Titus Andronicus is one of the least well-known and performed of Shakespeare’s plays. At least in contemporary times. Historically, Titus Andronicus was a favorite among theater owners because it was always a crowd please, what with the on-stage mutilation of characters. Titus Andronicus offers up a perfect opportunity for showing how costuming and set design can play a significant role in getting across certain thematic elements associated with this bloody revenge tragedy. Lavinia is often viewed in this play as a symbol of sacred chastity and the loss of virginity through a violent gang rape is seen as a threat to the continuity of the power structure. As such, one would quite normally expect Lavinia to be costumed in white to further underscore the signifying of her as the character of purity and virgin innocence. On the other hand, Tamora is a character often considered far more villainous than Lady Macbeth; it is her sons who are responsible for the rape of Lavinia and Tamora is hardly a prize herself. How interesting, therefore, would it be to costume Tamora in a white robe and Lavinia in a red robe.
To do so undermines the obvious symbolism of those two colors that audiences have been conditioned to expect. The unexpected reversal of the colors these two women wear would be a way to enhance the idea that Lavinia has been violated and stripped of her innocence, essentially at the hands of Tamora in figurative if not literal terms. The red robe of Lavinia can also imply the violence that is enacted upon her and, further, act to foreshadow the voluminous amount of blood that will be spilled throughout the play as Titus wreaks vengeance on her despoilers. By contract, the whiteness of Tamora’s robe acts as an ironic counterpoint to the idea that this wantonly sexual woman is the symbolic possessor of Lavinia’s lost virginity. The choice also works to confirm that critical idea that though Tamora is hardly admirable, she is still inarguably a loyal and committed mother to her sons, cretins that they are. In fact, it may even mean more for Tamora to be a loving mother figure to such hideous offspring.
Titus Andronicus also affords a theater director the opportunity to take advantage of setting. The choice of setting in the scene in which Lavinia-who has had her tongue and hands cut off following her rape-finally is able to identify those responsible is incredibly important. This scene highlights the idea expressed throughout Titus Andronicus that words and weapons are interchangeable. It is the words of Lavinia toward Tamora that ignite the desire of the men to rape Lavinia and the idea of cutting out her tongue and removing her hands is to keep her from providing the information on who raped her. In other words, she can’t speak the names of her attackers nor can she write them. This sets up the idea that words can be used as weapons by indicating the victims of her attackers.
The choice of set design here should ideally be a room in the house decorated with both books and weaponry: a library. Traditionally, of course, one expects the most dangerous weapon to be the sword, but it is the words of a book that Lavinia uses to cause the most damage to her oppressors. The idea is that power is nothing without knowledge. Titus all along has possessed the weaponry to enact revenge upon those who have violated his daughter, but he didn’t have the knowledge of who those people were. Setting the scene in a library also acts to set up the inversion of the idea of words as weapons that will be revealed later. The scene of Lavinia’s revelation of her torturers should be exploited for the possibility it presents as an ironic foreshadowing of the fact that Titus Andronicus will deliver to Lavinia’s attackers the gift of weapons that are actually intended to be read as messages, thereby strengthening the connection that is made between words and weaponry. The presentation of this scene within the seemingly safe domestic confines of a house, involving a young student and engaging a classical text to ignite the rage of Titus is fraught with thematic potential and offers a terrific opportunity for counterpointing the bloody violence that permeates the play.