“Titus Andronicus” contains some extraordinarily brutal scenes. To take a couple of examples – after Titus’s daughter Lavinia is raped by two young men, her tongue is cut out and her hands cut off so that she can’t speak or write the names of her assailants. Later, these two assailants are murdered by Lavinia’s father, and their bodies cooked in a pie and fed to their mother.
So this is not a play for the squeamish. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, critics have struggled to know what to make of it. In the eighteenth century, the feeling developed that so crude and violent a play could not have been written by Shakespeare, and it was rarely if ever performed. In the twentieth, by contrast, a consensus emerged that the play was authentically Shakespearean (at least in part – there may have been collaboration with George Peele) and that it needs to be taken at face value.
To this consensus there are naturally exceptions. One such is the American critic Harold Bloom, who argues that the violence of the play is a kind of sophisticated parody of similar texts by Thomas Kyd (“The Spanish Tragedy”) and Christopher Marlowe (“The Jew of Malta”), intended rather to satirise a developing taste for revenge tragedy among aspiring playwrights in late Elizabethan London than to entertain a bloodthirsty public.
By contrast, Peter Ackroyd believes the text is tailored specifically to that public, weaned as they were on public executions and other expressions of human bloodlust. He points out that among other entertainments in late-Tudor London, bear-baiting was prominent and popular, and by these various standards, fake blood at the theatre might have seemed somewhat anodyne in comparison.
Either way, the play gives us the chance to see one of Shakespeare’s earliest villains in action – and to sense how, in Shakespeare’s view, villainy itself emerges and prospers. Aaron the Moor is an outsider in Rome by virtue of skin colour: a black man among pale-skinned Europeans, a prototype for Othello. His outsider status fuels his anger, the source of much of the play’s violence.
How much sympathy Aaron the Moor would have generated amongst late-Elizabethan groundlings may be open to question. But it is absolutely coherent with Shakespeare’s later practice – one thinks of Iago, for example, of Cleopatra, of Macbeth – that the most evil character in a play which positively teems with criminals is also (in Harold Bloom’s opinion) the most compelling.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Saturninus and Bassianus, the late Emperor’s sons, are competing to succeed him as Emperor.
But they are invited to suspend their campaigns pending the return of Titus Andronicus from battle.
Titus returns to Rome in funereal spirits with four surviving sons and twenty-one lost in battle.
Titus’s son Lucius demands the “proudest prisoner” to be sacrificed as revenge, and Titus assents.
Tamora’s oldest son Alarbus is surrendered and taken away to have his limbs hacked off and burnt.
But Demetrius encourages his mother Tamora to seek out an “opportunity of sharp revenge”.
Marcus Andronicus on behalf of the people offers his brother the chance to take the throne.
But Titus supports the late Emperor’s oldest son Saturninus, and Marcus offers his “applause”.
A grateful Saturninus will marry Titus’s daughter, and accept Titus’s gift of his Goth prisoners.
Saturninus promises Tamora respect and freedom in Rome while Lavinia confirms her assent.
But Bassianus seizes Lavinia claiming her as his own, and his escape is aided by her brother Mutius.
Titus is enraged and kills his son, only to find Saturninus rejects both himself and Lavinia.
Saturninus replaces Lavinia with Tamora as his wife and resolves to “create thee empress of Rome”.
Titus refuses to allow Mutius’s body to be interred in the mausoleum, but is persuaded to relent.
Saturninus remains angry with his brother over Lavinia, and promises “to be as sharp with you”.
Bassianus pleads for Titus with his brother, and Tamora publicly commends Titus’s “innocence”.
She publicly advises Saturninus to deal indulgently with Titus while privately promising revenge.
Tamora disingenuously advises reconciliation, and Titus announces a festival of hunting tomorrow.
Act Two Scene One
Aaron rejects his “slavish weeds” (or clothes) and relishes the chance to “wanton” with Tamora.
Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron squabble over who will be the one to enjoy Lavinia’s charms.
Aaron encourages them to work together, and suggests a suitable location for “rape and villainy”.
Act Two Scene Two
Titus reveals he has slept badly, as he cheerfully introduces the day’s hunting suggested in 1.1.
But Demetrius confides in his brother their joint intention to hunt “a dainty doe” of their own.
Act Two Scene Three
Aaron acting alone buries a bag of gold under a tree, preparing for an “excellent piece of villainy”.
Resisting Tamora’s invitation to make love, he reveals that “revenge” is “hammering in my head”.
Predicting Lavinia will “lose her tongue today”, he hands Tamora a letter to be given to Saturninus.
Bassianus and Lavinia catch Tamora with Aaron and threaten to expose her to the Emperor.
When her sons arrive, Tamora repeats the allegations, and demands that her honour be defended.
Demetrius and Chiron stab Bassianus to death, but they prevent Tamora from murdering Lavinia.
First they intend to rape her, and though she begs Tamora to help her, her pleas are dismissed.
Tamora reminds her of Alarbus’s fate in being sacrificed by her father, and endorses her rape.
Her sons throw Bassianus’s body into the pit, and drag Lavinia away while Tamora seeks Aaron.
Aaron leads Quintus and Martius to the pit, which Martius falls into, and begs to be helped out.
Martius reports that Bassianus’s body is in the pit – now Quintus, trying to help him out, falls in.
Aaron appears with Saturninus, who is horrified to be told that his brother’s corpse is in the pit.
Tamora appears and hands Saturninus Aaron’s letter, seeming to pay for the murder with the gold.
Saturninus tells Titus that “Two of thy whelps” have murdered his brother, and they’ll be tortured.
Tamora reassures Titus that she will intercede with Saturninus on his behalf and plead their case.
Act Two Scene Four
Tamora’s sons, having raped Lavinia and cut off her hands and tongue, taunt her heartlessly.
Marcus Andronicus appears, and with references to Classical mythology, laments his niece’s fate.
Act Three Scene One
Titus pleads with the tribunes of Rome to spare his sons in view of his record of service to the state.
His son Lucius tells him he is wasting his time but he replies that he has no choice but to plead.
Lucius reports he has been banished from Rome, at which Titus says it is “but a wilderness of tigers”.
Marcus brings the maimed Lavinia to see Titus, who reflects that he has lost everything now.
Titus doubts whether his accused sons did indeed kill Bassianus, though only Lavinia knows.
Aaron arrives with good news: the Emperor will free Titus’s sons if he will “chop off your hand”.
Both Lucius and Marcus volunteer to lose a hand but Titus insists, and Aaron administers the axe.
Titus laments that he can see no “reason for these miseries” but feels his daughter’s pain intensely.
A messenger arrives with Titus’s hand and the heads of Titus’s two condemned and executed sons.
Titus laughs at his own fate since “I have not another tear to shed” – but he vows to get revenge.
Titus charges his last son Lucius to “Hie to the Goths” and “raise an army there” to attack Rome.
Lucius accepts the challenge and vows to make Saturninus and Tamora “Beg at the gates”.
Act Three Scene Two
Titus encourages Lavinia to hold a knife between her teeth to plunge into her heart to end her grief.
He reports that Lavinia will drink nothing but her own tears as he resolves to interpret her thoughts.
When Marcus kills a fly, Titus is at first sympathetic to it, but then equates the fly with Aaron.
Act Four Scene One
Young Lucius is unnerved by his injured aunt Lavinia, but is reassured of her love by Titus.
Titus encourages Lavinia to find the “damn’d contriver” of her injuries in one of his books.
She identifies Ovid’s tale of the rape of Philomel, then writes the names of her abusers in the dust.
Marcus leads the family as they swear to avenge Lavinia’s rape by “these traitorous Goths”.
Titus resolves to send a message through Young Lucius to Demetrius and Chiron on a sword.
Act Four Scene Two
Young Lucius presents Titus’s gift of weapons to Tamora’s sons, complete with Horace’s verse.
The sons misunderstand the message but Aaron notices “the old man hath found their guilt”.
A nurse arrives with a black infant, evidently born to Tamora, exciting insults from her sons.
The nurse suggests the child be killed, but Aaron refuses to “Do execution on my flesh and blood”.
He asserts that “Coal-black is better than another hue” and reminds them that “he is your brother”.
To keep the birth secret, Aaron quickly despatches the nurse, then arranges an exchange of infants.
Alone with his boy, Aaron pledges to bring up the boy to be “a warrior, and command a camp”.
Act Four Scene Three
Titus encourages his allies to shoot arrows with messages to the gods calling for justice on earth.
Publius reassures Titus that the gods promise that “If you will have Revenge from hell, you shall”.
Marcus suggests shooting the messages towards the court so as to undermine Saturninus’s pride.
A clown, heading for the court to settle a dispute, is invited to deliver a message to the Emperor.
Act Four Scene Four
Saturninus, angered by the arrows deluging his court with messages of injustice, pledges vengeance.
Tamora counsels patience, comforting herself that Titus no longer poses a threat to her and Aaron.
The clown appears, delivers Titus’s message to Saturninus, and is then taken away to be hanged.
Saturninus is further enraged, demanding “the villain” Titus be dragged to the court “by the hair”.
News arrives that Titus’s son Lucius leading an army of Goths is heading for Rome for “revenge”.
Saturninus recoils, believing the citizens of Rome “favour Lucius” and will not fight to defend him.
Tamora means to persuade Titus to withdraw, pledging to “fill his aged ear / With golden promises”.
Aemilius will negotiate with Lucius and Tamora volunteers to “temper” Titus “with all the art I have”.
Act Five Scene One
Lucius reports to his Goth generals that Saturninus is hated in Rome, and they pledge their loyalty.
A Goth soldier delivers Aaron and his baby as prisoners having found them in a ruined monastery.
Lucius makes to hang the child, but Aaron offers to reveal his bloody secrets if the child is spared.
Aaron enthusiastically discloses who killed Bassianus, who raped Lavinia and who “trimm’d” her.
He reveals his own part in the murders, and how he “play’d the cheater for thy father’s hand”.
He boasts that he laughed tears at his crimes, and now wishes he had “done a thousand more”.
But he admits he has “done a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly”.
A messenger arrives from Saturninus to request the meeting with Lucius and Titus mentioned in 4.4.
Act Five Scene Two
Tamora, disguised as Revenge and accompanied by her sons as Rape and Murder, calls on Titus.
Titus recognises them – though they deny their identities, and he admits to having “mistaking eyes”.
Tamora believes him afflicted with “lunacy”, and intends to “make him send for Lucius his son”.
Titus instructs them to live up to their identities, including to seek revenge in the imperial palace.
Tamora requests Titus summon Lucius from the battlefield to banquet with them, and he agrees.
His one condition is that Rape and Murder remain with him, which, believing him mad, she accepts.
Tamora leaves, and Titus seizes her sons, and is joined by Lavinia, equipped with knife and basin.
Titus rehearses their crimes, then explains he will kill them and bake them in a pie for Tamora to eat.
He cuts their throats while Lavinia holds the basin and collects their blood, ready for the kitchen.
Act Five Scene Three
Lucius, with Aaron imprisoned, prepares for the conference sceptical of the Emperor’s intentions.
Titus, dressed as a cook asks Saturninus whether it is right to kill a daughter who has been raped.
Saturninus agrees, whereupon Titus kills Lavinia, explaining that Tamora’s sons had raped her.
The Emperor demands they be produced, to be told that they are already present, baked in the pie.
Titus notes that “their mother daintily hath fed” on her sons’ bodies before abruptly killing her.
Saturninus kills Titus, whereupon Lucius kills Saturninus in revenge, causing “A great tumult”.
Lucius summarises the crimes of Aaron and Tamora’s sons, before he is proclaimed Emperor.
Young Lucius is given the chance to bid his grandfather farewell as Aaron is brought back onstage.
He is to be buried alive up to his neck without food, with death to any observer who “pities” him.
Aaron wishes he had been even more evil, and if he ever did “one good deed”, he now regrets it.
Lucius closes the play by ordering Titus and Lavinia buried, Aaron removed and the state restored.
The play opens with a scene played out in front of the mausoleum of the Andronicus clan – a building soon to receive new guests following the return of Rome’s foremost general from war with the Goths. Of twenty-five sons born to him, four remain alive, a testament to Rome’s incessant war-making and Titus’s influence on his children: he has “buried one and twenty valiant sons”, he says later in this scene. Typical of many Shakespeare plays is the apparent absence of a mother for these sons (and their sister): among other challenges, Titus seems to be a single parent. Symbolically, the scene reflects the industrial scale of the bloodshed in this play.
The play contrasts Titus’s virtuous daughter Lavinia with the “subtle” (i.e., deceitful, untrustworthy) character of his captive Tamora. In her first appearance Lavinia emerges as loyal to father and to country, as well as properly respectful of her late brother as he is laid to rest. By contrast, Tamora seethes on the side-lines, nursing a hunger for revenge that will dominate the play. Her first speech is riddled with her own dishonesty. Described as “subtle” by Marcus Andronicus – evidently a sharp judge of character – she publicly encourages Saturninus to “look graciously” on Titus while in private she promises to “find a day to massacre them all” as revenge for the sacrifice of her son. Titus, apparently less insightful than his brother, is suitably reassured.
Overall, Act One (believed by some critics to be the work of George Peele, incidentally) presents a lengthy and complex narrative, but it comprises essentially three elements: first, the rivalry between Saturninus and Bassianus, initially over the succession, then over Lavinia; second, the return of Titus to Rome, his refusal of the throne and his conflict with his sons; and third – and most important – the dissembling of Tamora, her lust for revenge and her alliance with Saturninus. In the working out of this conflict, the central figure will be Aaron the Moor, who has appeared on stage throughout most of Act One but has not spoken. His ominous silent presence throughout the 500 lines of the opening act will end with the opening lines of Act Two and the play’s first soliloquy.
Act Two Scene Two closes with a vivid animal metaphor as Demetrius cries off from the hunting party because (as he tells Chiron) they “hope to pluck a dainty doe” in Lavinia. Animal metaphors dominate the play. In the next scene, for example: when her sons have finished raping Lavinia, says Tamora, they should “Let not this wasp outlive, us both to sting”. When Demetrius advises his mother to be cold towards Lavinia, she asks him sarcastically “When did the tiger’s young ones teach the dam?” When Chiron protests that he is just as cruel as his mother, Lavinia admits that “the raven doth not hatch a lark”. Later in this scene Saturninus tells Titus that “Two of thy whelps” were responsible for Bassianus’s murder. This metaphorical field provides a kind of violent background to the developing violence of the narrative.
At the end of 2.3, Tamora reassures Titus that she will speak on his behalf (and on behalf of his sons) with Saturninus. Titus may be reassured but such confidence is unlikely to extend to the audience, who know already that Tamora has her own murderous agenda. Her promise to speak on behalf of the very character she is destroying anticipates Iago, whom Shakespeare creates around ten years later – famously, a character who destroys Cassio while pretending to be his most passionate advocate.
When Aaron deceives Titus into forfeiting his hand in the vain hope of saving his sons’ lives in 3.1, Aaron alerts the audience (through an aside) that good works in the new Rome are a vain enterprise: “Let fools do good,” he laughs cynically, “and fair men call for grace. / Aaron will have his soul black like his face”. In this concise statement of his agenda, Aaron appears to conflate in authentic Elizabethan style the two quite separate connotations of the word “black” in suggesting that he desires (or “wills”) to live an evil life.
Modern audiences will likely feel that the kind of punishment in which a hand is chopped off belongs either to the Dark Ages or the Taliban. But it was a reasonably common punishment in Tudor England to have part of the body lopped off – and often for a relatively minor infringement. When John Stubbs published a pamphlet arguing the pros and cons of the Queen marrying into the French Royal Family, he was found guilty of “seditious writing”, and his right hand was cut off. Stubbs, a committed Puritan, later served as an M.P.
At the heart of a play saturated in bloodshed, two Classical texts emerge to dilute the carnage. In the first, Lavinia identifies from a collection of the Roman poet Ovid a narrative describing the rape of Philomela by her brother-in-law Tereus, who then cuts out her tongue to silence her. When she writes the names of her assailants in the sand, her family have a full picture of what happened to her. Titus responds with a second text, from the Roman poet Horace, to the effect that the upright man does not need weapons, which he has engraved on armaments sent to Tamora’s sons. They fail to appreciate what is being said to them, though Aaron understands the message.
Act Four Scene Two is the first time in the play that Aaron’s character is explored. Three features emerge. First, Aaron has more insight than Demetrius and Chiron – indeed he must be accounted among the brightest characters in the play. Second, he promises to be a better parent than either Titus or Tamora, evidenced in the care and pride he invests in his infant son, and the speed with which he decides what needs to happen next. Third, he delivers a staunch defence of his ethnic background – “Coal-black is better than another hue, / In that it scorns to bear another hue” – which will resonate with modern audiences. None of this, of course, detracts from his deep-seated evil – witness the ease with which he murders the nurse to preserve the secret of his boy’s birth.
In 4.2 (as mentioned above), a text from Horace is sent to Tamora’s sons, which they misunderstand. The text praises the importance of integrity, so their failure to make sense of it might have been predicted. In 4.3, an arrow-shower of complaint about the injustices recently visited on Rome is sent into the sky, to land in Saturninus’s court, and in 4.4, comes evidence that this text has (by contrast) been fully understood, as the Emperor resolves “in fury” to “Cut off the proud’st conspirator”. In the midst of an avalanche of blood-letting, Act Four is dominated by words.
As the centre of attention in “Othello” is Iago, so the focus in “Titus Andronicus” is Aaron, and this is the scene in which his relish for his own capacity for evil is revealed. It seems likely that, when he writes this scene and creates this character, Shakespeare has already written “Richard III”, so he has form in creating evil characters. Nevertheless, Aaron’s moral bankruptcy has a macabre dimension that not even Richard can boast: for example his claim to have dug up dead bodies, desecrated them and left them “at their dear friends’ doors”. Aaron is the most compelling character in this play, and this scene is his moment.
When Tamora and her sons visit Titus in 5.2 disguised as Revenge, Rape and Murder, they are evoking a theatrical convention that reaches back to Shakespeare’s youth, when roles – both good and evil – were personified as a means of helping the audience makes sense of the moral of the play. Their performance here is matched by that of Titus himself, who though he recognises them, colludes in their disguise – he has, he says, “miserable, mad, mistaking eyes” – in order to enact his own revenge. In a play laden with grotesque barbarity, killing and cooking the two sons for their mother to consume (as she will in the final scene) is perhaps the most shocking of all the crimes described here.
Who’s Who / Characters
The villain of the piece, amid stiff competition, but also the most compelling character, shamelessly electrified by his own capacity for evil. And on top of that, more insightful than Demetrius and Chiron, better than either at interpreting a Latin text, and apparently a better parent than either Titus or Tamora. Contemporary audiences may not warm to the conflation of ethnic background with moral compass implied by his personality, but Aaron is a prototype for later arch-villains like Don John (in “Much Ado About Nothing”) and Iago (in “Othello”), as well as the stand-out character here.
A single parent, it seems, who by the end of the play has lost all but one of the 25 sons and one daughter born to him by his absent wife. His treatment of these children is both nurturing (as when he invests time with Lavinia) and savage (as when he kills her, apparently on a whim, in the closing scene): on the evidence of the first act, in which he impulsively butchers Mutius for defying him, not an isolated incident. His final act, to feed Tamora a pie containing the dead bodies of her two sons, is beyond grotesque, as it is intended to be.
Another single parent, as unsuited to her parental responsibilities as Titus, evidenced in the support she offers her two sons in the project to rape and mutilate Lavinia and the indifference she shows the victim, despite her pleas. Described in the first act as “subtle”, meaning untrustworthy, she proves the justice of this description with the evidence she provides there of disloyalty to her new husband Saturninus.
How many sons has Titus lost in battle?
Give the name of Tamora’s oldest son, sacrificed in the opening scene.
Who catches Tamora with Aaron and threatens to expose them?
Why do Tamora’s sons prevent her from murdering Lavinia?
Where is Lucius to raise the army that will attack Rome?
Whose literary works help Lavinia reveal what happened to her in 4.1?
Where are Aaron and his infant son hiding when they are captured?
What disguise does Tamora adopt when she visits Titus?
Give the ambiguous name for a pie or pastie used by Titus.
What punishment is proposed for Aaron in the final scene?
“Titus Andronicus” is one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays. But it’s not exactly juvenilia. By this stage of his career as a playwright – around 1594 – he has written four History plays (the “Henry VI” trilogy and “Richard III”), three comedies (“Two Gentlemen of Verona”, “The Taming of the Shrew” and possibly “The Comedy of Errors”) and two long poems (“Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”). So “Titus Andronicus”, however experimental it seems, is not the work of an apprentice.
Earlier I quoted Harold Bloom’s suggestion that the play satirises Revenge Tragedies, then a burgeoning genre. In fact, Bloom describes it as “an explosion of rancid irony carried well past the limits of parody”. This is a minority view, meant to be provocative. It seems more likely that Shakespeare was aiming to exploit a theatrical fashion by writing what he intended would be an economically successful script – he had bills to pay, a wife and family in Stratford – as well as exploring how the new genre might profit him in future.
Seen in that light, the play is a mine of themes and techniques that will later be explored further. When Tamora offers to help Titus, we are reminded of Iago offering to speak for Cassio, even as he destroys him. With Aaron’s delight in evil, he anticipates Don John and Iago, whilst recalling (and possibly anticipating) the character of Richard III. Tamora’s “subtle” way with honesty anticipates Cleopatra’s, while Lucius’s reliance on enemies of Rome to fight his corner anticipates Coriolanus.
Furthermore, the solace Titus takes in the company of Lavinia anticipates the pleasure Lear hopes to experience with Cordelia before her death deprives him, while the appearance of Tamora and her sons as Revenge, Rape and Murder anticipates the appearance of the Nine Worthies in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. These are not isolated cases: for example there is the whole question of parenting to consider, a prominent theme here and throughout Shakespeare’s canon.