Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
'Tis true, 'tis true; witness my knife's sharp point.
So, apparently Titus Andronicus is pretty much universally considered Shakespeare’s worst play. Even Harold Bloom, Bard booster extraordinaire, says the play can’t be taken seriously, and must be read as satire if anything at all is to be gotten from it at all; other critics attack its extreme—sometimes comically so—violence; still others point to the less than nuanced characters, none of which are really worth cheering for, as the play’s biggest weakness. And, I have to admit, on one level, it’s hard to disagree. Apart from Aaron, who’s certainly one of the most despicable villains in all of Shakespeare, most of the players are notable mainly for the gruesome ways in which they die. There are no “Alas, poor Yorick” moments, the poetry is spare, and the genuine emotion is thin—I felt revulsion more strongly than anything else while reading Titus Andronicus.
So, the story: Titus is returning from battle, bearing with him Tamora, Queen of the Goths and her sons, one of which he commands to be mutilated, in spite of Tamora’s pleas for mercy. This act of butchery sets off the whole play, most of which is taken up with Tamora’s revenge, which she plans with Aaron, her Moorish lover, and Titus’s response. You know the drill; it’s a Shakespearean tragedy—everyone dies, pretty much.
The thing is, while the criticisms of Titus Andronicus are basically true, they don’t make it a bad play. For Shakespeare, the man who gave us Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and scads of literature’s most famous characters, it’s definitely lower-tier. As an entertainment, though, it’s not bad. It’s grotesquely funny, fast-moving, and, as mentioned, Aaron is basically evil personified. It’s not going to change your life, but it’ll probably pass an afternoon, and, at the end (SPOILER) a mother’s sons are served to her in pies. Shakespeare knows pulp.