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This 16th Century bloodfest was one of the ‘video nasties’ of Elizabethan England, containing rape, mutilation, murder and cannabalism; the main difference being that the Elizabethans did not worry or moralize about its content – they just enjoyed the show. There are so many horrible occurrences in this play that The Texas Chainsaw massacre seems bland by comparison. Forget ‘Driller Killer’ – this play has more blood and suffering than a butchers’ barn-dance.
~PLOT SUMMARY~ Titus Andronicus is a Roman general who has just waged a successful war against the Goths (presumably fuelled by the Roman dislike for too much eye-liner and black crimped hair). He brings the Goth queen and her three sons with him as prisoners of war, then proceeds to sacrifice the eldest son in order to appease the ghosts of Titus’ sons who have died in battle (and because he can’t take any more Sisters of Mercy tracks). Titus is offered the throne but instead recommends that it be given to the late emperor’s eldest son, Saturninus who asks to marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia. Saturninus’ brother (Bassianus) is Lavinia’s lover and, in order to prevent the marriage, he kidnaps her. Saturninus then spreads a rumour that Bassianus has raped Lavinia and decides to marry Tamora instead. This gives Tamora the chance to start plotting revenge for her son’s death. From this point on, things start to get unpleasant. Tamora’s remaining sons, Demetrius and Chiron, kill Bassianus and rape Lavinia, then cut off her tongue and hands to prevent her from incriminating them. They cause two of Titus’ son’s to fall into a pit where they have placed Bassianus’ body and thus frame them for the murder. Titus begs Saturninus to spare his sons and Saturninus agrees on the condition that Titus cut off his own hand and the hand of his brother. Titus does so and sends the hands to Saturninus but receives only the severed heads of his sons in return. Lavinia finds a way to tell Titus who raped her and he plots his revenge. Titus invites Tamora and Saturninus to a banquet, where he serves them Demetrius and Chiron, baked into a tasty pie. Titus then kills Lavinia in order to end her shame, and murders Tamora. Saturninus kills Titus but is himself killed by Titus’ eldest son, Lucius who, as the only member of the royal family with all his bodily parts intact, is elected emperor.
~NOT A PLAY FOR AUNTY DORIS~ This play was Shakespeare’s first venture into the field of revenge tragedy and it lacks the depth of his later tragedies. At several points, the play relies on shock-value rather than dramatic skill or character development. However, beneath the brutal and revolting surface, there are some interesting explorations of family interaction and a tragic fall. By deciding to avenge the deaths of his sons through human sacrifice, Titus transgresses acceptable behaviour and paves the way for his own downfall – leading to the destruction of his family, madness, despair, and rage against the emperor and the gods.
There are some nice moments in this play, such as when Titus shoots arrows at heaven, and there are also flashes of Shakespeare’s mastery of words, such as the way Tamora introduces herself before the infamous pie-scene:
I am Revenge, sent from th’infernal kingdom To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes. Come down, and welcome me to this world’s light. Confer with me of murder and of death.
The problem with both this play and many of the ‘video nasties’ of the present day is that they rely on piling horror upon horror until the climax. This is all very well, until the audience gets bored and jaded (or desensitized, as it might be called today) towards the violence. Speaking from a dramatic perspective, rather than a moral one, I would suggest that once someone has become desensitized to violence, then the ‘shock-value’ factor that forms the basis of many of these films becomes ineffective, because they audience is no longer shockable. The answer is to offer plays and films that combine the horror with an element of depth – Gloucester having his eyes gouged out in ‘King Lear’ is all the more effective because it links to the sight/blindness theme than runs through the play, and also because the audience is unprepared for it. Horror and brutality have a place in the performing arts, but they should be subservient to the plot, not the reason for it.
So this is a rather long-winded way of indicating my main criticism of this play - violence at the expense of depth. There is no subtlety, no political analysis, no parallels or counterpoints drawn between the deeds of the powerful and the deeds of the common people. Then again, even Shakesreare had to start somewhere, and if the writing of ‘Titus Andronicus’ led to the writing of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’, then that is enough justification for its existence.
Hmm, yes, it is distinctly unappealing and, despite the gruesome content, rather forgettable. However, as you say, everyone has to start somewhere - and we can all be thankful that the great bard is remembered for rather better works! x
Ariel 12.09.2001 00:29
Excellent op. What did you make of the (now about a year or so ago) film version?
castlebinn 25.06.2001 22:09
Thought-provoking. Perhaps Shakey was taking the p in an Evil Dead-way