Titus Andronicus

Content Group

A Scene from Titus Andronicus: 1595

This distasteful play was popular in Elizabethan times (it appeared in five editions before 1642) and it has become so again today—perhaps an inditement of audiences in both periods, because the script exploits horror and brutality to the point that modern stagings (such as that at UC Santa Cruz) often require medical facilities to handle hysterical reactions in the audience to the mutilations, rape, and cannibalism in the script. It may be that the youthful Shakespeare was just trying to outdo contemporary theatrical excesses, or we may even take refuge in the debatable opinion of some scholars that the play is at least in part attributable to George Peele, who wrote similar plays. More scholarly interest lies in the above Elizabethan sketch of a possible scene from the play which can be compared to deliberate modern analogues (for instance, in Market Theatre/National Theatre 1995 and Old Globe 2006)


                                                                                             "The Spectator and Titus Andronicus"

                                                            Hugh Richmond, Shakespeare's Tragedies Reviewed, Peter Lang, 2015. 134-37.

         In defending Shakespeare from total responsibility for the play one may note that the quarto editions of Titus are anonymous, though Francis Meres assigns it to Shakespeare's tragedies, as does the First Folio. However, in 1687 Edward Ravenscroft remarked: “I have been told by some anciently conversant with the Stage, that it was not Originally his, but brought by a private Author to be Acted and he only gave some Master-touches to one or two of the Principal Parts or Characters; this I am apt to believe, because 'tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works. It seems rather a heap of Rubbish then a Structure.” (Shakespeare Allusion-Book, II.319)

          Editions of Titus such as Jonathan Bates’ third Arden (1995) tell us that early editors such as Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Johnson, Steevens, and Malone doubted Shakespeare's authorship, due to the violence in the play. Hazlitt and Coleridge agreed. By contrast Edward Capell accepted its inclusion in the First Folio as did Charles Knight’s Preface to his Shakespeare. John M. Robertson's “Did Shakespeare Write Titus Andronicus?” concluded that much of the play was written by George Peele. And J. Dover Wilson wrote: "most of the clichés and tricks are indubitably Peele's,” adding later that Shakespeare must have edited a play written by Peele: "we must look to George Peele for the authorship, not only of Act 1, but of most of the basic text upon which Shakespeare worked." However, Shakespeare so revised Peele that “the aesthetic responsibility for it is therefore his also.” (Titus Andronicus, 1948,  xxxvi–xxxvii)        

          To be fair to the play in showing the relevance of spectator response, I shall continue to draw on the advocacy of one of its most fervent modern admirers, Jonathan Bate, who states firmly in his Arden edition that “I believe the play was wholly by Shakespeare,” stressing “the play’s tight structural unity” and that “imitation is as likely as authorship,” particularly for an actor “whose trade was learning other people’s lines.” (Arden, 82) He describes its popularity with its earliest spectators: “It was hugely successful in its own time, despite of or because of being Shakespeare’s earliest and bloodiest tragedy.” (Arden, 1) Titus is indeed noted for its initial three quarto editions, reflecting that Elizabethans were apparently thrilled by reading its episodes of brutal sadism. Ben Jonson ruefully concedes this truth, noting “those who will swear that Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays . . . whose judgement shows it is constant , and  hath stood still, these five and twenty, or thirty years.” (Arden, 71)         

          Moreover, Bate claims that “on the few occasions when it has reappeared in the repertory it has repeated its original success.” Laurence Olivier’s production, for example, with Vivian Leigh as Lavinia, was “one of the great theatrical experiences of the 1950s, and Deborah Warner’s was the most highly acclaimed Shakespearean production of the 1980s.” (Arden, 1) Apparently,  “in its willingness to confront violence, often in ways that are simultaneously shocking and playful our culture resembles that of the Elizabethans.” (Arden, 1) Modern spectators have validated directors’ desire to demonstrate its playability, despite centuries of censure by less resilient minds. For example, Michael Billington, a drama critic I greatly admire, wrote favorably of a recent Globe production in a Guardian review of the a production of Titus at the Globe (31/5/06):  “One of the pleasures of my theatre-going life has been to watch the play's restoration to public favour. Instead of a primitive, Marlovian gore fest, it is now seen as a study in monumental suffering. If I have any cavil about Bailey's production, it is that it doesn't sound the ultimate depths of pain . . . when Titus, son Lucius and brother Marcus compete to chop off their hands as ransom for the old soldier's remaining children is played too easily for tension-relieving laughs.“  Even with Billington’s favorable stance, there are hints of unease here: he notes the script has been judged previously as “a primitive Marlovian gore-fest.” He admits the “shocking image of [Titus’] raped, mutilated daughter”; the occurrence of “tension relieving laughs.” Later he mentions an audience space made “fractious” by “crowd scattering towers.” Even his praise that the production managed to “sound the ultimate depths of pain” makes it seem untempting.  

           Steve Oman, another reviewer of a later repeat Globe performance of Titus registered the following impression: “The sense of menace was apparent as soon as I entered the yard. . . . Positioned in the yard, were two large black metal structures with platforms for actors to stand upon, and these were freely wheeled around – sometimes at an alarmingly fast-pace – throughout the three hours of psychosomatic torture. . . . Audience members in the yard were bullied in this production.” However, such effects were merely incidental to the basic effects of the production summarized as follows: ”Lavinia’s rape and mutilation, it goes without saying, was incredibly difficult to watch. Covered in blood and permanently shaking, blood trickled down her mouth as she tried to respond to Marcus’ questioning. The muted screams of Chiron and Demetrius were agonizing as Titus cut their throats and blood trickled down into the bowl held by Lavinia. “ (Steve Oman, Reviewing Shakespeare, “Titus Andronicus”) It could be argued that such a violent production ensures audience attention, if only to preserve personal safety, but it seems almost impossible to imagine that the resulting pleasure does not involve sinister emotions. A more variable texture seems much more likely to have a meaningful impact, as suggested by Kurt Daw, Professor of Theatre Arts at San Francisco State University: “I assert it is the relentlessness of the violence in Titus, not the extremity of it, that makes the play so challenging to produce. . . . wave after wave of mutilation and blood tend to mute the effect for me in Titus. That explains why the self-mutilation scene is often played for laughs.” (Richmond, Linkedin, “Titus”)                 

            Ironically, one may say that the mixture of humor and horrors in Titus performance achieves the audience attention specified by Lope as essential for modern drama, deriving from its incredibly excessive brutality.  Ralph Berry accepts this generic fusion as intrinsic to the play’s impact on the spectator: “Laughter is integral to Titus Andronicus, making the play a generic fusion of tragic horror and jet-black comedy.” (Tragic Instance, 35) This characterization is confirmed in Bates’ edition in which he asks: “Does comedy effect simultaneous heightening and release of tension as it does in the Porter scene in Macbeth?” (Arden, 10) As a result of the play’s ambivalent tone, “what it does is blur the conventional distinction between tragedy and comedy, grieving and laughing.” (Arden, 11) As a symptom of this “purposeful eclecticism” he finds “the play is full of word-games and verbal sleights.” (Arden, 34-5) Michael Billington also confirms the spectator’s acceptance of this fusion while reviewing Deborah Warner’s production (RSC, 1987), for he approves of: “Ms. Warner’s wiliest tactics to preempt possible laughter at the play’s grossest cruelties by launching them in a spirit of dangerous jocularity. “ (Arden, 67) On the other hand, Sylvia Morris observes that “Deborah Warner wanted to make the audience feel uncomfortable” and succeeded to the extent that “the stage managers kept a tally of the number of people who fainted at each performance, and a St. Johns ambulance was always present.” (Shakespeare Blog, 1/3/13)                       

             Despite this corroboration of the high audience impact of Titus, the play seems to me to achieve this via such viciously exploitation of sadism that I do not wish to give it a prominent place in the sequence of my discussions. It is a positive relief to assent to the increasing current consensus that Titus is a work owing much of its character to another dramatist than Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate to the contrary. This divided authorship was accepted in the 1987 Textual Companion to the Oxford Shakespeare (edited by Gary Taylor, and others), followed by Brian Vickers in Shakespeare, Co-Author (2002), who added: “We don't know whether the play was written as a purposeful collaboration or whether Shakespeare came in to do a re-write or to complete an unfinished work.” Whatever the exact Shakespearean elements in Titus, one must ultimately agree with Sandra Lynn Sparks: “It's simply not what we have come to expect of William Shakespeare, in light of his later and more familiar works.” (Linkedin, “Shakespeare,” Titus) However, the justification for including at least marginal reference to Titus here must lie in Bate’s conviction that “Titus Andronicus is the pivotal play in Shakespeare’s career” (79) because in it he learned how to blend shocking evil with paradoxical humor of the kind which ensured the triumph of Richard III. Perhaps, then, the audience’s favorable reactions to his blend of horror and humor in Titus taught him how to blend them more dexterously in Richard III, and this evolution requires the inclusion of Titus here, however marginally.


Titus Andronicus, Market Theatre & National Theatre, 1995
Titus Andronicus, Old Globe Theatre, 2006
Titus Andronicus, The Old Globe, 2006
Titus Andronicus: Market Theatre & National Theatre Company, 1995
Titus Andronicus: Old Globe, San Diego, CA, 2006.

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