Literary Frolic Fridays: William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

book cover
Arden Shakespeare edition of Titus Andronicus prepared by Jonathan Bate

In 1585, Shakespeare’s family—consisting of his wife, Anne, and their two-year-old daughter, Susanna—grew to include newborn twins Hamnet and Judith.

Speculatively, finances were very much on Shakespeare’s mind, and Stratford-upon-Avon held only finite opportunities for an enterprising young dramatist. Compounding his dilemma was that soothing, feeding, changing, and washing crying babies left precious little time to write and earn money on which to live.  So, when Shakespeare relocated to London hoping to make a critical and lucrative splash, Titus was presumably in his trunk along with his doublets, breeches, pantaloons, and other early literary efforts.

At some point during the early 1590s, having by now established himself as an actor and playwright, Shakespeare looked Titus over, polished and punched-it-up, and made the rounds trying to sell it to an interested impresario. The Earl of Pembroke’s men thought it was peachy keen, bought it, and included it as part of their repertoire on their provincial tour. Later, when bankruptcy necessitated the liquidation of their assets, the company placed either Shakespeare’s manuscript, their own copy of it, or someone else’s copy of it up for sale. After their purchase of Pembroke’s Titus material, the Earl of Sussex’s Men gave what became the first definitively recorded performances of Titus Andronicus: January 24th, January 29th, and February 4th, 1594. When an outbreak of plague necessitated the closure of London’s theatres and taverns, thereby depriving the actors of their living, Sussex’s Men raised cash by selling the Titus material: their buyer was a printer of criminal antecedents named John Danter.

Danter specialized in unauthorized quartos of popular, contemporary literature based on copies of dubious accuracy and provenance. Aware of these illegal editions, officers of the Worshipful Company of Stationers & Newspaper Makers (aka Stationers’ Company) routinely raided his shop and even periodically confiscated his printing press, letters and paper. * Established by royal charter in 1557, the Stationers’ Company was a trade guild to which text writers, manuscript illuminators, booksellers, bookbinders and wholesalers of parchment, pens, quills, and ink belonged. Its members were invested by the crown with the authority to seek out, seize, and to destroy seditious and heretical texts and to clamp down on the printing of unregistered works.     

On February 6, 1594, Danter paid the required fee to register his edition of the play into the official Stationers’ Register, which he listed as A Noble History of Titus Andronicus. He printed a few Titus quartos which he then sold to bookseller Edward White. White, in turn, sold them to the general public as The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus as it was Played by the Right Honorable the Earle of Darby, Earle of Pembrooke, and the Earl of Sussex Their Servants. Shakespeare was not identified as the play’s author (in fact, no authorship was given). Danter’s quarto of Titus, as sold to the general public by White, marks the first time in history that a play by William Shakespeare had been published, and the second of his works overall, being preceded in print by Venus and Adonis.

 Before the end of April, 1597, while Danter was in the process of preparing an addition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Stationers’ Company ended his livelihood by wrecking his two printing presses: his letter blocks were seized and given to other printers.   

In 1600, White, desirous of printing another quarto of Titus, turned to printer James Roberts. Provided with a Danter quarto that had become damaged, torn, and incomplete, Roberts had to make good its deficiencies by guesswork and his own creativity. When, in 1611, a third quarto of Titus was printed, both that damaged surviving quarto by Danter and the one cobbled by Roberts were utilized.          

In 1624, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, Titus Andronicus was included among the 36 plays published within Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, aka the First Folio. This collection—the only source for 18 or 50% of those 36 plays—was the first anthology of the master’s output; it also provides lines and passages from the other, well known plays that otherwise would not have survived. The First Folio was prepared and published by John Heminge and Henry Condell. These two men were actors turned senior partners and administrators of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (known as the King’s Men after 1603 when King James I, shortly after his ascension, became their patron). Utilizing the third quarto of Titus for their edition’s general framework, Heminge and Condell removed any material they knew not to be or suspected was not by Shakespeare, added in scenes, act and scene divisions, and stage directions that did originate with Shakespeare or of which he had approved.

Not only were the two men Shakespeare’s colleagues, they were among his closest and most treasured friends. It was thought by Dr. Hughes that if they had, in any way, considered Titus to have been bogus, or would have thought that it, in any way, might have sullied their departed friend’s reputation, Titus Andronicus would never have been “folio-ized.”

Titus is alive in the Twentieth century

Petrus Johannes Krafft, a postal clerk in Malmö, Sweden, inherited a Danter first quarto of Titus from his father; it had been a family heirloom passed down through the generations.  In 1904, Krafft read about how an English Bible from 1613 had just been sold by London booksellers J. Pearson and Co. on Pall Mall Street for £210. The Bible—containing handwriting reputably by Shakespeare—was purchased by an agent of the renowned Shakespeare collector Henry Clay Folger, the president of the Standard Oil Company. Folger, who began his Shakespeare collection in 1889 with the purchase of a Fourth Folio, had only recently (1897) purchased, for £10,000, the Earl of Warwick’s Shakespeare collection from the library of Warwick Castle (a 15 minute drive from Stratford-Upon-Avon); collected by the earl between 1852 and 1870, the collection contained two First Folios and 21 quartos.  

Intrigued by the selling price of the Bible, Kraft became curious as to how much his Titus quarto might raise if placed on the open market. For guidance, Krafft struck up a correspondence with Evald Ljunggren, the Deputy Librarian of Sweden’s Lund University; ultimately, Ljunggren became Krafft’s agent, representative, and business advisor. While Ljunggren submitted articles to various Swedish newspapers justifying a four figure sale price for the quarto, a former colleague of his, Henrik Schück, the Vice chancellor of Uppsala University, submitted his own articles arguing the lunacy of any sale price exceeding £500.      Translated into English, both men’s articles (the equivalent of a virtual fist fight between the two men) were picked up by major British and American newspapers and caused considerable debate. In due course, Krafft received a telegram from none other than J. Pearson, inquiring if he would accept a sale price of £500; when no response was forthcoming, Pearson wrote again, raising his offer to £600. To make a long story short, Folger, who recognized the quarto’s monumental importance, authorized his agents to meet Krafft’s price—£2,000. Though it was a considerable sum, Folger, being a realist, had known full well that if the quarto had fallen into the hands of an auctioneer, it might well have reached a price in excess of £5,000. When Krafft became an international celebrity, his wife’s husband (against her vehement protestations) took both him and Ljunggren to court on the grounds that the Bible belonged jointly to Kraft and his sister, Frideborg. From the very beginning, Frideborg had maintained that the book had never, in any way, belonged to her, and that she respected her late father’s decision to bequeath the quarto to his only son. After a lengthy court battle, a verdict was rendered in Krafft’s favor, and, maintaining anonymity, he donated a considerable sum to Lund University for the “purchase theological literature from England and other Anglo-Saxon countries.” The only compensation which Ljunggren ever accepted from Krafft was the cost of postage expended mailing out letters and packages on Krafft’s behalf.

It’s Showtime for Titus!     

In 1955, Peter Brook produced, directed, designed (scenery and costumes), and composed the music for a production of Titus Andronicus at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 29 performances, Lord Olivier (Sir Laurence Olivier) starred as Titus, Lady Olivier (Vivien Leigh) as Lavinia, and Sir Anthony Quayle as Aaron. It had been Olivier’s debut at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre; not only did he perform as Titus during that season at the Memorial, but also as Macbeth and Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Brook made surgical cuts in the dialogue and left some of the play’s more grotesque acts of violence to the audience’s collective imagination. His decision not to spotlight the gore was intended to keep his audiences engaged, to render them incapable of distancing themselves from the violence transpiring onstage by holding it up to ridicule, to laugh away their fear of the experience. Nevertheless, each evening at least three members of the audience passed out and lost consciousness during the performance; one evening, a record was set when 20 people swooned. By and large, this successful production rehabilitated Titus Andronicus in the modern era to the point that it has been and is still being performed the world over, as far away as Japan (in 2006).

The First Folio version of Titus Andronicus can be read for free, online, at

Check out the following materials to learn more about Titus Andronicus or to host a book/film discussion of your own!