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Like many modern readers and viewers, I am not shocked or outraged but rather fascinated by Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy and most notorious play. Wikipedia assembles a good collection of critical sputtering at this revenge drama’s sensationalist logic of rape, mutilation and murder, from Samuel Johnson censuring “the barbarity of the spectacles” to T. S. Eliot deriding it as “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written” to Harold Bloom’s more ambivalent assessment of Andronicus as “poetic atrocity.”
With Johnson (or the era for which he is the canonical critical spokesman) begins the modern conviction that literature should morally improve its audience; such a priority clashes with the canonization of the Elizabethan theater, a form of popular art in its early phase before institutionalization or domestication could tame it, an art whose practitioners tried on forms and values like costumes and seized spectators’ profitable attention by any means necessary. Hence the inability of certain thinkers—Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Steiner—to grasp the phantasmagoric Shakespeare at all.
Eliot often wrote criticism as a dishonest defense against his own art, but he also wrote the 20th century’s best poem because he kept his dirty ear to the ground so he could hear pub conversation, cabaret jazz, rumors of war, and the sorrows of casual sex, as well as his reminiscences of Ovid, Augustine, Buddha, and Webster. As Leslie Fiedler wrote in “The Middle Against Both Ends,” his classic 1955 defense of high and low culture against the middle mind:
Behind the opposition to vulgar literature, there is at work the same fear of the archetypal and unconscious itself that motivated similar attacks on Elizabethan drama and on the eighteenth-century novel. […] I should hate my argument to be understood as a defense of what is banal and mechanical and dull (there is, of course, a great deal!) in mass culture; it is merely a counterattack against those who are aiming through that banality and dullness at what moves literature of all worth.
Even by Eliot’s time, popular culture was on its way to becoming mass culture, far more mechanized and routinized in its bottom-line orientation and lowest-common-denominator address than the Elizabethan drama or the early novel. The experimental, extremist poetry and fiction of the modernist little magazines therefore had a serious claim on being among the most vital artistic forces of the time, along with popular forms like jazz.
And by the 1950s, when modernism was already approaching its academic canonization, Fiedler defended the comic books under moralistic attack by his fellow intellectual Fredric Wertham, precisely because he persuasively associated their amoral, unsettled liveliness with modernism’s own notorious illiberalism: both spat at the middlebrow conviction that humane letters should be heathy, hygienic, and wholesome. To apply this analysis to our own time gives us pause. What if the next century takes the strongest art of our era to be not our politely transgressive autofictions or prestige TV dramas but rather the work of dirty Instagram poets, surreally socialist podcasters, and fascist-curious YouTubers? Given the precedents of Andronicus and Eliot, we can hardly rule it out.
But I write on Shakespeare’s birthday, so back to Shakespeare I go. Titus Andronicus is, again, his earliest tragedy, written around the early 1590s, probably in collaboration with George Peele (scholars agree that the stiff first act is likely not Shakespeare’s work).
The plot is a complex but logical working out of a revenge cycle. It begins when the old warrior Titus Andronicus returns to Rome after having defeated the Goths (and having lost 22 of his sons in the fighting). He brings as captives the Goth queen Tamora with three of her sons and her sub rosa lover Aaron the Moor, and he executes Tamora’s eldest son as requital for his own parental losses. Moreover, he has returned in the midst of a succession quarrel—who will govern Rome? As conquering hero, Andronicus is allowed to choose the next emperor and appoints Saturninus.
But a further argument ensues over who should be queen: Andronicus’s daughter, Lavinia, already betrothed to Saturninus’s brother, or the Goth queen Tamora, on whom Saturninus sets his amorous eye? In the ensuing scuffle, Andronicus kills another of his own sons, and Tamora ends up as empress. From this position, and with the collaboration of her two remaining sons and the villainous Aaron, she composes a revenge plot whose grisly centerpiece is the rape and mutilation of Lavinia in the woods during a royal hunt. The tongueless, handless Lavinia subsequently manages to inform her father who has harmed her while simultaneously alerting the audience to Shakespeare’s literary sources when she calls his and our attention to a passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
Soft! see how busily she turns the leaves!
What would she find? Lavinia, shall I read?
This is the tragic tale of Philomel,
And treats of Tereus’ treason and his rape:
And rape, I fear, was root of thine annoy.
Lavinia, wert thou thus surprised, sweet girl,
Ravish’d and wrong’d, as Philomela was,
Forced in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods? See, see!
Ay, such a place there is, where we did hunt—
O, had we never, never hunted there!—
Pattern’d by that the poet here describes,
By nature made for murders and for rapes.
Andronicus then plots his own revenge: this culminates in the play’s bloody climax, when Andronicus, dressed as a chef, serves Tamora her own sons baked into a pie, then kills his own daughter to expiate her shame of rape, and is finally himself cut down by Saturninus. With all our main characters dead except Andronicus’s resourceful son Lucius—and the villainous Moor, still boasting of his evil deeds as he is led off to be tortured—the drama concludes with the uneasy promise of more peaceful (if only because so brutally chastened) days ahead. That, and the feasting of birds, presumably like the one Philomel becomes in Ovid, on Tamora’s wretched corpse, or else their pity for all vanquished women. I quote the extraordinary last lines of the quarto (other quotations in this post come from MIT’s version of the Arden edition, whose concluding poetry is much less arresting):
As for that rauinous tiger Tamora,
No funerall right, nor man in mourning weede,
No mournefull bell shall ring her buriall
But throw her forth to beasts and birds to pray,
Her life was beastlie and deuoide of pittie,
And being dead let birds on her take pittie.
Shakespeare’s source for this strange story is not quite clear. Unlike his later Roman dramas, it is not based on historical events, and its temporal setting is hazy, suggesting republican, imperial, decadent, and Christian Rome all at once, not to mention its Renaissance-era anachronisms (e.g., references to ruined monasteries and “popish” religion). Really, Shakespeare sets the story in a fever dream of Roman literature, rather than in any precise historical period, as he plays wild variations on themes from Ovid, Seneca, and Virgil.
A recent appreciator of the tragedy, Marjorie Garber brilliantly argues in her 2004 book Shakespeare After All that its setting, or the setting of the wood with its devouring pit near where Lavinia’s rape occurs, is really the unconscious:
It does not take a Freudian to see that this feature of the landscape is also an allegorical figure for the female body, and explicitly for woman’s genitals, the vagina dentata, or devouring sexual “mouth” of legend. […] The salient point here is not that Shakespeare was capable of so graphic and nightmarish an image of female sexuality, nor that Freud was not the first to invent Freudianism, but rather than the play—and the stage—opens up to become a living metaphor, a dream landscape…
More difficult to understand is Shakespeare’s tone. Much of the play has the air of farce. Consider its most infamous stage direction—
Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand.
—and its most infamous line, when Andronicus instructs his handless and tongueless daughter to carry his own severed hand—
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.
On the other (forgive me) hand, Shakespeare devotes much of the play’s middle to sportively evil speeches from Tamora and especially Aaron that look forward to his greatest villains from Richard III to Edmund and Iago—
O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.
—and arias of maddened suffering, howled theodicy, from Andronicus that presage the passion of King Lear—
Sir boy, now let me see your archery;
Look ye draw home enough, and ’tis there straight.
Terras Astraea reliquit:
Be you remember’d, Marcus, she’s gone, she’s fled.
Sirs, take you to your tools. You, cousins, shall
Go sound the ocean, and cast your nets;
Happily you may catch her in the sea;
Yet there’s as little justice as at land:
No; Publius and Sempronius, you must do it;
‘Tis you must dig with mattock and with spade,
And pierce the inmost centre of the earth:
Then, when you come to Pluto’s region,
I pray you, deliver him this petition;
Tell him, it is for justice and for aid,
And that it comes from old Andronicus,
Shaken with sorrows in ungrateful Rome.
Ah, Rome! Well, well; I made thee miserable
What time I threw the people’s suffrages
On him that thus doth tyrannize o’er me.
Go, get you gone; and pray be careful all,
And leave you not a man-of-war unsearch’d:
This wicked emperor may have shipp’d her hence;
And, kinsmen, then we may go pipe for justice.
Signet Classics packages Titus Andronicus in a one-volume edition with Timon of Athens. Both are odd, less-than-canonical Shakespearean works, a very early and a very late tragedy that, each in its own way, eschews the normative humanism implied by the psychological interiority of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Works like Hamlet or King Lear, while wildly inventive and more than hinting of nihilism, can be understood according to the ethical values of Dr. Johnson, T. S. Eliot, or even Tolstoy. Three Shakespeare’s-birthdays ago, however, I noted that another 20th-century critic, G. Wilson Knight, claimed to find in Timon “the archetype and norm of all tragedy.” Likewise, the aforementioned Marjorie Garber sees the same in Titus Andronicus:
But Titus Andronicus is in a way the radical—the root—of Shakespearean tragedy, the dreamscape or nightmare world laid out for all to see, not disguised by a retreat into metaphor.
She is preceded in this insight by an earlier critic, Jan Kott, who writes in his 1964 book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, that
this play contain[s]—though still in a rough shape—the seed of all great Shakespearean tragedies. No doubt Titus’ sufferings foretell the hell through which Lear will walk. As for Lucius, had he—instead of going to the camp of the Goths—gone to the university at Wittenberg, he would surely have returned as a Hamlet. Tamora, queen of the Goths, would be akin to Lady Macbeth, had she wished to look inside her own soul. She lacks the awareness of crime, just as Lavinia lacks the awareness of suffering that plunge Ophelia into her madness. Watching Titus Andronicus, we come to understand—perhaps more than looking at any other Shakespeare play—the nature of his genius: he gave an inner awareness to passions; cruelty ceased to be merely physical. Shakespeare discovered the moral hell. He discovered heaven as well. But he remained on earth.
What does it tell us about Shakespeare, then, that the dramatic personae and situations of his greatest work can be located in this apprentice piece with its not-quite-serious drive to titillate the audience with shocking sexual violence and body horror played for laughs?
We can find a suggestion in Garber’s allusion to psychoanalysis, and Fiedler too provides a clue when he speaks of “what moves literature of all worth” in reference to the vulgar, amoral cruelty of midcentury comics.
It is certainly not enough to be vulgar and cruel if you want to make great art—take note, Instagrammers, podcasters, and YouTubers!—and so Andronicus is not great. But if you excise in the name of virtue, reason, or morality the terror and desire at experience’s bloody root, you cannot achieve the tragic transcendence attained by Hamlet or King Lear. If we studiously remain ignorant of the depths, how can we possibly measure the heights?
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