Teachers are interesting. Sometimes they say things that can stick with you for years and years. I never really thought about it until now but it's a little scary to me. I'm left wondering if when I was teaching I said something that's going to stick with someone for years and years to get quoted back later...
Anyway, I had this teacher who despised Titus Andronicus. He called it Shakespeare's worst play. Even the movie Shakespeare in Love sort of ragged on it. I took this as a challenge so I went out and found it. As always, though, you can't read Shakespeare. You have to see him, or more importantly hear him. Eventually, I stumbled on the version with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. It's over-the-top, of course, which is fitting for a play that seems to wallow in its absurdity.
Another teacher told me (see what I mean?) that Shakespeare was like the Quintin Tarantino of his day. That statement is epitomized by Titus Andronicus. There are executions, rape, murder, cannibalism, insanity...you get the picture. The level of gore itself--bordering on the ridiculous--gives it a kind of rough charm. If I can stretch the Tarantino parallel just a bit further, Titus Andronicus is a little like Kill Bill.
The gore clearly distracted critics, making them hate it, though they usually attack it on other fronts as well. I have to admit, it doesn't have the philosophical nuance of Hamlet or the tragic sense of destiny in Macbeth. But it does have something to offer. Titus' losses pile up one after another, dropping the audience in a harrowing roller coast plunge to the depths of grief and madness. I find his character compelling, and we still get some great lines along the way. In a particularly memorable scene after he's hit rock bottom, Titus begins laughing when he learns another awful thing has happened:
"What fool hath added water to the sea,
Or brought a faggot to bright-burning Troy?
My grief was at the height before thou camest,
And now like Nilus, it disdaineth bounds."
It's good that it was written several hundred years ago. I imagine if it were written yesterday, all I would do is complain about how Shakespeare completely mutilated Roman history. It still grates a little, but what can you do? I know it's permissible to hate the Bard (I think Lord Byron did, for instance), but I just don't have it in me. How can I hate the man who gave his character this line:
"O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul."
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a villain.