Is this the most disturbing of Shakespeare’s plays? If it isn’t, it is close. Titus Andronicus returns from war, triumphant, but his cruelty to his captive, Tamora, queen of the Goths, sets of a spiral of increasingly horrific acts of vengeance. The violence is copious and horrific: Titus murders one of Tamora’s son in vengeance for the death of his own on the battlefield; Titus’s daughter, Lavina, is horrifically raped and mutilated; Lavina’s fiancée is murdered; two more of Titus’s sons are murdered; Titus’s hand is cut off; Tamora’s sons are murdered and feed to her baked into a pie; Lavina is murdered, by her father; and, finally, after having lost everything, Titus himself is killed and Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s lover who was behind much of the treachery, is buried chest deep and left to die.
It is important when reading plays like Titus to remember that in his time, Shakespeare was competing against such sophisticated entertainment as bear baiting. The level of violence here is like a horror movie and it can be very rough going. Especially tough are the scenes involving the rape of Lavinia and its aftermath — the cruelty here rivals the torture porn of today’s horror movie industry. There is a strong thread of misogyny running through Shakespeare works. Woman are routinely abused or portrayed as evil and conniving. In Titus, we have both. Lavinia is raped, abused and finally killed, while Tamora is portrayed as the conniving, evil, villain. There are those who will think I am being too harsh, bringing my contemporary feminism to a playwright working hundreds of years ago, but it is hard to look past Shakespeare’s depictions of women in these early plays – he was profoundly sexist and that need to be remembered.
The rape scene and Lavina’s mutilation are hard enough, but the scene later in the play where Lavinia carries away her father’s hand in her mouth is really just over the top in its cheap cruelty. Am I supposed to laugh at this? If so, then something has been lost between the Bard’s time and our own. I find nothing amusing in the scene. There is a reason this is one of the least preformed of Shakespeares works. It is offensive, bloody, and just not very good.
Bloom and others have championed Aaron the Moor as one of Shakespeare’s first great characters. I am not sure I agree. Though Aaron is somewhat humanized by his love for his child, in the end, he is a caricature of the villain. If any character foreshadows the Bard’s later, greater, creations it is Titus himself, a sort of horror show funhouse King Lear and perhaps for that alone, this is one worth reading if you can stomach it.