Titus Andronicus

I saw a production of Titus Andronicus a few weeks ago. It was an all-female, creatively staged outdoor production. I brought popcorn, a lawn chair, and I loved it. Interestingly, I enjoyed it far more than I did the Guthrie’s recent Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had bells and whistles aplenty. The latter production, full of songs and elaborate stage pieces, distracted me from the play itself. The Titus production, though, made me _think_ about the play, and want to read it to muse on it further: the contrast of casting women in such a violent, patriarchal play; using a circus as background, and the setting of the 1930’s Dustbowl, an era of US history I’d read about recently (The Grapes of Wrath and Out of the Dust), and during which government and family were painfully relevant issues.

Titus is one of Shakespeare’s earliest, and bloodiest tragedies. The title character returns to Rome triumphant from war against the Goths. Their queen and her sons are his prisoners. He refuses the crown of the deceased emperor, and instead names the emperor’s elder son Saturninus, though the younger might have been better suited. As a token for the twenty-one sons he lost in the war, Titus kills the Queen’s eldest son. An entire play of very bad things ensue as he discovers that family, not the state, are where his loyalties should, and do, lie.

Why, foolish Lucius, dost though not perceive
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey
But me and mine…

What fool hath added water to the sea
Or brought a faggot to bright-burning Troy?

The chief villain is the Queen’s lover, Aaron the Moor. Utterly without scruple for most of the play:

what you cannot as you would achieve,
You must perforce accomplish as you may.

Aaron also comes to learn the value of family, when his infant son is threatened repeatedly with death.

The play includes many murders, a brutal rape, and several disfigurements. It is not for the faint, or to read with breakfast. But the tale of an aging military man losing a battle against change is timeless.

I also very much enjoyed Julie Taymor’s spectacular film of Titus, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins in the lead. Filmed at Rome’s famed Cinecitta, the look of the play must be seen to be appreciated. Taymor’s elaborately visual production enhances the extreme events of this difficult work.

Some, including Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, argue that Titus Andronicus is a dark comedy, spoofing popular violent plays of the time. Either way, it’s an interesting play to see and read, though not a masterpiece.

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