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.
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 Rubbish, then a Structure’: if he had been acquainted with the terminology of modern criticism, Ravenscroft might have accused the play of the fallacy of imitative form in representing the collapse of classical Roman decorum into Gothic barbarism. Yet, even given that Elizabethan taste is not Ravenscroft's or our own, the charge of formlessness is a paradoxical one to make, since the play is very obviously full of formal devices and rhetorical patterning. Most modern critics of the play, in fact, have been offended by its elaborate stylisation, which they find quite out of keeping with the sensational physical horrors: Dover Wilson, for instance, was led by his sense of such incongruity to believe that the play was intended as a burlesque and not as a tragedy at all.
The charge that the form and style are at odds with the situations they are supposed to express finds a point of focus in the episode where Lavinia, ‘her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd’, is encountered by her uncle Marcus. Marcus addresses her gruesome figure in a speech of formal lamentation, dwelling on the details of her mutilation and shame with such elaborate and fanciful conceits, mixing sweetness with the grotesque, that many have thought the effect of lines like these to be an insensitive mockery of the physical and emotional reality of the situation:
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 … .....And not withstanding 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. 22-32)
The effect is certainly bizarre, and intrinsic to it is the mute presence on stage of Lavinia herself. Indeed for that reason I find it difficult to accept the defence of this kind of rhetoric in the play made by E. M. Waith1, who argues that it derives from the style of Ovidian metamorphosis (the ‘conduit’ image is certainly taken from Ovid's description of the death of Pyramus in Metamorphoses, Book Four). Waith finds that the effect of such curious conceits is to transform states of violent emotion, at their point of extremity, into ‘interested but somewhat detached contemplation’, but he acknowledges that the device belongs essentially to narrative and descriptive poetry, and ‘cannot be fully realized by the techniques of drama’. Detached contemplation, however, is hardly appropriate to the formal lament that Marcus is uttering, and it seems more in keeping with the techniques of drama to take these lines as an expression of Marcus' own feelings, moved by the sight of such affliction, rather than as directly descriptive of Lavinia. Just as the religious poetry of the early seventeenth century, influenced as Louis Martz has shown2 by the formal practice of meditation concentrating the total awareness of the senses, feelings and understanding on the realisation of a devotional subject, was to produce in the baroque sensibility of Richard Crashaw such conceits as ‘purple Rivers’ of blood flowing from the crucified Christ, and to present the tears of Mary Magdalene as ‘sister springs … Ever bubling things’, and even more grotesquely as
Two walking baths; two weeping motions; Portable, & compendious oceans,
so Marcus' lament is the expression of an effort to realise a sight that taxes to the utmost the powers of understanding and utterance. The vivid conceits in which he pictures his hapless niece do not transform or depersonalise her: she is already transformed and depersonalised, as she stands before him the victim of a strange and cruel metamorphosis. The opening words of his speech are ‘Who is this?’ and his first response is to doubt the reality of what he sees:
If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me! If I do wake, some planet strike me down, That I may slumber an eternal sleep!
Far from being a retreat from the awful reality into some aesthetic distance, then, Marcus' conceits dwell upon this figure that is to him both familiar and strange, fair and hideous, living body and object: this is, and is not, Lavinia.
Lavinia's silence is as moving, and as appalling, as the sight of her bleeding wounds, and following his envisagement of her, Marcus gives dramatic embodiment to another function of rhetoric in this episode as in the play as a whole:
Shall I speak for thee? Shall I say 'tis so? O, that I knew thy heart, and knew the beast, That I might rail at him to ease my mind! Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd, Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.
Lavinia's plight is literally unutterable: Ovid's Philomela, as Marcus says, at least had her hands to tell her story in a woven sampler, but in thus surpassing Ovid Shakespeare also makes fully dramatic the testing of his own expressive resources. By realising Lavinia's tragedy, Marcus' formal lament articulates unspeakable woes.
The formality and stylisation of this speech, therefore, instead of being incongruously related to the horror of the situation, arise reality. Here and throughout the play, the response to the intolerable is ritualised, in language and action, because ritual is the ultimate means by which man seeks to order and control his precarious and unstable world. Behind the style and structure of Titus Andronicus, as Ben Jonson later implied when he coupled the play with The Spanish Tragedy in a disparaging reflection on earlier Elizabethan drama3, there lies the example of Kyd, whose tragic hero Hieronymo resorts to the ritualised patterns of rhetorical lament to express his extremity of suffering:
O eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears; O life, no life, but lively form of death; O world, no world, but mass of public wrongs, Confus'd and fill'd with murder and misdeeds. …
(The Spanish Tragedy, III. ii. 1-4)
Hieronymo finally extracts his revenge through the enactment of a play, and, his purpose accomplished, bites off his tongue. So Shakespeare, overgoing Kyd as well as Ovid, develops the compulsions of his tragic figures in conscious relationship to the scope and function of his own art as poet and dramatist.
The story of Titus Andronicus is not historical, and the actual source that Shakespeare used is unknown, although most scholars believe that it probably did not differ in essentials from a prose version that has survived in an eighteenth-century chapbook. What is clear is that in re-shaping the narrative material for his play Shakespeare related the events to analogues in Roman literature and mythology, most notably to Ovid's tale of Tereus and Philomela (Metamorphoses, Book Six), and possibly to the Senecan banquet of Thyestes; there are also allusions to Virgil's Aeneid, to Coriolanus, to Appius and Virginia, and of course to the classical deities. All these help to evoke the Roman world of the play, and it may be said of these literary allusions, as T. J. B. Spencer remarked of the eclectic nature of the political institutions in the play, that ‘the author seems anxious, not to get it all right, but to get it all in’.4
In addition to establishing a Roman setting, however, the classical references are also designed to suggest a pattern in the events of the plot as though the tragedy is a re-enactment of a primordial Roman experience. There is one complex of references in particular which sets the play as a whole in relation to a mythological scheme of significance: in altering the name of the Emporer from the vaguely late-Roman resonance of Theodosius, as he is called in the prose version of the story, to the Saturninus of the play, Shakespeare created a series of associations that enhance the meaning of the dramatic action. The reign of Saturn, first of the gods, was the Golden Age, when men lived in perfect harmony and happiness; his overthrow by Jupiter his son began that process of decline and fall, through the ages of silver, brass and iron, which Ovid describes in Book One of Metamorphoses, until at last, in the words of Golding's translation:
Men live by ravine and by stelth: the wandring guest doth stand In daunger of his host: the host in daunger of his guest: And fathers of their sonne in lawes: yea seldome time doth rest, Betweene borne brothers such accord and love as ought to bee. The goodman seekes the goodwifes death, and his againe seeks shee. The stepdames fell their husbandes sonnes with poyson do assayle. To see their fathers live so long the children doe bewayle. All godlynesse lies under foote. And Ladie Astrey, last Of heavenly vertues, from this earth in slaughter drowned past.
The aptness of this vision of anarchy to the condition of Saturninus' Rome in the play is reinforced by Titus when he quotes Ovid directly: “Terras Astraea reliquit” (IV. iii. 4). What historical basis there is in Shakespeare's source, which sets the story against the background of Rome's struggle against the Goths, clearly denotes the decadence of empire, and this seems to have prompted Shakespeare's ironic recollection of another famous piece of Roman literature, Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, with its Sybilline prophecy of another Golden Age: ‘iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna’:5
Now is come the last age of the song of Cumae; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high.
The fulfilment of this prophecy depended on the birth of a son, and throughout the Middle Ages Virgil's lines were read as a foretelling of Christ's coming. In this context, the last age of Rome under Saturninus in Shakespeare's play is something akin to a blasphemous parody, in which the ‘Virgo’ becomes neither Astraea nor Mary, but the violated chastity of Lavinia, whose terrible revelation, ‘Stuprum-Chiron-Demetrius’, is written in the sand that Titus compares to the Sibyl's leaves (IV. i. 106), while the son that is born into this world of woe is no redeemer, but Aaron's bastard.
It is Aaron who gives another twist to the Saturnine significances in this play by referring his villainy to the planetary influence of the god:
Madam, though Venus govern your desires, Saturn is dominator over mine. What signifies my deadly-standing eye, My silence and my cloudy melancholy, My fleece of woolly hair that now uncurls Even as an adder when she doth unroll To do some fatal execution? No, madam, these are no venereal signs, Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.
(II. iii. 30-39)
The astrological aspect of Saturn has little to do with his benign presidency over the Golden Age, as is shown in Erwin Panofsky's summary of medieval and renaissance conceptions of the attributes associated with the planet:
In the capacity of planetarian ruler, Saturn was held to be a peculiarly sinister character; we still use the word ‘saturnine’ to indicate ‘a sluggish, gloomy temperament’, to quote the Oxford Dictionary. Those subject to his power could be mighty and wealthy, but not kindly and generous; they could be wise, but not happy. For men born under Saturn must perforce be melancholy. Even those highly conditional advantages were granted only to a very small minority of Saturn's ‘children’. Generally Saturn, coldest, driest, and slowest of planets, was associated with old age, abject poverty and death. In fact Death, like Saturn, was represented with a scythe or sickle from very early times. Saturn was held responsible for floods, famines and all other kinds of disasters. Those born under him were classed with the most miserable and undesirable of mortals …6
Clearly, in the old age of Rome represented by the play, Saturn's baleful and malignant influence is predominant, and it is appropriate that the tragic hero himself should be an old man.
The scythe or sickle which the figure of Saturn bears in iconographical representations (several of which are reproduced in Panofsky's book) has a complicated but fascinating origin. It became identified with the idea of Death as a harvester, but before that it reflected the conflation of the Roman Saturn with the Greek god Chronos, himself etymologically related to (or confused with) Kronos, or Time: hence what has come down to us as the more familiar figure of Father Time. But Saturn's sickle (or scythe) has another, more horrific, significance, and one that relates him even more closely to Shakespeare's play: this implement symbolises his castration of his father Uranus, according to renaissance mythographers (though some are willing to allow that it might also refer to his Golden-Age associations with the fertility of the earth, deified in the figure of his wife, Rhea). The same mythographers also specify another equally blood-curdling attribute: holding his sickle in one hand, with the other hand Saturn thrusts a child into his mouth (some of Panofsky's illustrations show this feature, and there is also Goya's well-known picture of the subject). This macabre detail owes its origin to the myth in which Saturn devours all his male children, except Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune. He was also sometimes depicted holding a snake with its tail in its mouth, which seems to suggest similar propensities. These iconographical attributes correspond closely to the two related crimes in Titus Andronicus: mutilation and cannibalism. Moreover, while the lopping of Lavinia's ‘branches’ (as Marcus calls them) and its subsequent avenging in the banquet served to Tamora are the twin atrocities on which the dramatic action turns, other events and the language used to describe them parallel these Saturnine activities. In the opening scene, for instance, we learn that of his twenty-five sons Titus has lost all but four in defending the cause of Rome: ‘pius’ Titus thus sacrifices his children to the state that devours them, and the burial of the latest victims is celebrated by the sacrificial slaughter of Alarbus, son of Rome's enemy Tamora. Alarbus is to be first dismembered, then buried, and the line ‘Let's hew his limbs till they be clean consum'd’ (I. i. 129) conflates the idea of mutilation with that of devouring in the act of ritual murder. Similarly, at the end of the play Tamora's surviving sons are first to be completely disintegrated:
Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust, And with your blood and it I'll make a paste …
(V. ii. 187-8)
and then fed to their ‘unhallow'd dam’, who will, ‘like to the earth, swallow her own increase’. ‘Suum cuique is our Roman justice’ (I. i. 280) is a text that receives an ironic gloss as the play unfolds. Tamora, ‘Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred’, is, like Rome itself, under this Saturnine rule, appropriately assimilated to the figure of Rhea the earth-goddess. A peculiarly horrid notion of renaissance neo-Platonism was that Saturn's twin deeds of dismemberment and cannibalism were an allegory of the primal mystery of the Many and the One: as the first represented disintegration and dispersal, the second, the eating of his own offspring, denoted the return of multiplicity into unity. Perhaps it is also appropriate therefore that the Saturnalia of Shakespeare's play should be concluded by Marcus' address to the citizens of Rome:
O, let me teach you how to knit again This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf, These broken limbs again into one body; Lest Rome herself be bane unto herself.
(V. iii. 70-73)
These, I think, are the central shaping significances of the reign of Saturn in the play, though minor reverberations may be picked up in other aspects of its design. The name Titus itself, for instance, may in this context recall the Titans who warred against the Olympians, since Aaron associates himself with Tamora as ‘mounting aloft’ to ‘Olympus' top’ (II. i. 1-14): the Olympians overthrew Saturn, just as Saturninus' rule is subverted by these Gothic intruders. On the other hand, Titan in one version of the myth was Saturn's elder brother, who abdicated in his favour just as Titus yields the emperorship to Saturninus at the beginning of the play. Perhaps too these mythological parallels explain why the clown in this saturnine Rome has never heard of ‘Jubiter’ (IV. iii. 85—as the First Quarto text spells it). One imagines that Shakespeare enjoyed the elaboration of such ingenious correspondences, just as Marcus suspects that ‘the gods delight in tragedies’ (IV. i. 61).
The progression of the play's first two Acts represents the metamorphosis of Roman civilisation into Gothic barbarism through a transition from solemn ceremony to wild and brutal sport. So clearly structured is the sequence of action in this opening phase of the play, leading to the violation of Lavinia, that its significance can be followed almost entirely in terms of the strongly-defined patterns of stage-spectacle and movement. We attend as much to Shakespeare's choreography as to the dialogue, while the shifting tableaux of groups of figures, their physical movements and gestures, create a series of expressive parallels and contrasts in rhythm, emotional pitch and tone. The tragic issues are here presented in the language of theatrical form.
There are three different kinds of ceremony to be performed in the long public scene that constitutes the whole of Act One: the election of the new Emperor, the triumphal entry of Titus' victory procession and the burial of his sons. The action begins with a brief tableau in which the two brothers Saturninus and Bassanius enter with drums and trumpets from opposite sides, confronting each other with their followers as rivals for their father's crown, as Marcus, the people's representative, appears above them holding the crown: the pyramidal grouping expresses both the rule of law, the formal majesty of the state, and the tensions...
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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...
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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...
(The entire section is 7654 words.)