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04 May 2006

Titus Andronicus (2003)

A Fully Dramatized Reading of William Shakespeare's Titus Andonicus (1593)

Vol. VI of The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare by Audio Partners; Titus Andronicus - David Troughton (Titus), Harriet Walter (Tamora), Paterson Joseph (Aaron), David Burke (Marcus)

The Wikipedia plot summary can be found here.


Holy shit! Fourteen dead, with one more buried alive to die of starvation. Three amputated hands. One dismembered tongue. A bi-racial bastard. A gang rape. Filicide (twice). Cannibalism.

And here I thought Shakespeare was all giggles.

Certainly, the play was entertaining, mostly because of my constant amazement at the level of protracted, elaborate violence, but I was left with the question: "Do I like it?" No.

Now I am not one of the Shakespeare-loving snobs throughout history who have gone so far as to deny his authorship because of its starkly barbaric, dark content (The Comedy of Errors it is not!), but I do like my Bard... charming.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines charming, in part, as "to be alluring or pleasing." When I say that I like Shakespeare's charm, I do not limit my appreciation to the comedies and romances; despite their violent content and political subject, I very much enjoyed the second and third parts of Henry VI because of the inventions he employed. The flair for linguistic complexity, the range of characters, the method of producing extraordinarily emotional language for rather mundane sentiments - these profound, charming tricks of expression are rarely undertaken in our days of succint, slang lanaguge, so devoid of grace, and they make his works unique and lasting. Now that I am much better at understanding Shakespeare's more typical style, I like the dense, puzzle-piece, flourishing words. Anything less ornate and clever sounds... course, blunt, and contemporary.

In Titus Andronicus, I found no charm: fifteen instances of the word "rape" preclude that adjective. Forget the gore and the gurgling sound effects the producers used for all of Lavinia's tongueless blood spewing, the language was rough and plain. And, as a proper tragedy, none of the characters (except for Lucius, the eventual emperor) stands on a significant moral high ground. With no one to admire or cheer, I just sat back and waited for all the stabbing to stop. How could I come to care for such self-serving, bizarre, emotionally stunted halfwits?

I was also disturbed by the "honor killing" rationale for Lavinia's death. Titus refers to "The Physician's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales where a man named Virginius (or Verginius) decides to slay his daughter rather than hand her over to a lecherous judge who would accost her. Titus follows this example and cuts Lavinia's throat, saying: "Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee; / And with thy shame thy father's sorrow die!" Thanks, Daddy! Apparently, it wasn't enough that 21 of Titus's 25 sons had already been killed in battle, that he had personally slain another, and that two more had been decapitated by the new emperor. No. He had to sacrifice his (only mentioned) daughter so he wouldn't be so upset to see her ravaged, tongueless, handless self. Worse to be the ravaged, tongueless, handless wretch than have to look at her. The idea of virtue over life, especially when that decision is taken form a woman's power at the insistence of some male relation, turns my stomach.

However, on a much larger scale, Titus Andronicus is largely satirical. No one can possibly take this comically grim, farcical lump at face value. Its direct, excessive portrayal of heinous crimes exceeded the bloodshed and malicious invention of its popular contemporaries, reminding me of Natural Born Killers, a film that employed excessive violence in order satire our lustily violent culture. Taken as a straight-forward film about two serial killers, NBK is nasty and unwatchable, but as social commentary it is shocking and thought provoking, if not entirely effective. Perhaps much of the satire and commentary Titus was meant to evince has been lost in the ensuing four hundred years, leaving this play to stand beside Shakespeare's other, more accessible and pleasing works on its merits of language and plotting alone. In that regard, it cannot compete.

Ok, so blunt language, unsympathetic and largely repellant characters, an unjust honor killing, gut-churning violence, nearly- opaque social satire... can't wait to see the film!


Titus, to his only remaining son: "Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive / That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?"

Aaron, the villainous Moor, in the most unrepentant speech ever:
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 stray and 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 skin, as in the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
"Let not your sorrows 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.

Vocab & References

affy, lading, ad manes fratum (Latin, a kind of death ritual), Scythia, Solon, stale (laws and animal urine), Hymenaeus, Semiramis, speed (prosper), Philomela & Tereus, Actaeon, Cocytus, Pyramus, Nilus, Aetna, Tarquin, Lucrece, Magni Dominator poli, Tam lentus audis scelera? tam lentus vides? (Latin, paraphrasing Seneca: "Great ruler of the heavens, are you so slow to hear of crimes and to observe them?"), Integer vitae, scelerisque purus, Non eget Mauri jaculis, nec arcu (Latin, quoting Horace: "The man who is upright in life and free of sin has no need of Moorish spears or a bow"), Enceladus, Typhon, Alcides, maugre, gloze, Progne

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