Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Defending Titus

Okay, so you guys have gone and done it now! Bev, History Geek! I'm looking at YOU! Defaming Titus! How could you?

Okay, it was easy for you, wasn't it?

I encouraged an internet acquaintance a while back to read Titus; and now, because it's playing in her area, she told me she's going to see it instead. That should be fun, eh? She's probably going to wonder what kind of sick-o I am that I'd suggest it.

But I love Titus. And I especially love teaching Titus. I think reading Titus helps students learn to read Shakespeare better, and is a great starting place for learning to look at plays as plays, for thinking about race, genre, gender, justice, family, marriage, and just about all the other fun things in early modern drama.

Think, for a moment, about a science fiction film or TV show you've seen, Star Wars or Star Trek. You watch them, and they tell stories in interesting ways; they make you think and you get pleasure from them. Then you see some pictures of the films being made, where you can see that the ships are models, held up by strings. Or the monsters are being moved around by pieces of plywood.

When you see those pictures, and then look back at the text you remember, you appreciate that text in different ways. You appreciate the ways people chose camera angles or developed models. And you also see the goofiness; I remember some shuttle model or something that used women's razor handles for skids. Brilliant, but goofy. And once you've seen "how it's done," you watch the next text more fully and carefully. You're more informed, and you appreciate what's being shown in a different way than before. And yes, you're more analytical, and yes, maybe you have to think about the gendered fantasy you could ignore before.

Or think of seeing stills of the shooting of an early sit com such as I Love Lucy. There's real genius in putting together a show that can be that good with such material constraints. Three cameras, time limits, minimal set flexibility. And yet, even today, that's a funny show.

So, Titus is where you can see the strings and plywood Shakespeare's using. By the time you get to Hamlet, it's way harder to see the strings because Shakespeare's gotten really good. Further, Hamlet's such an icon of dramatic genius that students are intimidated by it. No one's intimidated by Titus. Horrified, grossed out, yes, but not intimidated.

I'm not in any way suggesting that Shakespeare (or Shakespeare and some other person, which I think is reasonably likely) wrote Titus to "practice" for Hamlet or anything. I think he (plus mystery playwright) wrote Titus because he/they wanted to make some money, contribute to the company's success, kick ass with a play, etc. Pretty much why Shakespeare wrote every play.

But reading Titus helps my students see the strings of how revenge tragedy works, of how black or blackamoor characters function in early modern drama, of how father-daughter relationships can be represented, and so forth. And Titus is so far over the top with doing what it does, so jam-pack full of stuff and body parts and the kitchen sink, that it's all the way "to the moon, Alice!" "to infinity and beyond!" You can see the plywood pushing the monster around the stage.
And just as understanding I Love Lucy as a material production adds to the pleasures of watching The Simpsons, understanding Titus adds to the pleasures of reading or watching Hamlet, or Othello, or just about any other later Shakespeare play.

Even if it weren't a great teaching play, Titus has a couple of amazing dramatic moments that make it worth the pence to get in.

Here's where Marcus enters to find Lavinia in Act 2, scene 4. For those not in the Titus-know, Marcus is coming on to stage and sees Lavina, who has been raped, had her tongue cut out, and her hands cut off. (Did I mention over the top? Just when you think it can't get worse, it will; this is only Act 2!)

Okay, you're reading this. But think of staging. There's no way (before modern filming stuff) to represent these sorts of injuries fully and convincingly on stage. So we in the audience are going to go with what we see, yes, but also what we hear said. And Marcus's speech is going to interpret and create what we see for us. Without benefit of film at all, this speech is incredibly cinematic; it's like we start out with Marcus, seeing Lavinia turned away, then we see that her hands are off, and her mouth is a bloody font. It's fully of pathos without being maudlin. (Well, I don't think it's maudlin.) Marcus leads us to understand the depth of the horror and then begins to explain it with reference to Tereus:

Who is this? my niece, that flies away so fast!
Cousin, a word; where is your husband?
If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me!
If I do wake, some planet strike me down,
That I may slumber in eternal sleep!
Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As have thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
But, sure, some Tereus hath deflowered thee,
And, lest thou shouldst detect him, cut thy tongue.
Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame!
And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with three issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encountered with a cloud.

Marcus goes on in the speech to develop the Tereus parallel. (Tereus raped his sister-in-law, Philomel/Philomela, and cut out her tongue so she couldn't tell. But she wove a tapestry that told the story, and got it to her sister, Procne. Procne then killed her kids by Tereus and fed them to him.) The speech not only reads Lavinia's body for us, but sets up the rest of the play without smacking us over the head too hard. (Okay, there's some smacking over the head; but that's where you see the strings!)

Not convinced?

How about this bit of imagery, from Aaron's entrance in Act 2, scene 1, after Tamora's managed to marry the Roman emperor.

Now climbeth Tamora Olympus' top,
Safe out of fortune's shot; and sits aloft,
Secure of thunder's crack or lightning flash;
Advanced above pale envy's threatening reach.
As when the golden sun salutes the morn,
And, having gilt the ocean with his beams,
Gallops the zodiac in his glistering coach,
And overlooks the highest-peering hills;
So Tamora

If you want to teach your creative writing students about concrete imagery, set them to draw this speech, and they'll get it. And have them read it aloud a couple times:

As when the golden sun salutes the morn,
And, having gilt the ocean with his beams,
Gallops the zodiac in his glistering coach,
And overlooks the highest-peering hills

That just tastes good. Those resounding "g"s, golden, gilt, gallops, glistering. Read it aloud again, and tell me that's not some pretty danged effective verse. Yeah, my students need to look up some words, and I have to explain about Phoebus Apollo, but then the "gilt" takes on special meaning, as does the "zodiac."

Of course, Aaron's wrong, and Tamora really isn't safe at all, even hanging out with the emperor, but it's important that we know he thinks that at the moment, and that the tragedy part is going to be, in part, about the fall of that emperor and the end of his lineage.

So, you Titus haters, have I changed your minds? Even a little tiny bit?


  1. I am not a Titus hater. I agree that the lines "taste good," even though talking about how things taste in Titus invites a whole bunch of really bad cannibalism-related puns that I will tastefully refrain from mentioning. It's just that when anyone tries to summarize the plotline of Titus it's difficult to avoid sliding sideways into comedy, and not subtle comedy either but the broad slapstick we see, for instance, in the "bring out your dead!" scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    Last fall I was at a conference devoted to Shakespeare where the keynote speaker presented a paper called something like "Family Values in Titus Andronicus." It was a brilliant piece of textual analysis, but it was also probably the funniest conference paper I have ever heard. When characters demonstrate their devotion to "family values" by serving up their offspring in a nice pot pie, how can you not laugh?

    So I don't hate Titus. If nothing else, Titus reminds us that Shakespeare did not spring full-grown from the head of the muse but had to hone his talents the hard way, as any writer must do.

  2. I lurrrve me some Titus. It absolutely bowled me over the first time I read it as an undergrad, and it still does.

    Yes, it's campy and insane. But Lawd, when Shakespeare & Co. did campy and insane, they sure did it up right!

    Thanks for this lovely defense.

  3. I absolutely adore Titus Andronicus...I think you must read the play first and foremost because of its abruptness. Definitely the easiest of Shakespeare to read and entertaining as well. The plot sequences do not drag on and they contain much room for interpretation. I am glad for your defense.