During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,critical study of Titus Andronicus focused primarily on the question of Shakespeare's authorship of the play. While the debate over authorship has continued in the twentieth century, a shift in critical emphasis suggests that most modern commentators are willing to accept Titus as Shakespeare's work. In addition to producing a re-examination of the relationship of Titus to other plays in Shakespeare's canon, the contemporary focus on the play's dramatic elements has brought new insights into its dramatic structure, its use of medieval and classical sources, and the relationship between its lyrical language and its violent action.
While critics such as M. C. Bradbrook (1951) and Bernard Spivak (1958) explored the relationship between Titus Andronicus and medieval literature, others examined the play's Roman setting and its rich use of classical sources, particularly Ovid's Metamorphoses and, to a lesser extent, works of Vergil, Seneca, and others. In an essay published in 1955, Eugene M. Waith suggested that Shakespeare was attempting in Titus to develop "a special tragic mode" that would dramatize the Ovidian theme of transformation through passion. The playwright failed, Waith maintained, because his Ovidian material was incompatible with the medium of drama. Alan Sommers (1960) defined the play's fundamental theme as the struggle between "ideal civilization," represented by Rome, and "the barbarism of primitive, original nature," symbolized by the forest and personified in the characters of Tamora and Aaron. More recently, commentators have maintained that Shakespeare uses Roman civilization to examine the inconsistencies and inadequacies of received ideas. Andrew V. Ettin (1970) saw in Titus a testing of the classical literary models available to Renaissance writers. Ronald Broude (1970) detected a similar questioning of Roman values. Arguing that the Elizabethans considered themselves heirs of both the Roman and the Germanic, or "Gothic," traditions, he suggested that Titus enacts a providential regeneration of a decadent society, as Gothic valor unites with traditional Roman values of justice and mercy to restore order at the end of the play. Heather James (1991) related Shakespeare's handling of classical sources to his use of images of mutilation and digestion. In Titus, she suggested, Ovid's Metamorphoses is used to comment on Vergil's account of the origins of Rome and to expose the roots of Rome's decay in its founding moments.
Scholars have also examined the discrepancy between the play's lyrical language and its hyperbolically violent events. While John Dover Wilson (1947) regarded the contrast as an attempt at parody, more recent commentators have put forward other explanations. In a pair of articles (1974 and 1976), Albert H. Tricomi drew attention to the close and often grotesque relationship between theme, imagery, and action in the play, which he saw as an original but ultimately unsuccessful experiment in integrating poetic language and dramatic action. For Ettin, Richard T. Brucher (1979), and Grace Starry West (1982), the disparity between the play's elevated language and its brutal action dramatizes the limitations of classical Roman models in confronting the human potential for passion and violence. A metatextual explanation for the conflict between language and action in the play was offered by James L. Calderwood (1971): Titus, he maintained, reflects the young Shakespeare's sense that his poetic language was violated when placed at the service of the theater. R. Stamm (1974) also offered a metatextual reading, suggesting that Shakespeare uses Lavinia's muteness to explore the sometimes conflicting claims of verbal and non-verbal dramatic expression. Lawrence Danson argued that in Titus and in his subsequent plays Shakespeare dramatizes the difficulty of human attempts to find expressive modes adequate to experience. Both playwright and characters are faced with the incapacity of rhetoric to frame an adequate response to the play's horrific events, which can find sufficient expression only in violent action and death. S. Clark Hulse built on Danson's observations, suggesting that, as civilized modes of behavior collapse into barbarism, Titus gradually relinquishes a language of words in favor of a non-verbal "language of signs." It is only after he has abandoned verbalized grief for the act of revenge that order can be restored to Rome and language can be restored to its normal function.
The play's female characters have also attracted extensive critical commentary in recent decades. David Willbern (1978) presented a psychoanalytical reading of the play that focused on its "manifest sexual, symbolic, and sadistic elements" and treated Titus's final revenge on Tamora as an enactment of the Freudian threat of the devouring mother. For Heather James, Tamora and Lavinia are made to embody threats to Roman order that must be contained. Marion Wynne-Davies (1991) examined the figures of Tamora and Lavinia in the context of late sixteenth-century rape legislation and the emerging concept of female selfhood. She concluded that while both characters emerge briefly as independent subjects, their destruction reasserts traditional limitations on female autonomy and self-expression.