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Titus Andronicus

Playbill for Titus Andronicus  

Titus Andronicus from First Folio by John Heminges and Henry Connell, Published 1623

William Shakespeare’s tragedy Titus Andronicus was written between 1588 and 1593. Its earliest performance was in 1594 at the Rose Theatre, London, England. The play takes place during the late Antique Period of the Roman Empire. The first most lamentable tragedy of Titus Andronicus was played by the Right Honorable Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Sussex along with their servants.

Aaron Protecting His Son Act 4, Scene 2 a Thomas Kirk illustration engraved by J

Aaron Protecting His Son, Act 4, Scene 2a, Thomas Kirk

Titus Andronicus is a fictional story of a general in the Roman Army who was engaged in a cycle of revenge with his captive, Tamora, Queen of Goths. Shakespeare’s first Moorish character, Aaron; is the secret lover of Tamora. A child was born of this secret love affair. Aaron’s role was designed to be the most physical imposing character on the stage at any given time. Yet, he is portrayed less brutal than those of the West European characters.  The theme is based on broad perceptions of honor; and with those perceptions creating a monumental cycle of bloodshed via ruthless murder, war, rape and stereotypes of all human violent interaction. In the end, Titus’ behavior suggest that he is insane.

Aaron Protecting His Son Act 4, Scene 2 from Joseph Graves' Dramatic Tales Founded on Shakespeare's Plays 1840

Aaron Protecting His Son Act 4, Scene 2, from Joseph Graves' Dramatic Tales Founded on Shakespeare's Plays 1840

Titus Andronicus is traditionally considered to be the most poorly constructed Shakespeare play because it was his first attempt at tragedy.  Researchers have concluded that Titus Andronicus does not follow the same literary style and pattern as Shakespeare’s other plays.  Authorship of Titus Andronicus has been debated by scholars since the late 17th century. In 1687 Edward Ravenscroft was the first to question Shakespeare's authorship in the introduction his own adaptation of the play, “Titus Andronicus”, or “The Rape of Lavinia.”

Ira Aldridge as Aaron in Titus Andronicus from a daguerreotype by William Paine of Islington

Ira Aldridge, African American actor, as Aaron c. 1852, from a daguerreotype by William Paine of Islington

The play's reputation improved somewhat in the latter part of the 20th century, but examination of authorship intensified. Ironically, those who used arguments that Shakespeare had nothing to do with the writing of the play did so with the sole purpose of protecting Shakespeare’s literary reputation.  Twentieth century criticism moved away from trying to prove or disprove Shakespeare’s authorship. Most scholars today accept that he was involved in the composition in some manner, and have come to focus on the issue of co-authorship. Language usage and literary style were used to question the authenticity of authorship.  Many think this play was written by Shakespeare in collaboration with George Peele. Peele was an English translator, poet, and dramatist who became known for his universally accepted collaboration with William Shakespeare on Titus Andronicus.

Titus and H. Gravelot by G

Titus and H. Gravelot by G. Vander Gucht

There are three versions of the story of Titus Andronicus: Shakespeare’s play; a ballad, entered on the Stationers’ Register in 1594; a prose narrative, which survives only in a mid18th-century chapbook. The ballad, entitled ‘Titus Andronicus’ Complaint’ was included in Richard Johnson’s The Golden Garland of Princely Pleasures and Delicate Delights, 1620. The chapbook, entitled The History of Titus Andronicus, was reprinted as a ballad. It is suggested that Shakespeare’s play came first. The ballad was based on the play, and the chapbook was a prose expansion of the ballad.

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by James Northcote

Portrait of Ira Aldridge, by James Northcote, 1826 (Manchester Art Gallery)

Ira Aldridge: First African American actor to play the role of Aaron in Titus Andronicus

Ira Frederick Aldridge was born in New York City, July 24, 1807. He died in Poland in 1867. Typical of the treatment of African American actors had to endure; Aldridge was confronted with immense discrimination throughout his American career. As manager, he was in the troupe of the African Grove Theater. He eventually migrated to Liverpool, England, in 1824, with actor James Wallack. Soon after his arrival in England he met and married Margaret Gill. After Margaret’s death, Aldridge married Countess Amanda Von Brandt and had three surviving children.  Aldridge had a very successful acting career on the London stage and in Europe, especially performing Shakespearean roles. On October 10, 1825, he made his European debut at London's Royal Coburg Theatre. He was the first African-American actor to establish himself in a foreign country. He customarily spoke to his audience about the injustice of slavery on closing nights of his performances.  Aldridge is the only African-American among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was especially popular in Prussia and Russia, where he received top honors from heads of state.


William Shakespeare in Art: A Desire for Diversity Introduction

More about Shakespeare

Timeline: Significant Dates in the Life of Shakespeare

Further Reading on Shakespeare and Race

List of People of Color in Shakespearean Roles

Merchant of Venice


Antony and Cleopatra