"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus–Aaron, My Hero

Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays – Harold Bloom (The Invention of the Human) calls it one of the “Apprentice Tragedies”.  It is rarely produced and almost universally panned by literary critics, most of whom consider the bloodletting excessive, the vengeful violence untoward if not barbaric, the poetry inferior, and the characters poorly drawn.

The best things that the critics can say about Titus is that it is a good parody of Marlowe. “Everything zestful and memorable is clearly a send up” of Marlowe – a burlesque take off on Marlowe’s own excesses.  Bloom also reflects that Titus may be Shakespeare’s final throwing off of the influence of his mentor, Marlowe, and from then on the was more measured and purposeful in his use of violence. Bloom puts verses from Marlowe’s Barabas next to those of Aaron the Moor and they are virtually identical.

By S. Clarke Hulse’s account there are: “14 killings, 9 of them onstage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3 depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity, and 1 case of cannibalism – an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines”, thus giving credence to Bloom’s and others view that this had to be Shakespeare’s joke.  The act of cannibalism – Titus chops and grinds up Tamora’s sons and bakes them in a pie – is particularly well known.  The last scenes of Act V are pure grand guignol, one murder following the other by minutes.

Yet, I am not so sure – at least after seeing the 1985 BBC production in which the actors play it very, very straight.  In fact, it is one of the better BCC productions with excellent acting, and very moderate and intelligent given how much yelling histrionics there could be and have been in other Shakespeare BBC performances.  I would have to see others (I know that Peter Brook had produced and directed a version, and based on his iconic and unmatched King Lear, I have to reserve judgment).

Bloom and others also are attracted by Aaron, the African lover of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths and then Empress of Rome, married to Saturnius.  Bloom says that he is an improvement on Richard III whom he resembles in his amorality and Nietzschian “beyond good and evil”. 

I, too, am fascinated and taken with Aaron, but still prefer Richard because he falls much more within the Nietzschian idea of pure will.  Richard has his sights fixed on the throne from the very beginning; and his unalloyed determination, plotting, and calculated maneuvering to this end fit more within the tragedic scope of the Histories and Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar to follow. 

Aaron on the other hand is pure villain but with no particular end in sight. A case could be made that he is just currying favor with Tamora who as Empress of Rome and his lover can give him power and influence and rid him of the scorn and prejudice that he has always had as a black man; but this is not convincing, for he comments at every turn that he simply likes being a master plotter.  In a way he is like Iago who has little to gain from his destructive acts, but psychologically speaking, one can perhaps understand his desire for revenge and retribution.  Aaron says he wants to help Tamora revenge the death of her son, but again, this is just a convenient justification (although he never really needs an excuse) for violence.  He just enjoys his lustful and destructive acts.  When Lucius (V.1.125) asks him if he is not sorry for what he has done (complict in murder, rape, mutilation), he replies:

Ay, that I had not done a thousand more

Even now I curse the day – 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 haystalks in the night;

And bid the owners quench them with their tears.

Oft I have digged up dead men from their graves

And set them upright at their dear friends’ door…

But I have done a thousand dreadful things

As willingly as one would kill a fly.

And nothing grieves me heartily indeed

But that I cannot do ten thousand more”

A real sweetheart – an unrepentant, murdering rogue; but I like him.  He gives energy and wit to the play; and I happen to like amoral villains, the more amoral the better.  They fit my own view of the world.   Bloom comments that he can’t wait for Act I to be over because Aaron, although onstage most of the time, has no lines.  At the same time, says Bloom: “The Elizabethan audience was at least as bloodthirsty as the groundlings who throng our cinemas and gawk at our television sets, so the play was wildly popular and it did well for Shakespeare…”.  The implication is that maybe he wanted to write a potboiler and make some money, not unlike Bloom’s Yale colleague, Erich Segal, the Classical scholar who wrote Love Story.  We just don’t want to think that the great genius, Shakespeare, could do such a thing.

There is only one unsullied character in the play – Lavinia who is very much like Cordelia in Lear – both are pure and blameless, but put Lavinia is put to death by her father Titus because of is sense of order and right. All others, especially Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius who are quite happy to rape Lavinia and then cut off her hands and cut out her tongue, are sadistic and totally immoral.   Some critics, who take the play more seriously than Bloom, reflect on this issue of civil order and traditional right vs. the wildness and disorder of the Goths.  All the murders and rapes take place in the wild woods while Rome still is the center of what eroding moral authority their might still be.

So, I enjoyed the play, the text and the BBC Netflix version.  Maybe I am one of the “groundlings” to which Bloom refers, loving the blood and guts as much as any cultural bottom dweller; but I do like the references to Richard III, Coriolanus, Marlowe; the setting of the revenge play; the Nietzschian references, and the delightful evil of Aaron the Moor.  I now really want to see the Peter Brook film!

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