The fortunes of William Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, have changed with the times. As his most violent and bloody play, it was enormously popular at the time, then fell from favour until revived in the late twentieth century. Some experts consider that Shakespeare co-wrote it with George Peele, and it appears to have been written no later than early 1594. Although never popular with painters, there’s one possibly contemporary sketch of a performance with an interesting story.
Both sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, of the late Emperor of Rome claim the right of succession, although a tribune has offered the title to his brother, Titus Andronicus. Titus has given his oldest son permission to sacrifice the oldest son of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in burial rites for his many brothers who died in recent fighting against the Goths. However, Tamora and her other two sons intend to seek revenge for his sacrifice.
Titus refuses the crown, which he passes to Saturninus, who obtains Titus’s consent to marry his daughter Lavinia. Bassianus was already engaged to her, so with the assistance of Titus’s sons, he has Lavinia’s hand restored to him. For that act of disobedience, Titus kills his youngest son in rage. Saturninus responds by marrying Tamora, who becomes the new Empress, and Titus organises a royal hunt to celebrate their wedding. Tamora convinces Saturninus to bide his time until the Andronicus family can be killed off.
Tamora’s black servant and lover, Aaron, suggests to her sons that they should rape Lavinia. He then meets Tamora in the woods, where he tells her of his plan for that rape and the murder of Bassianus.
Henry Corbould’s painting of Aaron and Tamora, seen here as an etching from 1825-40, shows the couple together in the woods as he explains his evil plans.
Her sons proceed with the murder and rape, and throw the body of Bassianus into a pit.
Samuel Woodforde’s painting of Tamora, Lavinia, Demetrius and Chiron from 1793 confounds these scenes, with Tamora at the left refusing to help Lavinia as her son is about to rape her. The body of Bassianus, murdered by Tamora’s other son, is laid out on the ground behind them. I suspect this painting was included in Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery.
Demetrius and Chiron lure Titus’s sons into that pit, and Aaron forges a letter blaming them for the death. Titus’s brother, the tribune, comes across the raped and mutilated Lavinia.
Titus’s sons are to be executed for their crimes. The sight of his daughter’s mutilation throws Titus into despair, but Aaron offers to release his sons in return for the removal of Titus’s right hand. While Titus’s brother and son look for an axe to cut off their own hands and spare Titus, Aaron severs Titus’s hand, which is returned to him with the heads of his sons.
The help of the Goths is sought. Titus becomes mad, castigating his brother for his cruelty in killing a fly. Lavinia then reveals the names of her attackers by writing them in sand, leading to the Andronicus family vowing revenge on Tamora and her family.
Thomas Kirk’s original painting of Rome, Titus’s Garden – Lucius Pursued by Lavinia is here shown engraved in 1793, as one of the prints accompanying Boydell’s gallery. This might show Lavinia when she has just revealed the names of her attackers.
Aaron realises that his deception has been discovered. Tamora gives birth to her baby by Aaron, but wants the father to kill it because of the colour of its skin. He proposes switching it with a fairer Goth infant and raising that as the Emperor’s son.
Thomas Kirk’s Aaron the Moor, Demetrius and a Nurse and Child from about 1796 shows Aaron with a nurse cradling Tampora’s newborn child on the right, telling Tamora’s sons of his plan to switch the babies.
Lucius is leading the Goths in their march to Rome, where Tamora intends to get Titus to summon his son to negotiate with them. Lucius captures Aaron, who admits what he’s done but is unrepentant. Posing as Revenge, Tamora and her sons visit Titus, who despite his madness sees through their disguise. While pretending to follow her plan, as soon as she leaves, he kills her two sons and has their remains baked into a pie to be served to his guests.
Titus welcomes the guests to his banquet, where he asks the Emperor Saturninus what he should do as a father when his daughter has been raped. Titus then kills Lavinia, and reveals that his guests have just eaten the remains of Tamora’s sons. Titus stabs Tamora, and he is in turn killed by the Emperor. Titus’s oldest son Lucius kills the Emperor, and is himself chosen by the survivors to be Rome’s new Emperor.
I did warn you that this play is Shakespeare’s most violent and bloody.
Most remarkable throughout this series has been the complete absence of contemporary sketches or drawings of any scene from Shakespeare’s plays. The manuscript above may be one exception: it is claimed to be a sketch made in 1595 by Henry Peacham (1578–?) showing this play. This could be a composite of two scenes, in which Tamora is pleading with Titus. Behind her, to the right, are her two sons kneeling, and Aaron.
Although this might appear convincing, and the text below does refer to characters from the play, it doesn’t match any single scene, and the text doesn’t quite fit either. It has been suggested that this may refer to a German version of the play, or could simply be a forgery.
Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Full text at Project Gutenberg.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.