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.
Written: Between 1590 and 1594 (probably 1593).
Performance: Winter of 1594.
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.);
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).
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
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.
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.
son of the late Emperor of Rome who succeeds his father after Titus Andronicus,
citing his advancing age, declines to accept the throne.
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.
diabolical Moor, beloved of Tamora. Aaron is evil personified, but he has
a redeeming quality: love for his child.
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
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 Minor Characters:
Nurse, Senators, Tribunes, Officers, Soldiers, Attendants.
sacred receptacle [tomb] of my joys,
cell of virtue and nobility,
many sons of mine hast thou in store,
thou wilt never render to me more! (1. 1. 97-100)
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:
Titus, rue the tears I shed,
mother’s tears in passion for her son:
if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
my son to be as dear to me! (Lines 110-113)
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, Titus’s 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 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,
will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
wait upon this new-made empress.
wait, said I? to wanton with this queen,
goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
siren, that will charm Rome’s Saturnine,
see his ship wrack [shipwreck] and his commonweal’s. (2. 1. 21-26)
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. ........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 of Bassianus. ........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:
there they are both, baked in that pie;
their mother daintily hath fed,
the flesh that she herself hath bred. (5. 3. 64-66)
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. .
. Themes . Revenge
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
Revenge it, as you love
your mother's life,
Or be ye not henceforth
call'd my children. (2. 3. 118-121)
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."
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.
Evil for Evil's Sake
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
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,
I have done a thousand dreadful things
willingly as one would kill a fly,
nothing grieves me heartily indeed
that I cannot do ten thousand more. (5. 1. 145-148)
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. .
. .Climax . .......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
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
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)
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,
Good Aaron, give
his majesty my hand:
Tell him it was a hand that
From thousand dangers; bid
him bury it. (3. 1. 201-203)
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. . Nature
Metaphors . .......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:
In Act II, Tamora speaks nature
metaphors to charm Aaron.
My lovely Aaron,
wherefore look’st thou sad,
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
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
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
Of lullaby to bring her
babe asleep. (2. 3. 24-33)
Shakespeare sometimes wraps repulsive images in pleasing ones or tucks
them into rhythmically pleasing lines. Lucius reports in Act I that
Alarbus’ limbs are
And entrails feed the sacrificing
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
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)
In Act II, Marcus greets Lavinia—whose
hands have just been cut off—with these lines:
Speak, gentle niece,
what stern ungentle hands
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) .
Figures of Speech
are additional examples of figures of speech in the play.
favourers of my right (1.1.11)
In this detested,
blood-drinking pit. (2.3.230)
I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me!
I do wake, some planet strike me down, (2.4.16-17)
Hear me, grave fathers! noble
pity of mine age, whose youth was spent
In dangerous wars, whilst
you securely slept;
all my blood in Rome’s great quarrel shed;
all the frosty nights that I have watch’d;
these bitter tears, which now you see. (3.1.3-8)
Speak, gentle niece,
what stern ungentle hands
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,
That, with his pretty buzzing
Came here to make us merry!
and thou hast kill’d him. (3.2.65-68)
Lord Bassianus lies
All on a heap, like to a
slaughter’d lamb, (2.3.228-229)
Comparison of Bassanius
to a lamb
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
Like to a bubbling fountain
stirr’d with wind,
Doth rise and fall between
thy rosed lips, (2.4.25-27)
Comparison of the accumulating
blood to a bubbling fountain
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.
(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
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
(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.
River in Hades.
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 Apollo.
(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.
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.
(1. 1.394): Odysseus.
(2.1.118): Lucretia, Roman woman raped by Lucius Tarquinius (Tarquin the
Proud). For more information, click here.
Messenger god. His Greek name was Hermes.
Mountain abode of the Greek gods.
Alternate name for Athena (Roman name, Minerva), the goddess of wisdom
(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.
(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.
Alternate name for Diana (Artemis), the Greek goddess of the hunt.
Priam (1.1.85): King
Prometheus tied to Caucasus
(2.1.19): See Prometheus Bound.
of Troy (1.1.141): Hecuba, wife of Priam, king of Troy.
(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
Polymnestor. After he killed Hecuba's son, Polydorus,
Hecuba gained revenge by killing his two sons and blinding him. (1.1.143)
In Greek mythology, a monster with a hundred heads.
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
With Othello .
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 comments.
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
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
Which character in the play is the most despicable? Explain your answer.
Are there any admirable characters in the play? Explain your answer.
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
Tamora ostensibly seeks revenge against Titus because he ordered the execution
of her son, Alarbus. Are there other motives that fire ....her
Titus kills Lavinia to put her out of her misery. Was he right to do so?
Aaron has no admirable qualities except his love for his child. Is his
love merely instinctual or genuine and heartfelt?