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.