Sunday, July 17, 2011

Titus Andronicus

Everyone hates, is fascinated by and is scared by Titus Andronicus.

It’s so brutal and amateurish that it shouldn’t be from Shakespeare, but it is. No one wants to believe it, so they try to explain it away. Bloom thinks he was trying to out-Marlowe Marlowe, what with all the blood and the splashy unmotivated violence for effect, but he is underestimating his own hero.

This is my thinking:

Maybe he wasn’t quite Shakespeare yet. Maybe he was still fumbling around, looking for the way he wanted to write. Maybe someone said: “Will, you gotta have a shocker every five minutes. To keep these people watching.” Or: “Will, you’re holding back, you’re not going all the way. You’re too timid. Go to the limit and go one step beyond. Don’t worry about whether it makes sense, don’t wait for a logical opportunity within the story, just slap another rape on it, another murder, more blood, send another severed hand flying through the air: Go over the top.”
This is Shakespeare’s over-the-top play, and maybe that’s why I like it. It’s full of stuff that makes no sense and is clearly just there for effect.

Throughout the play Titus complains that everyone is unjust to him and his beloved family, yet in the very beginning he butchers his own son completely out of the blue (not quite, actually: Titus is demonstrating in a big flashy way his loyalty to the emperor and to Rome and his sense of honor after his son insults the emperor). Then, after getting revenge on the people who raped and mutilated his daughter, he butchers her, too. It’s like that the whole time. Surreal, like a serial killer’s drug dream of ancient Rome.

Hell, it works for me. By inserting some kind of bizarre, horrible blood-letting every five minutes or so, he sure does keep me awake. I had to think of the TV series 24, which pounds you with one twist after the other, most of them related to violence. It has a similar feel. I really liked “24”. I felt like someone was trying – successfully – to mess with my brain, and I let him do it. I also let Shakespeare do it. I’m not afraid of my inner voyeur, and there is something adventurous about being led down a road that takes such crazy turns.

But there is still method to his madness.

What's It All About # 1
One way of looking at it is that Titus is about the sacking of Rome by the barbarian tribes of Europe. The hordes of barbarians didn’t have to overrun the gates, the Romans let them in.

It starts out with Titus returning from conquering the Goths with Tamora the Goth queen as his prisoner. About five minutes later Tamora is Empress of Rome and all of a sudden everyone is playing her game.

The Romans did admire and fear the barbarians just as we today admire and fear the things that may eventually destroy us. How that is happening – a loss of liberal values, for example, or a loss of civil rights on the other hand – depends on your political view. No matter: now as then, faced with a strong enemy, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome ensues, and soon our enemy is controlling us, just when we think we have defeated him.

What makes it all possible is Rome's inner weakness. Outwardly powerful, as demonstrated by Titus' victories, it is inwardly corrupted by intrigues, egocentrism and decadence. Though you can’t see it yet from the outside, it is ripe for plunder. Everything that happens in Titus happens only because the Romans themselves encourage it.

You can also see it as a rape story: The Rape of Lucrece taken one step further. The rapist in this case is Titus and him victim is Tamora, whose country Titus rapes. When Titus's competitor Saturninus spots the proud, sexy Tamora in chains, he marries her, lusting perhaps after a piece of that great barbarian … freedom, strength, pride and vitality, which he as an over-civilized decadent Roman lacks. She sees her chance to take her revenge on Titus and basically rape Rome just as Rome raped her people.

The interesting thing is how she manages to go from victim to doer. She doesn’t do it by moaning and groaning all the time. He shows the Romans her strength, and Rome, which has no real strength, is turned on.

Lavinia, Titus's pure, virtuous, idealized and over-civilized daughter, is the opposite – she does nothing but suffer, and in the end dies at Titus's own hand. Why Titus murders her in the end in unclear, but you can figure it out yourself: Either he is a chauvinist creep who sees a violated daughter as a breach to his honor, or he is simply putting her out of her misery, or he is disgusted by her unwillingness to rise above her victimhood.
Once Tamora comes to power, Titus, the original conqueror/rapist, is put on the defensive. Now it’s his turn to be raped by Tamora in a similar way. He sees how it feels, and the challenge now is: Can he rise above it and prove to be Tamora’s worthy opponent?

If you look at it this way, you have in Tamora the first of Shakespeare's great female characters – as strong, smart, powerful and bloody as the men. Tamora reminds me a lot of Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied. Ah, but what doesn't remind me of Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied?

What's It All About # 2

You can also see it as the education of Titus, who starts out a Great Man of Rome with all the virtues befitting such a station – loyalty, statesmanship, honor (he sacrifices/kills his own son when the boy insults the Emperor). But soon he must learn that the virtues of a society or merely a façade perpetrated by the ruling class to control their underlings; that Rome is really only selfishness and betrayal and greed and hatred.

He was duped, as we all are, into believing the propaganda of the ruling set and thus serving them. But when he sees that he is only and always will only be a dumb pawn in another violent game that he was never meant for him to win, he stumbles, almost falls, but finds the strength to get revenge. Which, by the way, is not a bad thing, but in fact the only valid move he can make in this game.

There is a point in the story where he says,

"Marcus, we are but shrubs, no cedars we,
no big-bon'd men fram'd of the Cyclops' size;
but metal, Marcus, steel to the very back… “ (Act 4, Scene 3)
It comes at a point when his suffering is so great and his madness coming on that you think he can't stand another blow. But now he crosses that point and discovers there is strength there, corrupted and bent by suffering, but the steel is still there, and he is strong enough to continue and toward revenge.

It’s all true, of course: Virtue is a tool used by those in power to control others, revenge is a language they understand, victimhood is neither the end to anything nor in any way admirable, and when you think you can’t take it anymore, quite possibly you can.

1 comment:

  1. This is very interesting! I share most of your view on Titus and on William Shakespeare's writing of it. I've just started a theater company in Boston, and we're putting up Titus this fall!