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Titus Andronicus /

Further Reading: Titus Andronicus

Abbreviations: Oth. = Othello; Tit. = Titus Andronicus

Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 433–54.

Bartels begins by carefully laying out the representations of Moors as Other in late-sixteenth-century texts before turning to Shakespeare’s contributions to this discourse in the figures of Aaron (in Tit.) and Othello. She shows how these two major characters are “fashioned from the materials of [Shakespeare’s] culture,” noting how the differences between Aaron and Othello “reflect the discrepancies and contradictions within those materials.” Aaron is “the consummate villain,” placed close to the center of power in Rome and given language that links him to the humanistically educated Roman nobles, yet marked, through his unmotivated villainy and through his black skin, as a stereotypically demonized Other. Othello, in contrast, is a valiant general demonized not by Oth. but by Iago. Through Iago’s manipulation of Othello and those surrounding him, “the play exposes the disturbing power of representation (or misrepresentation) to shape a culture’s actions and reactions.” At the same time, “it directs our attention to the instability of representation.” Showing Iago’s use of racial stereotypes to undermine Othello, Oth. “proves the Moor different not because he has an innate capacity for evil but precisely because he does not.”

Dessen, Alan C. Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare in Performance Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Dessen begins by acknowledging the special difficulties facing the historian of performances of Tit. The play has posed severe problems for generations of directors, audiences, and readers alike, in part because of its “violent and potentially grotesque moments,” and in part because, as a very early Shakespeare play, it suffers by comparison to later masterpieces. Dessen, in studying the play’s performance history, focuses on “what has been discovered or realised on the stage” that is not readily available to a reader of the play. He begins by discussing adaptations by Edward Ravenscroft (1678) and by C. A. Somerset and Ira Aldridge in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as the 1923 production by Robert Atkins (1923), before turning to the landmark 1955 production by Peter Brook. He then contrasts stylized and realistic productions since the 1960s, and contrasts cut versions with Deborah Warner’s uncut version, produced in 1987 at the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon and at the Barbicon in 1988. The concluding chapters consider specific production problems presented by this play and the ways directors and actors have handled them. Dessen includes a list of important twentieth-century productions and cast lists for several of the productions discussed.

Fawcett, Mary Laughlin. “Arms/Words/Tears: Language and the Body in Titus Andronicus.” ELH 50 (1983): 261–77.

Fawcett examines Tit. “as a meditation on language and the body” and argues that it ought to be used “as a primary text to evolve a theoretical account of the relationship between the body, signs, speech, and writing.” Words, such as “arms” and “tears,” are “embodied and disembodied throughout [Tit.].” Using Lavinia as the “central emblem for both aspects of language,” Fawcett explores the juxtaposition of Lavinia’s “early muteness” and Tamora’s “consistent fluency.” Here, “language is split between two poles: it establishes (or seems to establish) identity (Tamora), and it singles out difference (Lavinia).” Ultimately, Tit. “finds an abiding conflict between the claims of body and tongue, and an even deeper, and perhaps perverse, alliance between body and writing.”

Green, Douglas E. “Interpreting ‘her martyr’d signs’: Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 317–26.

Green notes the many ways in which this play parallels other popular revenge plays of the period, but points out that “as is so often the case, Shakespeare touches the limits of the genre and exposes its limitations.” Much of that exposure comes in the way the play’s two “notable and notorious female characters”—Lavinia and Tamora—are “made to serve the construction of Titus,” the play’s titanic protagonist. Tamora provides “one pole on the female scale by which we measure Titus,” standing sometimes as his direct opposite and sometimes as an illustration of the “extremes of Titus’ character,” a measure of “the evil to which this patriarchal avenger has resorted and must resort.” Lavinia is the other pole of the scale, with her mutilated body articulating Titus’s suffering and victimization. Green argues that “as sign, Lavinia is polysemic and disruptive: a sign of the passive suffering attributed to women (like Philomela) by authorities (like Ovid), . . . and a sign beyond complete containment by the patriarchal assumptions of Shakespeare’s time—and in some ways our own.” In his reading of the play, “gender both marks and is marked by Shakespeare’s first experiment in revenge tragedy.”

Harris, Bernice. “Sexuality as a Signifier for Power Relations: Using Lavinia, of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.” Criticism 38 (1996): 383–407.

Harris shows how in Tit. “representations of virginity, chastity and rape facilitate identifications of authority and function in the construction of gender.” She examines how Lavinia’s and Tamora’s bodies operate “as sites of cultural meaning.” As a “changing piece” (1.1.315), Lavinia is a “means by which power is marked as masculine and is then transferred and circulated.” Tamora “functions as that feared side of female sexuality: an insatiable sexuality turned loose.” Refusing to be owned sexually, Tamora “remains a threat to social order.” Harris reads the play so as to “expose and disrupt . . . constructions of gender-specific placements of authority, and uses of a woman’s sexual status to determine gender superiority or inferiority.”

James, Heather. “Cultural Disintegration in Titus Andronicus: Mutilating Titus, Vergil, and Rome.” In Violence in Drama, ed. James Redmond, pp. 123–40. Themes in Drama 13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

James meticulously locates Tit.’s subtle allusions to Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic that establishes and celebrates Roman virtues, and explores the implications of Shakespeare’s combining these Virgilian references with his obvious allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which subverts epic stability in its riot of emotion. The Virgilian allusions early in the play associate Titus with the hero Aeneas, and both Lavinia and Tamora with Dido, queen of Carthage and Aeneas’s lover. By Act 2, however, the allusions to Ovid take over, connecting Lavinia to the raped Philomela and, soon thereafter, Titus to the vengeful Procne. James is skeptical about the power of the Virgilian allusion introduced again at the end of the play to return Rome to its heroic past; instead, to her, this allusion is merely a bandage.

Kahn, Coppélia. “The Daughter’s Seduction in Titus Andronicus, or, Writing Is the Best Revenge.” In Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women, pp. 46–76. London: Routledge, 1997.

Building on the essays by Fawcett, Green, and Willbern listed here and employing an approach that brings together Roman history and feminist psychoanalytical criticism, Kahn identifies Tit. as a play about the “politics of sexuality.” Tit. “positions its hero between a rampaging mother [Tamora] and a dutiful daughter [Lavinia].” For Kahn, Tamora attacks Titus through Lavinia, whose rape and mutilation figure in multiple ways her destruction as a symbol of her father’s power. But through his revenge on Tamora—a revenge directed specifically at her threatening motherhood through returning her offspring to the womb from which they came—Titus recovers the power that was once symbolized in Lavinia’s integrity.

Kolin, Philip C., ed. Titus Andronicus: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1995.

Kolin’s introduction points out significant trends in the history of Tit. criticism and discusses the specific critics identified with these trends. The volume reprints brief extracts from Edward Dowden, Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1902); Frederick S. Boas, Shakespeare and His Predecessors (1896); H. Bellyse Baildon, ed., Titus Andronicus (1904); Eldred Jones, Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (1965); Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (1965); Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (1958); Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare’s Rome (1983); Gail Kern Paster, The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare (1986); and Maurice Charney, Titus Andronicus (1990). The following significant critical essays are also reprinted: H. T. Price, “The Authorship of Titus Andronicus” (1943); Eugene M. Waith, “The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus” (1957); Alan Sommers, “ ‘Wilderness of Tigers’: Structure and Symbolism in Titus Andronicus” (1960); A. C. Hamilton, “Titus Andronicus: The Form of Shakespearian Tragedy” (1963); David Willbern, “Rape and Revenge in Titus Andronicus” (1978); Jane Hiles, “A Margin for Error: Rhetorical Context in Titus Andronicus” (1987); Philip C. Kolin, “Performing Texts in Titus Andronicus” (1989); Emily C. Bartels, “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race” (1990); Heather James, “Cultural Disintegration in Titus Andronicus: Mutilating Titus, Vergil, and Rome” (1991); and Joel G. Fink, “The Conceptualization and Realization of Violence in Titus Andronicus” (1989). Five new pieces round out the collection of critical essays: Carolyn Asp’s Lacanian “ ‘Upon Her Wit Doth Earthly Honor Wait’: Female Agency in Titus Andronicus”; David Bevington’s “ ‘O Cruel, Irreligious Piety!’: Stage Images of Civil Conflict in Titus Andronicus,” a piece that focuses on the play’s topicality in the late sixteenth century; Dorothea Kehler’s “ ‘That Ravenous Tiger Tamora’: Titus Andronicus’s Lusty Widow, Wife, and M/other,” which argues that Tamora is a particularly vicious representation of the stereotype of the lusty widow; Philip C. Kolin’s “ ‘Come Down and Welcome Me to This World’s Light’: Titus Andronicus and the Canons of Contemporary Violence,” which sees in the play’s “laments over urban violence . . . a play for our age”; and William Proctor Williams’s “Courting in Dumb Show: An Editorial and Theatrical Modification in the Text of Titus Andronicus,” which focuses on how eighteenth-century editors used inserted stage directions to deal with Bassianus’s problematic seizing of Lavinia. The section “Titus Andronicus on Stage” includes twenty-six reviews, as well as essays by Yoshiko Kawachi on the stage history of Tit. in Japan and Horst Zander on Tit. in Germany.

Rowe, Katherine A. “Dismembering and Forgetting in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 279–303.

Rowe, who sees Tit. as insisting on hands as “the central emblem of effective political action,” analyzes the iconographic and discursive traditions of the hand to explore how the dismembered hands of Lavinia and Titus relate to the concept of agency and the political and personal relations in the play. Hands, more than any other body parts, “figure the martial, marital, and genealogical bonds so much at risk in the play.” Bringing together Freud’s essay “Fetishism” and “the interpretive conventions of the emblem books,” Rowe argues that “Lavinia and Titus, in their complex relation to their missing hands,” question the “ ‘natural’ associative logic that grounds the faculty of action in the fact of being in a body and having a hand. If dismemberment symbolizes loss of effective action in the world, it is clearly the condition of political agency in the play.”

Smith, Molly E. “Spectacles of Torment in Titus Andronicus.” Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 36 (1996): 315–31.

Smith’s reading of Tit. “focuses on the reciprocal representation of Selfhood and Otherness especially as it manifests itself in depictions of punitive violence.” She examines “spectacles of torment” (dismemberment, mutilation, and public execution) and argues that Shakespeare exploits, then deconstructs “the myth of the Other as more violent and horrible than the Self.” Smith concludes that the “Self-Other binary” in the play “provides a metacritique of the process of self-definition as inevitably elusive and inadequate.”

Tricomi, Albert H. “The Aesthetics of Violence in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974): 11–19.

Tricomi argues that the distinctive importance of Tit. lies in the way its “figurative language embodies the events” of its plot, as it “makes the word become flesh.” He focuses on “its wittily-obsessive allusions to dismembered hands and heads, and the prophetic literalness of its metaphors,” concluding with the figurative language associated with the stage’s trapdoor, which functions in the plot as the pit into which Bassianus’s body is cast. A typical example of the play’s literalizing of its metaphors comes in Aaron’s plot to convince Titus to cut off a hand in the hope of ransoming the two of his sons sentenced to death. What Aaron cunningly provides in return for the hand is a metaphor, or more specifically a synecdoche, the figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole, as he restores to Titus the sons in the form of their dismembered heads.

Waith, Eugene M. “The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957): 39–49.

Waith addresses three of the main characters in Tit. and finds in their development the influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which, he argues, has a greater impact on the play than does Senecan tragedy. Observing that Shakespeare’s contemporaries read Ovid both in a Christian way for moral allegory and in a pagan way for its stylish narration of “the transforming power of intense emotions,” Waith locates the first way in the characterization of Tamora punished through retributive justice for her self-transformation into Revenge, and the second way in the characterization of Titus psychically transformed into vengefulness by grief. Finally, Ovid’s style is most prominent in the “psychic distance” that marks the images used by Marcus as he contemplates as an object of wonder the newly raped and mutilated Lavinia—a style, says Waith, best suited to narrative, not drama.

Willbern, David. “Rape and Revenge in Titus Andronicus.” English Literary Renaissance 8 (1978): 159–82.

In this psychoanalytical exploration, Willbern’s topics are “rape and the corresponding reaction of revenge [in Tit.] and . . . [the] images and metaphors which sustain this interaction.” Initially he associates Rome, Lavinia, and Tamora with each other as maternal figures in danger of attack (rape) and thus in need of defense (revenge). Yet so ambivalent is characterization according to this reading of the play that all three come to be represented by the blood-stained pit in which Bassianus’s corpse is discovered; that is, all three become versions of the “dreaded devouring mother”—Rome for its consumption of Titus’s sons, Lavinia insofar as her mutilation signals the dangers of sexuality, and Tamora for her terrible vengeance. The only defense against this fantasy of the devouring mother is revenge, and Titus’s feeding of her children back into Tamora’s womb functions as both rape and revenge.