If I was a teacher of adolescent boys and it was forced upon me by the curriculum to make them like Shakespeare, I think I might choose Titus Andronicus as my text. This may, of course, be one of the reasons (one of many) why I’m not a teacher; but nonetheless, I feel it would be right up their street – more so, anyway, than Romeo and Juliet.
T.S. Eliot (according to my edition) called Titus Andronicus “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written”, and it’s true, one would find it difficult to believe Eliot would enjoy such a play. It’s exceedingly and unremittingly violent and dark, with every character seemingly bent on inflicting as much cruelty as they can on every other character. As often with Shakespeare, it’s sometimes hard to see why they end up doing what they’re doing; we think, may be they’re being a bit extreme; if only this were a modern literary novel instead, and they’d just carry on their dull lives while feeling a little cut up within (the way I imagine T.S. Eliot dealing with the events in the play: – continuing to go to his job at the bank each day, and never mentioning to anyone that his son-in-law’s just been murdered and his daughter brutally raped and then had her tongue cut out and her arms cut off; then coming in the next day without one of his own arms and no one have the gall to bring the matter up). The character of Aaron in particular is that of an unrepentant psychopath, whose only joy is in committing acts of evil – a character we are only too familiar with from the many serial killer films we are always watching. Here’s the moment in which he’s finally about to pay from his crime with his life, and gives a familiar psychopath speech, in which he remains defiant about his sins:
Ay, that I had not done a thousand more,
Even now I curse the day – and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse –
Wherein I did not some notorious ill:
As kill a man or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks,
Set fire on barns and haystalks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves
And set them upright at their dear friends’ door,
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
“Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.”
But, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed,
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
And this is what Titus Andronicus reminds me of most: it’s a Shakespearean horror film (the scene in the woods, in particular), bleak and seemingly absent of all morality, except that of revenge. And like horror films, one wonders if this isn’t a genre piece: that Shakespeare intended it as an exploitation work. It forms part of the genre of the revenge tragedy. Just prior to this, and my cause of reading it now, I read Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which was immensely popular and has striking similarities: the whole second section in both plays, in which a father seeks to take revenge for the cruelties inflicted on his children, and his path to doing so involves him first concealing it. Shakespeare (from the critical notes I’ve read in this and other plays) seems constantly to be making reference to Kyd, if not actually just re-writing his plays and appending his name to them. And then after, I read Seneca’s Phaedra (with a recollection too in my mind of Thyestes, which shares with Titus Andronicus the idea of cooking people’s children and then making their parents eat them), the source of all this theatrical revenge and much beloved of the Jacobeans, who of course – in his turn – only ripped-off Greek tragedy.
As a quondam classical scholar, I did find myself wondering exactly when this play was set. It seems to be some time around c6th AD (Shakespeare has quite a few more esoteric classical settings, beyond the obvious end of republic / early empire), when Justinian was trying to establish “Roman” control again over Rome and Italy, and fighting against the goths under Totila (a Totilius is mentioned in Shakespeare’s source – not sure if he’s referenced in the play as well). But the plot of the play itself, of course, is all complete, ahistorical and enjoyable nonsense.