Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus Themes

Black Power

Aaron the Moor was, for many years, taken to be an inexperienced young playwright's stab at creating a villainous character. He was treated as one part Othello and two parts Iago - far more evil than noble. Today, however, he is recognized as one of Shakespeare's most remarkable characters. His wit outshines everyone else's in the play, and his ability to exercise his power, whether with his hands or his tongue, outpaces even Tamora's. Moreover, his downfall comes not because of flawed strategy, but because he must venture outside of Rome to save his child. Indeed, if the barbaric and sanctimonious Titus can be called a hero, why can't Aaron be labeled a martyr?

Aaron's full character is revealed with the appearance of his child in Act Four scene two. His response to the white characters in the scene who are appalled that Tamora gave birth to a Moor's son is unflinching: "Is black so base a hue?" he asks, before proceeding to unseat the typical Elizabethan tendency to favor white over black. Aaron's verbal facility is such that he creates a convincing alternative, saying that black is the better color because it does not allow another color to change its hue; black skin does not blush or become stained by any other color that touches it, and is thus true to itself. Whether or not we accept Aaron's argument, its very existence is a triumph. His love for his son and his insistence that Chiron and Demetrius treat their black half-brother as just that - a brother - further endear Aaron to modern readers.

Later in the play, Aaron has other moments of power, such as his remarkable speech in Act Five scene one, in which he outlines his history of horrible offenses, causing the mighty Lucius to gag him. His scornful and unapologetic rejection of the society that rejects him is a weapon with which he battles the status quo; he does not seek to win, but only to preserve his identity. Shakespeare understood somehow that power, for a minority in a hostile society, is found in trueness to oneself. No matter how hideous others feel Aaron to be, he believes himself to be triumphant. Even if it is somewhat pitiable that he must use violence to harness his rage, Aaron's refusal to bend is nevertheless inspiring. Some playwrights might have bent to the temptation and given him a last-minute change of heart or a swift execution, but Shakespeare lets Aaron live on past the play's end with his head above ground, able to continue his railings against Rome for another day.

Dismemberment: Personal and Political

At the beginning of Titus, when he is announcing the election of Titus as emperor, Marcus tells his brother, "Be candidatus then, and put it on, / And help to set a head on headless Rome." He thus speaks of an emperorless Rome as a beheaded body. This metaphor continues throughout the play, as Titus' fateful decision to instill Saturninus as emperor results in a disfigured Roman body. Lavinia's mutilation by the wrongful heirs of Rome - Chiron and Demetrius - is only the most grotesque expression of this theme. She is a "map of woe," "Rome's fair mistress," who in her virtue and beauty represents the Empire. When she is silenced and behanded by the Goths, Shakespeare dramatizes the dismemberment of Rome itself.

There are many more instances of persons dismembered by the corrupt state, all of which illustrate this tendency to equate the body of the state with the bodies of its citizens. Titus' sons are beheaded unjustly due to the mechanizing of Aaron and his fellow Goths; Titus sacrifices his own hand in an attempt to save them, representing his pledge of service and action to Rome and her emperor, only to have the hand and the service it represents sent back in scorn.

But before we attribute all of these personal and political dismemberments to the Goths, it is important to remember that the first two mutilations of the play are by Titus' own hand. He hews Alarbus' limbs and sacrifices him to the Roman gods, and he kills his own son in the streets: clearly, Titus and the "true" Romans have an equally barbarous fascination with the symbolism of political dismemberment made personal. Titus cuts up Alarbus just as his army figuratively cut up the Goths; when his son disobeys him in Rome he kills him, figuring that his son is no longer part of the orderly Roman body. The virtual dismemberment of Aaron at the play's end, when he is buried up to his chest in Roman ground, is the final example of this symbolic theme. The Romans wish to illustrate how Rome has swallowed Aaron not only in a figurative manner, but in a physical one.

Female Power

There are only two prominent women in the violent, male-dominated world of Titus: Tamora and Lavinia. These two women may seem like complete opposites, and indeed, during their sole confrontation in the whole play, they behave as such. Tamora refuses to listen to Lavinia's appeals to her feminine sympathy while Chiron and Demetrius prepare to ravish her. Lavinia curses Tamora, saying, "No grace? no womanhood? Ah, beastly creature, / The blot and enemy of our general name." Like Lady Macbeth, Tamora seems to have stifled her natural femininity in order to fit into the masculine game of politics. "Be ruled by me," she tells Saturninus, and indeed she rules him. For the greater part of the play, Tamora is the most powerful person in Rome.

Yet Tamora's power is not wholly divorced from her innate femininity. Indeed, we must keep in mind that Titus is just as much the story of Tamora's revenge as it is Titus'. The death of her son, Alarbus, for whose life she pleads tenderly to Titus in Act One, spurs her later cruelty. Indeed, she implies that her refusal to listen to Lavinia is a direct consequence of Titus' refusal to listen to her. Her seemingly masculine immunity to pity is actually the byproduct of a deep-seated grief. There are also moments in Titus where we see Tamora's feminine side, such as when she meets Aaron in the forest and recites lovely, maternal poetry to him: "While hounds and horns and sweet melodious birds / Be unto us as is a nurse's song / Of lullaby to bring her babe asleep." Her cruelty and political strategies are motivated by, not in spite of, her maternal leanings.

Lavinia is also involved in an exploration of feminine power, though her journey is quite dissimilar from Tamora's. Lavinia's power is more or less passive: she is seen as Titus' prized daughter, the exemplar of Rome. She has the power to attract Chiron and Demetrius, but does not have the strength to prevent the tragic results of this limited power. In an effort to illustrate the full extent of Lavinia's lack of agency, Titus kills her with his own hands at the banquet in Act Five. She primarily exists, then, as a metaphor for Rome, and as an ornament for her father.

Yet Lavinia too has moments of power and agency, although they are far subtler than Tamora's. She disobeys her father's command to marry Saturninus, though it is Bassianus who must rescue her from the emperor. Also, in her confrontation with Tamora and Aaron she shows wit and defiance, although she is ultimately raped and mutilated in retribution. Finally, she is able to convey that she has been raped and reveal the identities of her assailants despite her lack of hands and tongue (although she requires Marcus and Titus' help to do so). This pattern repeats itself throughout the play: Lavinia has power, but it can only be exercised with the help of her male admirers. Lavinia, it appears, never has true agency on her own accord: her power is always compromised or augmented by a man. Lavinia's symbolic rather than semantic power is, perhaps, is one of the chief tragedies of Titus for a modern reader.

Hands and Tongues

There are almost eighty mentions of hands in Titus Andronicus, and many - although not quite so many - mentions of tongues, as well. These two bodily organs take on great significance in the play, respectively representing action and speech. Lavinia has both her hands and her tongue taken from her, Titus has one hand chopped off, and the Andronici in general find their tongues to be ineffectual instruments when pitted against the corrupt leadership of Saturninus and Tamora.

The symbolic references to hands in the play are so numerous that they border on the obsessive. Like other oft-used words in various Shakespearean plays, "hands" in Titus seems to transcend its thematic meaning. The word does not merely suggest duty and action, but also a state of general mania. The constant talk of hands clearly demonstrates Titus' maddened state, his relentless meditations on his own impotence, and the misery of his family, which explodes into violence in Act Five.

Likewise, it is important to notice which characters' tongues are effectual, and which characters' aren't. Throughout the play, the Andronici are revealed as somewhat inept in terms of expression and language. Their poetry is often inappropriate - consider, for example, Marcus' long and incongruous speech upon meeting the mutilated Lavinia - and almost always ineffectual. Aaron's tongue, on the other hand, is sharp and brilliant - an instrument of torture and strategy. He tells Lucius while he is being tortured, "If there be devils, would I were a devil, / To live and burn in everlasting fire, / So I might have your company in hell / But to torment you with my bitter tongue." Forget pitchforks: Aaron needs only his tongue, and he uses it relentlessly as his only reliable weapon against the Romans. Even at the play's end, though his body is contained, his tongue is not.

Primogeniture vs. Merit

The very first conflict in a play rife with conflicts is between Bassianus and Saturninus. The subject: which of the emperor's two sons, the eldest or the more meritorious, should succeed Titus as emperor? The traditionalist Titus settles the question in favor of primogeniture, thus setting off a series of events that renders Rome corrupt and feeble, and creates unspeakable tragedy for the Andronici. Shakespeare, it seems, feels that merit ought to take precedence over primogeniture; the whole play, it might even be argued (as the critic Sid Ray has done), is a plea for elective rather than aristocratic descent.

The Goths have their own twisted interpretation of the primogeniture versus merit question, as can be seen in the debate between Chiron and Demetrius over who should woo Lavinia in the beginning of Act Two. Chiron says that he should because he is the eldest, and Demetrius opposes him on the basis of worth. Of course, their argument is mere bravado; a fact that becomes painfully obvious when Aaron suggests that they "both should speed." Still, by echoing the Bassianus/Saturninus debate in the bickering of two violent rapists, Shakespeare makes a statement about the dangerous, petty childishness of the political process as a whole.


Titus' madness is not an expression of the modern interpretation of the term: the emperor is not, as the word might suggest, technically insane. To the contrary, his "madness" is intended to be viewed as a natural response to injustice. Madness borne from a desire for revenge is a last refuge for the wronged when the traditional channels of justice - government, the courts, etc. - have all been closed off, often due to corruption. This form of madness can be found in almost every Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy, from The Spanish Tragedy (which was originally subtitled, Hieronomo is mad again) through Titus and Hamlet to later tragedies like The Duchess of Malfi.

In Titus, as in Hamlet, the title character's enemies take his madness to be a form of weakness, when in fact it is, to some extent, a strategy. Tamora and her sons walk straight into their hideous demise because they assume that Titus is too mad to discover their misdeeds. However, Titus' subsequent actions must call his mental health into question: after seeing through their disguises, he bakes his boys into a pie and feeds them to a banquet party before killing his own daughter and the empress. This mixture of lucidity and extremity brought on by repeated and relentless displays of injustice thus typifies the madness found in revenge tragedies.

Spectacle and Performance

The general consensus about Titus is that the play is much better on the stage than on the page. While some believe that the poetry of Titus, when understood in its uniquely macabre context, is quite rewarding on its own, there is something to be said for the commonly-held opinion. For one thing, Titus is all about spectacle. For example, many of its most powerful scenes are made powerful more through actions than through words. The appearance of a mutilated Lavinia, for instance, is far more moving than the words, spoken by Marcus, that accompany her appearance. And the final scene of the play, which seems to go by ludicrously fast on the page, is made for performance. Imagine the dinner party commencing after the pies have been served - the polite tinkle of silverware as Saturninus and Tamora unwittingly eat the Roman princes, who have been baked into the pastry. This moment could be drawn out to excruciating effect on the stage. On the page, however, it is abrupt and risible.

Even beyond these set pieces, Titus is so preoccupied with performance and ritual that a dramatic production would inevitably capture more than a simple read-through. The opening scene, in which Alarbus is disemboweled, for example, evokes a recondite ritualism that heightens the tragedy of the begging Tamora. Tamora's disguise as Revenge and her sons' turns as Rape and Murder virtually beg to be seen, as does Titus' chef's garb as he serves the meat pies. All of these images seem ludicrous when merely read, but gripping - or at the very least darkly comic - when staged.

There is no doubt that the young Shakespeare was more a dramatist than a poet. His imagination was fired as much by the spectacle of theater as by its lofty language. Thus, while his later plays, written in conjunction with or after his purely poetical works, tend to offer as much interest to the reader at home as to the theatergoer, Titus unquestionably favors the latter. The modern reader of Titus, then, has no better aid than Julie Taymor's 2000 film, Titus, which captures the eerie spectacle of the play visually as well as poetically.