Emrys Jones

The Tragic Idea

Titus Andronicus


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Julius Caesar


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Titus Andronicus has always been the joker in the Shakespeare pack. The play is violent even by Elizabethan standards and not only violent but gruesomely and grotesquely horrible. Not surprisingly, therefore, it could never be made to conform to the image of Shakespeare evolved in Victorian England. The presence in the Shakespeare canon of such an unwholesome work was an embarrassment; and in time means were found to ease the situation.

The most drastic expedient was simply to deny Shakespeare’s authorship. Those who recognised, however reluctantly, some authentic touches tried handing over the rest to an unknown collaborator or referred them to an ‘old play’ revamped by Shakespeare during those murky years when he was still struggling to establish himself. A C Bradley thought in these terms, and accordingly Titus gets no discussion in Shakespearean Tragedy. But none of the major critics of our own period – or indeed of any earlier period – has done much to advance understanding of this very early (perhaps earliest) play of Shakespeare’s. G Wilson Knight has never given it an essay, whereas T S Eliot, no doubt believing it to be by one of Shakespeare’s dimmer contemporaries, called it ‘one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written’. In these critical circumstances editors were left on their own to fabricate theories.

When Dover Wilson edited the play in 1948, he hit on a bright idea which at least had the merit of novelty. The whole thing was meant to be funny. Titus Andronicus had been misunderstood since the sixteenth century: it was really a burlesque, a ‘huge joke’, and those features of the action previously thought so distressing – the mutilation of Lavinia (hands cut off and tongue cut out), the chopping off of one of Titus’s hands (more or less in view of the audience), and the final banquet in which the wicked Queen of the Goths is made to eat her own sons served up in a pie – were there in order to raise a laugh, for they were (weren’t they?) absurdly funny; at the same time if they were taken in this spirit the play could at least be made more comprehensible and something could be salvaged of Shakespeare’s dignity as an artist.

Since Dover Wilson’s edition, the play has received a lot of dispassionate scholarly attention, beginning with J C Maxwell’s careful Arden edition of 1953. But the real turning-point in Titus’s modern fortunes came in 1955 with Peter Brook’s Stratford production. Over the following couple of years this was played in London as well as Stratford before going on a big European tour. It was this production which, for the first time, brought Titus out of the lumber-room and into the open. The centre-piece of Brook’s at times frightening realisation was, of course, Olivier’s performance, one of the most astonishing demonstrations of his greatness as an actor. I was lucky enough to see it, and after nearly thirty years can still recall the huge impact of the whole occasion. Jan Kott saw it in Warsaw, and later wrote in Shakespeare Our Contemporary: ‘I count this performance among the five greatest theatrical experiences of my life’. (To do him justice, Dover Wilson changed his mind about Titus after seeing Olivier’s performance.)

The importance of the Brook-Olivier Titus was quite simply that it recovered something lost to view for over three hundred years: a mysterious archaic power at the heart of the play’s conception. It is not that Titus was shown to be a neglected ‘classic’ which could thenceforth be incorporated into the modern repertory. The play is much too uneven in execution, indeed often unactably verbose and ‘literary’: Brook felt compelled to cut over 650 lines. And in any case this production, having the services of two theatrical geniuses, was something of a one-off affair, perhaps unrepeatable; certainly, in my experience, later productions of Titus have altogether failed to justify its revival. It’s rather that Brook and Olivier showed that the play’s known success on the Elizabethan stage could not be explained simply by appealing to the supposedly crude tastes of popular audiences; the play succeeded then, as it did now, because, despite all its absurdities and excesses, it contained a powerful and affecting tragic idea – but one available for realisation only by a sufficiently audacious great actor. Kenneth Tynan said aptly of Olivier’s Titus: ‘As usual, he raises one’s hair with the risks he takes.’ Emboldened by this production, younger academic critics made larger claims for Titus than had ever been made before. One of them (A C Hamilton) called it ‘a central and seminal play in the canon of Shakespeare’s works’. Another, (Nicholas Brooke) comparing Titus with Lear, concluded that ‘they have more in common with each other than either has with any other of Shakespeare’s plays.’ Titus was being recognised as not just the earliest of Shakespeare’s tragedies but the unique prototype for all the others. Seen in this light, the play becomes at the very least a fascinating historical document.

The new edition of Titus Andronicus by Eugene Waith of Yale University, is a sound and often admirable piece of scholarship. It deals judiciously with the problems of text, authorship and sources, and with the business of clearly and concisely annotating the text; and it has a good discussion of the Peacham drawing, the only contemporary illustration of a scene (or scenes) from a Shakespeare play. It is certainly a worthy addition to the new Oxford Shakespeare. But there is no doubt either that an opportunity has been missed. Professor Waith knows all about the play and its reputation, though he writes as if he has never seen it acted. His seventy-page Introduction has no shortage of good sense and fair-mindedness. What is lacking is any feeling of excitement or discovery. He performs his task with a merely sober dutifulness, whereas Titus still needs to be properly presented not only to the student fresh to Shakespeare (or even the student who thinks he knows him well) but to whatever ‘general reader’ may be tempted to pick up this edition in paperback. In his critical account of the play Waith seems strangely shy of confronting it in its imaginative totality and offers instead a mere run-through of subsidiary scholarly topics which, while perfectly decent and informative, would hardly encourage anyone to find Titus worth thinking about in the first place. The ordinary reader still needs to be told why Shakespeare wrote it.

On the question of the play’s ‘shocking violence’ Waith errs (it seems to me) in a different way. As an explanation for it he invokes ‘a tradition of bloody incidents on the Elizabethan stage’ exemplified in Cambises and The Spanish Tragedy. But this native tradition is only part of the over-all situation. Waith doesn’t sufficiently bring out Shakespeare’s ambitiousness in Titus; like so many older Shakespearian scholars he under-estimates Shakespeare’s singularity. The programmatic violence of Titus is, I think, Shakespeare’s way of attempting an up-to-date European tragedy which would take cognisance not only of recent academic thinking about tragedy as a genre but also of stage practice in court theatres on the Continent. In 1541 Giraldi Cinthio’s Orbecche was performed at Ferrara. Orbecche was an attempt to bring back ‘erudite tragedy’ to the Italian theatre; throughout the sixteenth century the play had considerable fame and influence. In the course of the action Giraldi introduces the same horrific paraphernalia of bleeding bodies and severed heads and limbs that Shakespeare was later to use in Titus. For it was partly in these terms that the Renaissance saw classical tragedy. In his Poetics (1561), the classical scholar J C Scaliger lists the subjects proper to tragedy as follows: ‘… massacres, falling into despair, hangings, exiles, bereavements (of parents and of children), killing of fathers, incest, burning, fights, blindings, weepings, wailings, funerals, epitaphs and elegies.’ It’s surprising how many of these Shakespeare managed to cram into his first tragedy – even the Clown is finally taken off to be hanged! I think Professor Waith might have given more space to historical explanation of this kind and less, perhaps, to filling out his ‘Stage History’ with second-hand descriptions of mediocre revivals. Even his account of the Brook-Olivier production might have been more lively if he had quoted Tynan and Kott.

Arthur Humphreys has an easier assignment. Julius Caesar has of course been much more adequately studied than Titus, though it would be wrong to think there is no more to be said about it. Professor Humphreys is an excellent Shakespeare critic: he responds sensitively to the play’s language and style, and his judgements on the action’s finer points are subtle and discriminating. His account of ‘Roman Values’ is well worth looking up. He might perhaps have investigated more fully Julius Caesar’s place as a political play belonging specifically to the late 1590s. But this edition is an impressively mature piece of work.

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