Titus Andronicus is a play marked by acts of horrific violence and littered with death and the destruction of others. Each violent act, however, serves to explain and sometimes encourage the motives of the play's memorable characters and impart a very tightly knotted plot. The structure of the play employs well-defined heroes and villains. Revenge is their key motivating factor. All of these elements combine to form a cohesive plot and contribute to the overall success of the story.
Shakespeare's sources for the play are quite clear. He makes it no secret that the rape of Lavinia is analogous to the rape of Philomela in Ovid's Metamorphosis. In this tale, The daughter of the King of Athens, Procne, marries the King of Thrace, Tereus, and the two of them have a son, Itys. After a number of years, Procne desperately wishes to see her sister, Philomela, and sends Tereus back to Athens to bring her to Thrace. When Tereus sees Philomela, he becomes obsessed with her and carries her into the forest, rapes her and cuts out her tongue to prevent her from telling anyone. Upon returning to Thrace, he informs his wife that Philomela is dead. In the meantime, Philomela weaves her story into a cloth and sends it to Procne. Procne becomes so enraged by this knowledge that she and Philomela plot and kill Itys, cook his flesh and serve it to Tereus. He discovers their ploy and tries to kill them, but Philomela is changed into a nightingale, Procne a swallow and Tereus a hoopoe (Bullough, vi. 48-58).
This exhibits a very distinct parallel. Demetrius and Chiron used the same measures to prevent Lavinia from disclosing their deeds, though Shakespeare (always improving on his sources) to...
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... to become wrapped up in his evil schemes. Also, like Richard III, the character of Aaron the Moor has a great deal of staying power, and we continue to see characters like him four-hundred years later.
Titus Andronicus is very successful as a tragedy. Second guessing of the character's actions is held to a minimum because most of the tragedy is imposed by the other characters' revenge tactics. The notable characters are easily distinguishable because of their very distinct personalities. Titus and Aaron are a prime example of this type of opposition. The solid plot, memorable characters and striking depiction of violence combine to make Titus Andronicus one of Shakespeare's best works.
Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare , 8 vols. (1964-75)
Waith, Eugene M. ed. Titus Andronicus. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1984.
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