June 13, 1999
WORD FOR WORD
Alas, Poor Titus. You're Bloody, Awful and Ready for Dismemberment
Moviegoers who were recently seduced by the lyricism of "Shakespeare in Love"
and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" will see a starkly different side of William
Shakespeare in "Titus" (short for "Titus Andronicus"), starring Anthony
Hopkins and Jessica Lange, and directed by Julie Taymor. With more than a
dozen murders, assorted dismemberments and the emperor Saturninus sitting
down to a pie made from the bodies of his stepsons, "Titus" is Shakespeare's
goriest play and, many critics feel, his worst.
T. S. Eliot described it as "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays
ever written." A 1923 production of "Titus" at the Old Vic was laughed off
the stage. Observations on the play and disputations on its authorship over
the centuries follow.
-- THOMAS VINCIGUERRA
Down through the centuries, many members of the literati have argued that
Shakespeare could not have written something as awful as "Titus." One early
disbeliever was Edward Ravenscroft, a playwright whose comments appeared in
the bowdlerized version of the play that he published in 1687 (Shakespeare
died in 1616).
I think it a greater theft to Rob the dead of their Praise than the Living of
their Money. That I may not appear Guilty of such a Crime, 'tis necessary I
should acquaint you, that there is a Play in Mr. Shakespears Volume under the
name of Titus Andronicus, from whence I drew part of this.
I have been told by some anciently conversant with the Stage, that it was not
Originally his, but brought by a private Authour to be Acted, and he only
gave some Master-touches to one or two of the Principal Parts of Characters;
this I am apt to believe, because 'tis the most incorrect and indigested
piece in all his Works; It seems rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure.
In "Titus Andronicus" for the "Shakespeare in Performance" series (Manchester
University Press, 1989), Alan C. Dessen noted some of Ravenscroft's major
Most of these moments involve on-stage violence or images that can elicit
unwanted audience laughter. . . . Rather than cutting off his hand on-stage,
this Titus exits with an executioner and re-enters "with his hand off" . . .
The problematic exeunt in III.i, in which Titus and Marcus each carries a
head and Lavinia is directed to carry the hand in her mouth, is avoided when
the boy Junius, asked to "share in this Ceremony," is ordered to "bring thou
that hand -- and help thy handless Aunt." The bloodiest moment in
Shakespeare's script, the on-stage murders of Chiron and Demetrius with
Lavinia holding a basin to catch their blood, is not witnessed by the
audience; rather, Titus appears afterward "like an Executioner" with a bloody
weapon in his hand."
Samuel Johnson, in his 1765 edition of Shakespeare's plays, also argued
against the playwright's being the author.
All the editors and criticks agree with Mr. [Lewis] Theobald in supposing
this play spurious. I see no reason for differing from them; for the colour
of the stile is wholly different from that of the other plays, and there is
an attempt at regular versification, and artificial closes, not always
inelegant, yet seldom pleasing.
The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre which are here
exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience; yet we are
told by [Ben] Jonson, that they were not only borne but praised. That
Shakespeare wrote any part, though Theobald declares it "incontestable," I
see no reason for believing.
In "Shakspere as a Playwright" (Scribner's, 1913), Brander Matthews, a
professor of dramatic literature at Columbia University who deliberately
shortened the playwright's name as part of his advocacy of simplified
spelling, says "Titus" was a smash by Elizabethan standards.
Revolting as the several episodes may be to us, the play gave the
Elizabethans the kind of pleasure they expected in the theater.
It has a complicated plot, easy to follow in action and gathering force as it
moves onward. . . . Seen on the stage, it could not fail to arouse and to
hold the interest of a contemporary audience.
Its action advances swiftly; its characters are boldly outlined; its dialogue
is stiff with top-lofty rhetoric. It may be only a medley of invective and
assassination, of bombast and brutality; but it is adroitly devised to
capture the favor of the groundlings. Even if it does accumulate horror on
horror's head, this did not displease the full-blooded and coarse-grained
playgoers for whom it had been compounded.
After signing on for a 1978 production, the British actor Simon Callow
studied "Titus," and his notes, published in his book "Being an Actor"
(Methuen, 1984), reflect his attention to the play's relevance to both the
past and present.
A ravaged Rome, the Goths at the gates, but Rome itself is almost Barbarian.
Social behavior has sunk to a basic, tribal level. Death, rape. Unqualified
self-interest rules. A punk scenario, almost. . . .
During the play's run, the heads of 10 rebels were stuck on pikes along the
length of Westminster Bridge.
Revenge. No confidence in ability of law to settle righteous grudges; revenge
regarded as legitimate (Cf. vigilantes).
Honor. Cf. Punk boy who killed a man who smiled at him.
" 'E was bringing me down in front of me mates."
The play evokes and to some extent celebrates a recent past in which the
fittest survived -- the strong slugged it out, blow for blow. (Sam Peckinpah)
Writing about the play for the "Arden Shakespeare" series (Routledge, 1995),
Jonathan Bate, a professor at the University of Liverpool, finds profundity
in what may be the most anticlimactic utterance in "Titus" -- and possibly
all of Shakespeare.
What do you do when 21 of your sons have been killed in battle, you've killed
the 22d in a fit of pique, your daughter has been raped and had her hands cut
off and her tongue cut out, two further sons have been wrongly accused of
murdering your son-in-law and the remaining one sentenced to exile, you've
been told that the two who are condemned will be reprieved if you chop off
your hand, and you do so, only to have the hand and the heads of the two sons
sent back to you in scorn? Dramatic decorum dictates that you should rant
("Now is a time to storm," says Marcus).
But human nature does not obey dramatic decorum. What Titus says is much more
true: "Ha, ha, ha!"
The literary critic Harold Bloom argues in "Shakespeare: The Invention of the
Human" (Riverhead, 1998) that "Titus" is a parody. He calls the work "a
blowup, an explosion of rancid irony."
"If they want bombast and gore, then they shall have it!" seems the inner
impulse that activates this bloodbath, the Shakespearean equivalent of what
we now respond to in Stephen King and in much cinema. I would hesitate to
assert that there is one good line in the play that is straight; everything
zestful and memorable clearly is a send-up. . . .
As perhaps the last high Romantic Bardolator, I am rendered incredulous, and
still wish that Shakespeare had not perpetrated this poetic atrocity, even as
Except for the hilarious Aaron the Moor, "Titus Andronicus" is ghastly bad if
you take it straight, but I will demonstrate that Shakespeare knew it was a
howler, and expected the more discerning to wallow in it self-consciously. If
sadomasochism is your mode, "Titus Andronicus" is your meat . . .
I don't think I would see the play again unless Mel Brooks directed it, with
his company of zanies, or perhaps it could yet be made into a musical.
THE MOVIE DIRECTOR
For her part, Julie Taymor has decided to emphasize the play's "unbelievable
black humor." In an interview she described the emperor's wedding party.
It's an extremely elegant, decadent scene. It's in a giant, semi-circular
ballroom that has a huge mosaic swimming pool and large columns. We have a
giant wedding cake, made out of candy and fruit, that is a half female face,
half male -- empress and emperor. It's floating by these partygoers who are
lounging on the edge of the pool, and this Medusa woman with a dress floating
in the water is pushing the cake. The guests have long forks that poke the
eyeballs and they eat the various parts of the face. It's shockingly