Review: Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare

They cut my head off in Titus Andronicus.  When I write plays, they’ll be like Titus…I liked it when they cut heads off, and the daughter mutilated with knives.  Plenty of blood.  That’s the only writing.
–John Webster character in Shakespeare in Love

Oh, Tom Stoppard.  You are so great.  I wish you would write screenplays for thousands of movies.  I wish you would have your own television show, and it would be called Tom Stoppard Is Not Ha-Ha-Funny But Everybody Loves Him Anyway, and on it, you could make wry comments about hermits who read newspapers and John Webster and the history of aviation.

Why am I talking about Tom Stoppard when I am meant to be talking about Titus Andronicus?  Because ever since I started this project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order, I have thought a lot about the chats Shakespeare and I are going to have in heaven; and I am afraid that I have been too negative about him as a young writer, and he will remember it and be upset with me.

Me: But you were young!  The pressures of being a writer for the Elizabethan stage were many!  You had to give the people what they wanted!
Shakespeare: Those considerations didn’t deter you from employing the phrase “racist, poorly plotted, bloodbathy crap”!
Me: Bloodbathy isn’t even a word!
Shakespeare: It would be if I had used it.  Now run along and bother somebody else.

Or maybe he’ll say, I didn’t write it!, and we can spend a happy hour abusing its real authors as well as the fools who ascribed it to him.  That’s the better outcome.  Either way, like apocryphal George Washington, I cannot tell a lie.  Titus Andronicus is racist, poorly plotted, bloodybathy, and crap.  All the characters are perfectly hateful, though none is as hateful as – can you guess? – the black guy!  Aaron the Moor likes his son, but his only regret as he is led off to be executed, is that he hasn’t done ten thousand more wicked deeds than the deeds he actually did.  His soul, you see, it is as black as his skin.

Dreadful.  Absolutely no excuse for it.

Have you ever seen Titus performed?  Is there any excuse for it?  Inquiring minds want to know.

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23 thoughts on “Review: Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare

  1. When I read the title, Titus Andronicus, I immediately thought of this time I was teaching a volunteer after school latin class to elementary school kids. Each kid had to pick out latin names from a list, and when we asked this one kid what he wanted to be called, he came back with ‘Titus because i’m the tightest kid around.’ Clever play on words, dude! ;p

    I just thought it was pretty funny and not really relevant because apparently Titus Andronicus was not the tightest kid around.

    • I’m so jealous of you teaching Latin to elementary school kids! (Except that I’m a terrible teacher – but that sounds fun.)

      Dude, Titus Andronicus was the lamest kid around. He kills one of his sons for defending his daughter (Titus’s daughter, that is; the son’s sister), and then later on he’s all, OMG, I love my sons more than anything. WHATEVER, Titus. WE SAW WHAT YOU DID.

    • Indeed? Okay, cool. I am curious to see what could be done with a play this dreadful, so I shall get Titus from the library. Do you know Julie Taymor is doing a film of The Tempest, with Helen Mirren as the Prospero character? I am ALL ABOUT this.

      • I finally got to see a production of Arcadia last year, after years of not being in the right town at the right time, and the actress playing Thomasina was terrible. I still haven’t quite gotten over the disappointment.

      • Oh no! That’s a really sad story! I’m trying to decide right now if I’d prefer to see no production or a bad production – I think I’d probably prefer to see a bad production, just to hear the words said aloud. If that makes sense? I never feel like a play really belongs to me until I’ve seen it performed.

    • Ha, I should totally do that, because I really do think a lot about my future conversations in heaven. It’s going to be v. disappointing if it turns out we are all just one big squishy glob of love, or there’s no life after death, or like, Shakespeare went to hell. 😛

  2. There’s something to be said for a momentary change in character. Don’t forget Aaron’s spirited defense of and deep love for the baby:

    ‘Zounds, ye whore! is black so base a hue?
    Sweet blowse, you are a beauteous blossom, sure.

    Aaron doesn’t have to redeem himself to anybody, but he defends his baby. Could you ever think of Aaron defending the honour or the life of anyone but himself? Shakespeare writes the most evil of characters and in this moment, shows tenderness. There’s something to be said for Shakespeare’s ability to transform a one-dimensional character (in the wake of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Tambourlaine) into a complex character.

    We see more of this later on in Shakespeare’s works… consider this the blossoming bud of Shakespeare’s never-before-seen talent for complex characterization.

    • Yes, very true. I suppose I allowed my general dislike of this play to overshadow this point. Which is a valid point! Shakespeare makes good characters (mostly).

  3. That being said, I loooooove Aaron the bad guy.
    and yet, I think,
    Few come within the compass of my curse,–
    Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
    As kill a man, or else devise his death,
    Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
    Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
    Set deadly enmity between two friends,
    Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
    Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
    And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
    Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
    And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
    Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
    And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
    Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
    ‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’

    … call me morbid but it doesn’t get any more genius than that!

  4. I remember when Julie Taymore (director of “FRIDA” with Salma Hayek and “THE LION KING” on broadway.) produced/directed “Titus” with Anthony Hopkins. It was to be released on Christmas Day. 25th December.

    I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. . . The timing, I mean. What are we going to do? Say our prayers, eat a meal, open presents, then go see a movie about rape, madness, and cannibalism? The planning and PR in that decision goes way beyond a dark sense of humor.

    However, I have to say: I love the play. It may be the darkest, most demented, and as you say blood-bathy thing that Shakespeare penned, but I do find something absolutely formless and brilliant in it. It makes me so angry at the politicians, the government, and the whole idea of regime change without a damned moment’s consideration for the country or its people. I like seeing how one ill-advised decision can snowball into the horror that “Titus” eventually eventually transforms into.

    Nor do I find it particularly racist. . . I suppose one could argue that by making the one black man in the play be the bad-guy, it was a sort of racist propaganda. However, I don’t view it that way. How much scorn and abuse and torment would Aaron have suffered? From the Romans, from the Goths, from everyone. . . Quite a bit, I’d imagine. So, then, doesn’t it make some strange sort of sense that if he spotted a way to take revenge and turn his enemies against each other, he’d do it? — He pumps himself up to be quite the villain with his speech at the end of the play, where he says something along the lines of “my only regret is that I had not done 1000 more terrible things, bla-bla-bla”, but Puck has a similar speech about terrorizing people with similar pranks in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and people adore Puck.

    At the end of the day, the characters may not have a great deal to defend themselves with, and absolutely everyone is flawed. . . But I think I enjoy it for the same reason I enjoy “King Lear”. Shakespeare is pushing the limits of humanity very, very far. And at the same time, he’s writing a thriller. Also, some of the language is divine. . .

    O earth, I will befriend thee more with rain
    That shall distill from these two ancient urns
    than youthful April shall in all his showers.
    In summer’s drought I’ll drop upon thee still,
    In winter, with warm tears I’ll melt the snow,
    And keep eternal springtime on thy face,
    So thou refuse to drink my dear son’s blood.

    I love that bit.

    And though you didn’t enjoy Titus, I absolutely adored your review.

    Keep writing and sharing,

    -J.P.

    • Thanks. 🙂 I didn’t like Titus, but this is the first time I’ve read it. I think I might change my opinion if I saw it performed. Shakespeare’s always (this is so obvious I’m not sure it’s even worth saying!) better in a live performance. I’d even be glad to see the Taymor film, but I can never find it at my library. What bugged me about Aaron was the way he connected his wickedness to his race, all that heart-as-black-as-his-skin business.

      I really enjoyed reading your thoughts however! It’s fun to see different points of view. 🙂

      • Aww, yes, the “Aaron will have his soul black like his face” business. Yeh. That’s a sticky wicket. But as I said, I sort of see that not as particularly racist on Shakespeare’s behalf, but rather as Aaron trying to pump up his own ego.

        That said, we all see racism in different places. And, when it comes to Shakespeare, I can see a wee bit of prejudice in “The Merchant Of Venice”, myself. In “Titus” everyone is behaving badly, with their own agendas, if you will. In “Merchant” though (from what I remember of it) it’s as though some are made out to be specifically more or less honorable than others. It’s also a play that never really quite fit together into a smooth ‘whole’ for me.

        Keep reading and writing and sharing.

        -J.P.

  5. If you’re interested, give the play a re-read. You’ll actually notice that nobody berates Aaron for his appearance until after they find him and [the MARRIED] Tamora philandering in the woods. And then, it’s more of an insult to Tamora, saying that her sin is as black as his skin; his skin is not his choosing, but her sin is her choosing. Aaron, as well as the rest of the Goths, were treated relatively well considering the circumstances. He has quite a high place in the court, and is treated better by the court than Titus, who has given his life and sacrificed the lives of 20 of his kids to the state.

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