Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010..©
.......Titus Andronicus is a stage play in the form of a tragedy that also has many characteristics of black comedy. The play was highly popular in Shakespeare's time because of its beyond-the-pale violence and gore.
Date Written: Between 1590 and 1594 (probably 1593).
.......Shakespeare appears to have based Titus Andronicus on Hecuba, by Euripides (480?-406 B.C.); Thyestes and Troades, by Seneca (3 B.C.-65 A.D.); and Metamorphoses, by Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17). Shakespeare may also have imitated the blood-and-guts horror and brutality
evident in The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd (1558-1594).
.......Originally from Sweden, the Goths later settled in regions around the Baltic Sea and later the Black Sea, according to the sixth-century historian Jordanes, himself a Goth. Around AD 370, the Goths broke into two groups: Those that moved eastward became known as Ostrogoths; those that moved
westward became known as Visigoths. They gradually extended power and influence in Europe and in 410 entered and pillages Rome.
Sweet cell of virtue and nobility,
How many sons of mine hast thou in store,
That thou wilt never render to me more! (1. 1. 97-100)........To give them a fitting funeral, Lucius, one of Tituss three living sons, suggests a human sacrifice. Titus singles out Alarbus, Tamoras eldest son. She pleads for her sons life:Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mothers tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me! (Lines 110-113)........Titus replies that die he must, / To appease their groaning shadows that are gone (1. 1. 130-131). Lucius and attendants seize Alarbus and remove him to his place of execution. There, they hew his limbs and feed the sacrificing fire (1. 1. 150). The death of Alarbus triggers a series of gruesome murders and mutilations occurring throughout the play. Lavinia, the gentle daughter of Titus, then comes forth to greet her father, shedding tears of grief for her dead brothers and tears of joy at the sight of Titus.
........Meanwhile, it so happens that the imperial crown is up for grabs, the emperor having just died. When it is offered to Titus, he refuses it, saying he shakes for age and feebleness (1. 1. 196), and recommends Saturninus, the oldest son of the dead emperor, for the crown. Titus also recommends that Saturninus choose Lavinia, Tituss daughter, as his wife and empress.
........After Saturninus becomes emperor, he frees Tamora and her sons, for the queen has captivated him. Then Bassianus, the brother of Saturninus, objects to the proposed marriage of Saturninus and Lavinia because Lavinia is betrothed to him. With the help of Lavinias brothers, he steals her away. Titus is angryso angry that he kills his son Mucius when he bars Titus from pursuing the lovers. Later, Saturninus decides that he fancies Tamora more than Lavinia, then marries Tamora and makes her empress. Tamora begins plotting revenge against Titus for allowing the slaughter of her son. Before the palace, Tamoras lover, Aaron, exalts Tamora, describes how he will serve her and wanton her, and predicts that she will bring ruin to Rome, saying, I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I? to wanton with this queen,
This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Romes Saturnine,
And see his ship wrack [shipwreck] and his commonweals. (2. 1. 21-26)........Tamoras sons Demetrius and Chiron quarrel over Lavinia. Each has fallen in love with her, and each plans to claim the right to take her from Bassianus. After failing to dissuade them from pursuing her, Aaron suggests that they share the lovely Lavinia by taking turns raping her in the seclusion of a forest. The occasion will come during a hunt in the woods for game. Emperor Saturninus, Queen Tamora, and many others are to take part in the hunt. On the day of the hunt, Aaron and Tamora rendezvous in the woods. Tamora speaks of her desire that they may soon lie down wreathed in each others arms / [and] . . . possess a golden slumber'' (2. 3. 29-30). Aaron confides to her that he is preoccupied with seeking revenge against their enemies, then gives her a letter she is to present to Saturninus. Its contents will abet Tamoras desire to bring down Titus.
........When Bassianus and Lavinia discover Aaron and Tamora together, Tamora fears that the intruders will tattletale to the emperor. So she calls out for her sons. When they arrive, Tamora pretends Bassianus has threatened her. Ever ready to defend mommy dearest, the sons kill Bassianus, dump him in a pit, then drag Lavinia off to satisfy their lust. But not only do they rape her, they also mutilate her, cutting off her hands and tearing out her tongue. Aaron leads Tituss sons Quintus and Martius to the pit where Bassianus lies dead under cover of brush. Martius falls in. While Aaron goes to fetch Saturninus, Quintus falls in, too, trying to rescue Martius. Saturninus arrives with Aaron. With them are Titus, Lucius, and attendants. Martius, who has discovered the body, informs Saturninus that his brother, Bassianus, is dead. Tamora then presents Aarons letter to Saturninus. It falsely implicates Martius and Quintus in the murder of Bassianus.
........Saturninus imprisons them. Judges later sentence them to death in spite of Tituss pleas on their behalf. Lavinia, of course, cannot testify in their favor, for she has no tongue. When Titus, Lucius, and Tituss brother Marcus discuss their options, the evil Aaron arrives and tells them that Saturninus will free the sons of Titus if Marcus, Lucius, or Titus cuts off his hand and sends it to the emperor. It is Titus, though, who allows Aaron to cut off his hand and take it to Saturninus. Within a half hour, however, the emperor returns the hand, together with the heads of Tituss imprisoned sons, in a show of scorn and contempt. Titus orders his son Lucius to flee the city and enlist an army of Goths to overthrow Saturninus. The loss of his sons takes a severe toll on Titus: He begins to go mad. Then Lavinia informs Titus and others about her rape and mutilation by writing in sand with a stick held in her mouth.
........Meanwhile, Tamora has a baby. It is obviously Aarons because it has the dark complexion of a Moor. Worried that the emperor will find out about it, Tamora wants it killed. Aaron has other plans. First, he kills the babys midwife and nurse to keep secret the babys existence. Next, he substitutes a white baby for his own, then leaves with his child to go to the Goths to have them raise it.
........By this time, Lucius is marching on Rome with his army of Goths. Aaron and his baby, who have been captured, appear. Aaron agrees to tell all he knows if his child is allowed to live. It is now Tituss turn for revenge. He cuts the throats of Tamoras sons Demetrius and Chiron, then has a pie prepared of their remains. At his home, dressed as a cook, he serves the pie to Saturninus and Tamora, who are seated at a banquet table, unaware of recent events, notably the deaths of Demetrius and Chiron. With Titus is Lavinia, dressed in a veil. After welcoming the emperor and the queen, he bids them eat of the pie, which they doheartily. Titus then kills Lavinia to put her out of her misery. When Tamora asks why he killed his own daughter, Titus tells her that the deed was really done by Demetrius and Chiron. They ravishd her, and cut away her tongue (5. 3. 61), he explains. Saturninus then asks that Demetrius and Chiron be brought before him. But Titus says:Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred. (5. 3. 64-66)He flashes the knife he used to prepare the pie, then uses it to kill Tamora. In retaliation, Saturninus kills Titus, and Lucius kills Saturninus. Lucius takes command of Rome as the new emperor. There is unfinished business: Aaron. Lucius orders him to be buried up to his chest, then starved to death.
.......In Titus Andronicus, revenge becomes a rolling juggernaut that destroys all in its path. Once revenge is set in motion by the execution of Alarbus in the first act, the play becomes a bloodbath of revenge, with each side in the conflict taking turns murdering, maiming, immolating, and mutilating. The word revenge and its forms, such as revenged, occurs 34 times in the play, vengeance 7 times, vengeful twice, and avenge once. Words associated with revenge are spoken hundreds of times. They include blood (and its forms, such as bloody), 38; murder, 26; kill, 19; slaughter 3; slay, 2. Aaron tells Tamora that he is preoccupied with vengeance: "Blood and revenge are hammering in my head." Tamora, enraged by a plot against her, imposes revenge as a duty on her sons, telling them that:had you not by wondrous fortune come,
This vengeance on me had they executed.
Revenge it, as you love your mother's life,
Or be ye not henceforth call'd my children. (2. 3. 118-121).......In all the acts of vengeance in the play, the protagonist, Titus, outdoes everyone, serving Tamora and Saturninus a baked meat pie made of diced Demetrius and Chiron, the sons of Tamora. Presumably Titus used "corpse helper" to season the pie, for Tamora ate her fill of "the flesh that she herself hath bred."
.......Betrayal is the handmaiden of power. In good faith, Titus yields the throne to Saturninus. Saturninus then turns against Titus. Other characters betray one another for their own selfish ends. Tamora even betrays her own child (fathered by Aaron). Believing that Saturninus will find out about it, she recommends that it be put to death. Aaron, however, wants the child and takes it to the Goths to have them raise it. Before he leaves, he murders the baby's nurse and midwife to prevent them from telling others about the existence of the child.
Commiting Evil for Evil's Sake
.......There are those who do evil for evils sake, notably Aaron. He delights in the bloody mayhem in the play, no motive required. After cutting off Titus's handthe price Titus had to pay to secure a promise for the return of his sonsAaron says:I go, Andronicus: and for thy hand
Look by and by to have thy sons with thee.
Their heads, I mean. O, how this villainy
Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it! (3. 1. 208-11)And near the end of the play, he observes:Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (5. 1. 145-148).......Aaron's actions carry on the tradition of the malevolent Duke of Gloucester in an earlier Shakespeare play, Richard III, and foreshadow the machinations of the diabolical Iago in a later Shakespeare play, Othello.
.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Titus Andronicus occurs, according to the first definition, when Titus descends into madness in Act III. According to the second definition, the climax begins in the final act when Tamora dines on the meat pie containing the flesh of her sons. It continues when Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus kills Titus, and Lucius kills Saturninus and becomes the new emperor.
.......Black humor is a form of comedy that parodies, satirizes, trivializes, or exaggerates a morbid, solemn, or tragic event. An actor performs black humor with a deadly serious demeanor and a deadpan face. In English literature, Shakespeare became one of the earliest practitioners of black humor when he debuted Titus Andronicus. Following is an example of a darkly hilarious scene in which Aaron tells Titus that he can rescue two of his sons in exchange for one of his hands, to be sent to the emperor. Titus replies:O gentle Aaron!
Did ever raven sing so like a lark,
That gives sweet tidings of the suns uprise?
With all my heart, Ill send the emperor My hand:
Good Aaron, wilt thou help to chop it off? (3. 1. 163-167) Tituss son Lucius, good boy that he is, then offers his hand in place of his fathers; Tituss brother Marcus does the same. An argument breaks out over who will part with a hand. While Lucius and Marcus fetch an axe to sever one or the others hand, Titus says, Come hither, Aaron; I'll deceive them both: / Lend me thy hand, and I will give thee mine (3. 1. 193-194). Aaron chops off Tituss hand. When Lucius and Marcus return, Titus coolly says, Good Aaron, give his majesty my hand:
Tell him it was a hand that warded him
From thousand dangers; bid him bury it. (3. 1. 201-203) .......Clearly, Shakespeare knew the meaning of black humor long before that term was invented. By the way, during Shakespeares time, Titus Andronicus was one of his most popular playsif not the most popular. At the end of the day, he went home with a jingling pocket, recognition, and a whole brainful of ideas for other tragedies.
.......In spite of the gruesome plot, Titus Andronicus contains much beautiful imagery, spoken often, ironically, by villains. For example, Aaron hails Tamoras ascendancy to the queenship with nature metaphors and an allusion to Apollo, the sun god, driving his chariot across the sky: Now climbeth Tamora Olympus top,
Safe out of fortunes shot; and sits aloft,
Secure of thunders crack or lightning flash;
Advancd above pale envys threatening reach.
As when the golden sun salutes the morn,
And, having gilt the ocean with his beams,
Gallops the zodiac in his glistering coach,
And overlooks the highest-peering hills;
Upon her wit doth earthly honour wait,
And virtue stoops and trembles at her frown. (2. 1. 3-11) In Act II, Tamora speaks nature metaphors to charm Aaron. My lovely Aaron, wherefore lookst thou sad,
When every thing doth make a gleeful boast?
The birds chant melody on every bush,
The snake lies rolled in the cheerful sun,
The green leaves quiver with the cooling wind
And make a chequerd shadow on the ground:
Under their sweet shade, Aaron, let us sit,
And, whilst the babbling echo mocks the hounds,
Replying shrilly to the well-tuned horns,
As if a double hunt were heard at once,
Let us sit down and mark their yelping noise.
And, after conflict such as was supposed
The wandering prince and Dido once enjoyd,
When with a happy storm they were surprised
And curtaind with a counsel-keeping cave,
We may, each wreathed in the others arms,
Our pastimes done, possess a golden slumber;
Whiles hounds and horns and sweet melodious birds
Be unto us as is a nurses song
Of lullaby to bring her babe asleep. (2. 3. 24-33) Ugly Beauty
.......Ironically, Shakespeare sometimes wraps repulsive images in pleasing ones or tucks them into rhythmically pleasing lines. Lucius reports in Act I thatAlarbus limbs are loppd,
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky. (1. 1. 149-151) In Act II, Martius, upon discovering Bassianus dead in a pit, observes: Upon his bloody finger he doth wear
A precious ring, that lightens all the hole,
Which, like a taper in some monument,
Doth shine upon the dead mans earthy cheeks,
And shows the ragged entrails of the pit:
So pale did shine the moon on Pyramus
When he by night lay bathd in maiden blood. (2. 3. 238) In Act II, Marcus greets Laviniawhose hands have just been cut offwith these lines: Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have loppd and hewd and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in. (2. 4. 19-22) .Other Figures of Speech
.......Following are additional examples of figures of speech in the play.
AlliterationRomans, friends, followers, favourers of my right (1.1.11)
spleenful sons (2.3.196)
In this detested, dark, blood-drinking pit. (2.3.230)AnaphoraIf I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me!
If I do wake, some planet strike me down, (2.4.16-17)
Hear me, grave fathers! noble tribunes, stay!
Have loppd and hewd and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments, (2.4.19-21)
Comparison of severed hands to branches and ornaments
Thou map of woe (3.2.14)
That, with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast killd him. (3.2.65-68)Oxymoroncharitable murderer (2.3.183)SimileLord Bassianus lies embrewed here,
All on a heap, like to a slaughterd lamb, (2.3.228-229)
Comparison of Bassanius to a lamb
Upon his bloody finger he doth wear 232
Alas! a crimson river of warm blood,
.......Shakespeare alluded frequently to Greek mythology and history in Titus Andronicus, as well as his other works, to invigorate the dialogue and enrich his descriptions. His knowledge of mythology was remarkable at a time when books on the topic were in severely limited supply. Following is a partial list of allusions in the play.
Aeneas (3.2.27): Trojan warrior. After Troy fell to the Greeks, Aeneas escaped the city and sailed to Italy, where he founded a new Troy, Rome. For additional information about Aeneas, see The Aeneid.
Per Styga, per manes vehor I am willing to go through hell and its dead to get my desire
Parallel With Othello
Titus Andronicus: Shrewd Shakespeare Coup.....................................
.......Before performing a bloody play such as Titus Andronicus, actors in Shakespeare's day filled vessels such as pigs' bladders with blood and concealed them beneath their costumes. Onstage, they had only to pound a fist against a bladder to release the blood and simulate a gruesome death.
1. Which character in the play is the most despicable? Explain your answer.
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