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Titus Andronicus /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Titus Andronicus

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scene of Titus Andronicus, for example, one finds the words larums (i.e., calls to arms), avaunt (i.e., be gone), and affy (i.e., put one’s trust in). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Titus Andronicus, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have a different meaning. In the opening scenes of Titus Andronicus, for example, the word successive is used where we would say “hereditary,” trump where we would say “trumpet,” forfend where we would say “forbid,” and bandy where we would say “fight.” Again, such words will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scene of Titus Andronicus, for example, Shakespeare quickly constructs a recent background history of Rome and, more specifically, of the “Andronici,” the family of “renownèd Titus flourishing in arms.” As two sons of the late Roman emperor, Saturninus and Bassianus, “strive by factions and by friends” for “the imperial diadem of Rome,” Titus has been “accited home,” having “circumscribèd with his sword / And brought to yoke the enemies of Rome.” This was his fifth war in ten years, a period over which he has lost in combat all but four “of five-and-twenty valiant sons.” “To gratify the good Andronicus / And gratulate his safe return to Rome, / The people” offer to “accept whom he admits” to “rule and empery.” Such language quickly constructs the world inhabited by Titus Andronicus and his family, a world that mixes legendary Roman history with deliberately horrific tragedy of blood, a genre fashioned by the Roman tragedian Seneca; the words and the world they create will become increasingly familiar as you get further into the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Often Shakespeare rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Titus Andronicus, when Marcus announces “Returns the good Andronicus to Rome” (1.1.37), he is using such a construction. So is Titus when he says “Here lurks no treason . . . , / Here grow no damnèd drugs; here are no storms” (1.1.153″>153–54). The “normal” order would be “Andronicus returns” and “no treason lurks here, no damned drugs grow here, no storms are here.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before or between the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit” or “I him hit”). Titus provides an example of the first kind of this inversion when he says “this suit I make” (1.1.225) and an example of the second kind when he says of Rome “A better head her glorious body fits” (187). The “normal” order would be “I make this suit” and “A better head fits her glorious body.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word, or else to draw attention to a needed piece of information. Take, for example, Marcus’s

Titus Andronicus, the people of Rome,

Whose friend in justice thou hast ever been,

Send thee by me, their tribune and their trust,

This palliament of white and spotless hue[.]


Here the subject (“the people of Rome”) is separated from its verb (“send”) by the subject’s modifier “Whose friend in justice thou hast ever been.” The verb (“send”) is also separated from its object (“this palliament”) by both its indirect object (“thee”) and the adverb phrase “by me,” which is continued in the appositive “their tribune and their trust.” Each of the two prominent interruptions serves to identify the sentence with performance of the civic ritual in which the people’s tribune exercises the authority he derives from them as “their tribune and their trust” by identifying their choice of candidate for emperor, who has been selected for his merits as the people’s longtime “friend in justice.” Or take the Captain’s lines to the Roman people:

                              The good Andronicus,

Patron of virtue, Rome’s best champion,

Successful in the battles that he fights,

With honor and with fortune is returned[.]


Here the subject and verb (“the good Andronicus . . . is returned”) are separated by two appositives (“patron of virtue” and “Rome’s best champion”) and by the appositives’ modifier (“successful in the battles that he fights”—an adjective modified by an adverbial phrase that concludes by incorporating an adjectival clause), as well as by two adverbial phrases (“with honor and with fortune”). All these interruptions emphasize Titus’s glorious civic virtue and military honor. In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, one can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“the people of Rome send this palliament,” “Andronicus is returned”). The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss of rhythm or a shift in emphasis, or, in this case, the omission of descriptors needed for the plot (and needed by the audience).

Often in Titus Andronicus, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Shakespeare puts this kind of construction in the mouth of Titus when he first comes on stage:

Lo, as the bark that hath discharged his fraught

Returns with precious lading to the bay

From whence at first she weighed her anchorage,

Cometh Andronicus, bound with laurel boughs,

To resalute his country with his tears,

Tears of true joy for his return to Rome.


The basic sentence elements (an inversion of “Andronicus cometh”) are here delayed while Titus develops the first half of a simile on a scale that nearly rivals those found in epic poetry. If one reverses the order, placing the basic sentence elements at the beginning of the sentence, the simile becomes anticlimactic, and one sees the power of Shakespeare’s delaying strategy.

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. When, for example, Saturninus tells Titus that “no, the Emperor needs her not, / Nor her, nor thee, nor any of thy stock” (1.1.305–6), we can easily draw on words contained in the first line to supply the words he omits in the second line: “no, the Emperor needs her not, / [; no, the Emperor needs] nor [i.e., neither] her, nor you, nor any of your stock.” Again, when Titus asks two successive questions of the Roman people, he leaves out some of the words in his second question:

What, should I don this robe and trouble you?

Be chosen with proclamations today,

Tomorrow yield up rule, resign my life,

And set abroad new business for you all?


We can easily find the words needed to complete the second question from our reading of the first question. Thus we can read the second to say: “[Should I] be chosen with proclamations today . . . ?” Finally, Bassianus’s radically elliptical speech “Tribunes, and me, a poor competitor” may defy sense when it is taken out of context (1.1.63). But in the play we find this speech directly after Saturninus’s request “Open the gates and let me in”; we thus can quickly understand that Bassianus says “Tribunes, [open the gates] and [let] me, a poor competitor [i.e., rival] in [too].”

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, metaphors and allusions. A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which the metaphor suggests it shares common features. For instance, when Titus says of the Emperor’s dismissal of him and his family “These words are razors to my wounded heart” (1.1.320), he is using metaphorical language to say that the Emperor’s words of rejection cut him as if they were “razors” to his “heart,” the “heart” being the traditional seat of life, of love, and of devotion. Tamora tells Titus that “Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge” (119), using another metaphor to identify an abstraction (the virtue “mercy”) with a visible sign (a “badge,” that is, a distinctive mark or emblem). She claims that the badge mercy can alone authenticate the “nobility”—another abstraction—of a human being. Tamora uses yet another metaphor as she pretends to counsel the Emperor to forgive Titus: “Take up this good old man, and cheer the heart / That dies in tempest of thy angry frown” (467–68). This time she elevates the significance of the Emperor’s “frown” by metaphorically associating it with a great storm that flattens buildings, wrecks ships, and costs lives.

An allusion presents itself when one text or a character in it refers to another text, thereby prompting readers or listeners to reflect on the multiple ways in which the two texts may parallel each other. Titus Andronicus is extraordinarily rife with allusion. An early example comes when Tamora, mourning the slaughter of her son Alarbus, is comforted by Demetrius:

Then, madam, stand resolved, but hope withal

The selfsame gods that armed the Queen of Troy

With opportunity of sharp revenge

Upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent

May favor Tamora the Queen of Goths[.]


Demetrius here alludes to Ovid’s account in the Metamorphoses of Hecuba, queen of legendary Troy, and suggests that Tamora’s future may follow the same course. Since Demetrius’s lines contain only a fragment of Ovid’s story of Hecuba, Shakespeare evidently thought the story so well known in his time that the audience could be expected to supply the rest. That is, the audience could be presumed to know that like Tamora, Hecuba is the defeated queen of a defeated nation and that, like Tamora, whose son Alarbus has just been sacrificed to appease the ghosts of the dead, Hecuba lost her daughter Polyxena to precisely the same fate. As Shakespeare does make explicit, Hecuba’s story concludes with revenge. Yet Shakespeare is careful to omit the detail that Hecuba’s revenge was not against those who ritually slew her daughter, but against her son Polydorus’s killer, “the Thracian tyrant” Polymnestor. Although the analogy between Hecuba and Tamora is therefore not quite exact, we can nonetheless read Titus Andronicus in light of the Hecuba allusion, and thus know that Tamora might well take her revenge on the family of Titus Andronicus. But the play’s allusion to Hecuba does not stop with Tamora’s quest for revenge, because as Tamora achieves her goal, Titus begins to suffer the loss of his children, and he then takes on the role of the suffering Hecuba, driven beyond despair into deadly wrath.

And the play’s allusions do not stop with those to Ovid’s Hecuba. Through allusion Shakespeare also weaves into the text of his play many threads from other classical texts. Most of these are associated with the rape of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, by Tamora’s sons. They include Shakespeare’s own narrative poem about the assault on the famously chaste Roman matron Lucrece by the son of Rome’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus; the story of Appius’s attack on Virginia that ends with her slaying by her own father, Virginius; and, most extensively, Ovid’s version of the rape and mutilation of Philomela by her brother-in-law, King Tereus. Both the characters and the action of Titus Andronicus make such insistent reference to this last text that we have chosen to print a contemporary translation of it as an appendix to this edition of the play so that readers, if they choose, may weave their reading of it into their reading of the play just as Shakespeare seems to have woven his reading of Ovid into his writing of the play.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Often the dialogue offers an immediately clear indication of the action that is to accompany it. For example, when Titus addresses his son Mutius with the words “What, villain boy, / Barr’st me my way in Rome?” and Mutius, in response, cries out to his brother “Help, Lucius, help!” (1.1.295–97), there can be little doubt that this exchange is to be combined with Titus’s infliction of violence on his son Mutius. Such an inference from the dialogue is confirmed by the next speech, Lucius’s accusation against Titus: “In wrongful quarrel you have slain your son” (299). Thus we learn that Titus has stabbed Mutius to death. Dialogue again cues action in a straightforward way when Quintus attempts to pull Martius from a pit into which he has fallen during a hunt. “Thy hand once more,” says Quintus to Martius. “I will not loose again / Till thou art here aloft or I below. / Thou canst not come to me. I come to thee” (2.3.244–46). Clearly, Quintus has failed to pull Martius out; instead Martius has pulled Quintus in. This inference is confirmed when the approaching Saturninus immediately announces that he will “see . . . what he is that now is leapt into” the “hole” (247–48).

Occasionally in Titus Andronicus, signals to the reader are not so clear. As Tamora pleads to Titus to spare her son Alarbus from being sacrificed—“Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood” (1.1.116)—it is not apparent from her words or from Titus’s response to them—“Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me” (121)—whether Tamora stands or kneels as she utters her supplication, even though in classical literature, which Shakespeare is imitating, supplicants usually kneel. Later in the same scene, however, Tamora reflects bitterly on the futility of her plea when she promises to make Titus and his sons “know what ’tis to let a queen / Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain” (463–64). In view of this later speech, we, as editors, feel reasonably confident that we can add to Tamora’s earlier plea the stage direction “She kneels.” But we place this stage direction in square half-brackets, just as we do all stage directions that we add to the early printed text, whether they are of our own creation or the work of earlier editors. We use these brackets because we recognize that editorial stage directions present only a single reading of the possibilities for action in the play, and we do not want to foreclose other interpretations that may occur to readers, whom we frankly invite to reject what is in brackets if they wish.

Caution in granting too much credence to bracketed stage directions is encouraged in this particular instance by reference to another passage in the play where a character reflects back on earlier action. This time the character is Aaron, who is recalling the time that Titus is brought the heads of his sons as well as the hand he has had cut off and sent to the Emperor to redeem his sons’ lives:

I pried [peered, spied] me through the crevice of a wall

When, for his hand, he had his two sons’ heads,

Beheld his tears, and laughed so heartily

That both mine eyes were rainy like to his.


In this case, we did not, in the earlier scene, add a stage direction for Aaron to enter and view Titus’s grief, mainly because there is a major discrepancy between Aaron’s description and the scene he purports to describe, a scene in which Titus makes much of his inability to weep. It seems to us that Aaron may later be representing himself as more villainous than he actually was in telling us that he laughed at tears that Titus did not shed.

Practice in reading the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches scenes heavily dependent on stage business. Such a scene is 4.1, in which Lavinia uses a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to communicate to her family that she, like Philomela in Ovid’s book, was raped and subsequently mutilated by her assailants. The earliest printing of the play contains a stage direction at the beginning of the scene that tells us that Young Lucius comes onstage “with his books under his arm.” After that stage direction, we, both readers and editors, have to depend on the dialogue alone to follow the action. By line 25, we learn that Lavinia’s pursuit of Young Lucius has been so insistent that it has “made [him] down to throw [his] books and fly,” although we do not know precisely when in the scene he has done so. Then we learn from Titus’s question “what book is that she tosseth so?” that Lavinia is searching through a book (42). Young Lucius then identifies the book as “Ovid’s Metamorphosis,” the title of Arthur Golding’s 1567 English translation, and one of the play’s many anachronisms. Finally, Titus observes that Lavinia has opened the book to “the tragic tale of Philomel” and infers that “rape . . . was root of [Lavinia’s] annoy” (43, 49, 51). In sum, then we learn that Lavinia has been chasing Young Lucius to get his copy of the Metamorphosis, which she opens to the story of Philomela’s rape so as to show her family what happened to her. We as editors have supplied no additional bracketed stage directions to this part of the scene, depending on readers to follow action that the dialogue makes so clear. Throughout this text, we have chosen not to add many stage directions found in other modern editions in order to leave readers free to imagine the staging for themselves.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.