William Shakespeare wrote what is most likely his first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, in the 1590s when he was just coming up as an exciting new playwright.
Famous for its displays of horrific cruelty and over-the-top violence (including ritual sacrifice, rape, bodily mutilation, murder, torture, and cannibalism), Titus Andronicus is often compared to modern-day horror films. In the play, Roman general Titus Andronicus gets caught up in a vicious cycle of revenge with his nemesis and former war prisoner, Tamora. Titus's daughter Lavinia is savagely raped by Tamora's sons, who cut out her tongue and chop off her hands so she can't identify them verbally or in writing. When Lavinia is finally able to reveal the identities of her attackers, Titus gets revenge by killing the rapists and serving them (as pie) to their mother.
Shakespeare borrowed much of this plot line from Book 6 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which Philomel is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, who also cuts off her tongue. In the story, Philomel's sister (Procne) gets revenge by serving Tereus's son for dinner. Shakespeare also seems to have been thinking of Seneca's play Thyestes, where Atreus serves up Thyestes's two sons.
If you're wondering what the heck Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote this bloody play, you should know that Titus Andronicus is considered a "revenge tragedy," a genre made popular in the 16th century by Thomas Kyd (Spanish Tragedy) and John Webster (White Devil). Some critics argue that in Titus Shakespeare is attempting to outdo the bloodshed found in these previous plays, while others see it as an attempt to mock the ridiculously excessive violence of the genre.
For others, the horrific violence makes the play just plain bad. Modernist poet T.S. Eliot declared that Titus Andronicus is "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written" ("Seneca in English Translation"). Some critics (such as Brian Vickers) even speculate that Shakespeare didn't actually write Titus Andronicus, or that he at least had a little help from some other dramatist, like George Peele, who was known for his blood-and-guts drama.
Nevertheless, Titus was a fan favorite in Shakespeare's time, even if some critics think of it as Shakespeare's ugly "stepchild."
Why Should I Care?
OK, so most of us have never become the object of a mother's bloody vengeance after we sacrificed her eldest son to appease the spirits of our dead relatives. But that doesn't mean we can't take anything away from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.
Sure, this is a gory drama filled with gratuitous and over-sensationalized violence. But once we've waded through all the blood and guts and body parts that litter the stage, the play is asking a serious question: Is revenge ever justifiable? It's a question that remains totally relevant over 400 years after Shakespeare penned his infamous tragedy.
So relevant, in fact, that it's often the subject of contemporary works of literature and film. Consider Carrie, in which Stephen King's title character uses her telekinetic powers to get revenge against her bullying high school classmates.
Let's think about Carrie for a minute. It's true that a group of mean-spirited teenagers humiliated Carrie by dumping pigs' blood on her at the high school formal. But does that mean it was OK for her to massacre a gymnasium full of her classmates, teachers, and chaperones? Not so much. (Who knew that low-budget horror movies could be so profound?) Likewise, it's not OK for Titus to trick Tamora into eating her own sons after Titus bakes them into a yummy pie – even though Tamora's family committed unspeakable acts of violence against Titus's family.
Our point? Before you carry out your wicked plans to get back at the obnoxious kid who pantsed you in front of gym class then stole your prom date, take it from Titus Andronicus: revenge is not the answer – it will turn you into a monster.