The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is considered to be William Shakespeare's first tragedy. It is set in The Roman Empire, albeit a very fantastic and fictional version that is melange of different periods and settings. Unlike his other Roman plays, it doesn't use real historical figures as characters. It is noted to have been produced and performed by 1594. It is arguably one of the few Shakespeare plays (alongside A Midsummer Night's Dream and perhaps The Tempest) that is entirely original to Shakespearenote . Some scholars believe that the first parts of the play were co-written by George Peele, but this hypothesis is disputed.
At the start of the play, there is a Succession Crisis for the Imperial Throne. The brothers Saturninus and Bassianus compete for the crown, seeking the support and backing of the popular general Titus Andronicus, currently on campaign against the Goths. When Titus returns from his campaign, he brings as captives Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, her servant Aaron the Moor, and her sons Chiron, Demetrius and Alarbus. He has lost all but four of his twenty-five sons in the war with the Goths. On arriving in Rome, to honour his dead sons' spirits, Titus sacrifices Tamora's eldest son, Alarbus. Titus declines the Crown and backs Saturninus, consenting to a marriage alliance between the new Emperor and his daughter Lavinia. Lavinia is already betrothed to Bassianus, and the latter elopes with her. Her brothers support Bassianus against their father's wishes, and in a scuffle, Titus kills one of his own sons, Mutius. In the wake of this, Saturninus announces that he will wed the captive Queen Tamora, who counsels pardon and peace. But now having suddenly gone from captive to queen, she seeks to plot her revenge on the House of Andronicus, aided in part by the scheming Aaron the Moor, who has his own agenda and drive. The resulting Gambit Pileup will bring rot and ruin to Rome itself.
This is one of Shakespeare's most controversial and contentious plays, albeit for different reasons than say, The Merchant of Venice, owing less to its subject matter, and more to its style, presentation, and heavy sex and violence. It was rarely performed and revived until the second half of the 20th Century, when Peter Brook in 1955 mounted a famous production starring Laurence Olivier. More recently, it was adapted by Julie Taymor under the title Titus, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role.
Tropes in Titus Andronicus:
- An Aesop: Someone has to be the one to break the cycle of revenge.
- Affectionate Parody: A few critics 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. Others dispute this, noting many other tragedies from the period with violence of similar nature, and likewise the presence of Black Comedy mixed with gruesome violence was a pretty common Elizabethan-Jacobean trope.
- Ambiguous Time Period: The chronology of the tragedies puts this play "during the reign of a fictional (late?) Roman emperor" with the plays between it being Cymbeline, early first century AD, and Hamlet, c. ninth-tenth century AD.
- 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.
- And I Must Scream: Lavinia is raped, has her hands cut off, and then her tongue cut out by Tamora's sons. Despite being unable to speak, she communicates her plight to her father Titus, and uncle Marcus, by alluding to books that refer to what happened to her, and then using her mouth and limbs to draw the names of her assailants in the sand.
- An Arm and a Leg: Chiron and Demetrius cut off Lavinia's hands.
- 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, albeit they do get one redeeming moment where they agree to help hide Aaron's child with Tamora.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: In taking her revenge against Titus, Tamora decides to not only destroy his family but also drive him insane. Titus goes insane alright.
- Big Bad Duumvirate: Aaron and Tamora. Between the two of them, they mastermind every bad thing that happens in the play.
- Black-and-Gray Morality: This is one of the darkest Shakespeare plays, where there are arguably about three good characters (all of them children): Lavinia, Young Lucius, and Aaron's baby.
- Saturninus and Bassianus were brothers who would have fought a Civil War against each other had it not been for Titus Andronicus pulling a Kingmaker Scenario. Titus Andronicus is a pious Roman war hero: which means killing and subjugating Goths, performing Human Sacrifice of a captive son of the enemy queen, and killing one of his own sons, Mutius, in the first act. Then he kills his own daughter Lavinia, because she is Defiled Forever, but does so only after she helps him commit and aid his revenge. And in the end Titus, as part of his revenge, appoints one of his surviving sons to raise an army among the very Goths he subjugated to march on Rome, which politically marks him out to be just as much a renegade and warlord as the rest of the cast.
- Tamora, Aaron, Chiron, and Demetrius cross the line early on when they rape and mutilate Lavinia. But all of them have some virtues, with Aaron going out of his way to save his son, and Chiron and Demetrius, after some threats and convincing, agree to help save their half-brother.
- 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. Some of the comedy would be intentional since Titus Andronicus goes Laughing Mad and admits that he's so sunk in grief that he can't take it seriously anymore, and of course in the scene of his revenge, the stage directions spell out that he's dressed as a chef and Saturninus and Tamora ask him why he's dressed like that.
- 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 being murdered by her own father out of "shame".
- Card-Carrying Villain: Aaron. In a monologue near the end he states that he did "a thousand dreadful things" and the only thing he regrets that he cannot do "ten thousand more". His only virtue is that he loves his child and does what he can to save him.
- 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 masterminded practically every evil plot in the play, and when he is finally caught, he proudly boasts about 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 thy 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.
- 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.
- 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. Weirdly enough, Titus Andronicus cites the case of Verginia, an incident in the early Republic from Titus Livy's Ab urbe condita who was killed by her father in fear of a Patrician pulling Droit du Seigneur, whereas Titus kills her after the rape, and after she aids his revenge.
- Despair Event Horizon: Titus Andronicus receiving the heads of his two sons along with his uselessly-sacrificed hand - after the rape and mutilation of his daughter Lavinia - proves to be this for him. Notably, he doesn't go into a Heroic BSoD but instead briefly goes Laughing Mad before becoming insanely fixed on working toward his revenge.Marcus: Why dost thou laugh?Titus: Why, I have not another tear to shed.
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Chiron and Demetrius love their mother and do all their villainy to help her vengeance.
- 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 attempting to kill Aaron's baby son, but they are still taken aback when Aaron murders the nurse. Aaron, for his part, 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.
- Even Saturninus has a moment of this in Act V, being abjectly horrified when Titus kills Lavinia. On learning that it was Chiron and Demetrius who raped and mutilated her, he orders them brought forth out of a seemingly-sincere desire to punish them. However...
- Evil vs. Evil: As mentioned above, there are only about three characters who dont commit any moral atrocities over the course of the play, and one of them is a baby.
- Evil Matriarch: Tamora, who is motivated by the deaths of some of her sons, and uses her living sons as her tools of vengeance.
- Familial Cannibalism Surprise: Titus serving Tamora meat pies made from her sons is the Trope Codifier.
- 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; Philomela didn't need a tongue to tell her sister what had happened to her, and Io didn't even need hands...
- Gorn: Human sacrifice, rape, murder, dismemberment, mutilation, cannibalism, torture, and more are integral to the plot, and most of these take place graphically on stage.
- Honor-Related Abuse: Titus kills his daughter Lavinia immediately on achieving vengeance for her rape and mutilation. It can be played as a Mercy Kill due to her disability and trauma, but his line invokes her "shame" as the motive.
- I Ate WHAT?!: Tamora is served a pie baked from her murdered sons Chiron and Demetrius in a ghastly attempt to evoke this reaction.
- I Banged Your Mom: Yes. 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.
- Ironic Name: Saturninus, in view of the fact that this play draws heavily from Metamorphoses, the first book of which describes "Saturn's golden age" and equates Saturn's overthrow with a fall into darker times, whereas here it is the ascension of Saturninus that corresponds with the beginning of a (more) evil time.
- Just Desserts: Titus does this to Chiron and Demetrius, baking them into pies.
- Kill 'Em All: Six named characters are left alive by the end, and one of them gets killed soon after. That's actually a bigger survival rate than other Shakespeare tragedies (compared to say, Hamlet and King Lear), and much milder than John Webster and Cyril Tourneur's works.
- Knight Templar Parent: Tamora. She will come after you and your children! Mind you, Titus is even worse at least Tamora didn't kill her own children, whereas Titus killed his son Mutius and his daughter Lavinia.
- Last of His Kind: Lucius is the only survivor of his siblings (and Titus's children) at the end of the play. Might we add, he had 24 brothers and a sister, though only four of them were still alive at the start of the play.
- 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.
- Makeup Is Evil: Aaron derides other characters for their make-up.
- Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: The question is settled by the Chocolate Baby. Aaron the Moor comes up with a baby-swap and gets Tamora's children to agree to it, and also kills the Nurse and Midwife since It's the Only Way to Be Sure.
- 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. Titus kills his own children bear in mind, whereas Tamora doesn't.
- Obfuscating Insanity: Titus really is insane... just not as insane as he convinced Tamora and her sons he was.
- Offered the Crown: Titus is offered the position of Emperor upon returning to Rome, but he turns it down and offers the position to Saturninus.
- 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" (but falls back to 1:0 in the end).
- Papa Wolf:
- Pay Evil unto Evil: The mainspring that drives the entire plot.
- 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 becomes the victim of this. Although she is seen as Defiled Forever, it is still regarded as a heinous crime.
- 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.
- Revenge Is a Dish Best Served: Titus serves Tamora her own sons in revenge for Lavinia.
- 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, albeit he loves his own son, and he's also a sly, ironic, trickster character.
- The Secret of Long Pork Pies: Titus serves Tamora an elaborate pie that has two very special secret ingredients.
- Shout-Out: The infamous climax of the play is almost definitely an intentional reference to the story of the House of Atreus in Greek Mythology, in which the Cycle of Revenge between the brothers Atreus and Thyestes involves among other things Atreus tricking Thyestes into eating his own sons.
- Sinister Scimitar: Aaron's weapon of choice, though he only threatens to use it against those who would kill his son.
- Sophisticated as Hell: Due to the play's Antiquated Linguistics (to twenty-first-century sensibilities) and the use of "to do" meaning "to have sex with" still having colloquial connotations (even to twenty-first-century sensibilities), "Villain, I have done thy mother" qualifies as this.
- Tongue Trauma: Lavinia gets her tongue cut out so she can't tell anyone who did this to her.
- Torture Porn: With all the violence, gore, and torture that occurs in this play, it makes a good candidate for The Zeroth Law of Trope Examples here.
- 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.
- Your Mom: The infamous line "I have done thy mother."