... known to generations of critics as “Shakespeare’s worst play,” although this is unfair. It’s a pretty bad play if you compare it to Hamlet or The Duchess of Malfi, but it starts to look like a very good one if your touchstone is The Spanish Tragedy or The Jew of Malta – in other words, stuff people were actually writing in the early 1590s, and not a gold standard that wouldn’t exist for another ten years. It’s good theater: brutally funny, energetic, mesmerizing.
It is also a play that acknowledges that people get a charge out of watching violence and mutilation and broken social taboos, as long as it happens in the safe space of the theater. (I read it for the first time as a college freshman, in the fall of ‘94 when everyone was watching bootleg copies of Pulp Fiction in the dorms at night, and I think it probably resonated more then than it did for two centuries previously: instinctively, we got the concept of violence as spectacle, revenge as art.)
What I love about this play: First off, it’s got the single best stage direction in Shakespeare: Enter a Messenger with two heads and a hand. Eat your heart out, bear.
You can see Shakespeare learning the art of the Big Marlovian Line and making it his own: “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull.” “Rome is but a wilderness of tigers / Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey / But me and mine.” “When will this fearful slumber have an end?”
It also has Aaron, one of the most badass villains ever. (I think I have mentioned before that I would LOVE to see him played by Samuel L. Jackson.) He’s got some great zingers: “Thou hast undone our mother.” “Villain, I have done thy mother.” “Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?” “Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.” This much is also reminiscent of Marlowe, but once Aaron’s baby son enters the picture, Shakespeare tries out something more complicated and distinctly Shakespearean. Rome eats its young; we’ve already seen Titus kill not only Tamora’s son, but also his own, all in the name of Roman virtue. It’s Aaron, the barbarian, who has real human affection for his child and does everything he can to ensure the baby’s survival: “This before all the world do I prefer ... I’ll make you feed on berries and on roots, / And feed on curds and whey, and suck the goat, / And cabin in a cave, and bring you up / To be a warrior and command a camp.” There aren’t really any good guys in this play; Romans and Goths and Moors all do unspeakable things to each other, and sometimes to their own families; but to the extent that anyone has any moral claims at all, they’re evenly balanced.
Favorite memory: Freshman Intro to Shakespeare. Classroom performance. Chewable blood pills. Need I say more?