Historically among the most poorly regarded of Shakespeare's plays, Titus Andronicus has for the majority of its critical history elicited the ridicule of critics, among them T. S. Eliot, who called it "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written." Indeed the play, a bloody revenge tragedy set in imperial Rome, appears to have been popular in Shakespeare's day largely as a sensationalistic and visceral piece. And, although many scholars have endeavored to disprove Shakespeare's authorship of the work, evidence to the contrary appears to be overwhelming. Critical consensus sees Titus Andronicus as an example of the playwright's early apprenticeship, a play in which he synthesized the popular neo-Senecan revenge drama with other classical sources, including the writings of Ovid and Livy, for the Elizabethan stage. In the latter half of the twentieth century enlightened performances of the play, including Peter Brooks' 1955 Stratford production, have done much to revive serious critical interest in Titus Andronicus, proving the work to be a viable stage drama and a site of scholarly inquiry. Among the most fruitful of these explorations continues to be the study of its themes of violence, rape, and mutilation, while other areas, such as gender and textual issues, the play's sources, and its place in Shakespeare's canon as an early Roman play, continue to be of perennial interest.
The subject of violence in Titus Andronicus has proved to be almost critically unavoidable. Very few explorations of the play have been able to ignore its multiple mutilations, countless murders, and the sadistic rape of Lavinia that form the centerpiece of its thematic action. Many of the studies of violence in Titus Andronicus have focused on the play's stark imagery. Katherine A. Rowe (1994) has examined the plentiful images of severed hands in the play, and has linked them to the work's theme of failed or ineffective political action. Elsewhere, David Willbern (1978) has detailed the imagery of violence and sadism that colors the play throughout. Several critics have concentrated on the rape and mutilation of the innocent Lavinia done by Demetrius and Chiron (the two amoral sons of the captured Gothic queen Tamora), drawing parallels between Lavinia's violation and the social, linguistic, and interpretive shifts in the play. Derek Cohen (1993) has described Lavinia's rape as an indication of female victimization in a male-dominated society, while Karen Cunningham (1990) has argued that the rape calls into question the notion of justice and the accessibility of truth. Mary Laughlin Fawcett (1983) has traced the implications of Lavinia's rape and subsequent mutilation. She contends that with her hands chopped off and tongue ripped out, Lavinia symbolizes the limitations of language and adumbrates Shakespeare's complex theory of language, texts, and bodies.
Interrelated questions of gender and textuality are also of common interest to many critics. Douglas E. Green (1989), among them, has examined the primary female characters in Titus Andronicus, Lavinia and Tamora—archetypal victim and avenger, respectively—who symbolically wrest textual control from the central male figure in the play, Titus himself. The attack upon patriarchal and textual authority is additionally pursued by Heather B. Kerr (1992), who sees in the contrasting feminine figures of Tamora and Lavinia a subversion of male society and of the fabric of textual signification.
The subject of the Roman sources and subject matter of Titus Andronicus has additionally elicited much critical interest in recent years. Many scholars have particularly studied the considerable influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses on both the story and theme of Shakespeare's play. Leonard Barkan (1986) has concentrated on Ovid's telling of the classical story of Philomel as a touchstone to Titus Andronicus. Eugene M. Waith (1957) has likened Shakespeare's dramatization of the transformative power of violent emotion in the play to that in Ovid's tragic stories. While outlining Ovidian influences in Titus Andronicus, A. C. Hamilton (1963) was one of the first to point out the importance of the drama as it foreshadows the mode of Shakespeare's later tragedies. Hamilton uses King Lear as an example. A parallel line of thought perceives Titus Andronicus as a prototype of the Roman plays Shakespeare composed later in his career—Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Robert S. Miola (1983) has highlighted Shakespeare's incisive depiction of Rome and the prevalent themes of civil turmoil, political duty, revenge, and military honor that inform Titus Andronicus as well as the Roman plays. Miola argues (against many prior commentators) the affinities of these works with one of Shakespeare's fledgling and most frequently disparaged dramas, and typifies the general contemporary attitude to Titus Andronicus, which, despite its flaws, finds it a compelling and rewarding work.