Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

TITUS ANDRONICUS

The first of Shakespeare's tragic plays is rarely produced in our time because it suffers from a variety of failings. Yet the work does offer a unified, if brutal, vision of humanity and society, and as such exerts a certain fascination. It belongs to the genre of the Elizabethan revenge-tragedy, of which the most famous example until Shakespeare's work was Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy(c. 1589). The overall form follows in the tradition of works by the Roman dramatist Seneca ( 4 B.C.-A.D. 65), whose plays are marked by sensationalistic violence. The plots generally focus on a single figure who pursues a path of revenge that proves not only more destructive than the initial violence that provoked it, but also brings about the revenger's downfall.

Two other elements of Senecan tragedy are found in Titus Andronicus. One, the language is florid, with stark, vivid imagery. Second, and most important for our purposes, the characters are drawn with little psychological subtlety, and thus to probe their language and actions for inner conflict is rarely rewarding. At moments the characters do hint at a level of complication rare in this genre, and these instances provide an inkling of what blossoms in subsequent plays of Shakespeare.

The materials of the story, set in the fourth century A.D., seem to have been taken from a variety of sources. An earlier version of Titus's career was apparently published in a small volume in 1594. The story of Lavinia was likely drawn from one of Shakespeare's favorite sources, the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid. Book VI of that volume describes the rape of Philomela, whose suffering is similar to that of Lavinia here. And Titus's final revenge may have been adapted from Seneca Thyestes.

The opening scene reveals the primary tensions as well as some of the problems with the play. Saturninus addresses an audience of Tribunes and Senators, seeking their support in his campaign to follow his father as leader of Rome:

Noble patricians, patrons of my right,
Defend the justice of my cause with arms;
And, countrymen, my loving followers,

-5-

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Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • The Tragedies 1
  • Titus Andronicus 5
  • Romeo and Juliet 23
  • Julius Caesar 47
  • Hamlet 69
  • Othello 105
  • King Lear 137
  • Macbeth 179
  • Antony and Cleopatra 209
  • Coriolanus 241
  • Timon of Athens 267
  • The Histories 283
  • The First Tetralogy 287
  • King John 381
  • The Second Tetralogy 399
  • The Comedies 525
  • The Comedy of Errors 529
  • The Taming of the Shrew 541
  • Two - Gentlemen of Verona 555
  • Love''s Labor''s Lost 569
  • A Midsummer Night''s Dream 583
  • The Merchant of Venice 599
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor 619
  • Much Ado about Nothing 629
  • As You like It 647
  • Twelfth Night, or What You Will 665
  • Troilus and Cressida 683
  • All''s Well That Ends Well 703
  • Measure for Measure 721
  • The Romances 743
  • Pericles 745
  • Cymbeline 757
  • The Winter''s Tale 779
  • The Tempest 803
  • Appendix 1 - The Two Noble Kinsmen 823
  • Suggestions for Further Reading 826
  • Appendix 2 - The Royal Figures from the History Tetralogies 827
  • Select Bibliography 831
  • Character Index 833
  • Index 847
  • About the Author *
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