This is the sixth post in a year-long series in which, week by week, I’m reading the complete works of William Shakespeare, more or less in chronological order. In my previous post, I wrote about Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Of course, of course: I was too hasty in my remarks on Love’s Labour’s Lost. Authenticity, duplicity, power: those themes are indeed all in there, but they’re not all the themes that would come to characterise Shakespeare’s work. There is one conspicuous absence: bloodshed. Titus Andronicus rectifies that. It supplies the corpus with the missing item of interest that is, in combination with the foregoing, essential to Shakespeare’s first true masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet. But Titus Andronicus is an astonishing play in its own right: utterly gripping, thoroughly committed to the raising of stakes, deploying amplificatio both dramatically and rhetorically throughout, relentless in its march towards catastrophe. Astonishing, too, as the record of a particular historical moment: Shakespeare’s discovery of darkness, the unnerving imaginative power it requires, the terrible imaginative possibilities it opens up. When I embarked on this project, reading the whole of Shakespeare’s work, my hope wasn’t just that I would gain a new appreciation of the plays I already knew well, but that I’d discover some gems among the plays I’ve never read or seen performed. Titus Andronicus is the first gem to have turned up so far, though I confess I didn’t expect it to be.
I confess, too, that it’s a cruel play, and that those who admittedly admire it run the risk of being looked at askance. Particularly when it comes to racism, Titus Andronicus seems to be far less vexed than, say, Othello, in establishing an association between skin colour and innate evil. Be that as it may, the association strikes me as a rather spurious one, largely because of the extremism — the surfeit, the overflowing excess — of evil in Aaron the Moor. He is sinister, yes, but his malice is of such a magnitude that it becomes grotesque, essentially implausible, almost a caricature of itself, rather than grounds for a genuine casting of aspersions on people who share aspects of his appearance. Just look at the line-by-line amplification of spite in his brazen defence of the carnage he has wrought:
Even now I curse the day — and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse —
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
And then, as if that weren’t enough, when Lucius berates him as a “devil,” Aaron spits out this retort:
If there be devils, would I were a devil,
To live and burn in everlasting fire,
So I might have your company in hell,
But to torment you with my bitter tongue!
Ha! Glorious excess — glorious in the severity of the professed misdeeds and glorious in the unapologetic ownership of them. Glorious, too, in the way that Aaron’s grotesquery spreads outward like a miasma to infect all the people around him — not least the hitherto upstanding protagonist, who is finally pushed to devise a scheme whereby he will slaughter the sons of his nemesis, Tamora, and connive to have her devour their corpses:
Hark, wretches! how I mean to martyr you.
This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,
Whilst [my daughter] ’tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood.
You know your mother means to feast with me,
And calls herself Revenge, and thinks me mad:
Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads;
And bid that strumpet, your unhallow’d dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on…
And now prepare your throats. Lavinia, come,
Receive the blood: and when that they are dead,
Let me go grind their bones to powder small
And with this hateful liquor temper it;
And in that paste let their vile heads be baked.
That is perhaps the worst of what’s on offer in Titus Andronicus, but it is by no means the whole of it. Hands are lopped off at the wrist. Tongues are wrenched out. Throats are slit, bodies desecrated. This play is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, albeit one that I found engrossing for the sheer depths of its depravity. And part of what makes its depravity so engrossing is that it stems ultimately from such an unexpected source: Tamora, a woman of considerable wit and agency.
While it is not the first of Shakespeare’s plays to bring a forthright, empowered woman into the corpus — since, after all, there were flashes of something similar in The Taming of the Shrew — Titus Andronicus does at least correct one of the key shortcomings of The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. In fact, you might even say that this play overcorrects for those shortcomings, given that Tamora’s bloodlust and ferocity are rivalled only by Aaron’s. And I’d say as well that the correction is a conscious one on Shakespeare’s behalf, a deliberate remedy to a weakness he recognised in his prior work, although I think he signals his consciousness of it through a woman other than Tamora. The woman in question is Lavinia, the daughter of Titus Andronicus and arguably the character who suffers the greatest share of the play’s cruelty. Lavinia is tortured, mutilated, and raped — terrible wrongs, each of them — but, bearing in mind the scene of an attempted rape in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and bearing in mind its inexplicable obliviousness to the suffering of the victim, Shakespeare here allows Lavinia to voice her terror of the fate that awaits her:
’Tis present death I beg; and one thing more,
That womanhood denies my tongue to tell:
O, keep me from their worse than killing lust,
And tumble me into some loathsome pit,
Where never a man’s eye may behold my body:
Do this, and be a charitable murderer.
What’s interesting about this speech, however, is that Shakespeare has Lavinia deliver it to Tamora, establishing a contrast between the two women which is amplified by Tamora’s glee at the prospect of Lavinia’s rape by Tamora’s sons. And yet in spite of this contrast — one woman empowered and malicious, one rendered meek yet no less willing to speak up for herself — both women are more self-possessed, more able to hold themselves upright, than any of the women in the three plays prior to Titus Andronicus. Along with the awful bloodshed, that degree of empowerment is something that Shakespeare would carry over into the play that follows Titus — a play that I have long adored, but of which I feel I have a new appreciation because I can see how certain key elements were trialled, first, in this one.