Study Guide

Titus Andronicus Power

By William Shakespeare


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)

Titus Andronicus begins with the issue of dynastic succession. Here, Saturninus claims that he should be named Rome's new leader because he is the eldest son of the late emperor.

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)

When Bassianus announces that he, not Saturninus, should be named Roman Emperor, it becomes clear that Rome is unstable and will continue to be that way so long as these two brothers are bickering over who should be in power.

Titus Andronicus, the people of Rome,
Whose friend in justice thou hast ever been,
Send thee by me, their tribune and their trust,
This palliament of white and spotless hue;
And name thee in election for the empire,
With these our late-deceased emperor's sons:
Be candidatus then, and put it on,
And help to set a head on headless Rome. (1.1.3)

When Marcus announces that the people have elected Titus their new emperor, he uses a familiar political concept, known as the "body politic," to ask Titus if he will accept and "help set a head on headless Rome." For now, the idea that unstable Rome is "headless" without a leader is merely a metaphor. Later, however, when the literal bodies and dismembered body parts begin to pile up, the concept is made frighteningly literal.

A better head her glorious body fits
Than his that shakes for age and feebleness:
What should I don this robe, and trouble you?
Be chosen with proclamations to-day,
To-morrow yield up rule, resign my life,
And set abroad new business for you all? (1.1.7)

When Titus refuses to be named emperor, does he become at least partially responsible for the chaos that ensues in Rome?

Rome, I have been thy soldier forty years,
And led my country's strength successfully,
And buried one and twenty valiant sons,
Knighted in field, slain manfully in arms,
In right and service of their noble country
Give me a staff of honour for mine age,
But not a sceptre to control the world:
Upright he held it, lords, that held it last. (1.1.7)

When Titus says he's too old and too tired to rule, he reminds us of a character Shakespeare develops about a decade after this play – King Lear, whose own retirement sets his country down the path of civil war and tears his family apart. This is clearly a concept that Shakespeare remained interested in throughout his career as a playwright.

Tribunes, I thank you: and this suit I make,
That you create your emperor's eldest son,
Lord Saturnine; whose virtues will, I hope,
Reflect on Rome as Titan's rays on earth,
And ripen justice in this commonweal:
Then, if you will elect by my advice,
Crown him and say 'Long live our emperor!' (1.1.10)

Uh oh, big mistake. Titus chooses Saturninus (even though he has just threatened Titus's life) to lead Rome because he is the late emperor's eldest son. What's interesting is that Titus has chosen the emperor according to the rules of primogeniture (the system by which eldest sons inherited their fathers' titles and wealth) and not by any kind of merit-based system. Titus says he "hopes" Saturninus will be a virtuous ruler, but we all know that doesn't turn out to be true. So, the play is very interested in how rulers should be chosen.

History snack: When Shakespeare wrote Titus, primogeniture was the mode by which crowns were passed on when kings died. Obviously, in Titus's Rome, the empery is decided by election, not primogeniture. But the fact that Titus chooses Saturninus over Bassianus suggests that Titus is a traditionalist.

Titus Andronicus, for thy favors done
To us in our election this day,
I give thee thanks in part of thy deserts,
And will with deeds requite thy gentleness: (1.1.6)

Saturninus's tune sure changes fast when Titus names him emperor. (Just a few seconds ago he was ready to wage war against his brother and threatened Titus.) This clues us in to the fact that, even though Rome's body politic now has a "head," Rome will likely continue to be as unstable as its new leader.

Notice also that Saturninus acknowledges that he owes Titus for everything he has. This feeling won't last long.

Now climbeth Tamora Olympus' top,
Safe out of fortune's shot; and sits aloft,
Secure of thunder's crack or lightning flash;
Advanced above pale envy's threatening reach.
As when the golden sun salutes the morn,
And, having gilt the ocean with his beams,
Gallops the zodiac in his glistering coach,
And overlooks the highest-peering hills;
So Tamora: (2.1.1)

Aaron describes Tamora's rise to power in lofty terms, comparing the Goth Queen turned Roman Empress to the "golden sun" rising over the ocean. Because Aaron is having an affair with Tamora, he sees this as an opportunity for himself as well.

Is warlike Lucius general of the Goths?
These tidings nip me, and I hang the head
As flowers with frost or grass beat down with storms:
Ay, now begin our sorrows to approach:
'Tis he the common people love so much;
Myself hath often over-heard them say,
When I have walked like a private man,
That Lucius' banishment was wrongfully,
And they have wish'd that Lucius were their emperor. (4.4.4)

Saturninus's poor leadership and abuse of Titus's family are not lost on the "common people" of Rome. Here we learn how the people want Titus's son Lucius to lead them. We also find out that Saturninus is so paranoid that he disguises himself as a commoner and walks the streets of Rome to find out what the people are saying about him. (Shakespeare's King Henry V also disguises himself and walks among his soldiers to find out what his troops think about him and the war he's waging.)

O, let me teach you how to knit again
This scatter'd corn into one mutual sheaf,
These broken limbs again into one body;
Lest Rome herself be bane unto herself,
And she whom mighty kingdoms court'sy to,
Like a forlorn and desperate castaway,
Do shameful execution on herself. (5.3.2)

After Rome has been nearly destroyed by Titus's blood feud with Tamora, Marcus calls for unity. What's interesting is that Marcus uses the same body politic metaphor we saw in the play's first scene (see above). Here Marcus says he'd like to see Rome's "broken limbs" united again in "one body" under a new leader. When Lucius is named emperor in the moments that follow, he picks up on Marcus's metaphor and promises to "heal" Rome's injuries.