The Meaning of a Hero in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus

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The word hero tends to hold many meanings in different periods of history based on a society’s laws, mores, and customs. In that regard, to be a hero necessarily evolves to have varying connotations over time. An excellent study in the evolution of the word is William Shakespeare’s often-maligned tragedy Titus Andronicus. In the play, the title character must navigate a society wrought with complex conceptions of the interaction between honor, revenge, and the heroic. As a character, Titus can be difficult to stomach because he constantly pushes our modern conceptions of heroism. Is it heroic to kill a child so as to save her from worldly shame? Can a hero also be a murderer? Should heroes avenge family members and if so, what type of hero is that person? Some scholars argue that Titus is the tragedy’s hero and some argue the opposite. Titus, the father of twenty-six and servant to traditional Roman values, is portrayed heroically, but is far from a hero. His development and actions within the play better convey Titus’ depiction as a classical tragic hero. His dramatic and rapid fall from grace hint that while Titus may have been a hero before Shakespeare’s story of him begins, when told in medias res, Titus cannot lay claim to that honorable title. Titus Andronicus is not this tragedy’s hero, per se, but rather a tragic hero who embodies tradition Republican values to his bitter end.
The word in question, hero, as well as Titus’ ability to fit the mold of the term, has seen substantial changes over time. The modern dictionary sheds light on what our world currently calls a hero: first, a hero is “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities” and second is “a person who, in the opi...

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... hero that once meant honorable defender of Roman values now has a vague, general meaning. Does Titus fit any historical description of hero? By the standards of the Roman Republic, Titus was certainly a hero: he gave up most of his life to the battlefield and almost all of his children to the glory of fighting for Rome. However, when considered with the critical eye towards Titus within only the scope of the play, he is far from heroic. His downfall begins almost immediately after a procession puts him on a pedestal. In fact, Titus has nowhere to go but down from the height of his great, Republican platform. Titus, then, is a far better example of a tragic hero, someone who exhibits noble qualities but quickly begins to lose the grip on the stronghold of his honorable life. Unable to maintain the label of hero in this tragedy, Titus instead becomes its tragic hero.

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