Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
We don't know about you, but when we first found out we were going to read and then watch Shakespeare's "bloodiest tragedy," we didn't exactly think there'd be a lot of laughs. But the thing about Titus Andronicus is that, amidst the horrific, nonstop violence, Shakespeare reveals a dark sense of humor.
Don't get us wrong, nobody is laughing when Lavinia is raped and mutilated (except for the demented Demetrius and Chiron). But later in the play, Shakespeare gets, well, silly. The clearest example of this is when Titus appears on stage "dressed like a cook" (Stage Direction, Act 5, Scene 3) and serves up Demetrius and Chiron as the main course of a banquet. And Shakespeare doesn't stop there. After Tamora feasts on her own sons and then asks where Demetrius and Chiron could be, Titus gleefully announces, "Why, there they are, both baked in / this pie" (5.3.9).
This is gruesome and, yes, distasteful, but it's also kind of funny, because Shakespeare makes light of the way these two rapists/murderers get their just desserts. For modern audiences, the play's macabre sense of humor often seems familiar, and that's because the sick jokes in Titus Andronicus are forerunners to the kind of dark humor we see in modern-day horror flicks like Zombieland, Jennifer’s Body, and the Scream movies.