Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Wilderness of Tigers: A Look at Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

"When will this fearful slumber have an end?"
-Titus Andronicus III.I

Titus Andronicus is considered by many critics and scholars to be one of Shakespeare’s weakest offerings, if not his weakest. Printed in 1594, it may have been performed as early as 1589 when the playwright was only 25. It’s a sensational horror story, filled with so much violence and cruelty that some can’t bear the thought that Shakespeare wrote it. T.S. Eliot called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.” However, as encouraging as it is to believe that even Shakespeare was capable of having a bad day at the office, I found Titus Andronicus to be a thrilling, thoroughly engaging play.

Set in Ancient Rome, this tragedy tells the tale of Titus Andronicus, a tried and true Roman general, devoted to his city and empire before all else, including his family. At the play’s start, this blind devotion serves as his only moral compass and will prove to be his tragic flaw. Returning home victorious after a long war with the Goths, Titus brings home the Goth queen, Tamora and her three sons. He decides to sacrifice the eldest son as part of a Roman ritual, ignoring Tamora’s pleas for mercy and earning her hatred. This is his first mistake. His second comes when he refuses to succeed the late emperor, despite being the people’s choice, and maintains the old order by giving the crown to the emperor’s first born son, Saturninus. Saturninus, a sniveling hothead, wastes no time abusing his power to get what he wants and chooses Titus’s daughter, Lavinia to be his bride, even though she is in love with and engaged to another man (the emperor’s younger son, Bassianus). This proves to be the first in long chain of events that grows steadily more horrific as the play progresses and leads to rape, mutilation, murder and even cannibalism, all done in the name of revenge and despair. By the play’s end, there are bodies all over the floor, reflecting both the inevitability and futility of revenge.

Titus Andronicus is far from perfect. It has a wonky timeline, plenty of plot holes, and a hero whose madness comes and goes with the wind. As you can probably tell, the thing is a bitch even to summarize. But a blight on Shakespeare’s immortal reputation? Nope. Even his penny-dreadfuls pack a wild punch. I became so absorbed in Titus Andronicus and its “wilderness of tigers” that I read most of it in one sitting. It’s a dark play, reflecting the worst in human nature, but the story is poignant as well as cruel. It’s the story of a man gradually coming to understand the love he has for his children and that they, not Rome, deserve his complete devotion. Unfortunately, it’s something he can’t fully understand until they’ve become the victims of senseless violence. Ironically, Tamora understands this from the beginning and manipulates it in order to avenge her own murdered son, descending to the darkest realms of humanity in the process. Compared to Tamora, Lady Macbeth looks like Little Bunny Fufu.

Titus Andronicus did seem like the work of a beginner, especially a beginner trying really hard to get noticed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s unpolished and often absurd, but incredibly fearless. Shakespeare at the start of his journey. I think that alone is worthy of admiration.

Because of its icky subject matter, Titus Andronicus isn’t very popular with moviemakers. One notable exception is Julie Taymor’s Titus. Released in 1999, it’s a brilliant movie and one of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, if not my favorite. Not everybody agrees with me. It’s definitely a movie you love or hate, and I’m sure many a purist has cursed it after the very first scene. I thought it was wonderful. Like Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Titus plays around with time and setting, existing in an imaginary world that is half Ancient Rome and half fascist Italy, with video games and rock music thrown in for good measure. However, I think Titus does it much more successfully. Shakespeare’s Rome is very anachronistic and the story owes more to Greek myth than it does to Roman history. Also the play’s events are so dark, darkly funny, and absurd that only an over-the-top offering such as this could do them justice. The movie is part history, part horror and part fantasy (with a nod to fairy tales here and there), playing out in front of us like a nightmare.

The cast is uniformly excellent, featuring Anthony Hopkins (Titus), Jessica Lange (Tamora), Alan Cumming (Saturninus), and Laura Fraser (Lavinia), among many others. They all allow their characters to be fully fleshed individuals even as they get lost in darkness. Taymor’s screenplay highlights the play’s themes of racism and the hardship of being a woman among men, letting them shine (though credit goes to the actors too). She also takes a minor character in the play—Titus’s young grandson—and emphasizes his role, turning him into an example of how easily children learn hatred from the adults around them. The music, art direction, set design, and costumes are all fantastic as well. Definitely a film that benefits from multiple viewings.

It's also probably the only movie where you'll see Anthony Hopkins dry humping Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Not even Hannibal Lecter got to do that.

I heartily recommend both Titus Andronicus and Titus. Just don’t help yourself to a slice of pie while partaking. You have been warned.

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