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Titus Andronicus is a play in the Revenge tragedy genre - a form of entertainment very popular in Shakespeare's time, and into which the bard made several forays. The genre is a bloody one, and the plots all follow a similar pattern. A man is wronged (somebody he cares for is murdered, raped or abused in some way, not always on the stage.) Said man then takes a bit of time to find out who is to blame, and to get himself organised before launching into a violent crusade to punish the wrongdooer. Usually, the punishment is even more hideous than the crime. The punishment we always get to see, the crime often we don't. Just occasionally, the revenger is a woman, but this is seldom the case. Titus Andronicus breaks with this slightly in that two revenge plots run simultaniously, as two parents (Titus and Tamora) take revenge upon each other for the deaths of their offspring, leading to a bloody feud and a high body count.
Revenge tragedies are brutal and grim - poisonings, rapes, and horrible ways of killing people that would be worthy of a James Bond villain are typical. I wonder how these horrors were presented on the Elizabethan stage - they had limited access to special effects, and must have represented many of the mutilations - I have read that red ribbons would be tied around body parts to demonstrate that they had been cut off. In those days, symbolism could be used to convey horror, these days we would need to see it all graphically portrayed in order to believe it. In many ways, the revenge tragedies are more horrible for us as an audience than they would have been at the time of writing, because we expect levels of realism that would have been unthinkable then.
A bit about the plot: Titus Andronicus is a fighter who has just waged a successful war, but lost some of his sons in the violence. he sacrifices the son of the captured queen Tamora to appease the ghosts of his sons. Tamora's sons then embark on a complicated revenge, which results in Titus's daughter Lavinia being raped,(off stage) and mutilated (on stage.) The language alludes to the violation of the female body, and at first reading, this is an incredibly horrible scene. In revenge, Titus then kills Tamora's sons and has then turned into a pie which she eats. As part of the sub plot, hands are cut off, more sons are executed and of course everybody dies, as enar as makes much odds. Unlike most Shakespeare plays, this one has little subtlety and there isn't anything like the level of complex politicking and character interaction you might have expected from the bard. However, the revenge tragedy is not a subtle genre, and as such, this play is fairly typical.
When I was studying this text at Uni, one of my tutors asked if anyone had found the lay funny. As you can imagine, there was a stunned silence. We were then told to go back and read the scene of Lavinia's rape and mutilation and imagine that Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer were playing the parts of the brothers. I duly did this. The violence is so extreme in this episode that it almost does pass through horror and into the realms of black comedy - it would be possible to play this scene for laughs. The more I think about this, the more disturbing I find it. We laugh only too easily at violence (Freud would say in self defence) but I wonder if there should be some limit as to what we can laugh at. Violence is always troubling, laughing at violence even more so. Elizabethan audiences went to see revenge tragedies because they enjoyed them, and productions became ever more grim and horrible to satisfy the tastes of the public. But this was an audience that also saw public executions and was used to the spectacle of death. How much have we moved on since then? Look at any paper, and you might think that we haven't moved on much at all.
As soon as you ask the question "Could Titus Andronicus be funny?" it is necessary to start asking all manner of moral and ethical questions, to think long and hard about what is in fact acceptable and to ask whether some things go too far. This is an issue that is always relevant - the recent brass eye program satirising paedophilia springs to mind. When is it all right to laugh? By laughing, do we relieve the horror, or make it yet more atrocious. This might not be the greatest play that Shakespeare ever wrote, but it leaves a lot of unpleasant questions unanswered. It isn't an especially good read, the violence mounts up until it becomes almost impossible to either believe it or to care. The characters are almost entirely unsympathetic, with the exception of Lavinia, the silenced, mutilated woman, who is so pathetic that it is impossible to feel anything other than pity and repulsion when faced with her. This is a troubling play, and it's very hard to formulate a response to it, save to say i sincerely hope that they never allow Reeves and Mortimer to participate.
I'm not a fan of theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, btut this was a great op. Your points about "could violence be funny" were absolutely spot on, and are really thought-provoking. Cheers - Ricky.