For centuries, Titus Andronicus has carried the reputation of being the worst play by the best playwright. Though it was a great success when first staged in the late sixteenth century, in 1687 an English producer, Edward Ravenscroft, declared Titus "rather a heap of rubbish than a structure," and in the twentieth century T.S. Eliot called it "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written." It is routinely referred to as "absurd" and "ridiculous", and many critics throughout the centuries have expressed their astonishment that the author of Twelfth Night and Hamlet could have been responsible for such a debacle. Only in recent decades has Titus Andronicus regained some of its initial popularity, due in great part to imaginative stagings by Peter Brook and Deborah Wagner, as well as to Julie Taymor's striking film adaptation, Titus, which was released in 2000.
Titus Andronicus was first performed sometime between 1590 and 1594, making it one of Shakespeare's earliest plays and, according to traditional opinion, his first tragedy. The story, set during the decline of the Roman Empire, tells of a fictional Roman general, Titus Andronicus, whose daughter is raped and mutilated through the mechanizations of the Goth-cum-Roman Queen, Tamara, her two lascivious sons, and her Moorish lover, Aaron. Titus' attempts to seek revenge are rebuffed by the corrupt state until he finally takes justice into his own hands - with astonishingly gruesome results.
Many critics view Titus as Shakespeare's youthful attempt at working in a very popular genre of the Elizabethan era: the revenge tragedy. The revenge tragedy is exemplified by Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, which was produced around 1587, and was best represented at the time of Titus's composition by Christopher Marlowe's Tambourline Parts I & II. Likely the young Shakespeare, feeling a simultaneous urge to pen a hit play and to answer the challenge of Marlowe's excellent epic, wrote Titus as a kind of "apprentice piece" (MacDonald xxxi). It bears many of the earmarks of youth: it is overstated and shocking, yet it is also strictly formal, containing many speeches of the Classically rhetorical sort that Shakespeare would have studied in grammar school. It is bombastic yet scholastic; wild in content yet proper in form. As a specimen of juvenilia Titus is fascinating: there are stretches of dense and complex poetry, and numerous foreshadowings of Shakespeare's masterpieces to come. As a play in its own right, however, Titus is generally viewed as a merely adequate work, unable to reconcile the themes it contains with the way it contains them.
What, then, accounts for Titus's popularity, both in the Elizabethan era and in our own? For one thing, it is unquestionably Shakespeare's work, and as such it contains poetry of intense specificity and insight - the kind of poetry that Shakespeare wrote so much of, and that no one else managed before or since. But perhaps a simpler explanation is better: Titus is made to be staged, not read. Throughout his long career, Shakespeare was a man of the stage, and only secondarily a writer. Like all of his plays, he designed Titus to be experienced theatrically, and its sensational, over-the-top atmosphere suffers more than most of his plays when constrained to the page. Thus it makes sense that the eras that have seen it produced more often have developed a better appreciation of it.
Of course, there is a flip side to this idea: something in Titus captivated Elizabethan audiences, and captivates audiences of our day, as well - something makes us want to stage it. Clearly audiences of our time are not as bothered as earlier viewers were by works that express themselves in a contradictory, fragmentary manner. Indeed, perhaps we appreciate such works as much as any audience since the Elizabethans. For centuries, Titus and other strange works by Shakespeare - such as Troilus and Cressida and Pericles - were considered muddles of the realistic and the fantastic, of the beautiful and the bizarre; for us, perhaps, such experiments communicate something about the absurdity of humanity that cannot be expressed any other way. No one seriously argues that Titus is one of Shakespeare's "best" plays. But it is one of his most entertaining grotesques - and is certainly uniquely compatible with our own somewhat grotesque times.