Monday, May 12, 2008

Titus Andronicus

Yeah, you know the one. The one where everybody gets their limbs cut off. The one where the scheming Tamora gets her dead sons served to her at a banquent, in the form of a pie.

The CW on this play is that it's among Shakespeare's worst, and it's true that it's no Lear. But it has several things going for it, some of them unexpected. Among the expected things: it's fast-paced, a quick read, and very likely a lot of fun to stage. In addition, its dramatic arcs are many and brief: you reach for the candy, you eat the candy. What the thing is about is not really the point--indeed, at first it seems as though it's going to be another succession drama, and before the first act (possibly the work of George Peele, says The Oxford Shakespeare) is through, it's turned into a revenge free-for-all. Its pleasures are not subtle ones.

But the surprises. Among them is getting to see Titus as a kind of proto-Lear or proto-Hamlet. He goes mad (though not quite mad enough for Tamora's dumbass plan to work), he experiences doubt. He's a warrior gone to seed, a hot-tempered military grunt who has no sense of strategy. You know, like McCain. He doesn't get much good poetry, but he has his moments, and I can see how a good actor, informed by Shakespeare's later plays, could get some decent milage out of the guy.

The character who does get the good poetry is Aaron, the moor. He represents, surprise surprise, the very embodiment of evil; we are still a ways off from Othello (or, as villainy goes, even Iago, for that matter). But he speaks with great nobility and integrity, and without all the asinine mush-mouthed verbosity of, say, Marcus, who, when he sees that his neice is drooling blood, goes on for ten lines or so about how cool it looks.

No, Aaron is a small, brilliant creation. He sires Tamora's bastard child; when she gives birth, she sends it to Aaron via a nurse, who tells him to kill it. Instead, he kills the nurse. At the end of the scene, he carries off the baby, saying:

Come on, you thick-lipped slave, I'll bear you hence,
For it is you that puts us to our shifts.
I'll make you feed on berries and on roots,
And fat on curds and whey, and suck the goat,
And cabin in a cave, and bring you up
To be a warrior and command a camp.

It's worth noting that the baby's almost the only one alive at the end--they even kill the clown.

The great unanswered question that we posed in the hardcore book group about this play is: how on earth did it come to exist? It's clearly Shakespeare's, but it's utterly nuts, and unlike anything else in the oeurve. Personally, I think the guy was just fucking around. He probably wrote the thing in a weekend--or tried to, and ended up getting distracted by the unexpected depth he was bringing to the characters. Not too much depth, mind you--but enough so that he filed it all away for future plays. It's gross, and fascinating.

10 comments:

KATE EVANS said...

I once wrote a poem about how Titus Andronicus is the one Shakespeare play no one reads. You've proven me wrong.

jrlennon said...

I'm sorry to have rendered your poem obsolete... ;-) In truth, with this book group, I'm reading all of them...so the choice was arbitrary!

amy said...

I wish I could be in this book group! Also, perhaps you need to see this.

McQ said...

I wish I could be in this book group, too. Oh yeah, I was, before I had to move away. Sniff, sniff, sob...

rmellis said...

I once read something about how directors (the few who've done this play) choose to indicate the chopped off limbs and flowing blood. One of them tied long red ribbons to the actors' wrists...

Mr. Saflo said...

I don't have the necessary mental equipment to make heads or tails of Shakespare outside of that one play we all studied in high school, but I did love the film version!

Timon said...

I once wrote a poem about how Titus Andronicus is the one Shakespeare play no one reads. You've proven me wrong.

That would be Timon of Athens. It's a shame that it's rarely read and rarely performed.

KinkyKathy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Rochester said...

I remember reading Titus , of my own volition, in high school. I kind of wondered whether it was supposed to be funny; it was so over the top.

I think maybe that baby grows up to be Caliban in another play. The whole hiding-him-in-the-woods until-he-can-take-over-the-world thing went wrong, perhaps.

Anonymous said...

I loved Titus Andronicus the same way I loved Kill Bill. Beautifully over-the-top and hilariously violent.

Also: JRL, I just got a copy of Green Mountains Review (I'm a past contributor) and see in the notes that you have a novel, Castle, coming out in 2009. Great news!