Yes, it may seem excessive to do two Shakespearean plays in the first six summaries, but it’s my blog and I can do what I want.
William Shakespeare has written many magnificent plays and beautiful lines – “To be or not to be,” “Wherefore art thou Romeo,” etc. I feel like the only reason that Titus Andronicus exists is because it reminds us that Shakespeare was once as awful as many beginning writers and that there is hope for us all. (I am, of course, working on the assumption that Shakespeare is the actual author, but that’s a different discussion for another time. If I were him, though, I’d be willing to let someone else take the credit for this one.)
You see, Titus Andronicus is the B movie of Shakespeare plays – one of those things that are so awful they’re almost wonderful. Unfortunately, in spite of its unintentionally hilarious parts, this train wreck also leaves a bad taste in the mouth (pun intended) and has a lot of violent references to rape. If that unsettles you, feel free to skip this post and wait for next month when I summarize a book with no women in it whatsoever. Let’s carry on.
The place: Ancient Rome. Well, slightly less ancient Rome, but not quite modern Rome. Late Roman Empire in the fourth century…ish. Anyway. Rome.
We start out with a pair of brothers, Saturninus and Bassianus, debating in front of tribunes and senators as to which of the two should succeed their dead father as emperor of Rome. (I’m keeping a running death tally for curiosity’s sake. Body count so far: 1 old man.) Saturninus claims the throne as the firstborn son, while Bassianus claims it because he’s… well, sort of a decent guy. Virtue is a rare thing around here, so I guess that’s not as silly as it sounds. Bassianus also professes his love for Lavinia, a statement no one cares about just now, but which will be important later.
Marcus Andronicus enters the scene right on time holding a crown (where’d he get that?) and announcing that the people want to elect his brother Titus to the throne. Titus is a war hero, just returned from battle having lost 21 sons. (Body count so far: 22) Instead of wondering if this makes Titus a questionable soldier and all-around terrible dad, Saturninus and Bassianus both decide he is worthy and decide to offer him the keys to the country.
Titus then enters the city with his four not-yet-dead sons, bearing a coffin between them, and announces that the remains of his 21 dead sons are inside the coffin – he presumably hacked them to tiny bits in order to fit them all in there. The group is joined by a retinue that includes some prisoners – Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her lover Aaron, and her three sons, Alarbus, Demetrius, and Chiron.
One of Titus’s remaining sons makes the brilliant suggestion that Alarbus should be hacked into tiny bits to… teach them a lesson about war, I guess. Tamora is not happy with this turn of events (though really, as a Roman POW, what did she expect?). She pleads for his life in vain as Titus’s sons take him off stage for slaughter. (Body count: 23) After that’s done, the trumpets sound, and the coffin containing Titus’s other various sons is laid into the family tomb.
Enter Lavinia, Titus’s daughter (because after 25 sons, the laws of probability are bound to catch up with you). We immediately suspect nothing good will happen to Lavinia because she’s a meek, chaste, obedient girl whose only purpose is to applaud her father and weep dutifully at her brothers’ grave.
The tribunes reenter and Marcus announces that Titus has been voted the next emperor. Titus declines, saying he’s been a soldier for 40 years and would really rather just retire. Saturninus and Bassianus dislike this answer, but reignite their campaigns and demand that Titus either elect himself or choose one of them. Titus votes for Saturninus, and for some reason his is the only vote that counts. So much for democracy.
Saturninus decides to show his appreciation by making Titus’s daughter Lavinia his empress, but he tells Tamora that he’d rather pick her for a wife if he had half a chance (which probably isn’t the best thing to say when your newly minted father-in-law is still right there) and lets the Goths go. Wait, who drags prisoners all the way to Rome, kills the firstborn son, and just… lets the rest go? How is that a good idea?
While I ponder this, Bassianus suddenly realizes he got the short straw of these dealings and drags Lavinia off, declaring that they are already engaged. (Does Lavinia know this? We know Bassianus loves her, but she hasn’t voiced an opinion one way or another.) Titus is upset because he wants to stay in the Emperor’s good graces, regardless of whether his daughter is already spoken for. Lavinia’s brothers think her honor is worth defending, so they send her off with her actual betrothed and try to keep their father from dragging her back to the Emperor. One son, Mutius stands his ground between Titus and the door, and gets a good stabbing from his father for it. (Body count: 24) Titus does not seem overly upset about filicide. Someone should probably remind him that he no longer has a surplus of children (and he really ought to notice when his daughter is engaged to another man).
Lucius rightly calls his dad out on the fact that stabbing isn’t cool, and even Saturninus says “Whoa, dude, I don’t need her that badly. My brother can have her. I’ve got a backup, see? I can marry this beautiful Tamora, who will in no way seek revenge on any of us for hacking her firstborn son into tiny bits.”
Titus’s brother and three remaining sons ask that Mutius be buried in the family vault, which is the wrong thing to say. Titus says the vault is only for soldiers and honorable men, not those “basely slain in brawls.” Wow, Titus. Your perspective on life is astounding. After much pleading, he gives in and says “bury him, and bury me the next.” Well, if that’s what you want, I’m sure we’ll manage somehow…
Having agreed to this, the family quickly changes topics to that suspicious Goth Queen, Tamora. How’d she suddenly get to be the emperor’s queen anyway? Guys, none of you are very observant.
And then Bassianus, Lavinia, Emperor Saturninus and his new wife and stepchildren all come back into the scene, because there is no social gathering place like the Andronicus family tomb.
Saturninus and Bassianus passive-aggressively snipe at each other before Tamora pulls the emperor him aside to let him know she’s just waiting for the day to massacre them all as revenge for her son. Just in case you weren’t sure if she was evil.
She puts on her sweet 50’s housewife face to call for peace and announce that she has made them all friends again. Saturninus announces that today shall be a love-day, and Titus announces that tomorrow they shall go hunting. I announce the end of Act I, with a body count total of 24.
Act II opens to Aaron ruminating evilly about his potential rise in society as the queen’s boyfriend. He is an evil black man, and nobody will let you forget it. Enter Tamora’s sons, Demetrius and Chiron, bickering over Lavinia, who is the only other woman in this play and therefore the greatest object of desire despite the fact that she’s married now. The men try to think of ways to quell their lust, but the only conclusion they can come up with is rape. (Personally, I was going to suggest castration…)
Aaron: Why, then, it seems some certain snatch or so would serve your turns.
Chiron: Ay, so the turn were served.
Demetrius: Aaron, thou hast hit it.
Aaron: Would you had hit it too! Then should not we be tir’d with this ado.
I’m only including this exchange because I love it when people think they’re being so modern when they say “I’d hit it.” Shakespeare has you all beat.
Later, while Titus is on a hunt with the emperor and their families, Aaron hides a bag of gold under a tree as he talks loudly to himself about how he’s not crazy at all for doing so – it’s just part of his dastardly plan. Tamora stumbles onto the scene and attempts to seduce him, but he’s being too broody for sex. He tells her of his evil plan to… have Lavinia raped and her tongue cut out. Okay, that’s pretty terrible, dude, but what does it have to do with your evil plans for world domination? Oh, okay, you’re also going to have Bassianus killed. What exactly does that accomplish? The motives in this play aren’t really clear.
Speak of the devils, Bassanius and Lavinia soon come across them in the forest. (You guys should have been here a minute ago – you could have foiled their plans.) Instead, the four of them get into a sass fest, mostly over the fact that Aaron is a black man. For some reason, this is more detestable to them than the fact that he’s committing adultery with the Emperor’s new queen. Even Lavinia gets in on the insults, which is a surprise. You go, girl. You… spout that racist commentary with the best of them. Your dad would be so proud.
Demetrius and Chiron then show up, and Tamora turns on the waterworks, accusing her brother-in-law and his wife of calling her mean names. Of course, vengeance is the only answer to name calling, so the boys stab Bassianus and throw him into a conveniently placed pit (Body count: 25). They then drag Lavinia away, even as she begs Tamora’s help and pity as a fellow woman. Finding none, she is taken off stage, still shouting insults at Tamora. (Lavinia, you really should be directing your insults to the creepy rapists who are carrying you off.)
Tamora leaves and Aaron meanwhile leads two more of Titus’s sons to the pit. Apparently it’s dark enough so that one of them falls in, but he can see well enough in the pit to discover Bassianus’s body and identify the ring on his finger. Unable to help his brother out of the pit, the other son does the logical thing and falls in with him.
Aaron continues his duty as chauffer and brings Saturninus to the pit. Coincidentally, Titus and Tamora show up as well. Party at the pit in the woods, everyone! Tamora hands a (fake) letter to the emperor, which has clear instructions from the sons to a huntsman to bury Bassianus in a pit and collect the buried gold nearby as a reward. The logic of this letter confuses me to no end. I mean, I know Tamora wrote it trying to frame Titus’s sons, but if you’re going to pay a huntsman to bury someone after you kill him, why would you go to the scene of the crime and fall into the same pit? And wouldn’t the gold be gone if the huntsman had done the job? Fortunately for our villains, our heroes are overcome with grief and Saturninus will believe anything. Tamora also hams up her role of leading lady with a “What, are they in this pit? O wondrous thing! How easily murder is discovered!”
Titus, still contending simultaneously for awards in the “Worst Father of the Year” and “Biggest Suckup to the Emperor” categories, tells the Emperor that he will make sure his sons answer with their lives if they are guilty.
Meanwhile, Lavinia is not in a good place. She has been raped, had her hands and tongue cut off, and (possibly worst of all) has to endure the vapid taunting of the criminals who did it. After they leave, she runs into her uncle Marcus. Rather than getting her to a hospital ASAP, he laments poetically about her newfound lack of branches and the fact that her face is red from shame (which could be infection, but I guess if she’s not going pale from blood loss, she might yet live). Just in case the Greek mythology parallels weren’t obvious enough to the literati, Shakespeare is going to go ahead and have Marcus spell them out to you, and beat you over the head with them. LAVINIA IS PHILOMEL. Acts I & II body count total: 25 people, 2 hands, 1 tongue.
Act III opens and Titus is playing the old man card, lying on the ground pleading to the tribunes to save his two imprisoned sons. His final remaining son Lucius shows up to ask him to stop, and to let him know that his personal attempts at getting the men freed has ended up in his own banishment from Rome.
Just when Titus thinks things can’t get any worse, his brother shows up with Lavinia. Everyone laments awhile, and in his wailings, Titus demands his sword to cut off his own hands for all the good they’ve done in serving Rome.
This is ironic, because the opportunity comes sooner than he’d imagine. Aaron brings a message from the Emperor, which says that if a member of the family chops off a hand and sends it to the king, Titus’s imprisoned sons will be sent home alive. Of course, everyone offers their own hands (except Lavinia, who doesn’t have any) and starts squabbling over who deserves to lose a hand the most. Titus finally sends Lucius and Marcus off get an ax and tells them to decide between the two of them. He then turns and asks Aaron to cut his hand off before they get back. Aaron leaves with the hand, but not before offering an evil voiceover to let us know that Titus’s sons won’t be making a complete reappearance. Mwahaha.
A messenger returns to Titus with two heads and Titus’s spare hand. Apparently the Emperor was displeased with his offering and has offed the two sons anyway. (Body count: 27) Titus does what I’ve started to do when things get this ridiculously awful: he laughs. Then he decides to exact his revenge. He sends his exiled son Lucius off (one wonders how the guy was not escorted out of the city already) to raise an army of Goths, for whatever good he thinks that will do. Does he remember that Tamora was queen of the Goths not all that long ago? Do the Goths have a better memory than he does, or do they lack any sense of loyalty to her because they know she’s crazy?
Time passes, and Titus and Lavinia bond over their inability to hold things, which turns into him lecturing her on how to hold a knife in her teeth and stab herself to death (because he really wants that Father of the Year trophy). It’s possible that Titus has gone insane. He’s not quite up to King Lear levels of insanity yet, but he’s a good deal higher than Malvolio.
Marcus tries to help diffuse the tension, but accidentally uses terrible phrases like “Teach her not thus to lay such violent hands upon her tender life,” which just sets Titus off again. Titus then decides he can interpret Lavinia’s charade games, but I imagine he’s doing more harm than good. A never-before-seen grandson (also named Lucius, just to confuse us) appears to try and placate him, but to no avail.
Marcus then makes the mistake of stabbing a fly with a knife, and that sets Titus off too. “How if that fly had a father and mother?” he wails. Marcus tries to play along, saying “it was a black ill-favour’d fly, like to the Empress’ Moor; therefore I kill’d him.” Fortunately, this appeases Titus. Unfortunately, he grabs the knife and presumably mashes the fly’s body into paste. Body count total of Acts I-III: 27 people, 3 hands, 1 tongue, 1 fly.
Act IV begins with Lavinia chasing her nephew Lucius Jr. with a book, trying to show him the story of Philomel in Ovid’s Metamorphoses just in case you still hadn’t picked up on the parallels. Sensing that she is about to unveil her tormentors, Marcus shows her how to write names in the dirt with a stick using her mouth and guiding it with her feet. Why didn’t they do this in the first place? For that matter, why force her to go through all the charades when she could have been writing with a pen in her mouth the whole time?
Everyone is surprised to find that the rapists are Tamora’s sons (honestly, though, who else would it be?). They all swear to seek vengeance, etc., etc., and even the little boy volunteers to stab the rapists in their sleep. This whole family deserves a sitcom, I swear.
Lucius Jr. instead becomes a messenger to Chiron and Demetrius, bringing them a stack of weapons (Because if there’s one thing you should give villains, it’s more weapons) with a note in Latin that translates to “One with integrity of life, pure of crime, has no need of the Moor’s arrows or bow.” Oh, buuuurn. Unfortunately, these two are idiots and only Aaron realizes that their crime has been discovered. I’m still wondering why they let Lavinia live so long.
A nurse appears looking for Aaron, with a black baby in arms that is apparently Tamora’s. Ooops. She delivers the message that Tamora wants Aaron to kill it to hide the evidence of their affair. Aaron does not want to commit infanticide (which is surprising, given the nature of this play). Tamora’s other sons think otherwise, leading to this gem of an exchange:
Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.
It’s beautiful, like Shakespeare joined a frat house or something.
Despite how Chiron and Demetrius wail about their mother’s shame, Aaron snatches the baby and forbids anyone to kill him. It’s a pretty sad day when the villain has more paternal instincts than Titus.
Instead of killing the baby, Aaron comes up with a plan. His plan, of course, is to kill all nonessential witnesses, starting with the nurse (Body count: 28) and then trade his black baby with a countryman’s white baby (whose wife will appreciate the money, I’m sure). Why they don’t all just pretend the emperor’s baby was stillborn, I don’t know. Aaron instructs the boys to send the midwife to him as soon as they bury the nurse, intending to kill her as well (I’ll assume a body count of 29).
Titus, who is still a bit crazy, has decided to shoot arrows at the stars (and in the general direction of the palace) addressed to specific gods in hopes that they answer his pleas for justice. Along comes a clown bearing pigeons, which is a perfectly normal thing to see in the middle of the night in Rome. Titus assumes he’s a messenger from the gods, but really, he’s just going to the court to defend his uncle. Titus writes a letter and asks him to deliver it to the emperor. Nobody has explained the pigeons.
Saturninus has meanwhile gathered Titus’s arrows and concludes correctly that he’s a bit nuts. The clown enters and dutifully delivers the letter, along with his pigeons. Saturninus reads it, and, having heard the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger,” decides to have the clown hung instead (Body count: 30). I’m not a fan of clowns by a long shot, but that seems a bit harsh.
Apparently Titus’s exiled son Lucius is indeed building up an army and the citizens are wishing he were emperor instead. Upon hearing this news, Tamora offers to seduce Titus so he… what? Begs his son not to invade? This plan makes no sense, Tamora. Oh well, she thinks it’s worth a shot. Body count total of Acts I-IV: 30 deaths, 3 hands, 1 tongue, 1 fly.
Lucius opens Act V by rallying the Goths. The Goths, presumably after painting their nails black and listening to depressing music for several months, have decided to join him. Who else should they stumble across but Aaron and son, found in the wasteland by another Goth.
A little too much like his father for my liking, Lucius immediately orders them both to be hanged. Lucius, you do realize that’s an infant, right? Aaron begs them to spare his baby’s life by confessing all the crimes he committed in the course of the play. This takes awhile.
Tamora meanwhile decides that nothing is more fun than messing with a crazy person. (You do realize that nothing good comes of provoking homicidal maniacs, right?) She gathers her sons, puts on a disguise, and calls herself Revenge before knocking on Titus’s door. It turns out that Titus is about as crazy as Hamlet – which is to say, no more than usual. He recognizes her right away and says so. Like a professional, she keeps playing her part to the point where he starts to play along. He points out her sons, addressing them as Rape and Murder, and asks her (as Revenge) to kill them. She doesn’t quite pick up on his sarcasm, and thinks she has ensnared a madman. (Wait, I thought she was going to seduce him. How is this accomplishing that?)
Titus lets “Revenge” and her family into his house while he starts to insult Tamora and her spawn. “Revenge” tries to get them back on script by asking if he won’t send for his exiled son to have dinner with Tamora and her spawn so that Titus and his spawn can exact their revenge…with “Revenge” and her spawn. (I’m so confused about this plan now, but it sounds stupid no matter how I try to figure it out).
Titus does as she asks, and sends Marcus to get his son Lucius. (Does no one here know the meaning of the word “exile”?) Tamora as Revenge leaves to put her plan into action, but Titus insists on keeping her sons around. Why? Because Sweeny Todd and Hannibal Lector are his idols. He has the sons bound and stops up their mouths to keep them from speaking. (Do you see the revenge parallels? DO YOU?) Lavinia holds up a basin to catch the blood that pours out when Titus slits their throats. (Body count: 32) I gag a little.
Lucius, Marcus, and the Goths enter Rome with Aaron and his baby as their prisoners. (Wait, why did you guys bring the baby?) Lucius and Marcus join Saturninus, Tamora and various tribunes and senators at a feast served by Titus. Now, if I were the emperor or one of his party members, I would be more than a little concerned about my self-proclaimed mortal enemy serving me dinner. I’d have poison testers on standby, if nothing else.
Titus and Lavinia enter with the dishes and serve them to the guests. Titus is dressed as a cook and Lavinia has a veil over her face (though I’m pretty sure that won’t help, ma’am – the arm stumps are going to give you away). Titus asks Saturninus if it makes sense to slay one’s daughter when she’s been despoiled. Saturninus thinks so, because women shouldn’t outlive the dishonor they bring on their families, blah blah blah.
Titus agrees with him, turns around, and kills Lavinia. (Body count: 33). Saturninus suddenly changes his mind and thinks that was a terrible thing to do. Once he learns she’d been raped, he demands to know who the rapists were. Titus quickly changes the subject and encourages everyone to eat. After they’ve done so, he calmly reveals that the rapists were Tamora’s sons and he’s baked them in the pies.
Before anyone can really process this, a glorious bloodbath ensues. Titus stabs Tamora. (Body count: 34) Saturninus, in turn, stabs Titus. (Body count: 35) Lucius avenges his father by stabbing Saturninus. (Body count: 36)
By this time, no one’s left to stab Lucius except Marcus, and they’re on the same side. Instead, they go onto a balcony and lament over the state of Rome. They address the people of Rome (who like to hang out under Titus’s balcony, I guess) and everyone elects Lucius as emperor. Apparently elections were quite casual in those days. Lucius bids farewell to his father, and Lucius Jr. (where did he come from?) starts to cry. Get used to it, kid: your family is messed up. Though I guess there’s only three of you now, so maybe natural selection has removed all the crazy from the gene pool.
The attendants return with Aaron, who is still alive. Huh. Apparently I lost track of him in the massacre back there. Lucius decides that Aaron is to be set chest-deep in the ground and starved to death. Aaron remains unrepentant to the bitter end and says “if one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” Okay, so he’s a horrible human being, but he really does get some of the best lines. (And he’s good as dead. Body count: 37)
I don’t have much else to say about this that isn’t self-explanatory. At least the baby lives, so there’s a high note in this beautiful train wreck of a play. Yay for babies.
Final body count total: 37 deaths. 38 if you count the fly.