Titus Andronicus, a tragedy is believed to be one of the first few plays of Shakespeare. It is believed that it was written between 1588 and 1593 and he is said to have collaborated with George Peele for this play. William Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers that English language has ever seen. He has many plays and poems to his credit and of course his Globe Theatre where most of his plays saw light. His plays have been translated into innumerable languages and many of his plays have become films. Some of them have been depicted as plays itself while some of them have taken the plot to suit it to the modern times. Shakespeare’s first plays were full of violence and gore. And Titus Andronicus is no exemption. There are murders and even rape. The killings happen for very flimsy reasons and this style is not seen in his later plays. His characters have more depth and are not frivolous in the tragedies of Shakespeare.
This play was extremely popular in spite of its gore, throughout the 16th century. The play is set in the second half of the Roman Empire and the characters are purely fictional. It is a drama of revenge; revenge by Titus, then Tamora, then Titus and to complete the cycle Tamora’s husband Saturninus. Even though it was popular in the 16th century, once the other tragedies were published and staged this play went down in its rating and only in the middle of the 20th century it regained some of its lost glory. The main reason for this fall in popularity was the violence and there are no inspirational situations or words which are seen in most of his plays.
The play begins after the death of the Roman emperor and his two sons Saturninus and Bassianus squabble over who will be the next emperor. Marcus Andronicus enters the scene announcing the victorious arrival of his brother Titus Andronicus after ten years of war with the Goths and he was arriving with the prisoners of war. He suggests that Titus, the brave general should be made the next emperor to which both the heir brothers agree. Titus arrives with Tamora, the Goth queen, her three sons and Aaron a Moor. Aaron is the secret lover of Tamora. Along with them come some more prisoners of war. When Titus comes the first thing he does is to behead the first son of Tamora, in spite of her pleas. She is shattered and one can very well imagine the pain of a mother who loses her son for no reason. Marcus then proposes that Titus become the next emperor which he refuses.
“Give me a staff of honour for mine age,
But not a sceptre to control the world:”
He says he is too old to rule and suggests that Saturninus rule the empire. Satuninus agrees and he even wants to marry Lavinia. Titus agrees to this as well but Bassianus is upset because he was in love with Lavinia and wanted to marry her. Titus does not agree but his sons come to the support of their sister. Titus is angered that his sons are going against him and much to the surprise of all around kills Mutuis who blocks his way. Saturninus and all are upset with this and before long they turn against Titus and he even proposes to marry Tamora and she agrees. She sees it as the right chance to take her sweet revenge on Titus.
Bassianus and Lavinia marry and they are lured into a hunt. Aaron and Tamora persuade Chiron and Demetrius to kill Bassianus and rape Lavinia. They do both. Lavinia is raped and her hands and tongue is cut off so that she cannot tell who the perpetrators of the crime are. Meanwhile the sons of Titus are blamed with the murder of Bassianus and they, Maritius and Quintus are sentenced to imprisonment. Soon Marcus find Lavinia in her pitiable state and seeing all this Titus is shocked. All start believing that Ttius has lost his bearings and he plays up to these expectations.
One day through Aaron Saturninus asks Titus to cut off his hand or his last son’s hand and for that act he would release his imprisoned sons. Titus cuts off his hand to save his sons only to find that his sons were beheaded. This enrages Titus but he waits for his turn. Meanwhile he sends off Lucius out of Rome to befriend the Goths and create an army there. In the meantime Lavinia is able to convey by writing the names of the ones who had raped her. Now Titus is only waiting to take his revenge.
Tamora gives birth to a son who looks like Aaron, the moor. While Taora’s sons and the nurse want the child to be killed, as it would bring bad name to the kingdom, Aaron does not agree. He flees Rome with his son and revelas the revenge plot of Tamora to Lucius. Now they both start back to Rome.
Meanwhile to deceive Titus Tamora and her sons come to his house stating that they were Revenge, Rapine and Murder respectively. They do this thinking Titus was mad. He plays up to them and manages to send Tamora away and calling Lavinia, in front of her eyes kills the sons who had raped. He does not stop at that. He powders their bones and makes a pie of it. He later calls Satuninus and Tamora for a banquet. There he declares that Lavinia was raped by Chiron and Demetrius. He then kills Lavinia and Saturninus is appalled and asks why he had killed her. Titus replies
“Not I; ’twas Chiron and Demetrius:
They ravish’d her, and cut away her tongue;
And they, ’twas they, that did her all this wrong.”
Immediately he calls for Tamora’s sons. Titus gleefully says that Tamora is eating the sons who were baked in the pie. Then what happens are a series of killings. Titus kiilsTamora.Saturninus kills Titus. By then Lucius comes into the scene and seeing his father murdered, kills Saturninus. Aaron is buried chest deep and left to die. Finally only Lucius is alive and the throne of Rome is handed over to Lucius.
The story has five Acts with one to 5 scenes in each of the acts. The story starts with rejoicing and good will but is soon shattered with the killing of Tamora’s son in spite of her pleas. The conflict and complications increase with Titus killing his own son. The complication is further heightened when his sons are framed in a murder and Titus is duped. The climax happens when the rapists of Lavinia are revealed. He kills them and bakes them in a pie and serves it to Tamora. This is the height of revenge in the play. What happens after that is just a natural follow on of the revenge of Titus. The sons of Tamora are killed so too the sons of Titus are killed except for Lucius. So takes over the throne of Rome.
Revenge is the predominant theme of this tragedy. It is tragedy created because of revenge and not so much so because of fate or any other vice. Titus brings Tamora as a prisoner of war. By then in the war Titus had lost 20 of his sons and only four remained. Bringing Tamora back to Rome as a prisoner was a disgrace for the Goths and Titus should have been satisfied. But after reaching Rome he kills her son to avenge the death of his twenty sons. This sets the ball rolling for so many revenge plots in this tragedy. In the end it annihilates almost all the characters of the play.
As a by-product of revenge, violence is also a main theme. Slaughtering is done with no compunction. Titus murders Tamora’s son to take revenge. But why does he mercilessly kill his own son? Just because he stood by sister’s wish of wanting to marry Bassianus? This is something unacceptable and Saturninus turning away from Titus does it rightly so because he cannot how a father can be so cruel. Most of the violence is perpetuated by Titus and Tamora. Even the rape is followed by chopping off Lavinia’s hands and tongue. There is much gruesome violence in this play.
The theme of power is another theme that comes across in this play. Saturninus and Bassianus want to ascend the throne after their father’s death. But when it was suggested that the throne be given to the valiant general, Titus, both reluctantly agree. However Titus gives it back to the sons hoping to retire from public life due to his age. Sometimes it is felt that lack of a powerful king or leader brought about so much of violence in the story.
A strong family tie is also seen as one theme of the play. It is to avenge the death of his sons that Titus kills Tamora’s son. Now Tamora’s love for her children is what prompts her to take revenge on Titus through his daughter. Now Titus’ love for his daughter and his inability to see her suffer is what him pushes him to kill the remaining children of Tamora and bake them in a pie. Therefore it is the strong family that triggers off the chain of killings. The two incidents which do not adhere to this theme is when Titus kills his own son and later his own daughter.
Some of the minor themes are Race, Sexuality and Gender discrimination. Aaron is a moor but his race becomes an issue only when Tamora gives birth to his son. The royal family does not want to see a dark child amongst them and Aaron flees away with his infant son. Lavinia and Tamora are the two women in the story. In the beginning they appear to be objects of fancy for the men but as the play proceeds they become very strong characters. Tamora becomes vile and Lavinia comes up with a way of conveying her tragedy to her father. Both of them change the direction of the story with their actions. Sexuality is mostly suggested.
Fortunately for the readers and the audience many of the killings are done off stage. But the gore is not reduced as they bring in severed heads and hands to show the crime. William Shakespeare’s the early play brought people to the edge of their seats and evoked a repulse in each one’s bosom. Readers and audience should be happy that his later plays saw less of violence than seen in Titus Andronicus.