by Dennis Abrams
Act One: The Emperor of Rome is dead, and his sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, vie to succeed him. A third candidate, Titus Andronicus, is nominated as the people’s choice, but must bury those sons who have died fighting the Goths. As part of the funeral rites, the son of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is sacrificed – despite his mother’s pleas. Titus then rejects the crown in favor of Saturninus, who in return offers to marry Titus’s daughter, Lavinia. But Lavinia is already betrothed to Bassianus, and – with the help of Titus’s surviving sons – the couple escape. Titus is outraged, and kills his son Mutius who attempts to defend them. Saturninus in turn denounces the Adronici family and decides to marry Tamora instead. Tamora appears to reconcile the quarreling parties, but secretly plans to wipe out the Andronici with Saturninus.
Simply reading a synopsis of Act One can make one understand the bad reviews the play received throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and even into the twentieth centuries. T.S. Eliot, for example, said of Titus that it was “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays every written,” complaining about “a wantonness, an irrelevance about the crimes.” Some four hundred years earlier, a French tutor named Jacques Petit, who had witnessed a private performance, noted in his diary that “the spectacle had more value than the theme.” Edward Ravenscroft, whose own version of the Titus story replaced Shakespeare’s on the Restoration stage, condemned it as “a most incorrect and undigested piece…rather a piece of Rubbish than a Structure.”
Samuel Johnson questioned whether it was even possible to stage the play, pointing out that “the barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience. August Wilhelm Schlegel wrote that the play was “framed according to a false idea of the tragic, which by an accumulation of cruelties and enormities, denigrated into the horrible and yet leaves no deep impression behind.” John Dover Wilson wrote that the play “seems to jolt and bump along like some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells.” Noted Bardolator Harold Bloom said, “Though there is a nasty power evident throughout the text, I can concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus.” And finally, Woody Allen said in Side Effects that “Even the works of the great Shakespeare will disappear when the universe burns out – not such a terrible thought, of course, when it comes to a play like Titus Andronicus.
And yet…since the mid-20th century, the critical reputation of Titus Andronicus has continued to climb. Jan Kott, speaking of the play’s apparently gratuitous violence argued that,
Titus Andronicus is by no means the most brutal of Shakespeare’s plays. More
people die in Richard III. King Lear is a much more cruel play. In the whole
Shakespearean repertory I can find no scene so revolting as Cordelia’s death.
In reading, the cruelties of Titus can seem ridiculous. But I have seen it on stage
and found it a moving experience. Why? In watching Titus Andronicus we
come to understand – perhaps more than by looking at any other Shakespeare
play – the nature of genius: he gave an inner awareness to passions; cruelty
ceased to be merely physical. Shakespeare discovered the moral hell. He
discovered heaven as well. But he remained on earth.
In his introduction to the 1987 edition for the Contemporary Shakespeare series, A.L. Rose make what I think is a very astute guess as to why the play’s reputation began to grow during the twentieth century: “in the civilized Victorian age the play could not be performed because it could not be believed. Such is the horror of our own age, with the appalling barbarities of prison camps and resistance movements paralleling the torture and mutilation and feeding on human flesh of the play, that it has ceased to be improbable.” (Or, once again, Shakespeare was ahead of us…)
Director Julie Taymor, who directed the play off-Broadway and directed a very fine film version in 1999 said she was drawn to the play because she found it to be the most “relevant of Shakespeare’s plays for the modern era…it seems like a play written for today, it reeks of now.” Jonathan Forman, reviewing Taymor’s film version argued that “it is the Shakespeare play of our time, a work of art that speaks directly to the age of Rwanda and Bosnia.”
But what exactly was Shakespeare attempting to do in Titus?
Bloom: “Both performances of Titus Andronicus that I have attended – one in New York, one in London – had similar effects upon their audiences, who never knew when to be horrified and when to laugh, rather uneasily. The young Shakespeare…perhaps rebelled against [Christopher] Marlowe’s still overwhelming influence by attempting a parody of Marlowe, and a kind of shock therapy for himself and his public…The young Shakespeare delighted himself, and his contemporary audiences, by both mocking and exploiting Marlowe in Titus Andronicus. ‘If they want bombast and gore, then they shall have it!’ seems the inner impulse that activates this bloodbath, the Shakespearean equivalent of what we now respond to in Stephen King and in much cinema. I would hesitate to assert that is one good line in the play that is straight, everything zestful and memorable is a send-up. That judgment would now be disputed by many scholars, whose responses to Titus Andronicus rather baffle me. Thus Frank Kermode rejects the suggestion that the play is burlesque, though he concedes that ‘farcical possibilities’ are invoked. Jonathan Bate, whose edition of the text is the most elaborate and useful, attempts an aesthetic defense of the indefensible, one that might have startled Shakespeare himself. [I’ll have more on Bate’s defense in another post.]
The Elizabethan audience was at least as bloodthirsty as the groundlings who throng our cinemas and gawk at our television sets, so the play was wildly popular and it did well for Shakespeare, a success he may have accepted with considerable irony.”
On the other hand, Camille Paglia, argues that Titus was Shakespeare’s attempt not to overthrow the influence of Marlowe, but Edmund Spencer, whose initial impact on English literature was in the 1590s, just when Shakespeare was developing his own style.
“I see Titus Andronicus, long thought Shakespeare’s weakest play, as a devastating parody of Spencer. It has usually been misread (though not by A.C. Hamilton) as slipshod bad taste. But this Roman drama of rape and mutilation turns the Spenserian rape cycle [seen in his poetry, most notably in his masterpiece The Faerie Queen] into slapstick comedy. It’s hilariously, intentionally funny. The ravished Lavinia doggedly persists in waving her ‘stumps’ about like a windmill. Like Wilde’s Apollonian The Importance of Being Earnest, Titus Andronicus should be played by romping drag queens, so that its outrageous mannerisms clearly emerge.”
Or is it, as Charney points out, “necessary to remind ourselves how strong, passionate and eloquent the play is and how clearly it prepares for later tragedies, especially King Lear?” Or…is Garber correct when she writes, “Titus Andronicus is so often undervalued or misunderstood [and] regarded as a Shakespearean step child rather than a legitimate heir. Even those critics who celebrate the play – and there have been many, especially in recent years – often applaud its exceptionalism in the canon. But to look closely at the play is to see not only Shakespeare in the raw, or Shakespeare in the rough, but Shakespeare very much in command of both his theater and his plot?”
Let’s begin our analysis of the play itself with Tony Tanner, who looks at it as the first of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, and who, as we continue along our way through Shakespeare’s canon, will help to explain why the history of Rome was so important to the Elizabethans, and why this play is, to his mind, “tragical-historical.”
“Rome, Roman, Romans – the name of the imperial city echoes and reechoes throughout the long opening scene (in varying forms, it occurs at least sixty times by my count). The play is certainly ‘The most Lamentable Romaine Tragedy of Titus Andronicus’, as the quarto has it, but it is also, and inextricably, a play about Rome itself. More will emerge concerning the Elizabethan preoccupation with Rome [Shakespeare set six plays in Rome], but at this point it will be helpful to have an authoritative statement from T.J.B. Spencer, who made a special study of the Roman plays.
Roman history was used as the material for political lessons, because it was
one of the few bodies of consistent and continuous historical material
available. English national history, in spite of patriotic sentiment, was
much more limited in scope and interest, and the historians were not nearly
so good as the ancient Latin writers…When Shakespeare turned…to Roman
history…he was touching upon grave and provocative problems of political
morality…Rome loomed much larger in the history of the world than it does
to modern historians and writers, and the Roman Empire was much more
important than the Roman Republic. The potentates elected as heads of the
Holy Roman Empire were still numbered from Julius Caesar by Shakespeare’s
contemporaries. There were very few republics in sixteenth-century Europe,
but there were plenty of aspiring roman emperors, and it was therefore from
the history of the growth of monarchial role in Rome (the political events
which allowed the rise and led to the fall of Julius Caesar and the conflict
between Octavian and Mark Antony) that the most useful and relevant
lessons could be learned.
(Shakespeare: The Roman Plays, p. 9)
The Rome of the opening scene displays all the panoply and adjuncts of a proud, imperial city. In the first speech we hear of ‘noble patricians, ‘the justice of my cause,’ ‘the imperial diadem,’ ‘my father’s honors.’ We hear of ‘the gods of Rome,’ there are vows to heaven, priests with holy water, sacrificial rites, sacred monuments to the dead. There is a triumphal entry of the returning victorious general (Titus) along with his prisoners and spoils. We seem to be witnessing the confident ceremonies of the – very patriarchal – power of invincible Rome. But the scene starts with ferocious dispute about the imperial succession [MY NOTE: And with an unmarried Queen Elizabeth on the throne, worries about succession loomed large to the Elizabethans] and moves on to a brutal human sacrifice. This is followed by a disastrous mistake when Titus rejects election as Emperor and, being a believer in hereditary monarchy, bestows the title on the manifestly unscrupulous and ignoble Saturninus. Worse is to come when Titus kills one of his own sons who is courageously, and correctly, defending the rights of his sister; then the new Emperor Saturninus impulsively – and one infers lustfully – marries the captive Gothic Queen, Tamora. It was her son whom Titus had sacrificed, so when she murmurs in the article to her new husband – ‘I’ll find a day to massacre them all’ (I, i, 451) – meaning Titus and his family – it is clear that there is trouble ahead. Almost her last words in this scene are
Titus, I am incorporate in Rome,
A Roman now adopted happily…
The Goth, the vengeful woman, is now ‘incorporate in patriarchal Rome. Whatever condition the ‘body’ of the state of Rome was in – and despite the litany of ‘just’, ‘noble’, ‘virtue’, etc., it seems far from stable – that body is now going to be threatened from within by an alien, savage, female agent.
‘Kind Rome’ says Titus at one point. But this Rome is visibly far from ‘kind.’ The matter of the human sacrifice is particularly pertinent here:
Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh…
Rome was a singularly brutal state, but it did not practice human sacrifice. Spencer makes the point that, although Shakespeare’s depiction of Rome can be rather confused (at times it seems to be ‘a free commonwealth, with the characteristic mixture of patrician and plebeian institutions’), he does seem to be trying to get Roman history ‘right.’ But then he deliberately inserts this archaic barbarity. As the ‘barbarian’ Goths note – ‘Was never Scythia half so barbarous.’ It is as if, from the very beginning, Shakespeare wants to suggest that the conventional opposition of Rome-Barbarian simply will not hold. And we may note the words of Tamora, mother of the sacrificed Goth, as she pleads that her son be spared:
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not they tomb with blood.
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful,
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.
We may recall when Portia says of mercy in The Merchant of Venice – ‘it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown’ – and feel that from every conceivable perspective Tamora is, here, humanly in the right of it. And Titus is in the wrong. Tamora’s comment, as the sacrifice is taking place – ‘O cruel, irreligious piety!’ – inevitably becomes a comment on all the ‘pieties’ which noble, just, kind Rome regards as the distinguishing mark of its civilized state.
Titus is surely as equally in the wrong when he stabs his son Mutius who is honourably defending his sister Lavinia. As his brother Marcus – one of the few wise and temperate figures in the play – says to Titus, he has “in a bad quarrel slain a virtuous son.’ The insensate rage of Titus at this point, his fury at any sign of filial insubordination, his willingness to destroy his own child, have suggested to a number of critics, rightly I think, that we can already detect here the early signs of King Lear – a proleptic similarity enhanced when, as he is buffeted with grief after grief and atrocity after atrocity, it seems he must go mad (‘my heart all mad with misery’, ‘no man should be mad but I’). Like Lear, in this opening scene, Titus gets everything – the succession, the sacrifice, the treatment of his children – terribly, and as it will prove disastrously, wrong. (It might be added that some have also seen adumbrations of the figure of Othello in Titus – the great soldier living by a naïve, martial code, who proves to be hopelessly vulnerable to the machinations of evil plotters when he moves from the battlefield to the city. In fact, in his courage, almost maniacal bravery, stubbornness, hardness, intemperate anger, and – yes – stupidity, the old warrior, an almost archaic pre-political figure, looks straight forward to Shakespeare’s last Roman tragic hero, Coriolanus – whose desire to be revenged on Rome is referred to in this play – IV, ix, 69).
Titus kills his son because he claims that he has ‘dishonored all our family.’ When his other sons plead that, since Mutius ‘died in honor,’ he should be allowed a place in the family tomb, Titus most grudgingly allows it, but comments, ‘To be dishonored by my sons in Rome!’ When the decent Bassianus attempts to defend Titus to the evil Saturninus, Titus stops him:
leave to plead my deeds;
‘Tis thou and those that have dishonored me.
Rome and the righteous heavens be my judge,
How I have loved and honored Saturnine!
Saturninus, hypocritically pretending he has been robbed of Lavinia, has the gall to protest to Tamora:
What, madam! Be dishonored openly,
And basely put it up without revenge?
These Romans are everywhere and continuously invoking ‘honor’ (the word occurs at least seventeen times), not least when they are committing some cruel and ruthless deed. Contrariwise, any attempt at a decent or just deed is said by one man or other to ‘dishonor’ him. Clearly something has gone hopelessly wrong with the very concept of ‘honor’; not only has it been devalued and emptied out of any positive value or meaning – it has been perverted, indeed at times inverted. It will not be long before Falstaff is famously asking ‘what is this honor?’ and we will be hearing much about ‘honor’ in later plays by Shakespeare. But, from the start, Roman honour is made to seem a twisted, deviant thing.”
How is the reading going for all of you? How are you seeing the play? Tragedy? Comedy? Somewhere in between?
The Weekend’s Reading:
Titus Andronicus, Act 2
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.