Titus Andronicus, the first of William Shakespeare’s ten tragedies, was written between 1589 and 1592, probably in 1590. The young writer was eager to establish himself as a commercially successful playwright, so he resorted to the traditionally accepted form of revenge tragedy for this play. Revenge tragedy is a particularly violent form of theater and had been used by Thomas Kyd in his spectacularly successful The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1585-1589). Shakespeare, no doubt, had Kyd’s success in mind as he created a play of unprecedented violence. In Titus Andronicus, eleven of the individually named characters are murdered, eight in view of the audience, and several are horribly mutilated. Lavinia’s rape and mutilation represent the acme of brutality in the Elizabethan theater, and Shakespeare was unabashedly pandering to the Elizabethan audience’s taste for blood and gore in his first attempt at tragedy. It is largely because of this excessive violence that many critics, from Shakespeare’s fellow dramatist Ben Jonson to twentieth century poet T. S. Eliot, have censured this play as unworthy of Shakespeare. Some critics have even denied that Shakespeare wrote the play. Such condemnation fails to recognize that it is only when Titus Andronicus is considered in the light of Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, which are among the greatest in the English language, that it falls short of the mark. It measures up very well when it is compared with The Spanish Tragedy or Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (c. 1589), especially in regard to the important areas of characterization, language, and theme.
Although the characters in Titus Andronicus are clearly not as rich and subtle as are many of those in Shakespeare’s later tragedies, some of them are still quite compelling and foreshadow several of Shakespeare’s mature figures. Titus Andronicus is the first of Shakespeare’s great Roman warriors who falls from high status because of a fatal flaw of character or intellect. In broad outline, his tragic downfall anticipates the destructive careers of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony. Even Othello’s monumental rages recall Titus’s propensity for impulsive violence. Titus is an outstanding example of Aristotle’s conception of the tragic protagonist as a man who is greater than the ordinary and basically good, but who suffers from a deadly defect that destroys him. Titus’s terrible suffering is a harrowing dramatic experience, and his character is an altogether remarkable creation for a dramatist in his twenties.
Tamora and Aaron also deserve particular mention. Tamora is the first of a small number of Shakespeare’s malevolent women, some others being Goneril and Reagan in King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608) and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623). Like them, Tamora is seen in dramatic contrast to a benevolent female character, in this case Lavinia. Like the other villainesses, Tamora is crafty and manipulative, psychopathic and driven by a lust for power, but her animus against the Andronici is understandable in view of the sacrificial execution of her son Alarbus. She is perhaps ultimately less sympathetic than Lady Macbeth, who loses her mind because of her guilt, but she is clearly more human than Goneril and Reagan, who are arguably the most malignant women in all of drama. Aaron is the first of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian villains, the others being Richard III in Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593, pb. 1597), Iago in Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622), and Edmund in King Lear. Like the behavior of all villains of this type, Aaron’s actions are scheming, sadistic, and psychopathic. He revels in doing evil, and his catalog of his life after his capture recalls the hateful braggadocio of Ithamore in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, upon whom he is partially based.
The sheer excesses of his play run the risk of disgusting the audience, even one as fond of violence as the Elizabethan audience was. The shock of...
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