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Titus Andronicus


Titus Andronicus is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1588 and 1593, probably in collaboration with George Peele. It is thought to be Shakespeare's first tragedy and is often seen as his attempt to emulate the violent and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries, which were extremely popular with audiences throughout the 16th century.

The play is set during the latter days of the Roman Empire and tells the fictional story of Titus, a general in the Roman army, who is engaged in a cycle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. It is Shakespeare's bloodiest and most violent work, and traditionally was one of his least respected plays; although it was extremely popular in its day, by the later 17th century it had fallen out of favour. In the Victorian era, it was disapproved of primarily because of what was considered to be a distasteful use of graphic violence, but from around the middle of the 20th century its reputation began to improve.

First page of The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus from the First Folio, published in 1623

Date and text

The earliest known record of Titus Andronicus is found in Philip Henslowe's diary on 24 January 1594, where Henslowe recorded a performance by Sussex's Men of "Titus & ondronicus", probably at The Rose. Henslowe marked the play as "ne", which most critics take to mean "new". There were subsequent performances on 29 January and 6 February. Also on 6 February, the printer John Danter entered into the Stationers' Register "A booke intitled a Noble Roman Historye of Tytus Andronicus". Later in 1594, Danter published the play in quarto under the title The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus (referred to by scholars as Q1) for the booksellers Edward White and Thomas Millington, making it the first of Shakespeare's plays to be printed. This evidence establishes that the latest possible date of composition is late 1593.

There is evidence, however, that the play may have been written some years earlier than this. Perhaps the most famous such evidence relates to a comment made in 1614 by Ben Jonson in Bartholomew Fair. In the preface, Jonson wrote "He that will swear, Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays, yet shall pass unexcepted at, here, as a man whose judgement shows it is constant, and hath stood still these five and twenty, or thirty years." The success and popularity of Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, to which Jonson alludes, is attested by many contemporary documents, so by placing Titus alongside it, Jonson is saying that Titus too must have been extremely popular in its day, but by 1614, both plays had come to be seen as old fashioned. If Jonson is taken literally, for the play to have been between 25 and 30 years old in 1614, it must have been written between 1584 and 1589, a theory which not all scholars reject out of hand. For example, in his 1953 edition of the play for the Arden Shakespeare 2nd Series, J.C. Maxwell argues for a date of late 1589. Similarly, E.A.J. Honigmann, in his 'early start' theory of 1982, suggests that Shakespeare wrote the play several years before coming to London c. 1590, and that Titus was actually his first play, written c. 1586. In his Cambridge Shakespeare edition of 1994 and again in 2006, Alan Hughes makes a similar argument, believing the play was written very early in Shakespeare's career, before he came to London, possibly c. 1588.

However, the majority of scholars tend to favour a post-1590 date, and one of the primary arguments for this is that the title page of Q1 assigns the play to three different playing companies; Derby's Men, Pembroke's Men and Sussex's Men ("As it was Plaide by the Right Honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Suſſex their Seruants"). This is highly unusual in copies of Elizabethan plays, which usually refer to one company only, if any. If the order of the listing is chronological, as Eugene M. Waith and Jacques Berthoud, for example, believe it is, it means that Sussex's Men were the last to perform the play, suggesting it had been on stage quite some time prior to 24 January 1594. Waith hypothesises that the play originally belonged to Derby's Men, but after the closure of the London theatres on 23 June 1592 due to an outbreak of plague, Derby's Men sold the play to Pembroke's Men, who were going on a regional tour to Bath and Ludlow. The tour was a financial failure, and the company returned to London on 28 September, financially ruined. At that point, they sold the play to Sussex's Men, who would go on to perform it on 24 January 1594 at The Rose. If one accepts this theory, it suggests a date of composition as some time in early to mid-1592. However, Jonathan Bate and Alan Hughes have argued that there is no evidence that the listing is chronological, and no precedent on other title pages for making that assumption. Additionally, a later edition of the play gives a different order of acting companies – Pembroke's Men, Derby's Men, Sussex' Men and Lord Chamberlain's Men, suggesting the order is random and cannot be used to help date the play.

As such, even amongst scholars who favour a post-1590 date, 1592 is by no means universally accepted. Jacques Berthoud, for example, argues that Shakespeare had close associations with Derby's Men and "it would seem that Titus Andronicus must already have entered the repertoire of Derby's Men by the end of 1591 or the start of 1592 at the latest." Berthoud believes this places the date of composition some time in 1591. Another theory is provided by Jonathan Bate, who finds it significant that Q1 lacks the "sundry times" comment found on virtually every sixteenth-century play; the claim on a title page that a play had been performed "sundry times" was an attempt by publishers to emphasise its popularity, and its absence on Q1 indicates that the play was so new, it hadn't been performed anywhere. Bate also finds significance in the fact that prior to the rape of Lavinia, Chiron and Demetrius vow to use Bassianus' body as a pillow. Bate believes this connects the play to Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, which was completed on 27 June 1593. Verbal similarities between Titus and George Peele's poem The Honour of the Garter are also important for Bate. The poem was written to celebrate the installation of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland as a Knight of the Garter on 26 June 1593. Bate takes these three pieces of evidence to suggest a timeline which sees Shakespeare complete his Henry VI trilogy prior to the closing of the theatres in June 1592. At this time, he turns to classical antiquity to aid him in his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Then, towards the end of 1593, with the prospect of the theatres being reopened, and with the classical material still fresh in his mind, he wrote Titus as his first tragedy, shortly after reading Nashe's novel and Peele's poem, all of which suggests a date of composition of late 1593.

Other critics have attempted to use more scientific methods to determine the date of the play. For example, Gary Taylor has employed stylometry, particularly the study of contractions, colloquialisms, rare words and function words. Taylor concludes that the entire play except Act 3, Scene 2 was written just after Henry VI, Part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3, which he assigns to late 1591 or early 1592. As such, Taylor settles on a date of mid-1592 for Titus. He also argues that 3.2, which is only found in the 1623 Folio text, was written contemporaneously with Romeo and Juliet, in late 1593.

However, if the play was written and performed by 1588 (Hughes), 1589 (Maxwell), 1591 (Berthoud), 1592 (Waith and Taylor), or 1593 (Bate), why did Henslowe refer to it as "ne" in 1594? R.A. Foakes and R.T. Rickert, modern editors of Henslowe's Diary, argue that "ne" could refer to a newly licensed play, which would make sense if one accepts Waith's argument that Pembroke's Men had sold the rights to Sussex's Men upon returning from their failed tour of the provinces. Foakes and Rickert also point out that "ne" could refer to a newly revised play, suggesting editing on Shakespeare's part some time in late 1593. Waith sees this suggestion as especially important insofar as John Dover Wilson and Gary Taylor have shown that the text as it exists in Q1 does seem to indicate editing. However, that "ne" does actually stand for "new" is not fully accepted; in 1991, Winifred Frazer argued that "ne" is actually an abbreviation for "Newington Butts". Brian Vickers, amongst others, finds Frazer's arguments convincing, which renders interpretation of Henslow's entry even more complex.

Title page of the third quarto (1611)


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Published in 14/09/2018

Updated in 19/02/2021

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