Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 115-79).
1. In Act 1, Scene 1, discuss the play’s presentation of Roman religious ritual: why does Titus believe that his sacrifice of Tamora’s eldest son Alarbus is honorable and necessary? In what does the sacrifice consist, and how does Shakespeare represent it onstage?
2. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does the captured Tamora, Queen of Goths, react to the prospect — and then the fact — of her eldest son’s slaughter? How does her response affect the way an audience might perceive the conduct and attitude of Titus with regard to the sacrifice?
3. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Titus present to the Roman public his view of the death of several sons in his latest military campaign? How does he appear to feel about it privately, to himself, and how much scope do his private sentiments have with him?
4. In Act 1, Scene 1, what is the political situation in Rome? What claims do Saturninus and Bassianus respectively make to succeed their departed father the emperor? What clues does the text offer about the character of these two young men?
5. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Titus handle the authority given to him by the people and leading politicians, including his brother, the Tribune Marcus Andronicus? In particular, what is Titus’ rationale for lending his voice to Saturninus and ignoring Bassianus?
6. In Act 1, Scene 1, the newly elevated Saturninus chooses Titus’ daughter Lavinia as empress, but is promptly love-struck by the alluring Tamora. How does Titus take the offer of his daughter being raised to empress, and how does he handle the rebellion this prospect sparks on the part of Bassianus, Lavinia, and his own sons? Who is in the right here, and why?
7. In Act 1, Scene 1, what does Tamora (newly made empress) understand about Roman ethics and politics that Titus doesn’t (at least until later)? Explain how she asserts her authority over Saturninus and begins to take control of the situation in Rome by manipulating that nation’s codes of language and conduct.
8. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Tamora’s long-time lover, Aaron the Moor, see his situation now that Tamora has become Empress of Rome? How does he deal with the argument between her sons Chiron and Demetrius over their desire for Lavinia — what advice does he offer them, and what is his purpose in advising them as he does?
9. In Act 2, Scene 3, how does Aaron’s stratagem play out? In what ways do Chiron, Demetrius, Tamora and Aaron heap injury upon injury on the Andronici in this scene? In particular, how does Tamora respond to Lavinia’s pleas to kill her instead of ravishing her?
10. In Act 2, Scene 4, characterize Marcus Andronicus’ response when he lights upon the ravished and mutilated Lavinia: what classical allusions come to him when he sees her in distress, and what use does he make of them? How does he connect the dreadful scene in front of him with what has so far occurred in the play, and what does he think it necessary to do?
11. In Act 3, Scene 1, Titus is confronted with two shocks: the impending execution of two sons, and the sight of his mutilated daughter Lavinia, brought to her by his brother Marcus. How does he understand Rome now? To what extent is the representation of Titus’ suffering at this point designed to elicit pity? What in the representation might be said to work against pity?
12. In Act 3, Scene 1, what deception does Aaron practice against Titus, and on what basis is he able to get away with it — that is, why, with respect to Titus’ outlook and sensibilities, is Aaron’s stratagem so successful? In addition, what does Aaron reveal about his motivation for behaving as he has so far in the play — what are his allegiances and desires?
13. In Act 3, Scene 2, the remaining Andronici in Rome gather for a banquet. What do Titus’ reactions and words reveal about his mindset at this point? Is he distracted, as Marcus thinks, or would his mental state be best described otherwise? What is discussed at the banquet, and what elements of the scene inject comedy into an unbearable situation?
14. In Act 4, Scene 1, by what means does Lavinia reveal what has been done to her? How does Ovid’s book The Metamorphoses figure in her successful implication of Chiron and Demetrius? What lesson does Titus himself derive from Lavinia’s tale, beyond the obvious one that Tamora’s sons are the guilty parties?
15. In Act 4, Scene 2, Titus has his message delivered to Chiron and Demetrius, and news arrives that Tamora has given birth to a child by Aaron. How does Aaron handle this dangerous situation? What new dimension of himself do his words and actions regarding this event and its significance reveal?
16. In Act 4, Scene 3, how does Titus advance his designs on the Emperor? To what extent, if at all (as asked in a previous question), does he appear to be unbalanced? What is the point of having his supporters shoot “messaged” arrows in the direction of Saturninus?
17. In Act 4, Scene 4, how do Saturninus and Tamora, respectively, react to Titus’ threatening gesture against them from the previous scene, in which he ordered message-laded arrows shot in the Emperor’s direction? What errors beset their thinking with regard to Titus’ mental state and motives?
18. In Act 5, Scene 1, Aaron is captured by Lucius’ army while trying to escape from Roman territory with his child. From lines 124-44, Aaron utters one of the purest declarations of villainy in English drama: what opposition do his words constitute against Roman ethics, or indeed any kind of morality at all?
19. In Act 5, Scene 2, Tamora and sons show up at Titus’ place dressed as Revenge, Murder, and Rapine. What does Tamora apparently think she is accomplishing by this performance? How does Titus fool them all, and what does he do to Chiron and Demetrius? How does he explain his course of action to them as he kills them?
20. In Act 5, Scene 3, Titus ends Lavinia’s suffering and feeds Tamora and Saturninus “Chiron and Demetrius pie.” First, how does Titus justify his killing of Lavinia? And with regard to the dinner scene, why, after all that has happened thus far and based on the Ovidian source from which Shakespeare has drawn, is this cannibalistic catastrophe the most appropriate one?
21. In Act 5, Scene 3, what punishment does Lucius (newly proclaimed emperor) decree for Aaron? Why is that punishment a suitable revenge for what Aaron has done? Also, to what extent does Lucius’ heaping of blame on Aaron for what has happened seem adequate as an explanation for the tragic events that have occurred? Explain.
22. General question: why are there so many references to body parts in this play that they begin calling attention to themselves as such? What theme is Shakespeare exploring — or what goal is he achieving — when he makes his characters refer so clumsily, and so frequently, to the body parts they or others have lost: tongues, hands, heads, etc.?
23. General question: is Titus Andronicus a straightforward revenge tragedy, a parody or send-up of revenge tragedy, or something in between? In other words, do you think the play is meant to be taken seriously as tragedy? Or do you find its chief value in the realm of jest, spectacle, and mockery? Explain.
24. General question: if you have seen Julie Taymor’s film Titus (2000), how does it explore the play’s conflicts between Romans, Goths, and Aaron the Moor? How might the film be said to enhance our understanding of the play? What does the “neo-fascist” setting (and perhaps other decisions Taymor makes) add to the text?
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake