Saturday, May 11, 2013



Undoubtedly he is a master storyteller and the greatest writer of all time. He tops the list of best-selling authors and has written world’s most-widely published books.  He is also listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most number of screen adaptations by a single author. William Shakespeare is a true genius beyond debate. So when numero uno like that descends to exploitative standards with a pulp fiction, it calls for alarm, ‘exploitative’ being the operative word, even though it was one of those works written very early in his career.

On various occasions referred to by critics as “a heap of rubbish”, “a howler”, “a poetic atrocity” and “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written”, TITUS ANDRONICUS is one of William Shakespeare’s most attacked play given the morbid subject matter, excessive display of graphic violence and mind-numbing barbarity besides other things. Anybody who has read Titus will agree that the gore in it run riot washing the words red, the resulting circus comparable to splatter films of the likes of Evil Dead that features unbelievable sum of violence, more often than not, crossing the line from horror to comedy.

As a crude work of a blessed prodigy, Titus Andronicus did certainly amuse me with its obvious likenesses to 60s’ exploitation films with lavish number of killings, a few severed heads and hands, a rape followed by mutilation and a cannibalistic climax that ends in bloodbath.
The story of Titus is fictitious and it plentifully adapts plot elements from Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Seneca’s Thyestes, and it travels to the aforementioned gory end through mindless, often juvenile, tit-for-tats. But was “blood” all the reason for the ceaseless assault on this work by the Bard of Avon? 
Plays like Richard III, Macbeth and King Lear had a lot of blood spills too. All his other tragedies have a fair share of blood flowing on the stage, although they don’t go out of control like in this case. Shakespeare has frequently used violence for its entertainment value. Violence was also used as a medium to communicate the passions of some of his greater characters like Macbeth and Hamlet. But the insensitive Titus, on the other hand thrives on violence, executioner style. In the beginning, he kills the eldest son of his war prisoner Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, to avenge the deaths of his sons in the war. Then he kills one of his own sons in a brawl that follows his decision to submit his daughter to the new evil emperor. Then he cut and bake the heads of two of Tamora’s surviving sons into a pie (to avenge the rape of his daughter Lavinia who was also carved of tongue and hands) and feeds it to an oblivious Tamora. Then he kills her and Lavinia as well, to "save her from the shame of rape". He would have done lots more had he not been offed right there. But this is just the extent of blood that the protagonist spills. Bestiality is omnipresent in the background, and everybody hack everybody else and there also includes the hanging of an infant, if all those grown-ups’ corpses strewn around were not enough.
It is perhaps the callous and barbarous nature of the characters in Titus that weighs down on the fundamental value of the play, or it’s the other way around; the bloody nature of their actions shroud the inner essence of these characters hence burdening the quality of the play. But the account of what resulted is capable of embarrassing slasher movies like I spit on your grave, Cannibal Holocaust and Blood Feast all put together. If not for a few scholars who found reasons to believe in the play, it would have long gone down in flames of time.

I suppose that this shocking lack of quality also had a major part to play in the controversy surrounding the authorship of TITUS ANDRONICUS, a debate that’s still going on. Many believe that Shakespeare was not the actual author of this badly written play. Many others believe that he co-wrote the play with some other playwright (George Peele being the main candidate). Many also believe that he revised and powder-puffed for the stage an already existing play. And all of them separately have evidences to prove their respective argument. But I believe that most part of this dispute was intended at saving Shakespeare’s reputation.
Anyway, the majority now believe that Shakespeare was involved with the final work in one way or the other. Chapter closed.
Titus was known to be a very popular play in its day despite all that blood flowing through it. Apparently violence was very much in fashion back in the day. As time passed, the play was viewed as “too old fashioned” and completely fell out of favor during the romantic Victorian era. But deliberating a little on the events of the play, one sadly realizes how significant and relevant the “implausible” violence depicted in it is, in today’s world. From ample coverage of today’s terrorism and attacks, if we cannot understand the insensitivity portrayed in Titus, I’m afraid nobody from any other time could have. It must have been realizing it’s bearing in the world we live in today, that Julie Taymore made a film adaptation called TITUS with Antony Hopkins and Jessica Lange playing Titus and Tamara respectively. But the movie met with mixed reviews. People who were witnessing the play for the first time in her film called it “good-looking but crazy”. Serving that old wine in the new bottle did not really work since that wine wasn’t good anyways.
As a last word, you really have to read the play to know for yourself as to why it couldn’t catch up to the reputation of the rest of the Shakespearean canon and why TITUS ANDRONICUS will always be remembered as the one that missed the boat.


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