Cannibalism, rape, murder — all your faves

Back in my teen years, when I decided to get serious about getting familiar with Shakespeare, I had two big shocks. The first was to look up The Merchant of Venice and find it listed under Shakespeare’s comedies. The second was when I read Titus Andronicus, possibly the first play in the canon, and discovered . . . . well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

With The Merchant of Venice, I had just seen the 1973 made-for-television version, which essentially recorded the 1970 production by the National Theater, starring Laurence Olivier as Shylock. Olivier was so powerful as a man who gives in to vengefulness and pays for it by losing everything except his life, that I had assumed the play was a tragedy. Years later, when I read Olivier’s two books, I realized that he had deliberately skewed the play, which he considered a loathsome piece of Jew-hating. Certainly his gravitational field sent the subplot about Portia’s suitors spinning in the direction of outright farce: after hearing Olivier howl the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, the old man opening the silver casket came across like Chico Marx playing piano with a rubber ball. (I’m reminded of the way Marlon Brando’s talent skewed A Streetcar Named Desire, upending the play by tipping the audience’s adulation toward Stanley rather than Blanche. In his memoir, director Elia Kazan acknowledged the effect but shrugged: “What could I do? Tell Marlon to be less good?”)

The second shock was reading The Elizabethan Texas Chainsaw Massacre, also known as Titus Andronicus, which is so violent that it starts to become black farce, and often so crudely written (I defy you to read Titus’s closing words to his daughter without either laughing or groaning) that you can only marvel at what came after it.

Scott McLemee just took in the production of Titus Andronicus now on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. and had a few thoughts of his own:

The word “obscene” was originally a dramatic reference to something so shocking that it had to take place off-stage. But most of the horrors in Titus occur right out in the open. True, we don’t actually watch Lavinia, daughter of the noble general Titus, being raped by the sons of Tamora, the Goth queen turned Roman empress. But we are shown the two men taunting her later, after they have cut off her hands and her tongue. Eventually Titus exacts revenge by killing them and cooking their flesh into a large pie, which he tricks the queen into eating.

The queen’s lover, a Moor named Aaron, is a villain who announces that his soul is as black as his skin. In the final moments of the play, he is condemned to be buried up to his neck and starved to death. Meanwhile, the newborn child he has fathered with Tamora is sentenced to execution – for otherwise, the baby is destined by nature to grow up to be evil. So at least there’s a happy ending . . .

You don’t have to see that many plays by Shakespeare to know that his universe can be violent. Think of the children slaughtered in Macbeth, the pile of corpses at the end of Hamlet, the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes in Lear.

But the mayhem in Titus is more extensive and far more concentrated. Apart from the high points covered in the abbreviated sketch above, there are two decapitated heads, several murders and one scene of dismemberment. The sight of Lavinia following her attack — unable to communicate at all, her mouth opening only to scream and to spit blood — has a visceral power that is overwhelming.

It’s grimly amusing to think that one of the first things Julie Taymor did with all those Disney bucks she made from her Broadway staging of The Lion King was to direct the first and very likely only film version of Titus Andronicus, with a grade-A cast: Anthony Hopkins as Titus, Jessica Lange as the Goth queen who gets to eat her sons in a pie, and Laura Fraser as the raped and mutilated daughter.

I guess after you’ve had to listen to sugary tunes like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” for the thousandth time, you’ll do just about anything to get them out of your head. I expect that staging Titus Andronicus probably did the trick.

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