Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: Extreme Comedy

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe. Strangely, though, I only saw my first production at the Globe this year, when my daughter Gracie took me to see King Lear performed by the incomparable Kathryn Hunter under the direction of Helena Kaut-Howson. The experience made me think I should publish my Globe essays on this blog, in the hope they may remind a few readers of the productions staged at the playhouse through all those years when I couldn’t see them. This is the first, on a play for which I’ve always had a soft spot since seeing it in the 1970s with Imogen Stubbs as a handless, tongueless Lavinia.

The following piece comes with multiple trigger warnings: rape, mutilation, murder, cannibalism and more.]

Shakespeare’s Globe

Ancient Rome lay at the heart of the Elizabethan grammar school system. At Stratford grammar school Shakespeare would have learned to see Roman culture as the source of all good writing, the touchstone by which any modern society must measure the degree to which it could claim to be civilised. So when Shakespeare set his first non-English tragedy, Titus Andronicus, in Rome, one might have expected him to approach the subject with timidity: a little over-awed by the sheer weight of expectation that must accompany any theatrical dealings with the supreme exponents of theatre, a little abashed at the prospect of testing his rhetorical skills on the historical home of rhetoric…

Not a bit of it.

Shakespeare dealt with the anxiety of influence by cocking a snook at Rome. Instead of drawing on Roman history he invented a story of his own, rewriting the decline and fall of the Empire as a series of violent set-pieces, riddled with derisory laughter. He responded to the belief that ancient Italy was the cradle of civilization by depicting it as fundamentally barbaric. And he mocked the solemn attitude of his old schoolmasters by filling his play with allusions to the schoolroom, where an appreciation for Latin had been beaten into him with a stick. In Titus, Shakespeare had the temerity to laugh at the culture that shaped him; and having done that so early in his career, it must have seemed to his Elizabethan audience that he was capable of anything.

On the face of it, Titus deals with the infiltration of a great metropolis by the forces of barbarism, as the Queen of the Goths Tamora and her Moorish lover Aaron take a terrible revenge on the Roman general Titus for subjecting them to the humiliation of a military defeat. But as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that barbarism was already endemic in the Empire long before the Goths came on the scene. In the first act, Titus presides over a bloody ritual that horrifies Tamora: the sacrificial killing of an unarmed prisoner-of-war, Tamora’s eldest son; and in the last, he perpetrates a series of atrocities that puts all her crimes in the shade. Between these framing acts of violence, the Empire’s affinity with barbarism signals itself repeatedly: among other things, in the speed with which the Roman Emperor Saturninus woos and marries Tamora, and the ease with which the Romans catch on to the lesson she has to teach them, which is about the intimate relationship between revenge and laughter. This was a topic that fascinated Shakespeare throughout his career, from The Merchant of Venice to Twelfth Night, from Hamlet to The Tempest. And in all his work it is the Roman general Titus who is its bloodiest exponent.

Laura Rees as Lavinia in the 2006 Globe production of Titus Andronicus

Aaron and Tamora see themselves as teachers, instructing Tamora’s surviving sons in the art of comic vengeance. Summing up his career in Act Five, Aaron explains how he taught the boys to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses – one of the standard books in the Elizabethan school curriculum – as an instruction manual in the art of rape. From it they learn to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia, then cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her revealing their crime. The Moor finds this ghastly prank hilarious: Lavinia, he says, was ‘washed and cut and trimmed’ by barbarous barbers, and it was ‘Trim sport’, he adds, ‘for them which had the doing of it’. Later, he framed two of Titus’s sons for murder, then tricked the old general into cutting off his own hand in a vain attempt to save them from execution. As Aaron puts it, he ‘played the cheater’ for Titus’s hand – a cheater being at once a swindler, an officer of the crown and a cant word for hand – ‘And when I had it drew myself apart / And almost broke my heart with extreme laughter’. Afterwards Aaron and Tamora celebrated the downfall of the Andronici in an orgy of sex and merry-making: ‘when I told the Empress of this sport / She swoonéd almost at my pleasing tale / And for my tidings gave me twenty kisses’. Clearly, reading the Roman classics in a certain way could have quite the opposite of a civilizing influence; and this is a way of reading that Titus takes to heart. For Aaron is Titus’s tutor too, teaching him through a series of sledgehammer blows to abandon the excessive respect for time-honoured custom with which he began the play, and to discover instead the terrible power of comic improvisation.

The turning point in Titus’s fortunes comes in the middle of the play, when he learns to join in the monstrous mirth provoked by the Moor’s atrocities. This happens at the moment when a messenger comes in carrying the heads of his executed sons, together with Titus’s hand, which Aaron lopped off on the old man’s orders in a bid to procure his sons’ release. As the messenger says, the judges who refused to spare the boys made ‘Thy grief their sports, thy resolution mocked’. And it’s by mimicking this grotesque conversion of grief to jest that Titus finds the path to vengeance. His brother Marcus tells him that this is the proper moment to vent his sorrows: ‘Now is the time to storm’. Instead Titus bursts into peals of hysterical laughter, stinging Marcus into an offended inquiry: ‘Why does thou laugh? It suits not with this hour’. But Titus’s mistimed merriment signals his readiness to take part in the appalling comedy set in motion by Tamora and her lover. Grief is powerless, he tells his brother, making his eyes ‘blind with tributary tears’ and obscuring the path to ‘Revenge’s cave’. Laughter, by contrast, serves as the perfect means of blurring his enemies’ vision, while leaving his own sight clear to seek out the nastiest and most appropriate form of retribution.

Poster for Julie Taymor’s extraordinary movie Titus, 1999

The revenge he chooses wittily completes the story from the Metamorphoses that Aaron chose to dramatize when he plotted the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. After a series of comic performances – filling Rome with satirical taunts aimed at Tamora and her Emperor husband, pretending not to recognize Tamora and her sons when they visit him in disguise – Titus stages a banquet as the final act of his comedy, a grotesque parody of the feast of reconciliation that closes the traditional comic plot. In it, he serves up Tamora’s sons to their mother, baked in a pie: a scene that recalls the tale of Philomela, in which her sister Procne killed and cooked a rapist’s son, then served him to his father in a stew. The Gothic Queen is being forced to eat her words: after all, it was she and her sons who first liberated Philomela from Ovid’s pages. Her death at the climax of this cannibalistic supper demonstrates the success of Titus’s scheme to stun her into silence, finally putting an end to the pernicious cycle of comic vengeance she helped to spark off.

Except that Tamora and Aaron, and the horrendous form of comedy they practise, are not so easily suppressed. As the ‘breeders of these dire events’, the couple have also bred a healthy baby in the course of the play; and Aaron’s last trick on the Romans is to make them swear that they will raise the child as one of their own. The offspring of the two notorious pranksters survives the play along with Titus’s grandson, and both branches of the Roman family were adopted by the Elizabethans, who indoctrinated their own offspring in the ways of ancient Rome. The inheritance from that Empire is an unsettling one, and in stressing its unsettling nature Shakespeare makes his audience rethink the concept of civilization, and whether they can claim – or would ever wish to claim – to aspire to the Roman brand of it. Titus Andronicus is a funny play as well as a savage one. its humour is in poor taste; but who says that history, politics, myth, or even good drama have to be tasteful?

The famous drawing of Titus Andronicus by Henry Peacham, 1595

 

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