2.11), since, as Marcus puts it, “that delightful engine of her thoughts, / That babbl'd them with such pleasing eloquence, / Is torn from forth that pretty hollow cage” (3.1.81-84). Their metaphors heighten the theatrical effects of Lavinia's grisly appearance after her rape and mutilation, but they also anticipate scenes for the “wresting” of meaning, for the “practice” of reading...
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SOURCE: “Sexuality as a Signifier for Power Relations: Using Lavinia, of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus,” in Criticism, Vol. 38, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 383-407.
[In the following essay, Harris focuses on Lavinia’s role as the currency used in the play's political exchanges, observing that the treatment of her body serves as a means of identifying the source of authority in Titus Andronicus.]
One of the most gruesome images of a woman on the Elizabethan stage occurs when Lavinia, in Shakespeare's early Roman play, Titus Andronicus, enters the stage, according to stage directions, with “her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravished” (at the opening of Act II, Scene 4).1 Of course, the literary canon is strewn with dismembered or ravished women's bodies; Lavinia is one of many. An argument often made to deny that literary representations of a woman's sexual status or death might be motivated or interpreted by sexist or misogynist impulses is that these bodies are literary bodies,” not “real” bodies, and thus they mean something else.
Yet one cannot deny a long history of violence against women in the “real” world and often this violence has to do with representational meanings. Bodies in the material world, much like “literary” bodies, are also seen and used as discursive constructions; bodies in the material world often...
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Criticism: Sacrifice And Violence
SOURCE: “The Formalization of Horror in Titus Andronicus,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 77-84.
[In the essay that follows, Reese maintains that the violence in Titus Andronicus is subdued through various techniques, such as the use of characters resembling classical “types,” ironic repetition of themes and motifs, and the stylization of physically violent acts.]
Although Titus Andronicus was a splendid success in its own day,1 it has been almost universally castigated since. As early as 1687, Ravenscroft called it “a heap of rubbish”;2 Coleridge suggested that it was “obviously intended to excite vulgar audiences by its scenes of blood and horror”;3 and, in this century, Dover Wilson has said that it “seems to jolt and bump along like some broken down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells.”4 Indeed, many critics, repelled by what they term the play's Senecan excesses, have either denied Shakespeare's authorship or insisted that he merely touched up an old play.5
In light of Titus' reputation as Grand Guignol fare, then, the unqualified success of Peter Brook's 1955 Stratford production must have come as somewhat of a surprise to those who had the rare opportunity of...
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SOURCE: “The Sacrificial Crisis in Titus Andronicus,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 18-32.
[In the following essay, Slights studies the role and nature of the cycle of revenge that commences when the boundaries between sacred violence and vengeful violence are blurred in Titus Andronicus.]
In the first scene of Titus Andronicus one of Titus's sons—only four of twenty-five remain alive after ten years of Gotho-Roman wars—piously proposes to sacrifice the eldest son of the captured Gothic queen: ‘Let's hew his limbs till they be clean consum'd’ (I.i.129).1 The Andronicus boys exit with their victim and return shortly with bloody swords, their hewing done. Such acts of violence spread like a blot through Shakespeare's first tragedy, and their dramatic function has been debated by generations of critics. Was Shakespeare competing for spectators in a bloody entertainment market that featured bear and dog dismemberment as well as public executions? Was he imitating classical models—Seneca's reworkings of Greek cyclical revenge stories or Ovid's tales of sudden transformations precipitated by violent emotional attacks? And if these are all partial explanations, what resonant chord in the nature of civilized human beings is sounded by an art form that dwells so insistently on cruelty, physical pain, and consequent mental...
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SOURCE: “The Forest, Hunting and Sacrifice in Titus Andronicus,” in New Perspectives on the Shakespearean World, translated by Janet Lloyd, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 40-47.
[In the essay below, originally published in 1981, Marienstras demonstrates the way in which Titus Andronicus uses the violence that occurs in the name of hunting and sacrifice to explore the dichotomy between “civilized” Rome and the “wildness” of nature.]
Shakespeare's interest in the themes of hunting, the forest and sacrifice—or the sacrificial act insofar as it can be represented or evoked on stage—can be clearly seen in Titus Andronicus.1
While Saturninus and Bassianus are engaged in a struggle for power, Titus makes his triumphal entry into Rome. He has conquered the Goths and brings back prisoners with him: Tamora, queen of the Goths, her three sons Alarbus, Chiron and Demetrius, and Aaron the Moor. Alongside four living sons, he also brings back the bodies of his own twenty-one sons who have been killed. To appease their shades, Lucius asks that a Goth be sacrificed before the bier of his brothers and Titus grants his request:
Lucius: A reason mighty, strong, and effectual, 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...
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SOURCE: “The Construction of Barbarism in Titus Andronicus,” in Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, edited by Joyce Green MacDonald, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997, pp. 165-180.
[In the essay below, Vaughan analyzes the way in which the Romans of Titus Andronicus—who commit barbarous acts—are compared with the barbarians they have conquered. Vaughan contends that the play reveals the anxieties of Shakespeare's time regarding England's own role as a colonizer.]
Marcus chides his brother in the opening scene of Titus Andronicus for refusing to bury his son Mutius inside the family tomb:
Thou art a Roman; be not barbarous: The Greeks upon advice did bury Ajax That slew himself; and wise Laertes' son Did graciously plead for his funeral. Let not young Mutius then, that was thy joy, Be barr'd his entrance here.
Marcus's words establish a binary opposition that seems to run through the play. Originally, the OED reports, a barbarian was one who was not Greek. Under Roman rule, he became “one living outside the pale of the Roman Empire and its civilization.” He was also a “rude, wild, uncivilized person.” The barbarian was thus defined by what he was not—Greek, Roman, civilized.
John Gillies demonstrates in his thoughtful...
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SOURCE: “Sources and Meanings in Titus Andronicus,” in Mirror Up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honor of G. R. Hibbard, University of Toronto Press, 1984, pp. 171-88.
[In the following essay, Hunter finds that despite the lack of indisputable evidence regarding the sources for Titus Andronicus, the influences of Livy and Herodian can clearly be seen in the play.]
The belief that Shakespeare preferred to ‘borrow’ his plots instead of ‘inventing’ them (both words are highly culture-determined) might seem difficult to sustain today in the face of the complex picture of adaptation and refashioning we find, for example, in Kenneth Muir's Shakespeare's Sources or in more detailed studies of the kind of C. T. Prouty's The Sources of ‘Much Ado about Nothing.’ But mere details have little power to deflect our necessary myths; and the myth of Shakespeare the ‘all-natural’ bard, though unfashionable in its explicit form, clearly continues to sustain a preference for a Shakespeare with a passive relationship to the cultural context in which he worked.
Titus Andronicus is something of a special case inside this general situation. The play has no indisputable source, and most scholars, it seems, would be happy to learn that it was not by Shakespeare at all; it is the mark of their professionalism that they are not content just to register taste...
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SOURCE: “Getting It All Right: Titus Andronicus and Roman History,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 263-78.
[In the following essay, Liebler maintains that while much of Titus Andronicus is fictitious and without identifiable sources, Shakespeare's portrayal of Rome was influenced by Herodian's History.]
Some thirty-five years ago, Terence Spencer proposed the context in which an Elizabethan audience would have received Titus Andronicus. Although he did not positively claim it as a source for the play, he referred in some detail to Antonio de Guevara's Decada, translated in 1577 by Edward Hellowes as A Chronicle, conteyning the liues of tenne Emperours of Rome and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. Spencer noted that among the “lives,” an Elizabethan reader would have found
[A] blood-curdling life of a certain Emperor Bassianus, … one of almost unparalleled cruelty. … I will not say that it is a positive relief to pass from the life of Bassianus by Guevara to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (and there to find, by the way, that Bassianus is the better of the two brothers). … Titus Andronicus is Senecan … and its sources probably belong to medieval legend. Yet … it is also a not untypical piece of Roman history, or would seem to be so to anyone who came fresh from...
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Barker, Francis. “Treasures of Culture: Titus Andronicus and Death by Hanging.” In The Production of English Renaissance Culture, edited by David Lee Miller, Sharon O'Dair, and Harold Weber, pp. 226-261. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Focuses on the play's exploration of ritual acts, ceremonial spectacles, and the fetishistic and taboo characterization of the sacred.
Hattaway, Michael. “Titus Andronicus: Strange Images of Death.” In Elizabethan Popular Theatre: Plays in Performance, pp. 186-207. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
Maintains that the violence in Titus Andronicus is not simply a bloody display of “classical horrors,” but rather that it makes a political statement.
Kahn, Coppélia. “The Daughter's Seduction in Titus Andronicus, or, Writing Is the Best Revenge.” In Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women, pp. 46-76. London: Routledge, 1997.
Argues that the play demonstrates a deep understanding of the “politics of textuality,” in its Ovidian and Senecan overtones. This awareness, Kahn states, is connected to the play's concern with sexual politics and the role of Titus and Lavinia in the Roman patriarchal system.
Kendall, Gillian Murray. “‘Lend Me Thy Hand,’: Metaphor and Mayhem...
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