Widely reviled as Shakespeare’s worst play, Titus Andronicus is of such dubious quality that throughout the nineteenth century many literary critics refused to acknowledge it as Shakespeare’s own. During the twentieth century, Titus was reluctantly and gradually confirmed as a legitimate member of the canon since it does bear the hallmark of Shakespeare’s language and thought, however faintly. Shakespeare’s authorship of Titus has been a source of real grief to some Bard lovers. “All lovers of Shakespeare would be glad to relieve the poet of responsibility for that concentrated brew of blood and horror, Titus Andronicus,” wrote the great literary critic Harold Goddard. “Shakespeare, alas, undoubtedly wrote it,” stated Harold Bloom, a self-confessed ‘Bardolator.’
In the opening scene of Titus Andronicus, the military leader Titus returns triumphantly to Rome after a ten-year war with the Goths. He is accompanied by a group of military captives including Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, her three sons, and her lover Aaron the Moor. When Titus kills Tamora’s oldest son as a blood sacrifice to the gods, the Goth captives vow revenge. Among other heinous acts, Tamora’s surviving sons rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia in the woods, then cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her from publicly denouncing them.
Later scenes in Titus Andronicus contain more murders, another severed hand, and two severed heads. The play concludes with a grisly cannibalism scene in which Titus Andronicus kills Tamora’s sons, cooks them into a meat pie, and feeds the pie to their unsuspecting mother at a feast in his home. Titus then kills his ravaged daughter Lavinia to save her from the pain of further living, kills Tamora (now the Emperor Saturnisus’ wife), and is killed by Saturninus in revenge. Titus’ son Lucius then kills Saturninus to avenge his father’s death. In the play’s final murder, Lucius (who has become Emperor) causes Aaron the Moor to be buried up to his neck in the desert sands and left prey to the elements. It is difficult to reconcile these repugnant events with the good humor and balanced view of humanity seen in most of Shakespeare’s plays. Even Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies, Macbeth and King Lear, contain moments of levity and tenderness. Titus Andronicus is not actually a tragedy; it is a work of horror, a forerunner to the modern slasher film.
Although Shakespeare had yet to find his mature poetic voice when he wrote Titus Andronicus, a handful of passages foreshadow the dramatic power to come. Among these is the archery scene in which Titus and his kinsmen shoot arrows tied with messages calling on the gods to avenge his family’s wrongs in the direction of the Roman emperor’s court. Delighted with the plan, Titus’s brother Marcus cries out:
Marcus Kinsmen, shoot all your shafts into the court:
We will afflict the emperor in his pride.
Titus Now, masters, draw.
O, well said, Lucius!
Good boy, in Virgo's lap; give it Pallas.
Marcus My lord, I aim a mile beyond the moon;
Your letter is with Jupiter by this.
Titus Ha, ha!
Publius, Publius, what hast thou done?
See, see, thou hast shot off one of Taurus’ horns.
Marcus This was the sport, my lord: when Publius shot,
The Bull, being gall’d, gave Aries such a knock
That down fell both the Ram's horns in the court…
Aside from the archery scene, Titus Andronicus offers few moments of enjoyment. It is a genuine mystery why Shakespeare wrote this bloody-minded and brutal play, so different in its unrelentingly dark sensibility from the rest of the Canon. Titus Andronicus is far closer in spirit to the bloody Senecan revenge play tradition that inspired Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton’s 1561 Gorboduc than any other Shakespearean work. Both plays portray pre-Christian worlds in which the main characters are trapped in a vicious spiral of “death for death” due to their belief that justice demands that murder be avenged in kind:
Justice forceth us to measure Death for Death, thy due desert. (Gorboduc)
Can the son’s eye behold his father bleed?
There’s meed for meed, death for a deadly deed! (Titus Andronicus)
In addition to relying on the basic trope of the Senecan revenge play genre, in which death spawns death with dizzying rapidity, Gorboduc and Titus Andronicus have a striking number of similarities related to their plots, language, imagery, use of rhetoric, and thematic concerns. Some of these similarities were first discovered by the scholar James Carroll, who documented his findings in a 2004 journal article “Gorboduc and Titus Andronicus” (to which the following discussion is greatly indebted); others are first detailed here. Both plays begin with the situation of elderly men, Gorboduc and Titus Andronicus, who decline to rule over their respective states because of their age. Gorboduc steps down from ruling Britain because he has entered his “decaying years,” defending his decision by declaring that age desires of him not “more travail” but “greater ease.” In contrast to Gorboduc, Titus Andronicus never became ruler of his state, but he was selected to become emperor of Rome after returning from the Goth wars. Titus declines the honor because his body “shakes for age and feebleness”; he asks to be given “a staff of honor for mine age, but not a scepter to control the world.” By refusing to rule the state, both Gorboduc and Titus Andronicus precipitate a bloody revenge cycle that leads to civil chaos. Among the terrible events that ensue in both plays, a vengeful queen takes bloody revenge on her oldest son’s murderer. All the principal actors are slaughtered before order is restored in the state. The plays conclude with promises that the ruined states will recover.
In addition to containing common plot and thematic elements, Gorboduc and Titus Andronicus have common linguistic features. Both plays repeat a core set of words in the opening scenes to suggest the values of the ideal commonwealth: honor, brethren, noble, prince, princely, and so on. As the action becomes increasingly bloody, these plays begin repeating a new set of words related to blood, revenge, and vengeance. Aaron the Moor is so consumed with vengeance that he tells Tamora, “Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.” The word ‘reproachful,’ which appears once in Gorboduc and twice in Titus Andronicus, is not found elsewhere in Shakespeare. Gorboduc and Titus Andronicus both employ a number of words that are otherwise rare in Shakespeare’s other works: ‘wreakful,’ ‘wrongful,’ ‘ruthful,’ ‘commonweal,’ ‘lawless,’ ‘entrails,’ ‘sufficeth,’ and ‘aloft’ used to express reaching for power. In 1948, J. Dover Wilson listed some of the turns of phrase in Titus Andronicus which he found to be distinctively Shakespearean, including a habit of beginning lines with the word ‘even,’ often for emphasis: “Even to the bottom of thy master’s throat,” “Even in the barren bleak and fruitless air,” and so on. Titus contains eleven lines beginning with ‘even’; Gorboduc fifteen.
Gorboduc and Titus Andronicus also contain several shared images. Both plays mention sacrificial smoke, and both employ the image of a baby sucking not human milk but cruelty or tyranny from a tiger’s teats:
Thou never suck’d the milk of woman’s breast;
But, from thy birth, the cruel tiger’s teats
Have nursed thee. (Gorboduc)
When did the tiger’s young ones teach the dam?
O, do not learn her wrath – she taught it thee;
The milk thou suck’dst from her did turn to marble,
Even at thy teat thou hadst thy tyranny. (Titus Andronicus)
Clearly, Shakespeare was intimately familiar with Gorboduc, and hadn’t traveled far from its dramatic orbit when he wrote Titus Andronicus. Intriguingly, Titus also echoes language from Thomas Sackville’s other writings. In a poetic fragment from the manuscript version of Sackville’s Mirror for Magistrates poems, first published in the early twentieth century, Sackville described the golden sun rising into the morning sky, his beams o’ergilding the hills:
His golden rays o’erguilt the hills…
And with his warm and gladsome beams gan dry
Titus Andronicus contains a similar image:
As when the golden sun salutes the morn,
And, having gilt the ocean with his beams…
…overlooks the highest-peering hills…
The image of the rising sun is a poetic commonplace, of course, but what is interesting is that both passages contain the same six-word image cluster: his, golden, gilt, beams, over, and hills.
Another image cluster that occurs to both Sackville and Shakespeare is that of a sorrowful woman whose tears act like drops of water / drops of rain on stone / flint. In Sackville’s Induction, Sorrow’s cheeks are like stones eroded by water:
And as the stone that drops of water wears,
So dented were her cheeks with fall of tears.
In Titus Andronicus, Demetrius tells his mother to resist Lavinia’s tears as the flint stone resists the drops of rain:
Listen, fair madam: let it be your glory
To see her tears; but be your heart to them
As unrelenting flint to drops of rain.
Sackville and Shakespeare were repeatedly drawn not only to the same plot elements, themes, words, and image clusters, but also to the same rhetorical strategies. This is especially true of Titus Andronicus, whose rhetoric is closer in spirit to that of Thomas Sackville’s youthful poetry than the rhetoric of Shakespeare’s canonical plays, especially in the play’s first act. When the scholar R. F. Hill analyzed Titus Andronicus’s rhetoric in a 1957 study, he discovered that Titus has several anomalous features compared to Shakespeare’s other plays. It contains more alliteration than elsewhere in the canon, fewer sustained metaphors, and significantly more use of sophisticated rhetorical devices such as antimetabole, epanalepsis, epizeuxis and “the repetition of a clause with an inversion in the order of its grammatical parts.” These and other rhetorical strategies studied by Latin students of the period involve different types of repetition, contrast, hyperbole, and comparison.
Likewise, when Sackville was a young poet he was fond of alliteration, used metaphors sparingly, and consciously practiced using all of the tools in his rhetorical toolbox. In his 1563 Induction, for instance, he deliberately experimented with alliteration, use of archaic language, conscious variation of word length, and less familiar techniques—“barbarism, epizeuxis, merismus, paroemion, prosonomasia, antonomasia, anadiplosis, traductio asyndeton, and so on,” according to Sackville’s biographer Normand Berlin in a 1974 study.
As Shakespeare honed his poetic craft over the years, he learned to employ rhetorical tools with greater skill and subtlety. “In his use of rhetoric as in other ways, Shakespeare developed from stiffness to flexibility,” wrote Brian Vickers in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies (1971). “He does not move away from rhetoric; rather he absorbs it into the tissue of living dramatic speech until it re-creates thought and feeling with a freshness which conceals its art.” Shakespeare was far from achieving this level of mastery when he penned Titus Andronicus, and his anomalous use of rhetorical devices in this play compared to elsewhere in the canon suggests that it belongs to a different poetic epoch in his life.
A small but interesting connection between Gorboduc and Titus Andronicus is that both plays link the decline of the state to the fall of Troy (also called ‘Ilion’). In Gorboduc, as Britain begins falling into chaos one of King Gorboduc’s councilors suspects that the gods—unappeased by “mighty Ilion’s fall”—have decided to “raze the British Line” to kill the remaining “poor remnants of the Trojan name.” (The ancient British claimed descent from the Trojans.) King Gorboduc expresses the same sentiment, declaring that the gods were not been appeased by the “slaughter of unhappy Priam’s race, nor Ilion’s fall,” but
still continued rage,
Pursue our lives, and from the farthest Seas
Doth chase the issues of destroyed Troy…
As Gorboduc links England with Troy, Titus Andronicus links Rome with Troy. Characters in Titus Andronicus speak of “our Troy, our Rome,” and Titus’s dead sons are compared to King Priam of Troy’s dead sons. When Titus sees his raped and mutilated daughter Lavinia—the latest in a series of unendurable horrors—he says that more grief is pointless, like bringing “a faggot to bright-burning Troy.” Characters in Titus Andronicus mull frequently over the fate of Troy. Titus says, “bid Aeneas tell the tale twice over, how Troy was burnt and he made miserable.” His brother Marcus remembers how Aeneus told love-sick Dido “the story of that baleful burning night when subtle Greeks surprised King Priam’s Troy.” Titus’s son Lucius once read in a book “that Hecuba of Troy ran mad through sorrow.”
A final unusual feature of Titus Andronicus, which strengthens the argument for a very early composition by an author recently trained in Latin and the principles of rhetoric, is that it contains more classical allusions than any of Shakespeare’s other works. Most of the characters, including the Goth princes and Aaron the Moor, are well-versed in the Latin works of Seneca, Ovid, and Horace. Titus Andronicus is familiar with Livy’s History of Rome, and his daughter Lavinia is said to have loved reading “sweet poetry and Tully’s Orator” to her nephew before her tongue was cut off. In other canonical works Shakespeare wears his classical learning more lightly.
Two classical allusions in particular from Titus Andronicus suggest that the Author was not only trained in Latin (a language studied by grammar school students throughout England) but also had a reading knowledge of Greek. This poses a challenge to the traditional authorship attribution since William Shakespeare is unlikely to have been fluent in Greek. The language was rarely taught in the Elizabethan grammar schools for several reasons: Greek texts were hard to come by, Greek was hard to learn and far less practical than Latin, and many grammar school teachers wouldn’t have had enough familiarity with Greek to teach it to others.
Although orthodox Shakespeare scholars often gloss over the evidence that the author of Titus Andronicus had read ancient Greek tragedies, Shakespeare’s familiarity with Greek works cannot be lightly explained away. After Titus Andronicus kills his defiant son Mutius, he declares that he does not want to bury Mutius in the family tomb. Titus’s brother Marcus chides him,
Thou art a Roman, be not barbarous:
The Greeks upon advice did bury Ajax
That slew himself; and wise Laertes’ son
Did graciously plead for his funerals....
This passage suggests that Shakespeare had read Sophocles’ play Ajax, which was only available in Greek at the time (as far as is known).
In another passage from Titus Andronicus, the sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, hope the gods will allow their mother to take revenge on Titus Andronicus, who killed her oldest son in a blood sacrifice, just as they “armed the Queen of Troy with opportunity of sharp revenge upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent.” This line alludes to events from Euripides’s Greek play Hecuba (also available only in Greek, as far as is known).
A third indication that Shakespeare studied Greek in his youth can be found in another early play, Henry VI Part One, in which the Dauphin of France commends Joan la Pucelle for rapidly fulfilling her promises by comparing them to rapidly fruiting plants in a garden of Adonis:
Thy promises are like Adonis’s garden
That one day bloom’d and fruitful were the next.
The original source of this passage puzzled scholars for many years until a follower of the Baconian theory, James D. Butler, discovered in the late nineteenth century that it can be traced to the following passage in Plato’s Phaedrus (from an independent translation made by the classical scholar Benjamin Jowett):
“Would a husbandman, said Socrates, who is a man of sense, take the seeds, which he values and which he wishes to be fruitful, and in sober earnest plant them during the heat of summer, in some garden of Adonis, that he may rejoice when he sees them in eight days appearing in beauty? Would he not do that, if at all, to please the spectators at a festival? But the seeds about which he is in earnest he sows in fitting soil, and practices husbandry, and is satisfied if in eight months they come to perfection.”
Shakespeare could only have read Phaedrus in Greek during his time (again, as far as is known). While a handful of other allusions to Gardens of Adonis as either frivolous pleasure gardens or ideal gardens of paradise can be found in the literature of the period, including in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen, Phaedrus is the only known text which provides the specific detail that plants come to fruit far more rapidly in a garden of Adonis than nature would normally allow.
After referring to classic Greek texts in his early plays Titus Andronicus and Henry VI Part One, Shakespeare rarely alluded to Greek works in his later plays. Even so, Shakespeare’s tragic outlook has many affinities with the Greek plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus. Hamlet has been likened to Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and Shakespeare’s sonnets contain a handful of intriguing allusions to Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy. Consider Sonnet 53:
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.
Shakespeare is apparently alluding to Plato’s doctrine that the flawed objects in the “real” world are shadows cast by a perfect world of ideal forms.
Shakespeare’s indebtedness to Greek works and philosophical ideas suggests that the Author’s formal education did not end with the grammar school curriculum, but continued at a university or one of London’s Inns of Court. This is true of Thomas Sackville, who attended Oxford University for a time before joining the Inner Temple, where he studied the law and other subjects such as languages, rhetoric, and literature from the mid-1550s to the early 1560s. Sackville himself mentions that he learned to read the Greek language in Sacvyle’s Olde Age, a verse epistle written as he approached the age of forty. He remembers being a child who loved learning and searching for “sweet knowledge”:
In tender childhood while I sport and play
While learning I desire while I apply
The Latin tongue and while I read the Greek
While I delight to learn astronomy
For sweet knowledge while I search and seek
In muses while I pass away the time…
Because no record of Thomas Sackville’s early schooling survives, it is not known whether he learned Latin and Greek from a private tutor, or through a combination of public schooling, university training, and Inner Temple studies. Sackville’s ability to read Greek was unusual for his time. If he wrote an early version of Titus Andronicus, his reading knowledge of Greek could explain how the author was able to invoke plot details from two Greek plays, Sophocles’ Ajax and Euripides’ Hecuba, that are not believed to have been available in English or Latin translation during the Elizabethan period.
Titus Andronicus poses an unresolved mystery which Shakespeare scholars have yet to adequately unravel. This play follows closely in the footsteps of Sackville and Norton’s 1561 Gorboduc, it has many anomalous features compared to other canonical plays but held in common with Gorboduc and Thomas Sackville’s other writings, and its author appears to have had a reading knowledge of Greek. One way (perhaps the only way) to resolve this mystery is to postulate that Thomas Sackville wrote an early version of Titus Andronicus in the 1560s, not long after co-authoring Gorboduc. Since England did not yet have a native dramatic tradition of any significance, the tragic models available to Sackville in the 1560s were the Roman playwright Seneca’s revenge plays and the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, which reliably concluded with slaughter and chaos. (For comedy, Sackville would have turned to the farcical plays of the Roman dramatist Plautus, whose Menachmae inspired another of Shakespeare’s earliest works, The Comedy of Errors).
The following theory might explain how the original Titus Andronicus came to be written. Soon after co-authoring Gorboduc with Norton in 1561, Sackville began thinking about other plays he could write for upcoming Inner Temple revels seasons. In addition to composing early versions of Julius Caesar and Romeus and Juliet, as argued in Chapters X and Y, he wrote an early version of Titus Andronicus combining elements derived from Seneca’s revenge plays and the ancient Greek tragedies—the only serious dramatic models available to Sackville at that time. In particular Sackville turned for inspiration to Seneca’s grisly play Thyestes, recently translated into English by his friend Jasper Heywood in 1560. For the sub-plot involving Lavinia’s rape and subsequent mutilation, he drew upon Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Titus Andronicus’ unrelentingly dark tone might be due in part to Sackville’s agonized state of mind during this period of his life—what one might now describe as a dark night of the soul, or an existential crisis. In an unpublished fragment accompanying the manuscript to his Mirror for Magistrates poems, composed by 1563 and first discovered in the early twentieth century, Sackville declares that no poet who ever lived, and “no book that is or shall be writ,” could express the magnitude of his private grief. In response to some deep personal sorrow, whose cause remains unknown, he may have pushed the character Titus Andronicus to the extreme limit of human suffering. Before Titus cuts off his own hand in a futile attempt to save two of his sons’ lives, he exclaims, “Is not my sorrow deep, having no bottom? Then be my passions bottomless with them!” In return for his sacrifice, Titus receives his severed hand accompanied by the decapitated heads of his two sons. He cries out, “These miseries are more than may be borne.”
Shakespeare’s contemporaries were aware that Titus Andronicus was an early play, pre-dating the 1590s. Ben Jonson referred to it in 1614 as a twenty-five or thirty-year old play, placing its composition date between 1584 and 1589. If Thomas Sackville wrote an early version of Titus Andronicus, the play may have jumped from the old Inns of Court repertoire of the 1560s to the repertoire of a burgeoning play company in the 1580s, hungry for new and old-new material.
It was also rumored that William Shakespeare was not the original author of Titus Andronicus. When the editor Edward Ravenscroft published a 1678 edition of Titus Andronicus, he mentioned in a preface, “I have been told by some anciently conversant with the stage, that it was not originally his (Shakespeare’s), but brought by a private author to be acted, and he only gave some master-touches to one or two of the principal parts or characters.” These rumors provide additional support for the theory that Thomas Sackville wrote an early version of Titus Andronicus.
Titus Andronicus shares many of Gorboduc’s faults. The versification is ponderous despite flashes of beauty, and the horrific events are not counterbalanced with lighter moments. Even though all the principal characters in Titus Andronicus and Gorboduc have been slaughtered by the end of the play, the audience hardly cares about their fates because the main characters are largely one-dimensional. However, Titus Andronicus achieves several key advances over Gorboduc. The characters move around the stage and interact with each other in interesting ways, rather than standing still and speechifying most of the time. The author plumbs greater emotional depths, and exposes more of his characters’ gritty inner lives. While the dialogue in Titus Andronicus remains stiff, it is markedly more natural than that in Gorboduc.
Titus Andronicus remains among the weakest plays in the Shakespeare canon, if not the weakest. However, if Thomas Sackville wrote an early version of Titus Andronicus during the 1560s or early 1570s, he was extending and strengthening the groundbreaking English theatrical tradition that he and Thomas Norton established in their 1561 Gorboduc, with its innovative use of blank verse and deliberate reinvention of the classical dramatic tradition. In this context, a very early Titus Andronicus would have been a remarkably original work that established several key building blocks necessary for the flowering of the late Elizabethan drama.