Titus Andronicus = 94 pages of people being just awful to each other, all in the name of twisted wartime revenge and national pride.
It opens with a Roman coffin being carried home from battle with the Goths. Inside is one of Titus’s four sons. They just about manage to lay the body in the tomb before all hell breaks loose, and after that the playwright has a hard time finding enough scene-space between the bloodbaths to squeeze in any actual, dramatic plot.
Seriously. Look at this list:
P. 6 – Goth Queen’s oldest son gets his arms and legs cut off.
P. 12 – Titus tries to kill his daughter, Lavinia, because she ran off with her true love instead of marrying the Emperor like Titus said, but his son stops him. So he kills the son instead.
P. 30 – The Goth Queen marries the emperor, and her sons kill Lavinia’s new husband.
P. 35 – The boyfriend of the Empress (nee Goth Queen) frames Titus’s sons for the murder; meanwhile her sons take Lavinia offstage, rape her, and cut off her hands and tongue.
P. 46 – Titus’s framed sons face beheading so, in exchange for their lives, Titus cuts off his own hand.
P. 47 – Sons get beheaded anyway.
P. 52 – Titus’s brother kills a fly, and Titus goes all boo-hoo on his ass.
P. 63 – Empress/Goth Queen has a baby, but it’s black like the boyfriend – not white like the Emperor. So the boyfriend kills the nurse that delivered it.
P. 85 – Lavinia and Titus kill the Empress/Goth Queen’s two sons.
P. 88 – He cooks their bodies into a pie and serves it to their mother.
P. 89 – Titus kills Lavinia (so she won’t have to be sad about the whole rape/no-hands-or-tongue thing anymore). Then he kills the Empress/Goth Queen. So the Emperor kills him. And then his son kills the Emperor.
P. 94 – That son, Lucius, is crowned the new emperor – and his first Royal Act is to order the Empress’s boyfriend buried alive up to his neck.
Not even a Shakespearean “Thanks for coming, we hope you enjoyed the show” soliloquy or anything. Just “Bury him – and while you’re at it, throw the Empress’s body to the dogs!” And the curtain falls with a resounding thud.
If I were the kind of person to muse over such things, I might be tempted to see this as a microtale of all civilization: I kill you, your son kills me, my son kills your son, and so on, and so on, and so on like an epic shampoo commercial gone terribly awry.
I might point out that the one moment of empathic humanity in the thing, amidst rapes and births and deaths and marriages, emerges over the killing of a fly – a tiny helpless creature at the mercy of the whims of a greater force – and Titus mourns the bug because he imagines its wee wife and children waiting somewhere for it never to return (he snaps out of it, though, when told the fly looked like the Empress’s boyfriend).
I might mention the fitting irony of the fact that the Empress gets her comeuppance as a direct result of trying to use Titus’s revenge-lust to her own payback-hungry advantage. Or that, although they all feel they’ve been wronged and are performing these heinous deeds in the name of love and justice, there simply aren’t any good guys here.
But I won’t.
In fact, if you read this thing another way, it’s almost funny. In the Pulp Fiction, over-the-top manner of a Monty Python sketch, say, or a South Park episode. Which isn’t to imply that Shakespeare was as impudent as Tarantino, as puerile as Trey Parker, or as scatologically obtuse as Terry Gilliam. Oh no. Just that, well…
If there had been lawnmowers in Elizabethan England, I bet it would have ended with much more panache.