Because I am such a glutton for punishment, not only did I finish reading Titus Andronicus yesterday (considered Shakespeare’s worst play), but I also went to see it performed by a local theater company that same evening. I was familiar with the tragedy, having suffered through the visually disturbing film version starring Anthony Hopkins; but still, reading and seeing it back-to-back was a bit much even for me.
I totally understand why people hate this play. Really, there is not much to like about it. It is nothing but gratuitous violence taken about as far as you can go: rape, dismemberment, cannibalism, and murder (murder almost sounds trivial at this point). If Marilyn Manson was to ever record a rock opera, this would be the perfect choice. In addition, the play contains some very racist passages which are even more offensive considering the current issues that society is dealing with regarding race relations.
Arguably the most disturbing scene is the rape and dismemberment of Lavinia. She is raped by Chiron and Demetrius, who then cut out her tongue and lop off both her hands. They then proceed to mock her mangled and abused body.
Demetrius: So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who ‘twas that cut thy tongue and ravished thee.
Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
Demetrius: See how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.
Chiron: Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.
Demetrius: She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;
And so let’s leave her to her silent walks.
(Act II, scene iv)
Although there is no shortage of villains in this play, Aaron, the Moor (or black person), is by far depicted as the worst of the lot. His skin color is presented as a display of his unrepentant lust for evil. Right up to the very end, he revels in the misery he causes. His only regret is that he will not live longer to cause more suffering. It is truly an offensive representation of a black person and certainly must have fed the stereotypes and prejudices of the time.
First Goth: What, canst thou say all this, and never blush?
Aaron: Ay, like a black dog, as the saying is.
Lucius: Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?
Aaron: Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,–
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
(Act V, scene i)
As I made my way home after the performance, the images and words still vivid in my mind, I could not help but think of all the hatred, violence, and racism that still plague us. If this play has any redeeming value, it’s that it forces us to look at the world around us and recognize the horror of violence. I sincerely hope that one day we can look at this play as a relic depicting the dark past from which a loving, compassionate, and tolerant humanity emerged.