Titus Andronicus is widely considered as a tragedy, in fact, Shakespeare himself calls it “The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus”, but to what extent does it stick with the stereotypical qualities and tropes of a tragedy, and, therefore, to what extent is it actually a tragedy?
Many tragedies or stories such as Titus Andronicus, written in the 16th century, bare many very similar themes, ranging from a mass tragic event to using the audience’s reaction to add depth to the characters. Therefore, the actual tragic part of Titus Andronicus makes it extremely similar to Hamlet or any other of Shakespeare’s tragic plays. Titus adheres to nearly all of the components of a tragedy with the exception of one or two.
Social justice and society’s moral standpoint (and usually the main character’s fall in status) really allows the tragedy to happen. If proper justice had been enacted onto Tamora and her sons, then the tragic “spiral” would not have occurred. Once Tamora becomes Saturninus’ wife, all other forms of justice are taken away from Titus, forcing him down the path of revenge. Titus’ true fall in social status is when he is perceived to have lost his mind out of grief and sorrow for Lavinia (after she is raped); this is clearly shown here:
“Why, tis no matter, man. If they did hear,
They would not mark me; if they did mark,
They would not pity me. Yet please I must, And bootless unto them/Therefore, I tell my sorrows to the stones, Who, though they cannot answer my distress, Yet in some sort they are better than Tribunes”.
Titus’ fall is also as a result of bad choices he made in the past, again, a very stereotypical tool for a tragedy. One can argue that Titus started to fall the minute he allowed Saturninus to ascend to the throne and, just after, when he sacrificed Tamora’s son Alarbus. To this extent, the tragic events that unfolded were partially Titus’ fault.
Another aspect that is extremely common to other tragedies is the vast amount of bodily mutilations or references to bodily mutilations. In the play there is a wealth of these poor jokes as seen here when Chiron and Demetrius tease Lavinia after raping and mutilating her:
So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who 'twas that cut thy tongue and ravish'd thee.
Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
See, how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.
Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.
She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;
And so let's leave her to her silent walks. (2.4.1)
Not only this but after Titus loses his hand; many jokes are made, similarly to the end of the play when Tamora’s sons are baked and fed to her.
Tying in with a similar theme are the numerous careless deaths that are often featured in tragedies. The main culmination of this is the final feast where 90% of the main characters are killed, abruptly and in quick succession with no eloquent or meaningful last words or emphasized legacy. The most noticeably short being Titus’ last words:
“Tis true, tis true
Now witness my knife’s sharp point”
Not only this, but also the deaths of Titus’ remaining sons (aside from Lucius) are quick and un-emphasized or drawn out, with no final memory of the sons or any melancholy tone to the text; in fact, Titus’ immediate reaction is a distinct laugh, showing (in part) an example of the insignificance of deaths in the play.
Similar to the fall in social justice and society’s moral standpoint is the actual mass tragedy and “revenge cycle” that nearly all the main characters are effected by. The play goes on to show that revenge does not cancel out or pay back for a crime or violent act, rather, it fuels or continues the cycle of violence. It is this which forms one of the key focal points of the play. These revenge spirals cause all the deaths…