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  • Titus Andronicus and the Violence of Tragedy
  • Paul Innes (bio)

Titus Andronicus begins with the looming threat of a three-way civil war. Saturninus and Bassianus, the two sons of the recently deceased emperor, enter with separate appeals to their supporters. The first words of the play place Saturninus very much at the head of the aristocracy: “Noble patricians, patrons of my right, / Defend the justice of my cause with arms.”1 His claim to the throne relies on primogeniture. Bassianus, on the other hand, bases his on “desert in pure election” (1.1.16). He too is prepared to fight. The situation becomes even more complex when Marcus Andronicus arrives in his capacity as Tribune of the People:

Princes, that strive by factions and by friends Ambitiously for rule and empery, Know that the people of Rome, for whom we stand A special party, have by common voice In election for the Roman empery Chosen Andronicus, surnamed Pius For many good and great deserts to Rome.


Marcus’s use of “election” should be understood as “choice” rather than an elective process as such, and the implications are clear. The beginning of the play displays the crucial faultlines that lie at the heart of the middle imperial Roman state: internecine dynastic struggle and class division.2 The use of separate entrances plus the positioning of Marcus above the stage emblematizes the splits in the state. The crisis is further exacerbated with [End Page 27] the arrival of Titus as a conquering general, fresh with royal captives from his latest bloody campaign against the Goths: Tamora, the queen, and her three sons, together with Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish servant. Despite the rather hazy history here, Shakespeare manages very quickly to establish a series of set pieces that function as vignettes of Roman politics. Crucially, this context of constantly simmering civil tension is set up before Tamora pleads unsuccessfully with Titus for the life of her eldest son Alarbus.

In other words, the imperial Roman state is shown to be anything but civil, since civil war always seems to lurk beneath the surface when an emperor dies and when a conquering general returns from campaign. The continuous possibility of internecine strife degrades the supposed high civilization of Rome from within. Any easy assumption of a straightforward binary opposition between Rome and its barbarian Gothic “other” is thus extremely problematic from the outset.3 The barbarism demonstrated by Titus when he sacrifices Alarbus in revenge for his family’s losses in the wars will return to haunt him when Saturninus falls for Tamora.

All the foregoing is familiar enough, but it accounts for neither the play’s roaring success on its own stage nor its denigration by later critics. Even its more recent rehabilitation seems somewhat partial, if not grudging. Titus Andronicus tends by its own excessive violence to attract extreme responses. Tragedy is a gory genre, of course, but this particular play seems to operate as a sort of limit text, a tragedy that extends tragic logic as far as possible to see what happens. Shakespeare deploys all the techniques and conventions of dramaturgy that are available to him, constructing a performance piece that displays its own metatheatricality. This too is well enough understood, but it still seems somewhat inadequate as a means of dealing with the issues of performance and reception raised by this play. It is almost as though the critical vocabulary functions to insulate one from Titus Andronicus, rather than allowing it to be described or fully analyzed.

In part this may be due to the exalted status given to Shakespeare well after his death. The bardic construct does not sit so easily with the constant eruptions of anguish and physical trauma throughout this play. The single most important element of the British Bard’s makeup is his evenhandedness, his supreme rationalizing of the via media. But such a version is inevitably compromised by the embarrassment of Titus, and so his play is reduced to an early career aberration, almost as though it were a piece of [End Page 28] juvenilia. Either that, or it should be deleted altogether. The Arden 3 editor gives an...