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Titus Andronicus

"Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge." Act I, scene ii

Written: 1593

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada ; August 21, 2011 Stratford, Canada
Director : Darko Tresnjak ; Starring : John Vickery, Claire Lautier, Dion Johnstone
Reviewed on : 2011-08-23 13:13:46 ; Reviewed by : Margarete Mandry

Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann
The scene is set for the next 2 1/2 hours of bloody chaos that is Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus. We are in ancient Rome in the court of the brothers Saturninus and Bassianus who are vying to become the next emperor. The set has latin words carved on the floor, low stone alters (or tables or couches), lighted with candles and statuettes like a chess set, four metal towers upstage bedecked with roses and topped with marble torsos, hands gripping the earth, heads back and mouths agape in howls of agony. This is a precursor to the human agony to follow and is singularly at odds with the voluptuousness of the Roman court in all its decadence.

The two brothers Saturninus and Bassianus bicker over who is more deserving of the crown, when Titus returns from having overthrown the Goths; he enters Rome triumphant, amid pomp and circumstance, dragging his trophies: a red-draped bier bearing the shrouded figures of two sons slain in battle, beneath which is revealed a cage enclosing the enslaved Queen of the Goths, Tamora and her three sons, as well as Aaron the Moor, Tamora's lover. Titus offers Tamora’s eldest son as human sacrifice to the gods, despite Tamora’s pleas for mercy. He kills her eldest, still in the cage, whose head falls down between Tamora's legs, in essence, from womb to womb. This is the initial act of violence from which the cycle of revenge begins. Both Titus and Tamora are single-minded in their desires, and Tamora certainly turns to vengeance, without any chance of further character development.

John Vickery's Titus begins to show his true nature: that of head of household, who will brook no disobedience and will sacrifice even his own offspring to his iron will. He has leant his popular support to Saturninus for emperor and believes that his plain dealing and years of fighting for the might of Rome will be reciprocated. His difficulty is that he cannot image that others will not deal as fairly as he does. He sees no irony in the fact that he has destroyed a prisoner, but expects loyalty or a species of noblesse oblige from his emperor. He cannot conceive of a world in which Tamora as Roman Queen might still see him as the enemy and act, not as a leader, but purely out of personal motives. And yet Titus' inflexible attitude is at odds with the manipulations of the court and will only cause his own destruction. He’s like the guy that follows the letter of the law but never accounts for the human element, and makes no exceptions.

Thus there are two reasons for Titus’ destruction: his inflexible code with regard to his standing in Roman society, and his inability to be merciful to the defeated. He may think that the might of Rome could contain Tamora’s wrath, or that his sacrifice of her son to the gods would protect him, but he has failed to account for the angry vengeance that a broken heart seeks to soothe itself. Shakespeare seems to think that this one act is the cause of all Titus’ problems, without accounting for the free will of Tamora and her sons, Chiron and Demetrius. Once these actions are set in motion, there is no turning back, and everything snow-balls into a violent cycle or revenge, back and forth, until all are dead or destroyed.

Aaron, now freed along with Tamora's sons, begins to show is deviousness. Dion Johnstone does a fantastic job of revealing the guile of Aaron, whose machinations are the means to fan the flames of revenge and lust. It is Aaron who suggests that Tamora's sons rape Lavinia before killing her, thus affording Tamora her revenge, and slaking the lust of her sons. Bassianus is quickly despatched, but again it is Aaron who plots to have two of Titus' sons accused of the murder. The only things that mitigates Aaron is his desire to save his own offspring from death. Even his entreaties, though, are given in the same breath as his gleeful recounting of all the evil he has done. Dion Johnstone's Aaron is able to embody these opposing motives with aplomb.

Lavinia's character is harder to pin down. She is disdainful of Tamora and uses vulgar sexual innuendo in her speech. Yet she is reported to be chaste by all the characters. This brings up the problematic theory that Shakespeare might be telling his audience that such a coarse lustful woman deserves to be raped. The shocking acts against her are over-the-top violence, and the speed with which crime follows upon crime leaves the disgusted audience breathless and gasping.

When Marcus first espies Lavinia after her defilement and mutilation, he refers to the greek myth of Philomela, a foreshadowing of what is to come. Philomela, sister of Procne, was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, who then cut out her tongue so she could not tell anyone. Philomela was able to sew the tale into a cloth which she sent to Procne. Procne killed her son in revenge & served him to Tereus, who unknowingly ate him. Marcus is one of the few characters who is sympathetic, whose motives are never in doubt, and whose loving care of Lavinia and later Titus bespeak a gentle nature at odds with the violence around him.

Titus is now faced with the unenviable task of trying to free his falsely-accused sons and is tricked into cutting off his own hand as ransom. But this is all in vein, for the emperor never promised release of the prisoners, and their heads are returned to Titus, along with his useless hand. The action is so paced as to leave little room for character development. We must rely on Titus' own words to tell us what he is thinking, which leaves little room for an actor to do much but react.

Lucius is banished and goes off to raise an army of Goths. Ironically, the Goths he encounters are not barbarians, and provide a sharp contrast to the uncivilized Romans. There is much bandying about of words like "barbarous" and "inferior" and the lines between the warring nations is blurred because people on both sides, Titus and Saturninus, Aaron the Moor, and Tamora the Goth, act barbarously. There can be endless debate about who is the most civilized, but at the end of the day, they are all equally vicious.

Titus now pretends to madness to give him time to plot his own revenge against Tamora and Rome. This is a device Shakespeare will use again: the ruse of madness and ineffectuality lulling the opposition into underestimating his wrath. This sets the stage for the final abomination Titus visits on Tamora and her sons. There is the fleeting thought that perhaps this revenge has nothing to do with Lavinia and more to do with Titus himself.

Although the text merely states that Lavinia carries a bowl to catch the blood of the slain rapists, director Darko Tresnjak has changed it so that Lavinia now sports sharp knives attached to her stumps, with which she carves up her abusers for the feast to come. In this way has the director allowed Lavinia to enact revenge instead of passively standing by, like the helpless woman Shakespeare made her, dependent on men for redress. Allowing her to be present also when Tamora devours the feast made of her offspring, provides Titus with the last act of horror when he stabs her. One wonders if Shakespeare was unsure what to do with Lavinia; clearly he thinks she had to die, but rather as a means of cleaning house than in sympathy to her. This starts a melee that will leave everyone dead except Marcus, Lucius and his little son, who will create a new empire.

Although many of these ideas will be recycled by Shakespeare later in other plays, this is his first foray into tragedy and he seems more interested in the brutality of revenge theory than in character development. All the characters are fairly one-dimensional and there is little such a fine cast can do to remedy this. But believable they were. And the sumptuousness of set and costumes merely highlights the theme of civilization as a veneer over corruption.

Samuel Woodforde,
Lavinia, Demetrius and Chiron

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