Archive for the Titus Andronicus Category

But I Have Done a Thousand Dreadful Things

Posted in Titus Andronicus with tags , , , , on 2014/01/17 by mattermind

Titus Andronicus, Act V

The revenge plot reaches its apotheosis in Act V in a manner that I can only assume was meant to achieve catharsis.  I have my own troubles rooting for anybody at this stage, which is neither here no there, but only makes me wonder what Shakespeare’s original intentions were.

I mentioned at the start of the play that I was hoping a conjecture by Isaac Asimov would prove to be correct: that Shakespeare may have sought to lampoon the blood and gore dramas popular in his age by creating a tale so over-the-top that the audience ought to have recognized and recoiled at its own appetite for violence.

Could this be why Shakespeare has Tamora eat her two sons stuffed into a pie?  What better metaphor could there be for the effects of revenge?  We consume ourselves in the form of our own violent offspring.  Treachery begets treachery, like the primal Uroboros – the snake eating its own tail – imagery featured in much of Jungian psychology.


Speaking of which (boy, I’m glad this isn’t an academic paper), there are a LOT of alchemical elements in Titus Andronicus!  This, I believe, has much more to do with Shakespeare than the pagan setting of Rome.  For why does Titus send those swords scrawled with cryptic messages to his enemies?  And why does he delight in shooting arrows with messages to the gods?

No, there’s an alchemical symbolism running through Titus Andronicus that demands exploration.  From the forest setting for the crimes – the place of mythological transformation (“Metamorphosis,” the book that speaks for Lavinia) in fairy tales and representation for the unconsciousness of man – to the pit in which the brothers fall, the hands, the tongues, the Revenge disguises meant to fool Titus in his state of psychological disturbance – far more is going on here than what we are presented with at the surface level.

In this case, a cigar is not just a cigar.

The most intriguing character in the play, as per usual, is the arch villain, Aaron, who reveals a depth of disdain for common decency and humanity that speaks to the very limits of pure evil.  We are reminded, naturally, of Othello in his being a Moor.  But the demonology expressed in his personality comes straight from the mold of Iago.

Just as Iago shows no remorse at the end of Othello, Aaron feels the same at the conclusion of Titus.  In fact, he does Iago one better by saying:

I am no baby, I, that with base prayers

I should repent the evils I have done;

Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did

Would I perform if I had my will.

If one good deed in all my life I did,

I do repent it from my very soul. 


Do we have a more unrepentant villain in all of literature before Aaron?  If there is, I can’t think of one!  Unless it is none other than Satan in the Bible.  But doesn’t even he show some sign of remorse?  Or is that Lucifer?  Does the distinction matter?  Aren’t they one and the same?

Aaron does not proclaim Satanism or any other ism within the scope of the play.  Rather, he mocks Lucius outright for his faith in any spiritual being. He, apparently, is an atheist, which I know, for many, amounts to the same thing.

Do we have any other true atheists appearing in Western literature before Aaron?  In the Greek, maybe, or somewhere in the Bible?

In Aaron, the young Shakespeare, even at this early stage in his career (Othello does not exist yet, so any comparisons between Aaron and Iago are entirely moot and after the fact), has managed to create an arch villain of such self-conscious cold-bloodedness and outright evil that he can’t help but become utterly unforgettable.

We end the play with the elevation of Lucius to emperor and presumably the restoration of law and order in Rome.  But not without removing from our minds the image of Aaron being tortured for his sins, buried chest-deep and starved unto death – unabashed, unforgiven, and unrepentant, right to the last.


Villain, What Hast Thou Done?

Posted in Titus Andronicus, Wordplay with tags , , , , , , , on 2014/01/17 by mattermind

Titus Andronicus, Act IV

I’d like to step back from the revenge frenzy to dwell for a moment on one of the things I love most about Shakespeare: his fondness for wordplay.

In Othello, characters toy with the word “think” – a metaphor for the speculation all people must engage in when evaluating the motives of others.  Such banter permeates the play, but one particular exchange between Othello and Iago exaggerates the point as if Shakespeare were knocking us over the head to assure we get the message.

In Titus, a tale of dreadful tragedy and murderous revenge, the setting does not discourage Shakespeare from once again demonstrating his pyrotechnical gifts with language.  My favorite exchange occurs in Act IV, a saucy back-and-forth between Aaron, Demetrius and Chiron that hinges on the multiple definitions of the verb “to do.”

DEMETRIUS: Villain, what hast thou done?

AARON: That which thou canst not undo.

CHIRON: Thou hast undone our mother.

AARON: Villain, I have done thy mother.

DEMETRIUS: And therein, hellish dog, thou hast undone her.

Aaron freely confesses that he has slept with Tamora, who has borne him a black child. This fact, of course, cannot be “undone.”  While at the same time, to “do” somebody is to, well, you know.

The subtlety of language goes further though, because “undoing” somebody also implies to undress them.  Or to sabotage them.  And to undress and to sabotage add their own shadings and complexities.

Thus, we can do something, undo something, do someone, do something to someone that can’t be undone, undo a dress, undo a queen, and on and on and on.

Listening to Shakespeare’s wordplay at times gives me the sensation I’m hearing a fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach.  To match these towering geniuses of musicality would be asynchronous, since Shakespeare died in 1616 and Bach in 1750.

More fitting perhaps to choose a Renaissance composer such as Palestrina (1525-1594) .  But even Palestrina’s mellifluous polyphony (that alone bespeaks his music’s beauty) can’t match how multi-directional, multi-valent and manifold Shakespeare’s harmonies are.

Here’s a stunning example of Palestrina:



Yet a key composer even closer to Shakespeare’s age like Monteverdi (1567-1643) might be more in keeping still.   Listen for yourself:

With a timeless master like Shakespeare, it’s easy to forget that he was born and lived within a historical age and setting. Just as when we listen to Mozart or stare at a painting by Monet, our thoughts lift skyward toward the timeless, engaging in the Great Conversation that underlies all art since the beginning.

And yet we are all marked to some degree by the age in which we live.  Shakespeare didn’t watch television, fly in an airplane, talk on a cell phone or go online.  To what extent was he influenced by the artists and events surrounding him?  How was he able to break free from the fetters that have bound most works by his contemporaries and to achieve immortality?

This weekend I shall make headway in two Shakespeare biographies: Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt and Shakespeare: the Biography by Peter Ackroyd in the hopes of learning more.

Sorrow Flouted at Is Double Death

Posted in Titus Andronicus with tags , , , , , , , on 2014/01/15 by mattermind

Titus Andronicus, Act III

One of the most horrific news stories I’ve ever encountered occurred on 2 October 2006, when a lone gunman opened fire in an Amish schoolhouse.  A summary of that tragic event and how it unfolded may be found HERE.

What’s more remarkable than yet another shocking episode of violence perpetrated against innocent children is the Amish reaction that followed.  Rather than avenging the deaths or seeking the harshest available form of justice, the Amish community rallied to forgive the perpetrator and include the mother of the shooter in the circle of healing.

It’s a truly heart-wrenching story that will rewrite your assumptions about the capacity of the human heart to handle grievous loss.  If you are seeking an example of how religion exemplifies the capacity to elevate the soul, look no further than HERE.

This surely came to mind because of how Titus Andronicus has unfolded.  I think back to Act I and what Titus did to invoke the wrath of the gods.  I say gods as if I were referring to someone like Job, who God allowed Satan to mess with.  But like all matters regarding Shakespeare, the evils invoked have a human source of origin, in this case, the unwillingness of Titus to grant amnesty to the son of the captured Goth queen, Tamora.  If he had done this, there would have been no tragedy.

But is this really true?  I wonder, because Saturninus, Aaron and Tamora are not nice people.  Without the initial injustice, will Tamora and the captured Goths make nice?  Would the lust of Tamora’s two sons still vent in the bestial acts committed against Lavinia, Titus’ lovely daughter?  Would his two sons have been falsely set up for murder?  Would Saturninus be any nicer?  Would Aaron, Tamora’s secret lover, not savor the black art of dirty tricks?

Titus, it seems to me, is very much in the mold of Othello, a great general who finds the real trouble begins once he returns home.  At every point in the story so far, he has behaved with the utmost attention to honor, even to the extreme of killing his own son for attempting to save Lavinia for marriage to her betrothed.  He declined the title of emperor in favor of Saturninus.  And when he allows the son of Tamora to be executed, he does so not out of power but because his own soldiers seek a ritual act to becalm the souls of their slain brethren.  The moment demands it, even if he still might override convention and heed Tamora’s plea to amnesty her son.

Nothing Titus ever did equates to the cataclysm that befalls him.  Had Tamora recognized this, she might not have unleashed the venom of blood-feud revenge that exacts such a toll on the whole Titus clan.  It might have ended long before the woe. 

But it didn’t – and hasn’t – and isn’t about to, I’m afraid.  For we’ve reached the turning point when Titus has discovered the source of his pathetic misery.  His troubles have a known cause and that cause is about to meet his wrath.  I wonder what Job might have done if his plagues had a human genesis.  Would he too have exacted his revenge?

Because of Titus’s essential goodness, the turn we’re about to take has a familiar feel to it.  The avenger of inflicted wrongs has become a common anti-hero in Hollywood movies.  The ones that come to mind are Death Wish, Braveheart, Once Upon a Time in the West, Dirty Harry (basically anything starring early Clint Eastwood), and another film featuring Mel Gibson.

Shakespeare would have made one helluva screenwriter.


A Very Fatal Place It Seems to Me

Posted in Titus Andronicus with tags , , on 2014/01/14 by mattermind

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?

Who Is Titus Andronicus?

Posted in Titus Andronicus with tags , , , on 2014/01/13 by mattermind

With the majority of Shakespeare’s plays, I have a pretty good sense whether they are comedies, tragedies, histories or romances and who or what they’re about.  Only a few leave me scratching my head, drawing a blank.  Two of these are Coriolanus and Cymbeline.  The other is Titus Andronicus.  I am not proud of this.

From Wikipedia, I learn:

 Titus Andronicus is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, and possibly George Peele, believed to have been written between 1588 and 1593. It is thought to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and is often seen as his attempt to emulate the violent and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries, which were extremely popular with audiences throughout the sixteenth century.

 The play is set during the latter days of the Roman Empire and tells the fictional story of Titus, a general in the Roman army, who is engaged in a cycle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. It is Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent work and traditionally was one of his least respected plays. Although it was extremely popular in its day, it fell out of favour during the Victorian era, primarily because of what was considered to be a distasteful use of graphic violence, but from around the middle of the twentieth century its reputation began to improve.

 What stands out from this description is that this is a fictional tale, though it is set during the Roman Empire.  Othello too was fictional, but it did not have a historical context like Titus.  I’m curious how Shakespeare – or George Peele, whoever that is – came up with the character.

 The story sounds a lot more familiar, like every other breaking-in writer’s biography.  No surprise that Shakespeare went with what was popular at the time.  Make it bloody and violent, eh, Will?  Give ‘em what they want.  Are you not entertained?

 The question now then is what sets Titus Andronicus apart, what hallmarks distinguish it as a work of the budding Shakespeare  How much of the author of Othello do we find here?  How are the stories similar or different?

 I am prepared – I think – now for shock and violence, though I still don’t know what the story is about.  Will it hold my interest?  Will I wish I hadn’t started it?  What are its redeeming qualities, if any?  Why isn’t it produced very often?

If I can survive it, the filmed adaptation by Julie Taymor awaits after the play is done.  Oh, joy.