Vengeance unlimited: Titus Andronicus

Here, then, is Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and a most lamentable one it is. There is some speculation that this could be the first play that Shakespeare ever wrote, although the more usual consensus is that it comes after the Henry VI trilogy, which is where I’ve located it. Shakespeare explored the cycle of revenge in Part Three of Henry VI and here he takes it to a whole other level of baroque excess.

Unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, which draw on Plutarch and feature real historical figures, Titus Andronicus is populated with fictional characters and set at an indeterminate point in Roman history. There’s a prose account of Titus Andronicus as well as a ballad that date from a similar time, but the order of composition is much disputed, so it’s not clear whether Shakespeare’s play draws from or was the inspiration for the other works. Elements of the story certainly do draw on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, so much so that Shakespeare includes references to it explicitly in the play.

Other questions that swirl around the play include whether Shakespeare wrote it by himself (or at all). The critical consensus here is a bit clearer: it seems that George Peele wrote Act 1, 2.1 and 4.1 and Shakespeare wrote the rest. Whether Shakespeare went into it as a collaboration from the beginning or just made what he could of the existing parts that Peele had written is uncertain.

And then there’s the question of whether it’s any good. It was apparently quite popular in Shakespeare’s own lifetime but later became much reviled, with some of the questions over Shakespeare’s authorship arising from the opinion that it was so bad it couldn’t possibly be by him. It has become more popular again in recent years and Julie Taymor’s 1999 film version (more of which later) attracted a fair amount of attention to the play. Harold Bloom, though, who was never someone to mince words, called it “a howler”, “a poetic atrocity”, “an exploitative parody, with the inner purpose of destroying the ghost of Christopher Marlowe” and “a blowup, an explosion of rancid irony.” I certainly think that it’s almost impossible to do the play straight and have people take it seriously as a tragedy.

Harold Bloom contemplating how awful Titus Andronicus is.

The play begins with the victorious general Titus Andronicus returning from defeating the Goths, who were no doubt hampered by their big black overcoats and Robert Smith hair. He inadvertently managed to get 21 of his 25 sons killed along the way however and now someone’s got to pay for that, so he selects the eldest son of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, to sacrifice during their burial. Tamora isn’t quite so keen on the idea, though, and the cycle of revenge begins. You just know it’s not going to end well.

Robert Smith: Prince of the Goths (not a character in the play)

There’s also a power struggle going on in Rome. The old emperor has died and his two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, are vying to replace him. Titus gets embroiled in the whole thing, which is a bad idea, and then supports Saturninus, which is an even worse idea. There’s also a dispute over who gets to marry Lavinia which results in Titus killing his own son. Suffice to say that Saturninus ends up marrying Tamora, giving her the means to put her machinations into action, with the assistance of her lover the dastardly Aaron the Moor (yup, the most evil character of all is a black guy: he’s like a negative image of Iago in Othello). Aaron says he “will be bright and shine in pearl and gold, to wait upon this new-made empress.”

Aaron is full of devious plans to wreak havoc and he finds them ludicrously easy to implement. He also shares them with the audience in asides and soliloquies, which we’ll see Shakespeare continuing to greater effect in Richard III. He gets Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius to murder Bassianus and pins the murder on two more of Titus’ sons. To be fair, though, Bassianus was pretty racist, as when he tells Tamora:

Believe me, queen, your swarth Cimmerian
Doth make your honour of his body’s hue,
Spotted, detested, and abominable.

Aaron also, and this is where it gets really gruesome, so if you’re squeamish avert your eyes now, gets Chiron and Demetrius to rape Lavinia and then cut off her hands and tongue so that she can’t reveal who did this to her. You just know that this is going to end up with someone eating human pie.

Titus is understandably upset by the whole situation although it seems that everyone is more concerned with giving speeches expressing their grief rather than actually getting medical treatment for poor Lavinia. And they keep on rubbing it in: “Thou hast no hands to wipe away thy tears.” Yes, I think she was well aware of that already.

Aaron’s not finished yet, though, and manages to convince Titus that Saturninus will release his sons if Titus sends him his severed hand, so Titus allows Aaron to cut one of his hands off as well. Of course it gets sent back to him along with the heads of his sons (who couldn’t see that coming) and “the woefullest man that ever lived in Rome” starts to lose his marbles. He sets off with his brother Marcus, each with a head under their arm, and instructs Lavinia to carry his hand in her teeth. It’s this scene in particular that convinces Harold Bloom that it’s impossible to take the play seriously.

Titus’ remaining son Lucius goes off to raise an army with the Goths to come back to Rome and Tamora comes up with a cunning plan to take advantage of Titus’ madness by dressing up as ‘Revenge’. It turns out that he’s not really mad at all, though, and he kills her sons, bakes them in a pie, feeds them to her and Saturninus, tells Tamora what she’s just eaten and kills her after he’s already killed his own daughter Lavinia. Saturninus kills Titus and Lucius kills Saturninus and becomes emperor. Whew. What a bloodbath. It’s worthy of noting, though, that other plays by Shakespeare are similarly bloody (like his next one, Richard III, and notably Hamlet) but less mired in the grotesque and able to maintain some semblance of pathos and tragedy amongst all the killing. That’s not so much the case here.

Design for a site specific re-working of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus set in Holton Heath Military Base by Charlie Robinson Costume Designs.

The BBC version was filmed in 1985 as part of Series 7 and stars Trevor Peacock as Titus and Brian Protheroe as Saturninus, both of whom featured in the Henry VI trilogy. Neither of them impressed me greatly in this one, but I think that’s because the roles are so difficult to play straight. The great Eileen Atkins does a good job of playing Tamora and Hugh Quarshie impresses as the villainous and unrepentant Aaron.

The sets are pretty effective, alternating between stone amphitheatre and dark forest, and there are little flourishes like having extras in masks and the odd cinematic effect like superimposing flames over the screen. Mostly it’s pretty basic as with the rest of the series, but there is a slight otherworldly feel to it that’s appropriate to this somewhat bizarre play.

One role that I found a little startling in this production was that of young Lucius, Titus’ grandson, played by Paul Davies-Prowles, who looks rather like a certain Daniel Radcliffe in the early Harry Potter films. It had me constantly thinking of titles like “Harry Potter and the Aunt Without Hands” or “Harry Potter and the Cannibal Feast.”

I couldn’t find an image of him front on, but believe me it’s Harry Potter.

Julie Taymor in her 1999 film called just Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins as Titus and Jessica Lange as Tamora, is fairly faithful to the original play, but dials the camp up to 11 with its over-the-top sets, costumes and performances. And nobody is more camp than Alan Cumming, who plays Saturninus. There is a mishmash of eras in the staging, with motorbikes alongside horses and it’s all very stylised. Anthony Hopkins dons a chef’s uniform for the final banquet scene and when Saturninus weds Tamora the scene is reminiscent of the parties in Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby. I think all of this works pretty well, probably better than the more restrained BBC version. If you’re going to do this play at all then you can’t treat it too seriously.

What’s on the menu tonight? You don’t want to know…

And as a final aside, there’s a very cool American band called Titus Andronicus, and their new album is called The Most Lamentable Tragedy, which is pretty appropriate.