**Trigger warning** This review includes references to sexual assault and violence
I’ve never heard anyone speak about Titus Andronicus as a play they love. Maybe because I don’t know the play, I’ve just never paid attention when people talk about it, so coming to this play I had no preconceptions other than the title sounds fancy (Roman name?) and that it was an early play of Shakespeare’s, meaning I would likely be able to see him working through his apprenticeship as a playwright. Well, let’s just say I now have preconceptions! Wow! It’s a bit of a crazy work which took me on a complete rollercoaster and left me literally gasping out loud. Let’s get into it!
The play opens with a bunch of confusing named characters (how very Shakespeare) and a narrative context completely unfamiliar too me – what I gathered from the opening scene was that Titus is a hero, he has a lot of sons (I think 25 – 21 of whom have died in battle for Rome), there are two sons battling over who becomes emperor, and the enemy is a group of people called the Goths (cool name, yes, I don’t know anything about history – just letting myself be taught by a guy who’s been dead for 400 years). By the end of scene i, I honestly didn’t know which character I was meant to like – presumably Titus because he is the titular character, but he is far too arrogant to be likeable, so I decide maybe it was Tamora, Queen of the Goths and Titus’ hostage? Her (unsuccessful) pleading to save her eldest son, Alarbus, (who Titus orders to be killed and dismembered as a sacrifice to his own sons who died in battle – thankfully this murder happens off-stage, but the description is horrible) made me pity her, and she seemed really human. Well, I was wrong, OK? It becomes a pretty typical stylistic device of Shakespeare’s to intentionally disrupt his audience’s allegiance to characters. That’s the beauty of drama – there is often no single narrative perspective, so we see many sides to a story.
So Tamora turns out to be a bit of a snake, just like Saturninus (the brother who becomes emperor). You can see how Tamora fits into what will become a bit of a trope character for Shakespeare – the plotting, vengeful, ambitious, feisty woman – reminding me of Margaret from the Henry/Richard plays. Saturnius initially declares he will marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, but then his brother, Bassiamus (another great name) snatches her away (literally) because he loves her. Two of Titus’ sons support this, but Titus is outraged (Lavinia being his property and all) and kills one of his sons. Not even accidentally, full on intentionally and goes after another. Geez. Saturnius doesn’t care because he really wants Tamora anyway, and so the two couples get married. But, don’t get excited, this is no comedy so it doesn’t end with love and happiness. This (I think) is a tragedy so we are going to get blood, blood, blood. Shakespeare quickly introduces another important character, Aaron ‘the Moor’. I was intrigued to see how Shakespeare uses Aaron’s race as a point of characterisation (or not) because the only other play I know with ‘a Moor’ is Othello and as we all know, Othello cops some pretty nasty racism but (despite obvious flaws) he’s shown to be human and his death is really sad – we feel sorry for his downfall. Aaron is different. He’s more of an Iago than an Othello. He is definitely the villain; a mastermind. Aaron, we find out, is Tamora’s lover. What I love about reading these plays in chronological order is how it helps you see Shakespeare building up to his greatest characters – Iago is definitely the craftiness, cunning and cruelty of Aaron and the wit, intelligence and charisma of Richard. I also like watching Shakespeare test out his use of language – in this play he includes quite a bit of Latin. I can’t decide if it’s because the play is set in Rome back in the day, or if it’s because he wants to impress the ‘university wits’ and prove himself as capable as them. Maybe both.
Well, all I can say is that the next bit of action is the stuff of full-on slasher horror – I gasped and covered my eyes, for real. So Tamora has two sons and they have decided that they both love Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Aaron solves their quarrel by helping them plot to murder Lavinia’s husband, Bassianus, and rape Lavinia. Yeah, fucked up, right? So surely Shakespeare is setting us up to feel moral outrage and then show us that something so horrifying couldn’t come to fruition, right? Well, no. He’s following the classical tradition of Greek tragedy – this thing is going to be brutal and all on stage too. The horror-show takes place out in the wilderness whilst everyone is on a hunting trip and we discover that Tamora is in on the plot. Yuck. I don’t want to describe the scene, feel free to go to the source yourself and read it, but let’s just say that Shakespeare holds nothing back, and I can’t even imagine how they would have staged this back in the day. I have been to the Pop-Up Globe to see Macbeth and ended up covered in blood, so I’m guessing this too would have been a messy affair for the audience. The murder of Bassianus was a shock for me and reminded me of the killings in the Henry plays as both of the sons stab him – a duel murder. Then the sons are encouraged by their mother, Tamora, to take Lavinia off and rape her – despite Lavinia’s pleadings to be killed like her husband instead. They do as they are told, with Demetrius uttering a horrific line: ‘First thrash the corn, then after burn the straw’. I mean, Shakespeare? Why? Yuck. You’d think that was enough, right? Well, that is just the start. Next we see Aaron trick two of Titus’ sons into falling down the hole where Bassianus’ body has been thrown. The stagecraft of Maritius in the bottom (presumably down the trapdoor?) and his brother above trying to pull him out would have been impressive and enjoyable for the audience – especially when the second brother falls in head first. The description of Bassianus’s dead body is pretty gross too.
So, I had hoped that the villain brothers would just do their awful work offstage and that would be the end of it, but since Shakespeare had grown up reading the Greek tragedies, he couldn’t leave it there. Bringing the destroyed Lavinia back on stage to stand in her pain and anguish (having had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out) is, I suppose, Shakespeare’s equivalent of Oedipus with the jelly of his eyes tumbling down his cheeks. Vomit. The fact that Shakespeare brings Lavinia on stage whilst her uncle, Marcus, describes what she looks like just adds to the horror. I was so conflicted by this scene, I wanted Lavinia to die because how could she live like that but also why should she die? I don’t know, it’s so hard to read this scene in 2021, and I’m guessing it probably has been a hard one since it was first written and performed. All I know is that I didn’t like it, not one bit.
Following this the play gets more and more complicated and bloody. We have Titus being tricked by Aaron to cut off one of his own hands (trying to save his two sons) only to be sent his severed hand and the severed heads of his sons in a box. Yuck. One scene I did enjoy is the fly killing scene at the dinner table. I don’t know why, maybe just the absurdity of it? It really is a brilliant piece of absurdist farce.
[MARCUS strikes the dish with a knife]
What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?
Marcus Andronicus. At that that I have kill’d, my lord; a fly.
Titus Andronicus. Out on thee, murderer! thou kill’st my heart;
Mine eyes are cloy’d with view of tyranny:
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone:
I see thou art not for my company.
Marcus Andronicus. Alas, my lord, I have but kill’d a fly.
Tamora gives birth offstage to a son, but a nurse comes on stage with the infant and reveals to Aaron and Tamora’s sons that the baby is black – clearly Aaron’s baby. This isn’t good for Tamora or Aaron – presumably the emperor will be pissed. Aaron plots to take the baby to a Goth family and then suddenly kills the nurse who brought the news – this made me gasp! Fully unexpected stabby stab. As one of Titus’ sons (Lucius) heads to the Goths himself to secure them as allies against Rome, we find Tamora and her sons plotting to take advantage of (what everyone thinks is) an increaingly insane Titus (the fly thing was the first hint he was becoming unhinged). There’s more than a little bit of Lear hiding in Titus. Tamora tries to trick him into believing she is the spirit of Revenge and her sons are Murder and Rape. This is a bit of clever stagecraft and wordplay from Shakespeare – I really liked the sort of horrific farcical nature of this scene. Initially Shakespeare has us too believing Titus has lost his mind, but then he reveals in a little aside (a bit like what we later come to associate with Shakespeare’s heroes and villains, chatting to themselves or the audience) that he knows it is Tamora. He asks to keep her sons whilst Revenge goes off to collect Tamora for dinner (lol) and somehow hatches the grizzly plan to have the sons killed, ground down into powder, and cooked into a pastie which he will then feed their mother. Fully disgusting, surely it won’t come to fruition? The set-up for the audience is glorious and you can just imagine how delighted the original audience would have been to watch and see if the plot comes good.
In a scene that is just beyond disturbing (seriously though, this comes from Shakespeare? The guy who Bloom said invented ‘the human’? Man… this is as inhuman as it gets.) Titus has Lavinia hold a bowl between her stumps to catch the blood gushing from the two men who raped and mutilated her as Titus kills them. I guess my problem is that I see characters as human beings, which probably wasn’t necessarily how Shakespeare’s audience saw them at this early stage of his writing career – they were more like symbols like you’d see in a morality or miracle play. I read this play and just feel awful for Lavinia. So next up is the famous dinner scene (never was famous for me as I hadn’t heard of it at all, but I’m guessing it’s pretty famous, how could it not be?) where Titus dresses as a cook and serves up a pie made from Tamora’s sons. Just before we get that beyond horrifying gratification of Tamora eating her sons (even gross to type out), we are shocked – absolutely shocked, more gasping and eye-covering from me – when Titus stabs and kills Lavinia at the table. Why does he do it? Because looking on her brings him shame. Yep. Messed up. So then he tells Tamora that she ate her sons in the pie before he kills her too, Saturninus then kills Titus and Lucius kills Saturninus. Marcus declares Lucius the new emperor and Aaron (who has been caught by Lucius in an earlier scene) is brought onstage with Lucius ordering him to be buried up to his chest and left to die from starvation. Aaron speaks and reveals himself to be pure evil – the only thing in life he laments is if he ever did a good deed. This is not a human villain like Richard III or even Iago (who has some justification for his evil plots but remains silent at the end) – you can see how much Shakespeare grows by reading Aaron here as being rather a symbolic or stock character more than human. And that’s the thing I take away from the play – that Shakespeare is testing out his skills with character, plot and language. It would have been a riotous play to watch live, and I suppose it still is – not sure I could handle it unless the director really played up the B grade horror elements.