Shakespeare Studies: Titus Andronicus

by Glenn on October 16, 2016

“Human sacrifice. Gang rape. Mutilation. Ritual buchery. Mother–son cannibalism. Titus Andronicus delighted audiences of the 1590s, and the memory of its enormous popular success was still alive more than twenty years later, when Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, referred to it as a famous old crowd-pleaser in his comedy Bartholomew Fair.”
—Katharine Eisaman Maus (Norton Introduction to Titus Andronicus)

This was gruesome.

I had forgotten just how.

I have seen Julie Taymor’s Titus, yet reading through the script was somehow more graphic.

What Shakespeare describes and asks his readers/listeners to imagine is so much more disturbing than what you could put onto a film. If you did film these images, what would the rating be?

As the play opens, Titus Andronicus is returning to Rome from war. In 40 years of fighting for Rome he has lost twenty of his sons. (No mention of his wife or wives in this play.)

This latest action, against the Goths, resulted in the death of his twenty-first son1 whose body has been carried back for burial in the family monument. Titus also has brought with him some captives from the war—Tamora, Queen of the Goths; her three sons; and Aaron the Moor.

Problem: the spirit of Titus’ son won’t be at peace without a sacrifice—that is … a human sacrifice. Titus decides that for his son to be buried in peace, Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus, will be sacrificed. Tamora begs for mercy to no avail. Titus has her son killed, cruelly, by his son, Lucius, who is almost gleeful about it:

“See, Lord and father, how we have performed
Our Roman rites. Alarbus’ limbs are lopped
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky.”

How could you put that on screen without calling it the Roman Chainsaw Massacre or Nightmare on Appian Way?

Understandably, Tamora quietly pledges revenge against Titus.

This opening action defines two major themes for this play:
1. Revenge of the cruelest sort.
2. No mercy; even for those who beg for it.

A second (and intertwined) plot line is also introduced at the beginning of the play. It’s the question, Who will lead Rome? The emperor is dead; his two sons are vying for the throne. Saturninus, the eldest, has the obvious claim, but Bassianus, the younger, is more popular. A movement, led by Titus’ brother, Marcus, attempts to have Titus take the throne. Titus declines, citing age, and recommends the throne go to Saturninus. With his support, Titus also gives his daughter, Lavinia, to be Saturninus’s wife. Problem: She and Bassianus are in love and are betrothed to each other.

Let the bloodshed begin.

Here is a litany of the violence in Titus Andronicus:

[1] The 21st son of Titus is killed in action against the Goths (occurs before the play begins).

[2] Alborus, the eldest son of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is sacrificed by Titus’ son, Lucius, as part of a burial rite.

[3] Titus kills Mutius, one of his own sons, over a disagreement over who Lavinia should marry. (Titus wants to give his daughter to Saturninus, who will be the next emperor. But Lavinia is betrothed to Bassianus, Saturninus’ younger brother and rival to the throne. Saturninus will end up marrying Tamora instead in a startling reversal of fortune, which will put her in a position to plot her revenge.)

[4] Aaron the Moor convinces Tamora’s two remaining sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to kill Lavinia’s husband, Bassianus.

[5] Chiron and Demetrius use Bassianus’s body as a pillow while they gang gape and mutilate Lavinia—(cutting out her tongue and cutting off her hands, so that she can’t identify them). This is really dark stuff and yet somehow it gets worse.

[6] Aaron has two of Titus’ sons framed for the murder of Lavinia’s husband. Aaron tells Titus that if he will cut off one of his hands and send it to the emperor, his two sons will not be executed. Titus has Aaron cut off his hand which is sent to the emperor.

[7–8] It was a cruel joke—Titus receives back his hand along with the heads of his two sons.

[9] Aaron kills a nurse because she knows that Tamora’s child is Aaron’s, not Saturninus’s.

[10] The clown sent to deliver a message to Saturninus and Tamora is hanged.

[11–12] Titus slits the throats of Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, then uses their bodies and blood to create an entrée for a dinner.

[13] Titus serves Tamora a meal using the afore-mentioned entrée that causes her to engage in a cruel form of anthropophagy—mother-son cannibalism.

[14] Titus kills his daughter, Lavinia.

[15] Titus kills Tamora.

[16] Tamora’s husband, Saturninus, kills Titus.

[17] Saturninus is killed by Lucius.

[18] Aaron is condemned to death by starvation and is buried breast-deep in the ground.

And they all lived happily ever after. And by everyone, I think only Marcus and Lucius are alive at the end. Well, Aaron is, too, but he will be dead soon. Here is a chart of the principal characters in Titus Andronicus, noting who is alive when the play ends:


This is a bloodbath.

There was one loose end for me in the play: Is the baby from Tamora’s and Aaron’s liaison alive at the end of the play? I couldn’t tell.

Also, while the whole Tamora affair with Aaron, which produces a child who is obviously not Saturninus’s, adds a whole lot of dramatic tension to the story, I didn’t think this plot line was managed all that well. There is a mad scramble to change out the babies so no one will be aware and the nurse is killed so there are no witnesses, but the plot moving forward doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that Saturninus and Tamora just had a baby. It feels like a significant loose end.

I have two dominant impressions from this play:

1. This play is disturbing—for the afore-mentioned acts of violence.

Marjorie Garber, in writing about The Taming of the Shrew, said, “There is, of course, no way to know Shakespeare’s ‘intention,’ a will-o’-the-wisp that has led many commentators astray.” She avoids making comments about what Shakespeare was trying to do in this play other than noting that it is, indeed, violent. She writes:

“These appalling spectacles, which uncannily resemble the events of a modern horror film, are not what we are used to thinking of as ‘Shakespearean.’ Shakespeare for twenty-first-century readers is a playwright associated with subtle language, architectonic plots, and the precise delineation of character, not with brutal and elemental acts of violence.”

Isaac Asimov and Harold Bloom are not so reluctant. After stating that “Titus Andronicus is the bloodiest and most gruesome of Shakespeare’s plays, and the one in which the horror seems present entirely for the sake of horror,” Asimov notes how this was a particular genre in Elizabethan England. Asimov believes,

“Shakespeare had no objection to success and was perfectly willing to adjust himself to popular taste. In Titus Andronicus he therefore gave full vent to blood, cruelty, disaster, and revenge. Indeed, he went so far that one can almost wonder if he weren’t deliberately pushing matters to the limit in order to express his disgust of the whole genre.”

While Asimov says that Shakespeare is pushing the envelope, Bloom offers alternative motives. He sees this as parody of Christopher Marlow, “a kind of shock therapy for himself and his public.” He writes,

“The young Shakespeare delighted himself, and his contemporary audiences, by both mocking and exploiting Marlowe in Titus Andronicus. ‘If they want bombast and gore, then they shall have it!’ seems the inner impulse that activates this bloodbath.”

Bloom offers evidence for his views, but I do find it intriguing how he and Garber manage the terrain of Shakespeare’s interior life. He goes there. She won’t.

Bloom points to one scene in particular to illustrate his views. It’s the scene where  a horrific delivery has been made to Titus. He receives from the emperor the heads of his two sons and his own hand that he cut off thinking it would save the lives of his sons. As he prepares to leave the stage, Titus tells Marcus,

“Come, brother, take a head;
And in this hand the other I will bear.”

And, then, Titus gives Lavinia a job:

“Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d: these arms!
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.”

What!? I can’t say it any better than Professor Bloom,

“I do urge all scholars who think Titus Andronicus a sincere and serious tragedy to read these lines out loud several times in a row, with particular emphasis upon ‘Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.”

He calls this

“an explosion of rancid irony carried well past the limits of parody. Nothing else by Shakespeare is so sublimely lunatic …”

As an audience member (film viewer) you often don’t know how to react. Bloom describes it this way:

“Both performances of Titus Andronicus that I have attended—one in New York, one in London—had similar effects upon their audiences, who never quite knew when to be horrified and when to laugh, rather uneasily.”

2. The second dominant impression I have from this play is that I don’t know enough to be a competent reader of Shakespeare. I like to think of myself as an educated person, at least reasonably so. But much in this play goes right over my head. Here is a list of references in this play that were mostly unfamiliar:

King Priam
the dreadful shore of Styx
the Queen of Troy
Solon’s happiness
Laertes’ son
Vulcan’s badge
the house of Fame
Tully’s Orator
Hecuba of Troy

For some of these things (e.g. Queen of Troy) I have a vague sense of something, but many of these allusions escape me. And, often, Shakespeare ties them into similes or metaphors so you get things like,

“And faster bound to Aaron’s charming eyes
Than is Prometheus tied to Caucusus.”


“This goddess, this Semiramis2, this nymph,
This siren that will charm Romes’ Saturnine”


“Lucrece was not more chaste / Than this Lavinia”


“As Cerberus at the Thracian poet’s feet”

I’d like to say, “Ah, yes, I know just what he means,” but no chance.

There’s also a fair amount of Latin thrown into the dialogue. For example,

“Sit fas aut nefas
Per Stygia, per manes vehor.”


“Integer vitae, scelerisque purus,
Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec arcu.”


“Terras Astraea reliquet”.

I wonder what the experience of hearing these plays was like for Shakespeare’s original listeners. Did all of this make sense?

Professor Garber claims yes but is willing to give me and the modern reader a bit of a pass:

“[M]uch that seems strangest or most arcane to us in Titus Andronicus would have been well within the cultural reach of a contemporary audience: the story of the heroic and doomed Andronici; the horrific fate of Lavinia; the mutilations and humiliations of her father, Titus; and the cannibal banquet at which Titus gets his belated revenge against Tamora, Queen of the Goths.”

She adds,

“The playgoers of Shakespeare’s time would have been far more familiar with Roman history and classical mythology than is a modern audience. … The classical myths were well known through readings of Ovid—a basic text in grammar school education—Virgil and other ancient poets. For Elizabethans, these were not arcane or obscure texts. References to Tereus, Philomela, and Procne, to Dido and Aeneas, would have been part of the common store of knowledge, as is clear from those many moments in Shakespeare’s plays when ‘low’ characters joke about mythological figures.”

I will continue with my plan to read Isaac Asimov’s introduction before I read each play. I’m really enjoying them. His concern isn’t to tell you what you should think about the play. His goal for the reader is two-fold: to understand the story and to be at least familiar with the many allusions.

In the midst of the gore there are some moments of beauty in the writing. I loved these lines by Titus:

For now I stand as one upon a rock
Environed with a wilderness of sea,
Who marks the waxing tide grow wave by wave,
Expecting ever when some envious surge
Will in his brinish bowels swallow him.

Of course, Titus has received some bad news in this moment—he has just seen his violated and disfigured daughter, Lavinia. It’s okay to wax poetic à la Job. There is a moment, however, where this kind of language perhaps doesn’t work as well. It happens just earlier, when Marcus finds Lavinia out in the woods bleeding from her wounds. For 47 lines, Marcus goes on and on about Lavinia and her wounds. Here are just five of those lines:

“Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.”

In a lecture on the play, Emma Smith of the University of Oxford asks a great question: “Why doesn’t Marcus give first aid?” Your niece is dying and you want to wax poetic? In this moment, Lavinia is not a victim of a horrific crime, she is “an object to be appreciated.” His words are an “incongruous rhetorical fluorish.”  Smith’s lecture is fascinating, although her discussion of one metaphor that is made manifest in the play gives it at least a PG-13 rating.

It’s interesting to think about Christianity as it relates to this play. Christianity was a force in Rome from the death of Christ on and it was legalized in 313 through the Edict of Milan. Yet this play feels rather pagan, although there are some Christian references:

1. Titus says, “As far from help as limbo is from bliss!”
2. The Clown greets Saturninus and Tamora with, “God and Saint Stephen give you good e’en.”
3. Aaron refers to “popish tricks”

Asimov has something to say on this subject. At the time the play is set,

“Rome was thoroughly Christian … so that the paganism of the play would then become an anachronism. (On the other hand, considering the horrible events that take place in it, the existence of Christianity would be embarrassing.)”

Interesting that Asimov would say there is no room for this kind of gruesomeness in a “Christian” time, but this seems like it more or less ignores the severity that was part of the Elizabethan era. It was a kind of police state after all and political opponents and criminals were dealt with rather severely. I think the “lopping off” of heads and hands might have been familiar to the crowd in attendance.

The astrological references are fascinating. Aaron says,

“Madam, though Venus govern your desires,
Saturn is dominator over mine:” (II.iii.30–31)

Asimov explains,

“Astrologically speaking, each person is born under the domination of a particular planet which determines the major component of his or her personality. The nature of the influence of Venus is obvious. … Saturn is, of all the planets visible to the unaided eye, the farthest from Earth and therfore the most slowly moving among the stars. To be born under Saturn then is to be as heavy, grave, and gloomy as that slow-moving planet; to be “saturnine,” in short.”

I get the basic premise of astrology, I just don’t believe it. While Shakespeare’s characters appear to subscribe to the idea, you wonder what Shakespeare himself thought of it.

Of the three Norton introductions I’ve read so far, Katharine Eisaman Maus’ for Titus Andronicus has been my favorite. She calls this “a tragedy of revenge” and points out how everything in this play is about surpassing whatever happened before, noting, “‘An act is not revenged,’ writes the ancient tragedian Seneca, ‘unless it is surpassed.’” She explains,

“Where in the Metamorphoses one man rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue afterward, in Titus Andronicus two men rape Lavinia and cut off not only her tongue but her hands as well. Whereas Procne cooks one child, Titus bakes two.”

Maus sees much in this play that will be part of future plays, from

“the Machiavellian villain in Richard III, to the urgency of revenge in Hamlet, to the old man unwisely relinquishing power in Lear, to questions of race and intermarriage in Othello and The Tempest, to important moments in Roman history in the Rape of Lucrece, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra.”

Maus points out that the opening power struggles shouldn’t be. Or at least wouldn’t be in England.

“In Shakespeare’s England, the first dispute [Who gets the country?] would have been settled by primogeniture, which gave priority in inheritance to the elder brother; the second [Who gets the girl?] would have been settled in favor of the younger brother, on the grounds of his preexisting betrothal to Lavinia. In Rome, however, it seems impossible to settle competing claims in an orderly way. In fact, Saturninus does eventually get the throne and Bassianus the woman, but not without a good deal of confusion and some lethal violence.”

She points out this rather uncomfortable fact about Lavinia with respect to whom she will be married:

“In neither case is Lavinia’s consent at issue: she becomes the property of whoever happens to carry her off by force.”

Marjorie Garber offers an expression that I thought was helpful—”the literalizing of language that is conventionally figurative.” She points out that the Emperor is the “‘head’ of Rome.” Part of the genius of this play is that “their very language turns against his characters.” And so this irony:

“Titus’s refusal to be the ‘head’ leads, inexorably, to a set of stage actions in which two of his sons are beheaded, his daughter’s hands and tongue are brutally removed, and he himself is tricked into asking Aaron to help him chop off his own hand.”

I watched the film, Titus, again. After reading the play, the film is surprisingly tame, although the R rating is appropriate. Sir Anthony Hopkins is incredible, although it seems like a bit of Hannibal Lecter makes it onto screen during the cannibal scene.

I close with Marjorie Garber’s response to this film:

“A personal note: It was the staging of this scene, in Julie Taymor’s film Titus (1999), that turned me—a lifelong meat-eater—against the eating of mammals’ flesh.”


1At least I think it’s his 21st son. It’s a little confusing. Depending on the edition and/or plot summary, there are one or two slain sons of Titus brought onto stage.

2Interesting, Shakespeare really likes this Semiramis allusion, which he also used in The Taming of the Shrew.