Thursday, 5 June 2014

A Quick Overview of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's bloodiest play -
uncharacteristically violent perhaps
Titus Andronicus is certainly not considered one of Shakespeare's best, but it's interesting to examine the play as a phase in the playwright's development.

Titus Andronicus, written sometime between 1584 and 1590, was Shakespeare’s very first tragedy.

However, it’s inaccurate to say that he was new to the genre, because by this point he had written several of his history plays, many of which contain elements of tragedy.

Titus Andronicus and the Authorship Debate

The play is certainly the most violent of the Shakespearean canon, filled as it is with murder, rape, cannibalism and mutilation. So much so, that it seems uncharacteristic of Shakespeare compared with his other plays, which in turn has added fuel to authorship speculations.

Many wonder if Titus Andronicus was, at least in part, written by another playwright. Some have cited dramatist George Peel as the most likely collaborator.

Popularity of Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus was adapted for
the big screen in 1999
Unlike most of Shakespeare's work (which was experiencing a boom in the Victorian era), Titus Andronicus was abandoned by Victorian theatre makers, because the extreme gruesomeness of the piece was simply not in keeping with Victorian culture, or the strict sense of propriety that was commonplace during that era.

To this day, it is not one of Shakespeare’s most regularly performed plays.

However, it has made something of a revival - causing audiences to faint in Lucy Bailey's production currently running at The Globe (24th April - 13th of July, 2014). And it was transformed for the big screen in the 1999 film, Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role.

Titus Andronicus is certainly not considered to be one of Shakespeare’s 'great works'. It has often been criticised for its sensational use of violence, and its uncharacteristically pedestrian use of language.

However, it is intriguing to examine the play as part of Shakespeare’s growth as a playwright, and as an exploration of human capacity for brutality in pursuit of revenge.

The hideous mutilation, cruelty and violence is undoubtedly shocking, but perhaps what it demonstrates is that society has not really altered. Movies, such as Hostel, prove that, in over four hundred years, society’s appetite for gruesome entertainment has not waned.

And Titus Andronicus was, unsurprisingly, popular among the Elizabethans: it was the Saw of its day!

Brief Synopsis of Titus Andronicus

The play opens with the triumphant return of Titus to Rome after a ten-year campaign that saw him, and his armies, battling the Goths. Upon his return, Titus is declared the new Emperor, but, with a heavy heart he declines the offer, claiming that the deaths of his two sons in battle has saddened him too greatly to accept the honour.

Lamentable? You can say that again

The Roman army has brought back captive Goths: Queen Tamora and her sons. Titus decides to avenge his sons’ deaths by murdering Tamora’s eldest, Alarbus. Tamora is mortified and pleads with Titus to spare her son's life, but he is deaf to her entreaty.

This decision proves costly; not a woman to be meddled with, Tamora vows revenge. Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, becomes the tool with which the Queen of the Goths exacts her vengeance. But vengeance continues to beget vengeance, causing a hideous and brutal chain of events to unfurl.

Is Titus Andronicus Just Bloody Violence?

Despite the obviously sensational violence within Titus Andronicus and the intentional visual titillation, there is also some interesting characterisation.

Aaron seems like a total rotter...until he becomes a father
Aaron, in particular, is a fascinating character.

There is obviously much debate about racism, but it's worth pointing out that Shakespeare certainly does not make him an entirely two-dimensional character. He is complex, and made even more so by his protection and devotion to his new-born son.

It is also interesting to see how other Shakespeare plays developed from Titus Andronicus. There is a clear parallel, for example, to King Lear.

Both Lear and Titus are driven mad by grief, and there is also the bloody eye-gouging scene in King Lear, which is reminiscent of some of the violence in Titus Andronicus.

But is Titus a great piece of literature? Not so much.

If it were the only thing Shakespeare had produced, we probably wouldn't still be talking about him. But, I don't think he was intending to pen a great piece of literature; he wanted to write something that would be a box office smash - and there's no doubt he managed that.

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