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Titus Andronicus (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Titus Andronicus - William Shakespeare Think Quentin Tarantino and Kill Bill: Vol. 2.

Screw Hamlet’s anguished indecision, Macbeth’s squeamishness, Lear’s wails in the wilderness, or Lady Macbeth’s protracted guilt. This is Shakespeare’s action adventure, where characters act seemingly on impulse, and no deed is too terrible to contemplate. Shakespeare drains Titus Andronicus of the type of internal monologues typically characterizing his serious plays, and serves us – literally and figuratively – relentless revenge. Yet, in the manner Kill Bill delivers with style and velocity, this drama fascinates at the same time it horrifies. What compelled me – generally a sound sleeper – to wake up in the middle of the night, just to finish this play?

While pockets of poetry emerge, here Shakespeare’s language, like his characters’ actions, is powerful and direct. I could no more desert this play’s forward momentum than I could hop off a roller coaster mid-ride. Within the first scene, Titus Andronicus, ostensibly a noble character, ignores Tamora’s plea for mercy and has her son killed – brutally. Moments later, when Titus’s own son blocks his path, Titus kills him as quickly as one might swat a fly.

And flies surface more than once in the play. When Marcus kills a fly, as Titus bemoans Lavinia’s fate, Titus’s outrage seems laughable:

But how, if that fly had a father and mother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings,
And buzz lamenting doings in the air!
Poor harmless fly,
That, with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast
kill'd him.


Only Marcus’s protest that the fly is black, like the empress’s Moor and thus deserving of death, dispels Titus’s real or feigned fury. Aaron, Tamora’s lover, also speaks of flies when he laments that he was not able to do even more evil acts:

Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.


Though cast as the play’s central villain—as if to contrast with the other more civilized characters—Aaron’s actions create hardly a ripple. In this bloody dramorama, his murders and mayhem contribute only drops. Titus’s final revenge makes Aaron seem meek.

Titus Andronicus’s fierce energy mesmerizes, and Shakespeare succeeds in his intention to deliver raw experience, unfettered by conscience and regret.