Titus Andronicus

For some reason, I know a lot of people who don’t like this play.  I am still good friends with these people, despite my persistent belief that Titus Andronicus is awesome.

In fact, it’s awesome enough to also be the name of a punk rock band who did a concept album about the Civil War. So there.

Titus is a proud soldier of Rome, but fortune changes violently and by Act IV his son Lucius has rallied an army of Goths, “Who threats, in course of this revenge, to do As much as Coriolanus ever did.”  It’s interesting to see the parallels in how Shakespeare portrays Roman society between Titus and Coriolanus, since they also represent such radically different times in Shakespeare’s career.  In both plays, we see a decorated general betrayed by his own countrymen, turning to the idea that “Rome is but a wilderness of Tigers,” and getting killed in pursuit of vengeance.  Both men are undone by pride, and the lower class Romans rabble in the periphery of the polical maneuvering in both plays, but this play obviously shares the darker, grittier qualities of the early works like the Henry VI cycle and Richard III.  Though the structure of his later plays become more complex, Shakespeare also becomes more hopeful for humanity as he matures.  Later plays manage to avoid the tragedy that meets early characters head on.  Titus simply suffers more for his hubris than Coriolanus does, and so the tragedy is greater.  It is also interesting to note the balance in masculinity between the plays: Coriolanus has a powerful mother figure that has visible influence over how he became the strong man that he is, whereas the Andronicus family has a startling lack of female presence.  For Titus, his brother Marcus, four sons and a grandson, there is only Titus’ daughter Lavinia to represent the feminine in the Andronicus family.  She is actually a very strong character, when you realize that she survives five acts of horrifying punishment that would kill most men.  But she occupies a pathetic position in the family’s heirarchy.  The mantle of single-minded she-wolf matriarch in this play belongs to Tamora, Titus’ prisoner at the beginning of the play and former Queen of the Goths.

No, not that type of Goth.  (Though they would probably enjoy this play, too) 

As the main antagonist of the play, Tamora is either directly or indirectly responsible for some of the most grotesque spectacle in all of Shakespeare.  Her sons Chiron and Demetrius are savage and unsympathetic villains.  Her lover, Aaron the Moor, is brought along as a prisoner of war as well, and in my opinion he’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains ever.  However, in order to make the scale of their evil palatable to an audience, you have to accept the absurd nature of the events.  There is a style of theatre called Grande Guignol – French for literally “Grand Puppet Theatre” – that embraces absurd and violent spectacle, and is the style I see this play performing best in.

It’s pretty damn cool.

To make this play legitimately disturbing, and not ridiculous, I think it’s the proper style.  After all, Aaron encourages Chiron and Demetrius to rape Titus’ daughter, and Tamora implores them to“use her as you will; The worse to her, the better loved of me.”  So Lavinia is gangraped offstage, and she returns with her hands cut off and her tongue removed.  Also her husband is murdered and two of her brothers are framed for the crime.  The brothers are executed, and Titus is tricked into cutting off his hand as worthless ransom for their lives.  A Messenger returns with the head of Titus’ sons along with the hand he cut off to try and save them.  When Titus tells his daughter “Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth -“ it should be pathetic and disturbing, not strangely hilarious.  It’s natural to laugh at how absurdly horrible the world can be – even Titus does that – but the audience should believe the horrid nature of these events, not dismiss them as preposterous.  It reminds me of the Rolling Stone Kill Team article – it exists in such an absurdly horrific world, it’s honestly easier to dismiss it as ridiculous.  To do Titus properly, you have to weigh it as truly horrific, and force the audience to acknowledget the horror of it.  It is also worth noting that this is the first time Shakespeare sets any of his plays outside of England.  And setting your play in Italy was the closest you could get to science fiction in Elizabethan times.

In Italy, nobody can hear you scream.  

By making certain aspects of the setting more foreign, you are able to heighten the audience’s identification with the characters.  Their humanity becomes more important as the scenarios become stranger.  Also, by distancing audience from the issues being examined, they can honestly explore it more easily.  Shakespeare does it in his Histories as well, and those do enjoy emotional distance from his intended audience, but a fictionalized Rome is a lovely battleground for religion and rape.  Right off the bat, for example, in the very first scene of the play we see Tamora cry out “O cruel, irreligious piety” as her eldest son is taken to ritual sacrifice to appease the ghosts of the Andronici’s ancestors.  Seeing this stage, you can’t help but feel pity for these prisoners of war, and you start to question the rightness of your supposed hero.  Because Titus practices a widely different religion from the audience, he can elicit a criticism of blindly following religious dogma.  When Titus kills his son Mutius, you not only realize how conservatively bound he is to the idea of honor, but it severely distances the audience from their hero.  What is structurally wonderful about this play is that you suddenly turn your sympathy against Tamora and her brood while returning it to Titus, even though his own cruelty incited the evil people that conspire against him.

Aaron, however, is a bit of a different story.  Like Richard III or Iago, he relishes in his villainy, and addresses the audience directly with his plans.  While Tamora’s sons are little more than immoral monsters, Aaron plays with us, and openly reveals his loves and hates to us.  He is in love with Tamora, although she becomes married to the Roman Emperor Saturninus.  When Tamora gives birth to a new child, the color of its skin betrays thr affair – but Aaron declares “He dies upon my scimitar’s sharp point That touches my firstborn son and heir!”  He is a despicable man, took an active part in the conspiracy to destroy the Andronici, and yet his relationship with his son is one of the most beautiful and tender in Shakespeare.  He will stop at nothing to protect that infant, even if the other characters regard it as “a devil.”

All the creepy circumstances do not matter, he will love and care for that devil baby.

Later, Aaron is discovered in the countryside by Lucius’ army, when one of the soldiers overhears the Moor talking to his baby: “Did not thy hue bewray whose brat thou art, Had nature lent thee but thy mother’s look, Villain, thou mightst have been an emperor.”  So we have Shakespeare again questioning nature versus nurture’s role on a person’s development, and even with his play’s villain he questions the signifigance of skin color in determining a person’s worth.  For the 16th century, that’s pretty crazy.  It’s ultimately a mystery as to what happens with the infant.  Aaron pleads for his child’s life when he is captured, and reveals everything to Lucius in exchange for the general’s oath to preserve the baby.  In addition to the evil he has committed in service of the plot, he also reveals “Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves, And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors Even when their sorrows almost was forgot; And on their skins, as on the barks of trees, Have with my knife carved in Roman letters ‘Let not your sorrows die, though I am dead.’ Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things As willingly as one would kill a fly.”  For these obscene offenses.  Aaron is sentanced to be buried in the ground up to his torso and starved to death at the end of the play, but nothing is announced for the fate of the baby, or even foreshadowed about how it will grow up.

My money is on a supernatural serial killer of some kind.

It’s a disturbing play, for sure. It’s certainly full of action that can entertain a modern audience, but deeper than that I think it’s a story worth exploring.  First, it’s important to have complex characters on the stage.  Tamora is in league with legitimately evil people, but in a way you can sympathize with her motives for revenge.  Aaron is detestable, but he is also capable of the most innocent form of love.  Titus exemplifies the dutiful citizen of any society, he is a pious man, but nevertheless he commits evil acts, as well.  It is full of fantastic characters, it’s even structured in a normal and effective way – the only criticism I can understand about it is the gratuitous violence, but even then it serves the story.

And no pretending that it’s an attempt to represent how actual Roman society was.

Speaking of Roman society, next week is Julius Ceasar.

But before I leave, I want to end with a quote from Tamora, during her stupid plan to manipulate Titus’ piety by pretending to be the god Revenge.  Honestly, this is about as foolish as showing up on [name of whatever religious politician is in the news this week]’s doorstep and pretending to be Jesus, no matter how crazy you think your target is.  That sort of plotting works in a comedy, but this is a tragedy, and it gets her remaining sons killed and cooked into a meat pie that she later eats.  But we all make mistakes.  In any case, as Revenge, she says something really cool.  In fact, if I ever become a crime-fighting vigilante, I will quote it all the damn time: “There’s not a hollow cave or lurking-place, No vast obscurity or misty vale, Where bloody murder or detested rape Can couch for fear, but I will find them out; And in their ears tell them my dreadful name.”


Oh, yeah, and Happy Easter.

3 Responses to “Titus Andronicus”
  1. laurennicoele. C: says:

    woah. <33

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