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 under the title Titus.

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 Gorn (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.
  • Alien Lunch: The infamous pie served to Tamora.
  • Anachronism Stew: 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. Possibly justified in some cases as the chronology of the tragedies places Titus Andronicus "during the reign of a fictional (late?) Roman emperor" with the plays it is between being Cymbeline, early first century AD, and Hamlet, c. ninth-tenth century AD.
  • Asshole Victim: The majority of the victims in the play are very unpleasant people to begin with (except Lavinia). Chiron and Demetrius deserve special mention.
  • 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: Poor Lavinia, about the only innocent character in the play, becomes the victim of rape, dismemberment, being regarded as Defiled Forever, and eventually Honor Related Killing.
  • Black and Grey Morality: Tamora, Aaron, Chiron, and Demetrius cross the Moral Event Horizon early on when they rape and mutilate Lavinia. But Titus also commits a number of atrocities including ritually killing Tamora's eldest son in front of her, baking Chiron and Demetrius into pies, tricking Tamora into eating her own sons, and honor killing Lavinia after she's been raped.
  • Black Comedy: According to some scholars and directors, anyway. Still, even when it's been successfully staged this way, it's a very dark comedy at best.
  • Bloody Hilarious: Part of the argument for it being a Black Comedy is that the gory scenes seem meant to be played like this.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Aaron. In a monologue, he states that he did "a thousand dreadful things" and the only thing he regrets that he cannot do "ten thousand more."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Tamora's attempts to avenge her son on Titus lead to Titus's attempts to get revenge on Tamora.... and so on, and so on. This engine essentially drives 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 is seen this way after becoming the victim of rape, ultimately leading to her honor-related killing. Naturally this is a severe case of Values Dissonance.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: 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.
  • 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.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Titus's sons and his brother give him this when he handed Lavinia, already engaged to her true love, to the new emperor. They become even frustrated when Titus refuses to bury the son he ended up stabbing.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Aaron and Tamora all the way.
  • Your Mom: The infamous line "I have done thy mother".