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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010..©
Type of Work
.......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).
First Performance: Winter of 1594.
Probable Main Sources
.......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).
.......Seneca, a Roman dramatist and tutor to Emperor Nero, wrote plays that described in elaborate detail the grisly horror of murder and revenge. After Elizabethans
began translating Seneca's works in 1559, writers read and relished them, then wrote plays imitating them. Shakespeare appears to have seasoned Titus Andronicus and a later play, Macbeth, with some of Seneca's ghoulish condiments.
.......The action of the play takes place in Italy—including Rome, a forest near Rome, and plains near Rome—after the Romans defeat an army of Goths (a Germanic people that frequently raided Roman provinces).Titus Andronicus is fictional, but it is set against real events that took place in approximately the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Centuries AD. At
that time, the Roman Empire was in decline and Goths from the north were pushing southward and threatening Rome and its provinces.
Protagonist: Titus Andronicus
Antagonists: Tamora, Aaron, Saturninus
Titus Andronicus: Noble Roman general who has won a long war against the Goths but lost many of his sons in battle. Although he is at first a reasonable man, events of the play transform him into a bedlamite bent on revenge.
Saturninus: Conniving son of the late Emperor of Rome who succeeds his father after Titus Andronicus, citing his advancing age, declines to accept the throne.
Bassianus: Brother of
Saturninus; in love with Lavinia.
Tamora: Queen of the Goths who is unrelenting in her desire to avenge the execution of her son Alarbus at the hands of her Roman captors. Near the end of the play, she unwittingly eats a meat pie made of the flesh of her dead sons.
Aaron: A diabolical Moor,
beloved of Tamora. Aaron is evil personified, but he has a redeeming quality: love for his child.
Lavinia: Innocent daughter of Titus Andronicus. She is the victim of horrible crimes, including rape, the amputation of her hands, and the excision of her tongue.
Marcus Andronicus: Tribune of the people and brother of Titus.
Lucius, Quintus, Martius, Mutius: Sons of Titus Andronicus.
Young Lucius: A boy, son of Lucius.
Publius: Son of Marcus the tribune.
Sempronius, Caius, Valentine: Kinsmen of Titus.
Aemilius: A noble Roman
Alarbus, Larbus, Demetrius, Chiron: Sons of Tamora
A Captain, Tribune, Messenger, Clown
Goths and Romans
Nurse, Senators, Tribunes, Officers, Soldiers, Attendants.
Who Were the Goths?
.......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.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
........When General Titus Andronicus returns to Rome after defeating the Goths in a ten-year campaign, the citizens hail him as a hero. Among his captives are the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, and her three sons,
Alarbus, Demetrius, and Chiron. Also accompanying her is her lover Aaron, a Moor. Titus has lost many sons in the war and, when the tomb of the Andronicus family is opened to receive the bodies, Titus grieves deeply, saying:
O sacred receptacle [tomb] of my joys, ........To give them a fitting funeral, Lucius, one of Titus’s three living sons, suggests a human sacrifice. Titus singles out Alarbus, Tamora’s eldest son. She pleads for her son’s life:
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)
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed, ........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.
A mother’s 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)
........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, Titus’s daughter, as his wife and
........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 Lavinia’s brothers, he steals her away. Titus is angry—so 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, Tamora’s
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, ........Tamora’s 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 other’s 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 Tamora’s desire to bring down Titus.
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 Rome’s Saturnine,
And see his ship wrack [shipwreck] and his commonweal’s. (2. 1. 21-26)
........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 Titus’s 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 Aaron’s letter to Saturninus. It falsely implicates Martius and Quintus in the murder
........Saturninus imprisons them. Judges later sentence them to death in spite of Titus’s pleas on their behalf. Lavinia, of course, cannot testify in their favor, for she has no tongue. When Titus, Lucius, and Titus’s
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 Titus’s 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 Aaron’s 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 baby’s midwife and nurse to keep
secret the baby’s 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 Titus’s turn for revenge. He cuts the throats of Tamora’s 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 do—heartily. 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 ravish’d 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; 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.
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred. (5. 3. 64-66)
.......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, .......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
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)
.......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 evil’s sake, notably Aaron. He delights in the bloody mayhem in the play, no motive required. After cutting off Titus's hand—the price Titus had to pay to secure a promise for the return of his sons—Aaron says:
I go, Andronicus: and for thy hand And near the end of the play, he observes:
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)
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things .......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.
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)
.......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! Titus’s son Lucius, good boy that he is, then offers his hand in place of his father’s; Titus’s 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 other’s 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 Titus’s hand. When Lucius and Marcus return, Titus coolly says,
Did ever raven sing so like a lark,
That gives sweet tidings of the sun’s uprise?
With all my heart, I’ll send the emperor My hand:
Good Aaron, wilt thou help to chop it off? (3. 1. 163-167)
Good Aaron, give his majesty my hand: .......Clearly, Shakespeare knew the meaning of black humor long before that term was invented. By the way, during Shakespeare’s time, Titus Andronicus was one of his most popular plays—if 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.
Tell him it was a hand that warded him
From thousand dangers; bid him bury it.
(3. 1. 201-203)
.......In spite of the gruesome plot, Titus Andronicus contains much beautiful imagery, spoken often, ironically, by villains. For
example, Aaron hails Tamora’s 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, In Act II, Tamora speaks nature metaphors to charm Aaron.
Safe out of fortune’s shot; and sits aloft,
Secure of thunder’s crack or lightning
Advanc’d above pale envy’s 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
And virtue stoops and trembles at her frown. (2. 1. 3-11)
My lovely Aaron, wherefore look’st thou sad, Ugly Beauty
When every thing doth make a gleeful boast?
The birds chant melody on
The snake lies rolled in the cheerful sun,
The green leaves quiver with the cooling wind
And make a chequer’d 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 enjoy’d,
When with a happy storm they were surprised
And curtain’d with a counsel-keeping
We may, each wreathed in the other’s arms,
Our pastimes done, possess a golden slumber;
Whiles hounds and horns and sweet melodious birds
Be unto us as is a nurse’s song
Of lullaby to bring her babe asleep. (2. 3.
.......Ironically, Shakespeare sometimes wraps repulsive images in pleasing ones or tucks them into rhythmically pleasing lines. Lucius reports in Act I that
Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d, In Act II, Martius, upon discovering Bassianus dead in a pit, observes:
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky.
(1. 1. 149-151)
Upon his bloody finger he doth wear In Act II, Marcus greets Lavinia—whose hands have just been cut off—with these lines:
A precious ring, that lightens all the hole,
Which, like a taper in some
Doth shine upon the dead man’s earthy cheeks,
And shows the ragged entrails of the pit:
So pale did shine the moon on Pyramus
When he by night lay bath’d in maiden blood. (2. 3. 238)
Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands Other Figures of Speech
Have lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in. (2. 4. 19-22) .
.......Following are additional examples of figures of speech in the play.
Romans, friends, followers, favourers of my right (1.1.11) Anaphora
spleenful sons (2.3.196)
In this detested, dark, blood-drinking pit. (2.3.230)
If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me! Metaphor
If I do wake, some planet strike me down, (2.4.16-17)
Hear me, grave fathers! noble tribunes, stay!
For pity of mine age, whose youth was spent
dangerous wars, whilst you securely slept;
For all my blood in Rome’s great quarrel shed;
For all the
frosty nights that I have watch’d;
And For these bitter tears, which now you see. (3.1.3-8)
Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands Onomatopoeia
Have lopp’d and hew’d 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)
Comparison of Lavinia to a map
Poor harmless fly, Oxymoron
That, with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us
merry! and thou hast kill’d him. (3.2.65-68)
charitable murderer (2.3.183)Simile
Lord Bassianus lies embrewed here, Allusions
All on a heap, like to a slaughter’d lamb, (2.3.228-229)
Comparison of Bassanius to a
Upon his bloody finger he doth wear 232
A precious ring, that lightens all the hole,
Which, like a taper in some
Doth shine upon the dead man’s earthy cheeks, (2.3.232-235)
Comparison of a ring to lighted taper
Alas! a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Comparison of the accumulating blood to a bubbling fountain
.......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.
Apollo (4.1.69): God of the sun, depicted as driving a golden chariot across the sky. He was also the god of prophecy, music, poetry, and medicine. His alternate name was Phoebus. Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, the daughter of Titans. The Greeks
highly revered him and built many temples in his honor. One such temple at Delphi was the site of a famous oracle, the Pythia, who pronounced prophecies as the mouthpiece of Apollo.
Ajax (1.1.393): Powerful Greek warrior in the Trojan War, second second only to Achilles in battlefield prowess among the Greeks. After the war, he killed himself after failing to win the armor of Achilles.
Cocytus (2.3.242): River in Hades.
Cimmerian (2.3.76): Person residing in a region of everlasting darkness.
Dian (2.3.65): Another name for Diana, the Roman name for Artemis, goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology. She was the twin sister of
Dido (2.3.25): Queen of Carthage, who had a love affair with Aeneas and killed herself after he abandoned her. For additional information about Dido, see The Aeneid.
Hymenaeus (1.1.338): God of marriage.
Jove: (4.1.69): King of the Olympian gods. Jove is an alternate Roman name for
Jupiter. Jove's Greek name was Zeus.
Laertes (1. 1.394): Father of Odysseus, the wily Greek who devised the Trojan horse.
son(1. 1.394): Odysseus.
Lucrece (2.1.118): Lucretia, Roman woman raped by Lucius Tarquinius (Tarquin the Proud). For more information, click
Mercury (4.1.69): Messenger god. His Greek name was Hermes.
Olympus: (2.1.1): Mountain abode of the Greek gods.
Pallas: (4.1.69): Alternate name for Athena (Roman name, Minerva), the goddess of wisdom and war.
Philomel (2.4.46): Another name for a nightingale. Philomel
is derived from the name Philomela. In Greek mythology. Philomela was a princess of Athens. Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus of Thrace. Not satisfied with only one of the sisters, Tereus lusted after Philomela and one day raped her. To prevent her from revealing his crime, he cut out her tongue. However, Philomel embroidered a tapestry depicting his brutality and showed it to her
sister. The two women then plotted against Tereus and end up serving him his son, Itys, in a stew. When Tereus discovers what they did, he chases them with an axe. The gods then turn Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.
Pyramus (2.3.237): (The lover of Thisbe. These Babylonians were the subject of a story by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) in his long poem Metamorphoses. When Pyramus thinks a lion has killed Thisbe, he kills himself. Thisbe is still a live, however. But when she discovers the body of Pyramus, she also kills herself.
Phoebe (1.1.329): Alternate name for Diana (Artemis), the Greek goddess of the hunt.
Priam (1.1.85): King of Troy.
Prometheus tied to Caucasus (2.1.19): See Prometheus Bound.
Queen of Troy (1.1.141): Hecuba, wife of Priam, king of Troy.
Semiramis (2.1.24): Beautiful Assyrian queen of the Ninth Century BC. After her husband, King Ninus, died, she ruled for many years and built the fabled city of Babylon.
Styx (1.1.93): River in Hades.
Tereus (2.4.44): See Philomel.
Tarquin (3.1.307): See Lucrece.
Thracian tyrant: Polymnestor. After he killed Hecuba's son, Polydorus, Hecuba gained revenge by killing his two sons and blinding him. (1.1.143)
Typhon (4.2.99): In Greek mythology, a monster with a hundred heads.
Venus: (2.3.33): Roman name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
Per Styga, per manes vehor I am willing to go through hell and its dead to get my desire
Parallel With Othello
.......Titus Andronicus introduces an evil Moor named Aaron who displays goodness near the end when he pleads for his child's life. Othello introduces an upright and righteous Moor who displays evil when he suspects his wife of infidelity and, at the end of the play, kills her. Like Othello, Aaron is the brunt of racist
.......A Moor was a Muslim of mixed Arab and Berber descent. Berbers were North African natives who eventually accepted Arab customs and Islam after Arabs invaded North Africa in the Seventh Century AD. The term has
been used to refer in general to Muslims of North Africa and to Muslim conquerors of Spain. The word Moor derives from a Latin word, Mauri, used to name the residents of the ancient Roman province of Mauritania in North Africa. To use the term "black Moor" is not to commit a redundancy, for there are white Moors as well as black Moors, the latter mostly of Sudanese
Titus Andronicus: Shrewd Shakespeare Coup.....................................
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2004
.......Titus Andronicusis evidence
that William Shakepeare was a shrewd businessman and self-promoter. Aware that Elizabethan audiences had a huge appetite for bearbaiting, bullbaiting, dog-fighting, and cock-fighting, he may have decided to give the people what they wanted—another bloody spectacle—when he staged Titus. The play was immensely
.......When he wrote the play in his late twenties, he was struggling for recognition in a city that already had several established playwrights with enormous talent, such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Lodge, and George Peele. To get the
attention of the theatre-going public, Shakespeare needed a play that would pack the audiences in. Violent revenge plays happened to be au courant at that time, especially those written after the manner of the ancient Roman playwright Seneca. Seneca's dramas were grisly, verily hemorrhaging with gore. So Shakespeare borrowed a few pages from Seneca’s bloody book, including part of the
story line of Seneca’s play Thyestes and Troades.
.......The plot of that play originated in a Greek myth about Thyestes, the son of Pelops of Mycenae. When Thyestes and his older brother, Atreus, were adults, Atreus became King of Mycenae after
Pelops died. Atreus then drove his brother out of the city after the latter challenged him for the throne. One account of this tale says Thyestes had first seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, to gain possession of a golden lamb that conferred on its owner the rulership of Mycenae.
.......When Thyestes left the city, he took with him Atreus’s child, Pleisthenes, and reared the boy. One day, he sent Pleisthenes on a mission to kill Atreus. But the murder plot was foiled and Pleisthenes was killed. Atreus did not immediately realize that his would-be murderer was his own son.
.......However, after he discovered to his horror the identity of the assailant, Atreus hatched a plot to get even with his brother: He invited Thyestes to a banquet, pretending he was ready to reconcile with his brother. The main course turned out to be the cooked remains of the sons of Thyestes. Thyestes then laid a heavy curse on the house of Atreus, which lasted for generations.
.......Shakespeare drew upon Seneca’s adaptation of this myth, as well as other works that discussed it, to create his own version of the story. The result was a horrific drama featuring decapitation, amputation, cannibalism, excision of a tongue, and rape. In other
words, a bloody good play—with a meat pie to die for.
.......Of course, many critics in later times—from the 18th Century onward—attacked the play as “Shakespeare’s
worst” because of all the bloodletting; it was politically incorrect, unfit for sensitive audiences. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) wrote of Titus: “The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience.” T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) said it was one of the “stupidest” plays in history. Joseph Sobran, a syndicated newspaper
columnist in the U.S., assessed the play this way: "This is generally—more or less universally—regarded as Shakespeare’s worst play. It’s so much worse than anything else he wrote that many scholars have doubted that he wrote it. The critical consensus may be summed up in two words: it stinks." Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom (1930- ), a
humanities professor at Yale and New York University and author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, argues that "Titus Andronicus is ghastly bad. I can concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus.”
.......In my view, Titus
Andronicus is a jolly good play, a running hyperbole which, like Voltaire’s Candide, gives us an unbelievable world in order to make the real world believable. In the real world, whether the real world of four centuries ago or the real world of today, people rape, poison, stab, shoot, lynch, torture, drown, cut off heads, cut out tongues, declare war. Often, we onlookers respond with
passive acceptance: This is the way of things. We must accept the fact that there will always be “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—or bombs and missiles—raining down on us.
.......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
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character in the play is the most despicable? Explain your answer. .Plays on DVD (or VHS)
2. Are there any admirable characters in the play? Explain your answer.
3. Write an essay that analyzes the main character, Titus Andronicus. There is plenty of evidence in the play to draw conclusions about him. For example, he recommends Saturninus as the new emperor. But after Saturninus accedes to the throne, he betrays Titus. Does this turn of events
suggest that Titus is a poor judge of character? Also, in a fit of anger, Titus kills his own son, Mucius. Does this action suggest that he cannot control his emotions?
4. Tamora ostensibly seeks revenge against Titus because he ordered the execution of her
son, Alarbus. Are there other motives that fire ....her with vengeance?
5. Titus kills Lavinia to put her out of her misery. Was he right to do so?
6. Aaron has no admirable qualities except his love for his child. Is his love merely instinctual or genuine and heartfelt?
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