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Looking to the Future with Potential

By Jerry L. Crawford


Titus Andronicus would likely be categorized as a bad play for any dramatist, let alone William Shakespeare. Indeed, the play has been labeled by some critics as atrocious. However, a consideration of its qualities involves three major questions: First, how is it an unsatisfactory drama; second, why did Shakespeare write such a seeming monstrosity; and, third, what about it is good, or at least looks to the future with potential?

The plot of the play is little more than a series of atrocities. Titus Andronicus, a victorious Roman general, returns to Rome after conquering the Goths, with the Gothic queen Tamora and her sons in his triumphal procession. Titus is called emperor by the people, but he gives both the crown and his daughter, Lavinia, to Saturninus, declaring that the latter will be emperor. He thereby raises the wrath of Bassianus, who was betrothed to Lavinia. From here on, all is gore.

Titus’s sons slay Tamora’s son, Alarbus, in revenge for the sons of Titus killed in battle with the Goths. Bassianus tries to take Lavinia from Titus, who slays his own son, Mutius, for siding with Bassianus. Tamora, taking the main chance, woos the emperor Saturninus, though she is sleeping with Aaron the Moor. She and Aaron contrive to lure Bassianus and Lavinia to a lonely part of the forest, where Bassianus is killed and Lavinia is ravished, as well as having her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, by Tamora’s sons.

Lavinia, writing with a stick held with her bloody stumps, reveals the identity of her ravishers to Titus, who swears revenge. But before he can accomplish it, his own sons are arrested by the Roman tribunes and sentenced to death. Titus cuts off his own hand and sends it to the tribunes as ransom for his sons; his hand is returned with thanks, accompanied by the heads of his sons.

Titus slays Tamora’s sons, and makes their heads into a pie which he serves to Tamora and Aaron; when the materials of which the pie is made are discovered, general fighting results, and Tamora, Titus, the emperor Saturninus, Lavinia, and later Aaron are all slain.

When the confusion has died down, Titus’s youngest son is proclaimed emperor, and peace reigns once more.

This list includes the majority of the important atrocities in the play, and constitutes a fairly accurate plot outline as well.

One is tempted, at first glance, to say that the play is as bad as it is because of the nature of the materials which constitute it–atrocity and gore. This is not necessarily so–King LearMacbeth, and Hamlet are hardly less bloody. Hamlet, for example, contains no less than nine deaths, all violent, and most of them out-and-out murder. Macbeth has witches, apparitions, air-drawn daggers, ghosts, arms bathed in blood, murders of kings and children, and, at the end, the spectacle of the usurper’s head displayed on a pike. A similar list of bloody incidents can be drawn from Lear–suffice it to mention that Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out of his head and stepped on like grapes.

It would appear that the material is not wrong, but only misused–indeed, it seems evident that in such material lies a potential for great tragicdrama. But in Titus Andronicus, the horrors are no more than that, and they combine, for several reasons, to make little more than a play easy to reject. Hence, it is rarely produced except by Shakespearean festivals wishing to produce the entire canon.

A major fault of the play lies in the manner and purpose of the horrors relative to their introduction: pure sensationalism for its own sake. In drama, anything introduced purely for its own sake (that is, introduced without relating it to some aspect of the dramatic action) appears obviously extraneous and thereby detracts from the effect of the play as a whole.

None of the characters in Titus Andronicus possess credibility, depth, or reality, and an audience, therefore, has difficulty willingly suspending its disbelief. It is this willing suspension of disbelief that must precede the acceptance of a play on its own terms, whatever its subject or object.

The audience is not prepared for the turns of the action, which progresses without motivation or reason from one horror to the next. The action does not proceed from any perceivable center of human values, and the twists of the plot proceed from sensationalism; consequently, they startle, but fail to deeply involve an audience.

Although Titus is more sinned against than sinning, no one in the audience sufficiently cares. The character creates in an audience no belief and no true involvement, unless the performance by the actor brings inordinate extra dimension. Without a great core of sympathy and empathy for the protagonist, the center of a play is weak.

It is evident that; in the creation of this play, there was a failure of the dramatist’s intuition, precision—and taste. In other instances, he will burlesque himself to keep a particular theme from getting out of hand, but, in this play, he fails utterly to check his impulse to pile horror upon horror.

The verse, for the most part, fails to be other than pompous, swollen, and bombastic; there are very few places where it is lyrical or even more than ordinary.

The major structural defect is that the lines of good and evil do not directly meet and clash, but rather circle about each other. While Titus is angry at the wrongs Rome has done him, Tamora does him even greater wrong– but he continues to rail at Rome. At the end, the main focus is on the evils of Tamora, and Titus kills her–but he is slain in turn by the emperor Saturninus, who does not know how richly Tamora deserved her fate. Lucius kills the emperor, not because of a pattern of evil Saturninus has built up during the play, but because of the relatively immediate evil that Saturninus has just murdered his father. Such an inchoate arrangement of the pattern of good and evil within a so-called tragedy can only produce an equally inchoate effect. There is not tragedy here, and little drama–only a great deal of blood.

One is tempted to believe, as some critics have asserted, that the play is not entirely Shakespeare’s, that he wrote only the parts we happen to like. However, it has been well established in recent years that he was responsible for the whole play. However, there are several explanations that help to salve a sense of disillusionment.

When Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, his first try at “tragedy,” he was young and inexperienced, and, it would appear, overly eager. These circumstances helped to lead him away from the path, which he was later to find, that led to his great tragedies.

The Senecan tragedy, of which Titus Andronicus is an outstanding example, was the immediate dramatic fashion of Shakespeare’s day, and, as an apprentice dramatist, it was perhaps not unwise of him to attempt to cater to the taste for blood in his first big splash in the theatre. Furthermore, his decision gave rise to one of the biggest hits scored in the form; Titus Andronicus was a complete success during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and for some years afterward.

Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlow were the most notable writers in the field of the Senecan tragedy, and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is an outstanding example of the form of the revenge tragedy.

Shakespeare outstripped Kyd quantitatively–Titus Andronicus has several more atrocities than The Spanish Tragedy–and, with but a very little change in emphasis, the play could have been a superb burlesque of the whole tradition of the tragedy of blood. Unfortunately, Titus Andronicus is not a burlesque, but the first effort of a serious young dramatist in a new field.

Actually, nothing in the play can be called good of itself, but there are several things which appear to point toward later developments. Titus Andronicus, for example, has certain qualities that foreshadow King Lear, though they are imperfectly developed. Similarly, Aaron is, if thinly, the prototype of lago. The play itself might be considered a dry run for Hamlet, in that its theme is revenge.

Perhaps the greatest single promise in the play of things to come lies in its very abundance–it is never sparse or strained, but always excessive and overflowing, however unfortunate the results of these excesses may be. In the very beginning of his career, Shakespeare finds it necessary to create more twins than Plautus and more blood than Kyd. Whatever its quality, Titus Andronicus exhibits an easy flow of creative imagination that appears bottomless. If it is uncontrolled and misdirected in this play, such a super-abundance of invention is nevertheless surely indicative of the creative genius that was to appear.

Further, the play does provide rich challenges for a director and a company of actors to wrestle this wild piece of dramaturgy into a viable theatre event. Indeed, there are many marvelous acting opportunities offered by many roles in this play, led by Titus, Tamora, Aaron, and Lavinia. We might well keep in mind that Shakespeare was an actor as well as a dramatist. Titus Andronicus can hold an audience rapt in its unbridled passions when a stellar group of actors and a skillful director ride those passions with both human and theatrical sensitivities.

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