Among the most poorly regarded of Shakespeare's plays, Titus Andronicus has for the majority of its critical history elicited the disparagement of critics. 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. Although some scholars have endeavored to disprove Shakespeare's authorship of some or all of the work, modern critical consensus has tended to classify Titus Andronicus as the product of the playwright's early apprenticeship. In this drama, Shakespeare synthesized the popular neo-Senecan revenge tragedy with other classical sources, including the writings of Ovid and Livy, for consumption on the Elizabethan stage. In the latter half of the twentieth century, enlightened directorial interpretations of the play, including Peter Brook's pivotal 1955 Stratford production and Julie Taymor's 2000 cinematic adaptation Titus, have reflected a trend toward increasingly serious critical interest in Titus Andronicus, suggesting that it is both a viable performance piece and subject of scholarly inquiry. As most recent commentators have put aside the vexing question of Shakespeare's authorship of the work, many have instead focused on its provocative themes of violence, rape, and revenge. Additionally, a number of scholars, particularly feminist critics, have concentrated on character in the play, including the compelling figures of Lavinia, Titus's profoundly mistreated daughter, and Aaron, who is, after Othello, Shakespeare's most developed character of color.
Recent appraisals of character in Titus Andronicus have reflected contemporary scholarly interest in gender and race, with study focused on the play's principal female roles, and on the figure of Aaron the Moor. Cynthia Marshall (see Further Reading) offers a feminist assessment of Lavinia and Tamora in Titus Andronicus, whom she views as polarized images of women determined by the patriarchal mode of the drama. According to Marshall, these characters embody male anxieties toward women; whether they be strong and willful, as is Tamora, or dependent on the assistance of men, like Lavinia, both are violently punished for their actions. Likewise interested in Lavinia, Arthur L. Little, Jr. (2000) examines the place of Titus's daughter as a ritual sacrifice. Reminding readers of Lavinia's resemblance to the classical figure of Lucrece, an emblem of the sacrificially raped woman, Little presents a symbolic analysis of her status in the play as a woman ritually abused in order to purify Rome. Little additionally considers the element of race in Lavinia's rape, arguing that the sexualized presence of the black-skinned Aaron represents a contagion of Otherness in the story. Race is central to the character assessments of Francesca T. Royster (2000), who places Aaron and Tamora at opposite ends of the racial spectrum in Titus Andronicus. Royster notes that both Aaron the Moor and Tamora the Goth are defined as racial extremes who depict moral evil and barbarity in relation to the Roman norm.
The second half of the twentieth century has witnessed a subtle re-estimation of Titus Andronicus, a work generally thought to demonstrate greater merit on stage than as a work of written literature. Nevertheless, various productions of the drama have suffered from a series of apparent incongruities in the text, which have often provoked inappropriate laughter from audiences. Successful modern productions, including Deborah Warner's 1987 staging of Titus Andronicus with the Royal Shakespeare Company, have sought to eliminate such moments by emphasizing the drama's extraordinary violence and sympathetic portrayal of character. Such was also the case in Julie Taymor's 2000 cinematic adaptation of the play, Titus, a film that has dominated recent critical estimation of the drama in performance. Mary Lindroth (2001) finds Taymor's mixture of past and present in her stylized and anachronistic production effective in its appeal to youthful viewers, in its formation of audience sympathy, and in its compelling study of the social dynamics of violence. Martha Nochimson (2001) likewise admires Taymor's cinematic innovations in Titus, including her blending of time from many historical eras in the film. The critic also praises Anthony Hopkins's “definitive” Titus, Jessica Lange's Tamora, and Harry Lennix's Aaron. Reviewers Jim Welsh and John Tibbets (2000) share respect for these three fine performances, as well as for Alan Cumming's decadent Saturninus. Noting the grotesque and unrelenting violence of Shakespeare's original play, Welsh and Tibbets also praise Taymor's visually interpolated end to the film, which offers a final movement toward redemption.
Late twentieth-century thematic criticism concerning Titus Andronicus has touched upon a range of issues, including violence, revenge, rape, rhetoric, and ritual, as well as the drama's status as Shakespeare's first Roman play. Jonathan Bate (1995) and Jacques Berthoud (2001) extensively discuss thematic issues in their surveys of the drama. In his study, Bate emphasizes themes of passion and grief in the play, while Berthoud focuses on a central preoccupation with violent cultural disruption. In line with Berthoud's estimation, Stephen X. Mead (1994) defines Titus Andronicus as “a spectacular tragedy of blood” and explores its monstrous and ritualized depiction of violence. Rhetoric is the theme featured in appraisals by Lawrence N. Danson (1974) and Jane Hiles (1987). Danson contends that language proves ineffective over the course of the drama as moments of supplication and entreaty invariably give way to uncontrollable lust for revenge. Similarly, Hiles suggests that the failure of rhetoric conditions both the plot and thematic arc of the play. Responding to critics who object to the work's apparent lack of structural unity, John P. Cutts (1968) finds that the thematic opposition of shadow versus substance and depiction of false appearances mistaken for reality provide an aesthetic unity in Titus Andronicus. Robert Johnson (1986) locates thematic affinities between Titus Andronicus and Shakespeare's later Roman tragedies Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, particularly in its ambivalent representation of classical Rome and equivocal treatment of his protagonist. Examining the play's sources, Robert S. Miola (1981) notes the significance of references to Ovid's Metamorphosis in the drama, and investigates Shakespeare's appropriation of the story of Philomela's rape and that of the world's decline from an idealized golden period to an impious age of iron. Finally, Molly Easo Smith (1996) offers a theoretical approach to the play's juxtaposition of philosophical categories, particularly the Self-Other dichotomy, and studies the ways in which such oppositions symbolically collapse over the course of Titus Andronicus.