Shakespearing #7 by David Foley
Titus Andronicus is such a mess that people used to argue Shakespeare didn’t write it. Indeed, the latest scholarship says that George Peele wrote significant chunks of it. The problem is the messy parts are Shakespeare. This doesn’t have to disturb us unduly. Shakespeare is messy. He’s Exhibit A for the adage, “Great art rises above its faults while good art never gets past its virtues.” The stuff Peele wrote is good. It’s believed he wrote the entire first act and a bit of Act II, plus a scene in Act IV. Act I is a single continuous scene in which Peele (if it is Peele) delivers quite a lot of exposition and action smoothly in a clear, forceful dramatic voice. If there’s anything that seems non-Shakespearean about it, it’s his approach to character, which leans towards the rhetorical. His characters declaim, stake out positions. The drama is in the shifting and counter-shifting of those positions. Shakespeare’s approach to character is more mobile. It follows the shifting mind. Here’s Tamora pleading with Titus not to kill her son:
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother’s tears in passion for her son;
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me.
Compare this to Margaret in 3 Henry VI, after her son has been murdered:
What’s worse than murtherer, that I may name it?
No, no, my heart will burst, and I will speak,
And I will speak, that so my heart may burst.
Butchers and villains! bloody cannibals!
I’m interested in this collaboration. James Shapiro suggests that Peele wrote the opening because Shakespeare was “the less established writer.” But doesn’t that leave all the juicy stuff for Shakespeare? And why just one random scene in the rest of the play? It’s as if, in the end, Shakespeare found he couldn’t bear to give his play over to another writer. Did Peele write scenes that Shakespeare rejected? Rewrote? Why did he need Peele? Did he not have time to write the play himself? Certainly, the last act feels rushed and perfunctory, a double-time cavalcade of murder and retribution. (Tamora barely has time to register that she’s eaten her sons before she’s killed.)
Which brings us to the mess. Yeah, it’s messy. At times absurd. Which can make it a lot of fun, in a macabre way. But it stays with you. Even the moments of high, almost hilarious grotesque—Lavinia exiting with her father’s hand in her tongueless mouth because she has no hands to carry it—linger in your mind. And then there’s Aaron, another of Shakespeare’s outcast villains. Aaron’s determination to save his child does what Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew” speech does; it humanizes him without making him one jot less villainous. Perhaps the result is not that he becomes more like us, but that we become more like him. That may be a key to understanding the play. Titus may be extreme, but it’s an extreme version of themes already in Shakespeare. Are the horrors of Titus really that far away from the ones of Lear? The horror of human cruelty—which is ultimately a political cruelty—is never far away in Shakespeare. We are implicated in its relentless pull.
Titus in his age, his foolishness, his madness, and his grief foreshadows Lear, but his predicament foreshadows Kafka. His “goodness” consists in being a deferential servitor for the violence of the state. Like a Kafka hero, he’s a functionary crushed for serving the machine too well.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.