Re-reading Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus

(1) There was no Titus Andronicus. I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does. Of course there was no Prospero. There probably was no King Lear (or Leir). But in Lear’s case you can at least place the character in a historical context (pre-Roman Britain) and give the story a source (Holinshed’s Chronicles). And Shakespeare’s other Roman plays are all about real historical figures and draw on sources like Plutarch. But Titus Andronicus is a made-up figure living in a fantasy world. The presumed source dates the events to the reign of the Emperor Theodosius, but that’s nothing more than a wave of the hand. In many ways this is a more primitive Rome than that of Coriolanus, which is set half a millennium earlier.

Like I say, this shouldn’t matter. Shakespeare’s Rome, like his England in the history plays, is a fictional place. And yet it’s always made me uncomfortable. Perhaps I just don’t like fantasy, or fantasy that plays fast and loose with history. It’s the same sort of feeling I get from the Nibelungenlied, which has its germ in actual historical events but really can’t be thought of in those terms. Burgundy might as well be Middle Earth. What you’re getting isn’t an interpretation or mythic re-imagining of history but something entirely other. And by breaking that link it seems to me that you end up with a play that loses some of its connection to the present as well.

(2) When Marcus discovers Lavinia after she has been raped and mutilated, he exclaims

Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopped,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.

This is very well observed. Physically, Lavinia is incapable of speaking her sorrow because her tongue has been cut out, but we can see her silence as metaphorical as well. One response to rape is shame, and when the victim doesn’t speak out her rage often does turn inward, expressing itself later through other emotional disorders. With no outlet, the victim’s anger is directed back upon itself. The heart consumes itself in silence, but it does burn.

(3) Titus makes Lear’s mistake of giving up power. He could have been emperor but he turns the job down. Richard II is another example of a Shakespearean king who flubs the same test, effectively deposing himself. This was an important lesson in leadership for pre-modern rulers: If you’re the king you have to be a king. But I wonder if such a message resonates as much today, when institutions take precedence over individuals.

I think it is still relevant, though perhaps not in the way it is most often taken: to do unto others before they do unto you. In Shakespeare such situations lead to more than just a passing of the guard; they toss the whole world into chaos, and begin cycles of violence with long tails. That’s a pattern we should be familiar with today, though twenty-first century blowback is less of a family matter.

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