Study Guide

Titus Andronicus Introduction

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Titus Andronicus Introduction

Read the full text of Titus Andronicus with a side-by-side translation HERE.

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."

What is Titus Andronicus About and 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.

Titus Andronicus Resources


So You Want to Be a 16th Century Playwright?
Check out PBS's cool online game, where you can channel your inner dramatic artist.

Read Titus Andronicus Online
MIT's online edition is great if you need access to the text in a pinch, but be warned: there aren't any helpful footnotes.

Movie or TV Productions

Titus (1999)
Director Julie Taymor's Titus is the most provocative and popular film adaptation of the play. Starring Anthony Hopkins as Titus, this modern adaptation blends the genres of revenge tragedy and fantasy. (It also turned literary critic Marjorie Garber into a vegetarian.)

Titus Andronicus Meets Low-Budget Horror Film

The BBC's Titus Andronicus (1985)
It may not be flashy or gimmicky, but the BBC's made-for-television production of Titus Andronicus is mostly faithful to the text.

Historical Documents

Ovid's Metamorphoses
Book 6 of Metamorphoses (a major source for Shakespeare's play), tells the story of Philomel's rape by Tereus and Procne's revenge. FYI, Procne serves Tereus his son as a meal.

Seneca's Thyestes
Seneca is also a major literary influence on Titus Andronicus. Check out Thyestes, where Atreus serves Thyestes his two sons.

1594 Quarto
Title page for the 1594 edition of Titus Andronicus.


Titus Gets His Own Cooking Show
Check out the Reduced Shakespeare Company's hilarious version of Titus Andronicus, where Titus is the host of a popular cooking show.

Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold (or as a Hot and Juicy Human Pie)
In this film clip from Julie Taymor's modern adaptation of Titus, actor Anthony Hopkins (a.k.a. "Hannibal the Cannibal" from Silence of the Lambs) serves up Demetrius and Chiron in a delicious meat pie. Bon Appetit!

The Mutilation of Lavinia
In this scene from director Julie Taymor's 1999 film, Titus, Demetrius, and Chiron taunt Lavinia after raping and mutilating her. Notice how Lavinia's dismembered hands are replaced by branches in the film, which literalizes Marcus's remarks that her hands have been "lopp'd and hew'd, and made the body bare / Of her two branches" (2.3.1). Warning: this scene is graphic and may disturb some viewers.


Titus Andronicus Rocks
Listen to rock band Titus Andronicus's tune "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ," which concludes with a dramatic reading of Aaron's speech from Shakespeare's play: "Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves and set them upright at their dear friends' door, even when their sorrows almost was forgot, and on their skins, as on the bark of trees, have with my knife carved in Roman letters, 'Let not your sorrow die though I am dead.'"


Anthony Hopkins as Titus
DVD cover for the 1999 film Titus.

Lavinia Tries to Reveal Her Attackers
Thomas Kirk's famous 18th century engraving depicts Act 4, Scene 1.

A shot of Lavinia from Julie Taymor's film Titus (1999).

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