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titus andronicus

17 december 2015

Titus Andronicus may be alone among Shakespeare titles in that when you Google it, the top result is neither Shakespeare's play nor a historical personage like Henry VIII or Julius Caesar, but a neo-punk band from New Jersey.

I'd imagine there are lots of bands named after Shakespeare plays. Titus Andronicus may be unique in that I'd rather listen to Titus Andronicus than watch Titus Andronicus. There's a German punk/metal ("Goth Rock") band called Love's Labour's Lost who seem like nice guys but are not very good. There was a "neo-prog" band called Twelfth Night in England in the 1980s … that wasn't very long after prog, so I don't know why they were neo. They became neo as they got older, I guess. They're OK, but Twelfth Night is a great play, so they should have named themselves Timon of Athens or The Two Gentlemen of Verona if they wanted to be better than their namesake. There's a band called Two Gentlemen – they play "hot swing" on strings – but they are not from Verona. Titus Andronicus, by contrast, mumble and growl their clever, allusive lyrics, but they are pretty good musicians, if you like the style.

There are other odd things about Titus Andronicus. It was first printed in quarto, fairly early (1594), yet it's a "good" Quarto (of a bad play). Though it has a Roman title, characters, and setting, it's completely fictional: perhaps not invented by Shakespeare, but not drawn from any historical chronicle. The play also features bizarre lurches in plot direction and insane violence. But as many critics have noted, it's recognizable Shakespeare in terms of language and tragic excess: it's just Shakespeare over the top and out of control.

The plot of Titus seems deranged, but it's long been observed that few of its elements would be out of place in even the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies. It's just that both compressed and accentuated within the bounds of this relatively short and extremely garish play, they're a bit hard to take. Before the first scene is over, Titus Andronicus has come home in triumph from defeating the Goths, buried a few of his sons, killed a princely prisoner, run for emperor and then conceded the throne to a rival, betrothed his own daughter to the winner, seen the daughter kidnapped by his sons and brother, killed one of his own sons, seen the daughter married to the emperor's brother, seen the captive Queen of the Goths (mother of the man he's had killed) married to the emperor, buried the son he's killed over his initial objections, and simultaneously complained about being dishonored while settling into a position as an elder courtier in the new Imperial regime.

That's really just the set-up for a play that sees pretty much every character mutilated or raped or both before being stabbed to death, and it's the lucky soul who gets stabbed before eating some of their children's body parts. Eventually Titus can't take it any more and goes mad, pretending to be even madder so that he can set up an elaborate revenge on everybody that of course ultimately gets him stabbed to death. The "pretending to be mad" part connects him to Hamlet, and the getting old and crazy and wandering the campagna with some trusted retainers reminds one of Lear. The main villain in the piece, Aaron the Moor, reminds one of Iago, though reversing the color of the good and bad characters in Othello. Not that it's easy to see Titus as good. You sort of want him to succeed, but the guy did start the play by stabbing his own son to death.

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. 1594. Edited by J.C. Maxwell. 1953. Third Edition. London: Methuen, 1961.