(Shakespearean Criticism)

Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus is commonly thought of as Shakespeare's most overtly violent and bloody play. Many critics, considering this violence completely gratuitous, have questioned Shakespeare's authorship of the play or charged the playwright with pandering to the “vulgar” and “blood-thirsty” tastes of an Elizabethan audience. Another controversial issue for a number of scholars is the inconclusiveness of any evidence regarding the source material for the play. Although Titus Andronicus refers in a variety of ways to classical authors including Ovid and Seneca, there is no direct antecedent for the savage revenge plot. While earlier critics have focused heavily on the authorship controversy, many modern critics have shifted their attention to the play's violence, including the atrocities suffered by Titus's daughter Lavinia, and the possible sources likely to have influenced Shakespeare's creation of the play.

The violence in Titus Andronicus is initiated with the ritualistic disemboweling and sacrifice of Tamora's son by Titus, in order to appease the ghosts of Titus's dead sons. The vengeful violence generated by this act stains the remainder of the play: Lavinia is raped and dismembered, Tamora's sons—Lavinia's rapists—are murdered, then prepared as a feast by Titus for Tamora, Lavinia is killed by Titus, Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus kills Titus, and Lucius kills Saturninus. Due to the horrific nature of the violent deeds done in the play, a number of critics dismiss Titus as “an immature exercise in sensationalism,” states Jack E. Reese (1970). Challenging this assessment, Reese finds that the play exhibits certain formal elements which diminish, or “abstract” the violence. Such elements include the depiction of characters as classical “types,” the repetition of imagery, motifs, and themes, and the stylization of the physical violence. Richard Marienstras (1985) observes that much of the play's violence occurs within the boundaries of sacrifice or hunting. The critic argues that by characterizing the violence in this way, Shakespeare explored the dichotomy between Roman civilization and the wildness of nature. William W. E. Slights (1979) discusses the “sacred” nature of the play's violence, maintaining that when sacred violence becomes vengeful the community experiences a “sacrificial crisis” which generates a revenge cycle. Only Titus's death ends this cycle, Slights maintains. Virginia Mason Vaughn (1997) demonstrates the way Roman civilization is contrasted with Gothic barbarity. Vaughn examines the depiction of Romans, who are supposedly civilized citizens, as committing barbarous acts, and argues that this depiction raised questions for the English citizens of the late 1580s and early 1590s about the meaning of civilization and about England's role as a colonizer.

As Lavinia is the object of much of the play's violence, a great deal of critical attention is paid to her character. Not only is Lavinia raped by two men, she is mutilated by them as well—her tongue and hands are removed as an attempt to prevent her from identifying her attackers. In the end, Lavinia is killed by her father in an effort to assuage the shame that her rape has brought upon herself and her family. Rudolf Stamm (1975) focuses on Lavinia's role in Titus, showing how she operates as a stimulating agent for the violence of her relatives and at the same time is allowed by Shakespeare to have a personal identity. Through Lavinia, Stamm concludes, Shakespeare honed the theatrical technique of the non-verbal expression of emotion. Bernice Harris (1996) notes as well that Lavinia's status in the play is symbolic. Harris argues that she operates as a token of masculine power, a “changing piece” (I.i.309) in the play's political exchanges. Likewise, Sara Eaton (1996) identifies Lavinia's symbolic role as a “changing piece,” demonstrating that Lavinia is a representative of upper-class, humanist-educated women, who during Shakespeare's time were the subject of much social tension. This type of upbringing taught self-expression, which was viewed by some as a social threat. Eaton contends that Lavinia, whose “unruliness” is considered a product of her education, is transformed through her mutilation into the idealized image of the pure, silent, and obedient wife and daughter.

Described by one critic as a “vile hash of Ovid, Seneca, Plutarch, and Virgil,” the issue of the source material for Titus is a vexing, though fascinating topic for many critics. The influence of Ovid, in particular the Metamorphoses, on the play has been examined by twentieth-century critics such as Eugene Waith (see Further Reading). Waith argues that the play fails in its attempt to dramatize the detached narrative style of Ovid, and that Shakespeare was striving to develop a particular “dramatic mode” in which concepts from Ovid were portrayed within the structure of Elizabethan tragedy. Waith concludes that the Ovidian principle Shakespeare borrowed—the transformation of individuals through passion and suffering—cannot be reproduced in the theater. G. K. Hunter (1984) analyzes the source debate, noting that the Roman “history” in the play is impossible to actually locate in historical time. Hunter does find, however, that Shakespeare's depiction of the decadence of “imperial family disputes” is influenced by Herodian's History. Like Hunter, Naomi Conn Liebler (1994) identifies Herodian's History as a source of Shakespeare's portrayal of Rome, stating that the political situation in the play includes references to specific situations depicted by Herodian. Liebler concludes that while Aaron, Tamora's sons, and the Andronicus family may be entirely fictitious, the Rome of Titus is definitely not.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare, edited by Alan Hughes, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 1-47.

[In the excerpt below, Hughes surveys the various critical controversies surrounding Titus Andronicus, including the debates over the date of composition, sources, and authorship. Hughes also reviews the issues of greatest concern among twentieth-century critics, noting that the violence in the play receives a considerable amount of attention from modern scholars.]


The earliest reliable reference to Titus Andronicus comes from the Diary of the Elizabethan entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, proprietor of the Rose playhouse on Bankside. The Diary is really an account-book which records the share of the players' receipts which was the ‘rent’ Henslowe charged companies performing in his playhouses.1 According to the Diary, the Earl of Sussex's Men played a season from 26 December 1593 to 6 February 1594, probably at the Rose. On 23 January the play was ‘titus & ondronicus’; in the margin Henslowe wrote ‘ne’, which is usually taken to mean ‘new’.2 Two more performances followed, on 28 January and 6 February, after which a new outbreak of the plague moved the Privy Council to close the playhouses.3 On the same date, both ‘a booke intituled a Noble Roman Historye of Tytus Andronicus’ and ‘the ballad thereof’ were entered for copyright in the Stationers' Register by John Danter, who printed Q.4 We cannot be certain whether Danter's ‘booke’ was Shakespeare's play, or an early version of the prose History of Titus Andronicus.5 If it was the former, this was the first of Shakespeare's plays to be registered for publication. Amongst his works, only Venus and Adonis was entered earlier, on 18 April 1593.

Henslowe's only reference to the suburban playhouse at Newington Butts records a short season by ‘my Lord Admeralle men & my Lorde Chamberlen men’ from 3 June to 13 June 1594. There were performances of ‘andronicous’ on 5 and 12 June.

These are the only specific records we have of performances of Titus Andronicus in the public playhouses. Even if the Stationers' Register entry should refer to the prose History, as Adams suggests,6 there is no particular reason to suspect that the date of Q is wrong. Accordingly, we may accept January 1594 as a pretty reliable terminus ante quem for the composition of Titus Andronicus. The real problems arise when we seek a terminus post quem which is rather more exact than, let us say, Shakespeare's twelfth birthday. By early 1594 he had composed Richard III and was on the point of writing Romeo and Juliet: detractors of Titus cannot believe that Shakespeare was still capable of perpetrating such a play by that date.7 Some have suggested that it is not by Shakespeare at all, or that it is his incomplete revision of another man's play; others have suggested an earlier date. The evidence for the former is reviewed below … ; evidence for the latter is slight and circumstantial.

Since it was in Danter's commercial interest to present his Q edition as the authentic text of a playhouse success, we cannot be certain that the information printed on the title page is perfectly accurate. Nevertheless, it gives unique information about the play's history: ‘The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus: As it was Plaide by the Right Honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Sussex their Seruants’. The reference to Sussex's Men tends to confirm that Henslowe's entries in January and February of that year refer to Shakespeare's play as published in Q. If the other companies really had performed the play, there is no guarantee that it was in the form that reached print. The Earl of Derby's Men were simply Lord Strange's under a new name, which they cannot have adopted before their patron succeeded to the title on 25 September 1593; however, the name used on the title page has more significance for the publication date of Q than for the alleged performances. Danter would naturally use the patron's new and more impressive title, but there is no real evidence that the performances referred to were recent. On the other hand, the reference to the Earl of Pembroke's Men may push the history of the play, or some form of it, back a little. We have no record of this company before the autumn of 1592, and the last we hear of them for several years is a vivid vignette of Elizabethan theatrical life. The London playhouses were closed because of the plague, and the companies were dispersed, most of them touring in the provinces. On 28 September 1593, Henslowe wrote to his son-in-law, Edward Alleyn: ‘As for my lorde a Penbrookes wch you desier to knowe whear they be they ar all at home and hausse ben this v or sixe weackes for they cane not saue ther carges wth trauell as I heare & weare fayne to pane ther parell for ther carge.’8 Assuming that both Henslowe and the Q title page are accurate in all respects, that would mean that Pembroke's Men could not have played Titus Andronicus after the last week in August 1593. The fact that Derby's Men are named before Pembroke's may point to an even earlier performance, but speculation on this subject, while fascinating, is bound to be inconclusive: quite possibly it has no significance at all.9

Earlier still is an apparent reference to Titus Andronicus in an anonymous play called A Knack to Know a Knave, which Henslowe marked as ‘ne’ during a season in which Strange's Men acted something called ‘tittus and vespasia’ (February to June 1592). One character bids another welcome,

As Titus was unto the Roman Senators,
When he had made a conquest on the Goths:
That in requital of his seruice done,
Did offer him the imperial Diademe …(10)

While this is not precisely what happens in Titus Andronicus, it is difficult to agree with those who have tried to explain it away in order to support a later date.11 It is possible, nevertheless, that it refers to Shakespeare's lost source, or even to ‘tittus and vespasia’.

In the Induction to Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614), a character speaks ironically of the spectator who is ‘fixed and settled in his censure … He that will swear Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays yet, shall pass unexcepted at here as a man whose judgement shows it is constant, and hath stood still these five and twenty or thirty years.’ A literal interpretation would date both Titus and Jeronimo (presumably The Spanish Tragedy) between 1584 and 1589. But Jonson (b. 1572) was a boy in the 1580s, and even if he knew or cared about the original dates, common sense suggests that he would have cared more about his joke and meant only that both were hopelessly old-fashioned plays which, maddeningly, the groundlings still preferred to such up-to-date flops as his own tragedy, Catiline (1611).12 Jonson also implies, however, that they were similar old plays, as indeed they are.

Violence is commonplace in Elizabethan drama, but these plays are linked by a bizarre and sensational type of violence in which dismemberment is unusually conspicuous: Lavinia's tongue is cut out, Hieronimo bites his off and apparently spits it onto the stage. Both tragedies have grand old heroes driven mad by suffering and oppression, and the Senecan rhetoric of their madness enjoyed such an enduring vogue that additional mad scenes were commissioned to exploit it. Similar tastes are reflected in some of Marlowe's earlier plays. His ‘mighty line’ fairly wallows in rhetoric. The cannibal imagery of the banquet scene in Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1 (c. 1587) parallels the physical horrors of the climactic banquet in Titus Andronicus: Marlowe even refers to Procne's revenge, a conspicuous theme in Shakespeare's play.13 Compare the style of violence in Titus with the suicides of Bajazeth and Zenocrate, who brain themselves on-stage, and, at the climax of The Jew of Malta (c. 1590), the death of Barabas, who falls into a boiling cauldron. Like Aaron, Barabas revels in evil: John Dover Wilson has demonstrated the resemblance.14 J. C. Maxwell notes a close parallel between part of Aaron's defiant confession and a speech in The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England, published in 1591 but probably performed several years earlier:

How, what, when, and where, have I bestowd a day
That tended not to some notorious ill.(15)

Compare Aaron:

Even now I curse the day—and yet I think
Few come within the compass of my curse—
Wherein I did not some notorious ill …


Apparently, then, Titus Andronicus has much in common with a type of play which was being written before 1590. If it was written much after that date, it was a belated specimen of the type.

Passing from even such circumstantial evidence to internal evidence is like entering a carnival fun-house with its distorting mirrors. ‘The game of verbal parallels’, as Wilson calls it, is a fascinating but unreliable way of establishing dates. In the light of that remark, it is surprising to find him playing it himself. In the first place, one person's ‘indisputable echo’ is another's far-fetched nonsense. Coincidences and common sources are both difficult to rule out, the latter especially when we recall how much Elizabethan literature we have lost. Even when a parallel is as clear as such things may be, we often cannot know which author wrote first, or how much time separated first writing from imitation. Let us take the example of the coined word ‘palliament’, which is used twice in extant Renaissance literature: at Titus 1.1.182 and in George Peele's poem, The Honour of the Garter (line 92), which can be dated with precision to May-June 1593. Wilson uses this coincidence to argue that Peele not only wrote both passages, but did so at very nearly the same time, and that the play must be slightly the earlier of the two because he thinks the word is better suited to its context there than in the poem.16 With respect to Aaron's speech, quoted above, Maxwell warns us that we cannot know who is the borrower, but leans towards the author of The Troublesome Raigne on the grounds that he is ‘a shameless borrower’ and because Aaron uses it more felicitously than King John.17 Since this is the same argument Wilson uses to attribute Titus Andronicus to the author of The Honour of the Garter, the evidence—such as it is—cancels itself out. Furthermore, since the play shows signs of revision, a parallel may belong to either a first draft or a revised version. The same hazards attend any hope of using recent archaeology to date the stagecraft in Titus Andronicus. For example, Aaron buries gold under a ‘tree’ (2.3.2), perhaps one of the stage columns which may have been a novel feature of the Rose after its renovation (c. 1592). Like a verbal parallel, however, this stage business could as easily date from a revision as from the original draft.

The only real evidence for the date of the play, then, is external, but it is scanty and not beyond question: Henslowe might have been mistaken, perhaps Danter lied. With these caveats, we can say that Titus Andronicus was probably established on the stage by mid 1593, and possibly earlier. Circumstantial evidence suggests that it might have been first written several years before: the style of its violence and language seems to link it to The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine and The Troublesome Raigne. In the end, we can only conjecture or despair. Thus, discarding all pretence of objective proof, I shall base a conjecture upon my subjective assessment of style.

As I have shown, Titus Andronicus resembles several sensational plays which were all written somewhat earlier than 1592. Moreover, the writing seems stylistically uneven. Some of it is Ovidian, formal and mannered, as in Marcus's speech to the ravished Lavinia (2.4.11-57); some is crude, particularly in Act 1. These passages feel like the work of a young poet. Other portions more closely resemble Shakespeare's mature style: see for example Aaron's defence of his child (4.2.65-111). The stagecraft, on the other hand, is as dexterous as anything Shakespeare ever accomplished, which suggests a working familiarity with the theatre.

From these observations I conjecture that the young Shakespeare wrote a crude draft of Titus Andronicus before he turned dramatist—even as early as 1588, when he may still have been living in Stratford; that it accompanied him to London, where nobody would produce it; and that having established himself to Robert Greene's dissatisfaction in 1592,18 he revised it and offered it either to Strange's or Pembroke's Men. They may have played it in the provinces. But by the summer of 1593 the latter company, being bankrupt and currently in possession of the play, sold it to Sussex's Men, who played it at the Rose in early 1594, and subsequently sold the copy to Danter when plague closed the playhouses. The scene of Titus's mad banquet, which appears only in the First Folio, was added later. This complicated hypothesis must await the discovery of new, reliable evidence to be tested. It may wait long.


It is uncertain whether Shakespeare's major source for Titus Andronicus has survived. The context of the story is the decline of the Roman Empire, but the events are fictional: thus, the source was also fiction. Shakespeare is unlikely to have invented the story; his only original plots are found in comedy: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labour's Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Beatrice and Benedick plot in Much Ado About Nothing. For tragedy and history plays, he and his fellow dramatists turned to historians such as Livy, Plutarch and Holinshed; to old plays like King Leir or The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England; or to the Italian novella, which the Titus story resembles.

In 1936 J. Q. Adams announced his discovery, in the Folger Shakespeare Library, of a volume containing a short prose History of Titus Andronicus and a 120-line ballad, Titus Andronicus' Complaint.19 Since it was published between 1736 and 1764, this little chapbook seems an unlikely place in which to seek Shakespeare's source. Nevertheless, some scholars believe they have found it in either the ballad or the History.

The publisher, C. Dicey, is known to have reprinted old works on other occasions. The ballad was certainly old; it had been published in 1620, in Richard Johnson's The Golden Garland of Princely Pleasures and Delicate Delights. It is possible that Johnson merely reprinted a ballad that was old enough to be Shakespeare's source. No early edition of the History is known, but while spelling and punctuation follow eighteenth-century practice, the diction is archaic. This suggests that the claim printed on the title page, that it was ‘Newly Translated from the Italian Copy printed at Rome’, was false at the time of publication.

The ballad and the History are linked by an identical couplet, which Lavinia writes with her staff to identify her assailants:

The lustful sons of the proud Empress
Are doers of this hateful wickedness.(20)

The History is unlikely to have been the source of the ballad. The latter narrates the incident (5.2) in which the empress and her sons appear to Titus disguised as Revenge, Rape and Murder. This is not in the History. Since the ballad is original in no other respect, this incident may be drawn from a lost source, or from the play. The latter seems more likely. Marco Mincoff21 argues that the ballad is the source of the History, but his case has been exploded by G. Harold Metz.22 G. K. Hunter suggests that the ballad was written to capitalise on the popularity of Shakespeare's play.23

The History is essentially different from the play. Sargent points out that it ‘presents a whole which has a consistency of its own, a consistency which is not the same as the play's’.24 It tells the same story, with some different names and details of plot, but neither Shakespeare's concern with evil and justice nor the serious political theme which requires a Lucius to restore order is present in the bald narrative. Nevertheless, there must be some link. Since the entire story is fiction, all versions must be related to each other. Sargent also notes that there is little quoted speech in the History, and that ‘A careful search reveals no verbal resemblance between the history and the play; the spoken lines of the drama owe nothing to the language of this prose version.’25 This is true, if the search is confined to dialogue; but there are several close parallels between the narrative phrasing of the History and Shakespeare's dialogue. Compare the following:

Hark, wretches, how I mean to martyr you;
This one hand yet is left to cut your throats
Whiles that Lavinia 'tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood.


Andronicus cut their throats whilst Lavinia, by his command, held a bowl between her stumps to receive the blood.

(History, p. 43)26

Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,
And with your blood and it I'll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads …


The conveying the bodies home to his own house privately, he cut the flesh into fit pieces and ground the bones to powder, and made of them two mighty pasties …

(History, p. 43)

If this is enough to show that there was a direct link between the play and the History, what is its nature?

If we rule out the ballad as a source, only three possibilities remain: the play and the History have a common source, which might be an Italian novella, or a translation in either French or English; the play is the source of the History; or an early edition of the History is Shakespeare's source.

Shakespeare preferred English sources, but he may have been able to read Italian and could certainly read French. A novella by Cinthio, either in the original Italian or a French translation by Gabriel Chappuys, is the chief source of Othello;27 some critics believe he turned to Boccaccio for the wager theme in Cymbeline;28The Merchant of Venice draws upon Ser Giovanni's Il Pecorone (1558), probably in Italian;29 either Bandello's Novelle or Belleforest's French translation is a probable source of Much Ado About Nothing.30 Thus, a novella in Italian or French is not an impossible source. No such work is known, however.

Hunter argues that some details of the History seem to be drawn from ancient sources which were not available in English in the sixteenth century. ‘One must assume either that the chap-book author was a learned man or that a learned intermediary (learned, perhaps, in “the Italian copy printed at Rome” cited in the heading) had already digested the sources into a form which could be applied to the Titus Andronicus story.’31 On the other hand, the History might have been written as late as the eighteenth century, when its author would have needed only Shakespeare's play and Gibbon or other sources that were readily available by that time. If that was the case, however, he amalgamated his historical sources with the play in an imaginative and creative manner which appears to be inconsistent with his modest literary abilities. It is easier to believe that Shakespeare worked up a dry tale like the History into drama. If we consider the creative changes he frequently made, for dramatic effect, in the narrative of his sources, it seems probable that the History or a common source came first.

Besides, there is external evidence to consider. On 6 February 1594, the date of the third and last recorded performance of Titus Andronicus by Sussex's Men, John Danter entered ‘a booke intituled a Noble Roman Historye of Tytus Andronicus’ and ‘the ballad thereof’ in the Stationers' Register. This gave him the sole right to publish the book named in the entry, much in the manner of modern copyright. It does not prove that he exercised that right.

Danter published the first quarto (Q), which is dated 1594 on the title page. There is no reason to doubt the date. Had his Stationers' Register entry clearly referred to the book of Shakespeare's play, the case would be simple. But his wording appears to refer to the History, and since the ballad is mentioned as well, it looks as though he meant to print something rather like the eighteenth-century chapbook. If this was so, the History had evidently existed long enough to permit the ballad to be written. If Titus Andronicus was really new when it was first performed on 23 January, less than a fortnight elapsed before Danter's entry in the Register.

If the History was based on the play, several people had been incredibly busy. We would have to suppose that the author of the History saw the 23 January performance and adapted the play, with major changes; that the author of the ballad then somehow saw the History, and adapted it too; and that both subsequently took their works to Danter and persuaded him to publish, all in a few days. It is easier to believe that the History was based on an earlier version of the play, or completely preceded it.

More probably, Danter took the initiative. Titus Andronicus was a playhouse success, and he intended to capitalise on it by publishing the History and the ballad. We cannot be certain that he never did so; his edition is not extant, but to argue from absence of evidence will not do. Nevertheless, he published his quarto of Titus Andronicus in the same year, without making any further entry in the Stationers' Register. W. W. Greg says ‘it would be quite in keeping with Danter's character to make one entrance serve for two separate publications’,32 but it is possible that Danter saw his chance when the playhouses were closed by plague (immediately after the 6 February performance), bought the play from Sussex's Men, and used the rights he had established for the History and ballad to publish the play instead. The principal flaw in this suggestion is that Danter entered his copy on the very day of the play's last performance. This is a difficult coincidence to swallow, but no other explanation readily presents itself.

We are left with the probability that the History had existed for some time before 1594, and that it, or its Italian original, was Shakespeare's source. Unless we suppose that not only he but Danter and the author of the ballad read the History in manuscript, in Italian, or both, there must have been an earlier printed English edition which Danter proposed to reprint. There is no way of knowing how old it was in 1594, but if it was still in print Danter was surely risking trouble with its publisher. It follows that this lost edition must have been several years old.

The archaic diction of the chapbook History casts doubt upon the claim of the title page that it was ‘Newly Translated from the Italian Copy printed at Rome’. More probably, the publisher simply reprinted that line along with the rest of the text. In that case, the old edition was probably the first in English, but adapted or translated from an Italian source. Since an English version was available, Shakespeare is likely to have used it instead of the original, a suspicion which the verbal parallels quoted above tend to confirm.

The History may not have been Shakespeare's only source, but if it was the major one, there is no reason to argue that he went elsewhere for details that could be found in the book that lay open before him. Possible secondary sources might be the story of Philomel in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Seneca's Thyestes; but since a copy of the former actually figures in the action of Titus Andronicus (4.1) and Lavinia's story closely resembles Philomel's, Ovid was probably more important. Perhaps Shakespeare knew both works so well that he did not need to open either as he wrote; but Ovid was fresher in his memory.


The external evidence that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus rests upon two solid facts. (1) It was included in the First Folio (1623), published by John Heminge and Henry Condell as a memorial to their friend and colleague. They would hardly have included a play they believed to be spurious, and as senior partners in the same company of players as Shakespeare they were in a position to know. (2) Comparing ancient and contemporary poets in Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury (1598), Francis Meres counts Titus Andronicus with Shakespeare's early tragedies. Meres may have lacked inside knowledge, but he was an educated man who was living in London by 1587.33

The only evidence that the play might be spurious comes from Edward Ravenscroft, who was born almost 25 years after Shakespeare's death. The address to the reader published with his adaptation of Titus Andronicus (1687) excuses Ravenscroft of plagiarism, claiming

I have been told by some anciently conversant with the Stage, that it was not Originally his, but brought by a private Author to be Acted, and he only gave some Master-touches to one or two of the Principal Parts or Characters; this I am apt to believe, because 'tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works; It seems rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure.

In view of the relative authority of the evidence, it seems odd that so many scholars have agreed with Ravenscroft. In the eighteenth century Theobald, Johnson, Steevens and Malone all declared against Shakespeare's authorship, with Capell the only significant dissenter. The nineteenth century followed suit, with the exception of the Germans (apart from Gervinus). Those who doubted the tragedy's authenticity had no evidence, but flinched from the ‘horrors’, found the characters shallow and unsympathetic, and the language inferior to Shakespeare's usual standard. In fact, Titus Andronicus simply offended their literary taste, and they wished to absolve Shakespeare of the responsibility for perpetrating it.

Scholars in the twentieth century have turned to internal evidence. In Did Shakespeare Write ‘Titus Andronicus’? (1905), J. M. Robertson used verbal parallels to propose George Peele as principal author. Despite the demolition of Robertson's reputation by E. K. Chambers in The Disintegration of Shakespeare (1924),34 some still find Shakespeare's sole authorship a difficult proposition to accept. Dover Wilson mustered an impressive list of parallels which he believed show Shakespeare's hand in every act except the first. He proposed a complicated hypothesis in which Peele wrote an early version for a touring company and was subsequently commissioned by Sussex's Men to expand it for performance in London, with aid from a reluctant Shakespeare. In his scheme, Act I is entirely by Peele.35 Even J. C. Maxwell, after arguing persuasively for Shakespeare's exclusive authorship, concluded, ‘I can never quite believe it while reading Act I.’36 His literary taste rebelled against the evidence.

There have been several attempts to apply objective tests to the text. T. M. Parrott used statistics on feminine line-endings to argue for Shakespeare as reviser.37 A recent computer analysis of works by Shakespeare and Peele indicates that Titus Andronicus is authentically by Shakespeare.38 In the face of the contradictory results of these apparently scientific studies, it is difficult to avoid concluding, with R. F. Hill, that the tests ‘were either insufficiently thorough-going or else pressed to conclusions beyond their legitimate scope’. He argues that the search for parallel phrases is equally ineffective, because the results simply tend to confirm the literary taste of the scholar who seeks them. It will not do, Hill urges, ‘to gather together a few clichés from a play of known authorship and then to look for those specifics in the disputed or anonymous play’ where, inevitably, the sleuth will find what he seeks.39

The search for internal evidence has concentrated upon language because that is the source of doubt about Shakespeare's authorship. While methods are questionable and results inconclusive, many good scholars intuitively feel that much of the verse is too clichéd and monotonous to be Shakespeare's, particularly in Act I. These doubts tend to evaporate, however, when we recall that he was a dramatist and theatrical craftsman as well as a poet. Indeed, it is conceivable that his theatrical talents matured first.40 Perhaps when he first drafted Titus Andronicus, at the beginning of his career, Peele's literary influence stifled his embryonic style. Revising later, possibly in 1593, he may have left Act I substantially unchanged. That would explain why its poetry seems inferior to that of the remainder of the play. But if we turn from language to dramaturgy and stagecraft, his signature is everywhere.

While Hill points to flaws in the plot, A. M. Sampley argues that Kyd was the only other dramatist writing at the time who was capable of plotting of this order—and Kyd cannot have written it.41 Bertram Evans's unique approach to practice and practisers shows that the plot follows Shakespearean methods,42 and Derek Traversi argues that the play's unity of theme and imagery suggests unity of authorship.43 To this I would add that the stagecraft is beyond the powers of any of Shakespeare's early contemporaries. In Titus Andronicus a master stage craftsman commands the resources of an Elizabethan playhouse and its company with an authority which neither Peele nor Kyd could match.44 This instinct for stagecraft is characteristic of Shakespeare, yet it is particularly apparent in the disputed first act and links it firmly to the rest of the play.

If Act I is accepted as authentic, only one doubtful scene remains. There are signs that the ‘family banquet’ (3.2) may be an afterthought. It was printed in the First Folio, but not in the earlier quartos. It adds nothing to the plot, and the transition to the next scene is awkward and uncharacteristic of Shakespeare's normal practice. The opening stage direction is the only one in F where Titus is called ‘Andronicus’, and the use of other names also varies from the rest of the play.45 Mad scenes for Hieronimo were added to The Spanish Tragedy, and comic scenes to Doctor Faustus, no doubt to exploit public taste. The motive here was probably the same, but there is no strong evidence to identify Shakespeare or another as the author. If it really is an addition, all we can say is that it was written between the completion of the copy-text for Q (1593) and the publication of F (1623). …


Reviewing this century's first production of Titus Andronicus in 1923, Herbert Farjeon remarked, ‘Its horribilism has got the old Blue Books on War Atrocities beaten hollow.’46 Its violence and cruelty, in other words, seemed unrealistic, exaggerated. Of course, Farjeon was writing before the twentieth century had shown what it could really achieve in the way of atrocities, but the Great War ought to have stretched his ability to believe in the human potential for unpleasantness. Gerald Freedman, who directed Titus in New York in 1967, finds it ‘a particularly modern play for today—with its flawed hero, its existence in violence and yet its inevitable compassion’.47 Harold Hobson thinks it ‘comes disconcertingly near to the current standards of political behaviour’.48 Since the Second World War, Titus Andronicus has been accepted in both the theatre and the study as a play to be taken seriously: it no longer seems so far-fetched and alien as it did in 1923.

Robert Atkins produced the play because he and Lilian Baylis wanted the Old Vic to be the first theatre to ‘complete the set’, and after Titus only Troilus and Cressida was left. Duty was their motive, and in that spirit their faithful audience resigned themselves to sit through it. The production was careful to avoid giving offence: Lavinia turned her back when she took her father's severed hand between her teeth, and Tamora pecked daintily at the pie. Aaron's wickedness was of the delicious-thrill variety. George Hayes (the star) ‘wallowed in a kind of Hoodoo villainy’ that was ‘most picturesque’; after his exit in 3.1, he returned to fill the stage with diabolical laughter.49 The audience could not believe in such wickedness, so they felt free to respond warmly to the Moor's defence of...

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Rudolf Stamm (essay date 1975)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Alphabet of Speechless Complaint: A Study of the Mangled Daughter in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus,” in The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975, pp. 255-73.

[In the following essay, Stamm explores Lavinia's role in Titus Andronicus, viewing her as a “stimulus” for the expressions of violence performed by her relatives. Finding that Shakespeare endowed Lavinia with individuality, Stamm further demonstrates that Shakespeare used Lavinia to refine his theatrical techniques, specifically the non-verbal portrayal of emotion.]

In a recent article on Shakespeare's mirror...

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Sara Eaton (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Woman of Letters: Lavinia in Titus Andronicus,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 54-74.

[In the following essay, Eaton suggests that through Lavinia, Shakespeare dramatized contemporary social tensions concerned with the value of humanist education. In particular, Eaton contends, Lavinia embodies the upper-class, humanist-educated woman who is perceived as a societal threat and who must consequently be silenced.]

                                                                                          I will learn thy thought;
In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
As begging hermits in their holy prayers....

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Bernice Harris (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sexuality as a Signifier for Power Relations: Using Lavinia, of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus,” in Criticism, Vol. 38, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 383-407.

[In the following essay, Harris focuses on Lavinia’s role as the currency used in the play's political exchanges, observing that the treatment of her body serves as a means of identifying the source of authority in Titus Andronicus.]

One of the most gruesome images of a woman on the Elizabethan stage occurs when Lavinia, in Shakespeare's early Roman play, Titus Andronicus, enters the stage, according to stage directions, with “her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and...

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Jack E. Reese (essay date 1970)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Formalization of Horror in Titus Andronicus,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 77-84.

[In the essay that follows, Reese maintains that the violence in Titus Andronicus is subdued through various techniques, such as the use of characters resembling classical “types,” ironic repetition of themes and motifs, and the stylization of physically violent acts.]

Although Titus Andronicus was a splendid success in its own day,1 it has been almost universally castigated since. As early as 1687, Ravenscroft called it “a heap of rubbish”;2 Coleridge suggested that it was “obviously...

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William W. E. Slights (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Sacrificial Crisis in Titus Andronicus,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 18-32.

[In the following essay, Slights studies the role and nature of the cycle of revenge that commences when the boundaries between sacred violence and vengeful violence are blurred in Titus Andronicus.]

In the first scene of Titus Andronicus one of Titus's sons—only four of twenty-five remain alive after ten years of Gotho-Roman wars—piously proposes to sacrifice the eldest son of the captured Gothic queen: ‘Let's hew his limbs till they be clean consum'd’ (I.i.129).1 The Andronicus boys exit with...

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Richard Marienstras (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Forest, Hunting and Sacrifice in Titus Andronicus,” in New Perspectives on the Shakespearean World, translated by Janet Lloyd, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 40-47.

[In the essay below, originally published in 1981, Marienstras demonstrates the way in which Titus Andronicus uses the violence that occurs in the name of hunting and sacrifice to explore the dichotomy between “civilized” Rome and the “wildness” of nature.]

Shakespeare's interest in the themes of hunting, the forest and sacrifice—or the sacrificial act insofar as it can be represented or evoked on stage—can be clearly seen in Titus...

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Virginia Mason Vaughan (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Construction of Barbarism in Titus Andronicus,” in Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, edited by Joyce Green MacDonald, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997, pp. 165-180.

[In the essay below, Vaughan analyzes the way in which the Romans of Titus Andronicus—who commit barbarous acts—are compared with the barbarians they have conquered. Vaughan contends that the play reveals the anxieties of Shakespeare's time regarding England's own role as a colonizer.]


Marcus chides his brother in the opening scene of Titus Andronicus for refusing to bury his son Mutius inside the family tomb:...

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G. K. Hunter (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sources and Meanings in Titus Andronicus,” in Mirror Up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honor of G. R. Hibbard, University of Toronto Press, 1984, pp. 171-88.

[In the following essay, Hunter finds that despite the lack of indisputable evidence regarding the sources for Titus Andronicus, the influences of Livy and Herodian can clearly be seen in the play.]

The belief that Shakespeare preferred to ‘borrow’ his plots instead of ‘inventing’ them (both words are highly culture-determined) might seem difficult to sustain today in the face of the complex picture of adaptation and refashioning we find, for example, in Kenneth Muir's...

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Naomi Conn Liebler (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Getting It All Right: Titus Andronicus and Roman History,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 263-78.

[In the following essay, Liebler maintains that while much of Titus Andronicus is fictitious and without identifiable sources, Shakespeare's portrayal of Rome was influenced by Herodian's History.]

Some thirty-five years ago, Terence Spencer proposed the context in which an Elizabethan audience would have received Titus Andronicus. Although he did not positively claim it as a source for the play, he referred in some detail to Antonio de Guevara's Decada, translated in 1577 by Edward Hellowes as A...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Barker, Francis. “Treasures of Culture: Titus Andronicus and Death by Hanging.” In The Production of English Renaissance Culture, edited by David Lee Miller, Sharon O'Dair, and Harold Weber, pp. 226-261. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Focuses on the play's exploration of ritual acts, ceremonial spectacles, and the fetishistic and taboo characterization of the sacred.

Hattaway, Michael. “Titus Andronicus: Strange Images of Death.” In Elizabethan Popular Theatre: Plays in Performance, pp. 186-207. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Maintains that the violence in...

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