Titus Andronicus is both Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and the title character, his first tragic hero. But I’d argue that, according to Aristotle’s definition of both, Titus falls short. Shakespeare serves up a gruesome, almost cartoonish slasher movie romp: A chainsaw, a chain saw, my other hand for a chainsaw….This play would be more comfortable on the shelf with the Quentin Tarantino or Monty Python oeuvres than Macbeth or Hamlet. Such relentless blood, gore, and violence make it hard for the audience to see anything behind the curtain of red.
Aristotle defines “Tragedy”: Tragedy depicts the downfall of a basically good person through some fatal error or misjudgment, producing suffering and insight on the part of the protagonist and arousing pity and fear on the part of the audience.
His “Tragic Hero” is a man of noble stature or high position. He is not an ordinary man, but a man with outstanding quality and greatness about him. His own destruction is for a greater cause or principle.
Titus Andronicus fails these tests on all counts. At the outset Titus’s brother Marcus paints a picture of an admirable man: “A noble man, a braver man,/Lives not this day within the city walls.” (I,i,25-6) Wow, we think, ok, so he’s been off fighting those pesky Goths to protect Rome. He has lost 21 of his 25 (yup, 25) sons to the struggle. So far so good. Despite Marcus’s convincing stump speech, he eschews the Emperorship and capitulates and confers it on Saturnine (the deceased Emperor’s son): “Give me a staff of honor for mine age,/But not a sceptre to control the world.” (I,i,198-9).
We can agree upon his ‘high stature and noble profession,’ then. And he certainly displays some of the errors in judgement that cause him grief, but they lack the gravitas and ardent dedication to a cause or personal belief that would elicit empathy from the audience or allow for his own development through epiphany.
Once he orders the execution of the captured Goth Queen Tamora’s oldest son – they lop off Alarbus’s limbs and “throw his entrails onto a fire (I,i,143-4) – he breaches the levies and sets off a bloodbath that rivals the cascade in the halls of the Timberline Hotel in The Shining.
When one of his remaining sons dare step in his way (remember, he’s buried 21), he runs him though with his rapier without a moment’s hesitation: “What, villain boy,/Barr’st me my way in Rome?” [Titus kills him]” (I,i,291-2) There’s no higher purpose here. Just an impetuous, dumbass reflexive mistake, which his son Lucius and brother confirm: “My lord, you are unjust, and more than so,/In wrongful quarrel you have slain your son.” (I,i,293-4), and “”O Titus, see! O, see what thou hast done!/In a bad quarrel slain a virtuous son.” (I,i,341-2)
Suffering abounds, insight is notably absent. Titus has no epiphanies. He shows no remorse, emotion, or empathy after he kills his own child, or when Marcus presents him with his only daughter, Lavinia. Tamora’s surviving sons have gang raped her, severed both hands, and cut out her tongue so she cannot implicate them. His heart, alluded to in many references to stone, it hard as rock. Titus and Tamora alike suffer from a nearly completely disconnected inhumanity.
The violence piles up like so many dead bodies on the hand cart in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Funny there, it is gratuitous here, and creates a convoluted plot while failing to champion a higher purpose. I hesitate to blatantly retell the story in an essay, but this laundry list of atrocities bears repeating because a) it is impossible to comprehend unless seen in writing, and b) it illustrates the point that it, rather than any message or lesson, is the point:
- Tamora’s sons kill Saturnine’s son Bassianus and Aaron frames Titus’s boys for the murder.
- Tamora’s sons rape Lavinia, and relieve her of her tongue and hands
- Saturnine orders the framed ‘perps’ to a fate worse than anyone’s ever thought up before
- Titus cuts off his own hand thinking it’s in exchange for his boys’ lives
- It is returned to him along with his boys’ heads
- He carries one head off, gives the other to Marcus, and makes Lavinia transport his severed hand between her teeth
- Titus lures Tamora’s sons to stay with him, kills them, and with Lavinia’s assitance, grinds their bones in to flour and mixes it with their blood to form a crust of the pies that he fills with their cooked heads (Sweeny Todd, anyone?)
- Tamora, thus, eats her own children
- Titus kills Lavinia to save her from shame
- Titus kills Tamora to keep her from life
- Saturnine kills Titus to avenge his wife Tamora
- Lucius kills Saturnine to avenge his father
- Lucius sends Aaron to be buried “breast-deep in earth and famish him” (V,iii,179)
- Lucius throws Tamora’s body to the birds to devour
This grand parade of gore is as tedious and absurd in the play as it is here. Titus, in begging for mercy from the tribunes, complains that “I tell my sorrows to stones.”(III,i,40) He ought to beg mercy from the audience, too, because it’s precisely this own lack of insight or greater cause that keep us stony, without the pity or compassion that Aristotle required of a true tragic hero.
Titus never experiences the anagnorisis that Aristotle demands of his tragic heroes – the moment when the hero makes that all-important discovery that results in an increased self-awareness and self-knowledge. Nope, none of that in sight.
Nor do we, as the audience, experience Aristotle’s required catharsis, or ‘transition through transformation.’ The play ought to carry us from fear and loathing to pity and compassion through to ‘relief and exhilaration.’ Again, nope. Seeing him slaughter his own mangled daughter, who he has failed to comfort in any way after her trauma, elicits neither.
Titus summarizes it best: “Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive/That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers? Tigers must prey.” (III,i,57-8) He’s right. This play is about a pack of wild animals operating from the basest of bestial instincts. Kill or be killed. They fight for neither higher principles, nor for the greater good. It’s an eye for an eye until they just about run out of bodies and body parts to pillage.
Shakespeare cut his teeth on this play. He certainly perfected the genre later. Perhaps Elizabethan audiences just wanted to escape the stress of their quotidian lives with a good cup of grog and a lively dose of carnage – in which case this play works really well. Aristotle would have been throwing rotten tomatoes.
(Aristotle references from Hasdpa.net)