A Dish Best Served Cold
Shakespeare wrote one of the most savage plays in the canon. Scott McLemee visits the dark side.
We spent the past weekend immersed in the world of Titus Andronicus -- also known as “Shakespeare’s batshit crazy play,” at least around here. Most dramatic performances fade into the background within a short time, but my wife and I have been discussing Titus for several days. Popular in its own time, it is seldom performed now, though there is an excellent version from 1999 available on film, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. The production currently being staged at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington is spellbinding and horrific -- though I’m not at all sure that I agree with the effort of Gale Edwards, the director, to lend the play some hint of morally redeeming value.
Arguably, it has none. The case can be made that Titus Andronicus is an Elizabethan equivalent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a bigger budget, better actors, and more eloquent language. It has often been called Shakespeare’s worst play (which I must admit piqued my interest in seeing it). Titus was probably one of his first efforts as a playwright, maybe even the very first. It has long been speculated that it was the product of a collaboration, or that Shakespeare served as a “script doctor” improving someone else’s working draft.
In a public discussion at the theater on Sunday afternoon, Denise Albanese, an associate professor of English and cultural studies at George Mason University, sketched out some of the sources and context of the play. Unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, Titus is more pastiche than historical drama. Its account of honor and revenge during the reign of the (imaginary) Roman emperor Saturninus is filled with allusions to Seneca, Ovid, and the Aeneid. No matter how you draw the lines, it occupies a unique and eccentric place in the canon. Even the extremity of its violence made it somewhat anachronistic. In some ways, Albanese pointed out, it anticipated the Jacobean revenge tragedies that only became popular decades later.
All interesting to know. But questions of context and literary intertextuality are one thing, while the experience of watching the work itself performed is quite another. For Titus Andronicus is, to repeat, one batshit crazy play. It is surreal, nightmarish. It is also, to a surprising degree, rather vile. Some members of the audience weep, which is understandable; but I can testify that at least one patron wanted to take a shower afterwards.
The word “obscene” was originally a dramatic reference to something so shocking that it had to take place off-stage. But most of the horrors in Titus occur right out in the open. True, we don’t actually watch Lavinia, daughter of the noble general Titus, being raped by the sons of Tamora, the Goth queen turned Roman empress. But we are shown the two men taunting her later, after they have cut off her hands and her tongue. Eventually Titus exacts revenge by killing them and cooking their flesh into a large pie, which he tricks the queen into eating.
The queen’s lover, a Moor named Aaron, is a villain who announces that his soul is as black as his skin. In the final moments of the play, he is condemned to be buried up to his neck and starved to death. Meanwhile, the newborn child he has fathered with Tamora is sentenced to execution – for otherwise, the baby is destined by nature to grow up to be evil. So at least there’s a happy ending....
You don’t have to see that many plays by Shakespeare to know that his universe can be violent. Think of the children slaughtered in Macbeth, the pile of corpses at the end of Hamlet, the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes in Lear.
But the mayhem in Titus is more extensive and far more concentrated. Apart from the high points covered in the abbreviated sketch above, there are two decapitated heads, several murders and one scene of dismemberment. The sight of Lavinia following her attack -- unable to communicate at all, her mouth opening only to scream and to spit blood -- has a visceral power that is overwhelming.
At the same time, once the violence begins escalating, a strain of very dark humor emerges. Titus appears onstage dressed as a cook, per the original directions in the play – a wink at the audience, which has just heard him plot his ultimate act of vengeance. And when the emperor demands to know where Tamora’s sons are, Titus responds with lines that are funny, albeit in a sick way:
Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
Neither the bloodshed nor the transgressive joking, in themselves, are quite as disconcerting as what Shakespeare doesn’t do in this play. For we never see or hear anything like doubt, introspection, or inner conflict.
True, there are a few declarations of motive. Titus can deliver the occasional direct and rather simplistic proclamation about his own sense of honor. Yet he proves incapable of questioning that code – even after it has led him to kill one son in the heat of anger. Aaron the Moor gets to gloat aloud about just how evil his own plans are. Still, he seems a much flatter villain than, say, Iago or Richard III. Nearly everyone in Titus ends up dead, but even while alive they never display evidence of complex interiority.
It probably betrays some old-fashioned humanist sensibility to say so, but I found this disconcerting. Harold Bloom overstated things by calling his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead, 1998). But it is an exaggeration of something recognizable -- the sense that language and dramatic situation in Shakespeare are creating a new space of depth and conflict. Not so with Titus Andronicus. It is a very busy piece of theater -- but one with all of the action taking place on the surface.
Blooms calls it a play in which Shakespeare tries to throw off the influence of Christopher Marlowe through satire. He calls it “exploitive parody” rather than “authentic tragedy.” For if you took it seriously, he says, it would be impossible not to agree with Samuel Johnson’s judgment: “The barbarity of the spectacle, and the general massacre here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience.”
By contrast, Marjorie Garber, a professor of English at Harvard University, writes in Shakespeare After All (Anchor, 2004) that Titus contains “ the root or radical form of all Shakespearean tragedy.” It contains “the dreamscape or nightmare world laid out for all to see, not disguised by a retreat into metaphor....In many ways, from its almost Brechtian mode of staging physicality to its unrelenting pileup of horrors, Titus is the most modern play of Shakespeare’s that we have.”
During the forum at the Shakespeare Theatre over the weekend, Denise Albanese mentioned that she frequently teaches Titus at George Mason. I gave her a call to ask about that. And also, frankly, just because I wanted to discuss about the play with somebody who had lived with it for a while. (Exposure to its surrealistic overload does leave you wanting to "talk it off," as it were.)
“It’s almost always the first play I teach,” she said. “I do that because very often students have only encountered Shakespeare in high school and have a misunderstanding of him as safe, moral, and dull. This one really dislodges the idea that Shakespeare is full of eternal moral truths. It takes place in a different world from what they expect.”
And how does Titus go over with her students?
“Many of them have a very hard time with it,” she told me. “They expect to be able to like somebody in a piece of literature, to find somebody they can identify with, and that is quite difficult in this case. It’s hard to identify with Titus, who kills his own son for dishonoring him. The moral ambiguity of the play is very, very difficult for some of them.”
Such confusion seems appropriate, in a way. Yet I suspect that there is a certain moral ambiguity about experiencing Titus Andronicus as containing moral ambiguity.
To put it another way: It may well be that this play contains all the moral complexity of a scenario in the world of professional wrestling.
The audience that greeted the play with such enthusiasm would have had little trouble knowing who to cheer. Titus is a simple man. He makes some bad choices, but he is brave and a man of honor. And the people who hurt him are, after all, rather sinister foreigners – one an arriviste woman, the other an atheistic black man who delights in his own villainy.
Nor does it follow that Aaron’s expression of love for his infant son would have necessarily made him a sympathetic character. On the contrary, it could well have made the destruction of the baby called for at the end of the play that much more pleasurable to imagine. Since the villainous Moor both fathered the child and tried to protect him, the boy’s death would, in effect, be a final reckoning with evil.
That interpretation is depressing – but then, so is the play. It also seems compatible with Northrop Frye’s comment in Anatomy of Criticism that melodrama is the genre that closest approximates the propaganda of a police state. (You want uplift? Read Joyce Kilmer, not Shakespeare.)
Professor Albanese listened politely to my speculations and conceded that there might be something to them. And then she made a remark that seems to cut to the heart of the matter. “Nothing else in Shakespeare,” she said, “prepares you for this play.”
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