A Very Fatal Place It Seems to Me

Titus Andronicus, Act II

For a moment, I wanted to stop reading and abandon the project.  I so loathed the events of Act II that I honestly didn’t think I could push my way through it, like a kid sitting at a dinner table determined not to eat his, um, vegetables.  At least I think they’re vegetables.  I hope they’re vegetables.  But even still, I have no stomach for what’s happening.

I had been warned about the excessiveness of the violence.  But until I experienced it for myself, I simply had no idea what I was in store for.  What Lavinia endures goes beyond the pale.  Revenge runs amok and beggers description.

I have chosen to soldier on, however, in the hopes that a conjecture Isaac Asimov wrote about might be true.  It goes:

Apparently, what Shakespeare was doing was experimenting with Senecan tragedy.  These blood-and-thunder plays written about horrible crimes and horrible revenges were immensely popular in Elizabethan times [Note to self…why?!].  Thomas Kyd, for example, had written such a drama, The Spanish Tragedy [Note to reader: which Shakespeare allegedly had a hand in], shortly before Shakespeare had begun his dramatic career and scored an immense success.

Shakespeare had no objection to success and was perfectly willing to adjust himself to popular taste.  In Titus Andronicus, he therefore gave full vent to blood, cruelty, disaster and revenge.  Indeed, he went so far that that one can almost wonder if he weren’t deliberately pushing matters to the limit in order to express his disgust for the whole genre.

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking on my part, but I’m hoping this is true.  There are all manner of explanations for why the greatest writer in history chose to make this his first tragedy.  Maybe it was an experiment.  Maybe he wanted to have a little “fun.”  Maybe he thought the masses would love it and make his name.  Maybe he assumed it would be a big box office draw.  Or maybe he just felt like doing it this way at the time.

But good grief, there is an awful lot of violence.  And not a trace of redeeming moral lesson anywhere except that tribal revenge is best replaced by civil and criminal law.  Blood for blood was how we used to operate.

Aren’t we all glad we’ve left such practices behind?

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