Monday, March 13, 2006

Titus Andronicus - Opening Remarks


We continue to read our way through Shakespeare's early plays, and after two comedies -- one that twits the aristocracy with waves of rhetorical follies and one that explores the middle-class with the frolicsome antics of farce -- we find ourselves on the threshold of Shakespeare's first tragedy. Or as Monty Python's Flying Circus used to say: And now for something completely different: Murder. Rape. Cannibalism.

The critics are frequently skeptical about Titus Andronicus and divided too: Shakespeare didn't write it, Peele did. Nunh-uh, Shakespeare wrote it all. Collaboration? Not! Well, he wrote it in the mid-1580s. No, it was written in 1594. It's a bad play. No it isn't. Is! Isn't! (If the critics were my kids, I'd send them to their rooms until they learned to behave themselves.) I've read Titus once and only seen it in odd, adaptative forms, like the 60-minute San Francisco Fringe Festival version Mondo Andronicus by the Thrillpeddlers which promoted its production with words like "gorefest" and "shocksploitation." (It won "Best of the Fringe" in 1997.) While I found the Thrillpeddlers' production gratuitous and trivial -- hard to avoid when you remove 70% of the text -- it did raise one of the questions I want offer as we begin to read this play, about genre.

We have seen in both Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost Shakespeare's adeptness at exploring human nature within a genre or form that would distract lesser playwrights from such insight. Titus Andronicus gives us an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. According to Frank Kermode in his introduction to Titus in the Riverside Shakespeare, the revenge genre has specific conventions, including a loss of sympathy for the revenger, in fact a transformation of revenger into villain, "the pretended madness or 'feigned ecstasy' of the revenger, ... and the delay in revenge." How does Shakespeare see the double-edged sword of revenge, playing as it does on our intrinsic desire for justice even as it makes villains of those who pursue it outside of God's jurisdiction?

Full confession: I have used the first days of my spring break to read Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, so it seems that Elizabethans had a taste for this sort of entertainment (and I think we do as well, although we've buried it lesser literary achievements like the films Billy Jack and Death Wish and Hard to Kill and The Punisher). But Kyd's and Marlowe's plays are tame in comparison to the mayhem carried out in Titus. What is the social and political value of this play's horror? What aspect of the human do we find in it? Perhaps I am asking about the nature of catharsis here, but I want to be more specific. And finally, perhaps one of you college boys can limn the differing influences of Senecan vs Aristotelian tragedy on Mr. Shakespeare and Titus.

Second, I am interested in our thoughts on character. In 1984, I saw Hugh Whitemore's Pack of Lies, a tight modern drama in which a middle-aged British couple are torn between their loyalties to their intimate neighbors, who turn out to be foreign spies, and their government. As Americans, we are not as finely attuned to this crisis -- our friends come and go easily, we distrust our government as a matter of pride. So where will we find ourselves in Shakespeare's story of a man whose loyalty to state and family is exaggerated even by the British standards suggested in Pack of Lies and who finds himself betrayed by one at the expense of the other?

In The Spanish Tragedy, Kyd's revengers, Don Andrea and Heironimo, are the victims of relatively simplistic political and amorous machinations -- Don Andrea has been brought down in battle and Heironimo's son has been murdered to make way for a different lover for his girlfriend. They are not much more than simple victims though. Titus, on the other hand, may be a victim of political forces beyond his control, but he is also a man of honor and some nobility. Theodore Weiss, in The Breath of Clowns and Kings, quotes Adriana's speech about her husband:

His company must do his minions grace
Wilst I at home starve for a merry look ...
Since that my beauty cannot please his eye,
I'll weep what's left away, and weeping die. (2.1.92-93, 119-120)

Weiss also notes how it is far beyond the "shrill screed of a shrew" (15). Shakespeare has given life to a cariacature. So, we can expect him to do as much with Titus the revenger and more. Wherein lies Titus's complexities and what are they?

Third, a more canonical question: I am curious what groundwork Titus Andronicus lays for Shakespeare's future, major tragedies: Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, etc. As we read, what foreshadowing echoes do we hear?

Last, where do we stand on the play's quality? What are its qualities? What are its weaknesses? And couldn't it be true that the critics are all wrong and, as the Reduced Shakespeare Company has argued, Titus Andronicus is simply Shakespeare's early attempt at a pre-PBS/Food Channel cooking show?

Have at it, and I'll look forward to our continuing conversation soon,

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