Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
“All lovers of Shakespeare would be glad to relieve the poet of responsibility for that concentrated brew of blood and horror, Titus Andronicus” (Goddard, I 33). Grim assessments of the play’s focus, characterization, and poetry, its pre-Brechtian “alienation effect” (Bloom 79), and the obvious emphasis on gratuitous and extremely grisly violence — all make this play second-rate in the minds of most critics. With “no intrinsic value,” “It matters only because Shakespeare, alas, undoubtedly wrote it” (Bloom 86). There has even been some reluctance to accept the play into the canon, where even now it is apt to be “regarded as a Shakespearean stepchild rather than a legitimate heir” (Garber 75). Nevertheless, the play is ascribed to Shakespeare in Meres’ 1598 list.
An anonymous quarto edition was printed in 1594. Before that, Henslowe mentions a 1593 performance of Titus & Ondronicus but lists no author. Further, some wonder if the thing was “written earlier than is generally supposed” (Goddard, I 34): “something about Titus Andronicus is archaic, in an unpleasant way” (Bloom 86). Ben Jonson in 1614 mentions the play along with The Spanish Tragedy as being 25-30 years old. If we look much earlier, we find The historye of Titus and Gisippus performed at Whitehall in February 1576-77 — was this a transcription error? (Clark 47). Probably not, since it does seem to refer to two characters sharing an ideal friendship, à la Damon and Pythias. Thomas Watson refers in his Sonnet 71 to “dear Titus mine, my ancient friend,” which well may have been meant for the banished Oxford (Anderson 183). The annotation preceding the sonnet mentions “Titus, as if him selfe were Gysippus” (Clark 48).
Titus Andronicus is aligned often with The Spanish Tragedy and the so-called Ur-Hamlet in the revenge genre. Thomas Nashe seems to be referring to Oxford as the “English Seneca” (Ogburn and Ogburn 344), and this play fits best the notion of the Senecan “orgy of atrocity” (Goddard, I 34), with its characteristic “almost cartoonish hyper-violence” (Farina 170). Either Shakespeare hoped to exceed the Senecan tragedy of blood in the same way that The Comedy of Errors exceeds Plautus in comedy (Goddard, I 34), or else perhaps he pushes the extremes so far that it indicates a disgust with the entire genre (Asimov 391). Bloom cannot take the play seriously, insisting that Shakespeare is mocking and exploiting Marlowe (Bloom 78); he decides the play is all a “send-up” or a “burlesque” (78): an “exploitative parody” (78) and a “howler” (79). And Bloom finds reason to mention Stephen King twice in his chapter.
The year before the Folio (in 1622) The Compleat Gentleman, written by the distinguished Jacobean educator Henry Peacham, was published. While a student at Cambridge in 1595, Peacham sketched a scene from Titus, believed to be the earliest surviving rendering of a scene from a Shakespeare play. In The Compleat Gentleman, Peacham listed Elizabethan poets who made that era a “golden age,” including Edmund Spencer and Philip Sidney, among others. First among Peacham’s list, however, was “Edward Earl of Oxford.” As for William Shakespeare, there is absolutely no mention of him, nor was this omission corrected in the multiple, subsequent editions that were published long after the First Folio had appeared. (Farina 172)
The 1595 date of this sketch, which does not match any scene we have of the version of the play we have, has been re-examined. See David Roper’s articles, “Henry Peacham’s Chronogram.” The De Vere Society Newsletter (July 2001): 7-11; “The Peacham Chronogram: Compelling Evidence Dates Titus Andronicus to 1575.” The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 37.3 (Fall 2001): 1, 14-17, 21; and “The Peacham Document Revisited.” The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 38.1 (Winter 2002): 9, 17.
The sketchy Oxfordian consensus is that the playwright wrote an early version in about 1577, in haste after the “Spanish Fury” against the Dutch Protestants in November 1576, in order to warn that the horrors were a real danger (Clark 49). In this view, Saturninus is Philip of Spain, Tamora is Mary Stuart, and Lavinia is partly Queen Elizabeth and partly the city of Antwerp, ravished “within its walls and in its low-lying situation” by the Spanish Fury (Clark 52). Antwerp did get its name — Hand-werpen, or hand-throwing — from a legend concerning amputation as a tariff (Clark 56; Ogburn and Ogburn 355).Oxford returned to the play, reworking it to enable an application to events involved in his banishment and disgrace in the early 1580s (Ogburn and Ogburn 344; Anderson 183-184). Tamora becomes conspiracy personified (Ogburn and Ogburn 348) and emphasis is placed on Aaron, the first two syllables of (Charles) Arundel, the English traitor who ended up working with the Spanish to get the English crown for Mary Stuart (Clark 50, 54). [The last syllable, “dell,” is key to the rape scene, though the word comes out only in numerous synonyms (Clark 50; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 347-348).]
[Among the vagaries of interpretation: Tamora may also contain traces of Catherine de Medici (Ogburn and Ogburn 142), the Andronici may in some respects be the Vere ancestors (Ogburn and Ogburn 148), and Anderson tries to suggest that Oxford’s wife Anne was actually raped and that a cover-up ensued (Anderson 147).]
The action begins at the Roman Capitol, the senate and tribunes waiting for a resolution to the issue of who will be the new emperor. Saturninus, the older son of the prior emperor, vies with his brother Bassianus who supports an election process. [Simier used the name Saturn in reference to Philip of Spain in letters to Queen Elizabeth (Ogburn and Ogburn 348).] From even the second line, we start encountering words such as “arms” (I.i.2), “hand” (I.i.163), and “head” (I.i.186) — all terms used metaphorically for now. Marcus Andronicus announces that his brother Titus was unanimously chosen in a vote, due to his admirable military victories over the Goths. He and his four remaining sons have recently returned from a ten-year battle; many other of his sons, 21 of them in fact, have been killed over the years. Marcus calmly prevents a possible civil war when Saturninus and Bassianus withdraw their objections.
Titus Andronicus enters after a procession of his four sons and a coffin. Since the play is all fiction, no history (Asimov 391), Asimov is left to thrash about with all the classical allusions instead, the first of which is Titus’ comparison of himself to the King of Troy: most of his twenty-five sons, “Half of the number that King Priam had” (I.i.80), have been killed in the wars. The conquered Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her three sons, along with Aaron the Moor, have also been brought in. Interestingly, Tamora will be compared with Hecuba soon (I.i.136f).
Titus prepares to place a new coffin in the family tomb when one son, Lucius, asks for a Goth prisoner “That we may hew his limbs” (I.i.97) and sacrifice him for the slain brothers so that their spirits do not haunt the living. Titus chooses Alarbus, whose mother Tamora pleads for him, begging Titus to imitate the gods: “Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? / Draw near them then in being merciful. / Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge” (I.i.117-119). Unfortunately, this is “advice which almost no one in the play, including the speaker, ever follows” (Goddard, I 34). Titus sticks to the ceremony. His sons take Alarbus off to be slain. “O cruel, irreligious piety!” spits Tamora (I.i.130). Another son of hers, Demetrius, recommends laying revenge plans, and the nature of his allusion to Hecuba suggests that Shakespeare knew not just the Ovid version of her story but also the Euripides play in Greek:
The self-same gods that arm’d the Queen of Troy
With opportunity of sharp revenge
Upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent
May favor Tamora, the Queen of Goths….
Titus’ sons return with bloody swords: “Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d” (I.i.143), and the coffin is now laid in the tomb. Titus eulogizes at the tomb:
In peace and honor rest you here, my sons,
Rome’s readiest champions, repose you here in rest,
Secure from worldly chances and mishaps!
Here lurks no treason, here no envy swells,
Here grow no damned drugs, here are no storms,
No noise, but silence and eternal sleep.
In peace and honor rest you here, my sons.
[Does the mention of “damned drugs” allude to Leicester (Ogburn and Ogburn 346)?]
Titus’ virtuous daughter Lavinia arrives, praising her father’s “victorious hand” (I.i.163) and making much ado about her own tears of mourning. Marcus informs Titus about the election victory, hoping he’ll “help to set a head on headless Rome” (I.i.186). “The play’s obsessive concern with dismemberment and with severed body parts has a political referent” (Garber 81). Marcus’ use of the term palliament (I.i.182) has given rise to much critical fracas due to its appearance as an apparent coining in George Peele’s 1593 work The Honor of the Garter (see Frank Kermode’s introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare 1066). But Titus feels he is too old and prefers a Prospero-like semi-retirement: “Give me a staff of honor for mine age, / But not a sceptre to control the world” (I.i.198-199). So as with Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and perhaps other plays, here we begin with “two rival factions and a judge whose judgment cannot contain the impending strife” (Garber 76).
After some squabble in which Saturninus says, “Andronicus, would thou were shipp’d to hell, / Rather than rob me of the people’s hearts!” (I.i.206-207), Titus supports his claim to the emperorship, despite Bassianus’ sense of outrage. Titus even transfers the support of the people to Saturninus, who deems it a great return of honor when he asks for the hand of Lavinia in marriage, although a moment later he admits privately to being much taken with Tamora. We see in a dumb show Saturninus courting Tamora.
Lavinia, it turns out, is engaged to Bassianus, who declares her, and Titus’ sons support Bassianus. Titus shouts treason, and in the chaos, as the younger set kidnaps Lavinia, one son, Mutius, is killed by Titus. “Throughout the sequence the emphasis is on Bassianus’s rights, and throughout the sequence Lavinia is silent…. Raped and silent in the woods, she has already been raped and silent in Rome” (Leggatt 243; see Alexander Leggatt, “Titus Andronicus: A Modern Perspective,” in the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of the play — NY: Washington Square Press, 2005).
Saturninus, feeling mocked, no longer wants anything to do with the Andronicus family, calling Lavinia “that changing piece” (I.i.309) and selecting Tamora as his wife. Saturninus praises Tamora as “like the stately Phoebe” (I.i.316) — the moon — a comparison even Asimov thinks is odd (Asimov 400). Tamora vows to be a fine “handmaid” (I.i.331). Titus is not invited to the feast, and he rages about the dishonor done to the family who have been serving Rome and dying for “five hundred years” (I.i.350) — a historically more logical reference to the Veres, actually (Ogburn and Ogburn 346). Titus must be coaxed into allowing Mutius’ body into the family tomb, especially by Marcus, who notes:
Thou art a Roman, be not barbarous:
The Greeks upon advice did bury Ajax
That slew himself; and wise Laertes’ son
Did graciously plead for his funerals….
This reference indicates that Shakespeare read Sophocles’ Ajax — again, he had access to the ancient plays and he knew Greek.
Titus backs down and they place Mutius’ corpse in the tomb. Marcus expresses some surprise, perhaps concern, about Tamora rising in status so rapidly. Titus thinks she will be grateful to him for bringing her to Rome in the first place.
Saturninus returns with Tamora, her two sons, and Aaron the Moor. A heated exchange between the Emperor and Bassianus involves the latter being considered a traitor and a vow of vengeance on Bassianus for the Lavinia incident, which Saturninus calls a “rape” (I.i.404). These terms such as “headless,” “unspeakable,” and now “rape” are “metaphors [that] will come to grisly life” (Garber 76-77). Tamora puts on a show of urging Saturninus to forgive Titus and the rest, and Saturninus is momentarily surprised, so that Tamora must reply, “the gods of Rome forfend / I should be author to dishonor you!” (I.i.434-435). She notes that her recommendation is just because Titus has so many supporters present that Saturninus could easily look ungrateful for his support. She does make most of them kneel and ask the Emperor’s pardon though, and she secretly tells Saturninus that she vows to massacre them at another time for ignoring her pleas for her son’s life earlier. So good will is extended among all, but it is hypocritical. Saturninus declares it a “love-day” (for the settling of disputes) (I.i.491) and accepts Titus’ invitation “To hunt the panther and the hart” (I.i.493) tomorrow.