Despite William Shakespeare’s unquestioned acclaim in literary, theatrical, and psychological circles, critics have always puzzled over what to do with Titus Andronicus. It lacks the aplomb of Shakespeare’s later tragedies, revels in gore, and ends in such abrupt, excessive violence that many audiences are moved to laughter. Samuel Johnson and TS Eliot hated this play. Contemporary critics like Harold Bloom haven’t treated it much better.
Yet, reading it unencumbered by the baggage accruing to Shakespeare’s name, it actually brims with implications about a young playwright’s course through Elizabethan London’s highly competitive theatre marketplace. The traits critics so eagerly attack—swinging masculine bravado, blatant racism, wholly predictable revenge plot—would have attracted massive London audiences. When Bloom or Eliot calls it an obvious rent-payer, less doctrinaire playgoers reply: “Yes! That’s what makes it great!”
Unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays (he wrote four), Titus Andronicus is entirely fictional. When the title character marches victorious into the Roman Senate and launches into his bombastic encomium, he addresses a sort of no-place, populated by the kind of “Romans” often envisioned in high school history textbooks. Rather than a place where people live, it’s a mental landscape where high-minded ideals feud with blood sports, and Christian virtue combats Pagan might.
Into this stew Titus, soul broken by endless battle, brings a captured Goth queen. Sudden stratagems turn this war hostage into a Roman empress. Students of literary history know nothing good comes of mixing power models. Soon the national hero finds himself fleeing the emperor he once defended, and blood flows. Titus becomes partly a tragic hero, like Hamlet or Macbeth, but also the savage, blood-painted revenger rebalancing the scales.
This, probably Shakespeare’s first play, debuted in a London still reeling from Christopher Marlowe’s two-part epic Tamburlaine the Great, which reinvented British theatre. Shedding reliance on moralistic themes and Francophonic singsong rhyme, Marlowe blasted audiences with historical recreations that must have felt as shocking as Cecil B. DeMille’s work. British theatre would never recover from Marlowe’s well-deserved body blow.
Peter Thompson and Northrop Frye suggest Marlowe may have collaborated on Titus Andronicus and others of Shakespeare’s earliest historical plays, though this remains mere speculation. Shakespeare’s earliest works, however, certainly show Marlowe’s influence, and this play certainly reflects Marlowe’s long shadow on British theatre. Young Shakespeare probably had to emulate Marlowe as new playwrights today must emulate Charlie Kaufman or David Mamet.
Yet reading this for its inputs misses the full impact. Many themes that define Shakespeare’s classic tragedies, the themes that helped redefine our understanding of human nature and theatrical potential, appear here in embryonic form. The division of power between the (fictional) emperor Saturnine and his Goth queen Tamora presages King Lear. Aaron the Moor, crafty strategian and captive of a captive, commences ideas that find their mature form in both Othello and Iago.
Imagine if you uncovered Vincent van Gogh’s student paintings, where he developed the early forms of his distinctive gestural technique. Imagine Beethoven’s student notebooks, where he tested the germinal approach that would culminate in throwing off vestigial baroque influence and changing European music. That’s what you have when you read this play. All the ideas and actions that Shakespeare used to transform all following literature appear here, in their most elementary form.
Titus Andronicus wasn’t included in the First Folio, or published under Shakespeare’s name during his lifetime, probably because Shakespeare’s company didn’t own it. As a young apprentice, he apparently sold this play to the Rose, which, after Shakespeare became famous with the Globe, deliberately performed it opposite Globe productions to split his audience. This play wasn’t performed at all between 1596 and 1923, not in Shakespeare’s own words anyway.
Yet since 1955, innovative theatrical productions, and adaptations like Julie Taymor’s Titus have invited scholars and students to re-evaluate this play. Some interpretations have emphasized Shakespeare’s boyishly exuberant violence and self-conscious grandiloquence, pitching it as a black comedy. Others have highlighted the process by which Titus loses everything by stages, presaging modern cinematic tragedies. Like Shakespeare’s best work, Titus Andronicus rewards multiple interpretations.
William Shakespeare came from somewhere. Scant evidence survives from his life, though, and we know remarkably little about the circumstances that created literature’s greatest mind. But we do have Shakespeare’s words. We can see how ideas evolved throughout his career, and how themes begun in one play come to fruition in another. This play essentially contains the seed of everything that came after. After centuries of neglect, it has received part of the recognition it deserves.