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Titus Andronicus

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Title page of the first quarto edition (1594)
Title page of the first quarto edition (1594)

The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus may be Shakespeare's earliest tragedy. It depicts a fictional Roman general engaged in a cycle of revenge with his enemy Tamora, the Queen of the Goths. The play is by far Shakespeare's bloodiest, taking its inspiration from the Senecan Tragedy of Ancient Rome, the gory theatre that was played to bloodthirsty circus audiences between gladitorial combats. The play lost popularity during the Victorian era because of its bloodiness, and has only recently begun to revive its fortunes.

Performance and Publication

Titus Andronicus is clearly one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, though it is hard to say exactly how early it is. In his Bartholomew Fair (1614), Ben Jonson states that Titus was then twenty-five or thirty years old, which would date it to ca. 1584-89. The anonymous play A Knack to Know a Knave, acted in 1592, alludes to Titus and the Goths, which clearly indicates Shakespeare's play, since other versions of the Titus story involve Moors, not Goths. Philip Henslowe's Diary records performances of a Titus and Vespasian in 1592-93, and some critics have identified this with Shakespeare's play.[1]

In January and February of 1594, Sussex's Men gave three performances of Titus Andronicus; two more performances followed in June of the same year, at the Newington Butts theatre, by either the Admiral's Men or the Lord Chamberlain's Men. A private performance occurred in 1596 at Sir John Harington's house in Rutland.

The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on Feb. 6, 1594, by the printer John Danter. Danter sold the rights to the booksellers Thomas Millington and Edward White; they issued the first quarto edition later that year, with printing done by Danter. The title page is unusual in that it assigns the play to three different companies of actors—Pembroke's Men, Derby's Men, and Sussex's Men. White published a second quarto in 1600 (printed by James Roberts), and a third in 1611 (printed by Edward Allde). The First Folio text (1623) was printed from Q3 with an additional scene, III, ii.

In the Restoration, the play was performed in 1678 at Drury Lane, in an adaptation by Edward Ravenscroft. The eighteenth-century actor James Quin considered Aaron, the villain in Titus, one of his favorite roles.[2]


Act I

The Emperor of Rome has died, and his sons Saturninus and Bassinius squabble over who will succeed him. The Tribune of the People, Marcus Andronicus, announces that the people's choice for new emperor is his brother, Titus Andronicus, a Roman general newly returned from ten years' campaigning against the empire's foes. Titus enters Rome to much fanfare, bearing with him Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons, and Aaron the Moor. Titus feels a religious duty to sacrifice Tamora’s eldest son Alarbus. She begs for the life of Alarbus, and when he is hacked to bits anyway, vows horrible revenge.

Andronicus refuses the throne in favor of the old emperor's elder son Saturninus; the two agree Saturninus will marry Titus' daughter Lavinia. However, Bassinius had a previous love-match with the girl and Titus' surviving sons help them escape; in the fighting, Titus kills his son Mutius.

The new emperor, Saturninus, marries Tamora instead.

Act II

During a hunting party the next day, Tamora's lover, Aaron, meets Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius, arguing over which should woo the newlywed Lavinia. They are easily persuaded to ambush Bassinius and kill him in the presence of Tamora and Lavinia. Lavinia begs Tamora for mercy. Tamora refuses; she wants revenge. Chiron and Demetrius take Lavinia away and rape her, and to keep her from revealing what she's seen and endured, they cut out her tongue and hack off her hands.

Aaron brings Titus' sons Martius and Quintus to the scene and frames them for the murder of Bassinius; the Emperor arrests them. Marcus then discovers Lavinia and goes to take her to her father.


Titus and his remaining son Lucius beg for the lives of Martius and Quintus, but they are marched off to execution.

Aaron enters, and falsely tells Titus, Lucius, and Marcus that the emperor will spare the prisoners if one of the three sacrifices a hand. Each demands the right to do so, but it is Titus who has Aaron hack off his (Titus') hand and take it to the emperor. In return, a messenger brings Titus the heads of his sons.

Titus orders Lucius to flee Rome and raise an army among their former enemy, the Goths.

Act IV

Titus' grandson, who has been helping Titus read to Lavinia, complains that she won't leave his book alone. In the book, she indicates to Titus and Marcus the story of Philomel, in which a similarly mute victim wrote the name of her wrongdoer. Marcus gives her a stick to hold with her mouth and stumps; she writes the names of her attackers in the dirt. Titus vows revenge.

Titus feigns madness, tying written prayers for justice to arrows and commanding his kinsmen to aim them at the sky. Marcus directs the arrows to land inside the palace of Saturninus, who is enraged by this and orders the execution of a Clown who had delivered a further supplication from Titus.

Tamora is delivered of a mixed-race child; the nurse can tell it must have been fathered by Aaron. He promptly kills the nurse and flees with the baby to save it from the Emperor's inevitable wrath.

Act V

Lucius, marching on Rome with an army, captures Aaron. To save the baby, Aaron reveals the entire plot, relishing every murder, rape and dismemberment.

Tamora, convinced of Titus' madness, approaches him along with her two sons, dressed as the spirits of Revenge, Murder, and Rape. She tells Titus that she (as a supernatural spirit) will grant him revenge if he will convince Lucius to stop attacking Rome. Titus agrees, sending Marcus to invite Lucius to a feast, and "Revenge" (Tamora) to invite the Emperor, but insists that "Rape" and "Murder" (Chiron and Demetrius) stay with him. Titus' servants bind Chiron and Demetrius, and Titus tells the two his plan: to cut their throats, while Lavinia holds a basin in her stumps to catch their blood, and to cook them into a pie for their mother[3].

During the feast at his house, Titus asks Saturninus whether a father should kill his daughter if she has been raped[4]; when the emperor agrees, Titus kills Lavinia and tells Saturninus what Tamora's sons had done. He reveals that they were in the pie Tamora has just been enjoying, and then kills Tamora. Saturninus kills Titus; Lucius kills Saturninus.

Lucius is acclaimed Emperor. Lucius orders that Saturninus be given a proper burial, that Tamora's body be thrown to the wild beasts, and that Aaron be buried chest-deep and left to die of thirst and starvation.

Aaron is unrepentant to the end, proclaiming:

"If one good Deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very Soule."

Text of the play

Titus Andronicus was published in three separate quarto editions prior to the First Folio of 1623, which are referred to as Q1, Q2, and Q3 by Shakespeare scholars.

Q1, published in 1594, is regarded by scholars as a reasonably "good" (complete and reliable) text, and is the basis for most modern editions, although it does not include some material found in the First Folio. Only a single copy is known to exist today.

Q2, published in 1600, appears to be based on a damaged copy of Q1, as it is a good reproduction of the Q1 text, but is missing a number of lines. Two copies are known to exist today.

Q3, published in 1611, appears to be a further degradation of the Q2 text: it includes a number of corrections to Q2, but introduces even more errors.

The First Folio text of 1623 seems to be based on the Q3 text, but also includes material found in none of the quarto editions, including the entirety of Act 3, Scene 2 (in which Titus seems to be losing his sanity). This scene is generally regarded as authentic and included in modern editions of the play.


Most scholars date Titus to the early 1590s; it was certainly written prior to 1594, the date of its first published edition. In his Arden edition of the play, Jonathan Bate points out that on 24 January 1594, it was apparently listed as a new play in Philip Henslowe's diary. Bate says that many scholars have doubted its newness in 1594, given that Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614) describes the play as 25 to 30 years old. [5]


None of the three quarto editions names the author (as was normal in the publication of playtexts in the early 1590s). However, Francis Meres lists the play as one of Shakespeare's tragedies in a publication of 1598, and the editors of the First Folio included it among his works.

Despite this, Shakespeare's full authorship has been doubted. In the introduction to his 1678 adaptation of the play (printed nine years later, in 1687), Edward Ravenscroft states:

"I have been told by some anciently conversant with the Stage, that it was not Originally his, but brought by a private Author to be Acted, and he only gave some Master-touches to one or two Principal Parts or Characters". [6]

There are problems with Ravenscroft's statement: the old men "conversant with the Stage" could not have been more than children when Titus was written, and Ravenscroft may be biased, since he uses the story to justify his alterations of Shakespeare's play. However, the story has been used to bolster arguments that another author was partly responsible.

The principal candidate is the dramatist George Peele, whose linguistic characteristics have been detected in both the first act, and the scene in which Lavinia uses Ovid's Metamorphoses to explain that she has been raped.[7] The assertion of Peele's hand in the play remains controversial, however, and those who admire the play tend to argue against it.[8]

It has even been posited that Shakespeare didn't write Titus Andronicus at all; for example, the 19th century Globe Illustrated Shakespeare (still in print in 2005) goes so far as to claim there was a general agreement on the matter due to the un-Shakespearean "barbarity" of the play's action.


Titus Andronicus is certainly Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy; some measure of its matter can be gleaned from a single stage-direction: "Enter the empress' sons with Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravished." (Act II, scene IV). The play is frequently dismissed for its violence, and some Shakespeare lovers consider it childish, juvenile, or believe that it is low-brow trash written only to make money. However, it was an extremely popular play in its day, second only to The Spanish Tragedy, another bloody play of that period by Thomas Kyd.[citation needed]

Since the late twentieth century, however, the play has been revived frequently on stage and has been revealed to some as a powerful and moving exploration of violence that pre-empts King Lear in its bleakness, to others as a forerunner of the Hollywood slasher movie. The play can speak to modern audiences, who are used to violence in film, in a way that it could not to Victorian audiences; however modern audiences may still find the play's graphic cruelty absurd, unused as they are to attending public executions and dismemberment of the kind that were familiar to Shakespeare's audience. However, literary critic and Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom has claimed that the play cannot be taken seriously and that the best imaginable production would be one directed by Mel Brooks.

The character of Titus has been played by important actors such as Brian Cox, Anthony Sher, Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier. During one run of the play, Olivier would utter a blood-curdling scream in imitation of a trapped skunk he had once heard in Canada.

In The Klingon Hamlet, the preface notes that, in Klingon culture, Titus Andronicus is considered the pinnacle of Shakespeare's work; as opposed to Romeo and Juliet and his other "problem plays".


Literary adaptations

  • Titus Andronicus. Komödie nach Shakespeare by Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt
  • Die Schändung by German author Botho Strauss

Film adaptations

  • Titus Andronicus (1985), a TV movie directed by Jane Howell for the BBC Shakespeare series. Stars Trevor Peacock and Eileen Atkins as Titus and Tamora.
  • Titus (1999), directed by Julie Taymor. Stars Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange as Titus and Tamora.

References in popular culture

  • South Park - Scott Tenorman Must Die (TV) (2001), Trey Parker and Matt Stone borrow from Shakespeare for the story of Cartman's revenge against the title character; Shakespeare, in turn, borrowed the same plot elements from Seneca's tragedy Thyestes.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion - One of the ships in Episode 8 is referred to by the name "Titus Andronicus".


  1. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 496-97.
  2. ^ Halliday, Shakespeare Companion, pp. 399, 403-4, 497.
  3. ^ This is the same revenge Procne took for the rape of her sister Philomel
  4. ^ Citing the story of Verginia, told in Livy
  5. ^ Bate, Titus, 70.
  6. ^ Quoted in Jonathan Bate, ed. Titus Andronicus (Arden Shakespeare, 1996), p. 79
  7. ^ Brian Vickers, Shakespeare: Co-Author (Oxford University Press, 2004) describes the history of this attribution and adds more evidence of his own.
  8. ^ For a summary of this debate, see Bate, Titus, p. 79-83.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus
  • Titus Andronicus - plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
  • The Tragedie of Titus Andronicus - HTML version of this title.
  • The Tragedy Of Titus Andronicus Annotated HTML version with links back to Wikipedia articles.
  • Lucius, the Severely Flawed Redeemer of Titus Andronicus by Anthony Brian Taylor
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