Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Gospel According to Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus (part 2)

Sorry I've been incommunicando for a week -- below is the post I intended to put up last Tuesday -- the class went well, and perhaps I'll do a follow-up post later.

For you regular readers, i need your help for the next play, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. It goes up in January. I'm going to try to do some preliminary blogging on it in December. It would really help me if you would read the play, and lend your comments to the blog. I hope you can join me in making the class a great experience of Christian Worldview thinking! More to come on that later -- below is the unedited post I had originally intended:

After the slew of comments that I received from part 1 (please note the ironic tone), I've decided that perhaps Shakespeare is not the most appealing topic for readers of the Eagle and Child. Admittedly, I was envisioning scads of people searching on Titus Andronicus searching in Google, and suddenly coming across my site and being dazzled by my insight -- but alas I'm not even in the top 150 sites on Google's list.

Nonetheless, I'll continue, mainly to get my thoughts worked out before class on Wednesday. Your comments, thoughts suggestions really do help -- let me know if any of this stuff is making sense at all.

Those reading the last post will be struck by the gore and violence in the play. What are we to do with this? Just as a recap: We see human sacrifice, murder, rape, mutilation, random killing of incidental characters. The violence is so over the top that critic Harold Bloom, in his work Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, says that Shakespeare intends the work as a parody of the violent plays of colleagues Kidd and Marlowe.

The "hero", Titus, begins the play by turning a deaf ear upon pleas for mercy and then killing his own son for the sake of preserving his notion of honor. By the end of Act I, we've lost all empathy for him -- it seems that he's really the monster. But then, over the next three Acts, we see his great suffering -- the violence returns to him and breaks him. We cannot help but feel for the man -- his son in law is murdered and two of his sons framed for the deed. His daughter raped and mutilated, his own hand cut off in a vain attempt to save his sons lives. Then, as the messenger delivers his sons severed heads, Titus says "Now let hot Etna cool in Sicily And be my heart an everburning hell! These miseries are more than may be borne..... When will this fearful slumber have an end?" Titus' brother Marcus bids him weep: "Rent off thy silver hair, thy other hand, Gnawing with thy teeth, and be this dismal sight the closing up of our most wretched eyes. Now is a time to storm? Why art thou still?" Titus responds by laughing -- Marcus asks why? "Why, I have not another tear to shed." Quite possibly the most heartbreaking line in the play. Anthony Hopkins delivers this line in the film version with such pathos that all my antipathy for Titus earlier deeds was lost.

And we wallow with Titus in grief for a while only to have him become a monster again in the climactic scene. Rather than bringing the villans to justice, Titus enacts an even more cruel revenge, if that is possible. Taking the idea from classical mythology, Titus kills the offending murderers and bakes them into a pie, feeding them to their mother, Tamora (who guided the whole campaign against Titus). Then, as he reveals what he has done, he kills his own daughter (supposedly relieving her of the living hell of being without hands and tongue) and then leaps across the table to kill Tamora. Then Tamora's husband the emperor kills Titus, and within moments the emperor is killed by Titus' one remaining son.

Given these events, we're left with an ambiguous feeling -- we want to like Titus, but he's proven to be unlikeable. In this respect, he's not all that different from the Biblical heroes from Judges. The book of Judges is the Titus Andronicus of the Bible -- it drips with gore and violence -- a sword plunged in the fat belly of an evil king, a tent peg driven through the skull of another villain, a raped and murdered concubine cut up and sent to twelve tribes as a message, the near extermination of one of Israel's tribes. Judges is not entirely a pleasant book. And many of its heroes are ambiguous: Japehth who wins a victory, but in his hastiness, vows to sacrifice the first thing coming out of his house as a celebration -- which turns out to be his daughter. Then there's Samson, a great warrior, but a petulent fool.

Titus reminds us that at times and seasons of history, our heroes are ambiguous. The reason why the truly great are so great is that they're rare. Judges shows how God will use even such people -- with streaks of nobility and wrath -- to accomplish His ends.