Titus and Lucrece
May 20, 2003
Since last week Ive made a new addition to
my Shakespeare video collection: the recent film of Titus,
based on Titus Andronicus. This is generally more or
less universally regarded as Shakespeares worst play.
Its so much worse than anything else he wrote that many scholars
have doubted that he wrote it. The critical consensus may be summed up in
two words: it stinks.
Andronicus was popular in its own time. Nobody knows when it
was first performed; it was first printed in 1594, with the author
unidentified, and two more editions followed. The author wasnt
identified as Shakespeare until 1598.
The plays appeal can also
be summed up in two words: sex and violence. Or maybe sexual violence.
The story features murder, rape, mutilation, torture, miscegenation,
betrayal, revenge, and cannibalism.
If this sounds bad, the film is
even worse. Julie Taymor directed, blending no, grotesquely
mixing ancient Rome with contemporary odds and ends. Anthony
Hopkins (who else?) plays Titus, Shakespeares answer to Hannibal
Lecter. Jessica Lange is Tituss archenemy, Tamora, Queen of the
Goths. Its all relentlessly ugly, pictorially and otherwise. The film
keeps trying to top itself in horrors, but all proportion is lost and the
whole effect is confused and pointless. Eventually evil becomes merely
The story begins with Titus, a
Roman general, celebrating his victory over the Goths in a war that has
cost the lives of 21 of his sons. Soon he kills another of his sons with his
own hands. Meanwhile, Tamora marries the Roman emperor Saturninus,
while conceiving a child by her wicked Moorish lover Aaron. (All this has
no basis in history, by the way; Shakespeare made it all up.)
Aaron incites two of
Tamoras grown sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to rape Tituss
daughter Lavinia; they do so, ravishing her on the body of her brother
Bassianus, whom they have also murdered. Then they cut out her tongue
and chop off her hands to prevent her from telling (or writing) who her
Tituss troubled family life gets even more complicated.
Two of his remaining sons are sentenced to death unless he can ransom
them by sending Aaron the severed hand of yet another of his sons. Titus
cuts off his own hand, but all he receives in return are the heads of the
two sons hed hoped to save.
Now it gets unpleasant. Passing
over some details you probably dont need to know, Lavinia manages
to tell Titus who her rapists were. He captures Chiron and Demetrius and
cuts their throats.
In the final scene, Tamora comes
to a feast where Titus acts as the chef. After serving her and the other
guests a meat pie, Titus discloses the key ingredients in the recipe: Chiron
As you might expect, the prank
doesnt go over too well. Then most of the characters stab each
other to death. Titus even kills Lavinia, ending her shame. The survivors
sentence Aaron to death too: he is to be buried up to his neck and left to
Titus is considered
Shakespeares first attempt at tragedy: the title of the first
edition was The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus
Andronicus. But its so hard to take seriously that some
have suspected it was all a huge black joke, spoofing the gory tragedies of
Seneca and his later imitators. Excessive horror in drama has a tendency
to dissolve in laughter, and surely no tragedy has ever produced less grief
than this one.
Most scholars date the play
around 1594, when it was first printed, but it must have been written
much earlier. In 1594 Shakespeare also published his long poem The
Rape of Lucrece, another treatment of sexual violence in ancient
Rome, but in an entirely different vein. The poem has none of the
plays crude horror. Even its verse is of an entirely different order.
This is the great poet in the maturity of his skill, his poetic power, his
amazingly condensed expression.
Its hard for me,
impossible to believe the great poet could have written
Titus and Lucrece at about the same time. The
play is as crude as the poem is exquisite one more sign that the
scholars have gotten Shakespeare all wrong.