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Author Topic: [No on the list] Titus Andronicus--William Shakespeare  (Read 3768 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: January 05, 2012, 07:11:23 AM »

Unhand that wench!
January 5, 2012

The third Shakespearean tragedy not on the list, Titus Andronicus, reminded me of a Monty Python skit, called “Sam Peckinpah's 'Salad Days.'”  In the skit, an innocent suggestion among the members of a lawn party to play tennis meets with agreement.  One of the fellows tosses a tennis ball at another, saying, “catch,” but the ball strikes him in the eye, blinding him.  He involuntarily throws away his tennis racquet, which impales one of the others, who falls on the lid of a piano, cutting off the hands of the piano player.  The scene goes on in a similar “vein” until everyone is dead or seriously wounded. 

I can hardly believe that Shakespeare wrote this play—or that he meant it as tragedy.  The use of graphic violence, implausible motivation, and ludicrous dialogue left me wondering if some cleaning lady working late in Shakespeare's office one night hadn't accidentally moved the script from the comedy folder to the tragedy folder.  I'll give a partial inventory of the gore: One man hacked to pieces, one woman raped, her tongue and hands cut off, two men decapitated, their heads delivered to their father, two other heads served up in a pie to their owner's mother.  In fact, by the end of the play, about fourteen people have died.  Such over-the-top gore, with one horror following on the heels of another, seems more like a parody of a revenge play than the real thing. 

Titus, a returning war hero and son of a tribune turns down the title of emperor and supports Saturninus for the position.  Titus has brought with him as captives Tamora, queen of the Goths, her three sons, and Aaron, her black attendant and (as we later find out) secret lover.  Titus kills one of Tamora's sons as punishment for all the Roman deaths the Goths had caused, and Tamora, together with her two remaining sons vow vengeance on the Andronicus family. 

The plot gets very convoluted, as Aaron and Tamora eliminate one person after another, either directly or through unwitting agents.  Even if one finds the bloodshed plausible, the motivations defy imagination.  At one point, toward the end, Lucius, a son of Titus, has gathered a Gothic army and plans to attack Rome.  Hoping to convince Titus to stop Lucius, Tamora promises him the chance to get vengeance on all his enemies.  But she knows that he knows that she and Aaron have caused all his misery.  So she takes her sons to visit Titus in person and tells him that she has only taken on the earthly appearance of Tamora.  Her real name?  Revenge.  Her two companions?  Rape and Murder.  She has diagnosed Titus as mad and thus believes she can fool him into thinking her a goddess.  But of course, Titus has all his marbles, so as soon as she leaves her sons with Titus, he has them butchered.  I don't know about you, but I would have thought a little longer before tacking the impersonation of a deity onto an already convoluted scheme.  I could easily see something like that happening in one of Chaucer's bawdy tales of cuckoldry, but not in, say Julius Caesar, or Romeo and Juliet

For another instance of comic horror, consider the scene where Lavinia, after her rape, emerges from the forest tongueless, handless, ravished, and covered in blood.  This horrific vision stands before her unvcle, Marcus, and he says, “Cousin, a word: where is your husband?”  But since Lavinia can't say much, he delivers a 47-line poetic monologue, in which he says such things as,

Speak, gentle niece.  What stern ungentle hands
Hath lopp'd, and hew'd, and made thy body bare
Of her two branches—those sweet ornaments
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As half thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath....

It's sometimes hard for me to judge, trapped within my 20th Century sensibilities, whether to take a Shakespearean monologue as high drama or parody.  But surely, not even an Elizabethan audience could sit still through such a lofty speech to someone waving spurting bloody stumps in the air without laughing at the ghastly absurdity of it all.  I wouldn't trust anyone but Mel Brooks to stage that scene properly. 

Consider, as further evidence, this gem of dialogue that ensues upon Marcus killing a fly at the dinner table (“the Empress' Moor” refers to Aaron):

TITUS: What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?

MARCUS: At that that I have kill'd, my lord—a fly.

TITUS: Out on thee, murderer, thou kill'st my heart!
Mine eyes are cloy'd with view of tyranny;
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus' brother.  Get thee gone;
I see thou art not for my company.

MARCUS: Alas, my Lord, I have but kill'd a fly.

TITUS: 'But!' How if that fly had a father and mother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings
And buzz lamenting doings in the air!
Poor harmless fly,
That with his pretty buzzing melody
Came here to make us merry! And thou hast kill'd him.

MARCUS: Pardon me, sir; it was a black ill-favour'd fly,
Like to the Empress' Moor; therefore I kill'd him.

Then pardon me for reprehending thee,
For thou hast done a charitable deed.
Give me thy knife, I will insult on him,
Flattering myself as if it were the Moor
Come hither possibly to poison me.
There's for thyself, and that's for Tamora.
Ah, sirrah! (Act III, Scene 2)

Not surprisingly, Titus has not had a big following through most of its life.  Apparently, though, audiences loved it during Shakespeare's time, and it has provoked some interest in the 20th Century (possibly because its seemed less implausible to an audience living during the bloodiest century in human history).  But few people in the Victorian era had the stomach for it. 

I have to admit I liked it a lot, but only after I had picked up my jaw from the floor and let myself not take it seriously. 

« Last Edit: January 06, 2012, 05:53:07 AM by Robert Skipper » Logged
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