This Timeless Tragedy…Why Dost Thou Laugh?

What: Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 

Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

When: 4th July 2017

The RSC’s current production of “Titus Andronicus” is a bloody mess.

And that is both a good thing and a bad thing.

“Titus Andronicus” is meant to be violent and bloody and the RSC have achieved that with great aplomb.

However, “Titus Andronicus” is meant (in my view) to be macabre rather than comedic and here too much is played simply for laughs.

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A Dish Fit For… Everyone

What: Julius Caesar

Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Who: Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

When: 4th May 2017.

This reviewer is confused

The RSC decided in their wisdom to have “press day” for both Antony & Cleopatra and Julius Caesar on the same day. Figuring that seeing two plays on one day would rather ruin the palate for the second, I decided to opt out of one. On the flip of a coin and because I prefer the “Cleopatra” play normally, I decided to come back and see Julius Caesar¬†another day even though my review would appear later than everyone else’s and although it would mean seeing the plays out of sequence. Also, sequentially, it makes much more sense for Julius Caesar to be seen first.

Now I have to say that “Antony and Cleopatra” was horrible and the worst production i have seen from the RSC for a number of years.

Now since there is a director overseeing the four productions in the RSC’s Rome series, I estimated that this production would go in roughly the same direction as Iqbal Khan’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” and would need some fine performances to save it.

I needn’t have worried because Angus Jackson’s “Julius Caesar” is confusingly, truly excellent. Not flawless but truly, truly excellent and you would do well to see it.

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“a …piece of work; which … to have been blest withal would have discredited your travel.”

Who: Royal Shakespeare Company

What: Antony and Cleopatra

Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre

When: 23rd March 2017

This is the first of four reviews that I will deliver over the coming months on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Rome season. We begin with Antony and Cleopatra and then head through Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus. The comfort of this is that it gives the RSC three attempts to improve upon this woeful Antony and Cleopatra.

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Shakespeare Reviews

We now have 7 years of Shakespeare reviews on this site – so many it can be hard to find what you’re looking for. I’ve done this handy guide to them all so you can follow the links below to any RSC production over the period. Where there has been more than one production of a particular play, they are listed separately and the date given. I’ll try to keep it updated annually.

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The poor remainder of the Andronici*

*quote from Act 5 Scene 3 Line 130

When I started reading and studying Titus Andronicus I thought I would spend about a month with it – in the end I’ve been working with it for more than double that time. When I started life seemed in a reasonable, steady place. At the moment life seems as bad as it can get. Time moves on but it is now time to put the book to bed.

In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare has produced a play in which the themes and ideas are timeless. This is remarkable given that at times it has all but lost its audience. Moreover, he seems to have conceived that the themes should have a timeless applicability. I have already talked much in previous journal entries about the fact that the play shows that empires and nations rise and fall with the quality and morality of its people. They are not eternal. Consequently, the pattern of the play casts clear links between ancient Greek myth and the events which it sets in ancient Rome. However, the speakers constantly remind us that they are actors in a later day by the allusions to more contemporary events. This is Shakespeare’s way of showing that any society can fall as its people lose their way. Therefore, the players speak in the manner of people living in Reformation times even though they are ostensibly Romans watching their empire fall to the enemy they have defeated and brought within their walls.
Aaron, the villain of the piece, accuses Lucius (the coming emperor) of having a conscience which carries with it “twenty popish tricks and ceremonies” (5.1.76), a clear allusion to the vanquished Catholicism of Shakespeare’s time. At another point, a Goth explains his late arrival by saying that he “stray’d to gaze upon a ruinous monastery” (5.1.21). The “Romans and Goths” are walking in 16th century England and their fall is one that Shakespeare’s generation is also in danger of.

But what is the nature of this fall? As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the Romans have defeated the Goths at the beginning of the play but only by becoming like them. When Tamora (the Queen of the Goths) begs Titus for the life of her sons, he is deaf to her pleas. They are taken away to be sacrificed to the gods. Rome has lost its humanity and its compassion. 

But life is not simple, the Goth leaders are as bad as they seem. Rome as indeed become like them. Rule cannot simply pass to them. Tamora and her remaining children and fellows are lost in a web of concealment. She loves the evil Aaron but has married Saturninus and proclaimed love for him in order to gain influence in Rome. When her offspring, Chiron and Demetrius are schooled by Aaron (and by extension by Tamora herself) in the idea of raping and molesting Lavinia, they are taught to cover their actions by the cutting out of Lavinia’s tongue and the cutting off of her hands.
But the plotters have overstepped themselves and Tamora gives birth to a baby who is clearly not Saturninus’ but rather Aaron’s. She describes it to her Nurse as a “dismal, black and sorrowful issue” (4.2.66) and the Nurse repeats her words to her lover, Aaron. She suggests that Aaron should “christen it with thy dagger’s point” (4.2.70). There is a lack of humanity in anyone who can speak like this of anyone especially their own child and even the vile Aaron cannot co-operate.

Consequently, the playwright must find a third party to pass the throne to at the play’s conclusion. After an orgy of death in Act 5 Scene 3 (the plays least convincing scene – all the remaining issues of the play are settled just a little too quickly by too many deaths), it passes to Lucius, the surviving son of Titus, who is watched from above by “the poor remainder of the Andronici” as he takes the crown. Ominously, he is watched also by the Goth army who remain silent – perhaps watching how things develop before deciding whether to support or overthrow him.

Ironically, whether the Empire of Rome will stand depends on whether the prominent leaders can regain their humanity and their compassion. Titus’ family departed from this when they sacrificed prisoners from among the Goths foolishly believing that the gods would be pleased with them (again, there are echoes of this in our own day). The new generation must now choose whether or not to hear the plea which Tamora gave at the outset of the tragedy: “Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? Draw near them in being merciful”. (1.1.120-121).

Fool, if you think…….

One of the great trademarks of Shakespeare’s plays is the way that the fools and clowns of the various plays are the deliverers of so much wit and wisdom. From the erudite fool in King Lear via the midpoint of the humour of the Porter in MacBeth to the comic turn that is Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant of Venice, the collected works are full of them.

So you’d expect that there would be a fool in Titus Andronicus and indeed there is and we’ve not yet looked at his role. The simply-named “Clown” does not arrive on the scene until Act 4 Scene 3, line 76.1. He is asked by Titus to deliver a message to Saturninus, the Emperor. He tells us no hidden truth and aside from one strong joke which would be understood by the audience of the day, he has no particularly witty words to give us and he understands less. By scene 4 of the same Act, he delivers his message and by line 48 of that scene he is led away to his death. Don’t shoot the messenger, indeed!

If this was a late play in the Shakespearean writings, then you might think that old Will is ironically dispelling our expectations. After a career of using the fools of the theatre company to deliver insight, here is one who has nothing to say and only a brief moment upon the stage ending in his own death. But Titus Andronicus, as far as we know, is the earliest of the Shakespearean tragedies. So what are we to understand through this?

Well, perhaps, Shakespeare is pointing out that in corrupt society even truth dies. Even the hidden channels by which truth sometimes comes are closed off. In the scene that has Clown’s appearance, old Andronicus is firing arrows into the heavens (no mean feat with one good arm) with messages attached, hoping to contact the Divine who seems to have hidden his face. He then proceeds to fire them towards the Emperor’s palace in the hope of at least notifying him of his complaint. Neither tactic seems to produce much (except a bird that falls from the heavens) so Titus depends on the Clown to deliver his message for him.

The final channel for truth in this corrupt society is stopped and is hung upon the gallows. Redemption, if there is any, must come from without.

Will you still have a song to sing when the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away……

So I’m into my seventh week of hanging around with Titus Andronicus. If you’ve seen me on the tube, I bet I was reading Titus Androncius. If you’ve seen behind a plate of food, I’d guess that Titus Andronicus was there too. And everywhere that me and my trusty “Steely Dan – Everything Must Go” bag have gone, well, Titus Andronicus was right along with us. But I’m coming towards an end. I’ve read everything I can find that’s related to it. I’ve absorbed the text and I guess I only have two or three more journal entries to bore you with. One of which is here and now……

So if you read the play or you’ve read one of my musings on the subject, you’ll remember that one of the key events of the story is the rape and mutilation of Titus’ daughter, Lavinia. The play was one of the most popular of his works during Shakespeare’s lifetime. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the play was virtually unstageable. It was thought to be indecorous. It was thought to be in bad taste. When Peter Brook directed it with Laurence Olivier in the 1950s, he was credited with saving “this dreadful play”. I’ve already mentioned T.S. Eliot’s condemnation in a previous journal entry.

But I think that it is a great play (as if my voice matters!) and every major production of the last century has been (or seems to have been) a landmark in the history of Shakespearean theatre.

I think that is obvious that the root of these widely divergent views lies in the aforementioned rape and mutilation (mercifully, portrayed offstage) but also in the depiction od the reaction to these crimes.

If Shakespeare was living in the 21st century and if he was a film director, there is no doubt that the revealing of Lavinia after her assault would be done at the end of the scene rather than at a beginning. Also, there seems little doubt that the reaction to her assault would include many meaningful silences, mood-driven stares and tears. But the standards of the theatre of his day were the standards of his day and it is how the play works within these standards that we must judge it. In a Shakespearean script there are no silences, there are no pregnant pauses. There are only words and a very minimum of stage directions. The convention was for three, four, five acts with a few scenes with in each and so there is no space for us to withdraw and find out how the family has dealt with these horrendous events months later. The story is the thing and the action must roll remorsefully on. And there are always words and more words. But what words do you speak when you are presented with your daughter raped and with both hands cut off. There are none that are fit and certainly none that Shakespeare had. So instead he concentrates not on the emotion of the moment but what the mutilation means. And this he does very well indeed.

Marcus: This was thy daughter
Titus: Why, Marcus, so she is

Marcus’ (Titus’ brother) use of the past tense implies that Lavinia is less than she was before the assault – perhaps that in her current physical state, she has become less than human. Titus is the voice of compassion. He knows that she is still what she was before but great violence has been done to her. She has not lost her honour or womanhood. Others have tried to take them from her and they have failed but he cannot help with the shame feels. And to reckon all of these things is hard and Titus loses his sanity. His mind breaks. In the process, Shakespeare teaches us that there are no great nations, no great empires, by definition – only nations that are great for a time because they are driven by great and moral men. The Romans, in the story, have already adopted the morality of the Goth people they have defeated – they had to descend to their level in order to win the war but now Lucius, son of Titus, most leave Rome to keep his life and to avoid being part of the dreadful decline that has begun.

Shakespeare shows us that the pattern of people’s lives doesn’t change across the century. He uses Ovid’s depiction of Ancient Greece (another empire that came to naught) and it’s mythology to show that the pattern that was then was re-occurring in Rome and perhaps by extension that it was capable of happening in his own generation — and therefore, as we read today, in ours.

Chiron (son of the Goth queen) declares in an earlier scene: “I love Lavinia more than all the world”. He has confused love with lust. And he satisfies that “love” through rape. Sex is debased in a society that is debased. Lives are destroyed. And eventually a new kingdom arises. And men have the chance to fail again….. or even succeed, perhaps.