The Damaging Ruins of a Classical Aesthetic: Titus Andronicus as Critique of Neoclassical Kitsch

Titus Andronicus has often been rejected by critics for its unharmonious juxtaposition of classical references with wanton violence. This combination produced what historically has often been seen as an unstable work, a failure.[1] But if we regard everything in the work as so-placed for the purpose of conveying something very specific, Titus becomes a critique of neoclassicism’s pillaging of ancient texts for references without regard to their contextual meaning, or, if you like, for reference without reference.

From the start of the play, Titus is an assault on the senses far too hammy to be without sarcasm. “The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus” drips with the sort of mawkishness that might be meant seriously by a hack, but could only be sardonic from the pen of a wit the likes of Shakespeare. From the title onward, the play attacks the brand of over-sentimentality that we today might call kitsch.

Robert C. Solomon, in his article “On Kitsch and Sentimentality,” describes kitsch as “the sort of item that would and should embarrass someone with a proper aesthetic education.”[2] It is morally degenerate art that imitatively plunders the aesthetic of original art but in doing so rapes and defiles original meaning. In the twenty-first century, we are no strangers to kitsch. We find it in little souvenir replicas of the David statue brought home from a vacation in Italy, in the formulaic romances of pulp fiction and soap operas, the cut-away living rooms of situation comedies, the heroic language of political speeches, and even in an evening spent by the fireplace with a cup of cocoa. Kitsch, then, is not mere sentimentality, but empty sentimentality. It is the use of the ghosts of real art to evoke emotion from an audience. As the image presented by kitsch grows more distant from the original artwork (as with new imitations based not on the original but on the previous imitation), its ability to appeal to sentiment lessens.[3] Consequently, it becomes more and more exaggerated as it attempts to hold on to its power over the sentiment.

To understand Titus as a critique of kitsch, we must ask what art is being raped and plundered for imitation. We need not look far to find it: Lavinia stands at the center of the play as the bloodied remains of Greco-Roman art and the classical aesthetic.[4] As if the sight of armless Lavinia is not enough to suggest a ruined work of art, Marcus compares her to “a conduit with three issuing spouts,” that is, a fountain.[5] As Lavinia is a distorted imitation of Greco-Roman art (even an imitation of the armless remains of it), the original goal of the classical aesthetic is not discernable in the figure she cuts on stage. The suggestion is that art cannot be removed from its original context and retain its original meaning, nor can it be removed in full from its original context at all – there is always some loss of information. The danger in presenting the remains of classical art to a non-classical public is in the tendency to mistake these remains for the complete artwork. Lavinia embodies neither the beauty nor the meaning of Greek sculpture, and consequently she is, as a symbol, also deficient of the moral[6] of the art she imitates (that moral being undefined for us, as it is inaccessible without its original context). With the rape of Lavinia and the lopping off of her limbs and tongue, the play imitates the story of Philomela and Tereus.[7] Chiron and Demetrius, then, rape Lavinia as the author rapes Ovid for his plotline, so the meaning formerly embodied in each in its completeness is defiled, and whatever lesson or meaning was available through Ovid is not available in its empty imitation. The kitsch mocked by Titus, then, is the classical allusion.

Although the Neoclassical period in literature was not under way until 50-some-odd years after Shakespeare’s death,[8] the practice of littering texts with classical allusions was no rarity in Shakespeare’s time or in Renaissance literature in general. Consider the popularity of court masques, allusion-heavy entertainment pieces designed to flatter the monarchy and reinforce its legitimacy.[9] Recall Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, which appropriated and re-told pieces of the Aeneid. And let’s not forget Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which borrowed Aristotle’s pre-Christianity virtues and used them as a basis for Christian morality. All of these – and many others – were within Shakespeare’s realm of exposure and influence.

Titus Andronicus, strewn with references to classical literature, is intentionally absent classical ideals. The incongruence between its references and its non-existent aesthetic is far too extreme to be coincidental. Where an Aristotelian revenge tragedy would have escalated in violence until achieving catharsis, Titus grows increasingly violent only to conclude with Titus’s grandson, the beginning of a new generation, choking back tears and wishing he himself were dead.[10] There is no chorus to offer a moral and no expression of hope to give the audience the relief of thinking all the brutality and death in the play happened for a reason. While in Ovid’s story the wronged Philomela, once avenged, escapes further retaliation by being turned into a bird and flying away,[11] the final line of Titus Andronicus has Lucius saying of Tamora, “And being dead, let birds on her take pity!”[12] The author has transformed Ovid’s birds from a symbol of hope to a morbid reminder that in the wake of the play’s deaths there is only decay.

In implying that to remove art from its original context also removes its moral content, the author points a finger at all of literature. The lessons of Ovid, Horace, etc. are remote to the experience of Shakespeare’s characters, despite the characters’ familiarity with these authors’ works. Although Metamorphoses is meaningful for the play, it struggles to be meaningful to the characters. Marcus, upon finding Lavinia dismembered in the forest, immediately wonders whether she was raped, like Philomela, by “some Tereus.”[13] He remembers the story, considers the parallel, and then ignores its meaning altogether when he sees that Lavinia, unlike Philomela, has no hands with which to sew a tapestry naming her accusers.[14] As a kitsch replica removed from its original context, the story fails to reference its original meaning. After Titus and Marcus make the connection between Lavinia’s rape and the rape of Philomela, Shakespeare,[15] rather than avoiding imitation or choosing a new moral course, has them play the old story out to its end by serving up a human dish of revenge.[16] Instead of offering a lesson (for the characters), the inclusion of the literary past in Titus offers only grounds for repetition in the living present. The implication is that recycling what has already been set to rest in words breathes not life but death into a new written work.

But we must remember that Titus Andronicus was not intended as a written work. The nature of the play performed was, in Shakespeare’s time, that it was always in the present. Just as Ovid’s Philomela would to the Renaissance reader have been dusty text without a living image, Shakespeare’s Lavinia was a living image but without sound. Ripped from a classical context, the living, breathing Lavinia on stage still fails to communicate the classical ideal to the present. Instead, she communicates the sad knowledge that there is a permanent barrier between the past and present. Lavinia presents a figure too hideously alive and suffering to engage the sentiment on any reasonable level. In her grotesqueness, she is detached from the audience as much as Ovid is detached from her and the other characters in the play. From the time of her rape until the revelation of the names of her assailants, Lavinia is an incomprehensible text from which the other characters must “wrest an alphabet.”[17] Art that communicates nothing has no meaning, and in her visual onslaught upon sentimentality (too shocking to be answerable), Lavinia acts as the very definition of kitsch. She is Philomela rendered meaningless, a part with reference to no whole, a breaking down of the hermeneutic circle. Original meaning has been cut away first by her removal from the past to which her figure alludes, and further by the author with the cutting away of her limbs, an amputation which through its own perversity mocks the perversity of amputating the art of the past to fit it, as imitation (more favorably known as allusion or reference), into the art of the present.[18]

The aberration that is Lavinia’s image after her rape is so incongruent with reality that it is unintelligible. As a text that offers no possibility of intersubjectivity[19] between it and its reader, as a simply unreadable text, Lavinia’s image is incapable of eliciting any rational response. The results are Marcus’s disturbing, sexualized blazon when he finds Lavinia “lopped and hewed,”[20] and Titus’ almost comic treatment of his daughter’s condition, as he puns on “hands”[21] and suggests she “hold [her] stumps to heaven.”[22] Grotesque unreadability is forced upon the audience, as well, in the scene where Lavinia chases her young nephew around the stage.[23] The audience knows her reason, but is nonetheless forced to see a certain inappropriate comedy in armless Lavinia’s pursuit of her nephew.

If Titus is seen as sophisticated criticism of neoclassicism, Shakespeare appears to have been way ahead of his time in criticizing the literary and art worlds for looting history for artistic treasures but donning them as would a runway model the Holy Coat of Trèves – in either mockery or ignorance of any sacred value they may have. Had Titus Andronicus been consistently read since the nineteenth century as critique rather than the failure of a young, unseasoned playwright, perhaps we never would have seen the worst of High Modernism in the twentieth. One could argue that as allusion dropping heightened in twentieth century literature and poetry so did self-critique, but what about self-awareness prevents an empty symbol from being just that? An introspective kitsch is kitsch nonetheless. But while the tragedy and the characters are mostly lamentably kitsch, the play itself, in its critical perversity, seeks through its exaggeration to tear down the illusion of authenticity, and in this – I would argue – saves itself from the kitsch that it condemns. Still, regardless of whether one chooses to see Titus Andronicus as artful, it is clear that it can be seen as a guidepost leading away from an abyss of over-indulgent neoclassicism.

Cherie Braden


[1] William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), xxix-xxxi.

[2] Robert C. Solomon, “On Kitsch and Sentimentality,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49 (1991): 3.

[3] I’d like to make a distinction between kitsch replication of the crude outline of an art object, as with the example of the David statue, and mass reproduction of an art object. When art can be reproduced in its original form within the context of the culture in which it was created, as with digital photography, I would argue that this reproduction is a continuation of the art object and not an empty kitsch commoditization of it – so the labeling of an object as kitsch is a matter of contextual authenticity and not of accessibility (and need not be an elitist exclusion of mass culture from art).

[4] Although Titus was written long before the discovery of present-day icon armless statues Venus de Milo and Winged Victory, Classical-period sculptors could seldom afford to hew the appendages and heads of statues out of the same block as the body, so armless remains would have been the norm even in Shakespeare’s day. Rufus B. Richardson, A History of Greek Sculpture (London: American Book Company, 1911), 80.

[5] Titus, 2.4.31.

[6] I use the word “moral” very loosely. It is “meaning” but with the added connotation of “purpose.” Unfortunately, I could find no better word. To make matters worse, the purpose of a story’s meaning (the thing the meaning is for the sake of) is not the same animal in Greek and Renaissance literature, but let that illuminate the problem of removing a classical meaning from its original context: the intent changes.

[7] Grace S. West, “Going by the Book: Classical Allusions in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus,” Studies in Philology 79 (1982): 66.

[8] “Neo-Classical period.” Unabridged Hutchinson Encyclopedia. 2004. Research Machines plc 20 Oct. 2008 .

[9] “Oberon: by Ben Jonson,” Encyclopedia Encarta.

[10] Titus, 5.3.172-175.

[11] Ovid and E. J. Kenney, Metamorphoses, ed. A. D. Melville, Google Book Search, 142, 6.668-670.

[12] Titus, 5.3.200.

[13] Titus, 2.4.26.

[14] Gillian M. Kendall, “”Lend me thy Hand”: Metaphor and Mayhem in Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 303.

[15] I say Shakespeare for convenience’s sake, but really I mean whoever is the author of the play, because I have no opinion either way on the subject.

[16] Titus, 5.3.

[17] Titus, 3.2.44.

[18] In true Derridean fashion, this cutting away of meaning actually creates Lavinia’s meaning (her being a critique) within the play.

[19] “Intersubjective experience is empathic experience; it occurs in the course of our conscious attribution of intentional acts to other subjects, in the course of which we put ourselves into the other one’s shoes.” Christian Beyer, “Edmund Husserl,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Section 7.

[20] Titus, 2.4.17.

[21] Titus, 3.1.67-80.

[22] Titus, 3.2.42.

[23] Titus, 4.1.