Decline and Fall on stage and in society
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Chancing his arm with a tragi-comedy, Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus early in his career after initially coming up with a handful of comedies and histories. The original story, as usual, has been accredited to someone else originally, but the play is very much Shakespeare’s creation. Moreover, this is a fictional story, but one which deserves to be called realist fiction, even if we cannot quite identify specific historical figures and events. At least, this is the image we have of the kind of horrors that took place at the end of the Roman Empire.
The Bard, musing over how best to both upset and delight his audiences
The play presents us with a series of tragic-comic set pieces. An elaborate pageant of horrors and depravity. Among the most grotesque scenes, we witness mutilation, vicious assault, filicide (killing one’s own offspring) and involuntary cannibalism. In presenting these events, Shakespeare invites us to reflect on the worst aspects of human nature, the theme of never-ending vengeance and somehow, just barely, the possibility of hope for the future.
The overall effect is almost mischievously horrific. Terrifying, yet funny in parts. Presented as a scathing indictment of both ancient and modern society and a celebration of visceral madness and high frolics. Providing the Tudor audiences with what they wanted: blood, guts and villains. How they loved their revenge tragedies. But the play is perhaps also a warning to fellow Elizabethans not to descend to the depths plummeted by the Romans in their worst excesses, where ultimate decline was inevitable.
One of the most disturbing infograms you'll ever see (via the RSC)
Violence and cruelty
The violence in the play is extensive and affects almost everyone; men and women, different groups in society, across the generations. But there is one scene which has particular, timely relevance to modern day society. The rape of Lavinia is an example of the horrific misuse of male power over women. In this play, as in various contemporary situations in everyday life, the male characters have neither shame nor fear of being discovered. Ultimately, in Titus Andronicus, they are executed for their crime, but this punishment seems inadequate.
There are so many scenes where pain is inflicted. When yet another devastating act of cruelty befalls the Andronici, Titus tells his brother that he is laughing because he has no more tears to shed (Act III, scene i). This is beyond heartbreaking. The play is some form of tragi-comedy, but there is no comedy here, just tragedy. The human spirit has been crushed and its only solace is raging against a world that is not listening.
Titus (David Troughton, RSC 2017), seeking to exchange part of himself to preserve the life of his sons
There is nothing in the extensive RSC Rome 2017 programme notes about racism, unlike the copious coverage of other major social problems, political corruption and economic failures. Shakespeare's text give us a bit of a mixed message when it comes to racial discrimination. At times in this play, he appears to be siding with the minority, the racially subjugated and the vilified. As the play progresses, and the role of Aaron (The Moor) develops, Shakespeare appears to be playing to the masses in presenting an evil villain whose wickedness is linked dramatically to his black skin. Ultimately, Aaron regrets a single good deed and wishes he could do 10,000 evil ones on top of those he has committed already.
Throughout the play, the treatment of the Moor by the other characters is highly disturbing. Links between blackness and badness cannot be instantly passed off as merely typical of historical attitudes. There is room for far more research on this subject.
The problematic roles of the Moor in Shakespeare.
Othello and Desdemona to the left, Aaron, Tamora and baby to the right
(image via the Economist / Twitter)
At the end of the play, new emperor Lucius apologises to the Roman people. He acknowledges a betrayal of the state by the recent rulers and other culprits. Rome, he claims, is better than the decadent and disastrous city state it has become. But is Rome in its final days really better than this at heart? There is no sense that the decline is going to be reversed, rather that level of decline is soon to be intensified still further.
Historic ruin. Dramatic on stage and in real life
Forgiveness and Hope?
The vengeance and the violence surely must come to an end at some point. Someone has to choose to walk away from the carnage. Hope comes in the appointment of Lucius, the returning outcast and the last of the Andronici. And yet even here the cycle of revenge and lack of reconciliation continues, as he calls for a fitting end to the Queen of the Goths:
“As for that ravenous tiger, Tamora…
…throw her forth to beast and birds to prey.
Her life was beastly and devoid of pity”
(Act V, scene ii)
So, is there a chance for a new start? Is there any redemption to come? We know the Roman Empire did not last. Lucius, in calling for the brutal death of Tamora, is little better than his predecessors. A new beginning will only come following complete and utter disintegration of the city state.
There are inevitably links with the great Shakespearean tragedies. Othello, with the more widely known Moor. Hamlet, the ultimate revenge tragedy. The revenge works in reverse in Hamlet, where the son avenges his father's foul and most unnatural death. In Titus the father avenges the death of his children.
Would it be stretching it to link Titus with King Lear? With the theme of madness and giving away power and seeing what happens in consequence. And with half an eye on an upcoming production at the Swan Theatre, there is a link with Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, in the form of the bastard child and male violence against a vulnerable female.
There are also extensive links of course with Coriolanus. A returning general giving his all to Rome and ending up on the outside. Lucius is banished, and returns with an army of Goths, just as Coriolanus was and did. Making up the RSC Rome 2017/18 collection, there is Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Titus brings the series to an end and ushers in the fall of this dramatic Roman Empire. A fantastic theatrical experience, presented with stunning insight and execution.
Roman giants, humbling theatregoers at the Barbican
Finally, there is Theatre of Blood, a charming homage to Shakespeare in his gorier moments, starring Vincent Price. A burlesque of a brutality. Strangely, I don't recall Titus Andronicus being sent up in this bloody burlesque, but I've promised myself another viewing and I fully expect to have to close my eyes again in several scenes.
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
The RSC - www.rsc.org.uk/titus-andronicus
Connected Cultures - review of Titus Andronicus