Titus Andronicus (Vol. 85)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Titus Andronicus, see SC, Volumes 4, 17, 27, 43, 62, and 73.
Titus Andronicus (c. 1592) is among the most poorly regarded of Shakespeare's plays. Scholars consider the tragedy to be one of the dramatist's apprentice works, and note that it appears to have been popular with Elizabethan audiences as a sensationalistic piece. The play, a revenge tragedy focused on the violent clash between the Goths and Romans in early Imperial Rome, recounts a long chain of murder and revenge. The drama's many atrocities include the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, daughter of Roman general Titus Andronicus, and the murder of the sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, whose heads are baked in a pie and served to Tamora before she is killed. Although there is no known source for Titus, critics agree that Shakespeare was likely influenced by the writings of such classical sources as Seneca, Ovid, and Livy, as well as by the works of his contemporaries, particularly Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1589) and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1588-89). Titus Andronicus has been disparaged for the majority of its critical history, and a number of scholars have endeavored to disprove Shakespeare's authorship of the play. Most contemporary commentators, however, have put aside the vexing question of Shakespeare's authorship of the work, and have focused instead on the play's sources, racial and gender issues, and historical and thematic content. Modern productions of the play have reflected this trend toward increasingly serious critical interest in Titus Andronicus, suggesting that it is both a viable performance piece and subject of scholarly inquiry.
Recent appraisals of character in Titus Andronicus have reflected contemporary scholarly interest in gender and race, and many studies have focused on the play's principal female roles as well as on the figure of Aaron the Moor. Ian Smith (1997) probes the significance of the juxtaposition of blackness and barbarity imposed on the Moor's character in Titus Andronicus. Smith also examines Shakespeare's use of “metaphoric barbarism” and “verbal mutilation” and explores in particular how Aaron challenges the “linguistic violence” directed against him in the play. Emily Detmer-Goebel (2001) offers a study of rape in Titus Andronicus, with a consequent focus on Titus's profoundly abused daughter Lavinia. After sexually assaulting and torturing her, Lavinia's male attackers remove her tongue so that she cannot name them. In Detmer-Goebel's view, this mutilation suggests a masculine anxiety over the potential power of a woman's voice. The critic also notes that “while the world of the play suggests how early modern culture's construction of gender ‘denies’ a woman the ‘tongue’ to talk of rape, the play also feeds on the unrest that such silence creates.” Cynthia Marshall (see Further Reading) probes the subject of misogyny in Titus Andronicus by focusing on the play's principal female figures, Tamora and Lavinia. Marshall maintains that these characters embody male anxieties concerning both powerful and dependent women.
Although it was one of the most popular dramas on the stage in Shakespeare's day, Titus Andronicus suffered nearly three and a half centuries of neglect before being rediscovered in the mid-twentieth century. Reviewing director Terrence O'Brien's 1999 production of Titus Andronicus at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Peter Marks (1999) comments on the stylized violence and gore of this otherwise deeply serious staging of Shakespeare's Roman tragedy. Marks additionally highlights the production's visceral appeal and evocation of the dark recesses of humanity and history. Viewing a less successful production, critic Katherine Duncan-Jones (2003) finds director Bill Alexander's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of the drama a disappointment. Marred by unfulfilled or ineffective characterizations, poor pacing, and a dulled emotional presence, this Titus Andronicus, according to the critic, demonstrated the difficulties inherent in translating Shakespeare's early dramas to the contemporary stage. Normand Berlin's 2003 assessment of James Edmondson's Oregon Shakespeare Festival production suggests, in contrast, the potential allure of Titus Andronicus for modern theatergoers. The critic observes that Edmondson severely blunted the comic potential of the drama in favor of monstrous horror and brutal retribution. In Berlin's estimation, Edmondson's fast-paced, energetic, violent, and engaging interpretation of the play effectively created the atmosphere of gloom appropriate to this revenge tragedy.
The relationship between Titus Andronicus and Shakespeare's principally Roman source material has elicited considerable critical interest. Clifford Chalmers Huffman (1972) compares Titus Andronicus with Ovid's Metamorphoses, emphasizing the theme of destruction and renewal in both works. Niall Rudd (2002) traces the pervasiveness of classical Roman themes, contexts, and allusions in Titus Andronicus. According to Rudd, Shakespeare used the writings of Virgil, Ovid, Plutarch, Livy, Horace, Seneca, and others as sources of the characterization, dramatic action, and theme in his early Roman tragedy. Scholars are also interested in the play's structure, genre, and religious elements. D. J. Palmer (1972) takes issue with the conventional view of Titus Andronicus as structurally formless or poorly constructed, and argues that the play is a “highly-ordered and elaborately-designed work.” Palmer also draws attention to the ostensibly civilized Roman world of the play as it degenerates into the barbarous cultural landscape associated with the Goths. Approaching the drama from the perspective of genre, Natália Pikli (2000) explores how Titus Andronicus blends farcical comedy and horrific violence to produce grotesque, tragicomic effects that blur the distinction between reality and illusion. E. Eugene Giddens (1998) studies religious elements in the play. The critic traces Old Testament biblical allusions in Titus Andronicus and draws parallels between the numerous primitive, ritualistic episodes in Shakespeare's drama and the mythic ritual paradigms of Genesis. Nicholas R. Moschovakis (2002) examines the historical presence of Christian persecution in Titus Andronicus and asserts that the work presents a sustained critique of cultural violence sanctioned by religion.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Palmer, D. J. “The Unspeakable in Pursuit of the Uneatable: Language and Action in Titus Andronicus.” Critical Quarterly 14, no. 4 (winter 1972): 320-39.
[In the following essay, Palmer takes issue with the conventional view of Titus Andronicus as structurally formless or poorly constructed, arguing instead that the drama is a “highly-ordered and elaborately-designed work.”]
These wrongs unspeakable, past patience, Or more than any living man can bear.
(V. iii. 126-7)
The extremities of horror and suffering in Titus Andronicus seem to stretch the capacities of art to give them adequate embodiment and expression. Perhaps it was this sense of testing the limits of his poetic and dramatic resources that attracted Shakespeare to the subject at the beginning of his career, for his early work in general is characterised by its tendency to display rhetorical and technical virtuosity, as well as by a desire to emulate and outdo his models. The early Shakespeare is more prone to excessive ingenuity than to a lack of skill or inventiveness. But the question at issue in Titus Andronicus has for a long time been whether the nature of the material over-extended Shakespeare's abilities. Edward Ravenscroft, its Restoration renovator, condemned the play as ‘the most incorrect and indigest piece in all his Works; It seems rather a heap of...
(The entire section is 8181 words.)
Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Smith, Ian. “Those ‘slippery customers’: Rethinking Race in Titus Andronicus.” Journal of Theatre and Drama 3 (1997): 45-58.
[In the following essay, Smith probes the significance of the juxtaposition of blackness and barbarity imposed on the character of Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus.]
As an alternative to the tedious restatement of the bloody revenge tragedy theme, that is, Titus Andronicus as a debased, melodramatic, questionably Shakespearean transposition of Seneca, more recent work has opened up a line of criticism that focuses on Shakespeare's use of language. The tendency to tally body counts, rape and dismemberments, has been joined to a metalinguistic interest that identifies an analogous and reflexive series of verbal mutilations “in which language engenders violence and violence is done to language through the distance between word and thing, between metaphor and what it represents” (Kendall 299). This critical analysis can be described in terms of the vocabulary developed here as a metaphoric barbarism. A further instance of this destabilizing, gaping distance occurs by way of the inveterate habit of the Andronici to project their experiences, however horrible, into literary performances (Fawcett 268-72); they inhabit a dramatic world “with [a] plurality of texts that characters must generate, script, inscribe, embed,...
(The entire section is 5978 words.)
SOURCE: Detmer-Goebel, Emily. “The Need for Lavinia's Voice: Titus Andronicus and the Telling of Rape.” Shakespeare Studies 29 (2001): 75-92.
[In the following essay, Detmer-Goebel concentrates on the rape and silencing of Lavinia as it depicts the male repression of women's authority in Titus Andronicus.]
In Act 2 of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Lavinia refuses to name rape; she refers to an impending sexual assault as that which “womanhood denies my tongue to tell” and as a “worse-than-killing lust” (2.3.174, 175).1 Lavinia's chaste refusal to say the word “rape” reminds the audience that even to speak of rape brings a woman shame. As feminists have pointed out, an environment that makes it shameful to speak of rape disallows a critique of rape and the culture that sustains it.2 And yet, while the world of the play suggests how early modern culture's construction of gender “denies” a woman the “tongue” to talk of rape, the play also feeds on the unrest that such silence creates.
Feminist critique of rape representations often explores “telling” as a question of authorship or subjectivity. For example, the first question that many feminist critics ask of various early modern representations of rape is: Who is really doing the talking; who is telling this story of rape?3 Such questions are particularly useful...
(The entire section is 7654 words.)
Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Marks, Peter. Review of Titus Andronicus. New York Times (18 August 1999): B3, E1.
[In the following review, Marks admires director Terrence O'Brien's 1999 production of Titus Andronicus at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival for its innovative, stylized depiction of the play's shocking violence.]
Is there any sight in Shakespeare more gruesomely loony than one that has the surviving members of a close-knit clan carting away the severed body parts of their kin? (“Come, brother, take a head,” one resigned relative declares.)
Or how about the moment in which a ravaged daughter, her tongue recently cut out, carries her father's own hacked-off limb in her teeth? Or the scene where a pair of disreputable young men are slaughtered, baked into a pie and fed to their mother?
That these all occur in one play, the around-the-clock bloodbath that is Titus Andronicus, goes a long way to explaining why the drama, with its obscene body count, will never match the results for, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream on audience appreciation surveys. Midsummer has an adorable array of fairies of the forest; Titus has a crazed assortment of warriors vying for the honor of having a hand chopped off and delivered to the emperor.
Ketchup and laundry bills alone would be enough to dissuade many a small company from a...
(The entire section is 787 words.)
SOURCE: Berlin, Normand. Review of Titus Andronicus. Massachusetts Review 44, no. 3 (fall 2003): 531.
[In the following excepted review of James Edmondson's 2002 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Titus Andronicus, Berlin notes that Edmondson severely blunted the comic potentially of the drama in favor of monstrous horror and brutal retribution.]
Titus Andronicus was performed on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, so called because the dimensions are similar to those of the Fortune Theatre, but it is not an authentic Elizabethan theater for a number of reasons. It has side exits, large doors in the center of the stage, and various staging platforms. The audience is seated and spread out (no groundlings here!), and the performances are open to an evening sky, not the afternoon sky of the Elizabethans. Not as compact as the Globe, which was able to accommodate two or three thousand with good sight lines and supposedly fine acoustics, Ashland's outdoor theater, like most large outdoor theaters, seems to demand broader acting, more attention to clear and loud delivery, larger gestures. That demand was successfully met in the performance of Shakespeare's very early, excessively violent play, one that has received very harsh criticism through the years, including T. S. Eliot's much-quoted opinion that Titus is “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.”...
(The entire section is 1344 words.)
SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Review of Titus Andronicus. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5244 (3 October 2003): 19.
[In the following review of Bill Alexander's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Titus Andronicus, Duncan-Jones finds the production lacking in plausibility, pacing, lyricism, and interpretive coherence.]
As a “Roman play”, Titus Andronicus is a one-off. Rather than staging famous historical persons and events, Shakespeare—and perhaps George Peele—at the beginning of the 1590s explored political and social ideals in terminal decline. “Rome” in her heyday vaunted highly recognizable values: military valour, efficient empire-building, patriotism, rich literary culture, piety, strong family bonds. But in Titus, Rome's military valour has been reduced to bully-boy brutality, her piety to lunacy, her literary culture to a single tale of incest and rape—that of Philomel—and her family values to cruel patriarchal tyranny. Like Shakespeare's chronologically adjacent plays on the Wars of the Roses, Titus chronicles the sufferings of a realm that has “long been mad, and scarred herself”. But Rome's “wilderness of tigers” will enjoy no Tudor deliverance. The analogy may be among the reasons for the play's huge popularity with the Elizabethans.
Many names in Titus are symbolic. “Lavinia”, for instance,...
(The entire section is 1031 words.)
SOURCE: Huffman, Clifford Chalmers. “Titus Andronicus: Metamorphosis and Renewal.” Modern Language Review 67, no. 4 (October 1972): 730-41.
[In the following essay, Huffman compares Titus Andronicus with Ovid's Metamorphoses, emphasizing the theme of destruction and renewal in both works.]
With a reservation indicated by inverted commas, Geoffrey Bullough terms Titus Andronicus (printed 1594) ‘classical’.1 Other scholars have stressed the importance for this early Shakespearian play2 of details associated with Seneca and Plutarch,3 and a most significant and influential study, by Eugene Waith, concentrates on Ovid's Metamorphosis.4
Ovid's deliberate and elaborate rhetorical variations of description and narration, which seem to some readers dispassionate and cold-blooded, subordinate the potential tragedy of character to an overriding concern with metamorphosis itself—with change and continuity. Ultimately, Waith argues, the poem sees all created life as part of ‘vital force’, of Lucretian nature;5 the theme is ‘the opposition of moral and political disorder to the unifying force of friendship and wise government’ (p. 44). In turning to the play, however, he finds that the theme is ‘not so important an organizing principle as Shakespeare's themes are in his later tragedies’ (p....
(The entire section is 6625 words.)
SOURCE: Giddens, E. Eugene. “The Genesis of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.” Literature and Theology: An International Journal of Religion, Theory and Culture 12, no. 4 (December 1998): 341-49.
[In the following essay, Giddens traces Old Testament biblical allusions in Titus Andronicus and draws parallels between the numerous primitive, ritualistic episodes in Shakespeare's drama and the mythic ritual paradigms of Genesis.]
From its first human sacrifice, Alarbus, to its last, Lavinia, Titus Andronicus's action is explicitly pagan. Non-Christian, over-determined rituals have subjected the play to centuries of critical denigration. Recently, however, less-condemnatory critical inquiry focuses on them.1 Some critics even suggest specific origins for the rituals of Titus. William W. E. Slights puts forward René Girard's theory of sacrificial purification.2 Also from an Girardian perspective, Stephen X. Mead sees in Titus ‘a crisis of community-binding ritual.’3 William H. Desmonde argues for a ritual origin in ‘the ancient Greek myths of Pelops and the Rape of Persephone,’ and ‘ultimately from tribal puberty rites.’4 Francis Barker notes that ‘Judging from the early incidence of human sacrifice or from the prominence that it gives to an act of cannibalism, it could be argued that Titus Andronicus...
(The entire section is 3922 words.)
SOURCE: Pikli, Natália. “The Crossing Point of Tears and Laughter, A Tragic Farce: Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.” AnaChronist (2000): 51-69.
[In the following essay, Pikli explores Shakespeare's grotesque blending of violent tragedy and comic farce in Titus Andronicus.]
The aged catch their breath, For the nonchalant couple go Waltzing across the tightrope As if there were no death Or hope of falling down; The wounded cry as the clown Doubles his meaning, and O How the dear little children laugh When the drums roll and the lovely Lady is sawn in half.
(W. H. Auden)
The circus described by the Stage Manager in the Preface of Auden's Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest,1 provides a highly revealing picture of the theatre in general, while highlighting how Shakespeare's plays work on stage, and in the theatre of our minds. The dramatic effect of his plays evokes two universal signs of emotion: tears and laughter. On the surface, laughter and suffering associate themselves easily with other binary oppositions such as light and darkness, good and evil, heaven and hell—and in drama: comedy and tragedy. Still, they do not merely oppose but may cross each other, springing from the same roots. Tears of joy are made of the same material as tears of pain, and laughter may express pure joy or hide pain and misery.
(The entire section is 7911 words.)
SOURCE: Moschovakis, Nicholas R. “‘Irreligious Piety’ and Christian History: Persecution as Pagan Anachronism in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 4 (winter 2002): 460-86.
[In the following essay, Moschovakis interprets Titus Andronicus as a potentially revolutionary critique of cultural violence sanctioned by religion.]
For the violent spectacle of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare drew much of his inspiration from Rome's lurid founding myths and from the legend of its imperial decadence.1 The annals of post-Reformation Christianity, however, afforded episodes of bloodshed and persecution that were more recent and closer to home. During the Armada year of 1588 alone, the English government executed more than thirty Catholics as traitors. Over the following six years, more than fifty were put to death.2 The number of Elizabethan Protestants dying for offenses related to their faith was comparatively small, yet their ranks were supplemented by vivid chronicles of persecution under previous Catholic regimes. Recently, critics have begun to compare the traumas of Titus with those of sixteenth-century religious strife, compellingly suggesting the young Shakespeare's sensitivity to the pathos of the religious struggle.3
More radically, I shall argue, Shakespeare's glances at contemporary religious conflict in...
(The entire section is 13196 words.)
SOURCE: Rudd, Niall. “Titus Andronicus: The Classical Presence.” Shakespeare Survey 55 (2002): 199-208.
[In the following essay, Rudd traces the pervasiveness of classical Roman themes, contexts, and allusions—drawn from the writings of Virgil, Ovid, Plutarch, Livy, Horace, Seneca, and others—in Titus Andronicus.]
This paper has to do with the play's Romanitas. By that I mean, not its tenuous relation to historical fact, but rather the characters' awareness of Rome's cultural traditions.1 The plural is needed, because there were two such traditions. When, as Horace said, ‘Captive Greece made her rough conqueror captive’ (Epistles 2.1.156), she brought to Latium her poetry and mythology (along with much else). The point is so familiar that one tends to forget its exceptional nature. In the annals of imperialism how many victors have learned the language of the vanquished and set about acquiring their culture? From Homer and his successors the Romans learned about Priam, Hecuba, and the rest; and when, with their growing sense of power, they looked for a pedigree that would rival the Greeks' in age and prestige, they found it in Troy. The link was supplied by the story of Aeneas, that was eventually given its classic form by Virgil. But first the contribution of Aeneas had to be reconciled with the other, native, tradition that Rome was founded by her eponymous...
(The entire section is 7364 words.)
Christiansen, Nancy L. “Synecdoche, Tropic Violence, and Shakespeare's Imitatio in Titus Andronicus.” Style 34, no. 3 (fall 2000): 350-79.
Argues that Shakespeare's use of synecdoche and other figurative language in Titus Andronicus exists as a unifying principle in the drama through its verbal representation of violent action.
Helms, Lorraine. “‘The High Roman Fashion’: Sacrifice, Suicide, and the Shakespearean Stage.” PMLA 107, no. 3 (May 1992): 554-65.
Considers the Senecan qualities of Lavinia's rape, silencing, and death in Titus Andronicus.
Huffman, Clifford Chalmers. “Bassianus and the British History in Titus Andronicus.” English Language Notes 11, no. 3 (March 1974): 175-81.
Explores Shakespeare's historical sources for the Roman Emperor Bassianus in Titus Andronicus, and examines this figure's significance to the minor theme of primogeniture versus election based upon merit.
Jorgensen, Paul A. “Shakespeare's Dark Vocabulary.” In The Drama of the Renaissance: Essays for Leicester Bradner, edited by Elmer M. Blistein, pp. 108-22. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1970.
Examines Shakespeare's vocabulary of gloom, violence, and bodily torment in Titus Andronicus, as...
(The entire section is 428 words.)