Shakespeare manages to kill off almost the entire cast of Titus Andronicus without a single shot being fired.
In this play we have it all: war, murder, dismemberment, rape, stabbing, back stabbing, deceit, mutilation, conspiracy, feigned madness and cannibalism and, above all, bloody revenge. Tarantino couldn’t have done worse. Whereas I wouldn’t dream of going to a film where violence is the main ingredient, Shakespeare is different. There’s the beauty of the language, of course, and then, somehow, the violence makes sense. There’s a harsh but elegant symmetry to the action, in spite of the relentless slaughter. My sons are killed, I will sacrifice your eldest to appease the gods. Your sons have violated and dismembered my daughter, yours will suffer death at her and my hands. Well, stumps in her case, because it was her hands that the rapists chopped off.
Stephen Boxer as Titus and Rose Reynolds as Lavinia
“The play is set simultaneously in timeless myth, imperial Rome and Shakespeare’s own Europe. It should be read as a compendium of two thousand years of warfare and violence.” (programme notes) “Ever since the time of ancient Greek tragedy, western culture has been haunted by the figure of the revenger. He or she stands on a whole series of borderlines between civilisation and barbarity.” (programme notes) There were moments of horror so great that I gasped with shock; in a film I would have hidden my face in my arms, yet I never once looked away during the play. Not when Alarbus was executed, or when Lavinia was raped and mutilated; when Titus allowed Aaron to cut off one of his hands in return for the lives of his sons, only to find that they had already been murdered. Or when Lavinia helped her father butcher Tamora’s sons. And yet there were moments of grim humour too, when an unforced laugh burst out of me and everyone else in the audience, proof that we were all wholly engrossed in and captivated by the performance.
Katy Stephens as Tamora with members of the cast
Several times I wanted to shout out loud: when Marcus, the Tribune, comes upon his niece Lavinia after Chiron and Demetrius have finished with her and instead of comforting her or at least falling into a stunned silence, he delivers a long, dissonant, stomach-churning speech. Or when the lifeless bodies of Alarbus, Chiron and Demetrius are hauled up to the ceiling high above the stage very slowly, hanging upside down by their feet. In the first instance I could only just manage to stop myself from advising Markus to shut up and get an ambulance and, in the latter, I wanted to urge the stagehands to get a move on and get the actors up before they died from too much blood on the brain.
All four of us came out of the theatre speechless to begin with. And then, with one accord, we exhaled deeply and fell into raptures over the performance. None of us had seen the play performed before. Beloved, who is usually rather subdued in his praise, said “That’s what I call a play!"
Synopsis of Titus Andronicus
Believed to be Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy Titus Andronicus is famed for its scene of cannibalism, when a mother unwittingly eats her own children, baked into a pie.
Titus, Rome’s most honoured general, returns from a brutal 10 year war against the Goths with their queen, Tamora, her sons and her lover, Aaron the Moor, as captives. Her eldest son is sacrificed by Titus in revenge for his own sons, lost during the war. Tamora vows revenge. The brothers Saturninus and Bassianus are in contention for the Roman emperorship. On his return, Titus is nominated emperor by his brother Marcus, one of Rome’s tribunes. Titus declines, instead nominating Saturninus. To seal the bond of friendship, the new emperor, Saturninus, offers to marry Titus’s daughter, Lavinia. But she is already secretly pledged to marry Bassianus, Saturninus’ rival for the crown of Rome. Saturninus, by now infatuated with Tamora, the queen of the Goths, makes her his empress instead. Manipulated by Aaron, Tamora's sons, Chiron and Demetrius, avenge their mother by raping and mutilating Lavinia, and killing Bassianus. Aaron falsely implicates two of Titus's sons in this murder. In his turn Titus vows revenge and sends his one surviving son Lucius to the Goths to raise an army against Saturninus. With the help of Lavinia, he achieves his revenge against Tamora by killingher sons. Titus invites Saturninus and his court to a banquet. After having strangled his defiled and mutilated daughter Lavinia in an act of mercy, he serves the remains of her sons to Tamora and killsher too. Ttitus himself is killed by Saturninus and his death is avenged by the returning Lucius, who is made emperor.