Titus Andronicus is classified as a revenge play in the Elizabethan tradition of such plays. It is therefore no surprise that revenge is at the heart of the play. The cycle of revenge is set in motion by Titus’s decision, at the urging of his sons, to kill Alarbus, a Goth prisoner of war. This upsets Tamora, Alarbus’s mother, and causes her to vow revenge against Titus. Part of that revenge is the rape and mutilation of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, by Tamora’s other sons, Chiron and Demetrius. Another part of her revenge is to ensure that two of Titus’s sons are blamed (wrongly) for the crime, and executed. Saturnius’s act in sending Titus the severed heads of his two sons begins another revenge saga, since Titus now seeks revenge on Saturnius, whom he blames for the act. He also seeks revenge against Chiron and Demetrius, when he learns it is they who raped and mutilated Lavinia. He gains revenge when he cuts their throats, and further satisfaction when he kills Tamora at the macabre feast where he serves her the cooked remains of her sons. In rapid succession, Saturnius kills Titus in revenge for the slaying of his wife, and then Titus is avenged by Lucius, who kills Saturnius. This thirst for revenge under the guise of justice is the guiding motif of the play. Only when Lucius is crowned emperor following the death of Saturnius is something better hinted at.
At the beginning of the play, ambition motivates both Saturnius and Bassianius, who have assembled their respective factions and are determined to advance their respective claims to becoming emperor. Aaron is also ambitious. When he sees that Tamora has been elevated to the title of empress, he sees his opportunity to rise high, and he does not care what might stand in his path. He will ruthlessly advance his cause by championing hers. In contrast, Titus Andronicus shows no ambition of this kind. Although he is a popular military leader and is given the opportunity to become emperor, he declines it. He is a warrior more concerned with matters of family honor than political ambition.
Madness, whether real or pretended, is a common element in Elizabethan revenge plays. The protagonist may actually go mad, or he may feign madness in order better to accomplish his goal of revenge (as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example). The theme occurs in Titus Andronicus also, in the behavior of Titus. In Act 3, scene 2, Titus reproaches Marcus for killing a fly, and then when he is told it was a black fly like Aaron the Moor, Titus reacts by stabbing at the dead fly, pretending he is killing both Aaron and Tamora.Observing the strange behavior, Marcus says, “Alas poor man! grief has so wrought on him, / He takes false shadows for true substances” (lines 79-80). That is, Titus is beginning to lose his reason.
Young Lucius, Titus’s grandson, also alludes to the theme of madness, although in connection to what he sees as Lavinia’sstrange behavior, not that of his grandfather. But his comment, “For I have heard my grandsire say full oft, /
Extremity of griefs would make men mad” (Act 4, scene 1, lines 18-19) shows that madness brought on by grief is something that has been on Titus’s mind.
Later (Act 5, scene 2),Tamoraalso thinks Titus is mad. She tries to exploit this by deceiving him, trying to present herself to him as the allegorical figure of Revenge. Titus at first refuses to go along with her deception, saying he is not mad. However, he then admits that although she looks like Tamora, and the other figures, Rape and Murder, look like her sons, he is convinced that they are who they say they are. “We worldly men,” he says, “Have miserable, mad, mistaking eyes” (lines 65-66).He is therefore feigning madness in order to go along with Tamora’s deceptive scheme until he can work it to his advantage. Tamora is fooled, saying “This closing with him fits his lunacy (line 71).
So in this play, Titus the hero practices fake madness, but he is also perhaps less than entirely sane, as his behavior suggests at various points in the play, including his gruesome revenge against Tamora.
Lust and Adultery
The theme of lust and adultery is conveyed by the Goth characters, not the Romans. Tamora is presented as lustful in her immoral desire for Aaron. Aaron is quite willing to take her and father a child by her because he has no morals either. Similarly, the brutal rape of Lavinia is carried out by Chiron and Demetrius, who are also Goths. There is therefore a contrast presented between the civilized Roman world and the world of the foreigners, the Goths, who simply give way to their natural appetites. Undermining the intended contrast, however, is that the way the Romans behave in the play is not exactly a strong advertisement for its supposed civilized qualities.