Sunday, June 27, 2010

Discussion: Titus Andronicus

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.


  1. I read the play and then re-watched Julie Taymor's epic film with Anthony Hopkins. My dvd set has a disc with interviews of Taymor and the cast, etc. and it is well worth watching. She describes Aaron as approaching his villainy with an "art", which I believe is what makes us want to play him and not so much the other characters.

    Marcus is especially human and likable in Taymor's version, as is Lucius. Hopkins is brilliant both onstage and off and Saturninus is a wonderful brat.

    Vincent Price's THEATRE OF BLOOD is a delightful bit of gore as well and includes a scene from TITUS. Price plays a bad Shakespearean actor who fakes his death and then revenges his bad reviews by staging gorey deaths for the critics who panned him, each death re-enacting a terrible scene from the play the critic panned him. The TITUS one is delightful, the guy in the pink suit is the critic and his two poodles serve as his "sons":

  2. That sounds hilarious, Diane. Thanks for the tip!

  3. I enjoyed this play. I think it is on a much baser level than many scholars like to admit they have. It took me some time to get into it, and having acted in a part in a dinner-theatre mystery, where I was constantly on stage but had at most, 5 lines per act as a bridesmaid, I was quite aware of Livinia's character and wondered about what gestures she was making to get herself understood by those around her. But as I did get into it and begin to understand the plot better, I found it a good light read for a tragedy. I think the play is awesomely a classic about revenge, and while I do not recall at this moment other plays I've read that were similar, I know I have read some-probably Italian renaissance literature. It felt classic, and I actually found myself, unsurprised by the revenge, and in some cases rooting for it. When you're going through a personal hell, often you want to return that hell to the one you perceive causing it. These characters simply did. I will admit though, if Aaron were not in the play, we might not have had a play at all. But he made a great villian, with some comedy.

  4. I'm always amazed by Garber's insights (thinking often that's why she's a professor of literature and I'm not) but Bloom makes a good point too. We know about the negative reaction to Shakespeare by some of the elite (the upstart crow comment) but he must have pushed back too. But it is true that you can see so much that become the best of Shakespeare foreshadowed: Iago, all the many revenge theme, father-daughter relationships. Perhaps one could conjecture that he found it easier to write comedies at first, and it took time to find his voice for tragedies.

  5. Tom, I'm glad you mentioned the negative reaction to Shakespeare by the elite. I always think that's the reason some people today claim Shakespeare didn't actually write his plays; I've heard him described in those arguments as a "petty bourgeois from the country." The line of reasoning seems to be that someone who didn't study at Oxford or Cambridge couldn't possibly produce works of genius! Perhaps you're right that Shakespeare experienced that same kind of prejudice in his own time.

  6. I read this as tragicomedy. The gore is ludicrous, the tragedy all too real. One moment I was horrified at what happened to Lavinia, the next I was laughing (no joke) at her attempts to write.

    Aaron was very interesting--I recall feeling his motivations stemmed entirely from a love he was rudely denied. And Tamora's plea for her sons' lives made me sympathetic towards the captured all throughout, despite the gruesome ways they (and the rest of the cast) took out their anger (or rather fury :-)

  7. A couple more comments:

    Isn't it interesting how Aaron (in addition to having the great lines) is humanized by his love for his son? Shakespeare didn't make him a total villain, but a somewhat "round" character (the best in the play, imho). We know that Titus, the supposed hero, is willing to kill his children; the villain, Aaron, does not and gets our sympathy.

    Although Shakespeare went on to write greater things, "Titus Andronicus" was apparently wildly popular in Elizabethan times. S. Clarke Hulse has said that it is a play with "14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity and 1 of cannibalism--an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines." Now, that's entertainment!

  8. Good point about Aaron. Apparently there is honor among thieves -- you can orchestra the killings of other people, but certainly not your own child!

  9. I agree with Bloom that Titus is a parody, although the young John Webster probably liked it quite a bit!

  10. I saw the Julie Taymor film when it came out, without having read the play until now. Over the years the thing that stuck with me from the film was the violence and gore.
    But reading it I really did find it more subtle than that. One the one hand the noble Roman general with whom we expect to sympathize. On the other the manipulative, scheming Tamora, her sons and Aaron. Ultimately both sides exact full revenge for their injuries - and they're all dead. It struck me this time as a powerful display of how the desperate thirst for revenge at all costs thoroughly corrupts both the seemingly good and bad equally.
    It is admittedly over the top - but as it progressed it felt to me that almost every act of violence served a purpose in moving the plot forward.