Karl Falconer is an award-winning theatre and film director based in England. His work with Shakespeare and classical drama has been staged across the UK and Ireland, where he has produced work in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre, amongst others. His work has received support and praise from key industry figures including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Branagh and more. His production of Titus Andronicus was performed in 2011, and then revived in 2012 and 13.
Titus Andronicus. Whether over indulgent gore-fest or overlooked masterpiece, the chances are, you’ve probably heard of it and have an opinion on it. Which is more than can be said for poor Pericles, so at least we have a starting point.
Titus has probably had one of the most tumultuous performance histories of any of Shakespeare’s plays. Arguments vary over the exact date of composition – convincing evidence even points to Shakespeare having written it before he arrived in London, which would potentially make it his first ever play. Shakespeare’s great friend and rival, Ben Jonson, alluded to the play, in 1614, in the preface to his comedy, Bartholomew Fayre, attesting to its immense popularity alongside Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, thirty years before. Regardless of exactly when it was written, one thing is certain: the play was hugely popular during its time. It must have been up there with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s greatest box-office hits, restaged regularly for an easy buck and hardly surprising. This was a dangerous time to be alive: apart from the daily threat of plague, the spectacle of public execution and the constant upheaval of religious beliefs, this was a time when bear-baiting (literally, watching animals and men fight to the death) was as popular today as any public sport. The Revenge Tragedy as a new genre, pioneered by Thomas Kyd and quickly taken up by Shakespeare, was a dead cert for getting bums on seats.
History hasn’t been favourable to Titus though. As early as 1678 it seems that opinion had turned, indeed, even in Jonson’s preface mentioned above, he refers to the fact that the play now seems old fashioned. The famous quote often thrown about comes as late as 1927, with TS Eliot ruthlessly damming the play as ‘one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.’ How could the greatest dramatist, England’s National Poet, have written this mindlessly bloody, embarrassing mess?
Speak of Titus today, though, and you’re likely to get a slightly different opinion. Sure, it’s still the play where the girl puts a severed hand in her mouth. But there is also more. Perhaps an emotional throughline that previous scholars had missed.
We owe this attitude to a gradual run of productions throughout the 20th Century. Starting with Laurence Olivier, as these things often do, we finally get a sense of Titus being considered one of the great parts. Despite several notable productions, it wasn’t until 1987, in this week, infact, that the great tragedy was finally staged, un-cut, at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Deborah Warner and Brian Cox presented a darkly tragic Titus that would finally begin to shift the state of play for this script once and for all. Perhaps, as I would argue, it took the endurance of two World Wars for society to consider Titus Andronicus less as an exaggerated fantasy, and more of a disturbing possibility.
From box-office smash to critical embarrassment, a bad day in the office for the National Poet, to undiscovered classic. What is it about Titus that has brought about this peculiar arc away from, and back to, what we might consider to be the playwright’s original intentions? Was Titus written as something more? Or was it just cannon fodder; Shakespeare’s playful attempt to steal what was good about The Spanish Tragedy and produce his own work, as he was incredibly want to do? Or was it something more personal, as the critic Harold Bloom scathed in his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, ‘an exploitative parody, with the inner purpose of destroying the ghost of Christopher Marlowe’?
My encounter with the play began in 2011, when we staged it in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of their seminal Open Stages project for the World Shakespeare Festival. As a company, we were relatively newly formed, and as such, we needed a play that would make its mark and stand out. The original consensus was that we would stage Much Ado About Nothing, which was relatively comfortable territory after we had recently approach A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All was set to go ahead until three days before the read-through. I sat down to watch Titus, the 1999 Julie Taymor adaptation of Titus Andronicus, with Anthony Hopkins in the titular role. Despite some questionable graphics, this was a film that left an impression and changed my mind entirely. At the read-through, one person out of the cast of twenty had even heard of Titus Andronicus, and none had read it. I suspect that number would be somewhat higher now. Our production went on to be performed across the UK, was revived several times, and secured our company financial support and patronage to continue for many years more. Titus is a play that has been very good to me, and therefore I am a strong advocate of it. It began a long tradition for me of approaching Shakespeare’s text in a way that was worlds apart to sitting studying a textbook in school. Here I’m going to attempt to break down how and why we approached some of Shakespeare’s plays the way we did, and what the process taught me about the play in performance today.
To be sure, Titus is a difficult play. The plot has some questionable twists and turns, it opens with a mammoth scene, which is a mini-epic in itself, and there is the added dilemma – or indeed, hidden treat – of the audience probably not being familiar with it.
Breaking down the text initially, what struck me was the overriding emotional throughline: the ripping apart of Titus and his family, particularly with his daughter Lavinia. Shakespeare returns again and again to fathers and daughters in his plays, and it is usually not plain sailing. Coming at the time when it does, recently after Shakespeare had left behind his wife and young twins in Stratford, one can’t help but seeing a shadow of guilt if his works truly represent anything of the playwright’s own character. It’s my belief that this is what the critics had missed: Lavinia doesn’t have many lines (not surprising given that her tongue is cut out) and the questionable plot twists in Act 4 do make it seem like Titus has literally lost the plot. But when you see the play performed, when you let the tragedy consume you full force, you realise that the heart of this story is Lavinia and Titus.
Building from Shakespeare’s source in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Lavinia is attacked by the sons of the newly crowned Empress, raped and mutilated and her hands and tongue cut out to prevent her disclosing the names of her captors. The scene in which she is discovered, which I won’t directly spoil here, as it is a shock beyond anything else in Shakespeare, is one of the most hauntingly beautiful he ever wrote. Here is a level of brutality beyond the image of Lear carrying in Cordelia. A moment in this scene is often criticised; her uncle, Marcus’ long speech upon finding his niece:
‘If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me.
If I do wake, some planet strike me down,
That I may slumber in eternal sleep!’
(Titus Andronicus, 2.4, 13-15)
This hits upon a problem we face over and over in all of Shakespeare, and particularly in Titus. How does an actor approach these words, at once the height of grief, and at the same time perfectly, beautifully articulated and projected for performance? Why doesn’t Marcus rush over and help Lavinia? The idea of him standing still, delivering such a lengthy reflection, is entirely at odds with what we might expect and want him to do. Indeed, part of this owes to Shakespeare’s own ability level at this point in time. He hadn’t yet mastered his own art of subtlety, of what might remain unspoken and written between the lines; this was a skill and a form that he was still wrestling with. Let us not forget, the late 1500’s were a melting-pot for the theatre, with playwrights and audiences quickly having to adapt and develop to a new style of receiving plays. A lot of speech in Titus is extremely oblique: ‘I feel this’ and ‘I think this’ etc. The mammoth Act 3 Scene 1, where Titus is presented with the body of his daughter, is a mountain to perform, with many similarly mighty speeches and a couple of hand severings and decapitated heads for good measure. But I think there’s more at work here. Marcus’ beautiful speech flows like a dream, indeed, much of the play has the transient feeling of a slumber: in performance it plays similarly to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, its effects beautifully wash over you, affect you, and collectively, painfully even, we get to the end of it together. Compare this to a tragedy such as Othello or Richard III which is brutally real. Titus is a right of passage, we, like Titus’ family, must keep the faith. Marcus’ speech achieves the almost filmic act of pausing time, revoking the Gods who remain stubbornly silent throughout.
The play is not easy, though. The dreaded Pit Scene, as we named it, in which one hapless son of Titus falls into a darkened pit, whereupon his brother, reaching in to pull him out, also falls in, and the fueled, intense exchange between Titus, his brother Marcus and his son, Lucius, debating who’s hand shall be cut off, could have been lifted from a poor comedy film.
‘ARRON: Nay, come, agree whose hand shall go along,
For fear they die before their pardon come.
MARCUS: My hand shall go.
LUCIUS: By heaven, it shall not go!
TITUS: Agree between you; I will spare my hand.
LUCIUS: Then I’ll go fetch an axe.
MARCUS: But I will use the axe.’
(Titus Andronicus, 3.1, 175-186)
It was these same passages which almost certainly spurned the hatred of centuries of critics. But they also teach us something: Titus should be funny. We should laugh, because, as Titus himself says, ‘I have not another tear left to shed’ (3.1, Line 3-4). The plot of Titus does border into the farcical. The farcically cruel. Just as life can. A world in which Titus has done very little wrong (relatively rare in Shakespeare’s tragedies), where he has defended his country, spared his sons and followed the Gods, finds those same Gods silently throwing pain upon pain upon him.
‘O, here I lift this one hand up to heaven,
And bow this feeble ruin to the earth:
If any power pities wretched tears,
To that I call!’
(Titus Andronicus, 3.1, 207-210)
There are no ‘reasons for these miseries’ as Titus comes to realise (3.1, Line 221). This scene before the Interval provides a rollercoaster for an audience, and yes, we did have people passing out! No production of Titus would be complete without it. This in itself taught us an interesting lesson, as we used no blood in the severing of Titus’ hand. Titus simply turned to the back of the stage and the rest was left to the imagination. No wonder Macbeth gets scared by that imaginary dagger.
So we have established that Titus is a great role and the plot of Titus centers around Lavinia and her father. But what to say about the second half? Well.. it’s difficult, honestly. Any production worth its salt has to choose its course of action quickly or it will fall to pieces. Suddenly we have a character raving about the injustice of killing a fly, a sub-plot involving an illegitimate baby, some banter about pigeons, and Titus possibly going loopy (and telling the audience he isn’t). There is no denying, here we have Shakespeare trying his damndest to throw everything he has at this play, whether for crowd-pleasing or otherwise, it’s messy. There are the beginnings of Othello, Iago, Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear here, which is all very well until you try and keep an audience up with what’s going on.
The aim for me was simple: this is about the reunion of Titus and Lavinia. Not physically, but spiritually. As soon as Titus sees his daughter brought before him, he knows that the loss of her innocence and virtue is irrecoverable. In other words, he knows he has to revenge her and that she has to die. It is his duty as a father to do both of these things, and thus the mission of all the Andronici is to help them achieve this.
‘Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee
And with thy shame, thy father’s sorrows die.’
(Titus Andronicus, 5.3, 46-47)
Titus’ plan is an elaborate and complex one, which ends in the infamous pie-baking scene. It is my belief that Titus doesn’t actually go mad, but in the end, that is merely a sideline. What matters is the moment that we finally end with, the reunion of Titus and Lavinia in the bloodbath of a final scene.
We significantly altered the story arc of Lavinia in our production, opening with Titus bestowing her with a fine necklace, which is taken from her by Tamora, the mother of her attackers. This necklace then became a physical symbol of Lavinia’s innocence, and one which we would use to justify this epic denouement. The image of Tamora eating the pie wherein her two sons are baked is like something out of a Greek Tragedy. Is it indulgent? Not if we push the audience to the point where they need this satisfaction. Similarly with the capture and slaughter of Chiron and Demetrius, the two lusty sons who rape and mutilate Lavinia, we push the audience to this need for cathartic release, and I have never quite experienced anything else like it in some twenty-five theatre productions I’ve since directed. By making Lavinia and Titus’ relationship the heart of this story, Shakespeare’s apocalyptic language and the heightened, intensely cruel plot we have witnessed push us to a point where only the most savagely extreme outcome will do. This isn’t a play about a man baking two children in a pie. This is a play about the loss of innocence and the extremities of a father to seek redemption.
Excluding The Rape of Lucreece, which was presumably written at a similar time to Titus Andronicus, the theme of rape never occurs again so explicitly in Shakespeare’s work. There are many threats and attempts, but never anything of the brutality of Lavinia’s attack. Perhaps this is a young man in the act of growing up. Perhaps Titus touched on something more personal for the young father. Titus reads like an exorcism, a rite of passage through which we all endure and collectively see the sunrise at the end. And it should be a sunrise. We altered the course of deaths at the end of our production: Saturninus was disposed of by Lucius before he could kill Titus, who gave chase after a fleeing Tamora (cue, video insert) where he was able to retrieve the lost necklace. The moment of Titus re-entering, laying the necklace on the corpse of Lavinia, kissing her to sleep and dying himself was as empowering a moment of theatricality as any production of Hamlet. As Marcus speaks of hope for the future, as Young Lucius and the illegitimate child of Aaron appear together, representing a new generation, and Lucius speaks the closing words, we end with Marcus, alone on stage, surveying the mass of bodies before him. Kneeling to lay a hand on his brother, and mentor’s head, he stands, his arms stretched out in a cross, looking to the heavens as the stage floods with white. A man coming to terms with the abandonment of the Gods, the cruelty of the world, and bringing in a new, better dawn.
Titus works then. Shakespeare’s done good. There’s no coincidence, however, that this is often described as a young man’s play. It is a play full of bold ideas, some too big for it’s own ambition, and it certainly doesn’t work without changes. If this is an ambitious play, then it needs headstrong and ambitious decisions to make it work. Titus provides a great spectacle, whether you’re here for the tears or the blood, but when treated with authority and compassion, it provides an emotional throughline to rival any of Shakespeare’s later works.
Next week in this series we will be considering A Midsummer Night’s Dream in performance.
- Eliot, TS, Seneca in Elizabethan Translation, Selected Essays 1917–1932, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950.
- Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World, How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, Random House, London, 2004.
- Jonson, Ben, Bartholomew Fayre, G R Hibbard, editor, London, 1997.
- Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus, Oxford University Press, Eugene M. Waith, editor, 1984.
Recommended sources of further Information on Titus Andronicus:
- Titus, Feature Film, Dir. Julie Taymor, 1999.
- Woza Shakespeare!, Titus in South Africa, Antony Sher and Gregory Doran, 1997.
- Royal Shakespeare Company performance archive, www.rsc.org.uk/titus-andronicus/