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"To the Reader" of Edward Ravenscroft's Titus Andronicus: Some Notes on an Early Shakespearean Adaptation

Updated on May 18, 2012
Illustration of Act II, Scene III: The Rape of Lavinia
Illustration of Act II, Scene III: The Rape of Lavinia | Source

In the most recent Arden edition of Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus, editor Jonathan Bate credits the play with “d[oing] more than any other play to establish its author’s reputation as a dramatist” (1). Yet, through most of its history, the notorious work has been reviled 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 1710, the English biographer Charles Gildon condemned it as “contrary to nature and art” (qtd. in Bach 1). Later in the century, a reading of the play terrified the young Robert Burns “almost into convulsions” (Alan Dent, qtd. in Kolin 4-5), and as late as 1927, T.S. Eliot bluntly denounced it as “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written” (Kerrigan 195).

Central to much critical condemnation of Titus Andronicus has been a claim made by Edward Ravenscroft in the preface to his infrequently read Restoration adaptation of the play, Titus Andronicus, or The Rape of Lavinia (1687). In his address “To the Reader,” Ravenscroft makes the frustratingly vague declaration that “I have been told by some anciently conversant with the Stage, that it was not Originally his, but brought by a private Author to be Acted, and he only gave Some Master-touches to one or two of the Principal Parts or Characters” (A2, italics mine). Although this quotation has been frequently cited as evidence that another, inferior author was actually responsible for the majority of the play, with Shakespeare adding only the few saving graces that defenders of his authorship sometimes use to demonstrate the work’s distinctly “Shakespearean” qualities, there is no evidence to illuminate the identity or even the existence of Ravenscroft’s source “anciently conversant with the Stage” (Maxwell xxv), nor does any earlier claim calling into question Shakespeare’s authorship survive (Wells). Yet, more than anything written in The Rape of Lavinia itself, the statement remains Ravenscroft’s most enduring contribution to the field of Shakespeare studies, while his actual adaptation is largely ignored or alternatively, dismissed as an “oversimplification” of Shakespeare’s controversial play (Murray 147).

This selective reading—or rather, non-reading— of Ravenscroft’s work is hardly the most profitable approach possible. Even ignoring the fact that the authorship controversy has fallen from fashion in recent years, silenced perhaps in part by the new conventional wisdom that Renaissance play writing was a collaborative effort, and also by a recent surge of appreciation resulting from a series of acclaimed late twentieth century theatrical revivals (Bate 1), Ravenscroft’s authority in questioning Shakespeare’s composition of the play is doubtful at best. Additionally—and more importantly, with the determination of authorship arguably no longer considered of central importance to the interpretation and appreciation of Renaissance plays, there are many more profitable directions in which the study of early theatrical adaptations may lead, not the least of which is the possibility of providing valuable information to the prospective editor.


From the very beginning of his address “To the Reader,” Ravenscroft seems determined to downplay the attribution of his adaptation to the earlier work of Shakespeare, writing: “I think it a greater theft to Rob the dead of their Praise than the Living of their Money: That I may not appear Guilty of such a Crime, ’tis necessary I should acquaint you, that there is a Playin Mr. Shakespears Volume under the name of Titus Andronicus, from whence I drew part of this” (A2, italics mine). In the same breath as he avows an abhorrence for infringing upon an author’s right to “Praise” for his or her own work, Ravenscroft both distances Titus Andronicus from its until then unquestioned author and suggests that his own work only borrows some elements for “part” of its material. By writing that the play is located “in Mr. Shakespears Volume,” rather than written by his hand or belonging to his works, Ravenscroft appears to acknowledge the author, while slyly leaving himself room to question the correctness of that allocation—as he indeed soon continues on to do explicitly. Additionally, in the egregious understatement that only “part of” his play was drawn from supposedly Shakespearean source material, he further claims the adaptation as more exclusively his own than perhaps he has a right to.

Sure enough, the sentence directly following is the infamous statement in which, counter to Ravenscroft’s stated intentions, he does indeed “Rob the dead of [his] Praise” by alleging a “private Author” and relegating Shakespeare’s role to the provision of “Master-touches to one or two of the Principal Parts or Characters” (A2). As written by J.C. Maxwell, “There is no evidence that Ravenscroft had any good authority” for this statement (xxv), in spite of its subsequent staying power. Ravenscroft’s claim that the doubt he casts on Shakespeare’s authorship has its origins with “some Anciently conversant with the Stage” is both conveniently authoritative—having the sound of multiple, venerable “Ancient” sources—and unverifiable, because these sources are left completely anonymous and apparently never previously saw fit to make known their questioning of the works included in Shakespeare’s folio—or at least did not do so in any written or printed source that has survived to the present day.

Adding insult to injury, Ravenscroft next contributes his own opinion to the argument, concurring with his supposed anonymous sources in their disbelief in Shakespeare’s authorship because the original Titus Andronicus, is “the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works. It seems rather a heap of Rubbish then a Structure.—However as if some great Building had been designed, in the removal, we found many Large and Square Stones both useful and Ornamental to the Fabrick, as now Modell’d” (A2). While this passage, along with its proceeding statement suggesting the play to be spurious, is “traditionally regarded… sui generis [as] the earliest attempt to disintegrate the Shakespeare canon by expelling from it what does not appeal aesthetically” (Velz 45), according to John M. Velz, it is actually linked to a tradition of similar statements made by contemporaries and rooted in the language of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, at the beginning of which the universe was “rudis indigestique moles” or “a rude and indigested mass” (46). The first of these statements, found in the preface to the Poems of Abraham Cowley (1656), reads as follows:

I began to reflect upon the fortune of almost all Writers, and especially Poets, whose Works (commonly printed after their deaths) we finde stuffed out either with counterfeit pieces, like false Money put in to fill up the Bag, though it adde nothing to the sum; or with such, which though of their own Coyn, they would have called in themselves, for the baseness of the Allay: whether this proceed from the indiscretion of Friends, who think a vast heap of Stones or Rubbish a better Monument, then a little Tomb of Marble, or by the unworthy avarice of some Stationers, who are content to diminish the value of the Author, so they may increase the price of the Book;… This has been the case with Shakespear, Fletcher, Johnson, and many others; part of whose Poems I should take the boldness to prune and lop away, if the care of replanting them in print did belong to me; neither would I make any scruple to cut off from some the unnecessary yong Suckars, and from others the old withered Branches. (qtd. in Velz 45)

Although saying nothing specifically about Titus, this passage predates Ravenscroft in suggesting that not all plays included “in Mr. Shakespears Volume” should actually be attributed to him. However, here it is unclear whether that is due, as Ravenscroft suggests, to their status as “counterfeit,” or simply to their “baseness,” perhaps due to status as juvenilia or senilia worthy of “pruning” from an otherwise healthy plant. Also notable is Cowley’s image of “a vast heap of Stones or Rubbish [thought to be] a better Monument, then a little Tomb of Marble.” This idea was later borrowed by Cowley and Ravenscroft’s shared publisher, John Hindmarsh, who avows in his “Advertisement” for The Remains of John Oldham (1684) that he is not one of those stationers who “(As the incomparable Mr. Cowley has exprest it) think a rude heap of ill placed Stones a better Monument then a neat Tomb of Marble” (qtd. in Velz 46). Here, Velz suggests that Hindmarsh is referencing Ovid as well as Cowley with his use of the word “rude,” and that this is Ravenscroft’s source for his own suggestion that Shakespeare’s Titus is “indigested” (46). It would seem that Ravenscroft took liberties with these previous sources if they are the origin of his own statement that Titus Andronicus is spurious. However, by “pruning” this work from the Shakespeare canon, perhaps he believed himself not to “Rob the dead of [his] Praise,” but to contribute to the shaping of a monument from the chaos left to the world by the compilers of the Shakespeare folio.

Whatever his intentions, since Ravenscroft’s initial denial of Shakespeare’s authorship, other critics took to marking the play as spurious as well. As soon as 1728 early editor Lewis Theobald remarked in his Shakespeare Restored that

[Titus Andronicus] is one of those plays that I have always thought, with the better judges, ought not to be acknowledged in the list of Shakespeare’s genuine pieces. And, perhaps, I may give a proof to strengthen this opinion, that may put the matter out of the question. Ben Jonson, in the introduction to his Bartholomew-Fair… speaks of [Titus Andronicus] as [a play] of twenty-five or thirty years standing. Consequently Andronicus must have been on the stage before Shakespeare left Warwickshire… and I never heard it so much as intimated, that he had turned his genius to stage-writing before he associated with the players, and became one of their body… However, that he afterwards introduced his own masterly touches, is incontestible, and thence, I presume; grew his title to it” (qtd. in Johnson 491, italics mine).

Although Theobald cites Jonson— who given the context may have been exaggerating for comic effect— rather than Ravenscroft as evidence, his language clearly echoes the latter’s suggestion that “[Shakespeare] only gave Some Master-touches to one or two of the Principal Parts or Characters.” Samuel Johnson would soon take the denial of Shakespeare’s authorship to an entirely new level, writing in the third volume of his 1773 Plays of William Shakespeare that:

All the editors and critics agree with Mr. Theobald in supposing this play spurious. I see no reason for differing from them; for the colour of the stile is wholly different from that of the other plays… The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre, which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience; yet we are told by Jonson that they were not only borne, but praised. That Shakespeare wrote any part, though Theobald declares it incontestible, I see no reason for believing” (492).

Although Theobald’s argument, likely inspired at least partly by Ravenscroft, is the source for Johnson’s statement, we see here that the play’s “spuriousness” has become so widely accepted by the late eighteenth century that no concrete evidence appears to be needed. From Ravenscroft’s citing of an anonymous, but supposedly authoritative source, the argument against Shakespeare’s authorship has progressed to Theobald’s search for evidence in other contemporary plays and finally to an apparent lack of need for evidence beyond “the colour of the stile” and the “barbarity” of Titus, subjectively interpreted by Johnson as being too far beneath Shakespeare for any involvement whatsoever to be supposed on his part. Interestingly, Johnson sees no reason to cite evidence even for rejecting the popular opinion previously expressed by Ravenscroft and Theobald that the play was at some point revised by Shakespeare. Based on Johnson’s casual, virtually unsubstantiated denial of Shakespeare’s involvement, it appears that the burden of proof had shifted from those who disbelieved Shakespeare’s authorship to those who actually upheld the folio’s attribution of the play to Shakespeare. By the time Johnson was writing, it seems that ideas of Shakespeare’s “genius” had solidified to the point that commentators felt confident affirming or denying his authorship based on a play’s perceived quality alone.

Doubts regarding Shakespeare’s authorship of Titus Andronicus persisted for centuries, perhaps reaching their peak in the early twentieth, when James Mackinnon Robertson published his book-length study and answer to the question, Did Shakespeare Write Titus Andronicus? (1909). Ten years later, in 1919, T.M. Parrot aptly summarized the various positions in the debate, dividing critics into three schools. According to Parrot, “English criticism, beginning with Theobald and Johnson… has been on the whole strongly inclined to acquit Shakespeare,” while German critics, maintaining Shakespeare’s authorship, “have been somewhat inclined to scoff at English prudery as the prime cause of the reluctance to acknowledge its authenticity.” The third opinion, cited as “American” by Parrot, even though it ironically appears to have originated with Ravenscroft and Theobald, is that Titus Andronicus represents Shakespeare’s revision of an older play by another author (16). Although Parrot sides with this last, “American” school, he is somewhat sympathetic to the English view, writing that: “The sneer [of German scholars] is undeserved. It is something more than insular prudery which has for centuries impelled the great body of Shakespeare’s compatriots instinctively to recoil from this play as something alien to his genius. Such an instinctive, continuous, and national judgment carries weight in itself and must be reckoned with” (16). Again, we see clearly subjective, “instinctive” perceptions of “genius” used to justify Titus’s expulsion from the canon, along with what is perhaps a somewhat new development: a strong connection between Shakespeare and national identity. Shakespeare’s English “compatriots instinctively… recoil” from a play regarded as unworthy of their famed national poet, as if the ability to naturally discern Shakespearean drama from lesser verse is somehow hereditary.

Also interesting in this article is Parrot’s interpretation of Ravenscroft’s prefatory statement against Shakespeare’s authorship. Rather than taking Ravenscroft’s statement as the quite possibly biased and apparently original claim that it is, Parrot suggests that it “shows at least that there was in 1687 a theatrical tradition, possibly handed down by Davenant, that Shakespeare was the reviser rather than the author of Titus” (22). Oddly, Parrot does not appear to be the least bit curious about the identity of Ravenscroft’s source “anciently conversant with the stage.”

Although the authorship debate has died down considerably since the early twentieth century, doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of Titus Andronicus and are still present to some extent today, albeit often subtly. One example can be found by looking up the play in Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser’s Database of Early English Playbooks, which marks each of its five included editionsas co-authored by William Shakespeare and George Peele. Although a citation to Brian Vickers’s Shakespeare, Co-Author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays is listed for the attentive researcher, no indication is given that the stated collaboration between Shakespeare and Peele is at all speculative, an odd choice for a resource as apparently impartial and objective as a catalogue of publication information.

Returning to the beginning of the debate, to the allegation by Ravenscroft that started it all and has been hitherto granted perhaps more authority that it truly warrants, it seems pertinent to examine what it was about the author that granted his statement the attention of early critics like Theobald and Johnson, and even acceptance as tradition by later scholars, such as T.M. Parrot. Here, it seems quite pertinent to turn to Ravenscroft’s reputation among his contemporaries. Of these, Gerard Langbaine provides the most thorough—if by no means unbiased—account. In An Account of English Dramatick Poets, or, Some Observations and Remarks on the Lives and Writings of Those That Have Published Either Comedies, Tragedies, Tragi-Comedies, Pastorals, Masques, Interludes, Farces or Opera’s in the English Tongue, Langbaine provides a comprehensive list of English playwrights, along with brief critical accounts of their works. Previously the author of A New Catalogue of English Plays, better known by the spurious title Momus Triumphans: or, the Plagiaries of the English Stage, Langbaine is particularly notable for tracing a number of English works back to their often continental or classical origins. His article on Ravenscroft in An Account of English Dramatick Poets is particularly zealous in this endeavor, and is positively scathing as a result.

According to Langbaine’s entry, Ravenscroft seems to have picked an ill-considered fight with John Dryden, who had ridiculed one of his comedies, known as Mamamouchi. Drawing on popular imagery which portrayed the adaptive work of authors as similar to the work of pollinating insects, “turning the substance, or Riches of an other Poet, to [their] own use… Not, to imitate servively… but, to draw forth out of the best, and choisest flowers, with the Bee and turne all into Honey” (Jonson, qtd. in Whitney 3), Ravenscroft suggested that Dryden was more akin to a parasite:

tho’ he would be thought to imitate the Silkworm, that spins its Web from its own Bowels; yet I shall make him appear like the Leech, that lives upon the Blood of Men, drawn from the Gums; and when he is rubb’d with Salt, spues it up again. To prove this, I shall only give an Account of his Plays; and by that little of my Knowledge which I shall discover, ’twill be manifest, that this Ricketty-Poet (tho’ of so many Years) cannot go without others Assistance: For take this Prophecy… When once our Poets translating Vein is past, From him you can’t expect new Plays in hast (qtd. in Langbaine 418)

Langbaine is quick to retort that Ravenscroft is a hypocrite and that the reason for the squabbling between Dryden and Ravenscroft is really “the same with that of two Whores, Two of a Trade can never agree: and therefore Mr. Dryden and Mr. Ravenscroft, being profest Plagiaries, and having both laid claim to Molliere… fell out” (418). Langbaine carries this indictment of plagiarism through the description of each of Ravenscroft’s plays—usually cited as Moliere, and occasionally claimed to be translated word-for-word with no new additions to the supposed original author’s work whatsoever. Based on this information, Langbaine surmises that “notwithstanding our Author’s Boasting, he is but a Dwarf drest up in a Giant’s Coat stufft out with Straw: for I believe he cannot justly challenge any Part of a Scene as the Genuine Off-spring of his own Brain; and may rather be reckon’d the Midwife than the Parent” of his works. Finally, Langbaine concludes that he knows of only one other Ravenscroft play, Titus Andronicus, which will be discussed in his section on Shakespeare.

The entry on Shakespeare, in striking contrast to Langbaine’s discussion of Ravenscroft, is very laudatory, with the author writing that “I esteem his Plays beyond any that have ever been published in our Language” (455). Interestingly, in spite of this praise, the account Langbaine gives of Shakespeare’s works is dominated not only by source material, but by adaptations and prefaces written by other authors, to the point that discussion of the “original” Shakespearean plays themselves appears to form a minority of the catalogue. Entries on both The Tempest and Troilus and Cressida discuss Dryden’s version exclusively, with the latter being merely a brief reference to the reader that “Of this Play I have already given an Account: see the Name, in the Remarks to Mr. Dryden, who altered this Play, in the Year 1679” (467). The listing for Titus Andronicus follows suit, giving only a brief performance history, listing the year and location of the first printing, along with a company that acted it, before launching back into the same attack on Ravenscroft’s supposed plagiarism originally begun in his own section of the book.

Langbaine is particularly disdainful of Ravenscroft’s statement that “I think it a greater theft to Rob the dead of their Praise than the Living of their Money,” snidely remarking that “Whether his Practice agree with his Protestation, I leave to the Comparison of his Works, with those ofMolliere” (465). He continues on to quote Thomas Shadwell on the matter, counting Ravenscroft among those authors “that never yet wrote a Play, without stealing most of it; and (like Men that Lye so long, till they believe themselves) at length by continual Thieving, reckon their stolen Goods their own too.” Of such men, Shadwell says “I cannot but believe that he that makes a common practice of stealing other Men’s Wit, would, if he could with the same Safety, steal any thing else” (466). In addition to insinuating the disingenuousness of Ravenscroft’s avowed aversion to self-interestedly plundering Shakespeare’s works, Langbaine seems skeptical both of his suggestion that Titus was composed by another author and that his adaptation “refine[s]… heighten[s], and… encreas[es]” the play’s virtues. However, perhaps unfortunately for posterity, he decides “not [to] engage in this Controversy; but leave it to [Ravenscroft’s] Rivals in the Wrack of that Great Man, Mr.Dryden, Shadwell, Crown, Tate, andDurfey” (466).

However, for all his derision—and the disappointing omission of a detailed counter-argument on the authorship controversy, Langbaine appears to provide us with the only surviving transcription of any part of the prologue read at the original performance of Ravenscroft’s play, which the author claimed he had lost, in the opening material to his quarto. If this fragment is to be taken as legitimate, in it Ravenscroft “boasts” that:

To day the Poet does not fear your Rage,
Shakespeare by him reviv’d not treads the Stage:
Under his sacred Lawrels he sits down
Safe, from the blast of any Criticks Frown.
Like other Poets, he’ll not proudly scorn
To own, that he but winnow’d Shakespear’s Corn;
So far he was from robbing him of’s Treasure,
That he did add his own, to make full Measure (466)

The implication of Langbaine’s use of this passage appears to be ironic; Shakespeare’s “Lawrels” have in no way sheltered Ravenscroft, but rather attracted criticism. Additionally, Langbaine may mean to draw attention to the conflict between Ravenscroft’s statement in this earlier prologue that “he but winnow’d Shakespear’s corn” and his later claims that “none in all that Author's Works ever receiv'd greater Alterations” than Titus Andronicus as adapted by his pen. He may even mean to imply that Ravenscroft never lost the prologue at all, but rather found that it undermined his efforts in claiming the adaptation as his own. Tantalizingly, Langbaine concludes with the condescending suggestion that he can send the rest of the prologue to Ravenscroft should he so desire, but—perhaps not surprisingly, it appears that nothing ever came of this, at least in print. As far as can be discerned, the remains of the poem no longer exist.

Unfortunately for Ravenscroft, Langbaine’s Account of English Dramatick Poets “proved a landmark in the history of dramatic authorship, bibliography, source study, and criticism” (Kewes), and therefore, his insults to the adaptor continued to reverberate through other accounts of English drama for years to come. No less than sixty years later, Theophilius Cibber’s The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland largely paraphrased Langbaine’s assessment of Ravenscroft and his work, albeit with a bit less venom. The only information added to a catalogue of plays and the sources from which they “borrowed” or “translated,” unaltered from Langbaine, is a little more detail on his training as a barrister, the inclusion of a few additional plays, and a note that the date and cause of his death are unknown. Cibber makes no effort to reassess or rehabilitate any of Ravenscroft’s work (88-9). Even as late as 1911, Ravenscroft’s entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica bears Langbaine’s influence, tracing—albeit more politely—many of his plays to Moliere, and finally in 1934, an article by Edward T. Norris was published in The Review of English Studies entitled “The Italian Source for Ravenscroft’s Italian Husband.” Apparently the author is allowed no credit for his work, even into the twentieth century.

It would seem, therefore, that Ravenscroft’s reputation has never been one of high scholarship nor particularly great literary talent. Rather, he is simply a poet who produced a lot of farces, that were sometimes commercially successful, but who was widely believed in more scholarly circles to have been borrowed too much from Moliere. None of his plays are commonly read or performed in the present day, and much of what is known about him is the evidence left by the fallout from his occasional verbal sparring matches with bigger literary fish, who seem ultimately to have bested him, at least as far as the historical record is concerned. There appears to be no reason to believe that such a man would leave us the sole remaining record of a “theatrical tradition” stating that Shakespeare did not compose, but rather merely revised the early tragedy Titus Andronicus. Instead, it would seem that men like Theobald, Johnson, and Parrot gave credence to Ravenscroft’s words not out of any especial respect for him as an author or a scholar, but because they wanted to. This much might be gleaned from their own statements on the subject, particularly Johnson and Parrot’s more “instinctive” judgements, based on the play’s “barbarity,” “colour of stile,” and a sense of Shakespeare’s “genius,” which was later even tied to national identity.

If critics had not already been inclined to accept Ravenscroft’s words, they might long ago have picked apart certain inherent contradictions which seem to reveal ulterior motives on the part of their author. First and foremost, of course, is the previously mentioned contradiction between Ravenscroft’s stated intention not “to Rob the dead of their Praise” and his subsequent suggestion that Shakespeare did not even author his alleged work, which is “incorrect and indigested” anyway (A2). Less obviously, there is a contradiction between the supposed excerpt of the adaptation’s original prologue given by Langbaine and the address “To the Reader” in Ravenscroft’s quarto. Although both introductions contain a disavowal of the intention to “Rob” the original author of his due credit, the degree of responsibility which they claim for the final product is drastically different. In the earlier prologue, Ravenscroft claims to have “but winnow’d Shakespear’s corn,” graciously leaving most of the credit to the original author. In contrast, the later prefatory statement first strips Shakespeare of as much credit as possible for the source material, then denounces the source material itself, before finally bidding the reader to “Compare the Old Play with this, you’l finde that none in all that Authors Works ever receiv’d greater Alterations or Additions” (A2). This is a far cry beyond the original prologue’s more humble claim that “he did add his own [Treasure], to make full Measure,” and beyond even this, it is patently false. Ravenscroft’s play was released six years after the publication of Nahum Tate’s notorious happily-ending King Lear, and ten years after Dryden’s The Tempest, or the Enchanted Island, which exploited the Restoration innovation of actresses by adding several new characters, including Miranda’ sister Dorinda, her lover Hippolito, Ariel’s companion Milcha, and even a sister for Caliban. With other restoration adaptors producing far more drastic revisions, Jonathan Bate actually cites Ravenscroft’s Rape of Lavinia as “one of the more faithful Restoration adaptations” (49). Perhaps a pressure towards originality brought about by the new rise of concern over intellectual property—clearly seen in Langbaine’s writing and Ravenscroft’s quarrel with Dryden—led Ravenscroft to exaggerate his changes to the play. Whatever his motives, as an adaptor with a vested interest in the reputation of his own play, Ravenscroft was clearly, undeniably biased in his statements regarding Shakespeare’s authorship of Titus Andronicus, and the inconsistency of his own statements on the subject only call attention to this.


Granted Ravenscroft’s dubious authority and questionable reputation amongst his contemporaries, one might be led to wonder what merit is to be found in reading his work. One perhaps unsurprising answer is that adaptations and performance history have a very legitimate place in Shakespeare scholarship. Even ignoring the now conventional wisdom that early modern authorship was a collaborative endeavor, one might consider drama always and up to the present day an inherently collaborative genre. As Julie Sanders writes in her work on Adaptation and Appropriation, “a useful way of beginning to think about adaptation is as a form of collaboration across time and sometimes across culture or language” (46). Drama, an art form that “encourages persistent reworking and imagining” (48) is constantly being adapted or—as the Latin root adaptare would suggest, “made fit”—for new generations and different cultures (45). In short, “Performance is an inherently interpretive art; each staging is a collaborative interpretation, one which often reworks a playscript to acknowledge contemporary concerns or issues” (48).

The above statements apply particularly well to the plays of Shakespeare, which as the longstanding core of the English canon, are constantly being revived, rethought, adapted, and appropriated by a veritable army of artists employing “a dizzying arsenal of approaches” (Fischlin and Fortier 2). As stated by Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier in the introduction to their anthology Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology of Plays from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, “As long as there have been plays by Shakespeare, there have been adaptations of those plays” (1) As time goes by, “Shakespeare is constantly being made new” by these adaptations (6). With “each new generation projecting its desires and anxieties onto his work” (Jean Marsden, qtd. in Sanders 48), Shakespeare is kept current and relevant in one form or another (Fischlin and Fortier 6)—perhaps the source of the “timelessness” traditionally cited as an inherent quality of Shakespearean drama.

Through much of the time that Shakespeare’s authorship of Titus Andronicus was being questioned, the play underwent a drought of these adaptations so instrumental to keeping Shakespeare “current.” From the last performance of Ravenscroft’s play in 1724 (Murray 417) until the revival of popular interest with Peter Brook’s critically acclaimed RSC production in1955 (Bate 1), the play was staged only a few times. First, in the 1800s, it was completely rewritten with Aaron as the hero, to serve as a star vehicle for the famous black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge (Bate 57). Later, in the first half of the twentieth century, it played for a brief, half-hearted run at the Old Vic, strictly in the name of presenting the complete Shakespearean canon (Kennedy 64), and at a handful of college theater departments, without exception in a similar bid for canonical completeness—or, as some student reviews seem to indicate, as a shocking curiosity (Witherspoon 385). Although it seems clear that revivals of Titus Andronicus were not being mounted because the play did not speak to the culture of the time, one might wonder if the reverse was not also true; perhaps Titus did not speak to the culture of the time because revivals were not being mounted.

In her essay “Titus Andronicus: Transcendence and Succession,” Rebecca Ann Bach has even written that critics have repeatedly attempted to oust Titus Andronicus from the canon over the years not simply because of its gore, its abundance of classical allusion, or any other flaw commonly attributed to it, but because, as a thoroughly Elizabethan play, it is distinctly un-timeless. While elitist conceptions of Shakespeare as a literary genius who inhabits “a transcendent sphere of art” (2) have led past scholars to suggest either that the play’s brutality is uncharacteristic and unworthy of the artist Shakespeare or that—through no fault of Shakespeare’s— past audiences and critics have merely been turned off by his erudite style, invoking Ovid, Livy, and other classical poets, Bach suggests that negative reactions to Titus Andronicus are actually a result of “its status as an artifact of Elizabethan culture” (1). According to Bach, Titus threatens Shakespeare’s supposed transcendence, because “the text itself is unstable, and the play is racist and excessively violent.” These qualities “make the play difficult for a modem sensibility to swallow… [and] in Titus’s case… [they] are pieces of the particular topical nature of the play—its identity within the cultural anxiety over Queen Elizabeth's demise and England's fate after that event” (2).

While Bach certainly makes some excellent points in her essay, it should be remembered that all of Shakespeare’s plays are “artifact[s] of Elizabethan culture.” The “transcendence” of Shakespeare—or any other author, for that matter—is a myth, not just in the case of one play, but in the case of the entire canon. As Shakespeare’s plays are adapted with each generation, they all go through periods—albeit to somewhat differing degrees—of favor and disfavor. Particularly prominent examples include King Lear, thought for generations to be “unactable” and thus widely replaced with Nahum Tate’s previously mentioned happily ending version (Dessen 1) and Henry V, with its well-known rise to popularity concurrent with nationalistic feeling during World War Two.

Ravenscroft’s adaptation, along with the recent surge or revivals produced in the period from the mid-twentieth century to the present, is evidence that Titus Andronicus is not a play only relevant and resonant in its own time, but a text like any other, that has undergone fluctuations in popularity and interpretation from the time of its first performance until the present day. What makes Ravenscroft’s Titus particularly valuable in this regard is that, while we have plenty of documentation from modern directors and reviewers stating why they believed that Titus was a timely production in their historical moment—for reasons ranging from a post-Holocaust credibility lent to the play’s extreme cruelty to a feminist need to communicate the horrific plight of rape victims in a patriarchal society (Hughes 47-8, MacDonald 195-199)—the prefatory material to Ravenscroft’s quarto is the only such indication we have of the intentions of an early adaptor. The mid-sixteenth century Dutch adaptor Jan Vos leaves us no similar information; in fact, according to Jonathan Bate, the relationship between his Aran en Titus and Shakespeare’s play remains unclear. Although it has been speculated that its story may be taken from Adriaen Van den Bergh’s earlier Andronicus, the latter text no longer survives (48). Similarly mysterious are the reasons that Titus was thought fit for import to Germany in the 1620s. Although the text of Eine sehr klägliche Tragaedia von Tito Andronico und der hoffertigen Kaiserin, darinnen denckwürdige actiones zubefinden still exists as “reported” by Frederich Menius, it is published in a large anthology of Englische Comedien und Tragedien without editorial commentary (Bate 44-8). Therefore, Ravenscroft’s is the only major pre-Victorian adaptation to have survived with authorial commentary indicating what appeal the play might have had in his particular location and historical moment; and the play apparently did appeal, being performed on and off for about forty years, until its final known performance in 1724 (Murray 417).

Looking at Ravenscroft’s introductory material, we can see that, far from finding Titus hopelessly and unadaptably Elizabethan, as Bach suggests, he believed it to be distinctly relevant to the concerns of his own historical moment. Like Ira Aldridge’s Titus—selected as one of Shakespeare’s few plays featuring a prominent black character as one of the first black Shakespearean actors was rising to prominence—and Peter Brook’s 1955 production, which some critics postulate was successful in a post-Holocaust world from which the horrors of Titus Andronicus were not necessarily so unrealistic and far removed, Ravenscroft’s Titus seems to have succeeded because it fit a message that its author was trying to communicate, and it resonated with contemporary audiences.

According to Ravenscroft’s characteristically self-laudatory account, he brought forward The Rape of Lavinia for its first performance “at the beginning of the pretended Popish Plot”— in which Titus Oates alleged a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II, leading to widespread panic and the execution of around thirty-five innocent Catholics— (A2, “Popish Plot”), because its subject matter exposed “the Treachery of Villains, and the Mischiefs carry’d on by Perjury, and False Evidence; and how Rogues may frame a Plot that shall deceive and destroy both the Honest and the Wise” (A3). According to Ravenscroft, this timing cost the play some success, as “neither Wit nor Honesty [then] had Encouragement” (A2). However, “being content rather to lose the Profit, then not expose to the World the Picture of such Knaves and Rascals as then Reign’d in the opinion of the Foolish and Malicious Part of the Nation,” Ravenscroft says that he braved ill opinion long enough to have his work “confirm’d a Stock-Play” in the aftermath of “those distracted times” (A3).

Having already established Ravenscroft as perhaps not the most reliable of witnesses, we may want to allow for some boasting or even ulterior motives in his account of events. We may, for example, question his supposed altruism in publishing the play to make a moral statement rather than a profit. It may not even be amiss to suggest that his talk about “Knaves and Rascals…. Reign[ing] in the opinion of the Foolish and Malicious Part of the Nation” is merely an excuse for an initially poor box office performance, or even—as suggested earlier—that the “distracted times” surrounding the Popish Plot are actually used as an excuse for omitting the “lost” prologue and epilogue from the original performances, and therefore an opportunity to revise his statements on Shakespeare’s authorship and his own contributions to the play. Whatever the case, it is at least evident that by the time Ravenscroft’s quarto was being published, he saw recent events as a marketing opportunity, a profitable narrative likely to help his play appear in a positive light, whether to help quarto or ticket sales, simply to win him personal recognition, or some combination of the above. Whether actually a factor in the success of the play’s original run or not, Ravenscroft believed recent events to be relevant to the play and made them relevant through their inclusion in his address “To the Reader.”

Another element of Ravenscroft’s play perhaps more relevant to interpreting the reception history of Titus and its adaptations is the play’s excessive violence. In fact, the “horrors” so often cited by Victorian and early twentieth century critics as rendering Titus “un-Shakespearean” were amplified in Ravenscroft’s version. S. Clarke Hulse memorably catalogued the violence of Shakespeare’s original play 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)

From this list, Ravenscroft removes two killings—those of Chiron and Demetrius— from the stage, but adds another two onstage. He also replaces the live burial with a live burning, which also takes place onstage after a period of torture on a rack, and tosses in a threat of filial cannibalism for good measure. Clearly Ravenscroft has no problem with “The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre” his near-contemporary Johnson would later cite as reasons for rejecting the play.

Instead, Ravenscroft’s objection to Shakespeare’s Titus appears fairly evident to the careful reader of his statement that the play is “the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works; It seems rather a heap of Rubbish then 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” (A2). Uttering not a word against the play’s violence, the first man to cast doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship did so on the grounds that it was cluttered and disorganized. Therefore, Ravenscroft rearranges some of the violent episodes. The main difference between the violent episodes in Shakespeare’s play and those in Ravenscroft’s version is actually not the degree of brutality, horror, or spectacle, but the order in which the events take place. Where Shakespeare’s “horrors” are distributed throughout the play, the great majority of Ravenscroft’s are revealed at the very end, opting for one great climax to the cycle of violence and revenge, rather than a steady stream of tit-for-tat onstage injury and retribution. While some of this reconfiguration initially appears to have the effect of softening the play’s violence, with the chopping off of Titus’s hand (IV.i) and the murders of Chiron and Demetrius both occurring offstage (V.i), the desired effect seems to actually be suspense, followed by a more unified dramatic climax by the end of the fifth act. Accordingly, at the concluding cannibalistic banquet, there is the grand reveal. In quick succession, Lavinia is killed, Aaron is discovered strapped to a rack, and the heads and hands of the murdered Chiron and Demetrius are discovered hanging on a wall, “their bodys in Chairs in bloody Linen.” Shortly after, Titus stabs Tamora, Saturnine murders Titus, and Lucius kills Saturnine in a final retaliation. Afterwards, while dying a slow and presumably agonizing death, Tamora asks to see her bastard child, “That I may leave it my parting Kiss.” However, when the babe is brought to her, she stabs it instead, in a last act of revenge for the confessions made under torture by its “Blab-tongu’d” father. Astonished that “She has out-done me in my own Art— / Out-done me in Murder,” Aaron asks to be brought the child. “I’le eat it,” he says. Before any such request is fulfilled, the rack is set afire, and Aaron dies engulfed in flames.

Reserving most of the play’s fatal revenge for the very end and making the spectacular addition of a combination rack and funeral pyre, Ravenscroft accomplishes what Barbara Murray considers the prime objectives of a Restoration adaptor in editing plays for the contemporary stage: First, he achieves a coherent order appealing to the neoclassical ideals of the time (19), with the titular “rape of Lavinia” and related murders occupying their rightful place in Act III, the core of the play, while the subsequent bloody revenge established as the horrific ultimate consequence is saved for the end. Secondly, in Aaron’s death, he takes advantage of the most spectacular stunts that the advancing technology of the Restoration stage had to offer (27).

While there may be no such thing as a timeless play, Ravenscroft’s successful adaptation is a clear indication that the violence of Titus Andronicus was by no means exclusively appealing to Elizabethan audiences. It has been found appropriate to a variety of other historical moments, from the Restoration to the advent of the black Shakespearean actor to the Cold War. Further, Ravenscroft’s commentary on the play demonstrates that critics of Shakespeare’s version have been far from united in their reasons for rejecting it from the canon. Just as with many of Shakespeare’s other plays, Titus has been alternately appreciated and reviled—although perhaps more often the latter—and for a wider variety of reasons than one might first expect.

Adaptations as Editions

Finally, beyond simply demonstrating that the reception history of Titus Andronicus has been far from static, early adaptations such as Ravenscroft’s can—like early editions— be used in making editorial decisions about Shakespeare’s “original” play. This use of adaptations as editions may initially sound like a controversial statement. The adaptive and editorial processes are generally considered antithetical to one another, with the former seen as a creative work, and the latter considered a labor of historical preservation and presentation. Whereas the adaptor alters the original artist’s work to suit her purposes, the editor seeks out what he believes to be as close as possible to the author’s original intentions and communicates them to readers as accessibly as possible. However, according to an article by recent Titus editor Jonathan Bate and collaborator Sonia Massai, the two processes are actually not that different; both are creative endeavors with more in common than we tend to realize.

According to Bate and Massai, the use of adaptations as editions is simply a logical result of the conception of early modern drama as a theatrical rather than strictly literary phenomenon. “The moment a text is seen as raw material for performance rather than the finished product of a literary genius, the idea that it is provisional rather than definitive, that it is open to reworking, becomes a matter of common sense… The rigid distinction between edition and adaptation no longer stands. Are not all editions adaptations?” (132, 3). Blurring the distinction between editorial and adaptive revisions, the two authors suggest that Ravenscroft might be considered an earlier Shakespeare editor than the earliest more traditionally consulted option, Nicholas Rowe. In Bate and Massai’s observation, “the modernization of spelling, the introduction of stage directions in many places in which they are lacking in the early printed texts, the drawing up of a list of dramatis personae, and, that highest of all editorial activities, the collation of quarto and folio variants” were all engaged in by adaptors before those we now know as Shakespeare’s earliest editors became involved (132-3).

Indeed, although many of the changes that Ravenscroft makes to Shakespeare’s Titus are on the order of minor plot revisions, others could be found highly useful to an editor of the original play. For example, although J.C. Maxwell cites Rowe as providing the first, “imperfect” effort at a dramatis personae for Titus Andronicus, Ravenscroft’s quarto was actually the first published edition of the play to contain such a list of players. Additionally, unlike Rowe’s list, which is hierarchical and ordered according to gender, thus placing Tamora below “anonymous Goths and Romans,” Ravenscroft’s cast of characters is organized according to “team,” with Romans listed first, Goths second, and Tamora in her rightful place at the head of the Goth contingent. Although some names have been changed, such as Lucius’s son, who becomes “Junius,” likely in order to avoid confusion with his father, the organization of Ravenscroft’s characters is a far more helpful illustration of the relationships between characters in the play and therefore serves as a better example to the prospective editor (Bate and Massai 133-5).

More importantly, adaptors such as Ravenscroft are usually writing for the stage, unlike more traditional, literary editors. Therefore, their stage directions, having been performed by actors, are almost always more practical. One instance of this directly related to Titus is Marcus’s offering of the candidatus—the white gown of state—to his brother in Act I, Scene I. According to Shakespeare’s stage directions, Marcus enters this scene aloft, while Titus remains on the stage below him (I.i.18, I.i.72). While editors either fail to notice this problem, leaving Marcus perhaps to toss the gown down to Titus, or institute awkward additions, such as an attendant specifically assigned to carry the robe down to Titus, Ravenscroft—written the action to be staged —employs a more elegant solution, having Marcus descend at to Titus’s level to welcome him home with the line “Long Live Lord Titus my beloved brother” (136). It is this direction that Bate’s edition of the play uses (I.i.171). Bate also borrows other stage directions from Ravenscroft, such as the simple notation that “They sit” after Aaron suggests to Chiron and Demetrius, “Then sit we down and let us all consult,” as they discuss the fate of his illegitimate child with the Empress in Act IV, Scene II (134). Bate and Massai also acknowledge the helpfulness of Ravenscroft’s detailed directions for Lavinia (137), which beginning in Act IV, Scene I of Ravenscroft’s play give some voice to her dumb shows. A reader who might otherwise forget about the mute character, or an actress seeking direction for the silent role will see in the margins of Ravenscroft’s text notations like “Lav. makes signs of sorrow lifting up her eyes & then hanging down her head & moving her stumps” or “Lav. shakes her head & points to Mar. handkercher as refusing to have her eyes wip’d.” Although Bate does not transcribe all of these directions into his own edition, this may be the Ravenscroft contribution most pertinent to enhancing a reader’s experience, since on paper, in a dialogue driven play, the raped and mutilated Lavinia becomes almost invisible as well as mute.


Once known amongst Shakespeare scholars almost exclusively for his remarks concerning the authorship of Titus Andronicus, Edward Ravenscroft is starting to attract attention for his contributions as an adaptor and even an early editor of Shakespeare’s controversial work. Although the former, more widely famed contribution to Shakespeare studies may lack credibility, and even the prefatory historical information he uses to ground his adaptation may be more than usually colored with bias, Ravenscroft’s play is essential background knowledge for any reception history of Shakespeare’s Titus, both illuminating the sources of the likely spurious authorship controversy and illustrating that the play’s violence has not always been the principal objection of its critics. Finally, in the production of a playtext meant for performance, Ravenscroft has provided us with a wide array of useful notations missed by the more traditional literary editors who have been, until predominant to the exclusion of other, less orthodox sources.

Works Cited

Bach, Rebecca Ann. “‘Titus Andronicus’, Transcendence and Succession.” Journal of Narrative Theory 29.1 (1999): 1-26. JSTOR. Web. 4 April 2012.

Bate, Jonathan and Sonia Massai. “Adaptation as Edition.” Margins of the Text. Ed. D.C. Greetham. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Cibber, Theophilius. The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753). Vol. III. Teddington: The Echo Library, 2007. Google Books. Web. 25 April 2012.

Dessen, Alan C.Shakespeare in Performance: Titus Andronicus. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989.

Fischlin, Daniel, and Mark Fortier. "General Introduction." Introduction.Adaptations of Shakespeare: a Critical Anthology of Plays from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. London: Routledge, 2000. 1-22.

Hughes, Alan. Introduction.Titus Andronicus. By William Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1994. 1-60. Print.

Kerrigan, John.Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kolin, Philip C. "Titus Andronicusand the Critical Legacy."Titus Andronicus: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1995. 3-55.

Langbaine, Gerard. An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, or, Some Observations and Remarks on the Lives and Writings of Those That Have Published Either Comedies, Tragedies, Tragi-Comedies, Pastorals, Masques, Interludes, Farces or Opera’s in the English Tongue. Oxford: George West and Henry Clements, 1691.

MacDonald, Joyce Green. “Women and Theatrical Authority: Deborah Warner’sTitus Andronicus."Cross-Cultural Performances: Differences in Women’s Re-Visions of Shakespeare. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. 185-205.

Maxwell, J.C. “Introduction.”Titus Andronicus. By William Shakespeare, London: Methuen, 1953. xi-xlv. Print.

Murray, Barbara A.Shakespeare Adaptations from the Restoration: Five Plays. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated Universities Press, 2005.

Murray, Barbara A. Restoration Shakespeare. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.

Parrott, T.M. “Shakespeare’s Revision of ‘Titus Andronicus.’” The Modern Language Review 14.1 (1919): 16-37. JSTOR. Web. 4 April 2012.

Rackin, Phyllis.Shakespeare’s Tragedies. New York: Ungar, 1978.

Ravenscroft, Edward. Titus Andronicus, or the Rape of Lavinia. Acted at the Theatre Royall, a Tragedy, Alter’d from Mr Shakespears Works. London: J.B. for J. Hindmarsh, 1687.
Facsimile. London: Cornmarket Press, 1969.

Sanders, Julie. “Shakespearean Appropriations.” Adaptation and Appropriation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. Ed. Jonathan Bate. 1995. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006.

Velz, John W. “Topoi in Edward Ravenscroft’s Indictment of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.” Modern Philology 83.1 (1985) 45-50. JSTOR. Web. 25 April 2012.

Whitney, Charles. “Appropriate This.” Borrowers and Lenders. (2008). 3. Web. 13 May 2012.


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