This is often cited as being Shakespeare’s worst play. T. S. Eliot went so far as to call it the worst play in the world. I’m personally not persuaded that it is either. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it plays much better on stage or film than on the page. It’s also probably worth noting that it was Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime.
Things to consider while reading Titus Andronicus
In order to appreciate the play at all, you probably need to have (or cultivate, at least for the purposes of this exercise) some appreciation for the Renaissance revenge drama. There’s a long tradition, starting long before Shakespeare and continuing well into the seventeenth century, of plays in which the primary motion of the story is the fulfillment of a vast and bloody revenge on someone who usually deserves it. This is worth knowing something about, since even if you never cross paths with Titus Andronicus again, it will help you come to a much better understanding of other things as well — Hamlet, among other things.
It also makes a good foil to some of the other late tragedies, like King Lear and Othello, and, at the most unexpected points, breaks out into Shakespeare’s lyrical and intense tragic verse of the sort we’re accustomed to attribute to King Lear or parts of Hamlet or Othello. Even among revenge dramas, however, Titus Andronicus has to take some kind of prize for the gruesome. Horrible things happen to the principal characters, whether they deserve it or not (and as often as not, they don’t), and they keep getting worse.
Titus Andronicus and what has come before
There really is nothing in this course so far to bear comparison with Titus Andronicus. It is on a completely different level from Troilus and Cressida, which is largely cynical and faintly comic. This is neither cynical nor comic, unless the sheer scope of the grotequery is likely to push you over the edge into a fit of the horrified giggles (I’ve seen it happen). The characters are all hideously sincere, their passions are raw and insatiable, and they set in motion a cascade of revenge in which there really is never an option to stop or even to reflect on what it is they’re doing. It’s visceral, even mindless in some ways — and yet it remains powerful in some respects, too.
In the broader view of Shakespeare dramas, it does bear comparison with:
- Hamlet. Hamlet is in many ways the Shakespearean revenge drama par excellence, but it takes time on the scope and nature of the revenge. Hamlet is eager to destroy not just the life, but the very soul of his adversary, and it is (I would argue) this transgression that brings him and everyone near him to ruin.
- Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. These Roman tragedies, set in historically particular places, take the lives of Plutarch as their starting point, and they’re rooted in reasonably well-documented history. This is set in late antiquity, when Roman emperors, mostly now nameless to us, are contending against the Goths and other Germanic tribes. What is the accountability of the narrative to history? Does it matter that it’s set at Rome at all?
- Othello (which is actually down the road a bit in this course, but you might have read or seen it before). The nature of evil as a banal and unmotivated impulse perhaps comes to a head here. Just why Iago hates Othello to start with is never really quite clear. Aaron the Moor in this play is similarly evil in an unmotivated way. He thrives one being wicked, and even says, as he’s about to die, “I am no baby, I, that with base prayers / I should repent the evils I have done: / Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did / Would I perform, if I might have my will; / If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul.“ How does this depiction of evil help or hinder the play?
- Romeo and Juliet. The vision of a downward and irresistable spiral of revenge takes shape here, though the ultimate thrust of the play suggests that the deaths of the principals in some way atones for and arrests the process.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Revenge as a theme. What happens when you have two or more revenge patterns interlocking? Ultimately this play is a contest of the mutual retributions of Tamora and Titus (with a little extra thrown in from the two thwarted candidates for the throne), which escalates until it consumes them both, and most of the people around them.
- What is the nature and the extent of the citizen’s obligation to the state?
- What is the motivation of Aaron the Moor? Is he an unmotivated icon of evil? If not, what else is really driving him?
Symmetries in the play
- The two brothers. Why are there two, and what do they do in respect to each other?
- The figures of Titus and Tamora. While most of the really horrific things that happen are done by their minions, these two stand head and shoulders above the rest as characters and principal adversaries. What do they do for the play as a whole?
- The two candidates for emperor. Why is this dichotomy set up in the first place, and what purpose does it serve?
Problems in the play
- Is this anything other than an unrestrained bloodbath, in which one revenge piles upon another? Is there anything redeeming about the story as it’s told?
- Is there a moral lesson to be extracted here — and if so, is it really faithful to the intention of the story, or is it something merely tacked on?
Contents of this page © Copyright 2008, 2011, 2014 by Bruce A. McMenomy.