Although Titus was extremely popular in its day, over the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it became perhaps Shakespeare's most maligned play, and it is only in the later half of the twentieth century that this pattern of denigration has shown any signs of subsiding.
One of the earliest, and one of the most famous critical disparagements of the play occurred in 1678, in the introduction to Edward Ravenscroft's theatrical adaptation, Titus Andronicus, or the Rape of Lavinia. A Tragedy, Alter'd from Mr. Shakespeare's Works. Speaking of the original play, Ravenscroft wrote, "'tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his works. It seems rather a heap of rubbish than a structure." In 1765, Samuel Johnson questioned the possibility of even staging the play, pointing out that "the barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience." In 1879, August Wilhelm Schlegel wrote that the play was "framed according to a false idea of the tragic, which by an accumulation of cruelties and enormities, degenerated into the horrible and yet leaves no deep impression behind." In 1927, T.S. Eliot famously argued that it was "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all, a play in which the best passages would be too highly honoured by the signature of Peele." In 1948, John Dover Wilson wrote that the play "seems to jolt and bump along like some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells." He goes on to say that if the play had been by anyone other than Shakespeare, it would have been lost and forgotten; it is only because tradition holds that Shakespeare wrote it (which Dover Wilson highly suspects) that it is remembered, not for any intrinsic qualities of its own.
In his 1998 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom attacked the play on numerous occasions, calling it "a howler", "a poetic atrocity", "an exploitative parody, with the inner purpose of destroying the ghost of Christopher Marlowe" and "a blowup, an explosion of rancid irony." Bloom summates his views by declaring "I can concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus." Citing the 1955 Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production, directed by Peter Brook and starring Laurence Olivier, which is generally agreed to have provided the impetus for the twentieth century revaluation of the play, Bloom said that the audience laughed several times in scenes which were supposed to be tragic, and he sees this as evidence for its failure as Tragedy. He particularly focuses his criticism on the line when Lavinia is told to carry Titus' severed hand in her mouth (3.1.281), arguing that no play which contains such a scene could possibly be serious. He thus concludes the best director to tackle the play would be Mel Brooks.
However, although the play continued to have its detractors, it began to acquire its champions as well. In 2001, Jacques Berthoud pointed out that until shortly after World War II, "Titus Andronicus was taken seriously only by a handful of textual and bibliographic scholars. Readers, when they could be found, mostly regarded it as a contemptible farrago of violence and bombast, while theatrical managers treated it as either a script in need of radical rewriting, or as a show-biz opportunity for a star actor." By 2001 however, this was no longer the case, as many prominent scholars had come out in defence of the play.
One such scholar was Jan Kott. Speaking of its apparent gratuitous violence, Kott argued that
Titus Andronicus is by no means the most brutal of Shakespeare's plays. More people die in Richard III. King Lear is a much more cruel play. In the whole Shakespearean repertory I can find no scene so revolting as Cordelia's death. In reading, the cruelties of Titus can seem ridiculous. But I have seen it on the stage and found it a moving experience. Why? In watching Titus Andronicus we come to understand – perhaps more than by looking at any other Shakespeare play – the nature of his genius: he gave an inner awareness to passions; cruelty ceased to be merely physical. Shakespeare discovered the moral hell. He discovered heaven as well. But he remained on earth.
In his 1987 edition of the play for the Contemporary Shakespeare series, A.L. Rowse speculates as to why the fortunes of the play have begun to change during the twentieth century; "in the civilised Victorian age the play could not be performed because it could not be believed. Such is the horror of our own age, with the appalling barbarities of prison camps and resistance movements paralleling the torture and mutilation and feeding on human flesh of the play, that it has ceased to be improbable."
Director Julie Taymor, who staged a production Off-Broadway in 1994 and directed a film version in 1999, says she was drawn to the play because she found it to be the most "relevant of Shakespeare's plays for the modern era." As she believes we live in the most violent period in history, Taymor feels that the play has acquired more relevance for us than it had for the Victorians; "it seems like a play written for today, it reeks of now." Jonathan Forman, when he reviewed Taymor's film for The New York Post, agreed and stated: "It is the Shakespeare play for our time, a work of art that speaks directly to the age of Rwanda and Bosnia."
Perhaps the most frequently discussed topic in the play's critical history is that of authorship. None of the three quarto editions of Titus name the author, which was normal for Elizabethan plays. However, Francis Meres does list the play as one of Shakespeare's tragedies in Palladis Tamia in 1598. Additionally, John Heminges and Henry Condell felt sure enough of Shakespeare's authorship to include it in the First Folio in 1623. As such, with what little available solid evidence suggesting that Shakespeare did indeed write the play, questions of authorship tend to focus on the perceived lack of quality in the writing, and often the play's resemblance to the work of contemporaneous dramatists.
The first to question Shakespeare's authorship is thought to have been Edward Ravenscroft in 1678, and over the course of the eighteenth century, numerous renowned Shakespeareans followed suit; Nicholas Rowe, Alexander Pope, Lewis Theobald, Samuel Johnson, George Steevens, Edmond Malone, William Guthrie, John Upton, Benjamin Heath, Richard Farmer, John Pinkerton, and John Monck Mason, and in the nineteenth century, William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. All doubted Shakespeare's authorship. So strong had the anti-Shakespearean movement become during the eighteenth century that in 1794, Thomas Percy wrote in the introduction to Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, "Shakespeare's memory has been fully vindicated from the charge of writing the play by the best critics." Similarly, in 1832, the Globe Illustrated Shakespeare claimed there was universal agreement on the matter due to the un-Shakespearean "barbarity" of the play.
However, despite the fact that so many Shakespearean scholars believed the play to have been written by someone other than Shakespeare, there were those throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century who argued against this theory. One such scholar was Edward Capell, who, in 1768, acknowledged that the play was badly written but asserted that Shakespeare did write it. Another major scholar to support Shakespeare's authorship was Charles Knight in 1843. Several years later, a number of prominent German Shakespeareans also voiced their belief that Shakespeare wrote the play, including A.W. Schlegel and Hermann Ulrici.
Twentieth century criticism moved away from trying to prove or disprove that Shakespeare wrote the play, and has instead come to focus on the issue of co-authorship. Ravenscroft had hinted at this in 1678, but the first modern scholar to look at the theory was John Mackinnon Robertson in 1905, who concluded that "much of the play is written by George Peele, and it is hardly less certain that much of the rest was written by Robert Greene or Kyd, with some by Marlow." In 1919, T.M. Parrott reached the conclusion that Peele wrote Act 1, 2.1 and 4.1, and in 1931, Philip Timberlake corroborated Parrott's findings.
The first major critic to challenge Robertson, Parrott and Timberlake was E.K. Chambers, who successfully exposed inherent flaws in Robertson's methodology. In 1933, Arthur M. Sampley employed the techniques of Parrott to argue against Peele as co-author, and in 1943, Hereward Thimbleby Price also argued that Shakespeare wrote alone.
Beginning in 1948, with John Dover Wilson, many scholars have tended to favour the theory that Shakespeare and Peele collaborated in some way. Dover Wilson, for his part, believed that Shakespeare edited a play originally written by Peele. In 1957, R.F. Hill approached the issue by analysing the distribution of rhetorical devices in the play. Like Parrott in 1919 and Timberlake in 1931, he ultimately concluded that Peele wrote Act 1, 2.1 and 4.1, whilst Shakespeare wrote everything else. In 1979, Macdonald Jackson employed a rare word test, and ultimately came to an identical conclusion as Parrott, Timberlake and Hill. In 1987, Marina Tarlinskaja used a quantitative analysis of the occurrence of stresses in the iambic pentameter line, and she too concluded that Peele wrote Act 1, 2.1 and 4.1. In 1996, Macdonald Jackson returned to the authorship question with a new metrical analysis of the function words "and" and "with". His findings also suggested that Peele wrote Act 1, 2.1 and 4.1.
However, there have always been scholars who believe that Shakespeare worked on the play alone. Many of the editors of the various twentieth century scholarly editions of the play for example, have argued against the co-authorship theory; Eugene M. Waith in his Oxford Shakespeare edition of 1985, Alan Hughes in his Cambridge Shakespeare edition of 1994 and again in 2006, and Jonathan Bate in his Arden Shakespeare edition of 1995. In the case of Bate however, in 2002, he came out in support of Brian Vickers' book Shakespeare, Co-Author which restates the case for Peele as the author of Act 1, 2.1 and 4.1.
Vickers' analysis of the issue is the most extensive yet undertaken. As well as analysing the distribution of a large number of rhetorical devices throughout the play, he also devised three new authorship tests; an analysis of polysyllabic words, an analysis of the distribution of alliteration and an analysis of vocatives. His findings led him to assert, with complete confidence, that Peele wrote Act 1, 2.1 and 4.1. Vickers' findings have yet to be challenged.
The language of Titus has always had a central role in criticism of the play insofar as those who doubt Shakespeare's authorship have often pointed to the apparent deficiencies in the language as evidence of that claim. However, the quality of the language has had its defenders over the years, critics who argue that the play is more linguistically complex than is often thought, and features a more accomplished use of certain linguistic motifs than has hitherto been allowed for.
One of the most basic such motifs is repetition. Several words and topics occur time and again, serving to connect and contrast characters and scenes, and to foreground certain themes. Perhaps the most obvious recurring motifs are those of honour, virtue and nobility, all of which are mentioned multiple times throughout the play, especially during the first act; the play's opening line is Saturninus' address to "Noble patricians, patrons of my right" (l.1). In the second speech of the play, Bassianus states "And suffer not dishonour to approach/The imperial seat, to virtue consecrate,/To justice, continence and nobility;/But let desert in pure election shine" (ll.13–16). From this point onwards, the concept of nobility is at the heart of everything that happens. H.B. Charlton argues of this opening Act that "the standard of moral currency most in use is honour."
When Marcus announces Titus' imminent arrival, he emphasises Titus' renowned honour and integrity; "And now at last, laden with honour's spoils,/Returns the good Andronicus to Rome,/Renowned Titus, flourishing in arms./Let us entreat by honour of his name/Whom worthily you would have now succeed" (ll.36–40). Marcus' reference to Titus' name is even itself an allusion to his nobility insofar as Titus' full title (Titus Pius) is an honorary epitaph which "refers to his devotion to patriotic duty."
Bassianus then cites his own admiration for all of the Andronici; "Marcus Andronicus, so I do affy/In thy uprightness and integrity,/And so I love and honour thee and thine,/Thy noble brother Titus, and his sons" (ll.47–50). Upon Titus' arrival, an announcement is made; "Patron of virtue, Rome's best champion,/Successful in the battles that he fights,/With honour and with fortune is returned" (ll.65–68). Once Titus has arrived on-stage, it is not long before he too is speaking of honour, virtue and integrity, referring to the family tomb as a "sweet cell of virtue and nobility" (l.93). After Titus chooses Saturninus as Empire, they praise one another's honour, with Saturninus referring to Titus' "honourable family" (ll.239) and Titus claiming "I hold me highly honoured of your grace" (ll.245). Titus then says to Tamora, "Now, madam, are you prisoner to an Emperor –/To him that for your honour and your state/Will use you nobly and your followers" (ll.258–260).
Even when things begin to go awry for the Andronici, each one maintains a firm grasp of his own interpretation of honour. The death of Mutius comes about because Titus and his sons have different concepts of honour; Titus feels the Emperor's desires should have precedence, his sons that Roman law should govern all, including the Emperor. As such, when Lucius reprimands Titus for slaying one of his own sons, Titus responds "Nor thou, nor he, are any sons of mine;/My sons would never so dishonour me" (l.296). Moments later, Saturninus declares to Titus "I'll trust by leisure him that mocks me once,/Thee never, nor thy traitorous haughty sons,/Confederates all to dishonour me" (ll.301–303). Subsequently, Titus cannot quite believe that Saturninus has chosen Tamora as his empress and again sees himself dishonoured; "Titus, when wert thou wont to walk alone,/Dishonoured thus and challeng'd of wrongs" (ll.340–341). When Marcus is pleading with Titus that Mutius should be allowed to be buried in the family tomb, he implores, "Suffer thy brother Marcus to inter/His noble nephew here in virtue's nest,/That died in honour and Lavinia's cause." (ll.375–377). Having reluctantly agreed to allow Mutius a royal burial, Titus then returns to the issue of how he feels his sons have turned on him and dishonoured him; "The dismall'st day is this that e'er I saw,/To be dishonoured by my sons in Rome" (ll.384–385). At this point, Marcus, Martius, Quintus and Lucius declare of the slain Mutius, "He lives in fame, that died in virtue's cause" (ll.390).
Other characters also become involved in the affray resulting from the disagreement among the Andronici, and they too are equally concerned with honour. After Saturninus has condemned Titus, Bassianus appeals to him, "This noble gentleman, Lord Titus here,/Is in opinion and in honour wronged" (ll.415–416). Then, in a surprising move, Tamora suggests to Saturninus that he should forgive Titus and his family. Saturninus is at first aghast, believing that Tamora is now dishonouring him as well; "What madam, be dishonoured openly,/And basely put it up without revenge?" (ll.442–443), to which Tamora replies,
Not so, my lord; the gods of Rome forefend I should be author to dishonour you. But on mine honour dare I undertake For good Lord Titus' innocence in all, Whose fury not dissembled speaks his griefs. Then at my suit look graciously on him; Lose not so noble a friend on vain suppose.
The irony here of course, is that her false appeal to honour is what begins the bloody cycle of revenge which dominates the rest of the play.
Although not all subsequent scenes are as heavily saturated with references to honour, nobility and virtue as is the opening, they are continually alluded to throughout the play. Other notable examples include Aaron's description of Tamora; "Upon her wit doth earthly honour wait,/And virtue stoops and trembles at her frown" (2.1.10–11). An ironic and sarcastic reference to honour occurs when Bassianus and Lavinia encounter Aaron and Tamora in the forest and Bassianus tells Tamora "your swarthy Cimmerian/Doth make your honour of his body's hue,/Spotted, detested, and abominable" (2.3.72–74). Later, after the Clown has delivered Titus' letter to Saturninus, Saturninus declares "Go, drag the villain hither by the hair./Nor age nor honour shall shape privilege" (4.4.55–56). Another example is seen outside Rome, when a Goth refers to Lucius "Whose high exploits and honourable deeds/Ingrateful Rome requites with foul contempt" (5.1.11–12).
No discussion of the language of Titus is complete without reference to Marcus's speech upon finding Lavinia after her rape;
Who is this? My niece that flies away so fast? Cousin, a word: where is your husband? If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me! If I do wake, some Planet strike me down, That I may slumber in eternal sleep! Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands Hath lopped, and hewed and made thy body bare Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments, Whose circling shadows, Kings have sought to sleep in, And might not gain so great a happiness As half thy love? Why dost not speak to me? Alas, a crimson river of warm blood, Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind, Doth rise and fall between thy ros'd lips, Coming and going with thy honey breath. But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee, And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy tongue. Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame; And notwithstanding all this loss of blood, As from a conduit with three issuing spouts, Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face, Blushing to be encountered with a cloud. Shall I speak for thee? Shall I say 'tis so? O, that I knew thy heart, and knew the beast, That I might rail at him to ease my mind! Sorrow conceal'd, like an oven stopped. Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is. Fair Philomela, why she but lost her tongue, And in a tedious sampler sowed her mind; But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee. A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met, And he hath cut those pretty fingers off, That could have better sowed then Philomel. O, had the monster seen those lily hands Tremble, like aspen leaves, upon a lute, And make the silken strings delight to kiss them, He would not then have touched them for his life. Or, had he heard the heavenly harmony Which that sweet tongue hath made, He would have dropped his knife and fell asleep, As Cerberus at the Thracian poet's feet. Come, let us go, and make thy father blind, For such a sight will blind a father's eye. One hour's storm will drown the fragrant meads; What will whole months of tears thy father's eyes? Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee; O, could our mourning ease thy misery!
In this much discussed speech, the discrepancy between the beautiful imagery and the horrific sight before us has been noted by many critics as jarring, and the speech is often severely edited or completely removed for performance; in the 1955 RSC production, for example, director Peter Brook cut the speech entirely. There is also a great deal of disagreement amongst critics as to the essential meaning of the speech. John Dover Wilson, for example, sees it as nothing more than a parody, Shakespeare mocking the work of his contemporaries by writing something so bad. He finds no other tonally analogous speech in all of Shakespeare, concluding it is "a bundle of ill-matched conceits held together by sticky sentimentalism." Similarly, Eugene M. Waith determines that the speech is an aesthetic failure that may have looked good on the page but which is incongruous in performance.
However, defenders of the play have posited several theories which seek to illustrate the thematic relevance of the speech. For example, Nicholas Brooke argues that it "stands in the place of a choric commentary on the crime, establishing its significance to the play by making an emblem of the mutilated woman." Actress Eve Myles, who played Lavinia in the 2003 RSC production suggests that Marcus "tries to bandage her wounds with language," thus the speech has a calming effect and is Marcus' attempt to soothe Lavinia.
Another theory is suggested by Anthony Brian Taylor, who argues simply that Marcus is babbling; "beginning with references to "dream" and "slumber" and ending with one to sleep, the speech is an old man's reverie; shaken by the horrible and totally unexpected spectacle before him, he has succumbed to the senile tendency to drift away and become absorbed in his own thoughts rather than confront the harshness of reality." Jonathan Bate however, sees the speech as more complex, arguing that it attempts to give voice to the indescribable. Bate thus sees it as an illustration of language's ability to "bring back that which has been lost," i.e. Lavinia's beauty and innocence is figuratively returned in the beauty of the language. Similarly, for Brian Vickers, "these sensual pictorial images are appropriate to Lavinia's beauty now forever destroyed. That is, they serve one of the constant functions of tragedy, to document the metabolé, that tragic contrast between what people once were and what they have become." Jacques Berthoud provides another theory, arguing that the speech "exhibits two qualities seldom found together: an unevasive emotional recognition of the horrors of her injuries, and the knowledge that, despite her transformation into a living grave of herself, she remains the person he knows and loves." Thus the speech evokes Marcus' "protective identification" with her. D.J. Palmer feels that the speech is an attempt to rationalise in Marcus' own mind the sheer horror of what he is seeing;
Marcus' lament is an effort to realise a sight that taxes to the utmost the powers of understanding and utterance. The vivid conceits in which he pictures his hapless niece do not transform or depersonalise her: she is already transformed and depersonalised […] Far from being a retreat from the awful reality into some aesthetic distance, then, Marcus' conceits dwell upon this figure that is to him both familiar and strange, fair and hideous, living body and object: this is, and is not, Lavinia. Lavinia's plight is literally unutterable […] Marcus' formal lament articulates unspeakable woes. Here and throughout the play the response to the intolerable is ritualised, in language and action, because ritual is the ultimate means by which man seeks to order and control his precarious and unstable world.
In contradistinction to Dover Wilson and Waith, several scholars have argued that whilst the speech may not work on the page, it can work in performance. Discussing the Deborah Warner RSC production at The Swan in 1987, which used an unedited text, Stanley Wells argues that Donald Sumpter's delivery of the speech "became a deeply moving attempt to master the facts and thus to overcome the emotional shock of a previously unimagined horror. We had the sense of a suspension of time, as if the speech represented an articulation, necessarily extended in expression, of a sequence of thoughts and emotions, that might have taken no more than a second or two to flash through the character's mind, like a bad dream." Also speaking of the Warner production and Sumpter's performance, Alan C. Dessen writes "we observe Marcus, step-by-step, use his logic and Lavinia's reactions to work out what has happened, so that the spectators both see Lavinia directly and see through his eyes and images. In the process the horror of the situation is filtered through a human consciousness in a way difficult to describe but powerful to experience."
Looking at the language of the play in a more general sense has also produced a range of critical theories. For example, Jacques Berthoud argues that the rhetoric of the play is explicitly bound up with its theme; "the entire dramatic script, soliloquies included, functions as a network of responses and reactions. [The language's] primary and consistent function is interlocutory." An entirely different interpretation is that of Jack Reese, who argues that Shakespeare's use of language functions to remove the audience from the effects and implications of violence; it has an almost Brechtian verfremdungseffekt. Using the example of Marcus' speech, Reese argues that the audience is disconnected from the violence through the seemingly incongruent descriptions of that violence. Such language serves to "further emphasise the artificiality of the play; in a sense, they suggest to the audience that it is hearing a poem read rather than seeing the events of that poem put into dramatic form." Gillian Kendall, however, reaches the opposite conclusion, arguing that rhetorical devices such as metaphor augment the violent imagery, not diminish it, because the figurative use of certain words complements their literal counterparts. This, however, "disrupts the way the audience perceives imagery." An example of this is seen in the body politic/dead body imagery early in the play, as the two images soon become interchangeable. Another theory is provided by Peter M. Sacks, who argues that the language of the play is marked by "an artificial and heavily emblematic style, and above all a revoltingly grotesque series of horrors which seem to have little function but to ironise man's inadequate expressions of pain and loss".