I’ll be completely honest: I was nervous when I found out I was going to be working on Titus Andronicus. I didn’t know too much about it, but it did know it was notoriously Shakespeare’s most violent play, famous for its superfluous amputations. As it turns out, I was not alone in questioning the gratuitous violence in Titus Andronicus. The play has been under fire for a long time, criticized for being too gruesome. It was only revived once in the entire nineteenth century (The Shakespeare Book, 52). In 1687, English dramatist Edwards Ravenscroft (a last name I truly envy) said of Titus, “‘tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his [Shakespeare’s] Works; it seems rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure” (The Horrifying Fascination). So how do we make this “heap of Rubbish” into an experience that fun, entertaining, and (most importantly) NOT mentally scarring?
We’re figuring that one out. And actually, is going rather well.
It’s important to remember, though, that the art people appreciate is a reflection of the spirit of the time. The zeitgeist, if you will (I will NEVER miss an opportunity to drop a buzzword). During the Romantic period, for instance, Hamlet was considered the greatest Shakespeare play. I mean, think about it. Hamlet has all the things the Romantics loved. A troubled hero, a supernatural occurrence, a (contemplated) suicide, and a beautiful woman who dies tragically young (spoiler alert). It’s no wonder that those angst-ridden Romantics liked Hamlet so much. In the twentieth century, though, King Lear became more popular. This was the century that saw destruction and devastation due to deeply disturbed dictators, like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Again, it is no surprise that this particular century would take a liking to a play about a troubled old man (The Horrifying Fascination). So what does that mean for Titus? Will it only have its heyday when chopping off hands willy-nilly becomes relevant? If so, I think people would hardly be focused on whatever theater is suddenly popular. They’d be more focused on their lack of hands.
However, past directors of Titus have realized something over the years: once you get past all the gore, Titus actually has some very interesting themes. It in some ways fits the mold of Elizabethan drama, while at the same time being very subversive. It is simultaneously sexist and feminist, racist and progressive (but these I will get to in later posts). Director Yukio Niagawa found out way to bring out these bits beneath the bloody surface of Titus in his 2006 production of the show, using red ribbon instead of blood (Death, Mutilation).
Niagawa’s strategy makes a lot of sense. We live in a day and age where all you need to do is go to a Quentin Tarantino movie to see fountains of blood pouring out of someone. We’ve become desensitized too it. Matt, our incredible director, has made it clear that he does not want the focus to be on the gruesomeness of the violence, but the reasons and the pain behind it. That’s why in our production, blood is represented by black fabric. In a way, this choice is is a reflection of the entire play: it’s darker than what we’re used to. Puns aside, the black ribbons of blood take away the element of gore to leave only to emotional damage it causes.
One of the biggest focuses of the play is ritual. In fact, following traditions is exactly what incites the plot. Titus is all about honor. To begin with, his name comes from the Latin titulus, meaning “title of honor” (Meaning and Origin). Moreover, when Marcus introduces Titus in the beginning of the play, he says that Titus is “surnamed Pius.” This likely refers to his cognomen (Chaudhuri, 787), an extra name given to a Roman citizen. The title Pius is a reference to Aeneas, one of the founders of Rome (The Shakespeare Book). From the very beginning, Shakespeare establishes that honor and custom are important to Titus. Unfortunately, this gets him into a lot of trouble. Titus sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus, to the spirits of the soldiers lost in battle, despite Tamora’s pleas for him to be merciful. Tamora’s exclamation, “O cruel irreligious piety” (1.1.71) says it all. Titus follows tradition to the point where it’s unnecessarily brutal. The rest of the play she seeks revenge. Next, Marcus offers Titus the position of Emperor and Titus refuses, saying the role should go to Saturninus, the eldest son of the deceased emperor. Again, following tradition comes back to hurt Titus, as Tamora easily manipulates Saturninus to exact her revenge. Titus goes on to kill his son Mutius for dishonoring him. Another major problem. Calm down, Titus. This is becoming a pattern.
Titus is not the only one with questionable motives, though. Tamora and the Goths also take their revenge plan to the extreme, thinking that in some sense they are purveyors of justice. After the Chiron and Demetrius rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, and Aaron gets Titus’ sons Martius and Quintus killed, Titus wants revenge. (Double revenge? Is there a word when you want to revenge revenge? Revenge is starting to not sound like a word anymore.) All the racism against Aaron, too, gives hims enough motivation to seek retribution. All of this culminates in the final scene the cast has affectionately dubbed the Murder Party (in which almost Literally Everyone dies).
Well, this is all well and good, but what does this have to do with the present day and age? I mean, it’s not like we have human sacrifices anymore (at least, one would hope). Why is this play relevant? No, our society doesn’t look much like Titus’, but we do sometimes follow tradition to the point that it becomes destructive. The example the comes to mind is that of gender and sexuality. For years, many queer and gender nonconforming individuals have been harassed, discriminated against, and just generally made to feel unwelcome, solely for the reason that their gender or sexuality deviated from some perceived societal norm. Pride is particularly important at this camp, which is happily diverse in terms of sexuality and gender identity.
Bottom line is, we can be destructive without realizing it because we are simply doing what custom tells us to do. No character is guiltless. Marcus, who is never directly engaged in violence, still kills a fly, saying its black color reminds him of Aaron. Though it seems small, Titus is furious at Marcus for this unnecessary death. Later in the play, Aaron mentions that he committed his atrocities “as willingly as one would kill a fly” (5.1.983), making a parallel between his actions and Marcus’. They both willingly did something cruel without a second thought, just on different scales. But surely the child, Young Lucius, doesn’t do anything wrong? He’s, like, what, nine years old? Well he threatens to murder Tamora, for one thing. And in Colin Richmond’s 2013 adaption, the play end with Young Lucius holding Aaron’s baby in one hand, and the knife used to cut the pie in the other (Horrifying Fascination). What happens after can be assumed. His elders model violence, so he internalize and mimics it, just like the kids in Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment. Even Lavinia, who seems as if she is supposed to represent all that is good and pure, says some pretty nasty, racist things to Tamora regarding herself and Aaron. Does that mean that Lavinia deserves what happened to her? Of course not. But as Wonder Woman wisely taught us, it’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. In fact, I daresay that quote works better in the context of Titus Andronicus than it does in Wonder Woman (Thanks, Chris Pine). This is every character’s tragedy. Everyone suffers (and most often dies shortly thereafter). But they’re all trying to do what they think is right, according to tradition or some twisted sense of “justice” that leads them to brutal revenge. They put custom over compassion. And that’s how we end up with three severed hands, two severed heads, and a stage littered with dead bodies.
The Horrifying Fascination of Titus Andronicus.” Times Higher Education, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/culture/the-horrifying-fascination-of-titus-andronicus/2004241.article#survey-answer
“Meaning, Origin, and History of Name Titus.” Behind The Name: Meanings of Names, Baby Name Meanings, https://www.behindthename.com/
Secher, Benjamin. “Death, Mutilation – and not a drop of blood.” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/drama/3653023/Death-mutilation-and-not-a-drop-of-blood.html
The Shakespeare Book. DK Publishing, 2015.
Chaudhuri, Praumit. “Classical Quotation in Titus Andronicus.” English Literary History Vol. 81, No.3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.