What do we learn about Titus Andronicus in the opening to Shakespeare’s play? Our first introduction to the character of Titus Andronicus is by way of a speech my his son, Marcus, who represents the voice of the common people in the election campaign for emperory, declaring that Titus Andronicus has been chosen by the people of Rome to be the next emperor. He hails Titus as a hero, saying that there is not a nobler or braver warrior to be found within all of Rome.
He is obviously held in great esteem by Marcus, who calls him ‘good Andronicus’, and ‘Renowned’ Titus. These descriptions of him using the positive epithets are powerful yet very simple to understand. He is portrayed in a very positive light, and is well respected within Rome for his many years of military campaigns against the enemies of Rome. He returns a hero, with a claim to the title of emperor. However, his successes have not come without great person losses, as we learn he has buried many of his sons on return from his various military causes.
The first insight we see into his character is one of cruelty and vengefulness, when he rejects Tamora’s pleas to spare her first-born son and is the perpetrator of extreme violence, sacrificing him in revenge for the deaths of his sons at the hands of the Goth’s, her people. This view of Titus as a merciless killer starkly contradicts what we had learned about him from Marcus, who led us to expect Titus to be honourable and good and sets the tone for the play as dark and brutal. The sudden violence is a shock, and we see that there are two sides to his character: the much loved hero and the ruthless warrior.
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Titus has fought for Rome for 40 years, so is quite old by Roman standards and though he has been chosen by the people to be their emperor, he feels that he is not suitable to rule: “A better head her glorious body fits, than his that shakes for age and feebleness. ” Here he is saying that he feels he is no fit to rule an empire as glorious as the Roman Empire, and relinquishes he claim to rule. This humbleness of character is a huge contrast from the violent nature we saw him display when he demanded the death of Alarbus.
He asks for a ‘staff of honour’ instead of a ‘sceptre to control the world’ and favours Saturnine to be emperor in his place, as he is the late emperor’s eldest son, showing that he values tradition over the far more virtuous character or Bassianus. He then shows loyalty to the unlikeable Saturninus over his own son, mercilessly killing him when he stands in his way. This second brutal act because of his slavish loyalty to Rome provokes even the violent Goths to declare that they are not ‘half so barbarous’ as Rome.
The ‘honourable’ Titus that we were first introduced to actually shows contempt for honour in trying to force his daughter to break her betrothal, and his wild devotion to Roman customs causes more harm than good, especially to him; he quickly goes from being the favourite of Rome to being despised by Saturnine because of the betrayal of his family. His actions seem chaotic and random, yet follow the ongoing theme of revenge, making ‘Titus Andronicus’ a revenge tragedy.
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