When actors today or in Shakespeare's time started out they often had to take on whatever they could to pay the bills. Established stars usually have some films or other work that they look back and either cringe or look on fondly as their break into the business. More often than not the genre that actors, writers and directors break into early is the horror genre. Everyone loves to be reviled, disgusted, and scared in a good horror movie and sometimes the more blood the better. In the late 1580's, Will Shakespeare who was working as an apprentice actor in possibly the same group that he would work with throughout his career, but he also wanted to stretch out to become a writer. While there is no way to tell which was his first show, what is apparent is that he tried to produce a wide range of titles to show that he could write several types of plays. At this time a type of horror play called the Revenge Tragedy was sweeping London. Early pioneers like Thomas Kid's The Spanish Tragedy and possibly an early version of Hamlet, were attracting large audiences. In this vein, Shakespeare took his first stab at the tragedy genre with Titus Andronicus.
Below, as the play appeared in the 1623 First Folio
Writing in a background he seemed comfortable with, the Roman classical period, Shakespeare crafted a tight, blood soaked story horror story of a Caesar like general who couldn't see beyond his own desire for revenge and it cost him nearly his entire family and his life as well. Titus, had been fighting a long war against Rome's perennial enemy, the Goths. However, in the struggle 21 of his sons were killed in battle and now the score had become personal between him and Tamora, the Goth Queen. Though having thoroughly defeated them, Titus sacrifices Tamora's oldest son without a moment's hesitation to appease his own losses. From this moment, Tamora vows revenge and uses he black lover Aaron and her two sons to carry out her revenge. Titus is banished from the Roman court, two of Titus' sons are killed, his daughter Lavinia raped and her hands and tongue are cut off and finally Titus looses his own hand. Titus then gathers his remaining family and plots against Tamora and the Roman Emperor Saturninus. The finale is one worthy of Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. Very apropos as Anthony Hopkins played Titus to perfection in Julie Taymor's 1999 filmTitus.
Above, the title page of the 1594 quarto. This edition has the distinction of being the first Shakespeare play ever to appear in print but as was customary in early the 1590's, the page does not list Shakespeare's name.
The play was a run away success and made the London theater world take notice of the young Shakespeare. So popular was the show it performed by other theater companies and was printed into a quarto edition, the first of Shakespeare's plays ever to appear in print (without his name though) and the play was continually referred to for decades afterwards. The play also has the distinction of being one of the few plays to which Shakespeare had no direct source. While elements of the story were forged from the basic revenge tragedy and Shakespeare's favorite Roman writer Ovid, the story plot is largely Shakespeare's creation. Though it began with a splash, the play fell out favor as Shakespeare moved from the gritty theatre environment where his plays were written to the more refined scholarly world of the 18th & 19th centuries. So much did scholars dislike the subject matter, a movement claimed that it was unworthy to have even been written by Shakespeare. However, those dismissing it were missing the point themselves. Titus wasn't meant to be read as high art and while it doesn't have many of the textual subtleties that Macbeth or even Richard III posses, it has memorable characters and makes for great theater. In this play Shakespeare began to play with archetypal characters that would dominate his later works. Tamora to Lady Macbeth, Titus to Caesar and Lear, Aaron to Richard III and Iago. Even at this early stage he as well showed a character development that he would repeat again and again by giving his audience not a cartoonish villain but humanly complicated one in Aaron the Moor. A black man who kills without remorse and changes sides to suit his own ends, but is faced with an unexpected moral decision when he faces the imminent death of his own infant son. Aaron kills to protect and runs away with his child leaving everything he's worked for. A small scene of the overall horror story becomes one of its more poignant moments with its most unlikely character. Though neglected for several years, Titus has received something of a rebirth within recent years and now is regaining some of its initial popularity.
Click below or on the side links to view the Play Text either as a full page or scene by scene format; a Directory of Characters with extensive descriptions and backgrounds; a Scene by Scene Synopsis of the play; and extensive Commentary on the show.
Click here to see our production of Titus Andronicus.
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