Why did 'gentle' Shakespeare write bloody Titus?
Here are two responses to questions from the audience after our October reading of the rarely performed Titus Andronicus.
If anyone cares to read the play Thyestes, or Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, or even Marlowe's Tamburlaine, they may encounter a few other very 'non-Shakespearean' plays, if by Shakespearean we mean, wise, gentle, comic, and so forth. (Perhaps we forget the tyranny and usurpations, and alternative exile/death-sentences levied, or lurking, in pleasant or romantic plays - The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It - as well as in The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure, where things get more serious.)
The Elizabethans might be forgiven for rocketing Thyestes, etc, to celebrity-horror status, in an age when powerful people employed necromancers and poisoners, as well as small armies of mercenary soldiers for personal protection; an age when courtiers and even crowned heads were still being killed with poisoned gloves and books, daggers from behind arrases, and the new-fangled portable small guns you could actually hide, loaded and primed, about your person; an age when the young hopefuls (including some of good family and, of course, ambition) who conceived such plots might be racked, treated to all the other goodies of medieval torture, dragged through the streets either on a wooden panel or not, half-hanged, slit open and disembowelled in public, and finally cut into bits all of which might be displayed - like Macbeth's head - at vantage-points for the people to get the message, while the family was disgraced and trod on eggshells, politically and socially, for generations.
I don't think Titus Andronicus achieved great status, but these other plays did and are quite, quite horrible. Very good reason for a newish playwright to have a go at the vein.
I thought, by the way, that in our Reading the solemnity of Ross Williams' Titus (it really worked!) as he carried out his planned revenge was very interesting, rather like the carefully-planned revenge, in a house-play, in The Spanish Tragedy. Hamlet seems to want a public exposure, paced like this - but he proves impetuous, and things (the king at prayer, the order to leave Denmark, Ophelia's funeral, the involvement of his mother, his mother's mistake with the drinking-cup) keep getting in the way and forcing him, and the play, into desperate impromptu action, and utterance, that turns out to be more interesting, more human. Nobody, however, calls the brutal pile of bodies at the end of Hamlet - and there IS a kind of ceremony about the way they're all picked off - un-Shakespearean.
guess it's the cooking and eating in Titus. Or the very small
proportion of the play that reminds us of the glories of Shakespeare's
I think we need to be conscious that for an Elizabethan audience this play, whilst being something to revel in, also carried an implicit warning; a cautionary tale, which says: should we take the law into our own hands, this carnage will result. So it has a conservative effect in the political context. This can be quite difficult for us to understand, we who often (pretend to) yearn for the carnage and chaos of a lawless (justice-less) world.
Or otherwise, take a kind of Freudian reading of voyeurism to violence as a type of release valve for pent-up aggressive urges.
So it would be little performed because the moral cannot be conveyed these days, and Hollywood does a much better job of dismemberment and so on, all in the name of entertainment and a social conservatism founded not on a moral ground, as Elizabeth in her political genius achieved, but on one of 'bread and circuses'.
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