Titus Andronicus: Unbelievable, Disgusting,Better Left Unread

Aaron in Shakespeare's awful play Titus Andronicus

Aaron, the Moor and slave to the queen of the Goths and empress of Rome, protects his unexpected child in Titus Andronicus.

Of all the Shakespeare’s plays I’ve read so far, Titus Andronicus is the one I would like to have never read.

Titus Andronicus must have been written and presented to shock (or disgust) Elizabethan theater patrons. It did comment on some traditional human foibles and attributes that often play a part in Shakespeare’s plays, and it was a descendant of several ancient (albeit disgusting) sources and stories, but Titus Andronicus—not the band—doesn’t work as a myth, reality or dream. For me, it’s just—yes you probably have guessed it—disgusting and a waste of time.

In the play, Titus Andronicus is a popular conquering general, suggesting he has a powerful intellect and dominant will. His brother is a Roman Tribune. It should have been disaster for anyone to tinker with this family. But the two men are played over and over and over again as fools, only perceiving the motives of others and the accompanying disasters after the family is smitten.

The Roman emperor, Saturninus, who rises to power at the goodwill of Titus Andronicus, shows an astounding naiveté and profound lack of situation-saving judgment and curiosity, from the beginning to his abrupt end. Then there’s the queen of the Goths, presented to us as sublimely subtle (and very lustful), yet whose haste in revenge and stupidity in lust wholly destroys her “subtle” work. And don’t forget the queen’s slave, a Moor named Aaron, who becomes an obvious image and personification of the Devil, in a bow to the racist English audience of the late 1500s.

All in all, Titus Andronicus and its story demand that we (and playgoers over the centuries) suspend logic and reason.

Grace Starry West in her Classical Allusions in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus notes the play “is generally considered Shakespeare’s worst” and has 53 allusions in the play. I suffered through each allusion as I read–they distracted from the plot (but why complain about that, as any distraction from this story is welcome relief). Fifty-three classical allusions apparently matches the total in Troilus and Cressida, but the allusions in Troilus fit naturally and neatly into that tragedy. The allusions in Titus Andronicus seem forced.

The regretful plot: Titus Andronicus returns to Rome triumphantly after defeating the Goths. He brings, to parade through Rome, the queen of the Goths and her three awful sons. Titus puts to death one of the sons for his actions against Rome. The queen had begged Titus not to do it, but to show mercy. He doesn’t, and she turns to revenge. Meanwhile, Titus supports Saturninus as emperor, and has promised his daughter, the fair and virtuous Lavinia, as wife to the new emperor.

But Titus’s sons, Lavinia and the emperor’s brother Bassianus have a different plan, and take Lavinia to marry Bassianus, as she had earlier been pledged to him. Titus is outraged and kills one of his sons for treason (unlikely I’m sure). The emperor calms down Titus. Saturninus doesn’t care, he’ll just marry the conquered queen of the Goths. Once he does, she begins her campaign of revenge.

Her sons want their way with Lavinia, so the empress has them kill Bassianus, rape Lavinia, cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so she can’t implicate them. (These are not nice people.) She then frames two of Titus’s three remaining sons for Bassianus’ murder. (It’s an unmentioned miracle, but Lavinia doesn’t bleed to death.) Instead she returns to live with her family. The emperor discovers his brother’s murder, and orders Titus’s sons held, but never asks about Lavinia. (Amazing. No wonder Rome fell.)

The plot is just picking up steam: Titus’s two framed sons are to be put to death, but the senate offers their lives if one of the other family members will cut off a hand. (Absurd, I know.) So, Titus cuts off a hand and sends it to the senate, which sends it back mockingly with the heads of his sons. (I’m embarrassed for myself and the Bard to repeat the plot.)

All the while, the queen is two-timing the emperor with her Moor. Suddenly, the queen gives birth to a baby, but the baby is dark-skinned. The Moor, Aaron, escapes with the baby to save its life.

Finally, Titus invites everyone to his house (including his last son who has joined forces with the Goths and has returned to conquer Rome). There he serves up the queen’s sons, who he’s killed, to their mother as a dainty dish. He unveils Lavinia for the emperor who suddenly wants to know who did this. (Come on. Where has he been the entire play?) Titus then kills Lavinia for her shame, reveals the content of the dinner—her sons—to the empress and stabs her. The emperor then kills one-handed Titus, and Lucius—Titus’s remaining and returning son—kills the emperor.

Aaron, the Moor slave, has already been captured by Lucius and confessed to all. He admits he has been the mind, motivation and evil behind the queen/empress. His only regret: “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” Earlier he proclaimed, “If there be devils, would I were a devil, to live and burn in everlasting fire.” He is sent off to death.

My only regret is that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus and that it has survived for more than 400 years. The plot is unbelievable (and disgusting).

The play has several disgusting sources. According to Shakespeare-Online:

There is a possibility that Shakespeare relied upon a poem circulating in 1570, unfortunately titled, A Lamentable Ballad of the Tragical End of a Gallant Lord and of his Beautiful Lady, With the Untimely Death of Their Children, Wickedly Performed by a Heathen Blackamore, Their Servant: The Like Seldom Heard Before. We know that, as a minor source, Shakespeare used Ovid’s tale of Progne and Philomela (as found in Metamorphoses), which he cited almost verbatim in Act IV, Scene I (42) of the play.

Philomela is referenced many times in the play. She was raped and had her tongue severed, but her hands remained to weave an accusation against the perpetrator. In revenge, she and her sister serve her rapist his son in a meal.

Also mentioned by Shakespeare-Online is the influence Seneca’s Thyestes. In that Roman drama, a brother, for revenge, slays his nephews and serves them to their father for dinner. The personal significance of that association is that I used quotes from and references to Thyestes several times in my novel Beyond the Wood, because a father eating his sons perfectly captures the American Civil War, where governing men from the North and governing men from the South consumed their own progeny in the vanity of war.

The theme of Titus Andronicus seems to be the destructive nature of revenge, outright racism, the consequences of lust, and, lastly, no matter how capable you think someone in this play is, they’re not.

For absurdity, sordid plot, racism, pandering to his audience, and awkward and overuse of allusions, I give Titus Andronicus one Bard (and that includes grade inflation of at least two Bards):Titus Andronicus doesn't even deserve one Bard.




Quotes I like:

Tamora: Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge

Tamora: O cruel, irreligious piety!

All: He lives in fame that died in virtue’s cause.

Titus: Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive that Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?

Tamora: I have touched thee to the quick

Aaron: I know thou art religious, and hast a thing within thee called conscience

Next Up: Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Tags: , ,

7 Responses to “Titus Andronicus: Unbelievable, Disgusting,Better Left Unread”

  1. Short Foray Away: Orrapin Restaurant and a Premier – The Seattle Shakespeare Company’s: Titus Andronicus | A FEW DAYS AWAY Says:

    […] Anne’s The Seattle Center Theater and The Seattle Shakespeare Company’s premier of Titus Andronicus. I was pretty sure about the soup…this Shakespeare play? Well, this could be a challenging one […]

  2. admin Says:

    Glad the food was good, and from your review it looks like you liked the play. But as you noted the play “could be a challenging one.” In the Seattle production, you conclude “the director leaves us to wonder the direction of humankind in our times…redemption…or no?” My dislike of this play is so deep however, I will steer clear of Titus Andronicus and look for other venues asking the same question.

  3. Archie Dunlop Says:

    Thanks for the analysis, which I disagree with. As you are no doubt aware, it is a play that has become more popular since the Second World War, and it is often seen as one of Shakespeare’s better works. I think you are wrong to say the play is racist. Yes, some of the characters are racist, but the issue of racism is actually confronted by Aaron – who is of course the play’s genius. To me the play is about multiculturalism, ideology, and political correctness, though I don’t think Shakespeare was necessarily thinking in those terms. Another point is, that the play is one of his earlier works. Yes, in places it is disjointed, but some of the themes are picked up in later plays. Anyway, what you wrote did help encourage me to write a reply – see the link to my website, where I don’t usually write about literary topics.

  4. admin Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to respond and for your insights.

    As you invited, I read your blog on the play and note here the site for others: http://www.archiedunlop.com/2017/05/03/titus-andronicus-in-the-age-of-trump/. Shakespeare gives us all so many perspectives from which to see his work and so many ways to interpret each play. You’ve applied the play to our current world and US political situation. I would not have seen it without your thoughts and am left feeling that one of your overall concerns is for loss of freedom of expression, whether by legal, social or political means. I share your concern and worry that protection of those rights, including the right of religious freedom, is at risk and must be protected and nurtured. With freedom of expression protected and respected, I do believe multi-culture societies can prosper and thrive. But respect for one another and love of humanity must undergrid all we do, think and say. I’m not sure we’re seeing that right now in the world.

    All that said, I’m still no fan of this play.

  5. Archie Dunlop Says:

    Thanks for the link. Yes, I think freedom of expression is important. In the West we think of political correctness, but in a country like Turkey it is very different – journalists being arrested, for example. One other thing I take exception to is your comment “And don’t forget the queen’s slave, a Moor named Aaron, who becomes an obvious image and personification of the Devil, in a bow to the racist English audience of the late 1500s”. I am not sure that the word “racism” is easily translated to a Sixteenth Century context. And if the play is racist, why was Aaron such a rounded character? Titus and Aaron were the only characters in the play who were real people, who had real personalities. And of course Aaron attacks racism, by saying to his child’s nurse “Zounds ye whore! Is black so base a hue?” One final point. In many respects Titus Andronicus is a black comedy… Shakespeare can’t continue with the tragedy indefinitely. Check out Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Titus, when he kills Chiron and Demetrus, and serves them to their mother. It’s more comedy than tragedy.

  6. Herbert Says:

    I actually quite enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s just because I am a masochist and love plays considered his ‘worst’ (like Timon of Athens), but it was very exciting. And I loved the Clown (my poor fool is hanged!) with his pigeons. The fact he mentions them every other line really made me sad.

    Overall, I appreciate what you say, but I cannot possibly agree.

  7. admin Says:

    Thanks for you comments. I will however continue to passionately dislike the play. I can do without it because I think the world already has plenty of hatred, revenge, manipulation. I’d rather see plays, movies, words and actions that lead us to personal and social improvement and compassion. What we eat impacts our physical health, and what our minds consume, I strongly suspect, impacts our emotional health and attitudes.

Leave a Reply