Theatre: Titus Andronicus

"Shakespeare as a young writer seems to have gone through a brief Quentin Tarantino phase."
The Reduced Shakespeare Company

William Shakespeare's first and most gruesome, gory, bloody, et cetera, tragedy. As S. Clarke Hulse says, Titus Andronicus is a play with "14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity and 1 of cannibalism—an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines."

Fun times.

Here's a very basic outline: Titus comes back to Rome with his captives — Tamora, queen of the Goths, her three sons, and her lover Aaron the Moor — in tow. He has lost all but four of his twenty-five sons in the war with the Goths. To honour his dead sons' spirits, Titus sacrifices Tamora's eldest son. Tamora, needless to say, ain't happy.

The emperor of Rome, Saturninus, chooses Tamora as his empress, after his brother, Bassianus, runs off with his intended bride Lavinia — who, by a staggering coincidence, is Titus' daughter. (Her surviving brothers help her escape and now it's twenty-two sons down, three to go. Does it count if Titus kills them himself?)

You still with me?

Marrying Tamora proves to be a really, REALLY dumb idea. Tamora has Bassianus killed and frames two of Titus' sons for it. Tamora is still not satisfied, so she gets her two surviving sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to gang rape Lavinia. Then to make sure she can't tell anyone who it was who raped her, Tamora's sons cut out Lavinia's tongue and chop off her hands. After the two sons (sons of Titus - that's the two innocent ones) are found and incriminated, Aaron says they will be spared if Titus cuts off his own hand. Titus does this, but they are beheaded anyway. Titus is hit hard by their deaths. His last son Lucius is banished from Rome for trying to bust his brothers out of prison before the execution. He joins the Goths and attempts to attack Rome.

With the revelation of Lavinia's rape and horrific mutilation, Titus sinks lower into despair and begins to act strangely. Many people think he's gone mad.

Turns out he was faking so he could go about snooping. When he finds out who is behind it all, he kills Tamora's last two sons, cooks them in a giant pie à la Sweeney Todd, and serves them to Tamora without her knowing. The last scene is a bloody battle in which Titus kills Tamora and Lavinia (for her own good) before being killed by Saturninus, at which point Lucius promptly commits regicide. Only a few characters remain alive, one of whom is Lucius, who is then made the new Emperor of Rome, a fair and wise ruler for all.

Oh, and Lucius buries Aaron up to his neck and lets him starve to death. (It was deserved, however.)

Why aren't they teaching more Shakespeare in schools?

The play was made into a movie by Julie Taymor. It's even crazier.

In troping terms, Titus Andronicus tried to be Cincinnatus only for it to backfire spectacularly.

Tropes in Titus Andronicus:

  • Affectionate Parody: Some people think that the reason this play was so violent was because Shakespeare was having a go at Marlowe's often gruesome plays.
    • Indeed, there are some scholars who argue that Shakespeare wrote Titus with such an outrageous amount of gore (even for the time period) that he actually intended for it to be a comedy. See the bit about the knife and the fly if you're skeptical. Noted Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt reworked it into a comedy.
    • May be the Ur Example of Parody Retcon.
  • Alien Lunch: Tamora should consider vegetarianism.
  • All Swords Are the Same: "He dies upon my scimitar's sharp point / That touches this my first-born son and heir." A scimitar is a specific type of sword that does not have a particularly sharp point.
  • Anachronism Stew: For Ancient Rome, there sure are a lot of Christian references that wouldn't have been around back then. Furthermore, there was no Roman emperor who fought a war against the Goths (who invaded during the declining years of the Empire), and a Tribune (a political office from the era of the Roman Republic) wouldn't have served alongside the emperor.
    • The 1999 film is full of this.
  • And I Must Scream: Lavinia. Much of the play revolves around her attempts to communicate the names of her attackers.
  • Bait the Dog: Chiron and Demetrius are just two teenagers until Aaron gives them an idea.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Aaron and Tamora. Between the two of them, they mastermind every bad thing that happens in the play.
  • Break the Cutie: Break, dismember... not all that different.
  • Cain and Abel: Bassianus and Saturninus
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Aaron
  • Casting Gag: In the 1999 film adaptation, Titus, the guy who brutally murders a bunch of people and serves their remains as food, was played by Anthony Hopkins.
  • Characters Dropping Like Flies: The entire play is a veritable bloodbath featuring not only murder but also rape, torture and cannibalism with more than a 70% kill rate for named characters.
  • The Chessmaster: Aaron
  • Chewing the Scenery: The play lends itself to this, and in the film, some of the actors (Anthony Hopkins, most especially) take advantage of it.
  • Chocolate Baby: Tamora and Aaron have one, much to Chiron and Demetrius' displeasure.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture:
    • The rape and mutilation of Lavinia is not shown onstage, but the way Chiron and Demetrius taunt her about it after the fact is horrifying.
    Demetrius: So now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
    Who 'twas that cut thy tongue and ravish'd thee.
    Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
    An if they stumps will let thee play the scribe.
    Demetrius: See, how with signs and tokens she can scrawl.
    Chiron: Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.
    Demetrius: She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash,
    And so let's leave her to her silent walks.
    Chiron: An 'twere my case, I should go hang myself.
    Demetrius: If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.
    • Aaron being buried up to his neck in the sand and left to die.
  • Cruel Mercy: Lucius spares Aaron from hanging, because after hearing what a monster the guy is, he feels that a quick hanging death would be too kind. After Titus' revenge is complete, Lucius gives him a much more fitting painful end.
  • Cue the Sun: The film ends with Young Lucius carrying Aaron's child away into the sunrise.
  • Cycle of Revenge: The entire plot.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: At the start of the play, twenty-one of Titus' 25 sons are dead. It's the mutilation of Lavinia, though, that tips him over the edge into madness, angst, and atheism.
  • Defiled Forever: Lavinia.
  • Due to the Dead: In the evil form.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Aaron loves his baby son.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Chiron and Demetrius have no compunctions about raping and dismembering Lavinia or killing Aaron's baby son, but they are still taken aback when Aaron murders the nurse. And Aaron has no compunctions about murdering the nurse (and practically every other misdeed in the play), but he'll also fight to the death to save his son's life.
  • Evil Matriarch: Tamora
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: You would have to be blind, deaf, dumb, and stupid not to know how this trope applies.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: Lavinia would rather die than be raped by Chiron and Demetrius. Unfortunately for her, Tamora knew it. This was also Titus' excuse for Offing the Offspring.
  • For the Evulz: Aaron. "If one good deed in all my life I did / I do repent it from my very soul."
  • Genre Blindness: Chiron and Demetrius should have known that preventing Lavinia from speaking or writing wouldn't be enough to stop her from accusing them; Io didn't need hands or a tongue to tell her father what had happened to her...
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: in the film, Alan Cumming seems to be sporting a Hitler-combover.
  • Gorn: Duh.
  • Historical Fiction: A little bizarre to think of it this way but perfectly true.
  • Honor-Related Abuse: Lavinia's death.
  • I Ate WHAT?: So Tamora, about that pie...
  • I Banged Your Mom: Really!
    Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?
    Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.
    Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.
    Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Titus's Chiron and Demetrius pies.
  • Just Desserts: Titus does this to Chiron and Demetrius.
  • Kill 'em All: Six named characters are left alive by the end, and one of them gets killed soon after.
  • Life or Limb Decision: Titus has to choose between his hand and his sons. He cuts off his hand only to have his sons killed anyway.
  • Mama Bear: Tamora. She will come after you and your children!
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: The question is settled by the Chocolate Baby.
  • Mercy Kill: Titus' explanation for killing Lavinia.
  • Morality Pet: Aaron's son
  • Nasty Party: The climax.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: Lavinia is loved by all until she goes for a walk in the woods.
  • Not So Different: Titus and Tamora. Both "love" their kids. Both power-hungry. Both willing to kill other people's children in revenge. Both sick nut-jobs. Need I go on?
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Titus really is insane...just not as insane as he convinced Tamora and her sons he was.
  • Offing the Offspring: Titus murders both Mutius and Lavinia.
  • Outnumbered Sibling: Titus had 25 sons and one daughter. But the ratio is down to 4:1 by the start of the play, and keeps 'improving'.
  • Papa Wolf: Aaron, after his son is born. Of course, since this is Aaron, his plan to protect his son mostly consists of murdering people.
  • Parody Retcon: How most of the modern Shakespeare apologists try to rehabilitate Titus Andronicus without resorting to outright Retcon. May make this the Ur Example.
  • Rape and Revenge: Lavinia may no longer be physically capable of killing Chiron and Demetrius herself, but she can sure as hell hold the bowl to catch their blood while her father butchers them.
  • Rape as Drama: Lavinia.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Tamora could just kill Titus for sacrificing her son, but she chooses instead to murder Bassianus and subject Lavinia to a Fate Worse Than Death.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Titus goes on one after his daughter is disfigured and raped.
  • Scary Black Man: Aaron is somehow scarier than the other villains. And he's a Moor.
  • Setting Update: The 1999 version leaps and bounds through various time periods at the whim of the director.
  • Sinister Scimitar: Aaron's weapon of choice, though he only threatens to use it against those who would kill his son.
  • Those Two Guys: Quintus and Martius.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Chiron and Demetrius. Quintus and Martius as well, depending on how they're played.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Titus and his family is subjected to this. By the end of the play, it's hard to blame the guy for snapping.
  • Twincest: Chiron and Demetrius in the 1999 film. They also have a lot in common with Oedipus Rex in terms of how much they love their mother.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Aaron and Tamora all the way.