Was Never Scythia Half So Barbarous

Titus Andronicus, Act I

Dramatic writing students are often told to start late and leave early, advice for crafting scenes that don’t waste time and get right to business.  A note to teachers: just tell your kids to read Titus Andronicus in which Shakespeare proceeds to make most action movies seem slow and dull.

In starting the play, about the only thing I expected was carnage.  Like Desdemona before her date with destiny, I kept hearing a line from a song make like an earworm in my skull, Bono singing “You wanted violence, and you got Nero,” in an as-yet unreleased track called “Mercy.”  I have a feeling there will be no mercy involved with this play.

In fact, no mercy serves as a calling card in Act I.  I suspect that Titus made his first grievous error by not pardoning a captured Gothic queen’s son marked to be sacrificed in a horrific ritual.  It screams SETUP, especially when Titus makes his second error, which is to kill his own son for daring to stand in his way. 

Recounting the plot of Titus Andronicus is like trying to sum up a Spanish soap opera or a Verdi opera in the span of a tweet. Complications ensue, to say the least. 

There are wheels within wheels within Titus Andronicus, but let me see if I can make at least a little headway…

As we begin, two brothers each plead their case to succeed their father as the emperor of Rome.  But just then, Titus Andronicus, the conquering war hero, returns from 10 years afield with glorious victory, war chattel (including the queen of the Goths) and 21 out of 25 sons dead. 

It’s pretty clear that the people prefer Titus to their other two choices, but Titus feels justifiably weary and declines the offer, thanks.  Instead, he approves the case of the elder brother (not without a veiled threat by said brother) and throws in his sword, chariot and good will to boot.  The brother happily accepts, promises nothing but good will in return, and offers to take Titus’s daughter to be his wife in return.

And they all live happily ever after.  Well, not quite.

Because, you see, there are these troubling ASIDES in which we discover that Saturninus, that older brother and now emperor, is really not what he seems (where have we heard that before).  He’s got the whole aspiring politician thing down, kissing babies and smiling for the audience while frothing like Snidely Whiplash beneath his moustache (That’s a joke, kids.  Snidely doesn’t froth.  But you don’t know who he is, anyway.)

Saturninus doesn’t really want Titus’s daughter.  He just thought the crowds might like that touch.  Really, he wants Tamora, the hot Goth (I don’t think that means she’s into leather and the kind of bondage you’re thinking about) queen mentioned earlier in this post before you started thinking wicked thoughts.

She enters Rome as a war prize and rightfully (or wrongfully – sorry, girls) belongs to Titus, who wastes no time pissing her off forever by turning down the chance to grant mercy upon her son, that bit that I said would come back and haunt him.

As Tamara puts it (and for the record, I have no idea why a Goth on the outskirts of the empire speaks such fluent, flawless…Latin?):

O if to fight for king and commonweal

Were piety in thine, it is in these.

Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood.

Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?

Draw near them in being merciful.

But of course he’s not.  Though it’s not exactly like he’s got much choice in the matter either.  The soldiers are tired after the wars and demand a sacrificial ceremony to put the spirits of their fallen brethren at ease.  Yes, the ritual smacks of paganism and superstition and tribal customs – and it really does come across as a barbarism you don’t expect from the heroes of Rome.  But then again, that’s where the irony of this post’s title comes in.  Leave it to the captured Goths to marvel at how bloody and violent their civilized conquerors turn out to be.  Surprise! What were they expecting, democracy?

There are far more subplots in Act I than I’ve even begun to describe but I don’t think it’s my place to recount what Cliff’s Notes has made a fine fortune doing far better than I ever could.  Let’s just say that a strange turn of events thrusts Tamara into Saturninus’s possession (again, sorry, ladies, but she does approve the match if that helps).

The pairing of Saturninus and Tamara doesn’t bode well for the next four acts.  Revenge is in the air.  Titus has killed two children and we haven’t even reached intermission.  Like Othello, he has an overdeveloped sense of right and mission that leads him into one pile of trouble after another.  And, like Othello, he may just find that it’s a lot safer out on the battlefields than it ever was back home.

I could just be imagining all this but I don’t think so.  In case you’re wondering, the play is riveting.  It reads like the Godfather or Frank Darabont’s Mob City.  So go grab your popcorn ’cause we’re just getting started.

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