Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “Titus Andronicus”

In my post on The Taming of the Shrew, I noted this comment from W.H. Auden: “[The Taming of the Shrew] is the only play of Shakespeare’s that is a complete failure, though Titus Andronicus may be another.”[1] Whilst Auden outlines his fundamental problems with the former play, he unfortunately says nothing about the latter. Titus Andronicus is one of the only Shakespeare plays not covered in his Shakespeare lectures (the others being the collaborations Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen, and Edward III, not yet considered a Shakespeare play in Auden’s day).

Recent years have been somewhat kinder to Titus Andronicus than Auden was. There has been an uptick in adaptations of it, including one currently at The Globe which I’ll be seeing in March. There is also a killer lo-fi punk band who go by the name. Perhaps this says something troubling about our contemporary tastes however. Titus Andronicus is a vile story of blood, rape, and revenge. For the unfamiliar, I will try to summarise the plot as briefly as possible (a challenge, let me assure you):

Titus Andronicus, a Roman general, presents Tamora, Queen of the Goths, to the new Roman emperor, Saturninus, and sacrifices one of her sons to the gods. She vows revenge on Titus. Saturninus desires to marry Titus’ daughter Lavinia, but she is pledged to Saturninus’ brother, Bassianus. Titus’ sons insist on Bassianus’ rights, and Titus kills one son in a rage. Affronted, Saturninus marries Tamora instead and disowns the violent Andronici.

Tamora, along with her secret lover, Aaron the Moor, plots for her two remaining sons to kill Bassianus and rape Lavinia. They do so, cutting off Lavinia’s hands and tongue, and Titus’ sons are framed for it all. Aaron falsely tells Titus that Saturninus has promised clemency for the sons if Titus will cut off his hand. He does so, but his hand is returned to him along with his sons’ heads. Titus sends his son Lucius to unite with the Goths to avenge himself on Rome. Meanwhile, Lavinia is able to name her attackers, and Tamora gives birth to a mixed-race child. Aaron flees with the child but is captured by Lucius, revealing his schemes in order to save the baby.

Titus deceives Tamora into thinking he is mad. She and her sons pretend to be the spirits of Revenge, Rape, and Murder, promising Titus revenge if he stops Lucius from attacking Rome. Titus then kills Tamora’s sons, chopping them up and baking their heads into two pies. He feeds these to Tamora and Saturninus and kills Lavinia out of shame, before revealing the contents of the pie, killing Tamora, and being himself killed by Saturninus. Saturninus is then killed by Lucius, who is crowned emperor and plans to kill Aaron by leaving him chest-deep in the ground to die of thirst and starvation.

One can see why, post-Game of Thrones, this play has caught on again. It’s now generally regarded as Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, and Auden’s low view of it reflects a sense that Shakespeare was still feeling the genre out. He certainly never attempted anything like it again.

What, then, might be said about Titus Andronicus in dialogue with the Protestant tradition? A couple of loose thoughts.

Shakespeare’s Most Humanist Play?

Titus Andronicus is densely packed with classical references, both explicit and implicit, all blurring together into a semi-fictionionalised Rome which resembles no particular point in its history. Some may have already been obvious from the synopsis: Lavinia’s fate is explicitly linked to the rape of Philomela, and Philomela’s rapist, Tereus, is also fed his own son in a pie.

Aside from this, references to Ovid, Horace, Homer, and more abound. It feels a little like watching a period movie crammed with anachronisms which, in reality, would never have happened in such a way, but signal to the viewer “this is ancient Rome, if you hadn’t guessed!” My RSC collected works of Shakespeare describes it thus: “A glorious mishmash of history and invention, it creates an imaginary Rome that is simultaneously democratic and imperial. The play is not so much a historical work as a meditation on history. We might call it ‘meta-history’.”[2]

This superabundance of classical references, if nothing else, demonstrates perhaps more than any other play that Shakespeare was a product of the humanistic renaissance of classical learning. Whilst the new humanism preceded and kickstarted the Reformation, Protestantism served to accelerate and expand the renaissance, as explored in this excellent 2020 Ad Fontes article by Robert Bayer. Shakespeare was likely a product of a classical grammar school education in Stratford, and so his classical mind is likely indebted to the Reformation.

Jokes for Protestants

It can seem remarkable to us that, in an age of such religious upheaval, Shakespeare treats direct religious questions very little. A.D. Nuttal has stated that Shakepeare “writes as if the Reformation hasn’t even happened.”[3]

This is certainly true on a direct and superficial level, but I hope that my loose and unqualified reflections in this Shakespeare Notebook demonstrate that Shakespeare’s work cannot but be marked by the Reformation, even if often indirectly, given the seismic shifts which it brought about.

Still, direct marks of the Reformation can be found when one goes looking, and an interesting one appears in Act 5 of Titus Andronicus. After Aaron is captured by Lucius, he attempts to extract a promise that the latter will spare his infant son. Lucius mockingly asks who he should swear by, since Aaron does not believe in the Roman gods (and seems, in a further anachronism, to be an outright atheist):

LUCIUS   Tell on thy mind, I say thy child shall live. 

AARON   Swear that he shall and then I will begin.

LUCIUS   Who should I swear by? Thou believest no god; 
   That granted, how canst thou believe an oath?

AARON   What if I do not?–As indeed I do not– 
   Yet for I know thou art religious 
   And hast a thing within thee called conscience, 
   With twenty popish tricks and ceremonies 
   Which I have seen thee careful to observe: 
   Therefore I urge thy oath, for that I know 
   An idiot holds his bauble for a god 
   And keeps the oath which by that god he swears,  
   To that I’ll urge him. 


Aaron mocks the religious Lucius for his “popish tricks and ceremonies”–an obviously anachronistic phrase in imperial Rome. Despite being an imprecise “meta-history”, being set in the imperial era necessarily places Titus Andronicus in an era in which Christianity exists, since Christ was born under the reign of the first emperor, Augustus, and died and rose under the reign of the second, Tiberius. Indeed, the previous scene (5.1) sees the arrival of the minor character of the Clown, who is explicitly Christian in contrast to the pagan Romans and Goths, exclaiming “God and Saint Stephen give you good e’en” and “By’r lady” in his brief appearance. And yet any talk of “popishness” arises only in the Reformation era.

One must never dismiss the possibility that Shakespeare has simply put lines like this in for a cheap laugh, and that they have no wider literary merit. Yet, even if this is the case, by putting this anachronistic term in Aaron’s mouth as he mocks Lucius’ superstitions and accuses him of conflating the gods themselves with mere objects, Shakespeare is clearly tapping into something his audience already understood regarding “popish” things. However much we like to view Elizabethan England as a via media which eschewed continental iconoclasm, the fact is that it was a decisively Protestant country at a popular level, in one way or another, by Shakespeare’s day. It was not a hotbed of Catholic stooges willing to rise up, kill the Queen, and stick big statues of Mary at every crossroads. Your average theatregoer understood himself to have a different attitude to images, relics, and suchlike from those still allied to Rome. This joke wouldn’t land otherwise. Take a look at Steven Wedgeworth’s recent article on Protestants and images for how this would have been drummed into people in the Church of England.

Now, this seems to tell us something about Shakespeare’s audience, for sure. Does it tell us anything about Shakespeare himself? Who knows? Perhaps we have here a glimpse of Shakespeare the Protestant, happy to take a cheap dig at popery, concealed within the veil of the classical world. Or, one might suggest the total opposite: by putting these words in the mouth of an atheistic Moor, perhaps Shakespeare is showing his hand as a closeted Catholic, suggesting that only the most base and deformed folk would deride the sacred as mere superstition.

  1. W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Kirsch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 63.

  2. William Shakespeare: Complete Works, The RSC Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (London: Macmillan, 2007), 1616.

  3. A.D. Nuttall, Shakespeare the Thinker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 20.

*Image Credit: Unsplash


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