Titus Andronicus and the Interpretive Violence of the Reformation

Abstract

This essay contends that Reformation Biblical hermeneutics offer a vital way to understand the relationship between three of Titus Andronicus’s most infamous features: its insistent use of classical texts; its figurative-literal play; and its grotesque violence. In Titus, classical texts offer an oblique way to stage dangerous questions of Biblical interpretation and to dramatize the interpretive violence of the Reformation. As the characters recreate classical narratives through rape, murder, and dismemberment, the play’s factions relate to their shared texts in a manner both allegorizing and literalizing, thereby emphasizing the Reformation’s deadly slippage between hermeneutic methods. This literal-figurative tension likewise manifests as violence when characters literalize conventional synecdoches of the body with severed heads and hands that become the locus of macabre punning and misinterpretation. The play’s violence and meta-interpretive foci culminate in Tamora’s allegorical performance as Revenge and Titus’s bloody feast upon her sons, which stage the Eucharistic controversy and its underlying hermeneutic basis as murder and cannibalism. Thus, Titus holds a mirror to the most grotesque aspects of the Reformation hermeneutic culture that shaped it.