Study Guide

Titus Andronicus Revenge

By William Shakespeare



What, madam! be dishonour'd openly,

And basely put it up without revenge?

be won at last;
Dissemble all your griefs and discontents:
You are but newly planted in your throne;
Lest, then, the people, and patricians too,
Upon a just survey, take Titus' part,
And so supplant you for ingratitude,
Which Rome reputes to be a heinous sin,
Yield at entreats; and then let me alone:
I'll find a day to massacre them all
And raze their faction and their family,
The cruel father and his traitorous sons,
To whom I sued for my dear son's life,
And make them know what 'tis to let a queen
Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain. (1.1.18)

This passage reveals a lot about Tamora's character and her motivation for taking revenge against Titus. Whereas Saturninus wants to seek revenge against Titus's family out in the open (because he lost Lavinia to Bassianus), Tamora encourages her new husband to play nice in public because the Roman people would probably side with Titus. At the same time, we can also see that Tamora wants to destroy the Andronicus family because Titus refused to spare her eldest son's life, even after she got on her hands and knees and begged him to. Is Tamora justified?

Madam, though Venus govern your desires,
Saturn is dominator over mine:
Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.
Hark Tamora, the empress of my soul,
Which never hopes more heaven than rests in thee,
This is the day of doom for Bassianus:
His Philomel must lose her tongue to-day,
Thy sons make pillage of her chastity
And wash their hands in Bassianus' blood.
Seest thou this letter? take it up, I pray thee,
And give the king this fatal plotted scroll. (2.3.2)

OK, it's pretty clear that Aaron seeks "vengeance" for something, because here he passes up an opportunity to get all steamy with his lover, Tamora, in order to plot against the Andronicus family. The question, however, is this: What is it, exactly, that Aaron seeks retribution for? Does he have any real or justifiable motives?

On the one hand, we could say that Aaron has no real motives for vengeance and that he just likes to be bad. After all, Aaron brags openly about doing a "thousand dreadful things, / As willingly as one would kill a fly" and that he curses the day "wherein [he] did not some notorious ill; / As kill a man, or else devise his death, / Ravish a maid or plot the way to do it," and so on (5.1.11). Yet when Aaron lashes out at the nurse for calling his dark-skinned child a "joyless, dismal, black and sorrowful issue" that should be "christen[ed] with a dagger's point" (4.2.6), we can see that Aaron may be responding to the way the Romans and Goths treat black men. This seems especially true when he asks "is black so base a hue?" (4.2.11).

But straight they told me they would bind me here
Unto the body of a dismal yew,
And leave me to this miserable death:
And then they call'd me foul adulteress,
Lascivious Goth, and all the bitterest terms
That ever ear did hear to such effect:
And, had you not by wondrous fortune come,
This vengeance on me had they executed.
Revenge it, as you love your mother's life,
Or be ye not henceforth call'd my children. (2.3.5)

Tamora sure could use some parenting classes, don't you think? Here she not only lies to her sons about why she's in the middle of the forest with Aaron, she also encourages them to kill Bassianus and rape Lavinia. If we haven't already lost sympathy for Tamora, here's where she becomes a completely unsympathetic figure.

Gentle Lavinia, let me kiss thy lips.
Or make some sign how I may do thee ease:
Or shall we cut away our hands, like thine?
Or shall we bite our tongues, and in dumb shows
Pass the remainder of our hateful days?
What shall we do? let us, that have our tongues,
Plot some deuce of further misery,
To make us wonder'd at in time to come. (3.1.9)

Titus's first instinct as the father of a victim of violence is to seek vengeance, or "plot some deuce of further misery."

Alas, poor man! grief has so wrought on him,
He takes false shadows for true substances. (3.2.6)

At this point, the cycle of violence and vengeance seems to have taken a toll on Titus's sanity. In fact, just about everyone in the play thinks he's gone mad. (We can see why, especially when Titus gives his strange "don't kill that innocent fly" speech and shoots arrows into Saturninus's court.) But Titus later reveals that he's merely pretending to be insane in order to get revenge against Tamora's family. (Kind of like Hamlet, who puts on an "antic disposition" while he plots to take down his murderous uncle/stepdad, Claudius.) It turns out that madness (real or faked) is a common theme in 16th century revenge tragedies like Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy.

I say, my lord, that if I were a man,
Their mother's bed-chamber should not be safe
For these bad bondmen to the yoke of Rome.
Ay, that's my boy! thy father hath full oft
For his ungrateful country done the like. (4.1.5)

Yikes! When Young Lucius declares the means by which he would avenge his aunt's rape (by storming into Tamora's "bed-chamber" for payback), we can't help but be disturbed. Lucius is merely a child, and yet his family's involvement in a blood feud is teaching him to repeat the cycle of revenge-fuelled violence. Marcus's "atta boy" response makes him no better than Tamora, who encouraged her sons to rape Lavinia back in 2.3.5.

Come, go with me into mine armoury;
Lucius, I'll fit thee; and withal, my boy,
Shalt carry from me to the empress' sons
Presents that I intend to send them both:
Come, come; thou'lt do thy message, wilt thou not?
Ay, with my dagger in their bosoms, grandsire.
No, boy, not so; I'll teach thee another course. (4.1.10)

We saw above that Young Lucius seems ready to join in the cycle of bloody violence. Here Grandpa Titus promises to teach him a more subtle way to get revenge.

O sweet Revenge, now do I come to thee;
And, if one arm's embracement will content thee,
I will embrace thee in it by and by. (5.2.7)

When Tamora visits Titus (whom she thinks has gone mad) dressed as the physical embodiment of "Revenge," Titus plays along and embraces her. There's a whole lot to say about this dramatic moment. We particularly like literary critic Alexander Leggatt's point of view. Leggatt writes that "When Titus welcomes her [Tamora] with a one-armed embrace, the moment has a double significance: Titus is embracing Revenge but he is also embracing Tamora – and the act conveys, more than Titus realizes, how much he and his victim have in common" ("Titus Andronicus: A Modern Perspective").

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)

As Titus prepares to slit Chiron and Demetrius's throats and bake them into a meat pie, he declares that he'll serve the dish to Tamora at a banquet. This puts a whole new spin on the concept that "revenge is a dish best served cold," wouldn't you say? Titus also makes a grisly pun when he says he's going to "rear" a "coffin." "Coffin" is another word for piecrust, which is what Titus intends to whip up out of the boys' blood and ground-up bones. Of course, a coffin is also what dead bodies are placed in for burial, so there's some dark humor at work here.

Die, frantic wretch, for this accursed deed!


Can the son's eye behold his father bleed?

There's meed for meed, death for a deadly deed! (5.3.8)

Like all revenge tragedies, Titus Andronicus ends in a complete bloodbath that leaves the tragic hero (Titus) and a lot of other characters dead on stage.

Now is my turn to speak. Behold this child:

Pointing to the Child in the arms of an Attendant

Of this was Tamora delivered;
The issue of an irreligious Moor,
Chief architect and plotter of these woes:
The villain is alive in Titus' house,
And as he is, to witness this is true.
Now judge what cause had Titus to revenge
These wrongs, unspeakable, past patience,
Or more than any living man could bear.
Now you have heard the truth, what say you, Romans?
Have we done aught amiss,--show us wherein,
And, from the place where you behold us now,
The poor remainder of Andronici
Will, hand in hand, all headlong cast us down.
And on the ragged stones beat forth our brains,
And make a mutual closure of our house.
Speak, Romans, speak; and if you say we shall,
Lo, hand in hand, Lucius and I will fall. (5.3.3)

This is weird. After all the revenge-fuelled violence that leaves Lavinia, Titus, Tamora, and Saturninus dead on stage, Marcus hold up Aaron and Tamora's baby as "proof" that the Andronicus family was justified in killing the emperor and his wife. What's up with that?