Titus Andronicus, written at least by 1594, represents one of the first plays by a young playwright struggling to gain a reputation. London theatre audiences of the time were enamored with gory “revenge” plays, and it is entirely logical that Shakespeare would try his hand at writing what was selling.
For source materials and inspiration, the aspiring playwright had a long list from which to choose. Ovid’s Metamorphoses provided many of the legends adapted for Titus Andronicus; Seneca’s Thyestes, and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, as well as the phenomenal stage successes of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine, were before the young Shakespeare, who paid them all the flattery of imitation.
Titus Andronicus also foreshadows elements Shakespeare later developed more fully in Hamlet (revenge upon his father’s killer); Coriolanus (ingratitude of Rome toward its honored general); Julius Caesar (Roman political factionalism); Othello (the Moor Aaron, exulting in evil for the sheer joy of it prefigures Iago); and King Lear (infirm old age confronted by human bestiality).
Titus Andronicus, however, does not address these issues with the compassion and humanity offered by the later, more mature plays. Rather it evokes pathos on behalf of gruesome suffering. It is a revenge play in the sensational vein of Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors, focusing on violence, gore and horror. And it sold.
It was given twice within ten days in 1594, a sure evidence of its popularity. It did well enough, in fact, to elicit a sour comment from Ben Jonson, who was appalled with the success of what he took to be a bloody and sensational piece of bombastic rhetoric.
Productions were recorded throughout the 1600s, and adaptations in the 1700s made Aaron the Moor into the play’s dominating figure. By the time of Queen Victoria, a play with so much onstage violence was certain to encounter resistance, and Titus Andronicus was seen only once during the 1800s, in a version in which “every expression calculated to offend the ear has been studiously avoided.” In our own time, and viewed as a political allegory or a period piece, Peter Brook’s striking 1955 production at Stratford-upon-Avon, with Laurence Olivier as Titus and Vivien Leigh as Lavinia, was deeply moving.
A difficulty of putting this play on the stage is that its pure goriness can become comic. The play contains a dozen killings, most of them on stage. It adds multiple mutilations. Detached heads, hands, and stumps are much in evidence, and a white empress has a black baby by her Moorish paramour. The sight of Lavinia walking around with two stumps for hands and her tongue cut out and Titus with his stump of a hand, and the baking of human pies at the end, can make the audience laugh because it all seems so “gross.”
Be reminded the revenge drama was popular when Shakespeare began to write. Even today’s motion pictures capitalize on the proven (if temporary) audience appeal of a particular genre, and twenty years later Shakespeare would likely have agreed Titus Andronicus was an old-fashioned play. Gruesome though much of its action is, it far transcends most of the plays Shakespeare was imitating.
The allegory for Elizabethans, and perhaps for our time, may be that even golden ages come to an end, in blood, torture and barbarism. Rome, the greatest civilization the world had known, had fallen. How could subsequent empires, no matter how splendid, evade the same fate?