When I posted on social media that I would be reading Titus Andronicus, I immediately received comments like “I’ve heard it’s quite bloody”, “So bloody and so marvelous!”, and “Very appropriate for Halloween!”. This was notable for 2 reasons: (1) People will often like, but not comment, on my book-related posts, and (2) the recurring theme of blood.
But since “bloody” tends to be a given with ol’ Shakes, I thought nothing of the repeated “bloody” comments. After all, most Shakespearian histories and tragedies are bloody and include at least 1 war or battle scene, and the majority of the characters usually die. Therefore – onwards!
Readers, I was wrong.
This play is messed up.
Widely acknowledged as Shakespeare’s first tragedy, some critics explain the excessive violence and brutality of the play as the result of a young playwrite experimenting with a new genre (per the introduction to the play that I read). It would seem that Titus was not a popular play by any means, and was kind of stuffed away in the “Let’s just pretend this doesn’t exist” corner of Shakespeare’s canon until the late 20th century. For good reason. This play is twisted. I have no idea how you would stage it.
In today’s world, this play would need so many trigger warnings and disclaimers that you wouldn’t be able to see the poster/play title through them all.
Within the first 5 minutes of the play, Titus orders a man to have his limbs cut off and his entrails pulled out of his body and burned over a fire. And then, his blood-thirst not quite satisfied, kills his own son for blocking his way. This sets the tone for the rest of the play, in a slow-build kind of way; this is tame compared to what comes next, functioning as kind of a lamppost saying “If you don’t like this, you’re not gonna like the rest of the play.”
Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, is raped by the ex-Queen of the Goths and new Empress Tamora’s 2 sons, who then beat Lavinia horribly and cut off her hands and her tongue. Did I mention that they rape her after killing her husband (the Emperor’s brother, Bassanius, no less) and shoving him down a hole?
Titus’s sons, Quintus and Martius, are framed for Bassanius’ murder and Titus cuts off his hand to try to save them, on the instruction and promise of Aaron, Tamora’s lover. This is a lie, of course, and instead of getting his sons back alive, Titus is returned the heads of his sons along with his hand. Kind of reminds you of that Brad Pitt movie, Seven, doesn’t it?
To get his revenge, Titus cuts the throats of Tamora’s sons (their names are Chorin and Demetrius, for anyone who cares – what kind of a name is “Chorin”?) and then bakes them into a pie that he will feed to Tamora. Titus was baking people into pies before Sweeney Todd made it cool, just sayin’.
Saturninus (the Emperor) and Tamora show up for the banquet Titus invited them to, and he promptly kills Lavinia (his daughter who was raped and whose hands and tongue were cut off by Tamora’s sons, if you recall) in front of the whole dinner party: “It made me too sad to look at her”, he said.
So, Titus has now killed one of his sons and his only daughter, for anyone keeping track. One got in his way literally and the other in the way of his happiness.
With that little bit of pre-dinner murder looked after, it’s time to eat. A few bites in, Titus informs Tamora that she’s eating pie stuffed with her sons, then he stabs and kills her. Saturninus kills Titus for killing his wife, and then Lucius, Titus’ only surviving son (out of 4) stabs Saturninus to avenge his father.
Remember Aaron? Well, sometime between Lavinia’s horrific rape and mutilation and the murder-pie baking party, Aaron impregnates Tamora. Tamora has the baby and freaks out because the Emperor will find out she’s having an affair (I forgot to mention – Aaron is a Moor). Tamora’s solution is to send the baby to Aaron for him to kill it. Yes, that’s right, in the middle of all of this, someone brings a newborn baby to Aaron and tells him to hang it from a tree. He doesn’t, by the way.
At the end of it all, Aaron is still alive, which is unacceptable, so Lucius – who seems to be in control of things now – orders him to be half-burried in the ground and left to die a slow and painful death.
I even left out a couple of deaths! I finished this play in one sitting but to call it light would be a gross mischaracterization. This play stayed with me. Part of me never wants to see it on stage and part of me is morbidly curious.
Please enjoy this delightful “Death Clock” I found on the interwebs that depicts all the deaths in Titus Andronicus, in chronological order.