Cheat sheet: Titus Andronicus
A handy guide to bluffing your way through Shakespeare's confronting and gory revenge tragedy
A quick flick through Titus Andronicus
Flushed with military victory over the Goths, Romans should be enjoying a period of peace, law and order. Instead, Rome is “a wilderness of tigers”.
Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is a prisoner of war along with her three sons. Despite Tamora’s pleas for mercy, Roman war hero Titus Andronicus executes Tamora’s eldest son. She swears revenge.
Two brothers, Saturninus and Bassianus, are vying to rule Rome but Titus is the people’s choice. Titus declines the seat of power and, thrust into the role of kingmaker, bestows the honour upon Saturninus. To sweeten the deal, Saturninus announces his intention to marry Lavinia, Titus’s daughter – but then has a swift change of heart and marries Tamora instead.
This outcome suits Lavinia, who is now free to marry her true love, Bassianus. But Tamora’s lover Aaron has other ideas. He incites Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to murder Bassianus, and rape and mutilate Lavinia. Aaron then frames two of Titus’s sons for the crimes.
At Aaron’s suggestion, Titus sacrifices his own arm to try and secure his sons’ release – but only their severed heads are returned to him. Distraught and vengeful, Titus sends his only surviving son, Lucius, to raise an army with the Goths.
The story concludes as it began: in bloodshed. Titus has his revenge over Tamora, by killing her sons and serving them up for her dinner. He then kills her too, before Saturninus kills him.
Having murdered the nurse who delivered his newborn baby, Aaron has gone on the run. He remains unrepentant, even after he is captured by Lucius, and sentenced to death.
Lucius invades with the Goths, slays Saturninus and seizes power. An uneasy peace settles over Rome…
Portents of doom
Titus Andronicus was a dazzling example of a young William Shakespeare writing with fearless experimentalism. In many ways, it was a portent of the darker plays that would follow.
Titus was Shakespeare’s first foray into epic Roman tragedies, where flawed heroes clash with ambitious politicians. As with his subsequent Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Antony And Cleopatra, and Coriolanus), Shakespeare imbues his characters with light and shade. We recoil at the violence from Titus and Tamora, yet we empathise with their personal loss and the trauma they suffer.
Titus also gave Shakespeare an early chance to flex his muscles in the ‘revenge tragedy’ genre. The terrors that Titus and Tamora wreak upon one another are driven by their own personal sense of injustice and their desire to rebalance the scales. Shakespeare returned to this potent formula in several of his later plays, perhaps most famously in Hamlet.
Elsewhere in Titus, Aaron The Moor is like a blueprint for Shakespeare’s most infamous villain of all – Iago in Othello. Both characters revel in making the audience complicit in their malevolent plans. Both lack remorse or pity for their victims. And both remain a source of morbid fascination for audiences to this day.
Post-show conversation starters to make you look smart
THAT WAS THEN ...
Records suggest that Titus Andronicus was the first ever tragedy Shakespeare wrote and that it was immediately a box office smash. The blood and gore wouldn’t have discouraged the Elizabethan audience at all. After all, they used to flock to see convicted criminals being hanged, drawn and quartered.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Titus Andronicus has fallen in and out of favour with audiences down the years. After its initial popularity, the play was considered too violent to be staged from the mid-17th century until the early 20th century. Since then, it’s become a cherished collector’s item for many theatre lovers.
Titus Andronicus is not based on actual events in Roman history, unlike Shakespeare plays such as Julius Caesar and Antony And Cleopatra. Instead, the playwright borrowed elements from Ovid’s Metamorphosis VI and may have drawn inspiration from an old Italian tale called The History of Titus Andronicus.
THIS IS NOW ...
This new production offers the rare chance to see female actors take the lead roles in Titus Andronicus. For Director Adena Jacobs the play “is really about parents and children” and the transference of violence from parent to child. “I wondered what it would be like if there were three mothers at the centre of the play” she says. Titus, Tamora and Aaron will not be gendered as women in the production, Jacobs adds, “but nevertheless the audience will know they are women”.
Titus Andronicus has been described as “Shakespeare’s Tarantino Play” and it’s easy to see why. Just like Quentin Tarantino’s movies, Titus Andronicus draws upon the comedic potential of violence, ratchets up the tension and then delivers a bloody climax.
When casting for the 1999 movie adaptation of Titus Andronicus, director Julie Taymor found the ideal lead: Anthony Hopkins, who had played serial killer Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs.
All images by Brett Boardman.