Death, Revenge, and Rome REVIEWING Titus Andronicus

Welcome back everyone! This is the third post in my Spooky Month of Reads, leading up to Halloween. Today is also the first Saturday of the month, which means it is Shakespeare Saturday. I had to pick a really good one for this month and I think I succeeded. Let's talk about Shakespeare's goriest play. 

 Titus Andronicus

Author: William Shakespeare 
Drama --> Tragedy
Year: ~1594

Titus Andronicus


Rome is in turmoil. With the Emperor dead, his two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, quarrel over who should succeed him; but neither are as popular as the general Titus Andronicus, returned to Rome victorious after a ten-year campaign, with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her three sons as his prisoners. Eschewing the throne, he endorses Saturninus as successor, and sacrifices the Queen's son Alarbus in memory of his own, lost in the war. But when the new emperor spurns Titus's amity and chooses Tamora for his wife, she quickly begins to plot a murderous revenge of barely conceivable cruelty. 


Titus Andronicus is believed to be William Shakespeare's first tragedy and as far as tragedy goes, it does not pull punches. This is hands down the bloodiest Shakespeare play there is. Step aside Lady Macbeth, your blood may have been bad, but it definitely isn't Titus bad. For those especially weak in the stomach, this is NOT your play. It won't be your favorite and there is a good chance it will make you sick. The content is enough to make anyone incredibly uneasy. 

Here is a brief content warning for those who need it: murder...lots of it, rape, maiming/dismemberment, and cannibalism. If any of these things upset you greatly to the point where you can't read about any of it, avoid this book. If you are looking for something unsettling especially for this month, for Halloween, particularly of the classic variety, this is your book. 

Titus Andronicus is a general in the Roman army. He has just come back from being at war for ten years, so already we have a blood-soaked battleground that has just been left. Titus brings a few war criminals back with him and kills one of them straight away. This upsets the mother of the soldier, who happens to also be the ruler of the group Titus just came back from conquering. This same mother ends up marrying the newly appointed emperor of Rome who feels like he has been shamed by Titus, and so they both seek revenge upon him. Right off the bat, Titus, feeling disrespected after a matrimonial failure including his daughter, kills two of his own sons...after having lost other sons at war. Then later we get the instance of murder plus rape plus maiming, which leads to even more murder and more murder, until we hit the climactic cannibalism point, which descends into even MORE murder, just before the curtain falls. This is literally the bloodiest play. 

This play is predominantly about power struggles, honor, and revenge. Broken down that way, it sounds like it could be similar to Hamlet thematically, but this one really doesn't hit the same comedic tones that Hamlet does. It hits hard and just keeps on hitting. It makes you question the decisions of every single character and it makes it hard for the reader to decide who really has the moral high ground. In reality, none of the leading characters really do. They are all doing things that are wrong for reasons that may occasionally be right, but then make more decisions that are over the top and ultimately it just leaves you feeling a bit dirty and blood-splattered by the time it is over. This book addresses gender struggles, racial struggles, the problems with war, the endless cycle revenge goes into, and the dark sides of human nature. It touches all of this, while throwing gallons of blood all about the stage without blinking. There is very little about this play that can make you feel hopeful or happy, beyond being thankful you don't live in Rome and aren't in the situations the characters are in. 

I have read this play at least three times. Twice for Shakespeare courses and once for the Shakespeare 2020 Project I'm participating in this year. Each time I read it, I find it just as disturbing as the previous times I've read it. Discussing it in a classroom setting makes it both more understandable and interesting in some ways, and more disturbing in others. I don't believe this is one of Shakespeare's more popular plays, particularly when compared to Hamlet, Macbeth, or Romeo & Juliet. There aren't nearly as many popular adaptations and retellings of it, like there are with the others, and that is most likely due to how brutal the content of it is. There is really no relatively "family friendly" way to tell this story that I'm aware of. The one adaptation I am familiar with is Titus (1999), which is a film directed by Julie Taymor (director of The Lion King on Broadway) that stars Anthony Hopkins in the lead role of Titus Andronicus (Hopkins being known for playing Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs). That is a rated R film that is definitely not for the squeamish or weak of stomach, as it is just as brutal as the book. There are certain scenes that can be considered well-done visually because they do capture the brutality and violence of this book in ways that stick in your head...for many years, potentially. I don't ever need to watch it again, because I've already seen it twice (for two different classes) and I already can't ever seem to forget seeing it, almost 4-6 years later. Honestly, I don't even think I would ever want to see this play performed on a stage because I don't think I could stomach it. 


Well, if we are talking about a Shakespearean tragedy, then you have to know that there is a body count. This is the play with the highest count, as you might assume based on everything I have said up to this point. 

Body Count: 14 in 5 acts, but way higher if you also count the fact that Rome was just at war. The actual off-stage number is probably in the thousands if you factor that in. 

Now leaving SPOILER LAND

Of all of the Shakespeare plays I've read this is my least favorite content-wise, but also one I definitely appreciate. It's well-written and the plot is intricate. The character's motivations are clearly outlined and things escalate as scenes and acts progress. It's masterfully written, and succeeds in being disturbing. I definitely appreciate Shakespeare's ability to properly convey the atrocities presented in this play and evoke the right emotions in readers and viewers. This really is a paradoxical play. It is interesting to read because of how complex it is, but awful to read because of the actions within it. This makes it the perfect Halloween read if you want a classic that isn't novel length. I give Titus Andronicus a Lone Star rating of ✯✯✯✯, for just how well it manages to unsettle audiences, including myself. 

So, again, this is Shakespeare's bloodiest play and it is definitely the play that makes me the most uncomfortable. This is why I chose it as this month's Shakespeare Saturday, and also just for Halloween reading in general. If you can handle the content (keeping in mind that there really aren't a lot of descriptive passages, since it is a play reliant on dialogue in iambic pentameter), then I definitely recommend it. This is not one of the most covered Shakespeare plays in high school (I wonder why THAT is), so it would also open up your repertoire beyond Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. As usual, I recommend the Folger Shakespeare Library edition. 

This concludes the third Shakespeare Saturday and also the third Halloween review of this month! Thanks for reading another review here at The Real World According To Sam, where I bring the books to your screen and even put in my own two cents about them. I'll see you back here tomorrow to talk about Neil Gaiman's Coraline