Title: The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Published / Performed: 1591-4
Type of Text: Play
Main Characters: The celebrated Roman general, Titus Andronicus, who is nominated by the people to become Emperor but declines; his brother the tribune Marcus; among the surviving children of Titus, his son Lucius and daughter Lavinia. Saturninus and Bassianus, the two sons of the previous Emperor, who struggle for power. The conquered and conniving Queen of the Goths, Tamora; her lover, Aaron the Moor, and her murderous rapist sons, Chiron and Demetrius.
Themes & Imagery: The dominant theme is revenge, in the absence of justice, and the associated violence and brutality. Intense family conflict, between Saturninus and Bassianus but also in the house of Andronicus; questions about the role and duties of a father or brother. The silencing of women (which is also a key theme in Ovid), although Lavinia is able to get around this; through her, the use of literature as a weapon.
Synopsis: When Titus Andronicus orders the sacrifice of the son of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, she vows revenge on him and his family – a vow which she is able to carry out after becoming Empress of Rome. The play begins when the triumphant general Titus Andronicus, having refused to become Emperor himself, chooses to support Saturninus, to whom he pledges his daughter Lavinia as a wife; but the other contender for the position of Emperor, Bassianus, has already been promised Lavinia, and seizes her with the help of her brothers (whom their father has no qualm killing). At this, Saturninus chooses to take as his empress Tamora, conquered Queen of the Goths, instead; and although she counsels peace, she threatens vengeance on Titus for killing her eldest son. Tamora’s surviving sons would fight for Lavinia themselves, but instead Aaron and their mother convince them to kill Bassianus (for which Aaron frames two sons of Titus) and rape Lavinia; they leave her alive but mutilated, without tongue or hands to tell anyone, but she explains things to her father by pointing to Ovid’s similar story of Procne and Philomela. In revenge, Lucius leads an army of Goths against Rome. Titus kills Tamora’s sons and bakes them into pies to feed their mother, kills Lavinia to end her shame, kills Tamora, and is himself killed by Saturninus, whom Lucius kills in turn.
Personal Response: The fast pace of the first scene has a powerful effect: the initial statesmanly dignity and civility is quickly lost, revealing a chaotic barbarism in its place; the audience can end up feeling like Titus, newly returned to Rome and seeing its order come crashing down around him. The transformation and fall of Titus himself is striking and moving: in only a few scenes, he is changed from a fearsome general who will kill his son for the sake of his duty to Rome, to a weak and weeping broken old man who has been betrayed and abandoned by his state and emperor and grieves for the children he is about to lose. Aaron’s paternal care was unexpected and adds more depth to the character, stopping him from being simplified to a figure of pure evil. Titus’ madness is a remarkable device – for a long time, it is as unclear to the audience as to the characters whether or not this madness is real. Of course, I enjoyed the classical themes, and the allusions to Procne and Philomela, immensely. The plot is well-paced throughout, not overcomplicated, with room for surprises; the villains are “the kind you love to hate” and both the widespread violence and brutality and the specific character of the mostly-mute Lavinia mean I would be very keen to see how this play is handled in production.
Favourite Part: When Titus weeps to try to earn reprieve for his sons, falsely condemned for the murder of Bassianus.
My Top Five Lines & Passages:
Tamora begs Titus not to sacrifice her son at the tomb of his, 1.1.105-120:
Tamora: Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother’s tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my sons to be as dear as me.
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome
To beautify thy triumphs and return,
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke?
But must my sons be slaughtered in the streets
For valiant doings in their country’s cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood.
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful:
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.
Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son.
Aaron’s opening speech, 2.1.1-9:
Aaron: Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’ top,
Safe out of fortune’s shot, and sits aloft,
Secure of thunder’s crrack or lightning flash,
Advanced above pale envy’s threat’ning 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,
Lavinia and Bassianus accuse Tamora of adultery, 2.3.60-79:
Tamora: Saucy controller of our private steps,
Had I the power that some say Dian had,
Thy temples should be planted presently
With horns, as was Actaeon’s, and the hounds
Should drive upon thy new-transformed limbs,
Unmannerly intruder as thou art.
Lavinia: Under your patience, gentle emperess,
‘Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning,
And to be doubted that your Moor and you
Are singled forth to try experiments:
Jove shield your husband from his hounds today –
‘Tis pity they should take him for a stag.
Bassianus: Believe me, queen, your swarth Cimmerian
Doth make your honour of his body’s hue,
Spotted, detested and abominable.
Why are you sequestered from all your train,
Dismounted from your snow-white goodly steed,
And wandered hither to an obscure plot,
Accompanied with a barbarous Moor,
If foul desire had not conducted you?
Titus grieves upon seeing the mutilated Lavinia, 3.1.91-109:
Titus: It was my dear, and he that wounded her
Hath hurt me more than had he killed me dead,
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.
This way to death my wretched sons are gone:
Here stands my other son, a banished man,
And here my brother, weeping at my woes.
But that which gives my soul the greatest spurn
Is dear Lavinia, dearer than my soul.
Had I but seen thy picture in this plight,
It would have madded me. What shall I do
Now I behold thy lively body so?
Thou hast no hands to wipe away thy tears,
Nor tongue to tell me who hath martyred thee:
Thy husband he is dead, and for his death
Thy brrothers are condemned, and dead by this.
Marcus tries to rouse Titus to revenge, but Titus laughs, 3.1.260-271:
Marcus: Ah, now no more will I control thy griefs:
Rend off thy silver hair, thy other hand
Gnawing with thy teeth, and be this dismal sight
The closing up of our most wretched eyes.
Now is a time to storm. Why art thou still?
Titus: Ha, ha, ha!
Marcus: Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour.
Titus: Why? I have not another tear to shed:
Besides, this sorrow is an enemy
And would usurp upon my wat’ry eyes
And make them blind with tributary tears.
Then which way shall I find Revenge’s cave?