Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Bloody Vengence - Doom of the Andronici

When it comes to Titus Andronicus I simply cannot avoid thinking of the brilliant movie by Julie Taymor and starring Anthony Hopkins in the lead role. However, this isn't a post about the film (even though it does sit in my collection) but rather about the Royal Shakespeare Company's production that they released for the stage to screen. The thing with Titus Andronicus is that it happens to be one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays, probably because most of the people who are familiar with it simply know it as 'the violent play'. I first heard about it at University when we started studying Seneca and our lecturer wanted to point out that if we felt that Seneca was violent then we really don't fully understand the nature of a violent play. He then proceeded to give an account of a play in which a woman is raped and has her tongue cut out and her hands cut off, two men are strung up like cattle, minced up and served up in a pie and of which there are fourteen deaths, nine of which are on stage. When he asked us if we knew the name of the play we all looked at each other mystified.

Well, as you can probably guess it was Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Needless to say I immediately went down to the bookshop after class and purchased a copy of it. Then again, that was back in the days in which in my mind the higher the bodycount, the better the story, and Shakespeare was certainly an expert in writing plays with huge bodycounts. Then again, it also reminds me of a Hong Kong action film named 'The Killer' which advertised itself as having the highest bodycount in film history. However, these days I guess I have grown out of the lure of the big bodycount, though in a way Titus Andronicus still intrigues me.

A Story of Rome

Shakespeare wrote four plays set in Rome, Coriolanus, which is set during the Republican period, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, which is set during the turbulent period of transition from the Republic to the Empire, and this play, which is set during the twilight of Rome's majesty. It is a time in which Rome is beset by enemies on all side, most notably the Goths pressing in from the north. The glory days of the empire are long gone, and inflation is running rampant. Furthermore the imperial throne has been left vacant due to the death of the emperor and the emperor's two sons are fighting over who should claim the title.

Enter Titus Andronicus, a successful general who has just battled, and captured, the Goth Queen Tamora and her three sons. He returns to Rome with his prisoners in trail, and proceeds to offer one of Tamora's sons as a sacrifice to Jupiter, despite Tamora pleading otherwise. He is then offered the throne, however he turns it down, due to the fact that he is old in years and has no desire to rule the empire. Instead he picks Saturninus as the Emperor, who proceeds to ask for his daughter Lavinia's hand in marriage. The catch is that Lavinia is already betrothed to Basianus, however Titus is more than willing to break the engagement (which is contrary to Roman law) for the emperor's sake. A scuffle then breaks out which results in the death of one of Titus' sons, and Bassianus and Lavinia flee. Saturninus then decides to marry Tamora instead, and then frees her sons. Thus starts a series of events that leads to bloody revenge, a huge body count, and a Rome wracked by turmoil.

Titus is actually one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, which is probably why it is not as popular as some of his other plays. In fact there was only one other person in the cinema for this film, though this might have been the location. Actually, sometimes I wonder what would happen if nobody actually went to see the film, though I suspect that they probably would show it for a little while, just in case there are some latecomers (and there usually are - I happen to be one of them, since I try to avoid the ads at the beginning of the film, though my timing does end up being off at times). One odd thing about the story is the emperor suddenly deciding that he would marry the queen of the Goths - this is a little odd, but then again could be reflective of the degradation of the empire at the time. The other thing is that the play seems to be appealing to the lowest common denominator with its excessive use of violence.

The director of this particular production was trying to take us away from the violence, and she suggests that she does this by setting it in 2017. I'm not entirely sure if she was being effective here, though she did suggest that there is a lot more to this play than blood and murder. In a way this may be true, but we must remember that not all plays are made for a thinking audience, and this is definitely true of plays before the modern era. In many instances the plays are not just the product of the author but also of the director, and also in part the audience. A part of me feels that in a lot of cases the play, as is the case with a lot of literature, that the meaning is not necessarily given by the author, but by those who come after.

Ancient Mythology

Titus Andronicus is the only Roman play that isn't based on historical events. Sure, there apparently was an emperor Saturninus, however the events that are depicted here did not necessarily occur during his reign. However, we must remember that as the empire began to collapse a lot of the literature that was predominant during the early period was not really present during this later period. In fact the Empire collapsed into a time of dark ages of myth and legend, or at least this was the case with the Western empire. However, it was during this time that it was not uncommon for there to be multiple claimants to the throne, and the empire would be regularly wracked by civil insurrections as well as incursions from abroad, and even full blown invasions from beyond the borders.

Even though the play is set during the reign of a fictional Roman emperor it does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare was being entirely original. Then again one cannot really make the claim that there is actually anything all that original being produced - authors and artists are always being influenced by something or somebody. Mind you, Shakespeare is well known for taking inspiration from plays and stories that were circulating at the time, even though these plays have stories have since been eclipsed by Shakespeare's. However, Titus Andronicus seems to be the exception in that much of the story was his own invention - to an extent.

For instance Shakespeare takes on board a number of stories from Ovid, and during the play even has a scene where Ovid is being referenced. This is in the case of his daughter Lavinia, who is ravaged by Tamora's sons, who then proceed to cut out her tongue, and remove her hands, so that she can't reveal their identity to anybody. This is taken from the story of Philomela. In that story Procne, Philomela's sister, marries the king of Thrace and moves there. However, she wants her sister to join her, so has the Thracian king travel to Athens to escort her to his court. However, during the journey he is overcome with lust and rapes her. He then cuts out her tongue and leaves her in the forest. The king's treachery is eventually revealed when Philomela writes his name in the dirt.

The other major scene that comes from mythology is the final scene where Tamora's daughters are served up to her in a pie. When I hear of this story I immediately think of the story of Thyestes. In this story the brothers Atrieus and Thyestes are sent into exile from Pisa and seek refuge in Mycene. They eventually ascend the throne as co-rulers, however Atrieus tricks Thyestes into nominating him a sole heir. Atrieus then has Thyestes banished, however he soon discovers that he has been having an affair with his wife. He then invites him back, claiming that all is forgiven however Atrieus has Thyestes' sons murdered and serves them up in a pie. Interestingly Atrieus becomes the father of Agamemnon and Thyestes the father of Aegisthus, for those who are familiar with the story of Orestes.

There are of course other references to mythology, including the reference to killing a daughter who was ravaged as well as the story of the Moor. The thing is that Shakespeare is actually thick with such references, though in most cases he looks not to the Greek versions but rather the Roman. The reason for this, at least according to a lecturer at University, was that while Shakespeare was familiar with Latin, he wasn't all that familiar with Greek. As such while he had access to the likes of Virgil and Ovid, he wasn't able to look to Grecian poets for inspiration.

A Story of Revenge

In a sense this is another theme that seems to ruminate through Shakespeare, though none of his other plays deal with vengeance in the way that Titus Andronicus deals with revenge. While the suggestion is that Titus is a tragic figure, in my mind he is more cursed than anything else. Okay, he does open himself up when he mercilessly slaughter's Tamora's son, but the vengeance that Tamora wrecks upon Titus is almost tenfold. Not only that but we also have Saturninus seeking revenge for the Titus' failure to have him wed his daughter. Yet while we have some sympathy with Titus we must remember that at the beginning of the play he actually kills one of his sons in a fit of rage.

Yet this is vengeance against vengeance. It is not surprising that Tamora enacts revenge against Titus because he killed her son, but the thing is that it simply does not rest with one son, it is basically all or nothing. By the end of the play Titus is literally left as a shadow of his former self. However he has his revenge as well because he simply cannot let it lie that his sons had been set up for the murder of the Emperor's brother, nor can he let what happened to his daughter rest, particularly when he discovers who the culprit is.

However we can't necessarily sympathise with Tamora either, particularly since she dances around gloating near the end of the play, even though she literally sets herself up for the horrors that are to come. Mind you, Titus lures her in to this through feigning madness, another trick that Shakespeare has used in subsequent plays. In fact the whole idea of luring the victim through feigning madness is all about exposing their vulnerabilities. Titus feigns madness thus he makes it appear that he is vulnerable, and in appearing vulnerable his targets eventually let their guard down.

This does set it self up for he bloody end that eventuates. Shakespeare is never about a good guy overcoming a bad guy and riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after - there never is a happy ending in a Shakespearian tragedy. In fact all this talk of revenge against revenge is only going to end up with pools of blood all over the floor. We see this with Hamlet, King Lear, and even Romeo and Juliet. Vengeance doesn't ever work out for anybody, and this is one of the key ideas that we get out of Shakespeare.

The Scheming Moor

I'm sort of wondering about the other antagonist in the play - Aaron. Mind you, this particular character is incredibly anachronistic considering the Moors didn't appear until centuries after the play was set. Personally, I'm not entirely sure as to whether Moors were supposed to have dark skin or not, though it seems traditional to portray them as such. Yet Aaron isn't the only Moor to appear in Shakespeare's works - we also have Othello, who isn't a villain but rather a tragic figure. However, in this particular work Aaron is portrayed as the villain.

This confuses me a bit because at first he seems to be only playing a bit part. He is a part of the train of prisoners that Titus leads into Rome, though we are told that he was a member of Tamora's court. The interesting thing is that we soon discover that he is actually having an affair with Tamora, and when discovered they go out of their way to silence any witnesses. Yet when Tamora gives birth to a mixed race child - pointing out clearly who the father is - we suddenly see Aaron's humanity. Yet it is another aspect of the play and that is the pain that occurs when one sees one flesh and blood butchered and murdered.

It is interesting that the butchering of one's progeny is a dominant theme in the play - Tamora's sons are killed, Titus' sons are killed, and even Aaron's son is placed on the chopping block and he is ordered to end the child's life. Yet this is something that Aaron cannot do. Sure, the existence of the child is evidence of Tamora's infidelity, in the same way that it is evidence of Aaron's treachery, yet the interesting thing is that the suggestion is that this isn't something new - I suspect that the affair had been going on long before the arrival of Titus and the Romans.

The other thing about the Moor is that he represents the barbaric fringe, in the same way that the Goths represent the barbaric fringe. I suspect that we scream racism when we see Aaron portrayed as a villain simply because of the time in which we live, yet we seem to forget that Tamora and her sons are just as villainous. In a sense the Goths and the Moors are both fringe dwellers - they exist on the edge of the empire, and are a lawless and barbaric people, threatening to bring down the peace and stability of the nation.

The End of Empire

Titus isn't the only play in which we see a Rome in turmoil - we see the same in the other Roman plays. However, the difference here is that this is set during the eclipse of the empire as opposed to a time where we see the empire in transition. At this time the barbarians are pushing at the fringes, and the armies of Rome are struggling to maintain the peace and stability of the empire. However, not only are the barbarians breaking through the fringes, but the ruling elite of the empire are at each others throats.

As I have mentioned about how the Moors and the Goths represent the uncivilised and barbaric fringes, and yet we see the emperor Saturninus not marry a Roman but marry a barbarian. As such he brings the barbaric fringe into the centre of the empire, with tragic consequences. Yet in the Roman eyes, the empire was only going through a period of instability, as it had done so in the past, and no doubt will survive. Yet with blood on the streets at the end, and the election of Titus' remaining son to the Emperorship our mind simply drifts to a time that may be running out.

This is why the director of the version that I watched decide to set it in 2017 because in many eyes it seems as if our society is in decline. Sure, inflation may be at an all time high, yet many things are out of reach. The minimum wage has barely moved, and while the rich seem to inevitably get richer, the poor seem to fall further and further into that pit of despair. More noticeably we are seeing the populists rising to power as traditional, level headed leadership seems to have gone by the wayside. In fact people have become so divided in their opinions that one is simply counting down to the days that there are literally going to be blood on the streets.

However, as much as society seems to be decaying, both morally and politically, many of use seem to want to surround ourselves with our luxuries. We are wealthier than anybody else in history, despite the fact that as a middle class we are ever so slowly drifting away from the dream of prosperity that our parents enjoyed. In fact the millennial generation is seen as the first generation in a long time who are going to enjoy less of a quality of life than their parents, which honestly is not surprising. 

The question that comes about is whether we are also witnessing the end of empire. The problem is that, like the Romans, we simply cannot see the future, and we cannot see whether we will overcome our current crisis, whether it be economical, environmental, or political. In a way it seems as if our politicians are gradually getting worse, and our quality of life, while in some ways is getting better, is also getting worse. Yet the thing that we seem to see here is that the Romans were oblivious to the fact that their empire was in terminal decay, and were living as if things would keep on going on as they had been doing for a millenia. What that really means for us though is whether we will acknowledge, and attempt to solve the problems that our empire faces, or will we simply blindly continue stumbling into oblivion.

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Bloody Vengence - Doom of the Andronici by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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