For anyone who has ever watched a low-budget slasher film, Titus Andronicus, with its sensational violence and grisly humor, may seem strangely familiar. If you want to call the play the great-great-great-great grandfather of the modern day horror flick, go right ahead – nobody's going to stop you.
That said, you may be interested to know that Titus Andronicus also fits into the generic category of "Revenge Tragedy," a popular genre in England during the late 16th and early 17th century that includes plays like Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c.1587) and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (c.1623). This genre is influenced by plays written by Seneca (c. 4BC-65AD), who made a good living adapting Greek tragedies into gory, R-rated Roman theater.
Titus Andronicus also fits into the more general category of Shakespearean "Tragedy." We know this is a lot of information to digest (but not as hard to digest as the human pie Titus whips up in Act 5). So we've come up with a couple of nifty checklists of the basic rules for "Tragedies" and "Revenge Tragedies":
Secret murder: Check. Even though Lavinia is a witness when Bassianus is murdered by Chiron and Demetrius, she can't tell anybody right away because her tongue has been cut out and her hands have been chopped off.
Murder victim's ghost visits a relative: OK, here's where our play doesn't fulfill every convention of revenge tragedy. There aren't any ghosts in Titus Andronicus, and nobody returns from the dead (unlike in Hamlet, where the ghost of Hamlet's father shows up and starts bossing everyone around).
Hero wants revenge: Check. It takes a really long time for this to happen, but when Titus finally figures out who killed Bassianus and raped Lavinia, he wants to get his revenge on. (No surprise there – Titus is a pretty violent guy.) This also reminds of Hamlet, where the Prince of Denmark takes for-e-ver getting back at his murderous uncle/stepfather.
Plotting, disguises, and intrigue ensues: Now that Titus knows Tamora's sons are responsible for torturing his family, he drums up a clever way of serving up revenge. He lures Tamora over for dinner, where he serves up Demetrius and Chiron as the main course.
Madness (real and/or feigned): Titus pretends to be insane as part of his revenge plot. Can you guess what this reminds us of? You guessed it – Hamlet, who puts on an "antic disposition" so his uncle won't know he's scheming behind his back.
Rising body count: Check. Let's face it, the bodies begin to pile up from the play's very first scene, where Titus sacrifices Tamora's son, Alarbus, then stabs his own son, Mutius, for getting in his way. (Let's not forget that this goes down after the Romans and Goths have been at war for ten years and Titus has just returned home to bury two of his warrior sons.)
Things just go downhill from there – Demetrius and Chiron murder Bassianus and are punished by being baked into a meat pie, and so on. Titus kills his own daughter, Lavinia, at the dinner table (where are his manners?) and plunges his dagger into Tamora. Saturninus quickly retaliates by stabbing Titus just before he, Saturninus, is stabbed by Lucius.
Major bloodbath, including hero's violent death: Have you been paying attention? Check.
The verdict? Aside from there not being any ghost in the play, Titus Andronicus sure looks like a revenge tragedy to us.
OK, but what about how Titus Andronicus fits into the larger and more general category of Shakespearean tragedy (which also includes plays like Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth)? What do all these plays have in common? Let's discuss:
Dramatic work: Check. Titus Andronicus is definitely a play.
Serious or somber theme: Check. Revenge seems like a "serious and somber theme" to us, but we also want to point out that Titus is also full of dark humor, which you can read about in "Tone."
Hero has a major character flaw or conflict with some overpowering force: Check. Titus has some issues. Namely, he's really old-school and likes to play by the rules. For example, he insists on sacrificing Tamora's son because it's a religious custom, then he hands over the empery to Saturninus because the guy is the late emperor's eldest son. This gets Titus into all sorts of trouble: Saturninus runs off and marries Tamora, who gains enough power to make Titus's life a living nightmare.
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: We'll be honest – we're not exactly sure Titus was "fated" to destruction and downfall. Can you work on this one and get back to us? Thanks.
Here's something you ought to know: not all tragedies end in death, but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do. And here's another thing Shakespeare's tragedies have in common: despite the death of individuals at the end, the plays' conclusions seem to promise the restoration of political order. So even though Titus and Saturninus are both dead at the end, Lucius is still around to step in and restore some order in Rome. See "What's Up With the Ending?" for more on this.