Review 1682: Titus Andronicus

I knew nothing about Titus Andronicus except that it is a blood bath. And it is, too, with rape, murder, dismemberment, and a woman being served her sons’ corpses in a pie.

The introduction to the play in my Riverside edition points out that the play was long poorly regarded and even by some thought not to be the work of Shakespeare. But more lately its reputation has been rehabilitated.

Titus Andronicus is a Roman general who has been fighting the Goths for years—having lost 20 sons in battle—when he returns to Rome. The emperor has recently died, and the citizens of Rome want to elect Titus, but he gives his support to the emperor’s brother Saturninus, who is duly elected but resents Titus for this.

In rapid succession and a confusing first scene, Saturninus says he will marry Titus’s daughter Lavinia while openly ogling Tamora, the captured queen of the Goths that Titus has brought back with him. Titus has just sacrificed her son to thank the gods for his triumph. Then Bassianus, the brother of Saturninus, comes in and claims Lavinia as his own, supported by some of Titus’s sons. Titus kills his own son Mutius for acting against the emperor. Although Saturninus rebukes Titus for slaughtering his own son, he still banishes Titus’s other sons for supporting Bassianus’s claim to Lavinia.

Saturninus marries Tamora, and she begins to plot her revenge against Titus for killing her son, aided by her lover, the villainous Moor Aaron. Aaron convinces Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron to murder Bassianus and rape Lavinia during a hunt. They improve upon this plan by cutting off her tongue and hands, and then they frame Titus’s sons for Bassianus’s murder. More villainy follows, but once Titus has had enough, he gets his own revenge.

There aren’t very many striking passages in this play, but it is very tightly plotted. I could see some similarities to Coriolanus, another Roman revenge tragedy. I think the play might be quite horrifying and effective when performed. This play is one of the last books on my second Classics Club list.

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Review 1674: The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is a widow, and her brother Ferdinand does not want her to remarry, so that he will eventually inherit her estate. So, he sets a spy on her, Bosola.

Despite Bosola’s efforts, the Duchess marries her steward, Antonio. It’s not clear what would have happened if she had picked someone closer to her station, but this choice outrages her brothers. (Oddly enough, Bosola doesn’t report that she has a lover until she has three children by him.)

At first, the brothers think the Duchess has been whoring around, but the situation isn’t improved by their finding out she is actually married. Ferdinand has her imprisoned in rooms of her castle, and things get worse from there.

When I studied 17th century drama, these plays were called revenge tragedies, but the introduction to my very old Mermaid edition calls them Tragedies in Blood. Since pretty much all the main characters are dead by the end, this is a fitting name.

Webster’s play is a bit rough around the edges. Certainly, it doesn’t have the power of Shakespeare or even Marlowe, and most of it is in prose. Still, there are some effective moments. I think this play is probably much more moving when performed rather than read. I read this play for my Classics Club list.

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