Although Titus Andronicus is certainly the least satisfying Shakespearean tragedy, it was also his first attempt at the genre, and it has features that suggest the grander achievements to come. Although it is inferior to later work, it is a fine play by the standards of 1590; the young Shakespeare was already a successful professional playwright.
The play is based on ancient Roman drama; its format and general character were taken from Seneca. The violence and degradation to which the characters are exposed stand in marked contrast to the highly decorous language in which these excesses are depicted. Also, references to classical literature, especially to Ovid, abound. All this was very much in the manner of academic drama that dominated the preShakespearean stage, a tradition that the playwright was soon to outgrow. At the time, still learning his trade, Shakespeare applied the tenets of Senecan drama in a polished and professional manner, using grand rhetoric and precise plotting. He was content to attempt a standard melodrama, plainly geared to box office success, and he had two recent, immensely popular predecessors to model his work on. One was The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe, which had created a vogue for exotic villains that the character of Aaron clearly exploits. The other was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the first great Elizabethan Revenge Play, a favorite genre of the day; Hamlet was to be the greatest of them. In fact, Titus and The Spanish Tragedy remained the two most popular English plays for the rest of the 16th century and into the early17th.century.
Glimpses of later, greater plays may be found in Titus. For instance, the combination of shrewdly feigned lunacy with some degree of real insanity, applied rather baldly and unconvincingly in the depiction of Titus, is a profoundly compelling trait in Hamlet. Titus also anticipates Othello in being a simple man out of his depth, a successful but easily manipulated military leader. Titus also foreshadows King Lear in that he commits crimes in the name of honor, but Titus never becomes aware of his errors, as does Lear. The villainous Aaron plainly prefigures such paragons of malevolence as Iago and Richard III Most important, Titus reveals Shakespeare's concern for political ethics. It opens with a question of hereditary succession to a throne, the crux of most of his later History Plays, and concludes with the restoration of orderly rule after disruptions caused by human frailties. Though dealt with very crudely here, these themes suggest the mature presentation to come.
However, Titus Andronicus in no way generates the powerful responses we associate with Shakespeare's great works. For one thing, there is no development towards a climax, but rather an assemblage of episodes, all rather similar in tone. Also, the extremely rhetorical dialogue inhibits the development of the characters, who do not reveal their feelings so much as describe them. In any case, the extremely melodramatic plot makes character development impossible; for one thing, more than half of the play’s characters are killed, often on stage (including a prodigious three in four lines in the final scene).
This combination of academic formalism and blatant gore has appealed to few theatre-goers since the 17th century. Scholarly opinion used to deny Shakespeare's authorship of the play on the grounds that it was clearly beneath the sensibility of a great writer. However, modern scholarship has rejected this assertion and reminds us that the young Shakespeare’s taste was naturally that of his time. Titus Andronicus may be seen as roughly equivalent to today s horror movies. As such, it was a major success; it appealed to its audience, and it established the playwright as superior to most, if not all, of his contemporaries.
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