Titus Andronicus

Out of Shakespeare’s entire canon, Titus Andronicus is one of the plays I have seen least often. The only production I can remember attending was performed at Gallaudet University, a college for deaf and hard of hearing students where my mother used to teach history.

Faction of Fools, a DC-based commedia del’arte theater company, performed the brutal and bloody tragedy with a cast of both hearing and deaf actors. Open captions filled in the gaps for deaf and non-signing audience members.

Thinking about that production as I read Titus this week reinforced how much silence lies in between the lines. In the most horrible and horrifying moment in the play, Queen Tamora’s sons rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia in twisted revenge for the murder of their brother. To prevent Lavinia from revealing the truth in speech or in writing, the brothers mutilate her tongue and cut off her hands. She spends the next acts struggling to communicate to her father, uncle, and brothers. In the performance at Gallaudet, Lavinia was played by a deaf actor, so when her hands were cut off, she was not only unable to write but unable to sign. Especially in a medium based on speaking, Lavinia’s inability to speak, or sign, makes the violence done to her off stage even more horrible and visceral to the audience.

At the end of Titus, in contrast to Lavinia’s enforced silence, Tamora’s lover Aaron explicitly rejects all attempts to censor him. After being sentenced to death, in part for pinning yet another murder on Titus’s sons, Aaron speaks eloquently, refusing to repent.

 “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.” 

Aaron is part of a small subset of Shakespearean villains who survive to the ends of their respective plays. Unlike Richard III, Macbeth, and Claudio–each of whom must die to bring about narrative closure–characters like Aaron, Don John, and Iago are each captured and sentenced to punishments which they will face offstage. Both Iago and Don John are notably silent. Early in Much Ado About Nothing, Don John explains, “I am not of many words.” Iago, apprehended and accused at the end of Othello, exclaims, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.”

While both Don John and Iago are promised retributive justice, their punishments are never spelled out. After the off-stage capture of Don John, Benedick pronounces “Think not on him till tomorrow. I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him.” In the final scene of Othello, Lodovico exclaims “To you, lord governor, remains the censure of this hellish villain, the time, the place, the torture, O, enforce it!” Like these later villains, the unrepentant Aaron’s fate is not dramatized. It is, however, described in vocal detail.

 “Set him breast-deep in earth and famish him.
 There let him stand and rave and cry for food.
 If anyone relieves or pities him,
 For the offense he dies. This is our doom.” 

There is nothing quiet about Aaron or his death.  Even in a play filled with violence, the classical extremity of the Emperor’s sentence is shocking. His unrepentant vocalism and the explicitness of his awful punishment further intensify the final moments of the play.
Both Lavinia’s enforced silence, Aaron’s persistent utterances, and his detailed punishment move the play from tragedy closer to horror. In their production at Gallaudet, Faction of Fools transformed that horror into dark comedy. By the end of the play, the all-white set and all-white costumes were drenched in the blood which spurted, gushed, and dripped from each of the play’s many injuries and corpses.  As the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s might say, Titus Andronicus was part of “Shakespeare’s Quentin Tarantino phase.”

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