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,