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Home :: Archive :: 2010 :: July ::
Titus Andronicus
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0262  Tuesday, 6 July 2010

From:         Felix de Villiers <
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Date:         June 29, 2010 4:42:32 AM EDT
Subject:      Titus Andronicus

This is a continuation of the argument between Marina Tarlinskaya and me on 
the Middleton and Macbeth thread. It's a pity to leave at the level of "I am 
right and you are wrong," without any substantial discussion, and this, I 
believe, is what a Shakespeare blog should be about. It may be that some of 
you already know the plays very well and so prefer to concern yourselves 
with additional finicky details, but with many I have some lurking doubts 
about this.
 
I am replying somewhat too quickly -- but there is time to continue 
reflection about Titus. After the prevalent hostility to this play, I 
sometimes think I am not sane of mind and my judgement must be completely 
wrong, but I go back to look at the play again. I haven't got time this very 
evening to go through all the pros and cons, but there is time yet. I have 
just looked at some arguments and read the beginning of the play.
 
The real puzzle in Titus is the limpid verse passing over barbarism, the 
dissonance between Aaron and Tamara's sublime poetry and the cruelty of 
their characters. I think this contradiction blinds many to the merits of 
the play. Reading the opening scenes, I am again impressed by the simplicity 
and limpidity of the versification. I can't really see any lapses from 
taste. I feel a balance I have come to recognise as Shakespearian in the two 
parts of an iambic pentameter line, irregularly divided but naturally, 
judiciously, balanced. Tamora's double-crossing speech in Act I is quite 
impressive; but, paradoxically, Aaron, at the beginning of Act II produces 
some of the greatest poetry in the English language:
 
AARON:
Now climbeth Tamora Olympus' top,
Safe out of fortune's shot; and sits aloft,
Secure of thunder's crack or lightning flash;
Advanced above pale envy's threatening reach.
As when the golden sun salutes the morn,
And, having gilt the ocean with his beams,
Gallops the zodiac in his glistering coach,
And overlooks the highest-peering hills;

So Tamora:
Upon her wit doth earthly honour wait,
And virtue stoops and trembles at her frown.
Then, Aaron, arm thy heart, and fit thy thoughts,
To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress,
And mount her pitch, whom thou in triumph long
Hast prisoner held, fetter'd in amorous chains
And faster bound to Aaron's charming eyes
Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus.
Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts!
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I? to wanton with this queen,
This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Rome's Saturnine,
And see his shipwreck and his commonweal's.

The assonance and the alliteration in the first lines, especially the 
assonance and variations on the 'o' sound are expressively managed and 
continue in the next lines, interrupted by 'crack' and 'flash.'  "Out of 
fortune's shot' is a felicitous line and reflects the crack and flash. 
"Advanced against pale envy's reach" is a true poet's line
 
As when the golden sun salutes the morn,
And, having gilt the ocean with his beams,
Gallops the zodiac in his glistering coach,
And overlooks the highest-peering hills;

"Golden' moves to 'gilt' to 'gallops' and 'glistering' balanced by 'the 
ocean with his beams', the last word being lit with brightness. The 
relatively simple first two lines move seamlessly into the exoticism of the 
following couplet, ending with the inspired "highest-peering hills. If this 
is not great poetry, I don't know what is. Toward the end of his speech, 
come these lines:
 
This goddess, this Samurais, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Rome's Saturnine.
 
Aaron is one of the most evil characters in all Shakespeare, yet here we are 
seeing him as through a beautiful glass window or as a serpent, honey-
tongued. The actor should be an Oriental beauty, Beauty has a kind of 
indifference to evil and suffering in this play, but later the suffering 
catches up with itself in copious tears which become its pearls of beauty. 
Someone has suggested that Titus should not be played as a drama but read as 
a poem with actions mimed in the background.
 
And yet, Aaron is the negative hero of this play. He is surrounded by 
barbarism and deceit and simply takes it to its logical conclusion and is 
defiant to the end, more than any other villain in Shakespeare. But we leave 
the play shattered by its cruelties. It cannot conceivably be, as some would 
like to claim, a jeering take off on the revenge tragedy. It simply does not 
read that way. You can't do a satire on a woman who is raped, has her arms 
and tongue lopped of, even if you wanted to.
 
Yours,
Felix


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