The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 5: Titus Andronicus

Date:  Some time between 1588 and 1593.


First read: 2007? Though I wonder whether I skipped this one, because it was mostly unfamiliar.


Productions seen: None at all. But I know the RSC are broadcasting this season’s production in August, so that will probably change shortly.


Productions worked on: As above.


Edition I’m using: Dover Thrift. Loving this cover.


Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?




  • Reading this while working on a script in which Franck’s Panis Angelicus is mentioned leads to some odd mental mashups.
  • Well, I can see why this play was so popular in the craziness that was the 17th century. Blood and guts flying everywhere, more revenge than you can shake a stick at. The level of violence feels like it ought to be cathartic, a purgative theatrical experience… but actually it felt kind of pornographic instead. I can see why it provoked a considerable amount of scorn and censure over the years…
  • I have to agree with those critics who have noted that it’s a mess, structurally. An interesting mess, yes, but a mess nonetheless. There’s enough material in the first act for an entire play, but it’s rattled through at breakneck pace. There are several big, big plotlines, each of which could be a play in itself, which leaves the text feeling overstuffed – yet Shakespeare’s still not quite hit his stride in terms of characterisation, so the play manages to be overstuffed without feeling particularly satisfying.
  • Lavinia could have had the whole play to herself. I was sorry that she wasn’t built up a bit more as a character before losing her tongue and hands. Like Silvia in Two Gents she was very much the model heroine, but with interesting flashes of strength… but it’s Lucrece-style strength, the kind of martyred fortitude of Lady Macduff, but Lady Macduff had better last words.
  • Tamora is likewise intriguing. She’s got some cracking speeches, and I salivate at the idea of a play entirely about her, preferably written by mature rather than early Shakespeare. A Tamora less cartoonishly villainous, with more of the Volumnia about her, would be incredible.
  • And then there’s Aaron. I’ve spent years arguing against the accusations of racism and anti-Semitism levelled at Shakespeare for Othello and Shylock. We spend an entire play watching Othello being driven to violence, and Shylock is given one of the greatest humanising moments in literary history. And then… there’s Aaron. Again, I’d love to see a mature play in which his story is central, exploring the audacity of his affair with Tamora and his relationship with his newborn son. Again, I’d like to see a less straightforward villainy, more in line with the complexity I’m accustomed to encountering in later Shakespeare. However, Aaron does provide my favourite quote in the whole piece – “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.”
  • I really don’t have a huge amount to say about this one. I have no trouble believing that it’s co-written. I can see its legacy in pieces like The Spanish Tragedy, The Revengers’ Tragedy and The Duchess of Malfi. I am intrigued by Julie Taymor’s belief that it’s a play for our times, though I’ve yet to decide whether or not I agree. I would imagine I’ll have a clearer idea about that after I’ve seen it, so… bring on August.





3 responses to “The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 5: Titus Andronicus”

  1. There is only one redeeming feature of this play, but I admit it’s intriguing enough that I’d surely see any and all performances of it live, even if I won’t be re-(re)-reading it anytime soon. The entire thing is farce: farce through and through. For the love of God, the sight of Lavinia, as described by the first person who finds her, is of a fountain with three heads. By all due laws of nature and comedy, this means veritable streams of red gushing a la Kill Bill during the entire duration of Marcus’ looooong speech. Similarly, Harold Bloom suggests anyone who takes this play too seriously repeat the phrase “Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth”, which I admit makes me literally lol even as I write this sentence. As for me, I suggest you picture, and I mean really picture, this serious, venerated, tragic old man, one-handed, gleefully but with deep-seated satisfaction, finally enacting his grisly revenge, in a God. Damned. Chef’s hat…

    All this’s not to say there’s not something serious here too, but Shakespeare made sure that it was utterly subsumed by the copious graphic violence. I’m reminded, as I see Lavinia’s death, abrupt, short, and needless, of Chaucer’s frivolous “doctour of physik”, whose God-awful story concerns a father murdering his wrongfully-betrothed daughter as so to spare her dignity. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shakespeare was reminded of this as he killed off Lavinia without even a dying word. There’s ultimately no sanity or justification for the many rash murders here, so I suppose it was only necessary that it finally happen to one who was not just innocent, but who suffered far and away the worst fate of any of the characters (you’d expect Aaron’s torture to be significant, but instead, he’s left with his head above ground to yell obscenities at passer-bys for the rest of his days). But I admire Shakespeare’s craftiness in nonetheless distancing us from Lavinia too: when we first see her in her true person, she and her husband are childishly berating Tamora by way of her relationship with Aaron, and she does one better by continuing to insult her even while begging for mercy!

    So, what of that seriousness? Mired though it is in the fact that the characters at their most earnest merely launch into long-winded and fruitless pleas (every major character gets one), there are tinges of grandeur, occassionally in Titus’ rare sagacity, but mostly in Aaron, a villain so clearly built to relish in the worst pains of life, primogeniture, and romance. My favorite of his pastimes is burning barns then asking the owners to put out the flames with their tears. It’s really quite something, to see the bounds of earnest evil and earnest love be pushed to their limits here, in what is essentially a stock character in a bit play, whose characters, in the end, don’t matter much at all. The play is, to use Bloom’s term, a cathartic exercise for a playwright just about to hit his stride. Just as he was toying with terse stagecraft in the Comedy of Errors, itself a weak play, he was toying with extravagant violence here. I suspect with Love’s Labour’s Lost, he’ll toy with the limits of language, then we will see a grand awakening with Romeo & Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Juliet Caesar, three beautifully lyrical plays.

  2. Figure I’d start replying a bit more directly to your post too, rather than just stay stuck in my own little world of mini-essays.

    Calling the violence “pornographic” is very apt. And it’s surely why the play was, and still is, popular with theatregoers. Reminds me of Game of Thrones, of which I’ve seen just the first episode, and yet remain fully aware of all the gruesome deaths (eyes being poked out while some dude is yelling about rape, stabbing women in the belly at a feast, burning your child alive for a good full five minutes, etc.) I’m reserving judgment until (or if) I ever actually watch/read the series, but part of me wonders if this gratuitously graphic violence isn’t the main component of its success.

    I’m pleasantly surprised to hear you call Lavinia a model heroine, with flashes of strength! Could you elaborate?

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