Next week, I begin our Gospel According to Shakespeare class with Titus Andronicus. The concept behind the class is to show that good art reflects Biblical truth. Shakespeare opereated in a world dominated by a Christian worldview (albeit a medieval, transitioning to Renaissance, worldview -- a reformation-era-conflict worldview, but a Christian worldview nonetheless).
I'm following along the season of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, and therefore, the play was basically chosen for me. Which presents a difficulty, for Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's most violent play -- dealing with murder, rape, mutilation, and cannibalism. There's a reason the Shakespeare Festival chose to put on play at Halloween! Given the gore, is it possible to find biblical themes? (readers of the book of Judges already know the answer)
If we hold that all truth is God's truth, then we'll find, even submerged beneath the gore, some redemptive themes. (as an aside, realize that the gore was not that unfamiliar to the residents of London at the time. Greenblatt's Will in the World shows us that public executions were common; indeed, one of the bridges over the Thames river was adorned with the mutilated bodies of traitors to the crown. Death and gore were thrust in the faces of people of that era in a way we cannot fully appreciate.
But concomitant with such gore comes questions of justice and mercy -- lack of which drives the conflict in the play. We begin with Titus, a Roman general, victoriously returning from wars in Gaul. He brings in tow the captured Tamora, queen of the Goths, and her three sons, and the bodies of his slain sons. His surviving sons demand the life of one Tamora's sons in exchange for their brothers who died in battle. Andronicus, despite Tamora's pleading and tears, grants their request
"TAMORA: Andronicus...Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? Draw near them then in being merciful. Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge. Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son.
TITUS: Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me. These are their bretheren whom your Goths beheld alive and dead, and for their bretheren slain, religiously they ask a sacrifice. To this your son is marked, adn die he must, t'appease their groaning shadows that are gone."
Tamora's appeal immediately takes us to the realm of the eternal -- divine justice is tempered by mercy. Perhaps the laws of war do permit the taking of a hostage -- but mercy is the higher virtue. Titus' religious claims strike us as hollow. He's simply saying "there's nothing I can do" when in reality Tamora has hit the nail on the head -- mercy is the mark of divinity.
Surely this longing for mercy puts us squarely on gospel grounds. God in his mercy graciously grants us new birth (see John Piper's exposition on this theme). Ephesians 2:1-10 is all about this mercy "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions." (v4 -- see my sermon from Sunday for more on this passage). We have an inner need for mercy -- God graciously grants it not because He has to, but because He delights in showing mercy.
However, Titus does not take such delight. Tamora's son is executed and she vows revenge. And her revenge is awful. With her sons and the villanous Aaron the Moor, Tamora arranges for Titus daughter, Lavinia, to be raped, her hands cut off and her tongue cut off. As Lavinia begs for mercy, Tamora says to her sons "Remember, boys, I poured forth tears in vain To save your brother from the sacrifice, But fierce Andronicus would not relent, Therefore away with her; and use her as you will; The worse for her, the better loved of me." Again, we see mercy begged for, and mercy denied.
The revenge doesn't stop there -- Lavinia's husband, Bassianus is murdered, and Andronicus' two sons are framed for the murder. They are executed for the crime. But before the execution, Aaron the Moor brings a message that they will be spared if someone in Andronicus' family cuts off their hand as a peace offering to the emperor -- Andronicus in desperation to save his sons' lives, cuts his own off and sends it. The hand is returned to him along with the severed heads of his sons -- Aaron has pulled a wickedly cruel joke.
Now Andronicus is the one begging for mercy. His pleas for mercy for his son's lives were unheard by the government -- and with bitterness he says to his one remaining son "...Rome is but a wilderness of tigers...Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey but me and mine." Titus articulates an insight on depravity. Mercy is not intrinsic to the human heart. We may have a natural longing for it, but not an intrinsic desire to grant it. We see demonstrated once again the desperate need for spiritual rebirth to stop the cycle of revenge and violence.
Andronicus finally loses grip a bit -- we see a heartbreaking scene where he gathers his near relatives, equips them with bows and arrows. Tied to each arrow is a note to one of the pagan gods -- a request for their divine intervention for justice. He has had immense wrong done him, and he longs for things to be set right. "...sith there's no justice in earth nor hell, We will solicit heaven and move the gods To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs." This scene is almost Job like -- Titus sending his complaints for divine justice.
But Titus is no Job -- he does not hear the voice of God in the whirlwind saying "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand...." (ch 38ff). Instead, Titus takes matters into his own hands -- he seizes an opportunity to take Tamora's remaining sons -- and then he out cruels her cruelty. He murders them, drains their blood, crushes their bones, bakes them into a pie, and serves the pie to Tamora at a banquet aimed at establishing peace between the warring houses (and for Rome) -- of course Tamora was planning her own betrayal, so any kind of mercy from either side was unexpected. In the end scene there is a bloodletting where Titus dies, Lavinia dies, and we wonder at the carnage left behind.
Yet we cannot forget the two figures longing for mercy, yet never granting. Longing for release from the cycle of violence, yet escalating it nonetheless. Locked in a struggle destined to consume both their lives and destroy their families. Full of the sound and the fury, signifying nothing -- to quote another play.
The redemptive element is to show that these are not mindless killers (ala a Jason or Michael Meyers or any of the other horror show villans of today). These are characters with an innate sense of mercy and longing for it. And they throw the deep human need for a new heart, birthed by grace, into unmistakable view.
Soli Deo Gloria