Titus Andronicus (c. 1592) is among the most poorly regarded of Shakespeare's plays. Scholars consider the tragedy to be one of the dramatist's apprentice works, and note that it appears to have been popular with Elizabethan audiences as a sensationalistic piece. The play, a revenge tragedy focused on the violent clash between the Goths and Romans in early Imperial Rome, recounts a long chain of murder and revenge. The drama's many atrocities include the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, daughter of Roman general Titus Andronicus, and the murder of the sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, whose heads are baked in a pie and served to Tamora before she is killed. Although there is no known source for Titus, critics agree that Shakespeare was likely influenced by the writings of such classical sources as Seneca, Ovid, and Livy, as well as by the works of his contemporaries, particularly Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1589) and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1588-89). Titus Andronicus has been disparaged for the majority of its critical history, and a number of scholars have endeavored to disprove Shakespeare's authorship of the play. Most contemporary commentators, however, have put aside the vexing question of Shakespeare's authorship of the work, and have focused instead on the play's sources, racial and gender issues, and historical and thematic content. Modern productions of the play have reflected this trend toward increasingly serious critical interest in Titus Andronicus, suggesting that it is both a viable performance piece and subject of scholarly inquiry.
Recent appraisals of character in Titus Andronicus have reflected contemporary scholarly interest in gender and race, and many studies have focused on the play's principal female roles as well as on the figure of Aaron the Moor. Ian Smith (1997) probes the significance of the juxtaposition of blackness and barbarity imposed on the Moor's character in Titus Andronicus. Smith also examines Shakespeare's use of “metaphoric barbarism” and “verbal mutilation” and explores in particular how Aaron challenges the “linguistic violence” directed against him in the play. Emily Detmer-Goebel (2001) offers a study of rape in Titus Andronicus, with a consequent focus on Titus's profoundly abused daughter Lavinia. After sexually assaulting and torturing her, Lavinia's male attackers remove her tongue so that she cannot name them. In Detmer-Goebel's view, this mutilation suggests a masculine anxiety over the potential power of a woman's voice. The critic also notes that “while the world of the play suggests how early modern culture's construction of gender ‘denies’ a woman the ‘tongue’ to talk of rape, the play also feeds on the unrest that such silence creates.” Cynthia Marshall (see Further Reading) probes the subject of misogyny in Titus Andronicus by focusing on the play's principal female figures, Tamora and Lavinia. Marshall maintains that these characters embody male anxieties concerning both powerful and dependent women.
Although it was one of the most popular dramas on the stage in Shakespeare's day, Titus Andronicus suffered nearly three and a half centuries of neglect before being rediscovered in the mid-twentieth century. Reviewing director Terrence O'Brien's 1999 production of Titus Andronicus at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Peter Marks (1999) comments on the stylized violence and gore of this otherwise deeply serious staging of Shakespeare's Roman tragedy. Marks additionally highlights the production's visceral appeal and evocation of the dark recesses of humanity and history. Viewing a less successful production, critic Katherine Duncan-Jones (2003) finds director Bill Alexander's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of the drama a disappointment. Marred by unfulfilled or ineffective characterizations, poor pacing, and a dulled emotional presence, this Titus Andronicus, according to the critic, demonstrated the difficulties inherent in translating Shakespeare's early dramas to the contemporary stage. Normand Berlin's 2003 assessment of James Edmondson's Oregon Shakespeare Festival production suggests, in contrast, the potential allure of Titus Andronicus for modern theatergoers. The critic observes that Edmondson severely blunted the comic potential of the drama in favor of monstrous horror and brutal retribution. In Berlin's estimation, Edmondson's fast-paced, energetic, violent, and engaging interpretation of the play effectively created the atmosphere of gloom appropriate to this revenge tragedy.
The relationship between Titus Andronicus and Shakespeare's principally Roman source material has elicited considerable critical interest. Clifford Chalmers Huffman (1972) compares Titus Andronicus with Ovid's Metamorphoses, emphasizing the theme of destruction and renewal in both works. Niall Rudd (2002) traces the pervasiveness of classical Roman themes, contexts, and allusions in Titus Andronicus. According to Rudd, Shakespeare used the writings of Virgil, Ovid, Plutarch, Livy, Horace, Seneca, and others as sources of the characterization, dramatic action, and theme in his early Roman tragedy. Scholars are also interested in the play's structure, genre, and religious elements. D. J. Palmer (1972) takes issue with the conventional view of Titus Andronicus as structurally formless or poorly constructed, and argues that the play is a “highly-ordered and elaborately-designed work.” Palmer also draws attention to the ostensibly civilized Roman world of the play as it degenerates into the barbarous cultural landscape associated with the Goths. Approaching the drama from the perspective of genre, Natália Pikli (2000) explores how Titus Andronicus blends farcical comedy and horrific violence to produce grotesque, tragicomic effects that blur the distinction between reality and illusion. E. Eugene Giddens (1998) studies religious elements in the play. The critic traces Old Testament biblical allusions in Titus Andronicus and draws parallels between the numerous primitive, ritualistic episodes in Shakespeare's drama and the mythic ritual paradigms of Genesis. Nicholas R. Moschovakis (2002) examines the historical presence of Christian persecution in Titus Andronicus and asserts that the work presents a sustained critique of cultural violence sanctioned by religion.