Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Batshit Crazy

There is a great article over at Inside Higher Ed by Scott McLemee about Titus Andronicus and the current production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. He gives perhaps the greatest critical judgment of the play ever, describing it at "Shakespeare's batshit crazy play". I have been really interested in Titus recently. My Shakespeare playreading group recently read the play as a part of a series on his controversial plays along with Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice. I have also been reading Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae", in which she described Titus as a satire on Spenser's pageant of rape and torture in the Fairie Queene and suggests that it should be performed by drag queens. Like many of Paglia's opinions, it is out there, but frankly, do you have anything better? In the family that is the Shakespearean canon, Titus is the meth-addicted, thrice incarcerated cousin that no one likes to talk about and you watch your wallet and your kids around when you see them at Christmas. But, just like that cousin, it can't simply be ignored and forgotten about, it has to be dealt with. It potentially blows a hole in the entire business of bardolatry, which all people in the Shakespeare industry, whether they admit it or not, take part in.

Titus' profile has risen greatly in the last several years, and has picked up since Julie Taymor's film version, and I think it is only going to increase. It both speaks to modern tastes (look at last week's big movie release, Grindhouse) and is reminds us that Shakespeare, for all of his genius, was an extremely weird guy. We can gloss over the weirdness of the other plays because of their brilliance but Titus doesn't let us escape from it. When thinking of Titus, I am always reminded of the poster for famed B-movie house Troma Pictures' infamous parody "Tromeo and Juliet". The tagline reads "Body Piercing, Kinky Sex, Dismemberment. All the Things that Made Shakespeare Great." Replace body piercing with cannibalism and kinky sex with gang rape and you have an accurate description of Titus. In other words, even the creators of the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman didn't go as far into dark as Shakespeare did.

McLemee stumbled on to something interesting when he compared Titus' moral universe to that of professional wrestling. Pro wrestling good guys, like Titus the play's ostensible hero, are violent oafs who lack any sense of introspection or self-awareness. The only thing that separates them from the bad guys is the code of honor they live by. This has especially been true over the past 10 years, as pro wrestling has taken a darker turn and good guys have become just as likely as bad guys to torture opponents with foreign objects or abuse women.

Which leads us into the big question about Titus: is it simply A) morally repugnant violence for the sake of entertainment on the scale of pro wrestling or pseudo-snuff films like "Saw", or is it B) a more knowing comment on the culture of violence, and violence as entertainment, such as the work of Tarantino or "The Sopranos"? The bardolater in us all wants to say option B, and that may very well be so, but, unlike any of Shakespeare's other violent works, we have to at least entertain option A as a possibility. Its a disconcerting thought, but I think ultimately an enlightening one, especially in today's world when violence permeates our art and entertainment and the line between option A and option B becomes ever more blurred.

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