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Theatre / Titus Andronicus

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As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
Featuring gang rape, violence, cannibalism and an "I Banged Your Mom" joke. Truly a masterpiece of English literature.

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

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 a 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 a 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. Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom also backs this point up by challenging readers who believe that the play is a serious drama to read out the scene where Titus tells his daughter to carry his severed hand off stage by picking it up in her mouth, because she has had her own hands cut off, and suggests that the only way the play would work was if it were directed by Mel Brooks. Others dispute this, noting many other tragedies from the period with violence of a 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 it falls between 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 and dragged a captive Gothic princess back to Rome, 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 her 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 to prevent her from telling who raped her. It does not work.
  • Asshole Victim: The majority of the victims in the play are cruel people to begin with (except Lavinia and Bassianus). Chiron and Demetrius deserve special mention, albeit they do get one redeeming moment where they agree to help hide Aaron's child from 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 all right.
  • 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 he 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, agreeing 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 and dismemberment, is regarded as Defiled Forever, and eventually is 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 is that he cannot do "ten thousand more". His only virtue is that he loves his child and does what he can to save him in a play where so many other characters treat their own offspring as disposable pawns.
  • 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's and Demetrius's 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.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: In the final act Tamora and her sons Chiron and Demetrius think that Titus is completely mad and visit his house with the intent of laughing at his state and tormenting him further. Thinking him harmless, Chiron and Demetrius stay behind after their mother leaves to laugh at him some more. In the next scene, Titus has them bound, cuts their throats, and prepares to make meat pies out of their flesh to feed to their mother at a banquet.
  • 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's revenge is complete, Lucius gives him a much more fittingly 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?
  • Deus ex Machina: Discussed but averted. In Act 4, Scene 3, Titus fires arrows at the sun in order to ask the Gods to send Justice, since "there’s no justice in Earth nor hell." However, the gods do not show up, and the play ends with everyone except Lucius dead. This scene might be a reference to an episode in the Adventures of Herakles, where he fires an arrow at the sun and is assisted.
  • 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. Tamora also genuinely loves all three of her sons.
  • 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. Meanwhile, upon learning that their mother has given birth to a son that is obviously Aaron's and not Saturninus's - meaning she will be killed for treason if this is found out - their immediate instinct is to kill the child to destroy the evidence. Aaron, one of the most manipulative and ruthless characters in the story, isn't just horrified that it's his own son they're talking about, but remarks in horror that they would seriously kill their own half-brother. This also makes Aaron a foil for Titus, who would gladly kill his own son if he felt he committed treason against Rome.
    • 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 Versus Evil: As mentioned above, there are only about three characters who don’t 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.
  • Familial Foe: Aaron the Moor makes it his mission to destroy his former captor, General Titus Andronicus, and Titus’s children, even though most of them oppose Titus at many turns.
  • Fatal Flaw: Titus's unyielding insistence on tradition is the source of both the disastrous choices he makes in the very first scene, which set the play's gruesome bloodbath inexorably in motion. By insisting on the murder of Alarbus to "appease" the fallen Andronici, he makes a vengeful enemy of Tamora; and by overlooking noble Bassianus and insisting on crowning corrupt and weak-willed Saturninus simply on the basis of the latter being elder, he sets up Rome for awful governance and unintentionally puts Tamora in a powerful position to take revenge on his family.
  • 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's 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.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Titus is blind to all the signs that Saturninus is corrupt, jealous, and small-minded, and that Bassianus would definitely have been the better choice for Emperor.
  • 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 (which he feeds to their unknowing mother, Tamora).
    Titus: Hark, villains. I shall grind your bones to dust, and with your blood and it I shall make a paste, and of the paste a coffin I will rear and make two pastries of your shameful heads. And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam, like to the earth, swallow her own increase!
  • 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.
  • 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, gets Tamora's children to agree to it, and also kills the Nurse and Midwife since It's the Only Way to Be Sure.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Titus had 25 sons and one daughter. But by the end of the play, he's down to one son.
  • Mirror Character: Titus and Tamora. Both "love" their kids. Both are devoid of mercy for those who plead for it. Both are sick nut-jobs. Both are willing to kill other people's children in revenge. Both are willing to kill their own children, with Titus offing Mutius and Lavinia and Tamora ordering for her own illegitimate dark-skinned baby with Aaron to be killed.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: Lavinia is loved by all until she goes for a walk in the woods.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Titus turns down the throne in favor of backing one of the legitimate heirs, a lawful and honorable act. This set in motion the downfall of himself and both heirs.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Titus really is insane... just not as insane as he convinced Tamora and her sons he was. He's still more than capable of thinking rationally enough to exact his revenge.
    Titus: Hark, wretches, how I mean to martyr you. The basin that receives your guilty blood. You know your mother means to feast with me, And calls herself Revenge, and thinks me mad.
  • 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.
  • Only Sane Man: Marcus Andronicus provides a voice of reason against his brother's madness and the rest of his family's despair. Or at least tries to.
  • Papa Wolf:
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: The mainspring that drives the entire plot.
  • Post-Rape Taunt: Chiron and Demetrius cruelly mock Lavinia after raping her and cutting off her hands and tongue, taunting her about how she can no longer tell anyone what they did.
  • 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.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Titus is even more disgusted by the fact that Chiron and Demetrius raped Lavinia than by the fact that they left her hideously mutilated:
    Titus: You kill'd her husband, and for that vile fault, two of her brothers were condemn'd to death, my hand cut off and made a merry jest; Both her sweet hands, her tongue, and that more dear than hands or tongue, her spotless chastity,
  • 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.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Alarbus appears for a few seconds and is led off to be sacrificed without a line. Yet it is largely this event that triggers Tamora's (and thus Titus's) Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • Shout-Out: To Greek mythology
    • 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.
    • The story is also a retelling of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela from Creator/Ovid's The Metamorphoses. When Tereus rapes Procne's sister (and thus his own sister-in-law) Philomela and cuts out her tongue (as Chiron and Demetrius did to Lavinia), Procne revenges her sister's rape by killing and cooking Tereus's son (and, incidentally, her own) and serving the meat to Tereus. Aaron refers to Lavinia as "Philomel" when egging Chiron and Demetrius on to rape and mutilate her, while Titus mentions Procne's revenge before killing and butchering Chiron and Demetrius :
    Titus: Worse than Procne I will be revenged.
  • 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 are subjected to this. By the end of the play, it's hard to blame the guy for snapping.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Saturninus shows absolutely no gratitude towards Titus even though it was Titus who acted as kingmaker in Saturninus's disputed claim to the throne with his brother Bassianus, not to mention for Titus's lifelong service and sacrifice as a soldier. The Roman Senate and Tribunes are equally ungrateful towards Titus, as Titus laments and pleads for his two wrongfully accused sons' lives to no effect:
    Titus: Hear me grave fathers! Noble tributes stay! For pity of my age, whose youth was spent in dangerous wars whilst you securely slept! For all my blood in Rome's great quarrel shed!
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Titus's sons and his brother give him this when he hands Lavinia, already engaged to her true love, to the new emperor. They become even more frustrated when Titus refuses to bury the son he ended up stabbing.
  • Your Mom: The infamous line "I have done thy mother."