Delicious Evil in Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus is without question the bloodiest and most horror-filled play in the Shakespearean canon. The viciousness of the events and characters in the play is matched by a baseness and relative lack of poetry in the language that is noticeable even to a novice reader of Shakespeare; there is simply less flowery detail and Elizabethan rhetorical structure (read: long, convoluted sentences that come to a point brilliantly but only at length) in the text of this play than in his other works that are typically encountered -- and according to some, less than in any of his other plays, period (Riverside). For these reasons, as well as some other basic issues of character motivation and the rudimentary nature of certain devices, Titus Andronicus was long considered to be the worst of all of Shakespeare's plays, and many critics refused to believe that Shakespeare had written it at all.

This question of authorship is not limited to Titus Andronicus alone, of course. There is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the complete authenticity of any text of Shakespeare's plays, as "editorial intervention" was practiced somewhat liberally in the printing process during and following Shakespeare's day, and has been necessary in subsequent editions in an effort to establish the most likely "true" version of his texts (Riverside 55-6). There is also the persistent question of whether or not the man named "William Shakespeare" is actually the author of the plays attributed to him. Both of these questions are essentially moot here, however. Though there are plot devices and general themes in this play that definitely appear in more refined forms in Shakespeare's later works and Elizabethan tragedy in general, the influence could have been from early printed versions of the text and do not necessarily imply authorship.

The point is, we cannot be certain of the true author of this play, or what the true version of the text was when it was written and performed. Instead, we must work with the text we have at hand, and despite its gore and lack of poetry -- perhaps because of it -- Titus Andronicus stands out as an exemplary prototypical revenge tragedy. Far from diminishing the power of the play, the lack of flowery language and the seemingly under-developed characters and motivations actually enhance the dramatic elements -- i.e. The violence -- that the play revolves around. Titus' revelation in the final scene that he had just served up Tamora's two sons as a feast could not be rendered any more clearly: "they are here, both baked in this pie, / Whereof their mother daintily hath fed" (Riverside V. iii., 60-1). Any floweriness or rhetoric would diminish the pure visceral drama of the moment.

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