Friday, March 13, 2009

Bloody Bard

I don't think I'll get much argument by calling Titus Andronicus Shakespeare's most hated play. Some critics hate so much that they question whether or not their beloved bard actually penned it. T.S. Eliot called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” A hundred years after it was first performed playwright Edward Ravenscroft called its structure “Rubbish” (yes, with a capital R).

Where's the love for Titus? What do people have against it? Maybe it's the ultraviolence. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's Blood Feast. We have execution, filicide, mutilation (rather a lot of it), rape, cannibalism, and lots of good old ordinary murder. Every act is soaked in blood. Body parts get scattered about the stage. This is one nasty day at the theater.

Harold Bloom thinks that all this gore was actually intended as comedy. The young Shakespeare crafted a play that went deliberately over the top as a wry commentary on writers like Marlowe who achieved great popularity with violent productions. He has suggested that the next filmed version should be directed by Mel Brooks.

While I may defer to Professor Bloom's scholarship, I've often been less impressed by his judgment. Titus Andronicus, while it does have a few bitter jokes, is not a comedy. It is an Elizabethan revenge drama. It was not intended to elevate, educate, or enhance. It was intended to entertain. And to make lots of money.

Which it did. Records show that it played a good long time to packed houses. Titus Andronicus was loathed by the Victorians and heartily disliked by almost everyone else, but the paying public of Elizabethan London loved it. What the heck was wrong with them?

“The past is a foreign country,” said L.P. Hartley. “They do things differently there.” We tend to think of folks from other centuries as pretty much the same as us, only with funny clothes and poorer hygiene. It's just not so. They lived on another planet. They thought differently, reacted differently, saw the world differently, processed information differently; they were different.

Shakespeare's London was a violent place. Dogfighting and cockfighting were common. Plays had to compete with entertainment such as bear baiting, a popular attraction in which a bear was chained to a stake and then set upon by dogs. People would pay to watch the dogs and the bear tear each other apart. Criminals were publicly executed, and executions were always well attended. Sometimes their heads were put up on spikes and left to rot. In one year 20,000 Londoners died of the plague. A few years later 15,000 died. War and rumors of war were a constant drumbeat. Political assassination was routine. The Pope had declared a fatwa against the queen.

It was a violent time. They were a violent people. Violent themes were a crowd pleaser. Violent revenge dramas like Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy were blockbusters. Classical poetry was becoming increasingly popular, and it was positively blood soaked. Arthur Golding had recently translated Ovid's Metamorphoses into English. Shakespeare adapted a little of Ovid's plot, specifically the Tale of Philomela, and turned it into his own tale of horror and revenge. Dr. Johnson said that “(n)o man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” The bard was not a blockhead.

In his introduction to the play Sylvan Barnet suggested that Shakespeare was trying to “make art out of violence.” I think that's closer to the truth, but it may be overstating it a bit. The art is in the drama, the story, and the language. Titus is not a commentary on the violence of the age. It does not transcend its milieu. It is simply a part of it. It was violent because that is the way the world was, and that is what people wanted to see.

I understand why people like Harold Bloom want to believe that Shakespeare was only kidding. Tasteful, thoughtful, intelligent people, the sort of people who watch public TV, listen to jazz, and read Literature, do not like horror stories. It is hard to imagine that the greatest writer in the English language would pen a slasher. They want to construct a wall of 21st century irony between their Shakespeare and the bloody truth. It doesn't stand.

The question remains; is Titus Andronicus a good play? Sure it is. It's just not a great play. It doesn't hold a candle to King Lear, Julius Caesar, or Hamlet. But if you like a good horror show it's a corker. If you're the sort of person who doesn't like to think about the truly horrible things that people do, who would prefer not to look in the darkest corners of human nature, then avoid it. If, on the other hand, you have more in common with Shakespeare's audience, you understand what sort of creatures human beings really are, and you find yourself drawn to those dark corners as places worthy of closer study, then you might find a little truth and beauty in this most lamentable Roman tragedy.

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