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 Titus and Lucrece 

May 20, 2003

Since last week I’ve made a new addition to my Shakespeare video collection: the recent film of Titus, based on Titus Andronicus. This is generally — more or less universally — regarded as Shakespeare’s worst play. It’s so much worse than anything else he wrote that many scholars have doubted that he wrote it. The critical consensus may be summed up in two words: it stinks.

Naturally, Titus Andronicus was popular in its own time. Nobody knows when it was first performed; it was first printed in 1594, with the author unidentified, and two more editions followed. The author wasn’t identified as Shakespeare until 1598.

The play’s appeal can also be summed up in two words: sex and violence. Or maybe sexual violence. The story features murder, rape, mutilation, torture, miscegenation, betrayal, revenge, and cannibalism.

If this sounds bad, the film is even worse. Julie Taymor directed, blending — no, grotesquely mixing — ancient Rome with contemporary odds and ends. Anthony Hopkins (who else?) plays Titus, Shakespeare’s answer to Hannibal Lecter. Jessica Lange is Titus’s archenemy, Tamora, Queen of the Goths. It’s all relentlessly ugly, pictorially and otherwise. The film keeps trying to top itself in horrors, but all proportion is lost and the whole effect is confused and pointless. Eventually evil becomes merely dreary.

The story begins with Titus, a Roman general, celebrating his victory over the Goths in a war that has cost the lives of 21 of his sons. Soon he kills another of his sons with his own hands. Meanwhile, Tamora marries the Roman emperor Saturninus, while conceiving a child by her wicked Moorish lover Aaron. (All this has no basis in history, by the way; Shakespeare made it all up.)

Aaron incites two of Tamora’s grown sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia; they do so, ravishing her on the body of her brother Bassianus, whom they have also murdered. Then they cut out her tongue and chop off her hands to prevent her from telling (or writing) who her violators were.

[Breaker quote: Rome, Rape, and the Bard]Titus’s troubled family life gets even more complicated. Two of his remaining sons are sentenced to death unless he can ransom them by sending Aaron the severed hand of yet another of his sons. Titus cuts off his own hand, but all he receives in return are the heads of the two sons he’d hoped to save.

Now it gets unpleasant. Passing over some details you probably don’t need to know, Lavinia manages to tell Titus who her rapists were. He captures Chiron and Demetrius and cuts their throats.

In the final scene, Tamora comes to a feast where Titus acts as the chef. After serving her and the other guests a meat pie, Titus discloses the key ingredients in the recipe: Chiron and Demetrius.

As you might expect, the prank doesn’t go over too well. Then most of the characters stab each other to death. Titus even kills Lavinia, ending her shame. The survivors sentence Aaron to death too: he is to be buried up to his neck and left to starve.

Titus is considered Shakespeare’s first attempt at tragedy: the title of the first edition was The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. But it’s so hard to take seriously that some have suspected it was all a huge black joke, spoofing the gory tragedies of Seneca and his later imitators. Excessive horror in drama has a tendency to dissolve in laughter, and surely no tragedy has ever produced less grief than this one.

Most scholars date the play around 1594, when it was first printed, but it must have been written much earlier. In 1594 Shakespeare also published his long poem The Rape of Lucrece, another treatment of sexual violence in ancient Rome, but in an entirely different vein. The poem has none of the play’s crude horror. Even its verse is of an entirely different order. This is the great poet in the maturity of his skill, his poetic power, his amazingly condensed expression.

It’s hard — for me, impossible — to believe the great poet could have written Titus and Lucrece at about the same time. The play is as crude as the poem is exquisite — one more sign that the scholars have gotten “Shakespeare” all wrong.

Joseph Sobran

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