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Shakespeare & Beyond

A ballad for Titus Andronicus

A recently launched website, 100 Ballads, presents popular single-sheet songs from 17th-century England, among them a ballad from the Folger collection, The Lamentable and Tragicall History of Titus Andronicus. Sound familiar? This ballad appears to have been written around 1594 as a spin-off of Titus Andronicus, the revenge tragedy that’s considered one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent plays.

“The ballad, like the play, was highly successful,” writes Christopher Marsh, Professor of Cultural History at Queen’s University, Belfast. “Of the two forms, it was perhaps the ballad that maintained its popularity more consistently after Titus’ first phase of marketability in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.”

For a zoomable view of the ballad printed for this 1661 broadsheet, visit the Folger’s digital collections site.

The lamentable and tragicall history of Titus Andronicus, with the fall of his five and twenty sons in the wars of [t]he Goaths, with the ravishment of his daughter Lavinia by the empresse [t]wo sons, through the means of a bloody Moor, taken by the swor[d] of Titus in the war, with his revenge upon them for their cruell an in humane [sic] act. To the tune of Fortune my foe. 1661. Folger L252a

On the 100 Ballads site you can not only read a transcription of the words of the ballad, you can also hear them sung to the tune of “Fortune my foe,” a well-known melody from the period. The song takes about 17 minutes from start to finish, but you can click on specific ballad verses to jump to that place in the recording.

Here’s a sample verse:

My self bereav’d my daughter then of life,
The Empresse then I slew with bloody knife:
And stab’t the Emperour immediately,
And then my self, and so did Titus dye.

Titus Andronicus was the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be published, and this year marks the 430th anniversary of its publication. Did you know that the Folger holds the only known surviving copy of the first edition? Read more about this book on Shakespeare Documented.

William Shakespeare. Quarto of Titus Andronicus. 1594. Folger Shakespeare Library.

William Shakespeare. Quarto of Titus Andronicus. 1594. Folger Shakespeare Library.