There’s a lot of unjustifiable hate out there for Titus Andronicus, I think.
Jonathan Bate introduces the play by saying that:
‘Even those who have approached Titus in a spirit of scholarly enquiry rather than critical judgement have been prejudiced by their distaste for the play […] nearly all scholars suppose that it is a very early work, a piece of crude and embarrassing juvenilia. I believe that every one of these arguments is wrong.
I’m with Prof. Bate. This was a rollercoaster ride. Although it does sketch issues we’ll see fleshed out in Lear and other ‘greats’, it’s a remarkable Revenge play, with a strong tragic journey and an utterly evil villain that surpasses any other I can readily think of. It also spoke strongly to me about public service, and the rewards thereof – especially for our armed forces.
So here’s my soundtrack album for the play. What’s missing?
Secular authorities had (and still have) every investment in discouraging revenge. If citizens perceive that the law no longer serves them, then we get the kind of situation that Francis Bacon famously warned of:
‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice’
And this is a point that Jonathan Bate develops, quoting Fredson Bowers:
Private action undermines the authority of the state:Elizabethan law felt itself capable of meting out justice to murderers, and therefore punished an avenger who took justice into his own hands just as heavily as the original murderer.The authorities, conscious of the Elizabethan inheritance of private justice from earlier ages, recognised that their own times still held the possibilities of serious turmoil; and the were determined that private revenge should not unleash a general disrespect for law.
Act IV however adds the dimension of the breakdown of DIVINE justice to the individual’s decision to subvert the legal process.
‘To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub’ (HAMLET: III.i.64)
Titus Andronicus: Act II
What tragedy would be complete without some element of the supernatural, as I have already intimated? This dreadful (in the sense of being full of dread, NOT poor quality) act begins with that classic Shakespearean trope, the bad night’s sleep:
‘I have been troubled in my sleep this night.’ (TITUS: II.i.9)
And Titus has every reason to be subconsciously troubled: although he begins the act quite enthusiastically:
‘The hunt is up’ (II.i.1)
He cannot imagine who the ‘dainty doe’ (DEMETRIUS: II.i. 26) might actually be ..
My experience of Shakespeare’s Rome is the city where Cinna the Poet is torn apart by the mob for his ‘bad verses’ (Julius Caesar, III.iii), and the antagonistic opening to Coriolanus. So, what first struck me as the play opened was just how thin the veneer of civilisation proved to be.
If you look at my act-by-act commentary for this play, you’ll see that the fifth instalment of my Ponytail Shakespeare read-through wasn’t without its moments.
Nonetheless, I’ve managed to compile a soundtrack album for the play. For the first time, largely because I want to encourage you to look at Lisa Mills‘ video, I’ve added Youtube links for all tracks. Enjoy!
Please get in touch below with your additions or comments.
‘Good comedy is tragedy narrowly averted’ Jonathan Bate
The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Act V
Over the past year I’ve used the question ‘What’s in a name?’ more than once, dismissing labelling in its many forms, but this feels the best way of articulating my unease with The Two Gentlemen as I finish the play …