I read Titus Andronicus all in one sitting a few years ago and I still have a bad taste in my mouth. Once I started, I never wanted to have to get back into the right state of mind to pick it up partway through. I had to finish, though. I’m reading the complete works of Shakespeare, not the palatable works of Shakespeare.
But that doesn’t mean you have to join me, fair reader. I’m going to go ahead and put a trigger warning here.
Titus Andronicus is a nonstop gore-fest that includes some of the most horrifying sexual violence in the written word. As I said when we did The Two Gentlemen of Verona here on What Happens in Shakespeare, I can only read from a 21st-century perspective. And I can only really read with feminist eyes. This might be a play by a young man in the first blush of success, who was not yet the master of his talent, but frat-boy writing is frat-boy writing, no matter how sensitive or capable of examining your decisions you become later. The killings-per-second ratio is cheap and showy. The torture and cannibalism are only there for shock value. Game of Thrones makes you gag, actually gag, before the opening credits are over? Fluffy bunny stuff. I know I’m not the ideal audience for this play, but much as I adore almost all of Shakespeare, I wince whenever anybody talks about Titus Andronicus.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Groundlings love blood!”
What happens in Titus Andronicus
The Roman general Titus Andronicus returns home to Rome after a long war with the Goths. He brings back their queen, Tamora, as a war prize. We already don’t love Titus, but for a passing second we do feel for him because he has lost an incomprehensible number of children in the war – 21 of his 24 sons are now dead. This is an early example of the famously neutral Shakespeare, who wrote a morally ambiguous character like nobody else.
Then Titus loses our goodwill by sacrificing Tamora’s eldest son to the gods. Which is okay according to Roman law, but for us groundlings, it’s just a taste of the mass murder to come. It also sets up Tamora as a sympathetic character. Temporarily. Before she gets dragged through the dirt.
Titus has a daughter, Lavinia. The late emperor’s son Saturninus is supposed to marry her, but in a surprising political move, he marries Tamora instead. Titus is not pleased.
Saturninus and Tamora plot revenge against Titus for the murder of Tamora’s son. Tamora has two other sons, sadistic monsters who rape Lavinia when Tamora urges them to. There goes our empathy for Tamora. The rapists cut off Lavinia’s hands and cut out her tongue so she won’t be able to testify against them, but she manages to write their names in the dirt with a stick.
I’ll concede something to the frat boy here. Shakespeare was, later, pretty good at writing about women who had been raped. He often assigns them real dignity and a surprising range of emotion—shock, rage, shame, grief, everything in between. His long poem, The Rape of Lucrece, first appeared around the same time as Titus Andronicus, and it kind of blew me away just for its balance, the way the audience has to bear excruciating witness to Lucrece’s mental state in the aftermath of the attack that ultimately destroys her life. We get a sense of that Shakespeare in what happens to Lavinia and how she changes. If anything can redeem this play, it’s that.
Meanwhile, back on the stage, Titus escalates the revenge. He pretends to be crazy and accepts a visit from Tamora and her sons, who want to take advantage of his mental instability. He kills the sons and cooks their remains, which he serves to Tamora at a feast.
Still at the feast, Titus kills Lavinia, supposedly so she doesn’t have to live with the shame of having been raped. He also kills Tamora. Saturninus kills Titus. One of Titus’s surviving sons kills Saturninus. Assorted side characters kill other side characters.
Titus’s son, practically the only person still alive in Rome, becomes the Emperor.
I’m a stan, not a scholar, as you know. Mercifully, there’s a whole range of brilliant feminist criticism of Titus Andronicus on the internet. I appreciated Deborah Willis’ article “The Gnawing Vulture”: Revenge, Trauma Theory, and Titus Andronicus for its contextualizing of trauma and the history it offers about revenge plays.