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What Are the Sources for Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus"?

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  • Written By: Rebecca Mecomber
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Images By: Georgios Kollidas, Lisby, Claudio Divizia
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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William Shakespeare wrote "Titus Andronicus" in 1593 at the height of the Elizabethan era. Political and financial stability after decades of unrest and war with Spain brought increased prosperity and leisure, and Englishmen and women thirsted for scintillating entertainment. "Titus Andronicus," one of Shakespeare's first works, satisfied that lust with some of the most grisly and ghoulish scenes in English tragedies. Despite the seemingly shocking and bloody content, this type of lurid drama was not completely unique. Shakespeare was most likely influenced by Greek and Roman historians writers and dramatists Euripides, Ovid, Seneca and Livy, and a few of his contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd.

The play is set in Italy in fifth century Rome. Andronicus is a fictional Roman general who defends Rome against multiple attacks from the barbaric Goths. Political intrigue as well as the ghastly deaths of his sons and brutal rape of his innocent daughter slowly turn the main character from sensibility to psychotic rage. The story depicts the character's decline in gory detail, painting the bloody story of the process of revenge. As with the Greek tragedies of old, Titus Andronicus dies at the end of the play.

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Shakespeare wrote "Titus Andronicus" a few decades after Seneca's writings had been translated into English. Seneca was a Greek philosopher and teacher to young Roman Emperor Nero, and he penned a variety of essays, satires and gruesome tragedies that became widely popular in Elizabethan England. Allusions to Seneca echo in the tapestry of revenge, later becoming a common thread in many of Shakespeare's plays. The works of Ovid are directly mentioned in "Titus Andronicus," when Lavinia refers to his work "Metamorphoses" to tell her father of her rape and mutiliation by the sons of the Goth queen. When Titus decides to kill his daughter after her rape, Shakespeare alludes to Livy's story of Virginia from his "Ab Urbe Condita."

Professors and thespians have been studying Shakespeare for centuries. He had great talent for retelling history and painting the dialogue with multifaceted allusions and aspersions to other words and works. Shakespeare never revealed his specific sources for "Titus Andronicus," but students of his work have discovered hints of Plutarch, Horace, Virgil, the Bible and others. The play is also influenced by the successful methods of his peers, as Shakespeare seems to echo the theme of revenge in Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy" and Marlowe's villians in "The Jew of Malta."

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