(Shakespearean Criticism)

Titus Andronicus

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.

Jonathan Bate (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bate, Jonathan. Introduction to Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Bate, pp. 1-122. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following excerpted introduction, Bate surveys the structure, language, and critical reception of Titus Andronicus, and studies the drama's themes of revenge, passion, grief, and rape.]


The theatres built by the Elizabethans allowed for triple-layered performance. There was a gallery or upper stage (Juliet's window is the most famous use of this ‘above’ or ‘aloft’ space), the main stage which projected into the auditorium and on which the actors—in Hamlet's...

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Jacques Berthoud (essay date 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Berthoud, Jacques. Introduction to Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare, edited by Sonia Massai, pp. 7-58. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

[In the following excerpted introduction to Titus Andronicus, Berthoud considers the drama's depiction of a culture disrupted by violent internal conflict.]

Shakespeare's attempt to imagine Roman culture [in Titus Andronicus] from the inside is of course that of a man whose orientation is Tudor-Christian. In culturally naïve writers, who take their own environment as the norm of reality, the imagining of another world retains no essential distinguishing marks, and achieves no genuine otherness. Such writers...

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Francesca T. Royster (essay date winter 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Royster, Francesca T. “White-limed Walls: Whiteness and Gothic Extremism in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 4 (winter 2000): 432-55.

[In the following essay, Royster analyzes the representation of black and while racial extremes in Titus Andronicus with reference to the characters Aaron and Tamora.]

In criticism on issues of race in Titus Andronicus, blackness has usually been the focus, particularly as it is embodied in Aaron the Moor.1 Whiteness remains in the background. In this essay, I will put whiteness in the foreground in an attempt to dismantle a black/white binary. I will explore the...

(The entire section is 10847 words.)

Arthur L. Little, Jr. (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Little, Arthur L., Jr. “Picturing the Hand of White Women.” In Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice, pp. 25-67. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Little concentrates on the figure of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, observing her resemblance to the classical model of Lucrece, viewing her rape as a symbolic sacrifice for Rome, and examining the racial overtones of the her attack.]


Lavinia's rape is no more an accident to republican Rome than is Lucrece's. The official Roman world wishes to tell the...

(The entire section is 10134 words.)

Jim Welsh and John Tibbets (review date April 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Welsh, Jim and John Tibbets. “‘To Sup with Horrors’: Julie Taymor's Senecan Feast.” Literature/Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 (April 2000): 155-56.

[In the following review of Julie Taymor's 2000 film adaptation of Titus Andronicus, Welsh and Tibbets encapsulate the plot of Shakespeare's “cruelest and crudest” play, praise the film's outstanding cast, and find Taymor's interpretation perhaps too effective in conveying the grotesque excesses of the original drama.]

Shakespeare's early tragedy was staged on 24 January 1594 by the Earl of Sussex's men at the Rose Theatre. It was published later that year then reprinted in 1600 and 1611. The 1611...

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Maria De Luca and Mary Lindroth (interview date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: De Luca, Maria and Mary Lindroth. “Mayhem, Madness, Method: An Interview with Julie Taymor.” Cineaste 25, no. 3 (2000): 28-31.

[In the following interview, De Luca and Lindroth record Julie Taymor's thoughts on her film adaptation of Titus Andronicus, including her awareness of significant differences between Titus and stage representations of the drama, and her feelings about the role of violence in the film.]

Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus “is not meant to be read,” says Julie Taymor, “but to be performed.” This bloody revenge tragedy is rarely performed, however, because of its controversial and disturbing nature. Its infamy...

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Mary Lindroth (review date April 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lindroth, Mary. “‘Some Device of Further Misery’: Taymor's Titus Brings Shakespeare to Film Audiences with a Twist.” Literature/Film Quarterly 29, no. 2 (April 2001): 107-15.

[In the following review, Lindroth assesses Julie Taymor's film Titus and examines the way her film molds Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus into a twenty-first century idiom.]

[After] viewing the film Titus by Julie Taymor, I am in awe at how well she has brought this Shakespearean play to life. … [A] scene that will stay with me forever … [occurred] after the brutal rape of Lavinia … [Lavinia] was standing on a stump in the distance. We could see that she was hurt and in pain. In her white dress she stood there needing help. Her hair had been let out and it was all over. Her hands were replaced by sticks. As Marcus approached her he asked her to speak. We were then shocked to see blood pour from her mouth. … This scene was the most heartfelt scene in the movie. The audience could really feel the hurt of Lavinia.

—18-year old Caldwell College student

The above response to the film Titus, directed by Julie Taymor, shows that just as Taymor's impressive body of theater work, including the Lion King, has always done, this film moves audiences. What is so striking about the student's response is the focus on Lavinia, on heartfelt emotions, and on compassion. That Titus elicits such a response is surprising because it is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. That play is notorious for its focus on the tragedies besetting Titus Andronicus, not his daughter Lavinia, for its violent spectacles, its sometimes offhand treatment of that violence, and for the ways it encourages audiences to play out their desires for revenge. The student's compassion for Lavinia and her plight rather than for Titus and his plight suggests that Taymor has transformed Shakespeare radically.

To begin an article examining Shakespeare's play and Taymor's film with the words of an audience member is paramount because Titus Andronicus is all about audience. In the midst of Act 3, Titus gathers Lucius, Marcus, and Lavinia around him and urges “Let us that have our tongues / Plot some device of further misery / To make us wondered at in time to come” (3.1.133-35).1 The “device” he refers to, is, of course, the plot of revenge he carries out in Acts 4 and 5. that device does indeed lead to horrific misery culminating in the onstage deaths of Lavinia, Titus, Tamora, and Saturninus. More important than these onstage deaths, however, is the nature of the “wonder” it inspires in its audiences.

The student quote which opens this article describes the experience of viewing Titus, the film, as inspiring the “wonder” of compassion in the face of brutality. This article will explore the necessary journey that had to take place in order to transform a play with a reputation for promoting violence and bloody revenge into an experience promoting heartfelt compassion; to transform a play into a film; and to transform the experience provided to original theater audiences into an experience provided to twentieth-century audiences. The article will also explore how, in moving further away from Shakespeare by instilling the tragedy with hope and compassion or by adding decidedly twenty-first-century elements, Taymor's film brings audiences closer to Shakespeare.

The artist's response to the “device” he or she has created to promote misery is also important. Of course, we do not have Shakespeare's response, but we do have his play, and any director who takes on that play becomes the artist to whom we can turn for response. Julie Taymor has been very generous about recording her response as an artist. There is her in-depth interview with Richard Schechner, her interview with Joel Snyder for the National Endowment of the Arts, and her book, co-written with Eileen Blumenthal, entitled Playing With Fire.2 What has not been done until now, however, is to combine the artist's response with the audience's response and with a detailed analysis of the film and of the play.

I interviewed Julie Taymor on February 4, 2000, at the start of the new millennium and several weeks after Titus's opening date in New York. When asked what it is that her film of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus offers to twenty-first-century audiences, Taymor replied that it offers just what Shakespeare's play offers: “Shakespeare gives you an incredible ride because you don't know what to expect … the way that it's structured makes you feel like you're on a rollercoaster and it just keeps accelerating and when you think you can go no further he pushes you further.”

At first, it would appear that Titus, like most rides, appeals to specifically young audiences. The film's thrills include an up-to-date, edgy, and cinematic translation of Shakespeare. Part of the thrill offered to young audiences is an unconventional translation that includes recognizable items from their world—the video games, pool table, water bed, and refrigerator that appear in Demetrius and Chiron's “recreation” room as well as Aaron's sporty convertible. Titus offers young audiences something that they do not expect from a Shakespeare film—the thrill of identification. Indeed, Taymor underscores again and again just how audibly appreciative young movie audiences have been: “It's great doing it with the young, student audiences.”

The question, however, is whether the thrills associated with a twenty-first-century sensibility, or with young audiences have anything whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, a sixteenth-century sensibility, or a sixteenth-century audience. Though at first it may seem that a rollercoaster ride is about as far away as one can get from the experience Shakespeare's plays originally offered audiences in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in fact, Taymor's film is closer to what a sixteenth-century production of Titus Andronicus would have been like than most of the productions that have occurred in the eighteenth, nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. What's even more remarkable is that it is a film, rather than a stage play, that captures this experience, and that it is a film that does not pretend to be theatrical.

The most important connection linking the 1594 theatrical performance to the 1999 cinematic performance is the shared focus on the audience and on the audience's experience. Whether theatrical or cinematic, a performance of Shakespeare has to take its audience into consideration and has to think about the effect the performance is meant to have on its audience. This is especially true of Titus Andronicus since it is a revenge tragedy, and since so much of it involves and displays violence and makes that violence humorous. Titus Andronicus has accrued an infamous reputation over the centuries because of the numerous killings and mutilations which occur both on and offstage.3 Unfortunately, actors, directors, and audiences have misunderstood the role of the play's violence since it was first performed. Nineteenth-century productions, for example, expurgated the play and took out the rape, or hid the mutilations from the audience (Barnet, “Stage” 179-88).

Taymor's film puts the rape and mutilations back in the play and the cinematography serves to heighten and emphasize the violence. In Shakespeare's play, the sacrifice of Tamora's son, Alarbus, occurs offstage as it also does in Taymor's film. In the film, however, Lucius returns on camera with a bowl of Alarbus's pink and quivering entrails which he then throws into the sacrificial fire to the accompaniment of the soundtrack's realistic “hssssssss.” These scenes will undoubtedly inspire “wonder” in audiences and this is a responsibility which Julie Taymor takes very seriously. In the February 4 interview, she addressed the dilemma she confronted when taking on the project: “I was dealing with what is violence as entertainment in our culture.” That Taymor should ponder how her film will engage the sensibilities of her audience or that she should take her responsibility as a director very seriously should come as no surprise, since Shakespeare's text demands that each new director of the play consider how the play will affect the audience.

Shakespeare's text reveals that original audiences, whether they stood or sat, whether they were female or male, whether they were poor, working-class, rich or aristocratic, were never encouraged to be passive witnesses of the violence. Perhaps because they sat in a public amphitheater, an amphitheater that may well have also housed bearbaitings—a violent form of entertainment that appealed to both monarchs and the masses—they were encouraged to reconsider their relationship to the spectacle of dramatic violence. Part of the revenge play's function in the early modern period was to rehearse with audiences the moral consequences of private and public revenge. Indeed, a performance of Titus Andronicus would have necessitated that every member of the audience become active participants and judge the characters, the violence, and the performance. The end of the play is marked by the spectacle of a series of quick and multiple killings that lead to the death of Lavinia, Titus, Tamora, and Saturninus. The quick succession of numerous dead bodies creates a spectacle of death and certainly suggests that part of the play's appeal is the display of violence. After the deaths, however, Marcus addresses those that remain alive, and urges them to exercise their judgment: “Now judge what cause had Titus to revenge / These wrongs, unspeakable, past patience, / Or more than any living man could bear. / Now have you heard the truth. / What say you, Romans? / Have we done aught amiss …” (5.3.124-28). Not only does Marcus ask “Romans” to judge, he also asks them to respond and to answer whether or not the Andronici have done anything amiss in the execution of their revenge. In the context of performance, this question is not simply meant for the Romans. It is also a question asked by the actors of the audience. Have the actors done anything amiss in reproducing the execution of revenge and the presentation of violence?

Just as a performance of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is meant to inspire active participation from its theater audiences, so, too, Taymor's Titus inspires active participation from its movie audiences. The screaming and cheering that Taymor describes at screenings of the film at UCLA or at The University of Toronto or in Chicago describe an audience that is decidedly not passive. These audiences are interacting with the film, are answering back to the screen, and are responding to the questions which the film raises. It is clear that Taymor's film hopes to shatter conventional ways of seeing Shakespeare in order to teach audiences to let go of their passive viewing habits and to interact with Shakespeare. It is an undertaking, however, that is beset with obstacles, risks, and challenges.

One major obstacle is to convince twenty-first-century audiences that sixteenth-century Shakespeare is accessible. The other major obstacle is Titus Andronicus's reputation for violence. Taymor readily acknowledges that Shakespeare is “frightening” to movie audiences. What is frustrating to Taymor is that both Shakespeare's reputation of inaccessibility and Titus Andronicus's reputation of violence are leading to some sheep-like responses, which in turn prevent some audiences from actually seeing what is going on in the film. The noisy and involved audience response described above creates a striking contrast to the response Taymor attributes to the movie critics: “They don't know what to do. They're so intimidated.” Such a timid response frustrates Taymor because it means viewers may see the film through the lens of what movie and academic critics say about Titus. When a foremost academic critic like Harold Bloom comes down against a Shakespeare play, as he has in the case of Titus Andronicus, then movie critics and movie audiences may follow suit and distrust their own experience of the film.4 Indeed, the majority of the written reviews perpetuate Titus Andronicus's reputation as a violent play. Taymor immediately puts her finger on why she objects to the statements that Titus is violent: “… this is not a very graphically violent movie … quite honestly … I wish the press would get that.”

The real challenge for both the play and the film is to show audiences that it is not so much about violence as it is about how audiences promote and encourage and demand violence. The film does not simply display violence, it also asks audiences to think about their role in promoting that violence. The critics might be excused from promoting Titus's reputation as a violent film since the film's advertising trailer does much the same. The trailer proclaims that the film is intended for all those who think that “Revenge Is Sweet.” What critics do not always get is that the trailer is intentionally playful and means to attract those audiences that really do think films portraying sweet revenge are cool. Once in the auditorium, however, the experience that the film offers audiences and the journey it takes them on cannot help but encourage them to re-evaluate the idea that “Revenge is Sweet.”

Contrary to what critics may suggest, it is imperative to point out here that the screams and shouts of the young movie audiences are not signs that they have been suckered into an experience that promotes violent revenge as an entertainment form. The screams and shouts demonstrate that young audiences get what it is the film is doing and are responding to its challenge. Taymor points out that: “… Tamora, Aaron, Titus, frighten the modern audience. Not the kids.” The kids, of course, are coming of age at the end of a millennium that is characterized by increased and renewed acts of incredible violence in places as far away as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Iraq, and as close to home as Columbine, Colorado, or Mount Morris Township, Michigan. Taymor is quick to emphasize how well young audiences respond to a piece that is daring enough to create connections between a world of fiction and the real world, pointing out that a UCLA screening of the film had to turn away two to three hundred students and that many of the students in attendance had already seen the film once or twice before.

Once audiences are free to see Titus with their own eyes, unencumbered by its reputation, then they are ready for an experience that teaches them that what should be frightening is not the play's reputation for violence, and not even what appears before their eyes on the screen, but rather the ways in which the illusory world that appears on screen resonates with their real life. It is clear while watching the film that it is about Titus, the Romans, and the Goths. But upon leaving the film, as critic after critic cannot help but note, one finds oneself thinking about Bosnia, East Timor, Rwanda, Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Fascist Italy, and Fascist Germany.5

The film promotes the blurring between real and illusory worlds. The film opens and closes in a Colosseum which Taymor repeats, again and again, is the first theater of cruelty and the first theater that promoted violence as entertainment. Though the Colosseum looks like the Roman Colosseum, it is actually a Colosseum located in Pula, Croatia. Through the magic of cinema, Titus not only creates resonances with Ancient Rome, but also with Modern Bosnia. The Colosseum location also reminds those audiences who have visited London's reconstructed Globe Theatre in person or online, or who have seen its diagrams and drawings, of the likenesses between the original theater of cruelty and the public amphitheaters in early modern England. Even someone who has not seen the Globe cannot help but make the connection between Colosseum and theater since in the film's opening we hear but do not see an audience, and at the film's end we see but do not hear the audience to the final banquet of violence. The film, then, refuses to allow its audiences the luxury of distancing itself from the actors or the actions it sees on screen and insists that it recognize itself in the audiences represented on screen.

Titus, Tamora, and Aaron all turn vengeance into an art form and revel in the creation of their devices which leads to extreme and violent “misery.” Neither the play nor the film, however, is comfortable with allowing the audience to see the world through their eyes only. If this were so, then audiences would have no choice but to cheer on the acts of violence and to promote and participate in the creation of violence as an entertainment form. Titus uses a plethora of techniques to make the audience aware of the consequences of wonder-making. It borrows these techniques from Shakespeare's play. At the end of the play, Marcus, as well as both the younger and the elder Lucius, contextualize the acts of revenge for the audience. In so doing, they downplay Titus's role in perpetuating and promoting revenge, violence, and misery, but they also insist that there is a distinction to be made between just (Titus's) and unjust forms of revenge (Tamora's and Aaron's). Taymor's film also contextualizes the acts of revenge for the audience but does so in a way that shows them how the lesson of violence is transmitted to, and thus perpetuated by, the younger generation. From the very first opening shot the audience, no matter what their age, gender, class or ethnic background, witness what is on screen through another set of eyes. That set of eyes belongs not simply to the camera, but to a child who then becomes the young Lucius of Shakespeare's play. In Taymor's film, it is the child that mediates and frames everything the audience sees. Taymor explains why she begins with a child's eyes peering out of the paperbag mask: “In a way he's like a god with the paperbag over his head playing with [toys] in an innocent way.” Taymor does not grant the child the luxury of innocence for long.

Taymor gives the young Lucius a much larger part than the one Shakespeare allocates him in the written text. Indeed the film opens not on Saturninus and Bassianus vying for the title of emperor, but on the child, playing “war” in a kitchen, with a paperbag mask over his head. At first there is no reason to connect this child to the young Lucius since the opening shot is set in the modern day, rather than in the Ancient Rome of Shakespeare's play. The scene, however, quickly changes. The child's play of destruction turns to real destruction when a bomb is thrown into the kitchen. Out of nowhere, a man in a leather mask appears (identified by Taymor as a Shakespearean clown) and brings him down, down, into a Colosseum. It is here that the child becomes the young Lucius of Shakespeare's play. On the surface, such an opening would appear to deviate enormously from Shakespeare and from a sixteenth-century sensibility. This is only on the surface, however. For, as Taymor reminds me, this opening, which occurs before the movie's credits, serves as a kind of Prologue. Taymor's description of the significance of her Prologue is entirely Shakespearean: “The Shakespearean clown … intervenes and takes this child on the journey that he has to take which is our journey from innocence to knowledge and to action.” Taking the journey from innocence to knowledge and to action is what any performance, and certainly any Shakespearean performance, is all about.

Whereas the child's journey from witness to participant is quite clear, the audience's journey is less so because its journey, though shaped by the experience of the film, cannot be dictated by the experience, the way that Lucius's journey can be. This does not stop the film from using everything at its disposal to remind audiences that they have a responsibility as an audience. When the child is not mediating the view of violence (indeed Taymor points out it would not make sense to have him in those scenes in which he clearly did not belong), then the camera takes over, but it always does so in a way that is intrusive and that calls the audience's attention to what it is doing. It is standard in film theory to point out that the camera lens always frames and mediates what the audience sees, often hiding from it that this is what is occurring. In Titus, the camera frequently gives itself away. When Titus cuts his own hand off, for example, there is the distinct and audible thump of the blade cutting through Titus's bone. The camera, however, does not display the blood and gore that presumably accompanies the severing and the “thump.” Rather, it turns first to a close-up of Titus's face responding to the pain and then to a close-up of the young Lucius's face registering anguish as he peeks through the kitchen door. The camera registers responses to violence rather than the violent acts themselves, thus reminding audiences of their own position as responders as well as suggesting plausible responses. It is important to note that the suggested responses do not always include looks of anguish or compassion. They also include the close-ups of Demetrius and Chiron's faces as they witness and admire their “handiwork,” the raped and mutilated Lavinia. The film, then, is not heavy-handed in its attempt to teach audiences the range of consequences involved in wonder-making.

The film uses other devices to shake audiences up, including additions that appear nowhere in Shakespeare's text and that give the film an edge and a daring that confidently proclaim its twenty-first-century sensibility. The additions include cinematic and computer-enhanced effects that help to create what Taymor calls Penny Arcade Nightmares or PAN's. These PAN's create an effect that is more surreal than early modern. The PAN's are definitely the stuff of movies and of the twenty-first-century since they are achieved through digital compositing. They are even given their own credit at the end of the film and are created by an outfit called Imaginary Forces. The PAN's, however, also serve to engage the audience's active participation and to force them to reflect on their role as witnesses, and it is this which makes the PAN's Shakespearean.

One PAN occurs during the scene in which Lavinia writes the name of her rapists in the sand. This scene is intercut with a series of surrealistic images superimposed onto one another. In the PAN, Lavinia appears on a tree stump in the middle of a barren swamp, clothed in a white dress with flared skirt that is blowing up, reminiscent of the famous Marilyn Monroe shot over the subway grate. Any allusion to Marilyn Monroe belongs only to the post-twentieth-century world. A doe's head is attached to Lavinia's own head. Superimposed onto that image are images of Demetrius and Chiron who are simultaneously humans and tigers. The images suggest Lavinia's literal rape in a figurative way. It is only through the magic of the movie camera (a nineteenth-century invention) and the flashback technique, that the audience is given a glimpse of the rape. It is a glimpse that audiences of Shakespeare's play never receive since Lavinia's rape occurs offstage. While the act of rape occurs offstage in the play, the language of rape does not.

Through the PAN, then, Taymor is able to use the techniques available to the twenty-first century to capture a sixteenth-century sensibility and, what would seem to be even more surprising, Shakespeare's language. Further, the PAN literalizes Shakespeare's language and imagery in a way that underscores that rape is neither titillating nor erotic. Though the scene appears nowhere in Shakespeare, the imagery of the tigers and of the doe is indeed in Shakespeare's text. After the Senators and Judges ignore his pleas to free his sons, Titus proclaims that “Rome is but a wilderness of tigers” (3.1.54). Prior to this, Aaron instructs Demetrius and Chiron to treat Lavinia as if she were a doe in a hunt: “Single you thither then this dainty doe, / And strike her home by force if not by words” (2.1.117-18). Through editing, Taymor is able to approximate the effect that Shakespeare's written language and a live performance of Shakespeare's language creates. That is, in its written form, Shakespeare's language brings together two disparate worlds, the world of the tiger and the world of the doe, and in so doing makes the audience take note that Rome is NOT, really, a wilderness of tigers and a woman is NOT a doe. What makes the tragedy so potent is that performance literalizes these metaphors. Rome does become a wilderness of tigers; a place where Titus's offspring serve as “prey” (3.1.55) to tigers. Perhaps more disturbingly, Lavinia also becomes a doe, and not the doe of numerous beloveds in numerous metaphors in numerous love sonnets, but rather the doe that is hunted, maimed, and killed. Likewise, Taymor's PAN forces movie audiences to see that Lavinia IS a doe and to see that Rome IS a wilderness of tigers. Though indeed the doe and tigers are puppet-like, the surreal effect is grounded in the real and thus becomes only more terrifyingly possible. The surreal PAN is prepared for by the scene in which the camera zooms in on a real tiger prowling through a real forest.

One final point about the Penny Arcade Nightmares: There are four of them in the film and they serve as transitions between major movements. The first one occurs exactly at the end of Act One and just prior to Aaron's soliloquy, and features Titus and Tamora facing off amidst flames, torsos, and limbs. The second one occurs in Act 3, scene 1, while Titus is on the crossroads and features angels, sheep, an altar, and Mutius's human head. The third one occurs in Act 4, scene 1, when Lavinia reveals the identity of her rapists, and features doe, tigers, Lavinia, Marilyn Monroe, and Demetrius and Chiron. The final one occurs during Act 5, scene 2, when Tamora, Demetrius, and Chiron perform their Revenge masque for Titus and features ferris wheels, Tamora as Revenge with knife headdress, Demetrius as Tiger with jaw hands, and Chiron as Hawk with bra and panties. What is so striking about the placement of these Penny Arcade Nightmares is how close they come in the film to functioning as the act breaks or interludes would have functioned in sixteenth-century performances of the play.

Still another connection between the 1594 theatrical performance and the 1999 movie theater performance is a strategy that juxtaposes apparently disparate and incompatible emotions as a way to engage the audience. Once again, such a juxtaposition at first seems to proclaim the film as decidedly twenty-first-century. Indeed, Taymor urges that the technique is very modern and very cinematic. She uses the example of Francis Ford Coppolla's The Godfather and notes its juxtaposition of a scene of a wedding in a church with a scene of machine guns firing. She also quickly adds that artists throughout the centuries have used such a technique, and that the technique is “written into Shakespeare.” Indeed, such juxtapositions are an unavoidable characteristic of Titus Andronicus and have caused some consternation amongst critics over the centuries. The play's movement from the potency of the emotions exhibited by Titus prostrate on the ground before the Senators, or by Lucius forced to witness his prone father and his handless and tongueless sister, or by Marcus bringing the mutilated Lavinia before her family members, to the humor of the fly scene and Titus's apparently tasteless punning on the word “hands” generated endless discussion. Taymor's film achieves something similar when it cuts from the street performer's cart delivering the “freak” show of bottled heads of Titus's sons and Titus's own hand displayed on a stand to young Lucius walking into the wood shop and selecting a hand form for the handless Lavinia. The film juxtaposes violence and humor again when it moves from the “thwak” heard when Titus cuts his hand off, and the close-up shots of Titus's suffering face and the young Lucius's anguished face, to what Taymor calls “the hand of power” dangling from Aaron's rear view mirror in a Baggie.

The function of such juxtapositions and of such humor is to make the audience uncomfortable. Such a function is both modern and theatrical and indeed, Taymor uses the adjective “Brechtian” to describe the effect she was after. She describes the final banquet scene as a “constant juxtaposition of horror and poignancy when Tony Hopkins is making those almost silent movie faces … and then Lavinia comes out with that beautiful music … and you're not then prepared for the death of her.” Nor is the audience prepared for the juxtaposition of eerie silence with the horribly clear sound of Titus breaking Lavinia's neck.

Humor is another way to snap the audience to attention and Taymor elaborates on its function: “Nervous laughter is an incredible thing. You know it's off-setting, it's off balance.” One can see this effect in operation in the artful cutting from the scene of the dead Demetrius and Chiron hanging upside down like cuts of meat with blood draining from their slit throats to the scene of a gargantuan meat pie cooling on a windowsill as flouncy, homespun window curtains gently flutter in the wind. The juxtaposition of the disturbing death scene with the “homey” and appealing kitchen scene encourages audiences to laugh at death and violence. The “joke” is that Titus has made the meat pie on the windowsill from the meat of Demetrius and Chiron and plans to serve the pie to the mother, Tamora. It should be repellent that such an act could incite laughter, and yet one cannot help but to admire the daring of the move. At both the screenings I attended, audiences laughed out loud. The scene seems to transform violence into an aesthetic creation for the “delight” of an audience. But because it is so obvious that the meat pie scene is an aesthetic creation, it makes audiences aware, keeps them nervous and “off balance” and thus undercuts their delight. Theirs is the nervous laughter Taymor sought to create.

Titus, Tamora, and Aaron all revel in the creation of their devices, and look to an audience for approval. In Taymor's film, when they do so, they turn directly to the camera. Such a move reminds audiences that they are in a position of power since it is in the audience's hands to grant or not grant their approval. It is also a move Taymor borrows from Shakespeare. Though talking to the camera is definitely cinematic, as Taymor insists, those moments “… are there. They're following the text.” What in the world of the theater is a soliloquy or aside becomes a direct address to the camera in the world of film. Taymor explains why she had characters directly addressing the camera: “… they bring the audience in … you're bringing the audience into something the audience should never know about, normally, would never know.” Such a move also puts audiences at risk. Thus it is important that Aaron, more than any other character, is the one who addresses the camera the most and is the one who asks most for the audience's approval. For it is Aaron who, at the end of the play, is given responsibility for all of the tragedy in the play and it is he who is called the “breeder of these dire events” (5.3.177).

Aaron's renouncement of any “good deed” (5.3.189) he ever had a hand in marks the end of the play. Taymor's film ends differently. At the end of the film, Lucius and all audiences are faced with a choice whether to continue the cycle of violence by perpetuating it (as Lucius learns to do in the fly scene when he indiscriminately kills the fly and then adds a visceral thrill to the killing by likening it to Aaron the Moor) or whether to stop the cycle of violence by taking action (as Lucius decides to do when he frees the baby, Aaron's baby, from its cage and proceeds to walk out of the Colosseum). Taymor explains the significance of her ending: “The child's last act is to decide do I let this happen … this baby stay in a cage.” According to Taymor, by walking out of the Colosseum, the child, with baby in arms, leaves the theater of cruelty and of violence. The finale, however, is also open-ended. Like Shakespeare's ending, then, Titus's ending offers audiences a way out of the cycle of destruction. Taymor is insistent that her film only suggests the possibility of hope and reminds me that the camera freezes on just a “slice of the sun coming up. It's not a full sunrise.”

Taymor ends her book, Playing With Fire, with a discussion of Titus and with a request: “Titus will premiere as the millennium comes to an end. May the child finally exit the Colosseum as the new millennium rolls in” (233). Such a request reminds us that a play, through illusion, does have the potential to affect and shape reality. It only has that power, however, if the audience executes it. The power to change reality is in the audience's hands. The recognition that the audience has such power and the desire to end by calling the audience's attention to that power is something that is very Shakespearean. It calls to mind Prospero's final words to the audience in The Tempest (a play Taymor directed for The Theatre For a New Audience). In the Epilogue, Prospero stays on the stage and begs the audience to break the illusion and set him free: “Let me not, / Since I have my dukedom got / And pardoned the deceiver, dwell / In this bare island by your spell, / But release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands” (Epilogue. 5-10).6 The student whose response began this article notes that Titus put her into a state of “awe.” The student, however, almost as if answering Prospero's request, immediately begins to break the “spell” by moving on to judge what she has seen and to judge whether the film has “done aught amiss.”


  1. All Titus Andronicus quotations are from Sylvan Barnet, ed. Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens. (NY: Signet Classic: 1989).

  2. Julie Taymor. Interview with Richard Schechner. TDR, [The Drama Review] Fall 1999: 36+. Electronic Collection: A55981173. RN: A55981173. 1999 MIT Press Journals. Julie Taymor. “Sharing the Story Within—An Interview with Julie Taymor” by Joel Snyder for the National Endowment of the Arts. 31 August 1999. Julie Taymor and Eileen Blumenthal. Julie Taymor: Playing With Fire. Updated and Expanded Edition. (NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1999).

  3. As recently as 1994, The New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of Titus Andronicus includes on its back cover and inside title page the following pronouncement: “Titus Andronicus is still regarded by many as a bad play of dubious authorship. Its adversaries have abhorred the violence of the action and the apparent lapses in the quality of the verse” (Alan Hughes, ed. Titus Andronicus. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994]). In the past 50 years, thanks to productions like Deborah Warner's direction of the RSC Titus Andronicus, and academic critics like Jonathan Bate, Titus has been taken more seriously and its reputation has improved somewhat (Jonathan Bate, ed. Titus Andronicus. The Arden Shakespeare. [Cambridge: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1999]).

  4. Bloom concludes the chapter devoted to Titus Andronicus with the following judgement, “… I can concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus” (86). Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. (NY: Riverhead Books, 1998).

  5. Bate, Jonathan. “A Shakespeare Tale Whose Time Has Come.” Rev. of Titus. The New York Times, 2 January 2000, AR: 11, 12; Stephen Holden. “It's a Sort of Family Dinner, Your Majesty” Rev. of Titus. The New York Times. 24 Dec. 1999, weekend section: 1; Bernard Weinraub. “At the Movies.” Rev. of Titus. The New York Times. 14 January 2000: E24; Armond White. Rev. of Titus. The New York Press. 5-11 Jan. 2000, Section 2: 8,11.

  6. Quotation from Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, eds. The New Folger Library Tempest. (NY: Washington Square Press, 1994)

Works Cited

Barnet, Sylvan. “Titus Andronicus on the Stage.” The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus and The Life of Timon of Athens. New York: Signet Classic, 1989. 179-88.

———, ed. Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens. New York: Signet Classic, 1989.

Bate, Jonathan. “A Shakespeare Tale Whose Time Has Come.” Rev. of Titus. The New York Times (2 Jan. 2000): AR: 11,12.

———, ed. Titus Andronicus. The Arden Shakespeare. Cambridge: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1999.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Holden, Stephen. “It's a Sort of Family Dinner, Your Majesty.” Rev. of Titus. The New York Times (24 Dec. 1999): weekend section: 1.

Hughes, Alan, ed. Titus Andronicus. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Mowat, Barbara and Paul Werstine, eds. The New Folger Library Tempest. New York: Washington Square P, 1994.

Snyder, Joel. “Sharing the Story Within—An Interview with Julie Taymor.” National Endowment of the Arts. 31 Aug. 1999.

Taymor, Julie. Interview with Richard Schechner. TDR (Fall 1999):36+.

Taymor, Julie and Eileen Blumenthal. Julie Taymor: Playing With Fire. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Weinraub, Bernard. “At the Movies.” Rev. of Titus. The New York Times (14 Jan. 2000): E24.

White, Armond. Rev. of Titus. The New York Press (5-11 Jan. 2000): Section 2: 8, 11.

Martha Nochimson (review date 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Nochimson, Martha. Review of Titus. Cineaste 26, no. 2 (2001): 48-50.

[In the following review of Titus, Nochimson highlights the cinematic innovations of director Julie Taymor's anachronistic adaptation of Titus Andronicus, and praises the individual performances of Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Harry Lennix in the film.]

Julie Taymor's film Titus, adapted from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, makes manifest why this play, once considered so inferior that scholars doubted its paternity, has recently gained a new lease on life. Taymor herself mounted the play in 1994 for Theatre for a New Audience at St. Clement's Church...

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John P. Cutts (essay date fall 1968)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cutts, John P. “Shadow and Substance: Structural Unity in Titus Andronicus.Comparative Drama 2, no. 3 (fall 1968): 161-72.

[In the following essay, Cutts argues that the theme of false shadows mistaken for real substance provides aesthetic and structural unity in Titus Andronicus.]

If in our discussion of Titus Andronicus we may put aside the vexed authorship question—and to do so is certainly fraught with great difficulties since even the champions of Shakespeare's authorship in the main are reluctant to dismiss in particular the shades of Peele—then there is, it seems to me, a dramatic pattern established which tends to belie the...

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Lawrence N. Danson (essay date spring 1974)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Danson, Lawrence N. “The Device of Wonder: Titus Andronicus and Revenge Tragedies.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 16, no. 1 (spring 1974): 27-43.

[In the following essay, Danson examines the thematic balance of ineffective expression, imprisoning rhetoric, and madness with action and revenge in Titus Andronicus.]

The proliferation of generic categories for Elizabethan drama is a problem as ancient as Polonius' naming of the parts: “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.” One firmly entrenched category is that of the tragedy...

(The entire section is 7287 words.)

Robert S. Miola (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Miola, Robert S. “Titus Andronicus and the Mythos of Shakespeare's Rome.” Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 85-98.

[In the following essay, Miola probes Shakespeare's thematic appropriation of two Ovidian myths—the rape of Philomela and the story of the world's four stages—in Titus Andronicus.]

Readers have rarely praised Shakespeare's strenuous imitation of classical authors and themes in Titus Andronicus. For most of us, the play is a vile hash of Ovid, Seneca, Plutarch, and Virgil, made more unpalatable by the self-consciousness of the various imitations and allusions. Critical indigestion has begotten critical indignation; it would be...

(The entire section is 5605 words.)

Robert Johnson (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Robert. “Titus Andronicus: The First of the Roman Plays.” In Essays on Shakespeare in Honour of A. A. Ansari, edited by T. R. Sharma, pp. 80-7. Meerut, India: Shalabh Book House, 1986.

[In the following essay, Johnson evaluates the ambivalent attitude toward classical Rome presented in Titus Andronicus, and considers affinities between the drama and Shakespeare's later Roman plays.]

I do not wish to enter the discussion of authorship of Titus Andronicus1 or necessarily to defend the play against its most virulent attackers, who include Dr Samuel Johnson.2 To be sure, the play has most recently had its...

(The entire section is 2860 words.)

Jane Hiles (essay date spring 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hiles, Jane. “A Margin for Error: Rhetorical Context in Titus Andronicus.Style 21, no. 1 (spring 1987): 62-75.

[In the following essay, Hiles centers on the rhetoric of Titus Andronicus and its relation to the play's theme of revenge.]

Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is a work whose plot turns on a series of rhetorical failures. The play abounds in rhetorical confrontations that dramatize the violent struggles for power occurring offstage, and Shakespeare's characters repeatedly fail to rise to these occasions. Tamora's plea for Alarbus's life, Lavinia's plea for mercy, and Titus's plea for the lives of his sons all fall wide of the...

(The entire section is 6202 words.)

Stephen X. Mead (essay date fall 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Mead, Stephen X. “The Crisis of Ritual in Titus Andronicus.Exemplaria 6, no. 2 (fall 1994): 459-79.

[In the following essay, Mead investigates the relationship between ritual and the cycle of violence depicted in Titus Andronicus.]

Shakespeare's first tragedy has often been defined as a spectacular tragedy of blood that is shed for its own sake.1 Frank Kermode writes in the introduction to the Riverside edition of the play,

there is small point in denying that an exhibition of horror … is a prime motive of Titus Andronicus.2


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Molly Easo Smith (essay date spring 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Molly Easo. “Spectacles of Torment in Titus Andronicus.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 36 (spring 1996): 315-31.

[In the following essay, Smith 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.]

In its reliance on spectacles of death, Shakespeare's early Roman tragedy, Titus Andronicus, resembles The Spanish Tragedy, though unlike Thomas Kyd's play, which exploits the theatrical value of the hanged body as entertainment, Titus also...

(The entire section is 6922 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Detmer-Goebel, Emily. “The Need for Lavinia's Voice: Titus Andronicus and the Telling of Rape.” Shakespeare Studies 29 (2001): 75-92.

Offers a feminist critique of Lavinia's rape in Titus Andronicus, emphasizing the patriarchal dynamics of the drama.

Eaton, Sara. “A Woman of Letters: Lavinia in Titus Andronicus.” In Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, pp. 54-74. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Character study of Lavinia that highlights early modern English perceptions of educated, aristocratic women....

(The entire section is 792 words.)