Titus Andronicus: Unbelievable, Disgusting,Better Left Unread
Of all the Shakespeare’s plays I’ve read so far, Titus Andronicus is the one I would like to have never read.
Titus Andronicus must have been written and presented to shock (or disgust) Elizabethan theater patrons. It did comment on some traditional human foibles and attributes that often play a part in Shakespeare’s plays, and it was a descendant of several ancient (albeit disgusting) sources and stories, but Titus Andronicus—not the band—doesn’t work as a myth, reality or dream. For me, it’s just—yes you probably have guessed it—disgusting and a waste of time.
In the play, Titus Andronicus is a popular conquering general, suggesting he has a powerful intellect and dominant will. His brother is a Roman Tribune. It should have been disaster for anyone to tinker with this family. But the two men are played over and over and over again as fools, only perceiving the motives of others and the accompanying disasters after the family is smitten.
The Roman emperor, Saturninus, who rises to power at the goodwill of Titus Andronicus, shows an astounding naiveté and profound lack of situation-saving judgment and curiosity, from the beginning to his abrupt end. Then there’s the queen of the Goths, presented to us as sublimely subtle (and very lustful), yet whose haste in revenge and stupidity in lust wholly destroys her “subtle” work. And don’t forget the queen’s slave, a Moor named Aaron, who becomes an obvious image and personification of the Devil, in a bow to the racist English audience of the late 1500s.
All in all, Titus Andronicus and its story demand that we (and playgoers over the centuries) suspend logic and reason.
Grace Starry West in her Classical Allusions in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus notes the play “is generally considered Shakespeare’s worst” and has 53 allusions in the play. I suffered through each allusion as I read–they distracted from the plot (but why complain about that, as any distraction from this story is welcome relief). Fifty-three classical allusions apparently matches the total in Troilus and Cressida, but the allusions in Troilus fit naturally and neatly into that tragedy. The allusions in Titus Andronicus seem forced.
The regretful plot: Titus Andronicus returns to Rome triumphantly after defeating the Goths. He brings, to parade through Rome, the queen of the Goths and her three awful sons. Titus puts to death one of the sons for his actions against Rome. The queen had begged Titus not to do it, but to show mercy. He doesn’t, and she turns to revenge. Meanwhile, Titus supports Saturninus as emperor, and has promised his daughter, the fair and virtuous Lavinia, as wife to the new emperor.
But Titus’s sons, Lavinia and the emperor’s brother Bassianus have a different plan, and take Lavinia to marry Bassianus, as she had earlier been pledged to him. Titus is outraged and kills one of his sons for treason (unlikely I’m sure). The emperor calms down Titus. Saturninus doesn’t care, he’ll just marry the conquered queen of the Goths. Once he does, she begins her campaign of revenge.
Her sons want their way with Lavinia, so the empress has them kill Bassianus, rape Lavinia, cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so she can’t implicate them. (These are not nice people.) She then frames two of Titus’s three remaining sons for Bassianus’ murder. (It’s an unmentioned miracle, but Lavinia doesn’t bleed to death.) Instead she returns to live with her family. The emperor discovers his brother’s murder, and orders Titus’s sons held, but never asks about Lavinia. (Amazing. No wonder Rome fell.)
The plot is just picking up steam: Titus’s two framed sons are to be put to death, but the senate offers their lives if one of the other family members will cut off a hand. (Absurd, I know.) So, Titus cuts off a hand and sends it to the senate, which sends it back mockingly with the heads of his sons. (I’m embarrassed for myself and the Bard to repeat the plot.)
All the while, the queen is two-timing the emperor with her Moor. Suddenly, the queen gives birth to a baby, but the baby is dark-skinned. The Moor, Aaron, escapes with the baby to save its life.
Finally, Titus invites everyone to his house (including his last son who has joined forces with the Goths and has returned to conquer Rome). There he serves up the queen’s sons, who he’s killed, to their mother as a dainty dish. He unveils Lavinia for the emperor who suddenly wants to know who did this. (Come on. Where has he been the entire play?) Titus then kills Lavinia for her shame, reveals the content of the dinner—her sons—to the empress and stabs her. The emperor then kills one-handed Titus, and Lucius—Titus’s remaining and returning son—kills the emperor.
Aaron, the Moor slave, has already been captured by Lucius and confessed to all. He admits he has been the mind, motivation and evil behind the queen/empress. His only regret: “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” Earlier he proclaimed, “If there be devils, would I were a devil, to live and burn in everlasting fire.” He is sent off to death.
My only regret is that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus and that it has survived for more than 400 years. The plot is unbelievable (and disgusting).
The play has several disgusting sources. According to Shakespeare-Online:
There is a possibility that Shakespeare relied upon a poem circulating in 1570, unfortunately titled, A Lamentable Ballad of the Tragical End of a Gallant Lord and of his Beautiful Lady, With the Untimely Death of Their Children, Wickedly Performed by a Heathen Blackamore, Their Servant: The Like Seldom Heard Before. We know that, as a minor source, Shakespeare used Ovid’s tale of Progne and Philomela (as found in Metamorphoses), which he cited almost verbatim in Act IV, Scene I (42) of the play.
Philomela is referenced many times in the play. She was raped and had her tongue severed, but her hands remained to weave an accusation against the perpetrator. In revenge, she and her sister serve her rapist his son in a meal.
Also mentioned by Shakespeare-Online is the influence Seneca’s Thyestes. In that Roman drama, a brother, for revenge, slays his nephews and serves them to their father for dinner. The personal significance of that association is that I used quotes from and references to Thyestes several times in my novel Beyond the Wood, because a father eating his sons perfectly captures the American Civil War, where governing men from the North and governing men from the South consumed their own progeny in the vanity of war.
The theme of Titus Andronicus seems to be the destructive nature of revenge, outright racism, the consequences of lust, and, lastly, no matter how capable you think someone in this play is, they’re not.
Quotes I like:
Tamora: Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge
Tamora: O cruel, irreligious piety!
All: He lives in fame that died in virtue’s cause.
Titus: Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive that Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Tamora: I have touched thee to the quick
Aaron: I know thou art religious, and hast a thing within thee called conscience
Next Up: Pericles, Prince of Tyre