Sunday, April 10, 2011

Optional Work: Titus Andronicus

A leather journal cover
based on Titus Andronicus
by Immortal Longings.
Copyright 2008

And finally we have arrived at the last of the three optional Shakespeare that made it onto my M.A. reading list, and the last of the six Shakespeare plays that I will be dealing with for the purpose of this blog. Titus Andronicus is one of my absolute favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and after I first read it I realized I must have a thing for revenge stories because this work is bloody and so gory, both things I usually don’t go for, that there had to be some other reason why I love it so much. I will definitely enjoy writing about this work and I may actually like discussing it when it comes up during my M.A. exam.


This play is unashamedly tragic. I mean just awful stuff happens all the time to both innocent and thoroughly evil people. Not only are people killed, but people are also raped, severely dismembered only to be killed later, and one character even unknowingly consumes the remains of her children. It is by far Shakespeare’s bloodiest work and it is believed among many to be his earliest tragedy. However, although it is his most gruesome work, it does not stand alone as his only revenge tragedy. Other plays of Shakespeare’s that can fit this category are Hamlet, Macbeth, and even Julius Caesar.

Unlike tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus does not shift from comedy to tragedy, but remains a revenge tragedy throughout (with people like me still laughing at certain part…yes, I have issues). It cannot be considered a history play because while it contains the names of real historical people and events, they are taken from different points in Roman history and put together in one play.

In total there are 14 killings, nine of which occur onstage, six people with body parts chopped off in some sense, one rape (well, one person raped, but possibly two or three times over), one live burial, and once act of cannibalism. One of my theories as to why this play isn’t performed much not only has to do with the mass amount of violence that occurs onstage, but also the fact that oftentimes there are so many dead bodies on the stage that it would be exceedingly difficult for the actors to work around them. It would be like actors having to do the final scene in Hamlet with dead bodies everywhere, but only this time for the entire two-hour play. And how do you depict a woman who has had both hands chopped off and her tongue ripped out without freaking out the audience? Icky…


Revenge, blood, death, destruction, and chaos. Just a massive amount of violence to occur on a live stage.

The story of Procne and Philomela that is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses has been closely linked to Shakespeare’s story of Titus Andronicus. In Ovid’s telling, Procne avenges the dismemberment of her sister Philomela whose tongue is cut out after she is raped by Procne’s husband. Procne proceeds to then kill her own son and feed him to her husband. Yikes… Shakespeare has violence-hungry Titus (who by this moment in the play has lost his mind) revenge his daughter, Lavinia, who has been raped by Tamora’s two sons and had her tongue ripped out, by killing said sons and feeding their remains to their mother by means of a baked pie. This, however, is just one of the many end products of a long cycle of revenge that started at the very beginning of the play when Titus comes home from winning a war against the Goths, the people that Tamora was formerly queen of. Not only has Titus defeated Tamora’s homeland in battle, but his first order of business upon his return is to kill Tamora’s oldest son by lopping off his arms and legs. Tamora then (with the help of Aaron, her Moorish boyfriend on the side) proceeds to have Titus’ two sons falsely charged of murdering the Emperor’s brother, the punishment for which is death (by beheading). But this isn’t enough - Aaron wants Titus to needlessly cut off his hand in order to add insult to injury. So he tells Titus that the judges might consider letting his sons go if he cuts of his hand. So Titus, like any loving father, has his hand cut off, but his sons are beheaded anyway. And this is what sets him off to kill Tamora’s sons, bake the pie, and on and on it goes. Tamora is also the one who has her sons rape Lavinia.

And it isn’t so much that violent things happen in the play that make Titus Andronicus so horrible, but the fact that the acts are so savage and Shakespeare handles them in such a matter of fact way is I think what gets us. In Romeo and Juliet, after Mercutio is stabbed he continues to talk for what feels like forever (seriously, what is that?). In Titus Andronicus, the one-line stage directions simply say that people are stabbed or killed, and then you never hear from them again, and have to assume that their body is just laying there awkwardly on the stage. The one death that stands out in my mind as the most needless is when Aaron kills the nurse who has brought him his newly born child simply because he (quickly) decided that one too many people know about it, and since she is standing there, he simply kills her. No appeal, no reprieve.

Also, the ridiculous amount of violence goes well with how ridiculously evil Aaron is. Sure, Tamora is evil too, and Titus is no saint, but at least Tamora is driven by the death of her oldest son early in the play. Aaron makes it very clear that he enjoys doing evil and that his only regret in life is that he couldn’t do a little more. He also states that if he did ever do one good deed in all of his life, then it is the one thing he repents of from his very soul. And as much as the audience hates Aaron, there really aren’t any other characters that they can relate to. Lucius may be as close as we can get, but he isn’t onstage enough, and while we do feel incredibly bad for Lavinia, it is still difficult to identify with her because of the insane nature of her dismemberment – she can’t talk because she has no tongue, and she can’t even make hand gestures because she is left with two stumps at the end of her arms.

At the end of the play, the only survivors are Lucius (Titus’ oldest son), Marcus Andronicus (Titus’ brother), young Lucius (Lucius’ son), Aaron, and Aaron’s infant son, and even not al of them will survive very long. In the final scene, Aaron is being taken away to be buried alive chest-deep and left to die of thirst and starvation. Oddly enough, after reading all of the horrifying violence of the previous five acts, this death seems incredibly tame.


Not at all surprisingly, Titus Andronicus lost popularity during the Victorian era because if its incredible amount of gore. It is Shakespeare’s most violent play and possibly his most criticized. The lurid amount of violence, along with the lack of inspired verse, has also caused many critics to doubt whether it was Shakespeare who actually wrote it. Even so, it was incredibly popular when it first came out; much like Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine was despite its violence. In fact, some believe that Shakespeare was doing a parody of a Marlowe play because that is the only way they can explain why he would have written such a violent work.

So that completes the series on Shakespeare. Next week, I will most likely cover Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, another optional work from my list that has made it onto my list of favorite novels. It is nothing like Titus Andronicus, which is a good thing. As much as I like Titus Andronicus, it isn’t the kind of thing we need to be exposed too very often.

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