A Performance History of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus

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According to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the “inevitable condition of texts in history” is one of “iterability” or “recontextualization” (Fischlin and Fortier 5). Thus even the works of Shakespeare, once frequently cited as “timeless,” have been subject to a periodic rise and fall in critical favor over the course of time. Measure for Measure offended the conservative sensibilities of nineteenth century audiences, and King Lear was disregarded for generations as “unactable” by audiences who preferred Nahum Tate’s happily ending adaptation (Dessen 1). However, no other Shakespearean work has experienced the dramatic fall from favor or endured the level of sustained ridicule that has been heaped on the early tragedy Titus Andronicus .

Although Titus was quite successful in Elizabethan times, with Jonathan Bate writing that it “perhaps did more than any other play to establish its author’s reputation as a dramatist” (1), the overwhelming critical consensus in subsequent years dismissed the play as “an accumulation of vulgar physical horrors” (William Hazlitt, qtd. in Kolin 4) and the “singularly faulty… product of a playwright who was never again to write so badly” (Rackin 15). As early as the seventeenth century, its most successful adaptor dubbed the original text “a heap of Rubbish” (Ravenscroft 5), and as late as the twentieth, T.S. Eliot declared it to be “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written” (Kerrigan 195). Critics were disgusted by Titus ’s brutal violence, memorably catalogued by S. Clarke Hulse in 1979 as including:

14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity and 1 of cannibalism—an average of 5.2
atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines. (qtd. in Kolin 6)

The bloody spectacle was even said to have frightened the young Robert Burns “almost into convulsions” when it was read aloud to him as a child (Alan Dent, qtd. in Kolin 4-5). Theatrical audiences seem to have had a similar reaction, with nervous laughter and/or fainting frequently reported at even the most favorably reviewed productions. Accordingly, revivals have been few and far between, until quite recently (Tempera 16).

After a hiatus of a few hundred years, during which the only notable stagings of Titus Andronicus were adaptations, Shakespeare’s playtext began to be staged again in the twentieth century. Although the first few of these performances appear to have been lackluster efforts by reluctant companies to “complete the set” of Shakespeare’s plays or offer insight into his early creative development, recent directors have chosen to approach Titus as valuable and relevant in itself, independent of Shakespeare’s authorship, and they have seen remarkable success as a result (Kennedy 64, Bate 1). This turnabout has been so pronounced that in the summer of 2006, The Guardian’s theatre reviewer, Michael Billington, wrote that “One of the pleasures of my theatre-going life has been to watch [Titus’s] restoration to public favour. Instead of a primitive, Marlovian gore fest, it is now seen as a study in monumental suffering” (Billington, Titus Andronicus Shakespeare’s Globe).

Why should a play as consistently reviled as Titus Andronicus , rejected by centuries of critics as apocryphal, and almost entirely absent from the stage for centuries be experiencing a return to the theatrical repertory and a concomitant surge in critical attention? Whereas previous generations were repulsed by Titus ’s brutality, either shunning the play entirely or “correcting” it by tempering its violent excesses and eliminating moral ambiguity, it is exactly this excess and ambiguity which seems to attract more recent directors and critics. This paper will outline Titus ’s iteration from initial success to later rejection and finally, to recent deconstructive readings that play on the very aspects which caused the play’s rejection in the first place. In the process, this account of Titus ’s critical reception will serve as a case study illustrating changes in the notion of Shakespeare’s authority over time, from master playwright to national poet to astute critic and chronicler of human nature.

Initial Success: Titus in the Time of Shakespeare

“[H]e that will swear Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays yet, shall pass unexcepted at here as a man whose judgment shows it is constant, and hath stood still these five and twenty, or thirty years” – Induction to Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614)

Although the above quotation has often been cited by past scholars as evidence for contemporaries’ scorn of Titus Andronicus , it is now more frequently interpreted as testimony to the play’s enduring popularity. Juxtaposing Shakespeare’s play with Kyd’s popular work,The Spanish Tragedy , Jonson scorns not the play itself, but devotees whose tastes in 1614 still favored the revenge tragedies of the 1590s, which were by then “very old-fashioned” (Eugene Waith, qtd. in Dessen 5). It follows, therefore, that Titus Andronicus was not always considered the black sheep amongst Shakespeare’s plays; rather, it was so successful in its own time that twenty years after its initial publication, it had become quite overplayed.

As is typical of Elizabethan plays, little evidence remains to detail the performance history of Titus Andronicus . However, the bits and pieces that are available reveal more than is known about most of Shakespeare’s works (Dessen 6), a fact which may serve as further evidence that the play was unusually successful in its own time. In addition to written records of several performances in the 1590s and early 1600s (Bate 69-70), a contemporaneous illustration of the play also exists. This illustration, known as the Peacham Drawing, constitutes the only visual representation of Shakespeare remaining from his own time (Bate 38-39). Additionally, records of several spinoffs have survived to the present day, including a ballad (Bate 70), a chapbook (Bate 3), and two adaptations of the play performed in seventeenth century Germany and Holland (Bate 44, 48).

The first recorded performance of Titus Andronicus was at Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre on January 24, 1594. According to Henslowe’s records, the play earned some of the highest receipts of any play that season, taking three pounds and eight shillings on opening night and earning between eighteen and forty shillings at each subsequent performance (Bate 69-70). Even when the Rose closed shortly after the play’s premiere due to a resurgence of the plague in early February, further evidence of Titus ’s immediate popularity can be found in the Stationers’ Register, where John Danter recorded an entry for “A Noble History of Titus Andronicus” on February 6, just three days after the order was made for the theatres to be closed (Bate 70). This quarto edition marked the first time any of Shakespeare’s plays was committed to print (Murphy 22), and it was followed by two subsequent editions in 1600 and 1611, showing that the interest of contemporary readers continued even after Shakespeare had produced what modern critics have tended to regard as more “mature” works (Bate 71).

In addition to its auspicious opening season and three successful print runs,Titus seems to have remained a “company showpiece” in 1596, when it was performed by the Chamberlain’s Men at the home of Sir John Harrington at Burley-on-the-Hill, Rutland as part of that year’s Christmas festivities (Keenan 82). Although few additional records of specific performances in England exist, the title pages to each quarto edition serve as witness to the ever-growing popularity of the play. While the first, released shortly after Titus ’s premiere, states that “it was Plaide by the Right Honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Sussex their Seruants” (Shakespeare,Titus 1st ed.), the second quarto claims that it “hath sundry times been played” by the same companies, adding “the Lorde Chamberlaine theyr Seruants” to the list (Hughes 13-14, italics added). The third edition also claimsTitus’s popularity, stating again that “IT HATHSUNDRYtimes beene plaide by the Kings Maiesties Seruants” (Shakespeare,Titus3rded., italics added).

The play is also mentioned in Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia or Wit’s Commonwealth (1598), a commonplace book written in the vernacular and providing a rare account of English artistic activity at the time (Allen v-vi). In a passage that illuminates most of what is known of the early chronology of Shakespeare’s works (Allen vi), Meres lists Titus among six comedies and six tragedies he believed established Shakespeare as the premiere playwright in the English language (Hughes 13), writing that:

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines: so Shakespeare among y English is the most excellent in both kinds for the Stage; for Comedy, witnes hisGetleme of Verona, hisErrors, hisLoue labors losthisLoue labours wonne, hisMidsummers night dreame, & hisMerchant of Venice; for Tragedy hisRichard the 2.Richard the 3.Henry the 4.King John,Titus Andronicusand hisRomeo and Juliet (281).

Years before the advent of Hamlet , King Lear , Othello , or Macbeth , regarded by modern times as Shakespeare’s “great” tragedies, Meres lauded Shakespeare as the pinnacle of English drama, at least in part due to his authorship of Titus, here listed as one of several masterpieces, rather than an anomalous black mark on an otherwise illustrious record.

Shortly after Shakespeare’s death,Titus even found receptive audiences on the Continent, where in 1620 it became the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be published in Germany. The German prose translation, titled Eine sehr klägliche Tragaedia von Tito Andronico und der hoffertigen Kaiserin, darinnen denckwürdige actions zubefinden or A most lamentable tragedy of Titus Andronicus and the haughty empress, wherein are found memorable events was printed in a volume of “plays acted by the English in Germany.” The first of Shakespeare’s plays to be printed in German, its language seems to have been greatly simplified, with a heavy reliance on action over dialogue, and the cast, originally consisting of twenty-five members and an unspecified number of “OTHER GOTHS” was reduced to only twelve parts (Bate 44-45). Later in 1641, another adaptation,Aran en Titus, was staged in Amsterdam. Printed later that year, it was popular enough to go through a series of twenty-eight editions by 1726 (Bate 48).

Critics differ in their explanations of exactly what it was that made so singularly reviled a play as Titus Andronicus successful in its own time. Some postulate, with Harold Bloom, that the play was popular because “The Elizabethan audience was at least as bloodthirsty as the groundlings who throng our cinemas and gawk at our television sets” (78) and found in Titus the same sadistic enjoyment they might have experienced from a bear-baiting or a public execution. However, other interpreters avoid dismissing Titus ’s popularity with its contemporaries as the result of sheer bloodthirstiness. For instance, Mariangela Tempera points to the play’s many classical references, writing that “in Shakespeare’s England even the audience of the popular stage would have had a familiarity with Greek myths and Roman history which we cannot hope to find in our university students, much less average theatergoers” (59). Therefore, Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have recognized in many ofTitus’s more violent episodes familiar stories adapted from Ovid and Livy. Similarly, Alan C. Dessen suggests that “the very features that have proved problematic for subsequent editors, directors, actors, and readers (e.g., the mythological allusions, the long, rhetorical passages, the on-stage violence) may have appealed to playgoers still under the spell of and Tamburlaine ” (6). This interpretation acknowledges the role of violence in Titus ’s popularity, but only in tandem with the rhetorical style and classical references highly valued in the early modern era. Whatever the cause, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus achieved a level of popularity and success in its own time that would baffle future critics for the next three centuries, during which the text virtually disappeared from the stage.

Lavinia pursues her nephew Lucius, attempting to reveal her attackers
Lavinia pursues her nephew Lucius, attempting to reveal her attackers | Source
Ira Aldridge starring as Aaron the Moor in his own production of Titus
Ira Aldridge starring as Aaron the Moor in his own production of Titus | Source

Adaptations: Restoration and Victorian Interpretations

“[’T]is the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works. It seems rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure—However as if some great Building had been design’d, in the removal we found many Large and Square Stones both useful and Ornamental to the Fabrick, as now Modell’d…” – Preface to Edward Ravenscroft’s Titus Andronicus; or, the Rape of Lavinia (1687)

In his 1708 history of the English stage, Roscius Anglicanus, John Downes cites Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus among a list of twenty-one plays that were only “acted but now and then,” but “being well performed, were very satisfactory to the town” (qtd. in Dessen 7). However, by the time of Downes’s writing, Shakespeare’s playtext had already been largely replaced by an adaptation, Edward Ravenscroft’s 1678 Titus Andronicus; or, the Rape of Lavinia (Bate 49, Dessen 7). Furthermore, by the middle of the eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s authorship of the original Titus seems to have become widely disputed, with Samuel Johnson writing that the play attributed to Shakespeare was likely “spurious,” considering that “the colour of the style is wholly different from that of the other plays” (802). Perhaps as a result, authors saw fit to make “improvements” on it. Although at least two major adaptations were produced between the Restoration and the twentieth century, once superseded by Ravenscroft’s play, Shakespeare’s original playtext was not produced by a professional company again until 1923 (Dessen 7).

Interestingly enough, it was Ravenscroft, Titus’s Restoration adaptor, who seems to have first questioned Shakespeare’s hand in the play. In the first recorded denial of Shakespeare’s authorship, Ravenscroft writes in the Preface to the 1687 printed edition of The Rape of Lavinia that “I have been told by some anciently conversant with the Stage, that it was not Originally [Shakespeare’s], but brought by some private Author to be Acted, and he only gave some Master-touches to one or two of the Principal Parts or Characters” (5). Although, as J.C. Maxwell points out, “There is no evidence that Ravenscroft had any good authority” (xxv), his questioning of Shakespeare’s authorship appears to have stuck, possibly because many critics seemed to agree with him that the original Titus Andronicus was “rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure” (Ravenscroft 5) and thus beneath the genius of an author like Shakespeare.

Strangely, whereas Meres had written of Titus as evidence of Shakespeare’s genius, less than a century later, that same reputation for genius served as justification for Ravenscroft to disavow any hand such a poet as Shakespeare might have had in writing the original play. Already in the Restoration, it seems, Shakespeare’s legendary reputation had developed a life of its own. Rather than measuring and defining Shakespeare by his works, as Meres had done, Ravenscroft and later critics measured and defined Shakespeare’s works by how well they matched popular conceptions of “Shakespeare.” Therefore, the trend for the next two-hundred years would be to rewriteTitus, altering and excising the “Rubbish” from the original text while attempting to maintain the “Master-touches” perceived to be Shakespeare’s contribution to the play, referred to by Ravenscroft as “Large and Square Stones both useful and Ornamental to the Fabrick” of his adaptation (5).

In this spirit of “fixing” Titus, Ravenscroft removed much of the play’s original moral ambiguity, strengthening the boundary between the “good” Andronici and the “evil” Goths from the outset. For example, rather than presenting Titus as flatly unsympathetic to Tamora’s pleas for mercy as the Andronici prepare to slay her firstborn son Alarbus, Ravenscroft adds explanatory dialogue detailing the story of Titus’s own son who was “By Priestly Butchers Murder’d on [the Goths’] Altars” (Ravenscroft I.i.76). Thus, instead of hypocritically avenging the deaths of Titus’s sons killed honorably in battle, in spite of Tamora’s insistence that her sons have died this way too (Shakespeare, Titus I.i.15-18), Alarbus’s sacrifice is meant to appease the “groaning Shadow” of a son slaughtered in a “heathen” ritual (Ravenscroft I.i.75). Later, in an additional act of asserting boundaries between Romans and Goths, Ravenscroft also has his Lucius raise an army to oppose Tamora and the Emperor, not from the Andronici’s old enemies the Goths as Shakespeare does (III.i.286), but from Titus’s “old legions” still loyal to him (Dessen 8).

Although some modern critics of Ravenscroft’s adaptation have felt that these changes rectify inconsistencies in the original Titus, others suggest that they have the effect of “oversimplifying” the moral issues at work in the play (Murray 471). This criticism may illuminate a notable contrast between Ravenscroft’s seventeenth century approach to Titus and that of a modern reader. Where Ravenscroft sought to assert neat moral boundaries, modern critics seek to deconstruct them. Still other critics, such as Jonathan Bate, interest themselves not with what Ravenscroft “corrected” from the original play, but instead with what he enhanced.

Most notably, Ravenscroft expanded the role of Aaron (spelled “Aron” by Ravenscroft), which had already been foregrounded in the Dutch Aran en Titus forty years earlier (Bate 49). Although this expansion is visible throughout the play, with Aron instead of Tamora’s surviving sons insisting that she seek revenge on the Andronici for the slaughter of Alarbus (I.ii.91-99), it is most evident in the play’s final scene. Whereas Aaron is absent from the banquet at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Titus, Ravenscroft’s Aron is present throughout, being stretched on a rack. Finally, at the end of the play, he is burned alive (Ravenscroft V.iii.274), a change which seems significant mostly because of the violence it adds to what later generations would consider a gratuitously brutal play. From this addition, it seems evident that Ravenscroft rejected Shakespeare’s Titus not on grounds of its violence, as later critics would, but because of its moral difficulties. Like their Renaissance predecessors, audiences of Restoration England seem to have had a healthy appreciation for violence, and may have even enjoyed seeing evildoers brutally punished, as the perpetrators of the country’s recent insurrection had been punished upon the ascension of Charles II.

After the last recorded production of Ravenscroft’s play in 1724 (Murray 471),Titus seems to have disappeared from the stage for one hundred and twenty years, only to reemerge in the form of another adaptation. Like Ravenscroft’s play, Ira Aldridge’s 1857 Titus greatly enhanced the role of Aaron the Moor. Unlike Ravenscroft’s play, it portrayed him as a hero, eliminating much of the original script’s violence in the process. Although the text of Aldridge’s Titus is no longer extant, the most detailed surviving review states that “the deflowerment of Lavinia, cutting out her tongue, chopping off her hands, and the numerous decapitations and gross language… are totally omitted and a play not only presentable but actually attractive is the result” (“Review of Titus” 378). This version ofTitusseems to have served as a star vehicle for Aldridge, allowing him to play a transformed Aaron, “elevated into a noble and lofty character” (“Review of Titus” 378). Given the prevalence of censorship at the time,# it may also have been the only form in which Titus could be acceptably presented in Victorian times. However, as Jonathan Bate points out, “The price of getting an Aaron on to the Victorian stage was the removal of the rape and mutilation of Lavinia” (57), resulting in a Titus that, according the reviewer for The Brighton Herald, “[had] nothing in common with Shakespeare’s” (qtd. in Dessen 12). Disapproving of this departure from Shakespeare’s text, the reviewer quipped that “Mr. Aldridge has not attempted to grapple with the difficulties presented to the modern adapter; he has not wasted time in puzzling over the Gordian knot. He has cut it” (qtd. in Dessen 12).

Although the Long Eighteenth Century and Victorian Era each produced successful adaptations of Titus Andronicus which were revived multiple times, the period does not seem to have witnessed a great deal of interest in exploring the moral complexities of Shakespeare’s original work. Instead, the general trend seemed to be towards “correcting” them. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, some critics, such as the abovementioned reviewer for The Brighton Herald, seem to have shown an interest in “grappling” with Shakespeare’s original playtext.

Inside the Old Vic
Inside the Old Vic | Source

Completing the Set: Early Twentieth Century Titus

“Of course, Miss Lillian Baylis is to be congratulated on one thing in this revival, which is that it brings her ‘Old Vic’ Shakespearean list up to thirty-five plays—thereby beating Phelps Sadler’s Wells record by one!” – “Titus at the Old Vic” in The Referee (1923)

After Ira Aldridge’s adaptation in the 1850s,Titus seems to have spent nearly seventy years once more entirely absent from the stage, and when it did return in 1923, it was not because of any particular faith in its artistic merits. Rather, when Titus debuted that year at the Old Vic, it was in a determined effort to be the first theatre to produce all of Shakespeare’s plays—even those widely acknowledged as awful. This seems to have had two effects: first, in the name of presenting a complete canon, it caused the return of Shakespeare’s playtext to the stage. Because this return was merely obligatory,Titus’s reluctant productions were met with lackluster reviews, perpetuating the play’s dismal reputation.

In 1923, the Old Vic was owned and operated by Lillian Baylis, whose aunt, Emma Cons, had purchased the theatre as a philanthropic effort in 1880 in order to provide the public with “a cheap and decent place of amusement on strict temperance lines (“A Brief History”). Avoiding the “impure associations” of the name “theatre,” Cons had renamed the place the Royal Victoria Coffee and Music Hall (“A Brief History”) and advertised it as “purified entertainment” with “no intoxicating drinks… sold” (Kennedy 64). After Cons’s death in 1912, Baylis took over the theatre (“A Brief History”), and three years later, she began her campaign to present all the works in Shakespeare’s canon (Kennedy 64).

According to Andrew Kennedy, it was around this time, coincident with World War I, that directors began to feel “a moral obligation to present the great plays of the past—whether they liked it or not” (64). It was also during this time that Shakespeare experienced his “final elevation” into the status of quintessential English author (Kennedy 64), asserting national pride at a time of international conflict. It was in this spirit of obligation and self-conscious Englishness that the upright Royal Victoria, by now known as the Old Vic, presented the bloody Titus Andronicus, along with the similarly infrequently produced Troilus and Cressida and Love’s Labor’s Lost (Kennedy 64). Tacking the three “worst” plays onto the end of their decade producing Shakespeare’s canon, the Old Vic reluctantly produced Titus “for the same reason that one might continue to buy unneeded china: to complete the set” (Kennedy 64).

Although the advent of Shakespeare as national author made his canon an indispensible component of national identity and the production of his complete works an expression of the utmost English patriotism, it was with some discomfort that Britons included the brutally violent Titus among the literature that defined them. Accordingly, the first revival of Shakespeare’s Titus in nearly three hundred years was apologetically produced and unenthusiastically reviewed. Although the director, Robert Atkins, employed a “nearly complete text” (Gordon Crosse, qtd. in Dessen 13), and was praised by Shakespearean Scenereviewer Herbert Farjeon for “launch[ing] into the horrors and lung[ing] through them far more courageously than nine modern producers out of ten would launch and lunge” (qtd. in Dessen 13), this seems to have been done in a spirit of obligation to canonical completeness rather than any true relish for the play. Even Farjeon criticized Atkins for his attempts to tastefully present brutal violence, remarking that Lavinia “delicately turns her back” as she carries her father’s amputated hand between her teeth and that Tamora “pecks… daintily” at the cannibalistic feast Titus serves at the end of the play (13). These concessions to propriety seem to have struck Farjeon as misrepresentative of Shakespeare’s play, as he wrote that “since emphatically, I abominate it, when I see it on stage, I claim the right to be allowed to abominate it” (Farjeon, qtd. in Hughes 30).

However, it may have been this tasteful presentation that allowed the audience politely to suspend its disbelief until the final scene, when Gordon Crosse writes “some of us fairly broke down and laughed when the deaths of Tamora, Titus, and Saturninus followed each other within about five seconds, as in a burlesque melodrama” (qtd. in Dessen 13). Tempered with as much delicacy as the use of a near complete script would allow, the Old Vic’s 1923 Titus was a not a play to be enjoyed, but rather endured in the name of completeness. This much is apparent from the commentary of the reviewer for The Referee, who says very little of Atkins or the actors in his review, instead detailing Titus’s plot—with which he seems thoroughly amused—and expressing disbelief in Shakespeare’s authorship. The single paragraph he devotes to the Old Vic’s production at the end of the review mostly praises Lillian Baylis for staging the play in the first place, adding to her “Shakespearean list” and “thereby beating [the previous] record by one!” (Carados 383).

This attitude towards the play would continue to be prevalent until the middle of the century. Perhaps because of the uninspiringly mixed reviews of Atkins’s Titus, the play was performed only rarely and even then generally by university literary societies instead of professional companies. However, when it was seen, it was praised not on its own merits but on principle as a novel and admirable undertaking in service of Shakespeare’s canon. Thus A.M. Witherspoon, reviewing a 1924 production by a Yale fraternity, Alpha Delta Pi, congratulates the cast on their unique accomplishment, writing that “The Monday evening production was the first performance of the play ever seen by an American audience, and that of last evening probably the last” (385). Similarly, thePunchcritic of the Cambridge Marlowe Society’s 1953 Titus wrote that “Seeing the play again would be like going twice to the Paris morgue, but I am very glad to have put it into my collector’s bag” (Punch 390). It was not until 1955 that a professional company would produce Titus Andronicus on the grounds of its own merit rather than its status as a rarely-approached First Folio text.

A “Second Birthday”: Peter Brook and Titus

“[Titus Andronicus] begins to yield its secrets the moment one ceases to regard it as a string of gratuitous strokes of melodrama and begins to look for its completeness… [I]f one searches in this way one can find the expression of a powerful and eventually beautiful barbaric ritual.” – Peter Brook’s The Empty Space (1968)

At the beginning of her performance history of Titus Andronicus, Mariangela Tempera cites Peter Brook’s 1955 Titus as ‘the inevitable starting point for any analysis of the play’s stage history in the 20th Century” (16). This is because Brook’s production of Shakespeare’s play seems to be the first since the 1600s to be regarded not as a curiosity or an obligatory tribute to the canon, but as a genuine work of art on its own merits. So pronounced was this change in the play’s fortunes that Alan Dessen refers to Brook’s opening night as “the second birthday for this script” (15). However, this rebirth of Shakespeare’s script came at the price of a massive 650 cut lines (Dessen 21) and a formalized representation of violent acts that many later critics would interpret as aestheticizing rape and torture and distancing their victims from audience sympathies (Aebischer 39). Still, Brook’s production seems to have paved the way for future revivals of Titus, many of which would address these concernsby confronting the text more directly and presenting the events of the play with brutal realism.

By the time that Brook chose to direct Titus, it was the only Shakespeare play that had never been performed by the Shakespeare Memorial Company, known today as the Royal Shakespeare Company. Although it had been announced for their jubilee season in 1929, probably in the same spirit of grudging canonical inclusion with which the Old Vic produced the play, it had quickly been replaced by Much Ado About Nothing, a solidly established and uncontroversial comedy thought to be a bigger box office draw (Dessen 14). Therefore, turning down an offer to direct Macbeth in favor of staging the obscure and violent Titus Andronicus was a bold move on Brook’s part (Dessen 14). Accordingly, it was met with a fair amount of incredulous amusement, with the Yorkshire Post’s announcement bearing the headline “Red Meat at Stratford” and remarking that “Should the River Avon be red on Wednesday morning it may well be that the dye has seeped through the foundations of Stratford’s Memorial Theatre” (Pratt 391). On opening night, amusement turned to wonder. As J.C. Trewin later wrote, “curtain-fall that August evening brought the longest, loudest cheer in Stratford memory” (qtd. in Dessen 15).

Although some critics, such as Alan Dessen, suggest that the success of this Titus had much to do with the time of its release, “only ten years removed from the horrors of the Second World War” (15), Brook’s vision was clearly instrumental in making the play palatable to a modern audience. Whereas previous twentieth century directors had approached Titus reluctantly, hoping merely to render a very unfortunate inclusion in Shakespeare’s canon somewhat tolerable, Brook aimed higher. Although admitting in his program note that Titus was “horrifying indeed,” he also wrote that it had “a real primitive strength, achieving at times a barbaric dignity” (qtd. in Dessen 15).Therefore, embracing rather than eliding the play’s cruelty, Brook sought to help his audience look beyond the common view of Titus as “a string of gratuitous strokes of melodrama and begin… to look for its completeness,” thereby “tapp[ing] into a ritual of bloodshed which was recognized as true” (Brook, qtd. in Dessen 15). Tempering the shock of Titus’s violence through a highly formalized, ritualistic presentation, Brook allowed his audience to look beyond the gore to recognize the tragedy’s powerful commentary on human cruelty, now recognized as a legitimate part of human experience and therefore, British identity.

Conscious of Titus’s dubious reputation, Brook spent almost a year cutting the script to suit modern tastes, removing distasteful puns, obscure classical references, and anything likely to generate unwanted laughter like that of the audience at the Old Vic’s Titus thirty years earlier (MacDonald 187). Substituting scarlet streamers for stage blood and censoring some violent acts by moving them offstage or hiding them from the audience’s view (Dessen 21-22), Brook emphasized the “ritualistic and emblematic qualities of the play” and assured that its poetry would not be lost amid audience laughter or stunned revulsion (Bate 65). In an extra effort to set the tone and guide audience interpretation of the severely cut script, he even carefully composed and recorded his own musical score (Tempera 16), assuring him as much control over the mood of the play as possible. In response to Brook’s seemingly absolute creative control over all aspects of production, Bernard Levin quipped, “I can authoritatively deny that he is also the man who tears the tickets in half” (qtd. in Kennedy 65).

As reward for Brook’s efforts, the play was regarded as a triumph. Although Daniel Scuro’s article on the production bears the sensationalistic title “A Crimson Flushed Stage!” it also insists that “Mr. Brook squeezed every drop of inhumanity out of the drama while dropping very little gore on the stage of the Memorial Theatre” (405). Another reviewer, Jan Kott, counted it “among five greatest theatrical experiences of my life” (398) and credited Brook with “discover[ing] Shakespeare inTitus” (394). According to the critic for Punch, “The conviction and fervor of the playing and directing… ma[de] it possible to dispense with actual visible gore,” and the stylized presentation of violence, along with judicious cuts to the script “balk[ed] laughter and respect[ed] queasy stomachs while losing nothing that cannot be spared (qtd. in Scuro 406).

However, a few critics disagreed. As Herbert Farjeon had criticized the Old Vic’s Titus for misrepresenting the tragedy, Richard David wrote that the original play was “twaddle,” but “in striving to make it more than this Brook made it less than nothing.” David was “spell-bound and yet quite unmoved” at the play’s many atrocities “turned to favours and to prettiness” (qtd. in Dessen 23). Similarly, Evelyn Waugh contended that Brook had overstylized the play, snidely remarking that the corpses in the final scene were “very elegant, especially the ladies.” In summary, he suggested, “the only complaint that could be made against Mr. Brook was of squeamishness” (qtd. in Dessen 23).

The scenes surrounding Lavinia’s rape and dismemberment seem to have been particularly subject to criticism, even from reviewers who rendered an overall favorable verdict. For example, Kenneth Tynan, who praised Laurence Olivier’s Titus as “a performance which ushers us into the presence of one who is, pound for pound, the greatest actor alive” (qtd. in Dessen 18), also remarked that Vivien Leigh’s Lavinia “receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber” (MacDonald 188). Even reviewers like Wilfred Clarke, who admired Leigh’s “fine, expressive acting” found it difficult to believe her mutilations, because “though her mouth was half open, pityingly expressive and voiceless, the chin was clean, impossibly clean” (qtd. in Dessen 21). Perhaps most disturbingly, Janet Suzman, who would herself play Lavinia in the 1972 RSC production ofTitus Andronicuswith Trevor Nunn, recalls that when Leigh’s Lavinia reentered the stage after the assault, “her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished” (Shakespeare II.iii), “the whole audience gasped,” not in horror or sympathy, but “because she was so beautiful!” (qtd. in Aebischer 39).

While Brook’s Titus opened doors for future productions, firmly establishing the play as a legitimate part of the Shakespearean theatrical repertory (Tempera 15-16) and helping to “define… the options open to subsequent directors” (Dessen 23), its formalized style did meet with some criticism, which would only grow more pronounced in future years. Feminist critics especially would condemn the aestheticization of Lavinia’s mutilation, choosing instead to favor more realistic portrayals of the play’s violence (MacDonald 197-199). After Brook’s aestheticized approach brought Titus the critical acclaim and scholarly attention that it had lacked for most of its history, the tide would turn towards confronting the violence of the play directly through brutally violent, frequently uncut portrayals of the entire text. Therefore, in many ways, the later productions that Brook’sTitusmade possible would define themselves against their landmark predecessor, seeking not to find harmony or aesthetic value in Titus, but to emphasize the ugliest and most cruel aspects of the text.

Laurence Olivier's Titus is deaf to Tamora's pleas at the beginning of Brook's Titus
Laurence Olivier's Titus is deaf to Tamora's pleas at the beginning of Brook's Titus | Source

Embracing the Problematic: Recent Productions

“Deborah Warner set out to demonstrate that the play had a strong emotional appeal. She
‘wanted it to hurt,’ to ‘find ways of making it unbearable,’ ‘of making the audience
scream out they could not take any more.’” – Mariangela Tempera on Deborah Warner’s
1987 Titus


After Peter Brook’s 1955 Titus, two further revivals of the play were mounted by the RSC, one directed by Trevor Nunn in 1972 and another by Deborah Warner in 1987 (Tempera 18, 22). While Nunn’s production emphasized the play’s “historical and political concerns,” presenting it with Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra as part of a series titled “The Romans” (MacDonald 188), Deborah Warner “downplay[ed] the political aspects of TA in favour of the intimate family drama” (Tempera 22-23). However, both revivals illustrate an approach Dennis Kennedy refers to as “postmodern contingency,” defined as “a new theatrical persuasion that there is no significant difference between the despised plays and the admired plays: the lesser plays contain the greater, and the greater the lesser” (68). This seems to be largely brought on by an appreciation for qualities previously reviled in such “lesser” plays. Where directors for centuries had sought to render Titus tolerable to audiences, whether through adaptation, decorous presentation, or stylization, the most recent trend is to make the play as intolerable as possible, thereby emphasizing its political questions. In the most recent RSC productions of Titus, Nunn sought to highlight political corruption and Warner an oppressive patriarchy.

In juxtaposing Titus with Shakespeare’s other three Roman plays, Nunn presented it as a legitimate text belonging to a tradition within the canon rather than as a pseudo-apocryphal work of Shakespearean juvenilia. Further emphasizing the equality of Titus with each of the other Roman plays and a possible continuity or connection between them, Nunn employed the same cast for Titus as for each of the other productions (Tempera 19). Beginning with a funeral procession for the old emperor and including an orgy scene inspired by Fellini’s Satyricon (Tempera 19-20), Nunn offered a grim portrayal of the Roman Empire as a declining society further wounded by its own decadence. Considering the misfortunes of Titus’s family symptomatic of this decaying society, Nunn wrote in the program notes that “Shakespeare’s Elizabethan nightmare… has become ours… have we time for answers, or are we already in the convulsion which heralds a fall greater than Rome’s?” (qtd. in MacDonald189). In addition to these disconcerting words, Nunn unsettled his audience through the use of bloody imagery, portraying Titus’s violence in “realistic detail, with accurate models of Chiron and Demetrius’s severed heads and the sound of a saw cutting through bone when Titus severs his hand in 3.1” (MacDonald 190).

This approach, which intentionally contrasted with that of Brook’s production (MacDonald 190), met with mostly unenthusiastic reviews. Germaine Greer lamented that the poetry of Shakespeare’s blank verse was lost on actors who never “took time off from biting blood capsules and grunting and falling about actually to utter any of it clearly” (qtd. in Tempera 21), while another critic protested Nunn’s emphasis on the play’s politics, writing that “Titus Andronicus is no more a play about history or politics than Measure for Measure is a play about Vienna” (qtd. in MacDonald 190). The next RSC production, directed by Deborah Warner, would seem to agree with this second critic, shifting its focus back onto the deeply personal acts of violence and love perpetrated by individual characters on their enemies and loved ones (Bate 66). However, it flew in the face of Greer’s criticism of gore, utilizing Nunn’s realistic style to emphasize the intense personal suffering of Titus’s characters. It also built on what seems to have been the lone uncontested success of Nunn’s play, the inclusion of “the first ever realistic Lavinia” (Tempera 20), by focusing special attention on the experience of the play’s mutilated rape victim and on the experience of women in militaristic, patriarchal Rome (MacDonald 195-199).

Whereas Nunn had located Titus within Shakespeare’s canon through juxtaposition with the other Roman plays, Warner took this deference to the oft-slighted text even further by becoming the first RSC director to present Shakespeare’s playtext in its entirety, employing J.C. Maxwell’s Arden II edition with no changes made beyond the translation of a single Latin line, “Terras Astraea Reliquit” or “The goddess of justice has left the earth” (MacDonald 194). The keyword amongst her company was “trust: trust in the script, in the audience, in the Swan [Theatre]… in each other” (Tempera 23). She aestheticized nothing, instead choosing to let the ugliness of the violence portrayed in the text draw to the fore audience sympathies with its characters. In this way Warner, even more than Nunn, moved away from Brook’s technique of modifying a “lesser” play for popular consumption, instead unapologetically presenting Shakespeare’s work with minimal textual alteration and no concession to audience members’nerves or stomachs. Warner even hoped to make her audience uncomfortable, “making them scream out they could not take anymore” (Tempera 22).

Beyond moving towards a complete and realistic representation of Shakespeare’s text, Deborah Warner’s Titus established a collaborative process with regards to the play’s production. Coming to the RSC from the alternative Kick Theatre Company, Warner’s approach positioned her not as an authority, but as one voice equal to those of the cast and crew (MacDonald 192), an approach quite nearly the opposite of Peter Brook’s intensive individual preparations for his own Titus Andronicus. It is also an approach that Joyce Green MacDonald cites as contrasting with the usual patriarchal control directors assert over their plays, thereby “produc[ing] a Titus which declined to replicate its text’s patriarchal politics as an unproblematical Shakespearean given” (191).#

Because of this, Warner’s production did not focus its attentions solely on one player, a fact which seems to have largely benefited Titus’s female characters. Whereas feminist scholars have criticized many productions of Titus Andronicus for treating Lavinia as a pitiful object whose suffering is chiefly significant as an additional cause of suffering for her father (Aebischer 45-46, Leggatt 26), Warner’s succeeded in portraying her as a subject. Fighting back against her attackers (Aebischer 45), actively and frustratedly attempting to communicate with her family after the loss of her hands and tongue (Dessen 66), and once more allowed to carry the basin with Chiron and Demetrius’s blood in the revenge scene frequently curtailed by directors like Brook (Dessen 67), Warner’s Lavinia never became a passive object of injured beauty like Brook’s beribboned Vivien Leigh. Additionally, in making explicit the frustration and suffering experienced by Lavinia as she was repeatedly misinterpreted by her family, the play exposed the abuse involved in attempting to “wrest an alphabet” (Shakespeare III.ii.44) from the muted woman, thereby forcefully imposing one’s own interpretations onto her, regardless of how accurate they may be (Aebischer 31). In Warner’s production, even the villainous Tamora could be seen as suffering from the effects of an oppressive patriarchy, with Titus absentmindedly threatening sexual violence in the opening scene, carelessly fondling her (MacDonald 195) as he stated that “Here, Goths have given me leave to sheath my sword” (TitusI.i.85).

The mutilated Lavinia, whose wounds are represented with ribbons of blood in Ninagawa's 2006 Titus
The mutilated Lavinia, whose wounds are represented with ribbons of blood in Ninagawa's 2006 Titus | Source

Conclusion

One of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, Titus Andronicus has experienced both widespread renown and near universal revulsion over the course of its four-hundred year history. After experiencing remarkable success in Shakespeare’s time, becoming a stock play for several decades, the first of the plays to be published in both English and German, and the only play to inspire a surviving contemporary illustration (Bate 37-44), it then disappeared from the stage for nearly three-hundred years, seen only in revivals which sought to “fix” the moral ambiguity and inconsistencies that would later form its primary source of appeal (Dessen 7-12).

Unenthusiastically revived in the 1920s out of regard for Shakespeare’s by then firmly established status as premiere author of the English language,Titus straggled on for thirty years as a vulgar and unfortunate novelty piece, produced reluctantly and as decorously as possible, if for no other reason than to “complete the set” of Shakespeare’s plays (Carados 385). Finally, in 1955, Peter Brook’s watershed production showed that Titus Andronicus could be a powerful piece in performance, garnering positive reviews and illuminating its possibilities for future directors (Dessen 23). This landmark revival was followed by a series of more realistic productions which increasingly defined themselves against the precedent set by Brook, culminating in Deborah Warner’s 1987 Titus, which rejected aestheticism and censorship of the play’s horrors, instead actively seeking to unsettle the audience and forcefully illustrate “how ordinary beings can be driven to extraordinary extremities of violence and cruelty on the one hand, resilience and tenderness on the other” (Bate 66).

Where does this leave us now? Although the general trend in recent productions has seemed to skew towards realism, directors continue to experiment with stylization, a la Brook. As recently as 2006, Yukio Ninagawa directed a production of Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Japanese, setting the action in Imperial Japan (Billington, Titus Andronicus RSC). In addition to costuming Titus and his sons as samurai, Ninagawa imitated Brook by aestheticizing and ritualizing Titus’s violence, again representing open wounds with cascades of red ribbon and setting the tone with a meticulously composed musical soundrack (Billington, Titus Andronicus RSC). He also received similar criticisms, with Michael Billington writing for The Guardian that “At times I felt that Ninagawa, through stylised images and Handelian music, unduly aestheticised violence.”


Additionally, realistic revivals in the tradition of Deborah Warner continue to be produced. The same year that Ninagawa’s Titus was produced in Stratford, “stage blood… emphatically spurt[ed]” in another adaptation at the Globe, directed by Lucy Bailey (“Titus Andronicus”), apparently having the same effect of emphasizing the suffering felt by Titus’s daughter, whose “long, silent entrance” after Chiron and Demetrius’s assault “chill[ed] the blood” (Billington, Titus Andronicus Shakespeare’s Globe). Both plays received positive reviews.

Beyond questions of stylization and realism, directors have begun to experiment with other issues in their interpretations of Titus Andronicus, the most prominent of which seems to be the question of personal suffering versus societal decay. While some directors, like Warner, choose to portray Titus as an intimate family drama fueled by deeply personal acts of affection, cruelty, and revenge (Tempera 23), others, such as Trevor Nunn, view the play as a tragedy about the suffering experienced by people living in a corrupt society (MacDonald 190). In one of the more interesting productions that take Nunn’s macroscopic political view, Daniel Mesguich’s 1989 Titus took place in a library tilted on its side (Tempera 30). In a play filled with references to classical texts, some more accurate than others, Mesguich’s actors used piles of books as props, climbing on them, hiding behind them, throwing them in anger, or tearing them to shreds in misery (Tempera 30). Although citing texts constantly in their speech, the characters made clear from their actions that they had forgotten the real use of the texts upon which their society had been built. One book was even used to crush a dove, and each time a murder was committed, a book would burst into flames, until finally, at the play’s climax, the library was entirely destroyed (Tempera 30). This interpretation is also particularly interesting because it presents a use of heavy stylization, as in Brook’s production, while maintaining the unflinching portrayal of violence seen in Warner’s treatment.

With its unflinching portrayal of human suffering, which questions the boundaries and relationships between civilization and barbarity, between humor and despair, and even between caregiving and abuse,Titus Andronicus will always remain a text ripe for deconstruction and therefore fruitful for adaptation in a postmodern society. Recent adaptations have found success in exploring a spectrum of issues, ranging from how best to portray brutal violence, to where to locate the causes of such violence, to who suffers most as a result. It is these questions, rather than any kind of harmony or completeness that attracts modern directors to Shakespeare’s most controversial tragedy.

Works Consulted

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Painted Seahorse 5 years ago from Woodstock, GA

Very interesting history of the play. Titus was one of the plays we read in a college Shakespeare course, and it's certainly memorable for all the controversy and debate it's caused. Our professor also suggested we watch the Julie Taymor film (some students couldn't stomach the really graphic scenes). I liked reading about the history of performing this play on the stage and how audiences and critics react to it.


Kitchenwriter 2 years ago

Remarkably well written - congratulations! I am too am working on a Masters, but it will be a long time before I write with your clarity and precision.

One point, you refer to Andrew Kennedy - but this is not mentioned in your bibliography. The only Andrew is Murphy. Crossed wires?

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