Wednesday, 24 January 2018

24 January, 1594 - Titus Andronicus

Here's what the Earl of Sussex's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: ne ... R at titus & ondronicus the 23 of Jenewary ... iijll viijs

In modern English: New. Received at Titus Andronicus, 24th January ... £3 and 8 shillings

Today, Sussex's Men performed a play by William Shakespeare! This is only the second Shakespeare play that we have seen in Henslowe's Diary so far (the other was The First Part of Henry VIone of the Rose's most popular plays last year). Now, the company is offering Titus Andronicus, a gruesome tragedy set in a fantastical version of Ancient Rome. This play is on the fringes of Shakespeare's canon (parts of it may have been written by another playwright, George Peele, and its extremely violent plot encourages Shakespeare's more squeamish fans to dismiss it as early hackwork) but the Rose audience was not interested in such fussiness, and they packed the playhouse to see it.

The large audience may have been because Titus Andronicus was a brand new play. At least, Henslowe thought it was new, since he marked it as "ne" in the Diary, an annotation that normally means a performance was a premiere. There is in fact some uncertainty as to whether Titus Andronicus really was new when it was staged today, but the performance certainly achieved the high box office typically associated with premieres.

Whether or not the play was a new one, today may have been a transformative moment at the Rose. According to one theory, the arrival of Titus Andronicus marks the moment at which Sussex's Men were joined at the Rose by members of Pembroke's Men (the company to which Shakespeare belonged). Certainly, Titus is written for an unusually large number of actors, whereas George a Greene (the only surviving play from earlier in the season) requires a much smaller number. So, even if Shakespeare himself was not among the new arrivals, the Rose audience may have seen the performances there suddenly become bigger and more spectacular.

Was Titus really new?

Title page of the 1594 quarto
publication of Titus Andronicus
Henslowe labels Titus Andronicus "ne", but there are reasons to suspect that it was actually about two years old. As you may recall from last year, one of the plays of Lord Strange's Men, A Knack to Know a Knave, seems to allude to the opening scene of Titus. Does that prove Titus was written first, or could there be another explanation?

Complicating matters further is the puzzling title page of the 1594 printed text. It describes the play has having been performed by Derby's Men (another name for Strange's Men), Pembroke's Men and Sussex's Men. Does this refer to the three companies working together (which may have been what was happening at the Rose) or does it refers to performances by each company in succession (which is also plausible).

The debate is complex, but if we are trying to imagine today's performance, it boils down to the question: was this a famous old play being performed at the Rose to an audience that already knew it, or was it a new and unknown work? It's hard to be sure, but the difference must have affected the atmosphere in the Rose before the show began. If you would like to read more about the debate, an excellent up-to-date summary is provided by Jonathan Bate in his 2018 revised edition for the Arden Shakespeare.

Adding to the complication is the question of authorship. Stylistic analysis by modern scholars suggests that Act 1 was written by George Peele (whom we've already met as the possible author of Muly Molocco). Perhaps these two puzzles are related: Titus Andronicus could be a rewriting by Shakespeare of an earlier play by Peele, so drastic that Henslowe considered it a new play.

The story

Titus Andronicus is famous for one thing: violence. Although Shakespeare was not averse to extreme violence in his other plays (think of the onstage eyeball-gouging in King Lear, for example, or the assassination of Julius Caesar), the sheer number of horrific events in Titus Andronicus means that any plot summary sounds rather comical. Although the play does at times introduce a warped form of humour during some of its most gruesome moments, productions that are brave enough to take it seriously often reveal Titus to have a majestic and sombre quality that belies its surface trashiness.

(Just for fun, I'll illustrate this synopsis with woodcuts from 17th century printed versions of a ballad of Titus Andronicus. Its exact relationship with the play is unclear, but it was most likely inspired by it, not vice versa. If you like, you can listen to the ballad being sung thanks to the English Broadside Ballad Archive.)

The triumphal entrance of Titus into Rome;
illustration from the Roxburghe Collection's copy
of a ballad of Titus Andronicus (late 17th century) 
The play begins with Rome in crisis after the Emperor has died and his two sons - the virtuous Bassianus and the evil Saturninus - are vying for power. Into this maelstrom arrives Titus Andronicus, an aged general returning to Rome after a long war against the Goths during which most of his sons have been killed. He has brought to Rome the captive Queen of the Goths, her three sons, and a Moor named Aaron, who is her secret lover. Titus ritualistically executes one of Tamora's sons in front of her. It is a violent act that will breed a cycle of vengeance.

Titus's deference to tradition is one of the seeds of his tragedy. The senate of Rome elects Titus emperor but he declines the honour and instead follows custom in nominating Saturninus, the eldest son of the dead emperor. He even submits when Saturninus demands to marry Titus's daughter, Lavinia despite her existing betrothal to Bassianus. Titus's decisions infuriate his sons, who help Bassianus and Lavinia escape, and end up fighting their father, who kills one of them. And yet Saturninus then spurns Titus anyway, deciding that Tamora is a better match for him, and he marries her, to Titus's horror.

The 'Peacham drawing', an illustration from the 16th or early 17th century that depicts characters from Titus Andronicus. It's the only illustration of a scene from Shakespeare created during his own lifetime.
Things get nastier when Tamora uses her new position of power to exact revenge upon Titus. With the assistance of Aaron the Moor, Tamora's two remaining sons, Chiron and Demetrius, kill Bassianus and rape Lavinia, cutting off her hands and tongue to prevent her from communicating their guilt; they also capture two of Titus's sons and frame them for Bassianus's murder, so that the Emperor imprisons them. When Titus and his family find the brutalized Lavinia, they are shocked to the core, but are unable to act, as they do not know who the perpetrators were.

At this point, Shakespeare begins blending genres to dazzling effect: the violence increases, but to a degree that becomes almost farcical. Aaron informs Titus that the Emperor will free his two accused sons if Titus sends him his own severed hand. Titus permits Aaron to cut off his hand and take it. But the Emperor's response is to return Titus's hand accompanied by the decapitated heads of the sons. Seeing this, Titus laughs. "Why does thou laugh?" asks his brother Marcus, "It fits not with this hour." Titus replies, "Because I have not one more tear to shed."

Lavinia names her attackers; illustration from the
Pepys Collection's copy of a ballad of Titus
Andronicus (1680s)
The turning point comes when Lavinia manages to communicate with her father. Using a page from Ovid's Metamorphoses about the rape of Philomel, and writing in sand with a staff, she identifies Chiron and Demetrius as her abusers. Titus resolves to be revenged on them and their mother, and to overthrow the Emperor by inviting the Goths to invade. His task is made easier when Aaron is forced to flee after Tamora gives birth to a dark-skinned child that is obviously his and not the Emperor's; refusing to kill the baby, Aaron utters a powerful speech about black being better, and escapes into the wilderness with his newborn child.

Titus and Lavinia kill Tamora's sons: illustration from
the Pepys Collection's copy of a ballad of Titus
Andronicus (1680s)
Meanwhile, Titus plots revenge and pretends to be mad. In order to torment him, Tamora and her sons dress up as the spirits of Revenge, Murder and Rape and haunt his house. But Titus captures Chiron and Demetrius and slits their throats, while Lavinia catches their blood in a bowl. As they die, Titus tells them that he will make their flesh and bones into pies. an idea drawn from the Greek legend of Thyestes.

Tamora and Saturninus eat the pies: illustration from
the Pepys Collection's copy of a ballad of Titus
Andronicus (1680s)
The play thus ends in full-on grand guignol, as the Emperor, Tamora, and various Roman and Goth envoys gather for a banquet at Titus's house, humouring his 'madness' when he arrives dressed as a cook. Titus serves meat pie to his guests, and as they eat, he suddenly announces the crime done to his daughter and kills her for the sake of honour. He then reveals that the pie is made from Tamora's sons. In a flurry of violence, Tamora, the Emperor, and Titus murder each other.

Titus's son Lucius becomes the next Emperor and resolves to bring peace. He sentences Aaron - who has been captured  - to death by being buried up to his neck in earth. The unrepentant Aaron says, "If one good thing I did in all my life, / I do regret it, to my very soul." And in the play's closing lines, Lucius recommends that Tamora's body be left to be eaten by birds:
As for that heinous tiger, Tamora,
No funeral rite, nor man in mourning weeds,
No mournful bell shall ring her burial;
But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey:
Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;
And, being so, shall have like want of pity.
And on that bleak note, this exhausting play ends.

The play today

Titus Andronicus is rarely staged, but of all the plays we've looked at in this blog so far, it's the one of which you have the best chance of seeing on the stage some day. It was largely ignored after the seventeenth century, as its violent content clashed with the tastes of more refined eras. But in 1955, Peter Brook staged a groundbreaking RSC production starring Laurence Olivier. This paved the way for many other productions that experimented with different ways of dealing with the play's challenges. If you'd like to look at images from different productions, the Designing Shakespeare website from Royal Holloway University is a great way of doing so. Some productions go for a camp comedy approach, but others find ways to extract gravitas and profoundity from the play. This trailer for the 2017 RSC production seems to be going for the latter approach:

Two major films also exist. In 1985, Jane Howell filmed Titus Andronicus as a studio-bound TV movie for the BBC's complete works of Shakespeare project. It is  one of the better films in the series, and draws special attention to the presence of Titus's grandson, Young Lucius, who is presented as an innocent child increasingly traumatized by what adults are capable of doing to each other.

In 2000, Julie Taymor created a big-budget cinematic adaptation, called simply Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins as Titus, Jessica Lange as Tamora, and Alan Cumming as Saturninus. It borrows several ideas from the BBC film, most notably the idea of framing the story through the eyes of Young Lucius, but Taymor expands the concept further by framing the film through the eyes of a small boy playing violent games with his toys, and by making the world of the play a mishmash of costumes and settings from different historical periods, blurring ancient Rome with the twentieth century.

Taymor's film is full of imaginative visuals - such as Young Lucius buying wooden hands for Lavinia at a puppet shop - and interesting acting choices - for example, Harry Lennix finds ways to make Aaron the Moor a strangely moving and tender figure by the end. The film isn't perfect, but it contains many moments that deftly juggle the play's comedy and tragedy, and many others that give it an epic grandeur.

What we learn from this

Titus Andronicus looks quite unusual amid the rest of Shakespeare's works, but if we think of it as a Rose play it looks less incongrous. As we saw last year, violence was a popular component of the repertories of the performers at the Rose, and although a lot of that violence involved fight scenes rather than gore, horror has not been absent from the stage, if our hypotheses about the plot of Titus and Vespasian are correct.

But the most striking thing that comes out of reading Titus as a Rose play is its close relationship with Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, the most popular play of last year. The mixture of comedy and tragedy is similar (although The Jew is more consistently comic throughout), and Shakespeare's inspiration from Marlowe is very obvious. In my description of the play, I quoted Barabas's gloriously sadistic speech about his violent hobbies, but Shakespeare's Aaron has a speech that seems designed to outdo his predecessor's: he boasts,
Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves
And set them upright at their dear friends' door,
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
"Let not your sorrow die though I am dead."
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed,
But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (V.i)
It's interesting to imagine these words being spoken at the Rose theatre, where, less than a year earlier, the audience had seen the Marlowe play that had inspired them. And very soon, The Jew of Malta will return to the Rose, so that the two plays will be performed in tandem. Stay tuned...

What's next?

For some reason, there are no records of any performances tomorrow (a Friday) or over the weekend. Henslowe's list becomes elliptical from this point on, and it's hard to be sure whether there really were no performances on some days, or whether he simply failed to record them. Either way, Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will return on 28th January.


Titus Andronicus information

  • Scott McMillin, "Sussex's Men in 1594: The Evidence of Titus Andronicus and The Jew of Malta", in Theatre Survey 32.2 (1991): 214-23
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 928.
  • Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 106-10.
  • Jonathan Bate, ed. Titus Andronicus, revised edition (Bloomsbury, 2018)

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

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