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Titus Andronicus

Creation of the play

Titus Andronicus was probably written in late 1593. The first recorded performance of the play was very early in 1594. It was entered on the Stationers’ Register shortly afterwards and published the same year. Shakespeare’s text of Titus Andronicus draws details from Thomas Nash’s Christs Teares over Ierusalem, published in 1593. It was once thought that the first scene of Titus Andronicus was written by George Peele, but scholars now regard the play as wholly by Shakespeare.

Early performances

The first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was at the Rose on 24 January 1594. The play was repeated on 29 January and 4 February. Titus Andronicus was given again, by the Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, at Newington Butts in June 1594. On 1 January 1596, it was performed (probably by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) in the household of Sir John Harington at Burley-on-the-Hill in Rutland.

Titus Andronicus is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays for which there is a contemporary illustration, a drawing apparently made by Henry Peacham (the author of a drawing manual) now in the collection of the Marquess of Bath.

Publication in quarto and folio

Titus Andronicus appeared in five editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1594. Believed to have been printed from Shakespeare’s foul papers. (Copy from the Folger Shakespeare Library.)
  • Second quarto, 1600. Printed from the first quarto. (Copy from Edinburgh University Library.)
  • Third quarto, 1611. Printed from the second quarto.
  • First folio, 1623. Printed from the third quarto. The folio text adds more extensive stage directions, as well as a scene (act 3, scene 2) which is not found in the quartos. The extra scene is accepted as Shakespeare’s. It is believed that the printer had access (either directly, or indirectly through an annotated third quarto) to a promptbook.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

Titus Andronicus was entered on the Stationers’ Register on 6 February 1594 by the printer John Danter. The first quarto appeared in 1594, printed by Danter and sold by Edward White and Thomas Millington. Danter was raided by the Stationers’ Company and his presses destroyed in February or March 1597, for printing books without their authority. The second quarto of Titus Andronicus was printed by James Roberts for Edward White and appeared in 1600. On 19 April 1602 Thomas Millington transferred the copyright of Titus Andronicus to Thomas Pavier. However, the third quarto of 1611 was printed by Edward Allde for Edward White.

British Library copies of Titus Andronicus contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

There are three versions of the story of Titus Andronicus: Shakespeare’s play; a ballad, also entered on the Stationers’ Register in 1594; a prose narrative, which survives only in a mid 18th-century chapbook. The ballad, entitled ‘Titus Andronicus’ Complaint’ was included in Richard Johnson’s The Golden Garland of 1620. The chapbook, entitled The History of Titus Andronicus, also reprinted the ballad. It is usually agreed that the prose narrative preceded Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which was followed by the ballad. However, it has recently been suggested that Shakespeare’s play came first, the ballad was based on the play, and the chapbook was a prose expansion of the ballad. Although Shakespeare used no one source specifically for Titus Andronicus, he did draw on several works.

Titus Andronicus’ Complaint. Richard Johnson, The Golden Garland of Princely Pleasures and Delicate Delights
Titus Andronicus' Complaint. Richard Johnson, The Golden Garland of Princely Pleasures and Delicate Delights, 1620. British Library, C.39.b.36, sig. E8v. Larger image

  • Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy (1592). This play probably gave Shakespeare a model for Titus Andronicus’s revenge.
  • Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta (first performed about 1589 but not published until 1633). Marlowe’s play influenced the villains in Titus Andronicus, particularly Aaron.
  • George Peele, The Battell of Alcazar (popular on stage in the early 1590s, published 1594). The character of Muly Mahamet in Peele’s play also influenced the character of Aaron.
  • The First Part of the Tragicall Raigne of Selimus, sometime Emperour of the Turkes (perhaps performed in 1592, published 1594). This play provided Shakespeare with a precedent for the scene in which Titus’s hand is chopped off (act 3, scene 1).
  • Ovid, translated by Arthur Golding, The .XV. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, Entytuled Metamorphosis (1567). The story of Philomel in Ovid’s poem gave Shakespeare a pattern for the rape and mutilation of Lavinia.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Titus Andronicus is set in Rome during the Empire.

(Act 1) Saturninus and Bassianus, sons of the deceased Emperor of Rome, both claim the throne. Marcus Andronicus declares that the people of Rome have elected his brother Titus Andronicus as the new Emperor. Titus enters with captives from his successful war against the Goths, Tamora their Queen, her sons, and her servant the Moor Aaron. Titus refuses the crown. He supports Saturninus, who is made Emperor. Saturninus immediately frees the captive Goths. Bassianus seizes Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, and carries her off to marry her. Titus tries to stop Bassianus, but kills one of his own sons who stands in his way. Saturninus chooses Tamora as his Empress.

(Act 2) Aaron, alone, declares that he will share in Tamora’s good fortune. Her sons, Chiron and Demetrius, enter quarrelling over Lavinia. Aaron plots with them to rape her. Titus and his family, and Saturninus, Tamora and their followers, all go hunting. Aaron and Tamora, alone together, reveal that they are lovers. Bassianus and Lavinia meet Tamora, Chiron, and Demetrius. Tamora’s sons kill Bassianus and drag Lavinia away. Martius and Quintus, Titus’s sons, discover the body of Bassianus. When Saturninus arrives, he suspects they have murdered his brother. Lavinia is brought in by Chiron and Demetrius. She has been raped, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out to keep her silent. With horror, Marcus discovers her.

(Act 3) Titus pleads for his sons as they are taken away to execution for murdering Bassianus. Marcus brings in Lavinia. Titus, seeing her, is overcome with grief. Aaron enters to tell Titus that his sons will be spared if he will cut off his own hand and send it to the Emperor. Titus agrees. Aaron cuts off the hand and takes it away. A messenger arrives, bringing Titus’s hand and the heads of his sons. Titus swears revenge. Lucius, Titus’s only surviving son, vows to revenge both Titus and Lavinia. He leaves to join the Goths against Saturninus. Titus, Marcus, and Lavinia sit together at a banquet. Marcus kills a fly, and Titus reproves him. When Marcus compares the fly to Aaron, Titus strikes at it.

(Act 4) Lavinia shows Titus and Marcus the tale of Philomel within a book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to explain what happened to her. She takes a staff in her mouth and, guiding it with her stumps, writes out the names of her attackers, Chiron and Demetrius. Titus plots his revenge. A nurse brings in Tamora’s new-born baby, Aaron’s son. He kills the nurse, to keep the birth secret. A messenger brings news that Lucius is marching on Rome, at the head of an army of Goths. Tamora decides to persuade Titus to betray Lucius.

(Act 5) Lucius arrives with his army. Aaron, captured by a Goth, is brought before him with his baby son. Lucius agrees to spare the child if Aaron will betray Tamora, Chiron, and Demetrius. Aaron tells him of their evil deeds. Tamora and her sons, disguised, visit Titus to offer help. He pretends not to recognise them, and agrees to invite Lucius to a banquet with the Emperor and Empress. When Tamora leaves, Titus seizes Chiron and Demetrius and cuts their throats. At the banquet, Titus (dressed as a cook) places the dishes before Saturninus and Tamora. He kills Lavinia, and tells Saturninus who was guilty of her rape and mutilation. He announces that Chiron and Demetrius were baked in the pie served to Saturninus and Tamora. Titus stabs Tamora to death, and Saturninus kills Titus. Lucius kills Saturninus. He and Marcus are protected by the Goths, as they announce the wicked deeds of Tamora and her sons to the assembled Romans. Lucius is declared Emperor. He sentences Aaron to death by starvation. Lucius orders burial rites for all the dead, except Tamora whose body is to be thrown to beasts and birds of prey.


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