I had heard this play was not for the faint-hearted. It hadn’t been performed for a hundred or so odd years when Olivier mounted a production at Stratford in 1955. They used to tally up how many people fainted every night, the record being 22. In the same spirit of accounting, I have tallied up the body count:
1 stabbed body: hewn and thrown on a fire, and entrails ritually sacrificed.
1 additional fatal stabbing
1 fatal stabbing
1 rape (with victim laying on her husband’s dead body, see previous item)
2 hands cut off
1 tongue cut out
1 hand cut off
1 fatal stabbing
2 cut throats
2 decapitated heads baked into a pie (and fed to their mother)
3 fatal stabbings
1 multiple stabbing (also fatal)
1 dead baby (not clear how this comes about)
1 live burial
Apparently revenge plays were all the rage for a time with the Elizabethans and this was Shakespeare’s contribution. Call it a pot-boiler, artists need to live after all. The whole business starts when Titus Andronicus comes home triumphant after nine years of battling the Goths. With him are his eldest son in a coffin, and his captives: Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her three sons and her lover, Aaron the Moor.
“Honor” demands that Titus Andronicus sacrifice one of the captives so he chooses the oldest son. Tamora pleads for her son but Titus can’t offend the gods. This is one of the few deaths that occur offstage but we, along with the gods, do get to see the entrails brought back for the sacrifice. And thus begins the chain of revenge.
Of all the horrible things that happen in this play, the most haunting is what happens to Titus’ daughter Lavinia. The two remaining sons of Tamora kill Lavinia’s husband, and rape her with her head lying across her husband’s body. Then they hack off her hands and cut out her tongue. For the rest of the play until her own father “puts her out of her misery” at the end, she is in most of the scenes, haunting the stage.
Her uncle Marcus finds Lavinia wandering around in a state of shock. He is a decent man but the first thing he does when he sees his niece is launch into a speech that’s 50 lines long. When the men in the family manage to gather around Lavinia to comfort and care for her, their attentions spans are short and they soon drift off into more speeches, leaving her to sit alone. I decided that this is partly the way shock behaves. Even these warriors who think nothing of hacking people to pieces are at a loss when it comes to the mutilation of someone they love.
The reason given for Lavinia’s mutilation is so she can’t communicate who has raped her. She can’t speak nor write their names. But she finally manages to scratch their names in the sand with a stick that she guides with her mouth and the stumps of her arms. She indicates that she was raped by directing the men’s attention to a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the story of Philomela whose tongue was cut out so she couldn’t say who raped her. It’s still a powerful image today: women (or young altar boys) being silenced not necessarily by mutilation but by means of shame, disbelief or threats of violence. The images in this play are hideous and grotesque but there is a sense in which some things have not changed.
There weren’t a lot of lines I wanted to remember. Aaron the Moor has some funny comments but they need their context.
*Stage direction: Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand. (III, i)
*I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly. (V,i)
*If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul. (V, iii)
Here’s a line I thought I might use with the next solicitor who knocks on my door. It might make them leave faster than my trying to explain what “No Solicitors” means:
*Who doth molest my contemplation? (V, ii)