Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (c. 1594) is so full of cruelties that the modern theater-goer may find it hard to disagree with T. S. Eliot's view of this melodrama as "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written." One critic, S. Clark Hulse, has even calculated the accumulated horrors in Titus: “It has 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.”
More generously, we might consider Titus in its immediate literary context: that of the Revenge Tragedy, popular during the Age of Elizabeth. This genre followed the dramatic design of Seneca's Roman tragedies, especially his drama Thyestes (c. 65 AD)—which included the horrors of rape, murder, severed hands, and cannibalism. In England this tradition began with The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1586) by Thomas Kyd, who first accommodated Seneca to the Elizabethan stage. Kyd inspired numerous spin-offs other than Titus Andronicus: Antonio's Revenge (1599) by John Marston, Hamlet (1601) by William Shakespeare, Bussy d'Ambois (c. 1604), The Revenge of Bussy d'Ambois (c. 1610) by George Chapman, The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), and The Atheist's Tragedy (c. 1611), both of which are attributed to Cyril Tourneur.
Ideally, these revenge plays would consist of three elements: first, firm character development; second, a well-constructed plot; and third, complete action (i.e., a beginning, middle, and end). In the beginning is murder, the end, vengeance; the job of the dramatist is to skillfully bridge the gap. Alas, the ideal revenge tragedy was reached only once with Shakespeare's masterpiece, Hamlet. Most of the revenge plays degenerated from complete action to episodic structure and from Aristotle's "pity and terror" to "pity and horror."
The dramatic pattern of Titus Andronicus closely follows that of the other revenge plays. Titus, as avenger, must become a villain because, according to the Elizabethan view, vengeance properly belongs to God alone. Marcus, Titus's brother, strengthens this view by insisting on the wickedness of vengeful acts. Besides the motive of revenge, other features of this genre include pretended or actual madness, delay in the action, blood and sensationalism, stoicism, hyperbole, soliloquy, and stichomythic dialogue (a rhetorical device where characters speak alternate single lines).
For example, Titus goes mad after he leaves the forest in II.iii. and never recovers his sanity. Second, the action in Titus is delayed: Titus knows his enemies from the beginning of Act IV, but waits until Tamora's plot for his chance to serve her the Thyestean banquet. Additionally, Shakespeare displays in Titus the most brutal of Senecan horrors with "murders, rapes, and massacres,/ Acts of black night, abominable deeds,/ Complots of mischief, treason, villainies/ Ruthful to hear, yet piteously performed" (V.i.63-6).
Fourth, these Roman men, while in Rome, represent a Senecan stoic silence, similar to the "real" men of today who are often defined as men of action, yet personally mute.
Furthermore, Shakespeare adopts some of Seneca's rhetorical devices. Titus consists of many long, didactic speeches in a florid and hyperbolic style (N.B. Marcus's reaction to Lavinia's mutilation in II.iv,11-58 or Titus's apostrophe to the earth III.i.12-26). Sixth, stichomythia fills the play and can be experienced more recently in the familiar verbal parry between the television characters Mattie and David on Moonlighting. In Titus, for example, Aaron spars with Demetrius and Chiron:
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.
Demetrius: And therein, hellish dog, thou hast undone her. (4.2.73-77)
Even though it follows in the Senecan tradition of bombast and brutality, Titus is especially savage. Again T. S. Eliot comments: "No doubt. . .Titus Andronicus. . .would have made the living Seneca shudder with genuine aesthetic horror." Finally, we feel relief and even comfort in returning to the court and the civil order of Rome. Lucius assures us that he will "govern so/ To heal Rome's harms and wipe away her woe" (V.iii.147-8). But, even as a modern audience accustomed to horror movies (and, indeed, even the revenge themes found in Chuck Norris's karate movies or Charles Bronson's Death Wish series), we wish that the playwright would reverse frame, knitting "these broken limbs again into one body" (V.iii.72). Since, of course, this cannot happen, we must settle, like Titus's grandson, to "leave these bitter deep laments" and to be made "merry with some pleasing tale" (III.ii.46-47).