Saturday, November 11, 2017

Book Reviews: Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus
by William Shakespeare
Sex and gore that would make Tarantino squeamish
You can make an argument that there is very little that is new under the sun. Shakespeare's play Titus Andronicus would be a good exhibit for that point of view. At various times creative artists as disparate as Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Quentin Tarantino, Rob Zombie, Robert Bloch, Tom Six, Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga, and Richard Laymon have been accused of playing to the cheap seats, of marketing cheap sex and grotesque violence for no other reason than to shock people. Some of those accusations are true. Some of them are not. But certainly Titus Andronicus is a rebuke to those who believe that humans have radically changed over the centuries or to those who still hold that Shakespeare only wrote high minded comedies/tragedies designed to uplift the human spirit. Shakespeare could be as nasty and dirty as any modern splatterpunk novelist. This play was apparently when he wanted to be way out there. Titus Andronicus was so out of the ordinary for Shakespeare that for the longest time some scholars refused to believe that he wrote it. Others argued that everything was so ridiculously over the top that Shakespeare meant this to be a comedy.

If I recall correctly there isn't any incest or homosexual activity in Titus Andronicus, but Shakespeare includes almost every other taboo in the play, his first tragedy. Shakespeare describes adultery, murder, rape, lots of mutilation, cannibalism, and filicide. Shakespeare offers the reader a big scary black man who does evil for evil's sake and makes a (white) Queen his willing sex slave. There's a fair amount of racism, often portrayed uncritically. This is a part of Shakespeare's contribution to the Western canon as much as Hamlet or The Tempest. Virtually no character is likable. Anyone who is nice seems to get it in the neck almost immediately. The story feels modern even though it's set in pre-Christian times or at least semi-Christian times. No one in this play is familiar with the Golden Rule or wishes to turn the other cheek. The highest values in Titus Andronicus are not to love thy neighbor as thyself and return good for evil but rather to unquestionably follow the orders of your family head and avenge yourself sevenfold upon any who assail you.



Roman General Titus Andronicus is a loyal servant of the state. He has spent his life in service to the empire. Rome barks; he bites. Titus is a hard man and occasionally a cruel one, but he plays by the rules. Harsh rules but rules all the same. Titus' word is his bond. Titus gives loyalty and obedience to those above him and demands the same from those below. Titus has just concluded a successful campaign against the Goths. This campaign cost Titus the lives of several of his sons. Returning to Rome for his victory parade and religious celebration, Titus has dragged back in chains the Queen of the Goths Tamora, her lover and adviser Aaron the Moor, and Tamora's sons by the deceased Goth King. Roman secular and religious law and Titus' own inflexible sense of justice demand payback for Titus' dead sons. Even though they died in battle invading someone else's land Titus is unwilling to charge it to the game. He has no respect for "freedom fighters". To Titus there is only Rome. Rome rules. To appease the spirits of his sons Titus decides to sacrifice Tamora's oldest son. Despite Tamora's appeals, piteous pleadings and desperate offers of anything Titus ignores her. He has the young man killed in front of his inconsolable mother and siblings, while laughing Romans mock the grieving Goths for their helplessness. This play is a great example of the truism that honor is not necessarily good.


The Roman Emperor dies without a strong successor in place. The tribune, Titus' brother, announces that the Emperor's choice was Titus. Titus declines in favor of the Emperor's oldest son Saturninus. Grateful not to have to fight against a popular general who controls much of the army, Saturninus says that he will marry Titus' daughter Lavinia. This is a great honor. Eventually Titus' grandson will sit on the throne. There's just one problem. Lavinia is already betrothed to Bassianus, Saturninus' younger brother and previous rival for the throne. And it's probably because he wanted to stick it to his little brother that Saturninus chose Lavinia in the first place. Lavinia, Bassianus and Lavinia's brothers (Titus' surviving sons) are of the opinion that even an Emperor doesn't get to break betrothals. 
A woman gets to marry the man SHE wants to marry. Lavinia's brothers are ready to fight and die over this. Titus thinks that the Emperor is the boss, no if's, and's, or but's about it. Disrespecting the Emperor is a capital offense. Titus kills one of his sons who tries to protect his sister and putative brother-in-law. Disobeying Daddy is also a capital offense.


Before civil war can break out Saturninus notices that there is this hot foreign babe who is conveniently available and can't do anything as inconsiderate as saying no to the Emperor. Yes he's talking about Tamora. He marries her. And just like that Tamora becomes Empress of Rome. What could possibly go wrong? Tamora, Aaron and her surviving sons have some intense payback plans for the entire Andronicus family. Under Aaron's leadership, Team Goth will work day and night for revenge. Aaron is both a horrible stereotype AND a man who is rightly upset with the mistreatment he's received. He's very self-aware. He's smarter than most people realize. He's eager to hurt people. Some stage versions have worked to reduce some of the play's racism and even made Aaron a hero. Other adaptations have sought to rework how the play treats women. Some years back director Julie Taymor created a film adaptation of this play. I thought it was worthwhile. It included such heavyweights as Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Laura Fraser (Lydia from Breaking Bad), Harry Lennix, Colm Feore, Alan Cumming and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It expertly and heedlessly mixed time, settings and political meanings to make an intoxicating film that is rooted in Shakspeare's script and universal and timeless. 

George R.R. Martin's infamous Frey pies (created by Arya Stark in Game of Thrones and Wyman Manderly in A Song of Ice and Fire) were possibly inspired by this play. Of course the play's atrocities go back to the Greek myths of Tantalus and the House of Atreus. And who knows if there are older antecedents.This play also contains one of Shakespeare's funniest lines. Tamora's sons, Demetrius and Chiron, are unpleasantly surprised to hear that their mother is pregnant with Aaron's child.


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.

It is both intriguing and maybe somewhat sad that five hundred years ago, today and probably five hundred years from now the most cutting insults always involve boasting of sexual contact with someone's mother. And if we could go back even further in time we'd probably find some Homo Sapiens saying the same thing to a Neanderthal. So it goes.
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