Long time, no Shakespeare!
I’m going to do this analysis differently from my previous analyses of Shakespeare plays. I’m doing this for two reasons: as Titus Andronicus isn’t one of the famous classic plays, I won’t be doing a separate synopsis of the play for the sake of my students; though historically detested, Titus Andronicus has been experiencing something of a revival due to how its themes of cruelty and revenge are relevant in today’s increasingly harsh world; so unlike with my other Shakespeare analyses, I’ll be relating events in TA with contemporary issues.
Titus Andronicus is a tragedy Shakespeare apparently co-wrote (with George Peele, who many scholars think wrote the first act, as well as the the first scenes of Acts II and IV) between 1588 and 1593. It was his first tragedy, though his first great play, The Tragedy of King Richard III (actually a history) may have been finished earlier (in 1592). TA was a hit when first produced, since Elizabethan audiences loved gore in their plays, and revenge plays were very popular at the time.
It didn’t take long, however, for the play’s reputation to sink. Indeed, from the 17th century up till the mid-20th, TA was considered by many to be Shakespeare’s worst play. Its excesses of gore and cruelty are too much for many people to stomach. I, on the other hand, would say that Love’s Labour Lost, with its dated humour and pedantic, Baroque prolixity, is the Bard’s least successful play (Consider Kenneth Branagh‘s failed attempt at a film version, whose replacement of much of the text with old jazz standards was considered, if anything, one of the movie’s high points!). TA, however, has a relevance to today’s world that actually indicts contemporary violence, thus vindicating the play.
I feel no discomfort in thinking that Shakespeare wrote the whole play, even though it may very well have been a collaboration. It seems that scholars don’t want to credit the immortal Bard with such a harsh play, claiming it was a collaboration, a play written before his talents had matured, or one erroneously attributed to him. I believe TA has been derided because Shakespeare was exploring the dark shadows in our psyches, shadows we’d prefer to believe don’t exist. Cruelty is not a pleasant theme to develop, and Shakespeare developed themes to the hilt.
I believe Shakespeare was satirizing his contemporaries’ fondness for gore and revenge plays (as he had pastoral plays, I believe, with As You Like It) by delivering the violence in such extreme doses: fourteen killings, including two filicides, a rape, an act of cannibalism, six examples of dismembering, and a live burial. When we compare the Elizabethan love of gore with that of today (note the blood and guts in so many contemporary horror movies), we realize that Elizabethan bloodlust was not unique to their time. The fascination with the writings of the Marquis de Sade further illustrate my point, as do Freud’s writings on the death instinct, a result of his sorrow over the destructiveness of World War I.
Julie Taymor did a flamboyant movie adaptation of TA, Titus, and the BBC did a TV adaptation back in 1985. Both versions begin with Titus returning to Rome from victories against the Goths, taking their queen Tamora, her sons Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius, as well as Aaron the Moor, as captives; the written play, however, begins with brothers Saturninus and Bassanius with their respective followers, vying to be the next Roman emperor after the recent death of Caesar, their father. This switching of scenes is made to accommodate an often-omitted continuity error in the text (Act I, scene i, beginning at line 35), which refers to the killing of Alarbus, which hasn’t happened yet in the story.
This killing of Alarbus is the first act of cruelty in the play; it sets in motion all the violence and revenge to follow. He is to be killed in a rite of human sacrifice to appease the ghosts of those sons of Titus already killed in battle. His eldest son, Lucius, willingly carries out the slaying of Alarbus, which involves burning him alive and hacking off his limbs. Of course, Tamora begs and pleads for Titus to spare her first-born son, though Titus is deaf to her cries. All she can do is complain about “cruel, irreligious piety!”, a reference to how religion, founded largely on scientific ignorance, leads all too often to cruelty. Apparently, the capturing of the Goths and Aaron, a product of Roman imperialism, isn’t cruel enough.
Now, this act of cruelty merely gives Tamora and her sons a motive for revenge. Titus’ foolish declining of the offer of succession to be emperor, along with his support for Saturninus to succeed, leads eventually to the new emperor’s choice in Tamora to be his bride. Now, she and her sons have the opportunity for revenge.
Before the choice of Tamora for his queen, Saturninus chooses, in all capriciousness, Bassanius’ betrothed, Lavinia. This choice seems to be an act of spite towards his brother, cruelly depriving him and Lavinia of having each other’s love. When Bassanius takes her away, through the force of Titus’ sons, their again-foolish father, blindly loyal to Saturninus over his own family, kills his son, Mutius (this video from the 1985 BBC production) for blocking his way in the chase after Lavinia.
Indeed, we see a lot of foolishness in Titus, as in all the cruelty and violence seen in this play: his murder for religion (Alarbus); his filicides (Mutius and, in the end, Lavinia); his giving up of an opportunity to be emperor and thus protect his family from future reprisals; his all-too-quick giving up of his hand in a vain attempt to save the lives of his other two sons, Quintus and Martius; and his eventual descent into madness.
One criticism of this play is in how the excesses of violence seem more like a black comedy than tragedy; indeed, Harold Bloom once said that the best director for the play would be Mel Brooks. Consider the stage direction of having Titus’ severed hand carried in the mouth of handless Lavinia. But the whole point of the play is that cruelty is absurd and senseless.
Let us remember such atrocities as when the colonial rule of Belgian King Leopold II caused the deaths of about ten million Congolese back in the late 19th century. Consider the Armenian genocide in 1915, when between 800,000 and 1.5 million were killed. Or the Holocaust, in which not only were about six million Jews murdered, but also from 220,000 to 1.5 million Roma were murdered, as well as 2-3 million Soviet POWs; German gay men (from 5,000 to 15,000 imprisoned–it is uncertain how many died), leftists (among the first to be put in concentration camps), the disabled/mentally ill (about 270,000 killed), political and religious opponents, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were also among those persecuted.
Added to the absurdity of cruelty is that of revenge. How does revenge make the pain of the original wrong go away? For the killing of Alarbus, Tamora says, “I’ll find a day to massacre them all,/And raze their faction and their family,/The cruel father and his traitorous sons,/To whom I sued for my dear son’s life;/And make them know, what ‘t is to let a queen/Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.”
With the help of her sons, Chiron and Demetrius, as well as Aaron the Moor, Tamora has Bassanius murdered and Titus’ sons, Quintus and Martius, framed for the crime, leading to their execution. Worse, she allows her sons to rape and mutilate Lavinia. Added to these outrages, Lucius is exiled, and Aaron tricks Titus into cutting off his hand in a fruitless ransom to save his two condemned sons. His reward is to be presented his hand with the heads of his sons. Tamara may have grinned maliciously at her achieved revenge, but how has this carnage brought Alarbus back to her?
The rape of Lavinia is especially cruel. One of the recurring themes of TA is that of begging for grace in vain. Lavinia thus pleads to leave her chastity intact, saying that slaying her unstained would make Tamora “a charitable murderer” (Act II, scene iii, line 178). All such pleas, including an appeal to Tamora’s womanhood, fall on deaf ears, just as Tamora’s weren’t heard by Titus, and his pleas to save Quintus and Martius, in turn, aren’t heard by the tribunes. Aaron pleads to spare the life of his illegitimate son by Tamora: by the end of the play, is the baby spared?
Not only is Lavinia brutally raped by Chiron and Demetrius, but they also cut off her hands and cut out her tongue, to ensure she has no way to accuse them. Any woman (or man or child) who has been raped feels every bit as unable to accuse, even with hands and tongue intact. Such is the power of the bully to silence the victim.
Next comes Titus’ final revenge on all his enemies. First, his exiled son joins the Goths and raises an army to invade betraying Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” (Act III, scene i, line 54), now considered as barbarous as the Goths. So upset is Saturninus with the bad news of Titus’ complaints to the gods of the emperor’s wickedness, sent in notes fired by arrows up into the sky, that he has a clown needlessly hanged. But this is only the beginning…
Titus’ men apprehend Chiron and Demetrius. Before slitting their throats as Lavinia watches and holds between her stumps a bowl to catch the drops of blood, he tells them his plan to cook their flesh in meat pies and serve them to their mother in a feast! Indeed, as Tamora is unwittingly eating her sons’ cooked flesh, Titus kills his daughter in a kind of honour killing, rationalizing it more as an ending of his misery than hers, and an ending of her shame, when it is her rapists who truly bear the shame.
Consider how some Muslims, victims of the terrible crimes of Western imperialism, often turn to forms of extremism like Wahhabism, then turn their violence on each other in such forms as honour killings, or resort to the terrorist killings of Western civilians, many of whom sympathize with their plight. Too often, we turn our wrath against the wrong people.
Next, we see a quick cycle of violence and revenge: when Titus tells Tamora she’s been feasting on the flesh of her sons, he kills her; then Saturninus immediately rises and kills Titus in a fury; then Lucius avenges his father by killing Saturninus.
We see similarly absurd violence in the imperialist violence against Iraq, Libya, and Syria, giving rise to ISIS, whose violence in such attacks as those in Paris prompts retaliations in Syria, out of which refugees are pouring. Violence merely begets more violence, which never ends.
The play ends with Aaron being buried alive, up to the neck, and left to starve to death. Anyone feeding or pitying him will be executed. His last words are, “If one good deed in all my life I did,/I do repent it from my very soul.” (Act V, scene iii, lines 189-190) This is what becomes of the soul of a man consumed by hate and malice: “Aaron will have his soul black like his face.” (Act III, scene i, line 206)
Lucius ends the play by commanding that Tamora’s body not be buried, and that she, having been without pity in her life, can “let birds on her take pity.” (Act V, scene iii, line 200) He is thus the dubious redeemer of the play, having started the cycle of violence with the ‘hewing’ of Alarbus’ limbs, and having ended it with these final cruelties.
Ending the play on such a dark note, the essence of its profound tragedy, leaves so many with such queasy feelings that that’s why TA has had such a bad reputation. Few of us can bear to see the darkest shadows of ourselves explored so thoroughly, and taken to such cruel conclusions. Yet the violence of today’s world shows us the relevance of this play, with such examples as the Rwandan genocide, whose own cycle of violence was ended with a relatively lenient punishment of most of the perpetrators. This ability to forgive is what we can learn about how to deal with our darker shadows.