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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Titus Andronicus is About How we Make Entertainment out of Violence: A Discussion of Julie Taymor's Claim


Julie Taymor, who has directed Shakespeare's often criticised play for both the Broadway stage and Hollywood screen, suggests that Titus Andronicus is about "how we make entertainment out of violence". I argue here that she largely proves her thesis through the film she has created, although paradoxically she too succumbs to the need ultimately to deliver pleasure from destructive material.


Violence becomes comic because laughter, denying the reality or seriousness of whatever threatens, is a way of dealing with trauma. When Titus laughs because "I have not another tear to shed" (3.1.266), he implies that at a critical limit, when "miseries are more than may be borne" (3.1.243), the human soul cannot operate in conventional modes of eloquent elegy, silence or tears. Laughter proves to be an effective coping mechanism.

"at a critical limit, when "miseries are more than may be borne" (3.1.243), the human soul cannot operate in conventional modes of eloquent elegy, silence or tears."
Whereas Marcus's reaction to the return of the two heads is to match violence with violent self-mutilation - "rent off thy silver hair, thy other hand/Gnawing with thy teeth" (3.1.261) - Titus's laughter acts as a control, allowing him to project beyond the immediate moment towards revenge, to externalise his anger back on its causes "till all these mischiefs be returned again" (3.1.273).

Horror and comedy are held in strange proximity, yet the alarmed reaction of Marcus to Titus's laughter, which neatly predicts critics of the play who complain that the drama becomes farce, suggests the incongruity of finding violence humorous within a context of poetic eloquence and tragic closure. However, the symmetry of the play is designed to examine the fact that our responses to violence are often contradictory. Titus's son kills Tamora's son, Tamora's sons rape Titus's daughter; Tamora consumes her children, Titus kills Lavinia; Titus kills his daughter in the last act, having killed his son in the first. Julie Taymor sharpens the definition of the patterning.

Titus strokes Lavinia's chin when she first greets him, the same gesture Titus uses just before killing her; Mutius is recalled in the image of a sacrificial lamb halfway through; the film starts and ends in the coliseum with the young boy. In perfect balance, "There's meed for meed, death for a deadly deed" (5.2.66) but our reactions, like those of the characters, are not the same to each event. The death of Titus's sons in battle is held up as his badge of honour, yet the death of Lavinia to maintain that same standard of honour is shocking. A violent act is proved not to have an intrinsic and empirical value; rather it is the style and context in which it is executed which determines whether we respond to violence with shock, laughter or satisfaction.

If Shakespeare is the author of violence in the play, he is working from a long historical tradition. When Lavinia reveals her rapists through the story of Tereus the play becomes not simply violent but about violence, and how it has been represented and performed across cultural boundaries. Marcus questions, "Oh why should nature build so foul a den,/Unless the gods delight in tragedies" (4.1.60); all the world's a stage on which even deities play violence for entertainment. The recurrent metaphors of natural brutality, poetic symbols reconstructed visually in the film through the tiger and doe images, enforce the idea that violence is the way the world is irrepressibly configured. Children are genetically predisposed, and an educational curriculum in violence nurtures this, to inherit the violence of their parents:

Tis true the raven doth not hatch a lark
Yet have I heard - O, could I find it now! -
The lion mov'd with pity did endure
To have his princely paws par'd all away (2.3.147-150)

Lavinia's desperate search for a convincing natural metaphor to persuade Chiron and Demetrius against raping her presents violence as an ingrained part of both the natural and human systems. In this context, it is not the presence of violence which can be altered, but how we deal with it in simulation, as the audience of a play or film, or for real.

Christian and pagan, Roman and Goth, coloured and white races collide in Titus Andronicus. Taymor's presentation of a Rome of anachronisms in which ancient and modern styles coexist is in keeping with this interference of cultures, and enforces the fact that savagery exists in all times, places, religions and nationalities. By setting up a dialogue with films from the 1990's infamous for their violence - the gladiator march echoes Robocop, the dragging of a child into a combat arena recalls Terminator, the camera's slow spin round Saturninus is from The Matrix - Taymor extends the threads through which violence runs. Most particularly, Hopkins carries the fingerprint of Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs and it is impossible to avoid seeing his casting as Titus in an ironic way. It is not simply the violence which engages us but rather the brutality which is done to, in an inversion of the expectation, an infamous icon of Western cinema. By chattering his teeth as he slaughters Chiron and Demetrius, in a quote lifted precisely from the original film, Hopkins/Lecter forces ambiguous reactions. In criticising Titus for his grotesque 'cooking' now, we are reminded that perversely we have purchased for our own entertainment, and therefore partially endorsed, a similar cinematic performance in the past.

When Chiron and Demetrius rape Lavinia they establish the index for violence as pure entertainment. Rape defies expression, the act "wommanhood denies my tongue to tell" (2.3.174), and if violence must be interpreted, rape is devastating because it exists, literally and physically in the case of Lavinia, beyond the definitions of language and therefore cannot be examined. This violent act contains within it its own motivations of sexuality and therefore relates or has significance against nothing external, becoming a "worse-than-killing lust" (2.3.175). Chiron's and Demetrius's violence is dangerous because it is uncontrolled, harnessed only to the pleasure principle. In this context they display cowardice when they warn Titus not to kill them - "Villains forbear! We are the Empress' sons" (5.2.161) - as if another's political position suddenly gives them the legitimate authority to carry out violence without retribution.

By contrast Aaron is unafraid to admit that he is motivated by little but his own egocentric malice, killing the nurse in a chilling deed of personal "policy" (4.2.149). He "believest no god" (5.1.71) and does not even work as the directly authorised agent of Tamora, their romance taking place outside of the frame of the play. As Tamora desires Aaron in "golden slumber" (2.3.26), Aaron warns her that from this moment onwards, "though Venus govern your desires,/Saturn is dominator over mine" (2.3.31). Aaron's primary point of reference is to himself, or to his son as the extension of his own self (4.2.127). He is integrated into no culture, never totally loyal to Tamora (he does not inform Demetrius or Chiron of the significance of the weapons Andronicus sends), and an alien to Rome, Goth and Shakespeare's contemporary audience because of his colour: "'Zwounds, ye whore! Is black so base a hue?" (4.2.71). If we find Demetrius and Chiron childish for their attempts to justify their violence for political reasons, even though the act they carry out has no meaning other than as raw entertainment, there is in contrast a purity of purpose in Aaron. He is 'religious' to his own cause, a stoical commitment Taymor emphasises by having Aaron put on his own noose. Unlike Macbeth, who will not play the "Roman fool, and die/on mine own sword" (5.10.2) Aaron is willing to be judged by the standards he has established. In a different context, Aaron would have the properties of a religious martyr, a similarity Taymor notes by showing Aaron being buried with his arms outstretched, a provocatively Christ-like image.

If we admire Aaron for his consistency, though drastically misplaced, of internal purpose, we condemn Titus for his instinctive justification of violent action to pre-constructed, external rules. Titus cannot tolerate ambiguity about the word nobility. Although Tamora pleads that "Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge" (1.1.115), for Titus what is human and noble cannot be held simultaneously with what is politically noble. Our impulse as an audience detached from the Roman context is to place more importance on the former humane definition. Thus whilst Marcus sees it as evidence of honour that Titus bears his sons dead from the field, our inclination is to perceive these as pyrrhic victories. Titus starts to gravitate towards the human aspect of nobility, interrogating himself, "Why suffer'st thou thy sons, unburied yet,/To hover on the dreadful shore of Styx?" (1.1.88) and Taymor humanises Titus at this point, suggesting that before the speech, "for a second he falters, as if from a skipped heartbeat" (Illustrated Screenplay, p.24).

Every significant choice Titus faces in Act I carries a similar dilemma. When he kills Tamora's sons, he again hesitates for a moment before slicing Alarbus's chest. "This is routine ritual for him", Taymor notes (Illustrated Screenplay, p.29). His conferral of the Emperorship on Saturninus displays a political naivete (an error heightened through Cummings' melodramatic camp acting as Saturninus) but also Titus's conviction in the hereditary code, that the "first born son that was the last" (1.1.5) should occupy the position. Even Lavinia is indexed as much against Rome, "Rome's rich ornament" (1.1.52), as to her personal relationship with her father. Again, in being asked to give Lavinia to Saturninus, at the moment Titus faces a choice between his loyalty as a father, and loyalty to his own authority figure, Rome, Titus turns away. In this system in which the patriarch dominates, kinship is a contract not a genetic fact. When Titus kills Mutius it is because he renounced that contract by challenging his authority. In the strict political terms of the Roman context, though not of the audience, Titus is justified and he again refers the comprehension of his actions to exterior codes, "Rome and the righteous heavens be my judge" (1.1.426).

Titus is an ideological construct, acting solely in the interests of Rome. When that construct turns against him in Act III, Titus is forced into a revaluation. As the tribunes consider the fate of his sons, Titus recognises that without Rome he too no longer needs his hands: "I'll chop off my hands too;/For they have fought for Rome and all in vain" (3.1.73). By paralleling Lavinia's physical mutilation with Titus's psychological castration, and through Taymor's symbolically situating the scene at a crossroads, the extent of the shift in Titus is evidenced. The paradox, however is that when Titus starts to use internal frames of reference, when he no longer functions according to the pre-constructed political systems of others, this is the point at which his violence is taken to extremes. The implication is that some controlled level of violence is justified within the social structure; external standards are necessary to prevent us from becoming like Chiron and Demetrius or Aaron or descending into madness as happens to Titus once he loses his politically derived position.

Violence which has a practical intent is therefore partially justified; to passively receive violence without noticing its meaning is dangerous. Whereas in Act I Titus was a reader, a near unquestioning recipient of codes of honour, he grows in his ability to interpret and manipulate the signs of violence. Although clouded by partial insanity, he "wrests an alphabet" (3.2.44) from Lavinia, the "map of woe" (3.2.12), he draws parallels between the act of killing a fly and the act of killing a human, he sees through the masks of Revenge, Rape and Murder, able to read Tamora's sign to him whereas her sons were unable to read his sign, the weapons, to them and he inscribes meaning on the arrows to the gods.

Finally, Titus enacts the most shocking level of signification in forcing Tamora to cannibalise her own sons. Shakespeare's use of a specific stage direction, relatively rare, to dress Titus as a chef suggests his distinct desire for a tone of black comedy. As the violence increases, so too does the humour.

"By using Hopkins's association as Lecter, advertising the pies on the window, and underscoring the feast with West-End style music, Taymor doubly ensures that the more engaged Titus becomes as a manipulator of texts and signs, the more we start to respond in an antithetical way with an immediate and facile emotion of humour."
By using Hopkins's association as Lecter, advertising the pies on the window, and underscoring the feast with West-End style music, Taymor doubly ensures that the more engaged Titus becomes as a manipulator of texts and signs, the more we start to respond in an antithetical way with an immediate and facile emotion of humour. Titus's laughter acted as containment and likewise our humour reflects our tendency to turn excessive violence into comedy.

Although the tone shifts darkly once the feast begins, here our need to unquestioningly match violence with violence, a structural prerequisite of the revenge tragedy and the code of honour, is condemned by Titus. By asking the Emperor whether it is right for a father to kill his daughter, Titus exposes the fragility of the patriarchal standard of which he was the highest maintainer at the start. When he kills Lavinia, Titus works within the justice of revenge. When asked, "Why hast thou slain thine only daughter thus?" Titus reflects, in a decisive rhyming couplet, "Not I; 'twas Chiron and Demetrius" (5.3.56). Within the structural symmetry of the play, and within the context of the texts (in this case of Virginius) in whose heritage the play and the Roman system works, the death of Lavinia is justified. For the audience, however, this act of filicide in a mise-en-abyme is the most shocking murder because it is the most controlled and pre-meditated, an act of cold rather than hot blood. Yet, paradoxically, it is no different in its essential principle to the death of Mutius, because both are killed according to the same standard of honour.

Whereas we permit violence controlled on stage as a means to finalise the revenge tragedy, we cannot endorse the 'real' staged violence which Titus presents. However, in the peformative arrival of Titus's sons' heads, especially as it is presented by Taymor in the manner of a touring circus, we are both shocked and amused at the irony. We do not immediately, as we do with Titus, condemn Tamora and Aaron. If we find Andronicus's act as a chef disturbing, this illustrates our problematic willingness to suppress or occlude similar acts of violence when they do not occur before us on stage. By finding Titus's actions grotesque but not coupling this with an equal reaction to Aaron (a master of the pun) and Tamora we partially validate those unseen executions which have led to the denouement. By acting as witnesses to the show Andronicus performs, both for his stage audience and for us, we are implicated within the violent act. We perpetuate violence simply by watching it, a fact we are reminded of again by a Hopkins known to a cinema audience as Lecter.

Simulating violence is entertaining because it is cathartic; the danger is that we take the way our emotions respond immediately to events to be the only possible means of response. Because violence in itself is simply a force in the world, the burden of responsibility on the observer of violence is to actively work to interpret its significance as Titus does. By placing the responsibility for resolving the ambiguity about the fate of Aaron's child on the audience, Shakespeare tests the extent to which the observation of violence has altered our willingness to endorse violence as the best and neatest mode of revenge. This tragedy is unusual because the violence simply will not leave1. By giving Aaron the penultimate speech - "If one good deed in all my life I did,/I do repent it from my very soul" (5.3.190) - Shakespeare ensures that although the final word of the play is 'pity', the closing tone is of persistent malice. Pity seems highly incongruous when spoken alongside buried Aaron. However, by resolving the ambiguity of the child we are able to establish an alternative, non contradictory resolution outside of the frame of the play, to learn from the violence without having to undergo the same physical educational process as Titus. Titus laughs to recover but we are shocked by his laughter; once recovered he interprets and disseminates violence but at this movement we begin to, nervously, laugh. We are always kept one step behind Titus, a fact which means that although the characters die, we maintain the capacity to alter the fundamental outcome after their deaths.

It is in this closing movement that Taymor makes her most severe cuts from the script. From the death of Saturninus the camera pans to the faces of the coliseum audience and to Marcus's speech (5.3.67). It is our reactions to the final spectacle of the revenge, not its political implications for destabilised Rome, which matter. Taymor questions the morality of the spectacle itself: the one Titus's audience at the feast has watched, the one her coliseum audience has watched, the one we have watched. By using slow-motion to extend the child's walk, the temporal and physical distance between Aaron's punishment and the ultimate resolution is extended, easing the contradiction of pity and punishment taking place on the same stage area. Her presentation of young Lucius is problematic. The same child who humanely fetches Lavinia her prosthetic hands also kills the fly (in the play script it is Marcus) and carries the pie. This is not a passive witness to events but a participant in them. By concluding the film with two primal and promising metaphors - the child in white entering a sunrise - Taymor seems ironically to conform to the same ideology she seeks to expose, the need to make violence cathartic, generating optimistic outcomes. Whereas Shakespeare's play places the weight of responsibility for the child's fate on the audience, Taymor relieves us from making ultimate judgements and we are permitted to function as passive viewers.

Titus Andronicus does not condemn the fact that we make entertainment out of violence. Our standards, as a purchasing audience, are always already going to be incompatible if the play simply condemns violence as a spectacle. Instead, it is highly aware that with violence as an irrepressible natural force making entertainment from this is a safe way of coping with it. To condemn violence as entertainment would be to ignore the fact that its structural premise, like that of the modern cinema, is geared towards generating responses of catharsis in its audience. The error is in the failure to interpret the violent spectacle, to respond in facile emotional ways, enjoying the simulation of violence as an emotional release rather than to examine what it reveals about the ideologies of cultures which use violence. Aaron, operating with violence for its own sake, is outside such contradictory ideologies and therefore becomes one of the most honest and consistent characters in his attitude to violence. Titus becomes an increasingly effective, even heroic, critic, even as the accelerating violence makes our responses more intuitive and less considered. The ambiguity about Aaron's child offers us the unique opportunity to act in an interpretative manner, rather than like Chiron and Demetrius, teenagers anaesthetised to violence by modern arcade culture.


  1. Macbeth dies 30 lines from the end in the penultimate scene (5.11.34); Hamlet dies 50 lines from the end (5.2.110); Iago falls silent 70 lines from the end of Othello. By contrast Lear, like Titus Andronicus, concludes: "We that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long" (5.3.302). Lear's death is an example from which implications must be drawn; it is not immediately 'useful' in its context, in that it allows a new political state as in Hamlet or Macbeth. King Lear bears many other similarities to Titus Andronicus. Both Lear and Titus are old men, passing from political power and both are subjected to brutal atrocities; Titus contains the germ of Lear's eloquent, insightful madness. In both plays it is the style of action, as much as the structure of tragedy, which is important. [Back to text]

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This page was published on June 15, 2003 | Keywords: Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare, Julie Taymor, violence

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