I can’t in all honesty imagine that Shakespeare actually wanted to write this piece of tripe. But he was still a young writer, and not in a position to have full control in these matters.
Many Shakespeareans have felt embarrassed by this play: it has been seen as a sort of blot on the canon. It’s a sort of Tudor video nasty, with quite grotesque gratuitous violence piled on. If one could take all this seriously, it would be deeply distasteful, and even offensive. However, there is no way anyone could take this seriously: I doubt Shakespeare took it seriously himself. It was just a job that had to be done, and being a professional, he did his best. But his heart didn’t seem to be in it. The dramatic flair that is apparent in the Henry VI plays simply isn’t here: the characters here don’t so much speak to each other as orate to each other.
So how can a modern reader (or audience) take this play? If one can’t take it seriously, one could at least see it as a sort of extended tongue-in-cheek sick joke. But even regarded as such, the humour palls rather quickly.
The first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works was printed after Shakespeare’s death, of course. If Shakespeare had had a chance to edit his works, would he have included this? I prefer to think he wouldn’t.
And yet, this play is full of plot elements that are to recur in his later masterpieces. Just as The Two Gentlemen of Verona contains many elements that were later to recur in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, so Titus Andronicus has elements that look forward to Othello and, especially, to King Lear. All of which goes to show, I suppose, that it’s not the plot that matters, but what the author makes of it. And if Shakespeare didn’t make much of the plot in Titus Andronicus, it is, I suspect, because his heart wasn’t in it … because he resented having to put aside his sequence of history plays and waste time on this piece of rubbish.
“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
– from Hamlet, Act 4, scene 5
The greatest works of literature presents complex pictures of what we are, and, sometimes, a visionary awareness of what we may be. Few would class Titus Andronicus as a great work of literature: certainly, it offers no possibility of “what we may be”; and its picture of “what we are” is, to say the least, highly questionable.
Let us start with the scene in Titus Andronicus in which Marcus finds his niece Lavinia in the forest. She has been raped, and her tongue and hands have been cut off. It is easy to snigger at the outrageously over-the-top nature of the horror, but perhaps we shouldn’t: atrocities even of this magnitude have, after all, been committed. The question, as ever in the context of a work of art, is how the artist presents it. It is worth quoting in full the very long speech given to Marcus at this point (Lavinia, for obvious reasons, doesn’t have any lines):
Who is this? my niece, that flies away so fast!
Cousin, a word; where is your husband?
If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me!
If I do wake, some planet strike me down,
That I may slumber in eternal sleep!
Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As have thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
But, sure, some Tereus hath deflowered thee,
And, lest thou shouldst detect him, cut thy tongue.
Ah, now thou turn’st away thy face for shame!
And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with three issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan’s face
Blushing to be encountered with a cloud.
Shall I speak for thee? shall I say ’tis so?
O, that I knew thy heart; and knew the beast,
That I might rail at him, to ease my mind!
Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp’d,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.
Fair Philomela, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew’d her mind:
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sew’d than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble, like aspen-leaves, upon a lute,
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touch’d them for his life!
Or, had he heard the heavenly harmony
Which that sweet tongue hath made,
He would have dropp’d his knife, and fell asleep
As Cerberus at the Thracian poet’s feet.
Come, let us go, and make thy father blind;
For such a sight will blind a father’s eye:
One hour’s storm will drown the fragrant meads;
What will whole months of tears thy father’s eyes?
Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee
O, could our mourning ease thy misery!
Judged purely as poetry, it isn’t bad at all. There is much elaborately crafted imagery, learned references to Ovid, rhetorical devices finely executed, and a mellifluous tone in the rhythms and sonorites. Take these lines out of their dramatic context, and they could appear very beautiful indeed, were it not for the disgusting nature of what they depict. But in its dramatic context, I cannot see this speech as anything other than a profound embarrassment. Even leaving aside the fact that Lavinia may be bleeding to death while Marcus declaims this long and beautifully crafted passage, where in all this poetry is the sense of shock, of the horror and the outrage that Marcus should feel? Oh, he tells us he is shocked and outraged: right at the start, he wishes for a planet to strike him down so that he may slumber in eternal sleep. But is this any more than a finely crafted piece of imagery? Marcus merely tells us that he feels horror, but the blank verse does not communicate any of it. These are lines carefully constructed in the study: they are not the lines dramatically appropriate for a man in a state of shock and horror.
Of course, it may be said that we should not object to the artifical nature of the expression, since blank verse itself is an artificial construction. This is true, but this artifice can be used to communicate a far greater sense of immediacy. To illustrate this point, consider a similar scene in one of Shakespeare’s undisputed masterpieces, King Lear. Here, Edgar comes across his aged father, who has had his eyes plucked out:
But who comes here?
[Enter Gloucester, led by an Old Man]
My father, poorly led? World, world, O world!
But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,
Life would not yield to age.
O, my good lord, I have been your tenant, and your
father’s tenant, these fourscore years.
Away, get thee away; good friend, be gone:
Thy comforts can do me no good at all;
Thee they may hurt.
Alack, sir, you cannot see your way.
I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;
I stumbled when I saw: full oft ’tis seen,
Our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities. O dear son Edgar,
The food of thy abused father’s wrath!
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’ld say I had eyes again!
How now! Who’s there?
[Aside] O gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’?
I am worse than e’er I was.
‘Tis poor mad Tom.
[Aside] And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’
Of course, it helps that there are three people speaking here, and not just one. But there are no long speeches here, no elaborately crafted imagery, no learned rhetorical devices, no self-consciously poetic effects. Edgar is not capable of any of that: he is too overcome with a complex of intense emotions. Indeed, for much of the time, he is silent. And what few words he has, although displaying nothing of what may traditionally be recognised as poetry, are heartbreaking. That single half-line “World, world, O world!” conveys far greater emotional immediacy and intensity than Marcus’ prolonged poetry.
It is this that seems to me one of the main problems with Titus Andronicus. The blank verse that purportedly depicts the emotions is not dramatic: it reads (and sounds) carefully fabricated in the study, and never as a spontaneous expression of human emotion. The very formality in reaction to events of such mind-boggling horror can appear comic – although, I doubt the comedy is intentional. And it is, perhaps, this aspect that leaves (for me at any rate) such a bad taste in the mouth: it is not so much the piling on of horror – for, after all, as has been remarked upon quite often, in terms of sheer horror, King Lear isn’t too far behind; what leaves the bad taste in the mouth is the lack of an adequate response to the horror. Where the dramatic context demands a response of immediacy and of intensity, we find instead a retreat into the world of rhetorical devices and of scholarly classical allusion, and a finely crafted lyricism that delights in its artificiality. For whatever reason, Shakespeare introduces here a discrepancy between the horror of the dramatic content, and a self-conscious artificiality of expression: the horror that we witness is not given commensurate expression.
As a direct consequence of this, the horror is experienced purely in physical terms, not in emotional. We feel the disgust, but not the mental anguish that should accompany it (and which is so overwhelming in, say, King Lear). The picture that emerges of mankind (“we know what we are”) is, as a result, a one-dimensional picture. It is a picture of humanity capable only of bestiality, of cruelty, of unmitigated nastiness. Even if we were to accept that this is what we are, it is troubling to me that there is no indication of what we may be: there is not even a hint even of the possibility of human tenderness, of moral or of spiritual regeneration. The only reaction to grotesque suffering is to inflict suffering even more grotesque. In the first scene (in which Titus murders his own son), Tamora pleads for her son’s life to be spared: she is not listened to, and her son is taken away to be a human sacrifice. Where is the grief that should accompany this? Where is the sense of tenderness? Tamora’s only response is to help inflict even greater horrors on Titus and on Lavinia. And what is Titus’ reactions to this? He tells us he feels grief, but we never share those feelings: the formality of the presentation ensures that, either as readers or as spectators, we are kept at a distance. What we do end up reacting to is the even greater intensity of horror with which Titus repays what he has suffered. This is all that mankind is reduced to: stupid, unfeeling machines that are programmed to commit horrors of ever greater intensity.
Certain cynics and pessimists may well claim that this is a truthful picture of mankind, but if that were so, mankind would not be worth bothering with: they would certainly not be worth writing plays about, and the effort expended to give these awful creatures such beautiful blank verse would be but effort wasted. While great art – even when tragic and pessimistic – heightens our understanding of the complexity and the profundity of the human spirit, this play tells us merely that we are all savage and violent brutes, without exception, and without the possibility of redemption. This is a play that Gulliver might have written after his return from the land of the Yahoos – a play lacking any sense of perspective, any depth of vision, any awareness of nuance or of subtlety or of complexity.
Did Shakespeare really believe this? I don’t think so. We do not have to travel to his later plays to find a more complex and nuanced view of humanity: we can find that in the plays he was working on as the same time as this – the magnificent Henry VI plays, for instance. So why did he write this? We can but conjecture on this point. I personally do not think Shakespeare, at so early a stage in his career in writing for a commercial theatre, would have had complete artistic control. In cinema, for instance, even the top scriptwriters have never had any significant measure of control over their works. This was a play Shakespeare had to write, because this sort of thing was good box office.
Probably Shakespeare himself didn’t mind much: he may well have seen it as a job that had to be done, and, being a professional, he made as good a job of it as he could. After all, this play was a commercial success. And, to stave off boredom, he fabricated a finely crafted lyricism, and set himself abstract exercises in incorporating into the blank verse scholarly techniques of rhetoric and such like.
I really see nothing in any of Shakespeare’s other works to indicate that Titus Andronicus in any way represents Shakespeare’s artistic vision, mature or otherwise, and it seems to me misguided to try to see it as such. It’s a play, I’m sure, that Shakespeare finished with a sigh of relief, for now he had the time to complete what really mattered – the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy. It’s in these plays that one can see the artistry of which Shakespeare was capable even in this early stage of his career.