This play, known as Shakespeare’s bloodiest, and in a performance in 2013 at the Globe Theatre, claimed 100 audience members to fainting, puking, or just plain running out; certainly lives up to its reputation.
As I have done for the 5 plays our Shakespeare 2020 group has experienced up to this point, I read the text from my Giant Red Tome, The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare, underlining and marking phrases that were shocking, familiar, lyrical, or timely; then I rented the video version performed at the Globe in London from Globe Player. I have to say that if I had been in the groundlings part of the audience for this performance, I too would have likely been counted among that 100 victims. It’s loud, it’s gory, it’s testosterone fueled, it’s shocking, it’s evil, and it’s heartbreaking.
But for all that, there is a moral to the story and I think the lesson to be learned is that if you blindly adhere to an outdated idealistic value system, things aren’t always going to come out for the best. The characters in this play personify certain social taboos and the heroes and leaders’ absurd allegiance to the rule/value system that is in place, ends up bringing the actions to their final extreme conclusion, which makes the gory point.
Here then are my thoughts, and, as Bette Davis said… ‘hold on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.’
In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare takes an ancient Roman play, and in rewriting it says to the original author Plautus with his pair of shipwrecked twins basically, ‘hold my beer, Im’a see your twins and raise you another set of twins in my rewrite!’ In Titus, he says the same thing to the author(s) of the original tragedy(ies) (Ovid, Kyd, Webster, et al) ‘you think that’s gory/violent/shocking? Im’a up you some rape and mutilation, and throw in some Johnny Depp and Game of Thrones-worthy pie scenes!’ Did I mention this was gonna be bumpy?
So, here’s a (not so) quick summary…
Once upon a time, in a made-up Rome, with no people or events based in fact, the Emperor has just died. General Titus returns to a hero’s welcome after 40 years of battle with the Goths to bury two of his sons killed in the final battle. He has the Goth queen Tamora, her 3 sons Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius, along with a Moor (AKA a black person) Aaron (also Tamora’s lover) in custody as his prisoners of war. Titus believes in order to show his dominance, that he needs to sacrifice Tamora’s oldest son Alarbus because he is burying two of his own sons. Tamora begs, I mean really begs in a dramatic speech for her son’s life. All in vain though, Alarbus is taken outside and ritually sacrificed. You totally know after that, she is plotting revenge.
Then, Titus refuses the nomination to become Emperor because according to something he read, he’s too old. He throws his support behind the dead emperor’s eldest son Saturnius, but lets the “body politic” choose. Ultimately, Saturnius wins the crown and he chooses Titus’s only daughter Lavinia to be his wife and Empress. Trouble is, she is already in love with and engaged to Bassianus, the dead emperor’s second oldest son. Bassianus and Lavinia run away to either get married or have sex, it’s not really clear. Her brother Mutius, defends Lavinia’s right to not marry Saturnius, so Titus,in an effort to show allegiance to the Emperor, kills Mutius, his own son, and, adding insult to injury, won’t let him be buried in the family plot with the other two because he wasn’t killed in battle. The remaining sons Quintus and Martius finally convince Titus to let the son he murdered himself to be buried with honor.
The new emperor Saturnius decides then to take the prisoner Tamora as his wife. She then tells the audience her inner thoughts of how she is going to get revenge for her son’s death by brutally killing everyone who wronged her. Ah, yes! See, we totally saw that coming. Aaron, her taboo black lover, now free, along with her two remaining sons, is happy to coattail on her new power. The first thing he does is convince the sons Chiron and Demetrius, who are lusting after the fair Lavinia (even though she is now married to Bassianus) that they should rape her, not once, but take turns doing so! Oh, and while you’re at it, Aaron tells them they should murder her husband. He tells them that she will be in the forest on the hunt planned for the next day, so it will be easy to corner her. I guess in the woods, like space, no one can hear you scream.
Later, in the woods, Aaron buries a bag of gold and writes a fake letter mentioning payment with the buried bag of gold, to frame Titus’ sons Quintus and Martius for Bassianus’ eventual murder. Then, who should wander in but Tamora, and she wants to have sex with her hot lover Aaron, but he is like ‘not now bitch, I’m in the middle of a huge murder rape plot. Damn, you’re hot, well, OK then.’
Tragically, but predictably, Bassianus and Lavinia also happen along, and see Tamora and Aaron in some heavy foreplay. They taunt her for being the empress, and yet still having taboo sex with the black dude. All of a sudden, Chiron and Demetrius appear and stab Bassianus, then throw him into a metaphorical vagina-like pit. Tamora tells her boys to kill Lavinia too, but her sons are all in with Aaron’s rape plan. Lavinia begs mean-girl Tamora to kill her now and not let her be raped. Tamora ignores her pleading and tells her sons to do what they want with Lavinia. So they do, and then, to keep her quiet, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue.
As if this remote corner of the woods was, I don’t know, Times Square, somehow Titus’ ill fated sons Quintus and Martius show up. They fall into the metaphorical vagina pit, discover Bassianus’ body, and are for some reason deemed guilty of his murder by the guards and soldiers who also randomly pass by this remote spot. As if on cue, Titus manages to happen along this remote scene, and pleads his sons’ innocence, but to no avail. They are dragged away anyway.
Titus’ virtuous brother Marcus, also happens along and runs into the raped and mutilated Lavinia bleeding profusely and stumbling around the woods. He speechifies beautifully for far too long (as she is about to bleed to death) about virtue and hands (and in my opinion alludes again to the “body politic” as if Lavinia and what has happened to her embodies the state of Rome). He brings her to her father. Not only are his sons about to be executed, but his only daughter is tongueless, handless, and (for some reason worst of all) without her virtue. Things are starting to crash in on Titus’s world.
Acting as a messenger from the emperor, Aaron comes to Titus’ house and tells him that if he will cut off his own hand, his sons will be freed. Titus lets Aaron cut off his hand. Aaron leaves with it, then returns immediately with the decapitated heads of Quintus and Martius, and the severed hand. At this point we start to see Titus start his long walk off the short pier of sanity.
In the next scene, Titus tries to understand Lavinia’s body language, and vows to find some way to communicate with her. He draws closer to the end of the pier. Lavinia, tragically using her mouth and stumps uses a long stick to write in the sand the names of who raped and mutilated her. Meanwhile, at the castle, Tamora gives birth to a black baby. The midwife brings the baby to Aaron, saying that Tamora has ordered the baby to be murdered. Aaron vows his little son will not die, and murders the nurse by stabbing her to death (in the video it is much more graphic, even than that).
Then there’s a weird scene where Titus hands out bows and arrows with notes to various Roman Gods attached, and he tells the soldiers to shoot them into the air, but aimed at the palace. This seemed to me to indicate the futileness of prayer. A beggar, or maybe a clown comes by, carrying some pigeons. Titus immediately sends him to deliver a message to Saturninus, the content of which is never revealed. Saturnius then, literally ‘kills the messenger’ but after seeing the notes attached to arrows all over his court, he is starting to get scared now. His wife, Tamora, says, don’t worry, I’ll go talk to that crazy old loon.
Titus’s remaining son Lucius, now leading the Goth army, finds Aaron and his baby son, and condemns them both to death. Aaron argues that if Lucius promises to spare his son’s life he’ll give all the details of the revenge plot. Lucius agrees. Aaron tells all, even bragging about the part he played in it as they drag him off to prison. Lucius spares the baby, but it is never clear what happens to it.
Meanwhile, Tamora and her sons go to Titus’ house, disguised quite literally as Revenge, Rape and Murder. They tell Titus they are sent by the gods to right the wrong done to him. Titus pretends he is insane and agrees to Tamora’s suggestion that Titus go to Saturninus and Tamora’s castle and beg forgiveness. She says she will go to them and pave the way, but Titus insists she leave Rape and Murder there, which – yikes, she does! Titus slits her sons’ throats as Lavinia catches their blood in a bowl so that Titus can grind their bones and mix it with their blood and bake it into a pie. Holy Frey Pie!
In the final scene, Titus invites the whole royal family Saturnius, Tamora, and the two sons Chiron and Demetrius over for a home cooked meal. He dresses as a cook, and brings out a giant pot pie. As Saturnius and his wife hungrily eat the pie, Titus asks him a hypothetical question about what one should do with a raped daughter, to which Saturninus replies, “kill her.” Titus doesn’t skip a beat, and kills his daughter Lavinia on the spot. Saturninus (along with the rest of us) is shocked. Titus mentions that Lavinia, despite her mutilations was able to communicate to him that Chiron and Demetrius were the ones that raped and mutilated her. Saturninus and Tamora, between bites of pie, wonder where those two boys could be… Titus says, why they’ve been here all along, indicating the pie.
Then Titus stabs Tamora to death while she is trying to puke. Then Saturninus stabs Titus to death. Then Titus’s son Lucius stabs Saturninus to death. And then Lucius is left to become emperor of Rome. His first act is to bury Aaron up to his neck and let him publicly starve to death.
And they all lived happily ever after…?