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.