Why This Play?:
I originally planned on covering this play last October – something fitting about reading Shakespeare’s bloodiest play during the Halloween season. I read one act and then abandoned it. The US presidential election happened in the middle of my reading. My news feed, my friends, my own head, were all filled with such dread, quoting so many voices of violence and anger as well as despair…I just couldn’t take the evil revenge fantasy of this play at the same time (I picked up a copy of the sonnets instead).
Ugh, this play, y’all. Titus Andronicus can be pretty revolting (it’s especially hard to watch/read Lavinia’s arc), even for a lover of horror films like me. Not to mention, it’s downright clunky. It is considered one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, one that tends to be viewed through a lens of knowledge on his later plays. The younger Shakespeare gives us a shocking, gory, thrill-ride plot with juvenile characters that focus on action rather than self-analysis. The mature playwright dove inward with his characters as his writing progressed, sometimes to the degree that analysis outweighed action. It makes sense that his writing would grow and become more refined and nuanced as the man himself sharpened his skills…and just grew older and lived more life. As we all get older and gain more experience, don’t we do the exact same thing?
So What Happens?:
In ancient Rome, brothers Saturninus and Bassianus are in a power struggle over which of them will be named the next emperor. They literally stand on opposite ends of the stage with their factions, glowering at one another. Overall reasonable dude Marcus Andronicus informs them that his older brother, Titus Andronicus, is on his way back from winning the war over the Goths. Then **blaring trumpets** announce the entrance of Titus and crew: his sons, soldiers Martius, Mutius, Lucius, and Quintus; a bunch of coffins bearing other gone sons; then the Goth prisoners, Queen Tamora, her sons Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius, and Aaron the Moor. It’s a huge heap of people, a mighty spectacle befitting a war hero. Titus has returned victorious, but with 21 (!?!?) of his sons dead and in tow.
In gratitude to the gods, they now need to sacrifice a prisoner. Them’s the rules in ancient Rome, apparently. Lucius suggests Alarbus, who is supposedly very proud (but is never given any lines). Tamora pleads mercy for her first born, but Titus shuts her down. Alarbus is led off and slain. Brother Marcus tells Titus that the Roman people are clamoring to name him emperor, but Titus feels that’s not right. He declines and encourages the people to give the title to Saturninus, since he was the oldest son of the last royal family (soldier Titus likes to play by established rules). Saturninus is thrilled with this political backing and immediately offers to marry Titus’s daughter Lavinia (I guess as a show of thanks?). In the next instant, Saturninus spies the prisoner Tamora and likes the look of her.
So then would-be emperor Bassianus swoops in and says he’ll marry Lavinia instead! Her brothers agree to the proposal, but Titus is furious with them. She’s promised to the emperor! Now he turns on his sons, who would so easily agree to such treachery. Son Mutius tries to block Titus from chasing after the new lovers, and Titus slays his own son for going against the emperor (and bringing shame on the family). He orders Lavinia to be returned to the emperor, but Saturninus opts out (spurning the Andronicus clan as he does so), deciding in a heartbeat to marry Tamora instead.
Titus is reeling. He refuses to bury Martius in the family tomb. His sons demand he reconsider, and he haltingly does so only after brother Marcus implores him. In front of the court, Titus, Bassianus, and Saturninus all argue over who is rightfully entitled to what and who has hurt whose honor the most. [They’re all basically squabbling children with a LOT more power.] Tamora intervenes, publically pleading with Saturninus to pardon all parties. She secretly whispers to him that it’s in his best interests to forgive Titus publically since the Roman people love him so much…but that she’ll eventually “massacre them all.” Everyone puts on a happy face to move on to a joint wedding feast for Saturninus/Tamora and Bassianus/Lavinia.
Aaron the Moor (fellow Goth prisoner and Tamora’s lover) privately revels in Tamora’s rise to power. He’s going to help her fulfill her revenge, maybe because he loves her, but most likely because he’s just straight-up evil himself. Demetrius and Chiron enter, arguing over their shared infatuation of Lavinia. Aaron plants the idea that they don’t need to argue over her, but rather can share her by force when the wedding party convenes to go hunting in the woods. Out in the forest, Aaron buries some gold by an old tree, telling the audience that this seemingly strange act is part of a grand plot. Tamora happens upon him and tries to seduce him, but Aaron is too focused on his scheme. He gives her a letter to pass on to Saturninus and urges her to pick a fight with Bassanius, who just happens to arrive with Lavinia at that very moment.
Tamora instantly pokes Bassanius, implying that he’ll be cuckolded eventually. Lavinia responds that Tamora would do better to pay attention to her own affair with Aaron. Chiron and Demetrius arrive and Tamora spins a story that the married pair is verbally abusing her; if her sons love her, they’ll avenge her honor. The brothers turn on Bassanius and brutally murder him, throwing his body into a nearby pit. Lavinia pleads and tries to appeal to Tamora as a woman, but the queen orders her sons to do away with Lavinia in whatever way they please. The men drag Lavinia away to be raped. Aaron leads Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius to the pit on the pretense of hunting. Martius falls and promptly freaks out as Bassianus’s body is in there too. Distraught Quintus tries to pull him out…only to fall in himself.
Saturninus and his train enter to discover the brothers in the pit. Tamora passes on the letter to her husband, just as Aaron instructed. The letter is basically a hit out on Bassianus for gold. Aaron “uncovers” the gold he hid earlier, and Saturninus is convinced that Quintus and Martius are responsible for the murder of his brother. Titus starts to plead mercy for them, and Tamora tells him she’ll try to intervene with the emperor. Later, Lavinia has been fully and cruelly at the disposal of Chiron and Demetrius. They have cut off her hands and cut out her tongue so she cannot reveal her rapists’ identities. They abandon her in the woods [and personally, I find it to be one of the most gut-wrenching bits in all Shakespeare, right up there with the murder of Macduff’s kid or Arthur’s fall]. Her uncle Marcus finds her and is distraught, trying to figure out what happened. He carefully brings the silent Lavinia home.
Back in Rome, Titus has switched from strong Roman warrior to tearful old man. He publically pleads with the tribunes to spare his sons as they await a death sentence, but the tribunes completely ignore him. Lucius tries to comfort him, but explains that he has been banished for trying to free his brothers. Adding to his sorrows, Marcus brings forth the shamed and battered Lavinia, who can’t even explain what happened to her. Titus is completely distressed; the last of his family is falling apart. Aaron pretends to help, claiming that Martius and Quintus will be spared if Titus, Lucius or Marcus cuts off a hand and sends it to the emperor as a sign of fealty. Marcus and Lucius both want to do it, but Titus sacrifices his own hand, which Aaron bears away. A messenger returns with the hand and Titus’s sons two heads – the deal was never meant to pan out. Titus turns his thoughts to vengeance and sends Lucius to former enemies the Goths to raise an army. In a sad/gory/almost funny moment, the men exit with the heads (Lavinia bearing Titus’s hand either in her arms or her teeth, depending on the folio/quarto version).
The grieving family returns home to dinner, and Titus starts behaving erratically. He insists that he can read his daughter’s thoughts, without her ability to speak or gesture. Marcus kills a fly buzzing around their meal, and indignant Titus chastises him for murder of an innocent. Marcus covers by saying he killed the black fly for his resemblance to Aaron the moor, which causes and about-face in Titus. He turns his thoughts to revenge. But who is the true architect of his family’s misery? Lavinia is desperate to reveal the truth of what happened to her. She chases her small nephew around (scaring the poor kid into thinking she’s mad), trying to gather his books. She raises both of her stumps emphatically, and Marcus correctly guesses that she had two attackers. Lavinia finds Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and clumsily turns the pages to the tale of Philomel (who was raped). Cottoning on to her meaning, Marcus shows her how to take a stick in her mouth and use her arms to guide it into writing in the sand. Thus, Lavinia writes the Latin word for rape and the names Chiron and Demetrius. Titus fully comprehends what happened to his daughter, and he now has a direct target for his revenge. He orders Lavinia’s written words to be etched in brass; he’s got an idea for a present for Tamora’s sons.
Titus’s grandson delivers gifts of weapons and Lavinia’s brass scroll to Demetrius and Chiron. They laugh it off as a strange gesture from a mad old man, but Aaron quietly realizes the intent of Titus’s message: he knows what they did, and he’s gunning for them. Trumpets blare, and a nurse enters with Tamora’s just-born son. Only problem? The baby is of color, so it’s pretty obvious that Aaron is the father, not Saturninus. In a fit of self-preservation (and protecting her grown sons as well), Tamora has sent the baby away to be killed so the emperor won’t discover her adultery. Aaron won’t hear of such a plan. He murders the nurse then and there, arranges for Chiron and Demetrius to buy a servant’s newborn white baby and pose it as Tamora’s child, and makes plans to return to the Goths to raise his child as a warrior.
Titus wants to send a message to those who have come after his family – literally. He solicits his remaining friends to help him send letters to the gods to entreat their help. They tie letters to arrows and shoot them into the sky…right over the emperor’s court, which is where they land. Marcus realizes that Titus is no longer sane, but Publius (Marcus’s son) claims Pluto encourages revenge. A Clown bearing pigeons wanders by, and Titus thinks he’s a sign from the gods. He pays him to bear the birds and a letter-wrapped knife to Saturninus. In the royal court, Saturninus has found the strange letters on arrows. The Clows arrives with Titus’s gift and message. Once the emperor reads it, he orders the Clown to be hanged in a fit of temper. News arrives that Lucius is rallying the Goths to attack Rome. Saturninus worries about Roman loyalty; Lucius is popular with the people. He needn’t worry: Tamora’s got this. She’ll put on the charm and convince Titus to call off his son. To set his mind at ease, she’ll even visit the old general in his own home.
Lucius got the Goths on his side, and he’s leading their march into Rome. A Goth warrior happened upon Aaron fleeing Rome (chiding his poor, crying baby along the way) and hauls him before Lucius. Upon interrogation (bargaining that he will reveal all if Lucius promises to spare his child), he openly confesses to fathering the child through Tamora. He then spills the true story behind Bassianus’s murder, Lavinia’s rape and mutilation, and Titus’s missing hand. Aaron boasts he was the architect to the entire story, which he also finds hilarious. This is a straight up villain here; he fully admits he feels no remorse. Tamora arrives at Titus’s, disguised as Revenge, with Chiron as Rape and Demetrius as Murder tagging along. Titus acts as though he truly believes that they are those entities, and Tamora thinks he’s a mad old man who will be easily pushed into whatever she wants. Tamora “convinces” Titus to allow the emperor to parley with Lucius at his home. She leaves her sons with Titus and goes to retrieve Saturninus.
Once she’s out the door, the jig is up. Titus drops the act and has his cronies bind and gag Demetrius and Chiron. He tells them he learned the entire history of their crimes to his family. Lavinia enters bearing a basin, and Titus relays his entire plan to murder the men and feed their remains to their mother. He slits their throats then and there, their blood draining into the basin as Lavinia looks silently on. Lucius arrives with all the Goths, and they hide prisoner Aaron away. The “feast” is readied, and the emperor and empress arrive with a full Roman entourage. Titus invites them to eat, and Lavinia looks on under a veil. He casually asks Saturninus to weigh in on the story of Virginius, who killed his daughter after she was raped. Saturninus agrees it was the only way to spare her of her shame. Titus concurs and rapidly unveils his daughter and stabs her then and there (in a loving, merciful way?). Everyone’s shocked and Saturninus wants to know who ravished her – oh, just Tamora’s sons, who are there in that pie you’re eating. Then bam, bam bam: Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus kills Titus in retribution, and Lucius stabs Saturninus. Everything is chaos, until Marcus calls to the crowd. He gives the whole backstory of the two families’ strife. With all that, the Goths and Romans all agree that Lucius should probably be emperor now. He ends the play giving orders to dispose of the bodies: funerals for all the Romans, throwing Tamora’s corpse to birds of prey, and burying (ever unrepentant) prisoner Aaron up to his neck to starve. [Thank goodness, at least they let the baby live.]
Check This Out:
Welp, I watched Julie Taymor’s gory, gory film. It has great visuals (as to be expected from her) and the cast is full of big names who turn out solid work. But I didn’t like it. That has far more to do with the play itself than her interpretation. This play feels icky to me, both when reading and watching. Apparently, this was Jessica Lange’s first experience with Shakespeare (?!); she was a gorgeous and amazingly cruel Tamora with a great hold on a text. And Harry Lennix as Aaron is pretty magnetic (especially any scenes with the baby).
I’m going to do yet another plug for the funny and insightful Shakespeare podcast No Holds Bard. In addition to their standard weekly show (including funny items like how to use a given Bard line in everyday modern conversation or helping put together some poor clueless teenager’s English essay), they have episodes devoted solely to single plays. The idea is you can listen to “So You’re Going to See [Name of Play]” en route to an actual performance to prep you for the play. Their most recent take was on Titus, and Dan and Kevin’s enthusiasm and knowledge really helped open my eyes to view this early play beyond its bloodbath plot line. What I dashed off as a young playwright’s desire to give the audience a crazy show, they outline as setting up his later great work.
Speaking of which, that’s the exact same thing that Marjorie Garber writes on Titus in her collection of essays Shakespeare After All. A MUST READ. Helped me to view Tamora as a fully fleshed-out character who’s a really interesting, sensual prototype for Cleopatra. Granted she never really claimed that, but that’s where it took my head.
Yo, there’s a rock band called Titus Andronicus, and they’re not half bad! They even have an album titled “The Most Lamentable Tragedy”, so I tip my hat to them.
Thoughts and Themes:
Here’s the thing: many people view Titus Andronicus (and the earlier works overall) not on just its own merits/pitfalls, but in the context of Shakespeare’s overall canon. It’s very difficult not to compare this to Shakespeare’s more well-known and revered works that come later in his career. Even scholars (again referring to Garber) point out that Titus’s characters and themes lay the building blocks and give us glimpses into the plays that are to come. Titus Andronicus is one of the Bard’s earliest hits. Scholars know it was written before January 1594, when Philip Henslowe mentioned a performance in his diary. During this time period, gory revenge plays were all the rage (heh, so to speak). You can tell it’s an earlier work when compared to his later plays. The meter adheres more strictly to iambic pentameter than his later experimentations (ex: the witches speaking trochaic meter in Macbeth); it’s also written almost exclusively in verse, whereas Shakespeare embraces prose more (beyond class differentiation) in subsequent works. His rhymes aren’t as finessed, he shows off by incorporating lots of Latin phrases (a habit that trails off later). But more than those technical shows of less mature writing, the characters themselves are immature.
The characters are thinly drawn compared to his more famous (later) creations – motivated towards singular goals, reactionary and unquestioning of the family plans, and not given to much introspection. Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear…they look inward and struggle with their desires for revenge, their envy, and their pride. They are conflicted over their decisions. That’s not to say the roles in Titus do not exhibit sincere emotions, such as grief for their families’ misfortunes. But they swiftly zero in on seeking a straight-forward course of revenge as a means of easing that grief. They never think to consider other options or their consequences. Tamora, Titus, Aaron…pretty much every character sees one course of action and charges toward their goal (vengeance, causing chaos, gaining power, etc) with no thought of consequence or any question of right or wrong. These characters do not doubt their decisions and desires – it’s almost strangely (grotesquely) childlike. They want what they want when they want it. What’s more immature than knowing you’re right without actually even thinking about it?
In the first half of his career Shakespeare writes many plays, 3 of which are tragedies. Titus comes first, followed by Romeo & Juliet and Julius Caesar (all written prior to 1600, according to most scholars). Even just comparing those early tragedies, Titus’s characters plow forward without introspection, whereas characters like Juliet (“I have no joy of this contract tonight. It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden” 2.2) and Brutus (“If these be motives weak, break off betimes, and every man hence to his idle bed” 2.1) struggle early in their respective plays to determine or rationalize their actions. This progression struck me as a growing process for Shakespeare as a writer. Shakespeare was a less experienced playwright in creating Titus (never mind the fact that he was a younger man) – as his skills grew, his portrayal of characters matured and gained greater depths. Their journeys and his themes expanded as he gained more practice; his characters began to struggle internally than just with external occurrences.
Isn’t that character progression the very thing that SHOULD happen as we gain more experience? It’s the old adage: then more you learn, the less you realize you know. We sometimes think of older people being more set in their ways, but I believe it’s the opposite (or should be). I was more convinced of a single path of happiness/fulfillment when I was younger than I am now.
I look back on myself ten years ago, age 25, and how my life progressed from singular desires and focus to more widespread interests and search for meaning. Starting adult post-college life, my friends were all driven people used to rigorous milestones with proven metrics (academic accolades!), and we spent our days plowing away at business training programs or LSATs or postgraduate medical classes. My peers and I were all of a similar work-hard-play-hard mold. We were so sure of ourselves, full of the single-mindedness and self-righteousness of youth. Even if we didn’t know what we wanted out of a career or love life, we knew time was on our side and that we’d have the freedom to figure it out eventually. I had a hard time wrapping my head around people my age who didn’t have a 9-to-5 job and didn’t attend at least three happy hours a week. I had two goals: to have fun with my friends and to make decent money at my job. Most of the people I knew also had a few immediate goals for the next year or two, and divided their time and energy among a small pool of priorities. At 25, my major priorities were spending time with my boyfriend, partying with friends, getting through the workday, occasionally visiting my family, and saving money for my (to be determined) future. The people I surrounded myself with were people whose life stages and goals mostly aligned with my own. My friends and I were the characters of Titus, full of strong emotions but each treading a single path of success with little questioning as to whether it was the right path.
Until, all of a sudden, we diverged paths. Slowly, we all began peeling off to have new experiences: those who left to attend grad school, those who got promoted and more invested in their careers (no longer just jobs), those who coupled off and got married, those who shifted careers and started fresh altogether. Now, age 35, I am still friends with many (not all) of those same people, but we are all in very different life stages. And that is such a good thing. I have some mama friends, single friends, friends who are divorced. I have friends who love to be social or to travel, friends who are quiet and always want to keep things low-key. I find we learn so much more from one another now than we used to, as we relay our differing experiences to each other. Those priorities I used to have grew in number and morphed in nuance. They also became way less about just me and my desires. Today, they look more like quality time with my husband, raising my kids (balancing fun and discipline) to be good people, taking care of my body, trying to be a supportive friend, loving my expanding family (my parents, brother’s fam, in-laws included), physically caring for my home, volunteering with my community, tending to my writing.
Someone once accused me of becoming more rigid after the birth of my second child. More adherent to a structured schedule? Absolutely; any parent can tell you small children thrive on a schedule and don’t leave a lot of room for a spontaneous social life. Of course I’m stretched thinner and have less time on my hands than I used to. I can see how outwardly that looks rigid, but that isn't my definition of inflexibility. I think about all the experience that I’ve gained over the years: becoming a parent and wife, working in HR and helping people with their health and family issues, working in the classroom with my kids’ peers, supporting friends through their own struggles…I don’t know. I feel (I hope) that I’ve gained empathy along the way. That I’ve actually become less judgmental as I’ve learned more about others’ backgrounds and issues. Marriage and parenting have certainly taught me that there is no right way to live a life, to love someone, to raise a child. My world has expanded a huge amount since my 20s, and I feel much more open to new experiences and differening viewpoints than I ever have. I hope that expansion keeps coming.
Younger me used to buy into the notion that I had to be happy all the time – that chasing fun and saying yes to everything I wanted was the best way for me to live. Now, I’ve come to realize that contentment is my goal. Satisfaction with the varying (growing, ever-expanding) aspects of my life is what is sustainable, not a manic form of joy. Experience and its resulting introspection have shown me that’s what works best for me (at least, so far, until experience teaches me something else!). It’s also shown me that different ways serve different people; that there’s no correct path for living life, provided you’re doing no harm to others. But it takes looking on our more limited paths to realize this. So, thanks, Titus Andronicus, for your place in the canon. Thanks, Shakespeare, for evolving as a writer, for allowing your characters to grow up. And cheers to all of us who continue to do so as well. May we never be stagnant, may we always be learning from one another.
I'll end this with a nice, ambient song that kept coming to me during my writing of this post: “All My Friends” LCD Soundsystem
Seven plays and two lyric poems to go before completion! Mystery post coming next month; stay tuned!