The Ropes Have Been Unbound

Category: Plays

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

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.)

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But I am a Queen!

Why does Medea still matter 2000 years after it was originally written, let me count the ways: Medea is important because it codifies the long standing trope of the righteously wronged women who refuse to take their fates standing down, the Lady Macbeths and the Heras and the Clytemnestras, Medea is important because it invokes the sheer power of love and how twisted that power can become, Medea is important because it thrusts a woman into the decidedly male world of vicious vengeance and instead of absolving her of her sins the way many a male protagonist has been, demands her penance. I promised I’d say more about Medea than it invokes the line “Drag my teeth Across your beating heart” from Florence and the Machine’s “Howl” but to be honest, that’s what Medea is about: love to the point of ruin, love for Jason, love for her children, and more so the absence of love to the point it drives her mad because at the crux of it, Medea is a queen and that still wasn’t enough to earn the love she so cleaved.

First and foremost, Medea is a madness tale, that of a woman, a witch to be specific, queen of so many, who loses her mind and murders so many innocents including her own children. Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts fame) has abandoned her and her two children with him and hopes to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon the king of the city the play is set in. It’s strangely voyeuristic in a sense because Medea’s anger at Jason’s betrayal is the same as so many women’s all over the world through time and space; she gave him everything she had, abandoned everything she knew, and she was a demigod, a queen of women, and it still wasn’t enough for him. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

It’s not that Medea’s murder of her children and of Glauce and Creon is remotely excusable but there’s a strange appeal in Medea compared to the Hannibal Lectors and even the Hamlets of the world because she actually actively questions the morality of her actions. Her monologues are rife with the anxiety she feels for what she is to do and yet her desire to make Jason suffer for how he has made her suffer is just too strong. That’s not a remotely maternal or really positive quality at all but it’s fascinating to consider on a holistic scale because those sorts of emotions are generally reserved for male antivillains, to put it quite bluntly. Not to mention, Medea is clearly mad. She’s not of stable mind, and yet her rationality is extraordinarily sound, particularly when it comes to issues of gender roles and perceptions in her society. There’s a difference between her very obvious mental breakdown and her destruction of her own family and life and the sentiments which drive her actions, which are entirely valid and rational.

This line, “I am not an evil woman. I am a skillful woman. Because I am skillful, I make distinctions. Because I make distinctions, some people hate and fear me,” encompasses what made Medea herself so powerful and memorable to me. Medea knows her worth as a woman, as a person, and her frustration with being disregarded and set aside because of her gender is apparent. She doesn’t truly want to hurt others, but she’s entirely capable of it and more so, she’s aware of that ability which is frightening to others. It hearkens to the idea that women are meant to be beautiful/intelligent/funny/witty but unaware of their worth because that sort of confidence makes them unsettling. It’s all very “What Makes you Beautiful;” the girl in question is beautiful because she doesn’t know she’s beautiful and a society where women think they have inherent worth is one that is diametrically opposed from the one we currently live in. And, change is terrifying to those who currently benefit from the status quo. *Obligatory High School Musical reference where you should imagine a bunch of angry people yell singing “Stick to the Stuff you know!!!!”

The point: Medea is short, bloody, and tragic and it’s dark but it’s also enlightening in a way few plays are. It’s not remotely relaxed or calming; it’s consecutive punches of emotion and anger and violence and personally, that’s the literary aesthetic I’m most attracted to because I’m not a calm person. I can wear all the flowing Lanvin and Anthropologie in the world but the crux of my personality is a constant Spin on the axis of my own neuroses, and I’m not going to shy away from expressing it, since suppressing herself is partially what caused Medea’s descent into madness. If I have to live the mortal coil of my own anxieties, then I’m going to acknowledge it because that death drive is what sustains me and I can only do my best to apply it in whatever way I can, and hold off on plotting the murders of my only children.