Titus Andronicus Themes
The main themes in Titus Andronicus are the cycle of revenge, masculine and feminine honor, and Romans and barbarians.
- The cycle of revenge: Titus Andronicus demonstrates the futile and cyclical nature of vengeance, the pursuit of which results in the deaths of nearly all the characters involved.
Masculine and feminine honor: While masculine honor is portrayed as subjective and can be restored by revenge, feminine honor is defined by chastity and can be restored only by death.
- Romans and barbarians: The Rome of the play is in decline, with little differentiation between Romans and Goths, who marry into the Roman imperial family.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749
The Cycle of Revenge
There is no doubt that revenge is the primary theme of Titus Andronicus. The play fits so completely into the paradigm of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy that it is hotly disputed whether or not it is a parody of that genre. Although it is not a philosophical drama in the sense that Hamlet is, Titus Andronicus does provide a conceptual examination of the nature of revenge. Revenge is a solution to the problem of injury. Someone wrongs another, the wronged party achieves their revenge, and justice has been done; the cycle is complete.
The problem with this concept is that it almost never works. The object of revenge perceives the revenge as a new and separate wrong and proceeds to exact their own revenge, which, in its turn, prompts a further revenge. This is shown graphically in the final scene when, in the space of about a minute, Titus takes revenge on Tamora by killing her, Saturninus kills Titus for killing his wife, and Lucius kills Saturninus for killing his father. Nobody kills Lucius only because he is swiftly proclaimed emperor, and everyone who cared about Saturninus is already dead.
This sequence of events speeds up the cycle of revenge, rendering it ludicrous. However, the rest of the play consists of Titus taking revenge on Tamora, Chiron, and Demetrius for the revenge that they, in turn, took on him for killing Alarbus at the beginning of the play. Shakespearean tragedy ends with the restoration of civil order precisely because the cycle of revenge is so destructive that it must be stopped for any form of civilized life to continue.
Masculine and Feminine Honor
Revenge is not primarily a matter of personal satisfaction: it is required by honor. However, the concept of honor has changed from the Republican ideal of integrity and public service and is now much more closely identified with prestige. This is what Titus means when he talks about his sons dishonoring him when they oppose him. This identification of masculine honor with individual prestige means that it has become more subjective. Aaron the Moor regards it as a matter of honor to be as evil as possible and is fastidious in avoiding and repenting of virtue.
If masculine honor has changed as Rome has declined, feminine honor has not. Lavinia is compared to the legendary figure of Lucretia by Titus, Marcus, and even Aaron. It is “her spotless chastity” that is the measure of virtue for a woman, and as Titus and Saturninus both confirm in the final scene, once she has lost it, no life remains for her. In the world of the play, masculine honor can be satisfied by revenge, but the dishonored woman can only die.
Romans and Barbarians
Rome, with all its faults, stood for civilization in the Renaissance mind. Titus Andronicus is unique among Shakespeare’s Roman plays for being pure fabrication, and the Rome it presents to its audience is a curious and chaotic mixture of different elements from Roman history. Despite its ahistorical nature, however, the Rome that is presented is clearly one in terminal decline. Marcus Andronicus asks his brother to accept the crown by bidding him “set a head on headless Rome.” The symbolism of the crown is itself a sign of the times. Shakespeare may not have been precise in his Roman history, but one fact he clearly knew, which is stressed again and again in Julius Caesar , is that the Romans hated kings and the symbols of kingship. The whole iconography and paraphernalia of the empire were quite different, and the...
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fact that, inTitus Andronicus, Saturninus is called “king” as well as “emperor” shows how decadent Rome has become.
Another sign of Rome’s decadence is the infiltration of Goths into their society and the fact that Romans and Goths are almost interchangeable. When Titus asks him to go and find an army, Lucius brings the Goths to Rome apparently without incident. He does not, as Coriolanus does, risk his life to seek out the opposing tribe. Chiron and Demetrius, while they are evil and brutal, are not depicted as barbarians. They have been educated in Latin grammar, and Chiron thinks he recognizes the poetry of Horace, even if he does not understand it. When Antony chose Cleopatra over Octavia, his preference for a foreigner split the Second Triumvirate. When Saturninus decides to marry the captive queen of the Goths instead of Lavinia, no one but Titus appears to care.