Sing a Song of Six Deaths, a Girl With Hands Cut off, A Pair of Evil Children, Baked In a Pie

by dhaaruni

I hope that’s not too morbid a title. Then again, Titus Andronicus is violent and morbid and it’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays so I’m writing a piece on it anyway.

One of my favorite phrases I’ve ever written is the “protofeministic existence of voyeuristic sadness,” used to describe the image that women like Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and of course, Lana del Rey portray of explicitly “feminine” unhappiness: passivity, bitterness, emotional enmeshment, resentment and crippling grief. It’s about how the individual nature of a piece of their work, a poem or a song, isn’t what’s important when analyzing their importance on a societal level, since there are so many “problematic” elements in them all and I’m not saying we should ignore those aspects, but the acknowledgment of their characters and psyches in total as valid expressions of humanity and also of intellect is hugely significant.

Sad girls aren’t allowed to be competent, sad girls aren’t allowed to be intellectuals, sad girls aren’t allowed to be more than the Ophelia or the Woman in the Attic, or in the case of Titus Andronicus, the Lavinia, whose narrative importance catapults when she is raped and mutilated and physical silenced by having her tongue cut out. The play is one of Shakespeare’s shortest and most violent, and my last post it note lists the number of deaths in the last scene and ends with “wtf just happened?” Because the thing is, the amount of violence in the play is so extreme that it almost becomes not about the individual acts of violence similarly to how Lana del Rey stops being about seducing old men for money, no matter how much both pieces dwell on those elements.

Titus is just… straight brutality from the very first scene where the protagonist kills his own son and kills his enemy’s son in spite of her pleading to save him. I became desensitized to it in a way because I knew every action that was committed, Tamora encouraging her sons to rape Lavinia, Aaron murdering the nurse out of cold blood, Titus’ final revenge where he murders Tamora’s sons and feeds them to her in the pie, was about something bigger than the perpetrators of the cycle of Senacan violence. It was about the cycle itself, and how the rise and fall of Rome parallels the rise and fall of the Andronici, and how, in the very end, it is a turning of the screw, from Classicism to Shakespeare to the modern era, and if we don’t abandon our inclinations towards bloodlust, our life cycle will be terminated.

There’s validity in Titus as an extremely ironic morality tale, and it includes Tamora and Lavinia who represent the dichotomy of the Madonna Whore Complex women have always been relegated to, and the crux of it is that neither of them are saved by it. In a sense, that’s my take on Titus and Lana and Sylvia and them all: we aren’t in control sometimes, and governed by greater forces and when we refuse to acknowledge our subservience to them and sometimes, just let it go, we doom ourselves.  Anyway, Titus is my second favorite Shakespeare play after Lear, and you should definitely read it. I haven’t even started talking about the importance of all the classical references in the play, with Lavinia as Philomena, Tamora as a highly twisted amped up to 11 version of Dido and Medea and it’s shorter than most other plays, about half the length of “Hamlet,” which makes it all the more jarring. Well obviously, just look at the amount of violence in the first scene.

(And by the way, the Freys being baked into pies by the Northmen and fed to their kinsmen in A Song and Ice and Fire serves as a direct parallel to Titus’ vengeance on Tamora. Not usually my area of interest but that single element always intrigued me.)