The play: Titus Andronicus
The plot tweet: Tragedy / gore fest: Characters are burned alive, dismembered, raped, beheaded, stabbed, and served in meat pies at dinner. Really, Will?
My favorite line: "Let my deeds be witness of my worth." (Aaron)
This is the first time I've read Titus, and I'm not sure how to respond to the play. I'm not alone; critics have struggled with this play for centuries, sometimes even trying to remove it from the Shakespeare canon. T.S. Eliot called it "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written."
Modern critics have sometimes attempted to justify the play, pointing to the "mastery of multiple entrances and exits" in the opening scene and the bizarre, dream-like way that characters' metaphors are fulfilled by the action. Critic Marjorie Garber, in Shakespeare After All, claims the play is "the radical -- the root -- of Shakespearean tragedy, the dreamscape or nightmare world laid out for all to see, not disguised by a retreat into metaphor." Despite these attempts to establish the play's merit, as editor Jonathan Bate writes in the introduction to the Arden edition, "nearly all scholars suppose that [Titus] is a very early work, a piece of crude and embarrassing juvenilia."
Harold Bloom reads the play a bit differently, claiming that it is a deliberate parody of Marlowe's work and should be played as a farce. In writing the play, Bloom says, Shakespeare exorcised the ghost of Marlowe and emerged from his competitor's shadow: "Titus Andronicus performed an essential function for Shakespeare, but cannot do very much for the rest of us."
As usual, I'm inclined to agree with dear Harold, but I have my doubts. I need to see the play performed -- perhaps both straight-up and as a farce -- before I decide. As critics have pointed out, this play comes across better in performance than in reading; Lavinia, for example, almost disappears for readers after she loses her tongue, but she remains a constant presence on the stage.
One thing I do like about this play is the scene-stealing Aaron the Moor. Like Iago, he is so deliciously, remorselessly, defiantly evil -- for no apparent reason other than that it gives him pleasure. In the midst of the play's stomach-churning violence, at least we have one character we can love to hate.