The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus was not at all what I was expecting. The “tragedy” part of the title suggests it is not going to be a happy and lighthearted story, but the darkness and cynicism at the root of this play really affected me in a way that only the most vile and disgusting horror films usually do. In other words, I loved this play.
I recently heard Titus Andronicus described as a splatterpunk masterpiece and I have to agree with that assessment. Though the violence and depravity on display here are completely over the top, I don’t feel they are gratuitous. Shakespeare wasn’t trying to give us a simple story about how bad things happen to good people. He was showing us villainy in many forms, from the ultrapatriotic Titus murdering thousands of people in the name of Roman conquest, to the insidious and vengeful Tamora, and ultimately the devilish Aaron, wholly unencumbered by a conscience. Even the seemingly innocent Lavinia had a hand (excuse the pun) in the strange episode of her broken engagement to Saturninus. Her villainy was a much more prosaic sort, but jilting your fiancée for his younger brother is still generally considered bad form. Not that she deserved to be raped, mutilated, and murdered by her father. Of course not. I’m just saying her hands (sorry) are not clean. In fact, I couldn’t find a single character who is consciously trying to do the right thing in this whole play. Even young Lucius is a bit bloodthirsty and wants to help his grandfather take his revenge on those who have wronged his family.
I felt that beneath all the violence and disturbing imagery, we were getting a story that reveled in its own humanity. We saw all the base emotions at play in the story and how giving into those feelings can lead to chaos. However, we also saw Lucius the elder, just as violent as anybody else, ultimately ride his wave of destruction to become emperor of Rome. That sweet irony is what made the entire play for me. If Lucius had died along with everyone else, or a true innocent stepped into the scene at a crucial moment and took Saturninus’ crown, the play would have been pretty heavy-handed in its moralism. With Lucius being just as interested in revenge as his father and even getting up an army to punish those who have taken his family from him, we see that violence is simply the state of play here. When there are no good guys, the bad guy will always win.
Titus Andronicus certainly refreshed my interest in this project. It has been at times dull or even frustrating to read these plays, but I had a blast with this one. I don’t necessarily expect any future plays to be this dark, but I am hopeful that the stories remain this deep and interesting as we continue to wander down this path together.