Titus Andronicus  

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Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
as willingly as one would swat a fly,
and nothing grieves me heartily indeed
but that I cannot do ten thousand more.

"Enter the empress' sons with Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravished." --stage-direction to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, an example of the gruesomeness of revenge plays

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Titus Andronicus, or The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus, may be Shakespeare's earliest tragedy. It depicts a fictional Roman general engaged in a cycle of revenge with his enemy Tamora, the Queen of the Goths. The play is by far Shakespeare's graphically violent work, taking its inspiration from the tragedies of Seneca the Younger (the Senecan Tragedies) of Ancient Rome, the gory theatre that was played to bloodthirsty circus audiences between gladiatorial combats. The play lost popularity during the Victorian era because of its gore, and has only recently begun to revive its fortunes.


The Emperor of Rome has died, and his sons Saturninus and Bassianus are squabbling over who will succeed him. The Tribune of the People, Marcus Andronicus, announces that the people's choice for new emperor is his brother, Titus Andronicus, a Roman general newly returned from ten years' campaigning against the empire's foes, the Goths. Titus enters Rome to much fanfare, bearing with him Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons, and Aaron the Moor. Titus feels a religious duty to sacrifice Tamora’s eldest son Alarbus, in order to avenge his son, dead from the war, and allow him rest in peace. Tamora begs for the life of Alarbus, but Titus refuses her pleas. Tamora secretly plans for horrible revenge on Titus and all of his remaining sons.

Titus Andronicus refuses the throne in favour of the late emperor's eldest son Saturninus, much to Saturninus' delight. The two agree that Saturninus will marry Titus' daughter Lavinia. However, Bassianus was previously betrothed to the girl. Titus' surviving sons help them escape the marriage. In the fighting, Titus kills his son Mutius. Titus is at first angry at his sons for bringing what he sees as dishonor upon his name, but his anger is eventually softened by Saturninus. The new emperor, Saturninus, marries Tamora instead.

During a hunting party the next day, Tamora's lover, Aaron the Moor, meets Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius. The two are arguing over which should take sexual advantage of the newlywed Lavinia. They are easily persuaded by Aaron to ambush Bassianus and kill him in the presence of Tamora and Lavinia, in order to have their way with her. Lavinia begs Tamora to stop her sons, but Tamora refuses—she wants revenge. Chiron and Demetrius take Lavinia away and rape her over her husband's body. To keep her from revealing what she's seen and endured, they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands.

Aaron brings Titus' sons Martius and Quintus to the scene and frames them for the murder of Bassianus with a forged letter outlining their plan to kill him. Angry, the Emperor arrests them. Marcus then discovers Lavinia and takes her to her father. When she and Titus are reunited, he is overcome with grief. He and his remaining son Lucius have begged for the lives of Martius and Quintus, but the two are found guilty and are marched off to execution. Aaron enters, and falsely tells Titus, Lucius, and Marcus that the emperor will spare the prisoners if one of the three sacrifices a hand. Each demands the right to do so, but it is Titus who has Aaron hack off his (Titus') hand and take it to the emperor. In return, a messenger brings Titus the heads of his sons. Desperate for revenge, Titus orders Lucius to flee Rome and raise an army among their former enemy, the Goths.

Later, Titus' grandson (Lucius' son), who has been helping Titus read to Lavinia, complains that she won't leave his book alone. In the book, she indicates to Titus and Marcus the story of Philomela, in which a similarly mute victim wrote the name of her wrongdoer. Marcus gives her a stick to hold with her mouth and stumps; she writes the names of her attackers in the dirt. Titus vows revenge. Feigning madness, he ties written prayers for justice to arrows and commands his kinsmen to aim them at the sky. Marcus directs the arrows to land inside the palace of Saturninus, who is enraged by this. He confronts the Andronici and orders the execution of a Clown who had delivered a further supplication from Titus.

Tamora delivers a mixed-race child, and the nurse can tell it must have been fathered by Aaron. Aaron kills the nurse and flees with the baby to save it from the Emperor's inevitable wrath. Later, Lucius, marching on Rome with an army, captures Aaron and sentences him to hang. To save the baby, Aaron reveals the entire plot to Lucius, relishing every murder, rape, and dismemberment.

Tamora, convinced of Titus' madness, approaches him along with her two sons, dressed as the spirits of Revenge, Murder, and Rape. She tells Titus that she (as a supernatural spirit) will grant him revenge if he will convince Lucius to stop attacking Rome. Titus agrees, sending Marcus to invite Lucius to a feast. "Revenge" (Tamora) offers to invite the Emperor and Tamora, and is about to leave, but Titus insists that "Rape" and "Murder" (Chiron and Demetrius) stay with him. She agrees. When she is gone Titus' servants bind Chiron and Demetrius, and Titus cuts their throats, while Lavinia holds a basin in her stumps to catch their blood. He plans to cook them into a pie for their mother.

The next day, during the feast at his house, Titus asks Saturninus whether a father should kill his daughter if she has been raped — <ref>citing the story of Verginia, told in Livy</ref>. When the Emperor agrees, Titus kills Lavinia and tells Saturninus what Tamora's sons had done. He reveals that they were in the pie Tamora has just been enjoying, and then kills Tamora. Saturninus kills Titus just as Lucius arrives, and Lucius kills Saturninus to avenge his father's death.

Lucius tells his family's story to the people and is proclaimed Emperor. He orders that Saturninus be given a proper burial, that Tamora's body be thrown to the wild beasts, and that Aaron be buried chest-deep and left to die of thirst and starvation. Aaron, however, is unrepentant to the end, proclaiming:

"If one good Deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very Soule."

Date and text

Most scholars date the play to the early 1590s. In his Arden edition, Jonathan Bate points out that on 24 January, 1594, it was apparently listed as a new play in Philip Henslowe's diary. However, Bate reports that many scholars have doubted its newness in 1594, given that Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614) describes the play as 25 to 30 years old, which would date it to ca. 1584-89.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Titus Andronicus" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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