The Play’s the Thing: Titus Andronicus is a war hero coming back to Rome (with captives in tow) who is initially renowned by the about to be emperor Saturninus but the tide turns when Bassianus takes Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, against her will and marries her, leaving Saturninus to marry Tamora, former queen of the Goths, who has a serious grudge against Titus for killing her firstborn son. Tamora’s two sons make a plot her lover Aaron, a Moor, to set up the murder of Bassianus so they can rape Lavinia (and afterwards cut out her tongue and cut off her hands) while everyone’s out hunting, and then the brothers pin the murder on two of Titus’ sons. Titus’ sons are executed even though Titus cuts off one of his own hands to try and save them, another of his sons is banished and heads off to ally himself with the Goths, and Titus learns what’s happened to his daughter and plots revenge. Lavinia manages to communicate who her rapists were to her father and uncle, who continue to further their revenge plot while we also learn that Tamora gave birth to a black baby which could be seriously bad news if her husband finds out. Titus kills Lavinia’s rapists, feeds their heads to their mother, reveals her infidelity to Saturninus, kills Lavinia and Tamora, and is killed by Saturninus who in turn is killed by Titus’ son, Lucius, who is named the new emperor who will save Rome from the Goths and all this tragedy.
Heroes and Villains: The prize this time around goes to Marcus Andronicus, Titus’ brother, who is just such a sympathetic character and treats everyone in his family with such respect and dignity.
Speech to Know: Titus’ speech in Act III when his sons are taken away to be executed is so beautiful and sad.
“Why ’tis no matter, man: if they did hear
They would not mark me; or if they did mark
They would not pity me; yet plead I must,
And bootless unto them.
Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones;
Why, though they cannot answer my distress,
Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes,
For that they will not intercept my tale:
When I do weep they humbly at my feet
Receive my tears, and seem to weep with me;
And were they but attired in grave weeds
Rome could afford no tribune like to these.
A stone is soft as wax, tribunes more hard than stones;
A stone is silent, and offendeth not, –
And tribunese with their tongues doom men to death.” (III.i)
View from the Pit: I have been avoiding Titus Andronicus for years, having been familiar with the basic plot elements, I didn’t feel compelled to spend time immersed in such a dark work. And there’s no denying the plot is bleak with the utter hell Lavinia is put through and the slow descent of Titus Andronicus and all of the obligatory deaths that a tragedy requires. But the play is also riveting in its tragedy like a train wreck in slow motion. The beautiful dialogue also goes a long way to making this play worth encountering despite the dark subject matter. While the characters mostly exist for things to happen to, Titus and his brother, Marcus are truly dynamic men whom it is sad to watch suffer as their family is slowly picked off. Also of note is Aaron the Moor who is a pure villain. While he’s not as nuanced as that delightful creation, Iago, he is an interesting character to study as he takes such glee in the vile acts perpetrated on the Andronici that leaves the reader so horrified.