When I could have picked any of The Bard’s great plays, why pick Titus Andronicus, you may ask? For all other violence and high blood counts in his other plays I’d argue that Titus is arguably one of the physically bloodiest and possibly shocking. When I first read the play many years ago, I couldn’t quite believe it. Having seen the play live performed by the RSC, I’d agree heartily that the brutality is still shocking, no matter how used to the play you might be.
Titus Andronicus is often thought to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy. It tells the story of the Roman general Titus Andronicus and the horror that is unleashed when he captures and bring back to Rome Tamora, Queen of the Goths. The emperor has died and the emperor’s sons are quibbling over who will succeed him. Titus a popular and successful general, is recommended for the job.
What begins as a sacrifice of one of Tamorra’s sons soon turns into a bloodbath, with tit for tat killings all around until the end of the play. Titus too begins to slide down the slope into madness, pushed over the edge upon seeing his mutilated daughter Lavinia. It’s the kind of play where fathers kill daughters (though for an understandable reason), men get buried alive and sons are fed to their mothers in pies.
O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.
I would argue that in Titus Andronicus we are not dealing with the most complex of villainy that Shakespeare has to offer. The above speech comes from the mouth of Aaron, a moor that not only fathers a mixed race child with Tamora, but kills the midwife and the nurse before running off with his child. I’d argue his actions are no less unbalances than those of any of the other characters in the play, but like Othello he is subject to the same unfortunate racial stereotyping as Othello, another of the Bard’s famous moors. Unlike the latter however, there is no redemption offered to Aaron as to Othello. At first one might say that Shakespeare places a line between the Goths and the Romans, suggesting a them or us mentality, that the Goths are somehow lesser than the Romans. This is a misguided assumption – as the show progresses we can see that the what defines good and bad is not confined to race. Even though the Goths are arguably in charge of most of the physical killing and violence, the Romans are still as horrific when it comes to their actions.
Upon reading the play its understandable why audiences at the time enjoyed the play very much, but also why it also has slowly lost popularity in latter centuries. I think, as with all Shakespeare plays, there are lessons which can be taken from Titus Andronicus, even if they are muddied amongst the drama of the play. I would encourage you to read Titus Andronicus unless you are of the most extremely faint of heart. But in the days of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and many other shows that no longer hold back with violence, I would argue that it should be easier from the modern reader to read Titus Andronicus and see past the violence to the awareness and morals the play possesses. As I have grown older I have appreciated the play more and more. Perhaps it will take you several goes to really get into it too, but I believe it is worth it.
‘Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.’
Stay tuned for next week when I’ll return full circle to the histories next week with the charming Henry IV, Part 1!