The Real Hero in Titus Andronicus, a Play by William Shakespeare

Who is the actual hero in Titus Andronicus? Titus Andronicus was an early, experimental tragedy by William Shakespeare, produced in 1593-94 and published in a quarto edition from foul papers in 1594. The First Folio version was prepared from a copy of the quarto, with additions from a manuscript that has been used as a promptbook. The play’s crude, melodramatic style, and its many savage incidents led many critics to believe it was not written by Shakespeare. Modern criticism, however, tends to regard the play as authentic.

Titus Andronicus relates its story of revenge and political strife with uniformity of tone and consistency of dramatic structure. Titus Andronicus and the Myths of Shakespeare’s Rome; most notably, in the tragedy, there are presented two Ovidian myths: The Rape of Philomela and The World’s Four Ages. The Rape of Philomena provides Shakespeare with his basic characters and the events involving Lavinia, (his Philomela) while Ovid’s fourth age of iron describes Shakespeare’s physical Rome, a military establishment protected by walls and filled with sword-carrying soldiers.

The ancient Roman myth of the God Saturn, who devoured his children to remain in power himself, must have been another story Shakespeare used to develop his Roman characters in Titus Andronicus. For obvious proof, he points to the name of the emperor, Saturninus, and the final gruesome banquet during which this emperor eats his stepsons. I would like to explore the human character Shakespeare gives “Rome herself through his consistent personification of the city, and his simultaneous dehumanization, or characterization of his manifestly human characters.

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All the persons Shakespeare depicts in Titus Andronicus are two-dimensional, either good or bad. The dividing line falls between those who support Titus, the tragic warrior hero, and those on the side of Tamora, the evil Queen-empress. The former is noble and selfless, demonstrating roman pietas, while the latter is selfish. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare makes the point that Tamora and her sons’ allegorical dressing-up as Revenge, Murder, and Rape can be viewed as a symbol of the characterization of the entire work. In this scene, they are as they are, the symbol is the same as the person. In Rome, Titus “sacrifices” both his son and his daughter. It is fair to say that personal honor is his concern in killing his offspring, for Mutius represents shameful filial disobedience and Lavinia represents his inability to protect her and is a reminder of a shameful act done not only to her but to her whole Andronici family too. It is also evident, however, that his true motivation was to act as selfishly as possible and that his “pride and misguided zeal” simply caused him to make several tragic errors. He kills his son to show he loves Rome more than his blood. He kills his daughter so she might not live on in shame, showing he loves her honor more than his desire to keep her alive. Likewise, Aaron maintains, unlike all the other parents in Titus, who do everything from selling their children for gold to killing them for pride to eating them at banquets, an insurmountable desire to preserve the life of his illegitimate son. Again, though, the possible complexity of this wish implies is undermined when we examine his motivation, a selfish desire to make himself immortal through the instrument of his son.

The only character that has a range of emotions worthy of a serious artful depiction of a human is not a human at all. It is the city, Rome herself. The adjectives Shakespeare uses to describe her cover the whole spectrum. Starting from the negative side: in Demetrius’ opinion, she’s ambitious, later, Lucius finds her proud. At other times she is despising, ungrateful and desperate. On the entirely another side, she has hope and she can even reward her followers with love. Likewise, her way of dressing, like any person, varies to suit her mood: both decorative and practical, beautiful and sad. Sometimes, she wears the “Gracious Lavinia as a rich ornament on her glorious body” Then, at other times, she shows respect for her dead warriors by wearing mourning weeds. Although her name is repeated over and over to punctuate lines and lend authority, Rome debuts in the first act as headless. She remains so even after Saturninus becomes Emperor because he is not strong enough to lead, as is evidenced by Tamora’s power to effect change in the state. In the second act, the manifestation of Rome’s awful dismemberment comes across in the loss of her senses of hearing and sight. By the end of the second act, though, Rome’s dismemberment stops and continues only on the bodies of her inhabitants. We find the mutilated and raped Lavinia. Having lost her tongue and hands, she perfectly complements and completes Rome’s loss of the human senses. Where Rome has become deaf and blind; Lavinia has now lost taste and touch. A scene later, she represents the loss of the final sense, smell, in her meeting with her father, Titus, who compares her to a “lily almost withered”. In the next scene, Titus himself chops off his hand. This is followed hard by the presentation of his two younger sons’ heads to him. The boys mimic Rome’s current state of headlessness. Finally, the dismemberment carried out on her inhabitants pushes beyond Rome’s own compromised position. This happens when Titus slaughters Tamora’s two sons and removes their blood, then grind[s] their bones to powder small and bake[s] their vile heads. In a perfectly balanced turn when this ultimate act of dismemberment occurs, Rome promises to become her full self once more. Marcus will teach the Romans to knit her broken limbs again into one body; Lest Rome herself be bane unto herself”. Her being bane unto herself does have a precedent too, for she displaced her own falling apart onto the bodies of the family most responsible for her continued strength, the Andronici, and the bodies of her own Empress’s sons. Rome’s dynamic growth sets her apart from the play’s real humans and establishes her as the true hero, who evolves from a state of being in scattered contradictory parts to being on the brink of wholeness and singular individuality. Where the people deteriorate, learning nothing but more hurtful revenge from their pain, the city improves, learning the value of unity from awful discord. Rome is the only figure with whom the audience can reasonably sympathize. She is the only dynamic and complex character, the only hero.

Aaron the Moor’s final question, “Ah, why should wrath be mute and fury dumb?” is an odd ending to Titus Andronicus. This is because the answer to his rhetorical question is the moral of Shakespeare’s play. A body that is wrathful and furious is necessarily out of accord with itself, and so, of course, it does not possess the human ability that is reliant on the synchronized work of mouth, tongue, throat, and diaphragm. The city of Rome is about to win that fine synchronicity when the play ends.

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The Real Hero in Titus Andronicus, a Play by William Shakespeare. (2022, Aug 16). Retrieved from

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