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Titus Andronicus
A Study Guide
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Table of Contents
Type of Work      Composition and First Performance      Publication      Sources      Setting      Characters      Who Were the Goths?     
Plot Summary
Critical Appraisal of the Play     Complete Text      Themes      Climax      Tone and Conflict      Black Humor      Nature Metaphors      Ugly Beauty      Figures of Speech
Allusions      Parallel With Othello      Essay: Titus as a Shrews Business Coup      Special Effects      Study Questions and Essay Topics

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
...© 2003

Revised in 2010, 2016..©

Type of Work

William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is a tragic stage play that has many characteristics of black comedy. The play was highly popular in Shakespeare's time because of its depiction of extreme violence and gore. Many Elizabethans enjoyed bloody spectacles, whether on the stage or out in the open air. For example, many people who attended Titus Andronicus also attended bear-baiting exhibitions in London arenas. In these exhibitions, a bear was chained to a post in an enclosed area. Fighting dogs were then unleashed to attack the bear. A bloody battled ensued. At times, the bear was released to harry the dogs. Queen Elizabeth I was among the spectators who enjoyed this sport. 

Composition and First Performance

Shakespeare wrote the play between 1589 and 1594 (probably 1593). The earliest known performance of Titus Andronicus was at the Rose Theatre in the London borough of Southwark on January 24, 1594. The play was a hit at the box office and was performed again on January 29, February 6, and at other times in Shakespeare's lifetime.


Titus Andronicus was published in two formats: quarto and folio. The difference between them was size. A quarto page was about 9½ inches wide and 12 inches high; a folio page was much larger: 12 inches wide and 19 inches high. The play was printed in a quarto edition in 1594 by John Danter under the title A Romaine Tragedy of Titus Andronicus for two book dealers, Edward White and Thomas Millington. It was the first Shakespeare play to see print. Other quarto editions followed in 1600, and 1611. The 1594 quarto was a relatively good rendering of Shakespeare's original manuscript, but the other two quartos contain errors. The play was printed again in 1623 in folio format as part of a collection that included thirty-five other Shakespeare plays. Because this book was the first collection of Shakespeare's plays in one volume, it came to be known as the First Folio. Other folios were printed in 1632, 1663 and 1685. The 1623 folio edition, like the 1594 quarto edition, was a close reproduction of the original, proofread manuscript.

Probable Main Sources

One of Shakespeare's main sources for Titus Andronicus was Thyestes, by Seneca the Younger (4 BC-AD 65), a Roman dramatist of Spanish birth and a tutor to Emperor Nero. Seneca wrote plays that described in elaborate detail the grisly horror of murder and revenge. Thyestes contains murder, rape, and cannibalism. Shakespeare also borrowed from Hecuba, by the Greek playwright Euripides (480?-406 BC). This play centers on an event at the end of the Trojan War, after the Greeks conquer and burn the city of Troy. This event focuses on the Greeks' capture and enslavement of the queen of Troy, Hecuba. Over Hecuba's pleas, the Greeks sacrifice one of her daughters, Polyxena, to honor the memory of the great Greek warrior Achilles. In Titus Andronicus, the Romans capture the queen of the Goths, Tamora, and sacrifice one of her sons after Tamora begs the Romans to spare him. Shakespeare also drew upon the story of "Procne and Philomela" as told in Metamorphoses, by Ovid (43 BC-AD 17). In this story, Philomela is raped and mutilated, as is Lavinia, the daughter of Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare may also have imitated the blood-and-guts horror and brutality portrayed in The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd (1558-1594). 

The action of the play takes place in Italy—including Rome, a forest near Rome, and plains near Rome—after the Romans defeat an army of Goths (a Germanic people that frequently raided Roman provinces). Titus Andronicus is fictional, but it is set against real events that took place in approximately the third, fourth, and fifth centuries AD. At that time, the Roman Empire was in decline and Goths from the north were pushing southward and threatening Rome and its provinces.

Who Were the Goths?

Originally from Sweden, the Goths later settled in regions around the Baltic Sea and later the Black Sea, according to the sixth-century historian Jordanes, himself a Goth. Around AD 370, the Goths broke into two groups: Those that moved eastward became known as Ostrogoths; those that moved westward became known as Visigoths. They gradually extended power and influence in Europe and in 410 entered and pillaged Rome.

Protagonist: Titus Andronicus
Antagonists: Tamora, Aaron, Saturninus

Titus Andronicus: Noble Roman general who has won a long war against the Goths but lost many of his sons in battle. Although he is at first a reasonable man, events of the play transform him into a madman bent on revenge. 
Saturninus: Duplicitous and selfish older son of the late Emperor of Rome. Saturninus succeeds his father after Titus Andronicus, citing his advancing age, declines to accept the throne. 
Bassianus: Younger son of the later emperor and brother of Saturninus. He is in love with Lavinia.
Tamora: Queen of the Goths, who is unrelenting in her desire to avenge the execution of her son Alarbus at the hands of her Roman captors. Near the end of the play, she unwittingly eats a meat pie made of the flesh of her dead sons.
Alarbus, Demetrius, Chiron: Sons of Tamora.
Aaron: A diabolical Moor and lover of Tamora. Aaron is evil personified, but he has a redeeming quality: love for his child. A Moor was a Muslim of mixed Arab and Berber descent. Berbers were North African natives who eventually accepted Arab customs and Islam after Arabs invaded North Africa in the seventh century AD. The term has been used to refer in general to Muslims of North Africa and to Muslim conquerors of Spain. The word Moor derives from a Latin word, Mauri, used to name the residents of the ancient Roman province of Mauritania in North Africa. To use the term "black Moor" is not to commit a redundancy, for there are white Moors as well as black Moors, the latter mostly of Sudanese origin. In placing a Moor in a play about ancient Rome, Shakespeare was guilty of a literary faux pas. A Moor was a Muslim, or follower of Islam. However, Islam was not founded until the early seventh century. Titus Andronicus is set between the third and fifth centuries AD.
Lavinia: Innocent daughter of Titus Andronicus. She is the victim of horrible crimes, including rape, the amputation of her hands, and the excision of her tongue.
Marcus Andronicus: Tribune of the people and brother of Titus. A tribune was an elected official dedicated to protecting the rights of the common people, called plebeians, from offenses by the privileged people, or patricians.
Lucius, Quintus, Martius, Mutius: Sons of Titus Andronicus. Lucius is the oldest of Titus's living sons.
Young Lucius: Son of Lucius. He is identified in the dialogue as "Boy."
Publius: Son of Marcus the tribune.
Sempronius, Caius, Valentine: Kinsmen of Titus. Valentine assists in the capture of Chiron and Demetrius, who raped and mutilated Lavinia. 
Aemilius: A noble Roman who acts as a negotiator between the Romans and the Goths. At the end of the play, he recommends that Lucius be crowned as the new emperor.
Alarbus, Larbus, Demetrius, Chiron: Sons of Tamora.
Nurse: Woman who brings Aaron his baby, the offspring of a tryst between Aaron and Tamora.
A Captain, Tribune, Messenger, Clown
Goths and Romans
Minor Characters: Nurse, Senators, Tribunes, Officers, Soldiers, Attendants.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...
When General Titus Andronicus returns to Rome after defeating the Goths in a ten-year campaign, the citizens hail him as a hero. Among his captives are the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, and her three sons, Alarbus, Demetrius, and Chiron. Also accompanying Tamora is her lover Aaron, a Moor. Titus has lost many sons in the war and, when the tomb of the Andronicus family is opened to receive the bodies, Titus grieves deeply, saying:

O sacred receptacle [tomb] of my joys,
Sweet cell of virtue and nobility,
How many sons of mine hast thou in store,
That thou wilt never render to me more! (1.1.97-100)
To give them a fitting funeral, Lucius, the oldest of Titus’s three living sons, suggests a human sacrifice. Titus singles out Alarbus, Tamora’s oldest son. She pleads for her son’s life:
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother’s tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me! (1.1.110-113)
Titus replies that “die he must, / To appease their groaning shadows that are gone” (1.1.130-131). Lucius and attendants seize Alarbus and remove him to his place of execution. There, they hew his limbs and “feed the sacrificing fire” (1.1.150). The death of Alarbus triggers a series of gruesome murders and mutilations occurring throughout the play. Lavinia, the gentle daughter of Titus, then comes forth to greet her father, shedding tears of grief for her brothers who died in the war and tears of joy at the sight of Titus.

Meanwhile, it so happens that the imperial crown is up for grabs, the emperor having just died. When it is offered to Titus, he refuses it, saying he “shakes for age and feebleness” (1.1.196), and recommends Saturninus, the oldest son of the dead emperor, for the crown. Titus also recommends that Saturninus choose Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, as his wife and empress.
After Saturninus becomes emperor, Tamora's beauty captivates him. He frees her and her sons. Then Bassianus, the brother of Saturninus, objects to the proposed marriage of Saturninus and Lavinia because Lavinia is betrothed to him. With the help of Lavinia’s brothers, he steals her away. Titus is angry—so angry that he kills his son Mucius when he bars Titus from pursuing the lovers. Later, Saturninus decides that he fancies Tamora more than Lavinia, then marries Tamora and makes her empress. Tamora begins plotting revenge against Titus for allowing the slaughter of her son. Before the palace, Tamora’s lover, Aaron, exalts Tamora, and describes how he will serve her and “wanton” her. He predicts that she will bring ruin to Rome, saying, 
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I? to wanton with this queen,
This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Rome’s Saturnine,
And see his ship wrack [shipwreck] and his commonweal’s. (2.1.21-26)
Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron quarrel over Lavinia. Each lusts after her, and each plans to claim the right to take her from Bassianus. Aaron suggests that they share the lovely Lavinia by taking turns raping her in the seclusion of a forest. The occasion will come during a hunt in the woods for game. Emperor Saturninus, Queen Tamora, and many others are to take part in the hunt. On the day of the hunt, Aaron and Tamora rendezvous in the woods. Tamora speaks of her desire that they may soon lie down “wreathed in each other’s arms / [and] . . . possess a golden slumber'' (2.3.29-30). Aaron confides to her that he is preoccupied with seeking revenge against their enemies, then gives her a letter she is to present to Saturninus. Its contents will abet Tamora’s desire to bring down Titus.

When Bassianus and Lavinia discover Aaron and Tamora together, Tamora fears that the intruders will tattletale to the emperor. So she calls out for her sons, Demetrius and Chiron. When they arrive, Tamora pretends Bassianus has threatened her. Ever ready to defend mommy dearest, the sons kill Bassianus, dump him in a pit, then drag Lavinia off to satisfy their lust. But not only do they rape her, they also mutilate her, cutting off her hands and tearing out her tongue so that she will not be able to speak or write their names in attempting to identify her rapists. Aaron leads Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius to the pit where Bassianus lies dead under cover of brush. Martius falls in. While Aaron goes to fetch Saturninus, Quintus falls in, too, trying to rescue Martius. Saturninus arrives with Aaron. With them are Titus, Lucius, and attendants. Martius, who has discovered the body Bassianus, informs Saturninus that his brother is dead. Tamora then presents Aaron’s letter to Saturninus. It falsely implicates Martius and Quintus in the murder of Bassianus.

Saturninus imprisons them. Judges later sentence them to death in spite of Titus’s pleas on their behalf. Lavinia, of course, cannot testify in their favor, for she has no tongue. When Titus, Lucius, and Titus’s brother Marcus discuss their options, the evil Aaron arrives and tells them that Saturninus will free the sons of Titus if Marcus, Lucius, or Titus cuts off his hand and sends it to the emperor. It is Titus, though, who allows Aaron to cut off his hand and take it to Saturninus. Within a half hour, however, the emperor returns the hand, together with the heads of Titus’s imprisoned sons, in a show of scorn and contempt. Titus orders his son Lucius to flee the city and enlist an army of Goths to overthrow Saturninus. The loss of his sons takes a severe toll on Titus: He begins to go mad. Then Lavinia informs Titus and others about her rape and mutilation by writing in sand with a stick held in her mouth. 

Meanwhile, Tamora has a baby. It is obviously Aaron’s because it has the dark complexion of a Moor. Worried that her husband, Saturninus, will find out about it, Tamora wants it killed. Aaron has other plans. First, he kills the baby’s midwife and nurse to keep secret the baby’s existence. Next, he substitutes a white baby for his own, then leaves with his child to go to the Goths to have them raise it. 

By this time, Lucius is marching on Rome with his army of Goths. Aaron and his baby, who have been captured, appear. Aaron agrees to tell all he knows if his child is allowed to live. It is now Titus’s turn for revenge. He cuts the throats of Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron, then has a pie prepared of their remains. At his home, dressed as a cook, he serves the pie to Saturninus and Tamora, who are seated at a banquet table, unaware of recent events, notably the deaths of Demetrius and Chiron. With Titus is Lavinia, dressed in a veil. After welcoming the emperor and the queen, he bids them eat of the pie, which they do—heartily. Titus then kills Lavinia to put her out of her misery. When Tamora asks why he killed his own daughter, Titus tells her that the deed was really done by Demetrius and Chiron. “They ravish’d her, and cut away her tongue” (5.3.61), he explains. Saturninus then asks that Demetrius and Chiron be brought before him. But Titus says:
Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred. (5.3.64-66)
He flashes the knife he used to prepare the pie, then uses it to kill Tamora. In retaliation, Saturninus kills Titus, and Lucius kills Saturninus. Lucius takes command of Rome as the new emperor. There is unfinished business: Aaron. Lucius orders him to be buried up to his chest, then starved to death.

Critical Appraisal of the Play

Titus Andronicus was a critically acclaimed box-office hit in Shakespeare's time. In Palladis Tamia, English author Francis Meres (1565-1647) singled out Titus Andronicus as one of Shakespeare's "excellent" plays. The play continued to please audiences and critics in performances during Shakespeare's lifetime and beyond. But from 1700 until recent times, critics generally criticized the work as foul and vulgar, with few redeeming qualities. In modern times, the play regained its popularity with audiences and critics. Following are excerpts from commentary of literary critics about the play.
William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

English critic and essayist William Hazlitt described the play as being so bad that he believed Shakespeare could not have written it. He said, in part:
Titus Andronicus is certainly as unlike Shakespeare's usual style as it is possible. It is an accumulation of vulgar physical horrors, in which the power exercised by the poet bears no proportion to the repugnance excited by the subject. The character of Aaron the Moor is the only thing which shows any originality of conception; and the scene in which he expresses his joy at the blackness and ugliness of his child begot in adultery', the only one worthy of Shakespeare. Even this is worthy of him only in the display of power, for it gives no pleasure. Shakespeare managed these things differently. Nor do we think it a sufficient answer to say that this was an embryo or crude production of the author. In its kind it is full grown, and its features decided and overcharged. It is not like a first imperfect essay, but shows a confirmed habit, a systematic preference of violent effect to everything else. There are occasional detached images of great beauty and delicacy, but these were not beyond the powers of other writers then living. The circumstance which inclines us to reject the external evidence in favour of this play being Shakespeare's is, that the grammatical construction is constantly false and mixed up with vulgar abbreviations, a fault that never occurs in any of his genuine plays. A similar defect, and the halting measure of the verse are the chief objections to Pericles of Tyre, if we except the far-fetched and complicated absurdity of the story. The movement of the thoughts and passions has something in it not unlike Shakespeare, and several of the descriptions are either the original hints of passages which Shakespeare has engrafted on his other plays, or are imitations of them by some contemporary poet. The most memorable idea in it is in Marina's speech, where she compares the world to 'a lasting storm, hurrying her from her friends'.—Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817. Online at Project Gutenberg <http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5085/pg5085-images.html>.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

English critic, essayist, and lexicographer Samuel Johnson also doubted that Shakespeare wrote the play. In Volume III of Notes to Shakespeare, he wrote:
The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre, which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience; yet we are told by [Ben] Jonson, that they were not only borne, but praised. That Shakespeare wrote any part . . . , I see no reason for believing.

The testimony produced at the beginning of this play, by which it is ascribed to Shakespeare, is by no means equal to the argument against its authenticity, arising from the total difference of conduct, language, and sentiments, by which it stands apart from all the rest. [Francis] Meres had probably no other evidence than that of a title-page, which, though in our time it be sufficient, was then of no great authority; for all the plays which were rejected by the first collectors of Shakespeare's works, and admitted in later editions, and again rejected by the critical editors, had Shakespeare's name on the title, as we must suppose, by the fraudulence of the printers, who, while there were yet no gazettes, nor advertisements, nor any means of circulating literary intelligence, could usurp at pleasure any celebrated name. Nor had Shakespeare any interest in detecting the imposture, as none of his fame or profit was produced by the press.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

American-British writer and critic T. S. Eliot wrote that Titus Andronicus "is one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all." But Eliot also criticized one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, Hamlet, saying, "We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him."

David Bevington (1931-  )

In the Encyclopaedia Britannica, American literary critic and Shakespeare scholar David Bevington wrote that Titus Andronicus "relates its story of revenge and political strife with a uniformity of tone and consistency of dramatic structure."

Richmond (Indiana) Shakespeare Festival

In an undated Internet article, Indiana's Richmond Shakespeare Festival observed the following: "Titus Andronicus is violent. It is gruesome. It is probably inappropriate for children. But so are most newscasts. And at the heart of Titus Andronicus is a specific and all-too-familiar form of human tragedy, in which the failure of empathy and habit of violence propel well-meaning citizens into cycles of ever-escalating revenge, and give free rein to the worst of human inclinations." <http://www.richmondshakespearefestival.org/plays/titus-andronicus/>

Charles Spencer (1955-  )

London Telegraph theatre critic Charles Spencer wrote in December 2016:

For many of us Shakespeare is a fount of wisdom and beauty, and it is shocking to discover him writing the Elizabethan equivalent of a slasher movie. Yet if you have the stomach for it, the play is wonderfully gripping and seems to speak across the centuries to the horrors of our own troubled times, with its catalogue of dreadful violence and burning hatreds.


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In Titus Andronicus, revenge becomes a rolling juggernaut that destroys all in its path. Once revenge is set in motion by the execution of Alarbus in the first act, the play becomes a bloodbath of revenge, with each side in the conflict taking turns murdering, maiming, immolating, and mutilating. The word revenge and its forms, such as revenged, occurs thirty-four times in the play, vengeance seven times, vengeful twice, and avenge once. Words associated with revenge are spoken hundreds of times. They include blood (and its forms, such as bloody), thirty-eight; murder, twenty-six; kill, nineteen; slaughter three; slay, two. Aaron tells Tamora that he is preoccupied with vengeance: "Blood and revenge are hammering in my head." Tamora, enraged by a plot against her, imposes revenge as a duty on her sons, telling them that:

    Had you not by wondrous fortune come,
This vengeance on me had they executed.
Revenge it, as you love your mother's life,
Or be ye not henceforth call'd my children. (2.3.118-121)
In all the acts of vengeance in the play, the protagonist, Titus, outdoes everyone, serving Tamora and Saturninus a baked meat pie made of diced Demetrius and Chiron, the sons of Tamora. Presumably Titus used "corpse helper" to season the pie, for Tamora ate her fill of "the flesh that she herself hath bred." 


Betrayal is the handmaiden of power. In good faith, Titus yields the throne to Saturninus. Saturninus then turns against Titus. Other characters betray one another for their own selfish ends. Tamora even betrays her own child (fathered by Aaron). Believing that Saturninus will find out about it, she recommends that it be put to death. Aaron, however, wants the child and takes it to the Goths to have them raise it. Before he leaves, he murders the baby's nurse and midwife to prevent them from telling others about the existence of the child.

Commiting Evil for Evil's Sake

There are those who do evil for evil’s sake, notably Aaron. He delights in the bloody mayhem in the play, no motive required. After cutting off Titus's hand—the price Titus had to pay to secure a promise for the return of his sons—Aaron says:

I go, Andronicus: and for thy hand 
Look by and by to have thy sons with thee. 
Their heads, I mean. O, how this villainy 
Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it! (3.1.208-11)
And near the end of the play, he observes:
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (5.1.145-148)
Aaron's actions carry on the tradition of the malevolent Duke of Gloucester in an earlier Shakespeare play, Richard III, and foreshadow the machinations of the diabolical Iago in a later Shakespeare play, Othello.


Violence to gain revenge occurs throughout the play. There are beheadings, stabbings, amputations, the severing of a tongue, the dismemberment of bodies, and other gory events. Apparently, the desire for revenge is so great that it turns human beings into beasts. Titus Andronicus is a relevant in today's world in that in reminds audiences that the kind of barbarity depicted in the play is the same kind of barbarity used by terrorists--and even governments--to pursue their goals. Tactics include decapitation, immolation, torture, assassination, arson, suicide bombings, explosions, rocket attacks, knife attacks, the slaughtering of children, and shootings with automatic weapons.


Aaron is evil. There is no question about that. But how did he get that way? Perhaps prejudice against him turned him against the world. Bassianus says of him:
Believe me, queen, your swarth [dark; black] Cimmerian
[Cimmerian: One of a race of people living in a land of darkness at the edge of the world. Bassianus is comparing Aaron to a Cimmerian.]  
Doth make your honour of his body’s hue,   
Spotted, detested, and abominable. (2.3.76-78).   
When Marcus kills a fly, Titus asks why he killed a harmless creature. Marcus answers,
Pardon me, sir; it was a black ill-favour’d fly,   
Like to the empress’ Moor; therefore I kill’d him. (3.2.68-69)
Titus answers, "Then pardon me for reprehending thee, / For thou hast done a charitable deed" (3.2.71-72). When a nurse presents Aaron the infant he fathered with Tamora, she says,  
Here is the babe, as loathsome as a toad   
Amongst the fairest breeders of our clime.   
The empress sends it thee, thy stamp, thy seal,   
And bids thee christen it with thy dagger’s point.          
Aaron replies, ’Zounds, ye whore! is black so base a hue? (4.2.72-75).
The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Titus Andronicus occurs, according to the first definition, when Titus descends into madness in Act III. According to the second definition, the climax begins in the final act when Tamora dines on the meat pie containing the flesh of her sons. It continues when Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus kills Titus, and Lucius kills Saturninus and becomes the new emperor.

Tone and Conflict

The play begins in joy and sorrow--joy, because the Romans under Titus Andronicus have conquered the Goths; sorrow, because Andronicus has lost sons in the war. "Hail, Rome," Titus says, "victorious in thy mourning weeds [clothes]" (1.1.75). But he burial rites become savagely vengeful when Lucius asks for "the proudest prisoner of the Goths / That we may hew his limbs" and sacrifice him to appease the spirits. Titus grants him the oldest son of Tamora, the queen of the Goths. When he is sacrificed forthwith, new conflict erupts between the Romans and the Goths. Bitterness and rancor then dominate the rest of the play as the foe each plot revenge. Another conflict develops when Saturninus, the son of the late emperor of Rome, turns against Titus Andronicus after the latter yields the crown to him.

Black Humor

Black humor is a form of comedy that parodies, satirizes, trivializes, or exaggerates a morbid, solemn, or tragic event. An actor performs black humor with a deadly serious demeanor and a deadpan face. In English literature, Shakespeare became one of the earliest practitioners of black humor when he debuted Titus Andronicus. Following is an example of a darkly hilarious scene in which Aaron tells Titus that he can rescue two of his sons in exchange for one of his hands, to be sent to the emperor. Titus replies:

O gentle Aaron! 
Did ever raven sing so like a lark, 
That gives sweet tidings of the sun’s uprise? 
With all my heart, I’ll send the emperor My hand: 
Good Aaron, wilt thou help to chop it off? (3.1.163-167) 
Titus’s son Lucius, good boy that he is, then offers his hand in place of his father’s; Titus’s brother Marcus does the same. An argument breaks out over who will part with a hand. While Lucius and Marcus fetch an axe to sever one or the other’s hand, Titus says, “Come hither, Aaron; I'll deceive them both: / Lend me thy hand, and I will give thee mine” (3.1.193-194). Aaron chops off Titus’s hand. When Lucius and Marcus return, Titus coolly says, 
Good Aaron, give his majesty my hand: 
Tell him it was a hand that warded him 
From thousand dangers; bid him bury it. (3.1.201-203) 
Clearly, Shakespeare knew the meaning of black humor long before that term was invented. By the way, during Shakespeare’s time, Titus Andronicus was one of his most popular playsif not the most popular. At the end of the day, he went home with a jingling pocket, recognition, and a brain full of ideas for other tragedies.
Nature Metaphors
In spite of the gruesome plot, Titus Andronicus contains much beautiful imagery, spoken often, ironically, by villains. For example, Aaron hails Tamora’s ascendancy to the queenship with nature metaphors and an allusion to Apollo, the sun god, driving his chariot across the sky: 
Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’ top, 
Safe out of fortune’s shot; and sits aloft, 
Secure of thunder’s crack or lightning flash; 
Advanc’d above pale envy’s threatening reach. 
As when the golden sun salutes the morn, 
And, having gilt the ocean with his beams, 
Gallops the zodiac in his glistering coach,
And overlooks the highest-peering hills; 
So Tamora. 
Upon her wit doth earthly honour wait, 
And virtue stoops and trembles at her frown. (2.1.3-11) 
In Act 2, Tamora speaks nature metaphors to charm Aaron. 
My lovely Aaron, wherefore look’st thou sad, 
When every thing doth make a gleeful boast? 
The birds chant melody on every bush, 
The snake lies rolled in the cheerful sun, 
The green leaves quiver with the cooling wind 
And make a chequer’d shadow on the ground: 
Under their sweet shade, Aaron, let us sit, 
And, whilst the babbling echo mocks the hounds, 
Replying shrilly to the well-tuned horns, 
As if a double hunt were heard at once, 
Let us sit down and mark their yelping noise. 
And, after conflict such as was supposed 
The wandering prince and Dido once enjoy’d,
When with a happy storm they were surprised 
And curtain’d with a counsel-keeping cave, 
We may, each wreathed in the other’s arms, 
Our pastimes done, possess a golden slumber; 
Whiles hounds and horns and sweet melodious birds 
Be unto us as is a nurse’s song 
Of lullaby to bring her babe asleep. (2.3.24-33) 
Ugly Beauty

Ironically, Shakespeare sometimes wraps repulsive images in pleasing ones or tucks them into rhythmically pleasing lines. Lucius reports in Act 1 that 

Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d, 
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, 
Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky. (1.1.149-151) 
In Act 2,  Martius, upon discovering Bassianus dead in a pit, observes: 
Upon his bloody finger he doth wear 
A precious ring, that lightens all the hole, 
Which, like a taper in some monument, 
Doth shine upon the dead man’s earthy cheeks, 
And shows the ragged entrails of the pit: 
So pale did shine the moon on Pyramus
When he by night lay bath’d in maiden blood. (2.3.238) 
In Act 2, Marcus greets Laviniawhose hands have just been cut offwith these lines: 
Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands 
Have lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare 
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments, 
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in. (2.4.19-22) .
Other Figures of Speech

Following are additional examples of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, click here.


Romans, friends, followers, favourers of my right (1.1.11)
spleenful sons  (2.3.196)
In this detested, dark, blood-drinking pit. (2.3.230)
If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me! 
If I do wake, some planet strike me down, (2.4.16-17)

Hear me, grave fathers! noble tribunes, stay! 
For pity of mine age, whose youth was spent
In dangerous wars, whilst you securely slept; 
For all my blood in Rome’s great quarrel shed; 
For all the frosty nights that I have watch’d; 
And For these bitter tears, which now you see. (3.1.3-8)

Witness this wretched stump, witness these crimson lines;           
Witness these trenches made by grief and care;           
Witness the tiring day and heavy night;           
Witness all sorrow, that I know thee well      
For our proud empress, mighty Tamora. (5.2.25-29)

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands 
Have lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare 
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments, (2.4.19-21)
Comparison of severed hands to branches and ornaments

Thou map of woe (3.2.14)
Comparison of Lavinia to a map

Poor harmless fly, 
That, with his pretty buzzing melody, 
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast kill’d him. (3.2.65-68)
charitable murderer (2.3.183)
Lord Bassianus lies embrewed here, 
All on a heap, like to a slaughter’d lamb, (2.3.228-229)
Comparison of Bassanius to a lamb

Upon his bloody finger he doth wear  
A precious ring, that lightens all the hole, 
Which, like a taper in some monument, 
Doth shine upon the dead man’s earthy cheeks, (2.3.232-235)
Comparison of a ring to lighted taper

Alas! a crimson river of warm blood, 
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind, 
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips, (2.4.25-27)
Comparison of the accumulating blood to a bubbling fountain


Shakespeare alluded frequently to Greek mythology and history in Titus Andronicus, as well as his other works, to invigorate the dialogue and enrich his descriptions. His knowledge of mythology was remarkable at a time when books on the topic were in severely limited supply. Following is a partial list of allusions in the play. 

Aeneas (3.2.27): Trojan warrior. After Troy fell to the Greeks at the end of the ten-year war between Greece and Troy, Aeneas escaped the city and sailed to Italy, where he founded a new Troy, Rome. 
Apollo (4.1.69): God of the sun, depicted as driving a golden chariot across the sky. He was also the god of prophecy, music, poetry, and medicine. His alternate name was Phoebus. Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, the daughter of Titans. The Greeks highly revered him and built many temples in his honor. One such temple at Delphi was the site of a famous oracle, the Pythia, who pronounced prophecies as the mouthpiece of Apollo.
Ajax (1.1.393): Powerful Greek warrior in the Trojan War, second second only to Achilles in battlefield prowess among the Greeks. After the war, he killed himself after failing to win the armor of Achilles. 
Cocytus (2.3.242): River in Hades.
Cimmerian (2.3.76): Person residing in a region of everlasting darkness.
Dian (2.3.65): Another name for Diana, the Roman name for Artemis, goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology. She was the twin sister of Apollo.
Dido  (2.3.25): Queen of Carthage, who had a love affair with Aeneas and killed herself after he abandoned her. 
Hymenaeus (1.1.338): God of marriage.
Jove: (4.1.69): King of the Olympian gods. Jove is an alternate Roman name for Jupiter. Jove's Greek name was Zeus.
Laertes (1. 1.394): Father of Odysseus, the wily Greek who devised the Trojan horse.
Laertes' son (1. 1.394): Odysseus.
Lucrece (2.1.118): Lucretia, Roman woman raped by Lucius Tarquinius (Tarquin the Proud). For more information, click here.
Mercury (4.1.69): Messenger god. His Greek name was Hermes.
Olympus: (2.1.1): Mountain abode of the Greek gods.
Pallas: (4.1.69): Alternate name for Athena (Roman name, Minerva), the goddess of wisdom and war.
Philomel (2.4.46): Another name for a nightingale. Philomel is derived from the name Philomela. In Greek mythology. Philomela was a princess of Athens. Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus of Thrace. Not satisfied with only one of the sisters, Tereus lusted after Philomela and one day raped her. To prevent her from revealing his crime, he cut out her tongue. However, Philomel embroidered a tapestry depicting his brutality and showed it to her sister. The two women then plotted against Tereus  and end up serving him his son, Itys, in a stew. When Tereus discovers what they did, he chases them with an axe. The gods then turn Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.
Pyramus  (2.3.237): (The lover of Thisbe. These Babylonians were the subject of a story by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) in his long poem Metamorphoses. When Pyramus thinks a lion has killed Thisbe, he kills himself. Thisbe is still a live, however. But when she discovers the body of Pyramus, she also kills herself. 
Phoebe (1.1.329): Alternate name for Diana (Artemis), the Greek goddess of the hunt.
Priam (1.1.85): King of Troy.
Queen of Troy (1.1.141): Hecuba, wife of Priam, king of Troy. 
Semiramis (2.1.24): Beautiful Assyrian queen of the Ninth Century BC. After her husband, King Ninus, died, she ruled for many years and built the fabled city of Babylon.
Styx (1.1.93): River in Hades.
Tereus (2.4.44): See Philomel.
Tarquin (3.1.307): See Lucrece.
Thracian tyrant: Polymnestor. After he killed Hecuba's son, Polydorus, Hecuba gained revenge by killing his two sons and blinding him. (1.1.143)
Typhon (4.2.99): In Greek mythology, a monster with a hundred heads.
Venus: (2.3.33): Roman name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. 

Parallel With Othello
Titus Andronicus introduces an evil Moor named Aaron who displays goodness near the end when he pleads for his child's life. Othello introduces an upright and righteous Moor who displays evil when he suspects his wife of infidelity and, at the end of the play, kills her. Like Othello, Aaron is the brunt of racist comments.
A Moor was a Muslim of mixed Arab and Berber descent. Berbers were North African natives who eventually accepted Arab customs and Islam after Arabs invaded North Africa in the seventh century AD. The term has been used to refer in general to Muslims of North Africa and to Muslim conquerors of Spain. The word Moor derives from a Latin word, Mauri, used to name the residents of the ancient Roman province of Mauritania in North Africa. To use the term "black Moor" is not to commit a redundancy, for there are white Moors as well as black Moors, the latter mostly of Sudanese origin.

Titus Andronicus: Shrewd Shakespeare Coup..............................
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2004
Titus Andronicus is evidence that William Shakepeare was a shrewd businessman and self-promoter. Aware that Elizabethan audiences had a huge appetite for bearbaiting, bullbaiting, dog-fighting, and cock-fighting, he may have decided to give the people what they wantedanother bloody spectaclewhen he staged Titus. The play was immensely successful.

When he wrote the play in his late twenties, he was struggling for recognition in a city that already had several established playwrights with enormous talent, such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Lodge, and George Peele. To get the attention of the theatre-going public, Shakespeare needed a play that would pack the audiences in. Violent revenge plays happened to be au courant at that time, especially those written after the manner of the ancient Roman playwright Seneca. Seneca's dramas were grisly, verily hemorrhaging with gore. So Shakespeare borrowed a few pages from Seneca’s bloody book, including part of the story line of Seneca’s play Thyestes and Troades.

The plot of that play originated in a Greek myth about Thyestes, the son of Pelops of Mycenae. When Thyestes and his older brother, Atreus, were adults, Atreus became King of Mycenae after Pelops died. Atreus then drove his brother out of the city after the latter challenged him for the throne. One account of this tale says Thyestes had first seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, to gain possession of a golden lamb that conferred on its owner the rulership of Mycenae.

When Thyestes left the city, he took with him Atreus’s child, Pleisthenes, and reared the boy. One day, he sent Pleisthenes on a mission to kill Atreus. But the murder plot was foiled and Pleisthenes was killed. Atreus did not immediately realize that his would-be murderer was his own son.

However, after he discovered to his horror the identity of the assailant, Atreus hatched a plot to get even with his brother: He invited Thyestes to a banquet, pretending he was ready to reconcile with his brother. The main course turned out to be the cooked remains of the sons of Thyestes. Thyestes then laid a heavy curse on the house of Atreus, which lasted for generations.

Shakespeare drew upon Seneca’s adaptation of this myth, as well as other works that discussed it, to create his own version of the story. The result was a horrific drama featuring decapitation, amputation, cannibalism, excision of a tongue, and rape. In other words, a bloody good playwith a meat pie to die for. 

Of course, many critics in later timesfrom the 18th Century onwardattacked the play as “Shakespeare’s worst” because of all the bloodletting; it was politically incorrect, unfit for sensitive audiences. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) wrote of Titus: “The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience.” T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) said it was one of the “stupidest” plays in history. Joseph Sobran, a syndicated newspaper columnist in the U.S., assessed the play this way: "This is generallymore or less universallyregarded as Shakespeare’s worst play. It’s so much worse than anything else he wrote that many scholars have doubted that he wrote it. The critical consensus may be summed up in two words: it stinks." Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom (1930- ), a humanities professor at Yale and New York University and author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, argues that "Titus Andronicus is ghastly bad. I can concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus.”

In my view, Titus Andronicus is a jolly good play, a running hyperbole which, like Voltaire’s Candide, gives us an unbelievable world in order to make the real world believable. In the real world, whether the real world of four centuries ago or the real world of today, people rape, poison, stab, shoot, lynch, torture, drown, cut off heads, cut out tongues, declare war. Often, we onlookers respond with passive acceptance: This is the way of things. We must accept the fact that there will always be “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”or bombs and missilesraining down on us.

Special Effects

Before performing a bloody play such as Titus Andronicus, actors in Shakespeare's day filled vessels such as pigs' bladders with blood and concealed them beneath their costumes. Onstage, they had only to pound a fist against a bladder to release the blood and simulate a gruesome death.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  1. Which character in the play is the most despicable? Explain your answer. 
  2. Are there any admirable characters in the play? Explain your answer.
  3. Write an essay that analyzes the main character, Titus Andronicus. There is plenty of evidence in the play to draw conclusions about him. For example, he recommends Saturninus as the new emperor. But after Saturninus accedes to the throne, he betrays Titus. Does this turn of events suggest that Titus is a poor judge of character? Also, in a fit of anger, Titus kills his own son, Mucius. Does this action suggest that he cannot control his emotions? 
  4. Tamora ostensibly seeks revenge against Titus because he ordered the execution of her son, Alarbus. Are there other motives that fire ....her with vengeance? 
  5. Titus kills Lavinia to put her out of her misery. Was he right to do so? 
  6. Aaron has no admirable qualities except his love for his child. Is his love merely instinctual or genuine and heartfelt?