Titus Andronicus, written in 1591, is Shakespeare’s third play and the first of his Roman plays. It’s rarely performed now, probably because it is a huge downer with a very complicated plot, and tremendous violence, both general and gender-based. Shakespeare scholarship categorizes it as one of the eleven tragedies, and it consistently ranks at the bottom of his plays.
The first print copy of it dates to 1594, but it is easy to feel young Shakespeare maneuvering through some very heavy elements. Indeed, the plot synopsis was so ridiculous that I laughed out loud. What was I in for? I could just hear an editor getting back to him – Will, Will, Will …. Will! this is …. a bit much. Can we tone it down? There is no way this is going to make any sense on the printed page, I told myself. Sigh.
I started looking for a production to watch, hoping that a properly staged version would simplify things. I stumbled across Julie Taylor’s 1999 film, Titus, and wondered why I’d never heard of it before, much less seen it. (See Roger Ebert’s gushing 2000 review here; find and watch the film in its glorious entirety on YouTube.) Starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role, Jessica Lange as an older but plausible Tamara, queen of the Goths, and a star-studded cast in almost every other role. This film is apparently the only cinematic adaptation of the play. I loved Taymor’s 2002 Frida (and the score, also by Elliott Rosenthal). So I queued up Titus, thinking I might watch it over a period of days, but was immediately drawn in by the art direction and the adaptation that I watched the entire film in one sitting, following the text with as much pleasure as I remember first having done at home in 1990 or 1991 with King Henry V (starring Kenneth Branagh) and my parents’ Complete Works of Shakespeare, Vols. I & II.
Taymor envisioned the play as taking place across millennia, treating timeless themes of violence and revenge, and the film portrays a mix of aesthetics from Roman to modern, medieval and centuries in between. I love good production, creative and rich and risk-taking, and Titus did not disappoint. Further, many scenes were shot in and around Rome, using the Fascist architecture dating from Mussolini to emphasize ill-gotten despotic power.
In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare depicts and dissects the cycle of violence and revenge, and the damage it inflicts on everyone it touches. And it is violent. I came to the piece knowing nothing about it, and when I read in the synopsis that Titus’s only daughter Lavinia is kidnapped, raped, left in a forest with her hands cut off and her tongue sliced out, I confess I felt a bit weak. How were they going to portray this? All in, as it turned out. No holds barred. The twigs stuffed into the stumps of her forearms in a mockery of hands was particularly jarring. The handless maiden is a familiar trope in mythology. Lavinia is given new hands. She sees her father with new eyes, and he her, as they learn to communicate in new ways since she can no longer speak.
Tamara and Lavinia are the only two female characters in a play thirsty for revenge: Titus against Tamara for the loss of his sons in the decade-long Roman war with the Goths. Tamara against Titus for the execution of her eldest son at the start of the play, triggering the cycle. (It owes much to the Oresteia, but these are old tropes indeed.) Titus against Tamara for the violence that Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, prior to his magnificent turn as Henry VIII in the HBO series The Tudors) and Demetrius did to Lavinia. This last crime sets in motion the tragic ending.
Titus offers a parallel commentary on the nature of political power, as Titus the war veteran, then Bassianus (a perfectly cast James Frain), the heir apparent, both refuse the title of emperor, leaving it to Saturnius (Alan Cummings, in an especially oily iteration) to grab rather profanely in an assembly of Roman citizens. Ironically, Saturnius is not at all saturnine. He engages in no self-reflection, but rather land grabs whenever possible, first trying to steal his brother Bassianus’s wife, Lavinia (back when she still had hands and a tongue), then taking the captive Tamara, queen of the defeated Goths, for his wife and partner in scheming. Rome, alas, is led not by a sober Titus or an intellectual, but Saturnius the showman, who hasn’t known a day of moderation in his life and who retaliates with the speed of a toddler.
We have front-row seats to the options that were available to Shakespeare’s portrayal of a woman in a patriarchal system deeply rooted in honor. Queen Tamara enforces the values, egging her sons on to rape and disfigure Lavinia in revenge for the execution of her son Alarbus. There’s a lot of Aunt Lydia (from The Handmaid’s Tale) in Tamara, who is a woman playing the patriarchal game following men’s rules. She ignores the pleas of Lavinia and refuses to show mercy. She manipulates Saturnius, and her lover Aaron, keeping all the plates twirling and believing herself one step ahead of everyone, until she’s not. She takes Titus for a fool when his wits are very much about him, thus opening the door for the final scene of carnage. And yet Tamara loses everything playing this game. If Titus is dead, at least his sober son Lucius will wear the laurel crown and rule Rome, and young Lucius survives. Tamara’s line is extinguished. It’s not clear if any other outcome would have been possible for her, though, in her hamstrung position as a captive queen abroad.
The one voice of reason comes from Marcus, Titus’s brother, who consistently counsels Titus to moderation from a place of wisdom and compassion. In commiserating with Marcus after Marcus returns with a blood-soaked Lavinia, Titus weeps:
If there were reason for these miseries / Then into limits I could bind my woes!
Reasons do not exist for violence. Titus’s moment of conscience is short-lived and he doubles down to seek further revenge in a nihilistic vendetta against Tamara and her sons. And while there is no cross-dressing, Tamara in the final act does don the garb of Revenge to appear in Titus’s garden, styling her sons Chiron and Demetrius as Rape and Murder, in a nod to the medieval morality play gone awry.
It’s incredible that Shakespeare set some of his pieces in a world that predated Christian ethics and staged them for Elizabethan audiences, in a departure from medieval morality plays. He showed the world as it was, and men and women as they are, suffering for their actions with no moral argument for a different path. The Romans, he says, were cruel and obsessed with bloodshed, and look (once more) look at how women are treated. In his portrayal of women – such as Julia and Sylvia, Katherine and Lavinia – I do not find approbation, but rather a Goya-esque portrayal along the lines of, This is how men are. Consider it well. Aaron the Moor seems to be portrayed as Muslim in a glaring anachronism. O Tudor England, so quick to cast a stage Moor as a villain.
Titus Andronicus offers a lens through which to view human desire and the emptiness of vengeance. I found myself drawing contemporaneous political parallels, metaphorically speaking. Also, Anthony Hopkins could read a recipe and I would find it compelling.
What a pleasure to come fresh in middle age to undiscovered (for me) Shakespearean literature and to find there a many-layered trove so rich in theme and language. A true treat, and well worth the time. If you don’t know it, put it on your list, and watch the film. My favorite so far, due in great part to the unexpected surprise.