TITUS ANDRONICUS

By William Shakespeare
Probably written about 1590-1593, thought to be his first play

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2009

General Note: In January 2009 I decided that Iíd like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadnít read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeareís plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play Iíve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeareís playís Iíve read and commented on

COMMENTS ON
TITUS ANDRONICUS

Normally I go into these plays with virtually no knowledge of them at all, with the exception of the most famous of them. In this case I had a slight disadvantage Ė I had somewhere read that this was believed to be Shakespeareís first play and not a very popular one because it was seen as being excessively violent. Fortunately for me the negative judgment of the play didnít stick nor ruin my reading.

I found it to be a very powerful story and was quite moved by it. However, the poetic writing wasnít anything as marvelous as in some of the other plays I have recently reread.

Titus Andronicus is a Roman general, leader of an army that had just defeated the Goths in war. After the war Titus was about to execute the son of Tamora, the queen of the Goths. She pleads for her sonís life, but Titus executes him anyway. Tamora swears revenge and thus begins a total blood bath! The beautiful Tamora convinces Saturninus, emperor of Rome, to marry her. This gives her an edge into great power. Working with her lover, a Moor named Aaron, she arranges for the murder of two of Titusís son, the rape of his daughter, even having her tongue cut out and hands cut off (to make it difficult for her to communicate who her attackers were), and even to have Titus sacrifice one of his hands in supposed ransom for his sonís, but then Aaron has the heads of his sons returned to him, not their living selves. Those acts, rather understandably, set off a violent response from Titus in which he ends up killing first Tamoraís sons, and even serving them to her to eat, and then killing both Tamora and Aaron.

No wonder many would complain of the excessive violence of the play. Nonetheless, I found the play to be powerful and cathartic.

Aristotle argued that tragedy itself had a moral purpose of purging us (catharsis) of the ďnaturalĒ feelings we may well have toward violence and mayhem.

"Tragedy, then, is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language which has been made sensuously attractive, with each of its varieties found separately in the parts; enacted by the persons themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the purification or purgation of such emotions."

While I didnít find the great poetry and language of much of Shakespeare in this early play, but there was a powerful story of violence that moved me deeply, and made me understand the value of tragedy as Aristotle understood it, and as Shakespeare presented it in this play.

We live in hard times and I find myself extremely frustrated by the violence perpetrated on humans, animals and the planet itself by many people of wealth and power. Yet, I also sense a feeling of helplessness in the face of this mayhem, and that helplessness nags at me, making me often nearly rage at the news of the world which I hear.

Reading this play I came to sense the utter rage of Titus Andronicus and while I was horrified by the level of his response, it worked on me to bring some of that release or purification or purgation of which Aristotle speaks. The violence on both sides, that initiated by Queen Tamora and that of Titus, was unspeakable. Yet I could understand the rage that she had for the useless execution of her son after the war, and then I came to sympathize deeply with the brutal response which Titus had to her revenge upon his two sons and his daughter. And finally, the ending in which both Tamora and Aaron were punished, to use a very light word, for their evil doings . . . well, it all worked to leave me in a sweat of the feeling of justice being done, albeit a very harsh justice.

I happened to be finishing the play as I was riding a bus home after a long walk I had taken. The bus was just passing Barnes / Jewish hospital as I was reading the last paragraphs, and I could just sit there and look over at the hospital thinking of all the people suffering in the hospital, and from there move on to thinking of all the suffering caused by the actions of the powerful and wealthy who use that power and wealth so often to harm others, and there was some crazy RELIEF in having poured so much emotional energy into suffering along with Titus and cheering his gruesome revenge. I just felt momentarily relieved.

Iím not sure I terribly much approve of my own feelings, but I did have to admit, it felt so nice to see the evil punished so violently for what they had done. I would much prefer that such feelings in me could be eased by letting them play out in interaction with a play than in continuing to feel them so strongly in relation to real live people in the world in which I live.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu