Study Guide

Titus Andronicus Family

By William Shakespeare


Romans, friends, followers, favorers of my right,
If ever Bassianus, Caesar's son,
Were gracious in the eyes of royal Rome,
Keep then this passage to the Capitol
And suffer not dishonour to approach
The imperial seat, to virtue consecrate,
To justice, continence and nobility;
But let desert in pure election shine,
And, Romans, fight for freedom in your choice. (1.1.1)

As Bassianus and Saturninus vie for the Roman empery, their sibling rivalry is played out on a political stage. The nasty domestic dispute that opens the play anticipates the civil strife that will nearly destroy Rome.

Noble patricians, patrons of my right,
Defend the justice of my cause with arms,
And, countrymen, my loving followers,
Plead my successive title with your swords:
I am his first-born son, that was the last
That wore the imperial diadem of Rome;
Then let my father's honours live in me,
Nor wrong mine age with this indignity. (1.1.1)

Like a lot of Shakespeare's plays, Titus Andronicus is interested in primogeniture (the system by which eldest son inherits all his father's titles, wealth, and land). Here Saturninus argues that he should lead Rome because he's the oldest son of the late Roman emperor and he's willing to go to war with his younger brother for the right to do so. Yet Saturninus's argument doesn't quite hold up, because Rome's new emperor is supposed to be chosen by election.

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother's tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me! (1.1.1)

As Tamora begs for her eldest son's life (which is about to be sacrificed to appease the spirits of Titus's slain sons), she appeals to Titus as one parent to another. This, as we know, is not such a good plan, because Titus isn't exactly winning any "father of the year" awards. Keep reading ...

What, villain boy!
Barr'st me my way in Rome?
Help, Lucius, help! (1.1.17)

When Titus stabs Mutius for helping Bassianus run off with Lavinia (who has just been engaged to the new emperor), we can see that Titus values his reputation and his commitment to Rome more than his family – he doesn't even bat an eyelash when he kills Mutius. Titus may be Rome's favorite war hero, but he's a lousy father.

Revenge it, as you love your mother's life,
Or be ye not henceforth call'd my children. (2.3.5)

Earlier we saw Tamora plead for her eldest son's life as a loving mother. Here, however, Tamora manipulates her own sons into doing her dirty work for her. She lies about an encounter with Bassianus and Lavinia and orders her sons to prove their love with an act of vengeance, threatening to disown them if they don't obey.

Chiron, thy years want wit, thy wit wants edge,
And manners, to intrude where I am graced;
And may, for aught thou know'st, affected be.
Demetrius, thou dost over-ween in all;
And so in this, to bear me down with braves.
'Tis not the difference of a year or two
Makes me less gracious or thee more fortunate:
I am as able and as fit as thou
To serve, and to deserve my mistress' grace;
And that my sword upon thee shall approve,
And plead my passions for Lavinia's love. (2.1.1)

When Demetrius and Chiron bicker over who "deserves" to woo Lavinia, they reenact a sibling quarrel we saw earlier in the play – Bassianus's and Saturninus's fight over who should marry Titus's daughter.

Here is the babe, as loathsome as a toad
Amongst the fairest breeders of our clime:
The empress sends it thee, thy stamp, thy seal,
And bids thee christen it with thy dagger's point. (4.2.6)

When Tamora gives orders to have her newborn son "christen[ed]" with a "dagger's point," the Empress seems indistinguishable from Titus Andronicus, who is also willing to slay his own children.

Stay, murderous villains! will you kill your brother?
Now, by the burning tapers of the sky,
That shone so brightly when this boy was got,
He dies upon my scimitar's sharp point
That touches this my first-born son and heir! (4.2.15)

Aaron has been the worst kind of villain throughout this play, masterminding the rape of Lavinia, the murder of Bassianus, the deaths of Martius and Quintus, and so on. Yet here we see a side of Aaron that makes him seem more humane than many of the other characters. While Titus Andronicus is a father willing to kill to his own children, Aaron steps up and defends his child's life.

You know your mother means to feast with me,
And calls herself Revenge, and thinks me mad:
Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I'll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallow'd dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on; (5.2.18)

Revenge is a family affair in this play. Here we learn that Titus plans to kill Tamora's sons, bake them into a pie, and serve them to her for dinner. What's interesting about this passage is the way Titus compares Tamora to the "earth," a kind of mother who "swallow[s]" her own children when they are buried. The idea is that Tamora's mouth will become a kind of grave for her sons' bodies when she eats them.

Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee;
And, with thy shame, thy father's sorrow die!
What hast thou done, unnatural and unkind? (5.3.5)

The audience is shocked when Titus kills his own daughter, an act that does indeed seem "unnatural and unkind." Why does he do it? According to Titus, Lavinia could never survive the "shame" of being raped. What's more, Titus can't stand looking at his daughter without feeling "sorrow," so it seems that he kills her for very selfish reasons.