|I was going to insert a Hannibal joke here, but I'm better than that. Actual screenshot from the film.|
There’s a part very early in the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love with William Shakespeare is talking to a street urchin playing with mice named John Webster. While they’re talking, John Webster mentions that he really enjoyed one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, Titus Andronicus.
This is a little in-joke in the world of Theatre. John Webster is a famous Jacobean playwright known for his extremely bloody and violent plays... and thus probably would enjoy something like Titus Andronicus. And the Saw movies. He’d find those hilarious.
For the past two days I have talked about Shakespearean adaptations that have taken plays and updated them for modern audiences, which included the dialogue. Today I’m going to talk about one of the more disturbing Shakespearean plays that was adapted, none of the dialogue changed and took full advantage of “adaptation” part of William Shakespeare.
Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins and directed by Julie Taymor takes the idea of an adaptation and runs with it, while using the dialogue from the original play and creating a world where this play can actually exist.
I’ve discussed Titus Andronicus several times on this blog, but never really took the time to talk about what it was all about. They’re from New Jersey and were formed in 2005 who’s first album, The Airing of Grievances... wait. Nope, that’s the band. My bad.
Titus Andronicus was one of William Shakespeare’s first plays, and it’s believed that it was written to capitalize on the popularity of bloody revenge plays. It is actually one of his bloodiest and most graphically violent plays with most of the blood and gore happening on stage. That’s saying something coming from a man that killed a kid in one play, and then randomly had another character killed off stage by a bear. It was popular in it’s day, then it lost popularity as people lost a taste of graphic violence, but has started to earn back respect thanks to works like Titus.
The play is a revenge cycle about a fictional general named Titus Andronicus (because duh, but he did fool us with the whole Ciaus Marius/Coriolanus thing) who seeks revenge against Tamora, Queen of the Goths during the latter days of the Roman Empire. The Emperor has died and his two sons are fighting for the throne, when Titus comes home with prisoners, including Tamora and her three sons. You see, despite the fact that the Emperor had kids, everyone wants Titus to be the new Emperor. He refuses and kills one of Tamora’s kids, then refuses the throne. Later, one of the Emperor’s kids, Saturninus marries Tamora, despite the fact that he said he wanted to marry Lavinia, Titus’ daughter. She had been engaged to the other son Bassianus, and wanted to refuse, so everyone gets accused of treason, and it’s Tamora who says to pardon them all.
Later, Aaron, Tamora’s son and secret lover (yep.) convinces his brothers to go kill Bassianus, then rape Lavinia, cutting off her hands and her tongue.
Did I mention this play had strong, graphic violence? and that Julie Taymore doesn’t shy away from it? Good. Because she doesn’t
Where was I? Aaron the secret son/lover frames Titus’ kids for the killing, and the rape, Tamora gives birth to Aaron’s kid (Aaron kills the nurse who delivered the infant) Titus pretends to go insane, then Tamora and the two sons who raped Lavina dress up as ghosts to play into his madness. Turns out he was faking the madness thing (like Hamlet!) , kills the sons, bakes them into a pie and serves it to Tamora, then Titus kills his own daughter. Titus kills Tamora, Saturnius kills Titus, then Lucius (Titus’ oldest kid) kills Saturnius and is named Emperor, mostly because everyone else is dead (Or all up in chalk, as Thug Notes would say.) Aaron is then buried alive up to his neck and left to starve to death, giving one of the best/most disturbing speeches in Shakespearean history where he laments that he just wishes he could have done more evil. (This is where Shakespeare leaves us. In Julie Taymor’s version, Lucius adopts the infant son of Aaron and Tamora. Well. The movie. In the play she originally directed, he dies too because why not?)
Titus pretty much follows this, but Titus gets to wear a pretty rockin’ chef’s outfit while serving up the pies.
Like I said, this is a pretty disturbing play, and there’s a reason you hear about Macbeth, Hamlet, or King Lear, and not about this one when talking about tragedies. Your other fun detail about this is that while Shakespeare’s other works about Rome, such as: Julius Caesar, Corolanius, and Anthony and Cleopatra, this is not based at least partly on a real Emperor, nor does it specify a time other than “The End of the Roman Empire.” Julie Taymor really plays with this timelessness aspect, and it works in setting a believable play that takes place in a real world, but doesn’t.
Titus has no real sense of time. Swords are used next to pistols. Microphones are used to talk to groups of people in togas. Motorcycles and horses. It works because this play is so dis jointed, so many strange things happen in it, this sort of leads everyone into a fantastical land where you can’t question it. Rome was brutal. Not serving your enemy’s kids a pie brutal. (Or maybe it was. We need to be in the right mindset to accept it, though. The soundtrack can go back and forth between epic and Jazzy. This movie makes everything feel out of place.
Which I feel, is necessary for a play like this. Nothing is in it’s place. Remember, I talk often about the fact that while we revere a lot of Shakespeare’s work, a lot of what he does is parody, including parody styles of the time. The Bloody Revenge Tragedy was extremely popular back in his day. This isn’t just a Bloody Revenge Tragedy. This is THE BLOODY REVENGE TRAGEDY. Julie Taymore, through her use of anachronisms and direction, plays on the idea that maybe this was a parody of revenge tragedies of the day. There’s only so much you can inject into a play where one of the main characters just wishes he could do more evil.
Unlike the other two movies I’ve talked about, this one did not do too well int he box office or with critics. O was at least liked by critics. Ten Things I hate About You is a beloved movie I’m going to go watch again right now. But this isn’t an easy movie to watch, not by any stretch of the imagination. I would recommend true fans of Shakespeare to check it out at some point. And if you’re going to watch a version of Titus Andronicus, make it this one. I’m a huge mark for Patrick Stewart, so I love his version of Macbeth. Joss Whedon could sneeze into a napkin and I’d watch it, so I love Much Ado About Nothing directed by him and starring his friends. But if I’m being 100% honest with you, this is probably one of the best Shakespearean adaptations out there. Not just because of a focus on the text, but because it is able to transform a story that is bloody and violent into something the author wanted. Remember how I talked about digging deep, looking past what the play “is about” and figuring out what the play is about? Julie Taymor nails it. Repeatedly. With her version of Titus Andronicus.