Friends, confession time: I’ve never read Titus Andronicus. It was never on the school curriculum (though that usually left much to be desired, Shakespeare-wise) and the closest I’ve come to seeing a rendition of the play is Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price. I knew the play was bloody and the ending (you know what part I mean), but otherwise I went into this as a babe into the woods.
It did not disappoint.
Seriously, why is this not taught in high schools? You want kids interested in Shakespeare? Give them gore! Admittedly the rape part might be a bit much, but is it really such a taboo topic with everything else that’s taught in English classes in schools? Off the top of my head I remember covering incest, suicide, xenophobia, and more murder than I care to recall. Perhaps having to discuss how horrible a crime rape is might be a good subject to broach? I don’t know. What I do know is that I stayed up late to finish this play in one sitting because I enjoyed it that much. Perhaps that says more about me than I care to admit.
Now, onto the play!
The play begins not long after the death of the Roman emperor as his two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, both state their intentions to succeed their father. Marcus Andronicus, a tribune, then enters and states that the public’s favored successor to the late emperor is not one of them but rather Tutus Andronicus, Marcus’s brother. (I also read somewhere that Titus is the late emperor’s brother and Saturninus’s and Bassianus’s uncle, but I’m not certain that’s correct; it might have something to do with Saturninus calling Marcus “uncle” at one point, but that could just be a term of respect.)
Titus has been away from Rome fighting against the Goths for 10 years. Of course, this is the exact moment when he returns victorious from his battles. He brings with him prisoners; among them, Tamora the Queen of the Goths, her sons Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius, and Tamora’s secret lover Aaron the Moor. Additionally, Titus brings the body of at least one of his sons; 21 of his 25 sons (I sincerely hope he had more than one wife) have died in battle.
In keeping with tradition, Titus offers Tamora’s eldest son Alarbus as a sacrifice for those the Goths have killed. Tamora pleads for mercy but Titus refuses to show any. Off stage, Alarbus is dismembered and burned. Tamora vows revenge.
Titus refuses the throne and instead supports Saturninus’s claim. Saturninus is elected Emperor and states that he’ll marry Titus’s daughter Lavinia, to which Titus agrees. Problem: Lavinia is already betrothed to Bassianus, who refuses to relinquish his claim (and apparently under Roman law he’s in the right). Titus’s remaining four sons argue Bassianus’s case to Titus, but Titus refuses to listen and accuses them of treason. Bassianus then runs off with Lavinia and Titus’s sons aid his escape. In the resulting scuffle Titus kills his own son Mutius (while being fully aware of what he’s doing; this is no accident).
Saturninus then denounces Titus and his family and instead marries Tamora, who quickly goes from prisoner to Empress. Tamora, acting a part to exact revenge later, advises Saturninus to pardon his brother and Titus’s family, which he does.
Soon after everyone goes on a hunt. Aaron comes upon Demetrius and Chiron fighting to decide which of them will woo Lavinia (who, at this point, is officially married to Bassianus). Aaron convinces them to kill Bassianus and deposit his body in a specific ditch, after which they can have their way with Lavinia. They do this in front of Tamora, who refuses to show mercy upon Lavinia and intercede with her sons, Chiron and Demetrius then drag Lavinia into the woods to rape and mutilate her. They cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so she’s unable to accuse them of the act.
Meanwhile, Aaron gives Tamora a forged letter framing Titus’s sons Martius and Quintus for Bassianus’s death. Aaron then leads Martius and Quintus to the ditch with Bassianus’s body and leaves them to be “discovered” by Saturninus, who has them arrested and sentences them to death. Saturninus also refuses to give the brothers a trial requested by Titus, deciding the two men are guilty based on the circumstances.
Not long after, Marcus comes across the mutilated Lavinia and brings her to Titus, who’s still reeling from the accusations against his sons. When Titus sees Lavinia he is overcome. (And from this point on Titus, who hasn’t been thrifty with his words, becomes downright loquacious as if to make up for his daughter’s muteness.)
Lucius, Titus’s last remaining free son, arrives and states that he’s been banished for trying to defend his brothers. Aaron then arrives and states that Saturninus will spare Titus’s son’s lives if someone cuts off one of their hands. Marcus and Lucius both insist that they be the ones to sacrifice a limb but Titus dupes them and has Aaron cut off one of his own. Of course, this is a ruse on Aaron’s part and a short time later a messenger shows up with both Titus’s hand and Martius and Quintus’s heads. Titus orders Lucius to flee and seek aid with the Goths.
Later, Lavinia is able to identify her attackers by writing their names in the dirt with a stick she holds in her mouth and between her mutilated arms. Meanwhile, Tamora has apparently been pregnant with Aaron’s child and gives birth to an obviously mixed-race child. Aaron discovers that the only other person who knows of the child is the midwife and the nurse who brings the child to him; he kills the nurse and states that he’ll also kill the midwife. Chiron and Demetrius are with him at the time so they are fully aware of their mother’s indiscretions. Aaron flees with the child and comes up with a ruse to get another child to replace his own so Tamora’s reputation will remain unsullied.
Later, Lucius captures Aaron and the child and threatens to kill the infant. After extracting an oath from Lucius that the infant will remain unharmed, Aaron reveals everything to him.
In Rome, Tamora is convinced that Titus has gone insane based on his behavior. She goes to Titus with Chiron and Demetrius and “convinces” him that they are Revenge, Murder, and Rape. As Revenge, Tamora promises Titus retribution upon his enemies, trying to forestall Lucius’s attack of Rome with the Goth army and move Titus into a position where she can have Saturninus kill both him and Lucius. Titus agrees and sends Marcus to fetch Lucius but insists that Murder and Rape (Chiron and Demetrius) stay while Revenge (Tamora) leaves to fetch Saturninus and Tamora for a feast at Titus’s house. Convinced of his madness, all agree and Tamora leaves.
With Tamora gone, Titus reveals that he’s not mad at all and has Lavinia help him cut Chiron and Demetrius’s throats. He also reveals his plan to cook the two brothers into a pie and feed it to Tamora.
The next day, Titus sets his scene. As Saturninus and Tamora begin to eat Titus asks Saturninus if a father is within his rights to kill a daughter after she’s been raped. When Saturninus says that he would be Titus reveals Lavinia, explains her rape, and kills her in front of everyone. Saturninus calls for Chiron and Demetrius, to which Titus reveals that Tamora has been eating them. Titus then kills Tamora and is in turn killed by Saturninus, who himself is killed by Lucius to avenge Titus’s death.
In the aftermath, Lucius is named Emperor. He decrees that Saturninus and Titus should be given burials fitting their station, but Tamora’s corpse should be left in the wild outside the city for wildlife to do with as they please. Aaron is sentence to be buried partially in the ground and left to die.
And with that, we wrap up another week and another play. Next week, we go onto something completely different with The Taming of the Shrew, which I love.
In a short space we had father killing son, father killing daughter, rape, dismemberment, possible death by immolation (it’s never said whether Alarbus is alive when his body is set on fire), throats cut, people being baked into pies, and someone buried alive. It’s a veritable pupu platter of violence.
Where did Shakespeare get all this from? Interesting question. Unlike some of his other Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus), Shakespeare didn’t base this play on actual history. Instead, a lot of the material seems to have come from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. There are apparently many instances in myths of children being baked into pies and fed to their parents, enough for me to call it an unhealthy obsession. Lavinia’s rape also seems to be based on myths, at least one of which is referenced in the play itself.
Realize also that this is the first play we’re reading of Shakespeare’s that isn’t based on history (and so the story itself doesn’t have to follow certain facts) and has depth. Much as I enjoyed The Comedy of Errors, the play itself was a bit flat. It was supposed to be, and it was so complex with its mistaken-identity humor that more complexity of plot, or even character development, would have complicated matters and muddied our understanding of the play. The play would also have lost its adherence to Aristotle’s unities.
Did you catch the reference to Coriolanus? It happens in Act IV Scene 4:
The Goths have gather’d head; and with a power
high-resolved men, bent to the spoil,
They hither march amain, under conduct
Of Lucius, son to old Andronicus;
Who threats, in course of this revenge, to do
As much as ever Coriolanus did.
We won’t be getting to the play until November, but it’s fun to catch.