Wednesday, November 11, 2015

William Shakespeare and George Peele: Titus Andronicus (1592-93)

Marcus discovers Lavinia
[Image source: From the 2003 production by the Hudson Shakespeare Company (New Jersey), directed by John Trigonis; Marcus was played by Clark Williams and Lavinia by April Dawn Brown.]

My post-title conceals, of course, centuries of scholarly uncertainty and disagreement. But the detailed arguments for this co-authorship, first advanced in 1919 and fully laid out in Brian Vickers' Shakespeare: Co-Author (2004) are now well-established. It's time to move forward from that.

Peele wrote the early part of the play: the whole of Act I, and the first two scenes of Act II. He also wrote Act IV, Scene I.  The story is perhaps something they cooked up together; it has no basis in Roman history and I don't think it existed before the play (The nearly-contemporaneous prose version and ballad, I believe, are tributes to the play's success.)

The process might have gone something like this. First of all the two authors collaborated on putting together an "author plot": a detailed scene-by-scene description of the action. They could have presented this to their company in advance and got approval to write it up; perhaps to a rather tight deadline. The play was written in sequence, the authors passing the manuscript between each other like a baton, depending on which of them had time to spend on it. Peele got started first. He wrote an inspiriting Act and a half, then passed the manuscript over to Shakespeare, who proceeded up to the end of III.1 or III.2 *. Then Shakespeare passed the manuscript back to Peele, who was only able to add one more scene (IV. 1+), then Shakespeare finished it off.

The above is just an idle fancy, but it does explain a few things. First, it explains why in this case the scenes by each author clump together in long sequences. Secondly, it explains the remarkably consistent development of the action and characters. (Not of course that the characterization is particularly subtle.) But it probably didn't happen like that. Playscripts were valuable, not least to their authors, so Peele wouldn't have handed over his only copy of Act I to Shakespeare. Elizabethan collaboration sometimes meant that one playwright was sub-contracted to the other (who acted as collator), but I don't think that happened in this case.

[* Surely III.2 was a performance cut, restored in the folio. (And not, as most seem to think, Shakespeare's afterthought.)]

[+ It's not really a doubt, only an observation: IV.1 may have only one feminine ending but it's a superb scene. The fear of the child Lucius; the natural development from seeing the book to the idea about the sand;  lines like "Forced in the ruthless, vast and gloomy woods", "Heaven guide thy pen to print thy sorrows plain",  "more scars of sorrow in his heart"... Peele never wrote better, that's for sure.]

[In Clerkenwell in 1569, a certain Isabel Peele married a certain Matthew Shakespeare. According to Dr Duncan Salkeld, Isabel Peele was probably George Peele's sister. Could Matthew have been a cousin of William's? We can only speculate. If Shakespeare and Peele were related by marriage, could this have been a factor in how Shakespeare got involved with the nascent London stage in the first place?]


Once the Peele scenes have been separated off, it's easy to see that the Shakespeare scenes are not of his very earliest vintage.  (Earlier commentators, appalled by the content, were inclined to bury Titus in the 1580s as a youthful indiscretion.) The patent connections are with Ovid (rather than Seneca) and with the narrative poems of 1592, especially The Rape of Lucrece. [I once had the bad idea of titling a blog-post "Shakespeare: the Rape period", intending to link Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Rape of Lucrece and Titus, the only works of his, if I'm not mistaken, in which rape (threatened or actual) plays a really significant part.]

The play was a huge success. According to Q1 (1594, the first Shakespeare play to be printed), it had already been performed by three different theatre companies. Jonson named it (in the 1614 preface to Bartholomew Fair) as exemplifying the smash hits of the early London stage, along with Kyd's Spanish Tragedy.

Peele has been co-opted too many times as a putative co-author, but there are impressive connections between "his" scenes in Titus and his other plays a  nd poems. He was a hard-living member of the "university wits" generation of the 1580s, along with Greene, Marlowe and Nashe. These were students who threw up more respectable employment for the excitements of writing in English for the embryonic commercial theatre (as well as pageants, poems, emblems, and anything else that came to hand). Peele dissipated his wife's fortune, lived from hand to mouth, and died "of the pox" in 1596.


If we no longer feel a Victorian revulsion at the very existence of this shocker, it's still apt to strike us (as someone happily remarked) as Shakespeare's "WTF!?" play.

Perhaps it shouldn't: a list of the six most distressing scenes in Eliz/Jacobean drama would certainly include Shakespeare's blinding of Gloucester as well as Marlowe's spitting of Edward II. Mere blood, stabbings and severed heads isn't enough to qualify for this list: it's when we have feelings around what's happening that the drama really upsets us  (arguably, Othello is the most distressing play of all).  That's one aspect. The other is cruel stagecraft. It's not because we're fond of Edward II that his murder is so horrible.  And that's where the mutilated Lavinia easily tops the list: because we know what's been coming to her, but not exactly, and now we have to see it. (We know about the gang-rape, and Aaron tells us that Lavinia will lose her tongue. Tamora advises her boys to kill Lavinia after their fun, but Chiron, with sinister vagueness, only says that they'll "make that sure". There is no definite forewarning of the most visually shocking part of the horror, the lopped limbs.)

As Shakespeare readers, what we miss in Titus is the sound of a warmly feeling voice like this:

If you will take a homely man's advice,
Be not found here; hence, with your little ones.
To fright you thus, methinks, I am too savage;
To do worse to you were fell cruelty,
Which is too nigh your person. Heaven preserve you!

That's a messenger in Macbeth IV.2, just before the killing of MacDuff's son (another scene that might otherwise have made my list). Titus Andronicus  mainly, though not entirely, lacks that kind of normative commentary, that Shakespearean wisdom and humanity. (The important non-executive character of Marcus supplies it to some extent.) Titus himself resembles a Tamburlaine more than an Antony: he's only not horrifying because his enemies are even worse. As for his heir Lucius, we have to overlook not only his demand for hewn limbs in I.1 (as, perhaps, sanctioned by tradition), but his plan to hang the baby before the father's eyes "that he may see it sprawl" in V.1 (as, at any rate, not actually carried out). Even Lavinia, while she still has her tongue, is no angel. Just before the tables turn on her, what's on her lips is enthusiastically vicious condemnation, not the pathos of something pretty and innocent.



Titus is likely to affect us in very different ways as it goes along. For me the most valuable part of the play is the great arc of suffering, centred on the Andronici family circle, that begins in II.5 with Marcus's discovery of Lavinia ("trimmed", in Aaron's horrific understatement); continues with the charnel-house of III.1***; then subsides to an almost Lear-like stasis in III.2.  There's something incredibly moving about the domestic scope of these scenes: it's moving that somehow a domestic existence continues despite these grotesque mutilations and loppings of the tree of the Andronici, despite a metaphysical extremity of suffering.

[***As Victorian editors noted, III.1 begins in a street of Rome. But what such scene-locations fail to indicate is the fluidity of Shakespeare's scene settings. By the time Aaron arrives with the delusive hand-bargain, and Marcus and Lucius go off to hunt for an axe, we definitely seem to be in the domestic space of Andronicus' house.]

If III.2 seems not to advance the story in an obvious way, it nevertheless involves some quite subtle developments. There's a meal laid out, and Titus makes clear that, as far as he's concerned, the Andronici need to eat solely in order to live long enough to carry out their revenge. I think he particularly applies this logic to Lavinia. He sees her strangely, perhaps as an uncanny half-dead creature already; as if her bloody outward metamorphosis went with an inner vampirization.  He has, apparently, no issues with her remaining on-stage to see his own hand being amputated. And later in the play, he deliberately fetches her to assist with cutting the throats of Chiron and Demetrius (and to catch blood in a bowl).

Revenge once achieved, he kills her. That honour-killing is foreshadowed here, in III.2. At one point Titus' rhetoric of despair leads him to suggest (somewhat impractically) that Lavinia pierce her own heart by directing a knife with her teeth. The affectionate Marcus is dismayed by the suggestion, however rhetorical, that his niece should do any violence to herself. But that's exactly what Lucrece, exemplar of correct behaviour for noblewomen when raped, had done. And Titus, upholder of the most atavistic of Roman codes of honour (and already a proven slayer of offspring, when necessary), doubtless already has death in mind as the only fitting destiny for Lavinia. To be fair, he probably has no plans to outlive her.



It's easy to forget, but there's a clown in Titus Andronicus. He doesn't survive very long: the world of Titus isn't good for clowns (or nurses either).  But comedy of various sorts is a continuing undercurrent in the play and something that all producers have to make up their minds about.

E.g., in II.4, the dull Martius and Quintus. (Are we supposed to think that Aaron drugged them?). Martius tumbles down into the cellarage. Then, while trying to rescue him, Quintus gets pulled in too. Hard for a modern audience not to think of Laurel and Hardy here. (Not entirely clear how this was staged, but it's most natural to assume that Bassianus' body is dragged offstage at the end of II.3, and the hole of II.4 is the cellarage, so the audience only imagine the body there. Hence most of II.4 discusses the case of Martius and Quintus without them being visible. We don't care much about them as individuals, during this scene we are thinking much more about what's happening to Lavinia, but the theme of "things we don't see" and "things we do see" is profoundly present to an apprehensive audience.

Or III.1, the family competition to volunteer to have their hands cut off. That definitely raised some laughs at Lucy Bailey's Globe production.

What about when Titus the tableau-arranger, having given himself and Marcus each a head to carry, has the happy idea of Lavinia carrying his amputated hand between her teeth?  (I'm making it sound funny, but I think it should be possible to make it intensely tragic at the same time.)

Here, the head-on collision between tragedy and comedy has the potential to work really well. And in a different way that's also true of Peele's II.1,  in which Demetrius and Chiron are so easily diverted from high-flown professions of love towards Lavinia, into embracing the idea of gang-raping and "trimming" her.  

It's a well-established fact that while a single villain is disturbing and a mob of villains is frightening, yet a pair of villains tends to be funny. Hence the paired rogues who are still a staple of adventure films for children.

I don't find Demetrius and Chiron at all funny, especially not when they're making the roughest of hur-hur jokes to the mutilated Lavinia at the start of II.5, but there's no doubt that in a horrific way they recognizably shadow (or foreshadow)  the stereotypical shape of a pair of comedy-villains. This is actually less true in the earlier part of the play. Here, though they're like as two peas, though they're adolescent, bloody, lustful and cruel, yet they're not obviously dim-witted. But from IV.2 onwards, that's increasingly all they are. They're reduced to functional dialogue, trailing along behind Aaron and Tamora. Chiron's final words, the confused (and suicidal) admission that "we are the empress' sons!" sums up this later aspect of them perfectly.


Stupidity and conundrums

Detractors of Titus have sometimes excused their real loathing of the bloody content by pointing out how stupid the play is, after all. Under this head I cover a miscellaneous grab-bag of things in Titus that might strike one as stupid. Whether you'd want to argue that stupidity is actually a principal theme of Titus, I'm not sure. But I definitely think that would be arguable. What I totally don't believe is that Shakespeare intended to "send up"the revenge genre, or blow it sky-high. At least not in a sense that would prevent him from also taking his play and its possibilities very seriously, most of the time anyway. [An interesting parallel might be The Comedy of Errors; there Shakespeare produces a super-Plautine play; funnier, better-plotted, more complex, everything. And with Richard III (if not indeed its predecessors), Shakespeare had already taken the chronicle history to a whole new level. You could argue that Titus is not so much the send-up of a genre as its apotheosis; more violent, more inventive, more shocking, the Ovidian-Gothic play to end all Ovidian-Gothic plays.  The young Shakespeare was conscious of incredible powers.]

1. "That you create your emperor's eldest son, / Lord Saturnine" (I.1)

Much if not all of the destruction that follows depends on Titus' poor and unexpected choice.

Everything we've seen has shown that Saturnine is an eminently dislikeable and arrogant man. He's blatantly rude to Titus just before this, and he's scarcely less than rude afterwards, either. It's clear he dislikes Titus, and eventually he kills him. It's not entirely clear how aware he is of the crimes committed by Tamora and her party, or to what an extent he's merely stupid.  His condemnation of Titus' two sons must be one of the least evidential judgments ever.

But at this stage it's Titus' own stupidity that is the issue. Having made what is clearly the worst choice of three, presumably because it seems to him the most honourable choice, he will later back up his new loyalty by killing his own son. It's unhesitating, arbitrary, and totally unreflective.


My lord, to step out of these dreary dumps .... (I.1)

On a lighter note.... Thus Marcus changes the subject, following the burial of the son that Titus has just killed. Blame it on Peele's mid-century oafishness?


Is she not then beholden to the man
That brought her for this high good turn so far? (I.1)

Obviously this prepares us for Titus being taken in, at least twice, by Tamora's skilful posing as a mediator. But is Titus really capable of believing that Tamora, whose eldest son he has had slaughtered, ought to be jolly grateful to him for leading her captive to Rome, since she's ended up as Empress? Blame it on Peele's opportunistic willingness to sacrifice credibility in order to squeeze out a few drops of short-term dramatic irony?

4.  In III.1, Lavinia is on-stage when Aaron arrives with his offer about the hand, and is still on-stage after he departs. Aaron apparently takes no notice of her, though her shockingly handless state cannot have been made public yet, so for him to desist from any comment is extremely suspicious.


Perchance she weeps because they killed her husband;
Perchance because she knows them innocent. (Marcus, in III.1)

If only there were a way to find out which!

It's striking that none of her relatives seem to believe that they can communicate with Lavinia using simple yes-or-no questions, though there appears no reason why she couldn't nod or shake her head in reply.

They do of course seek to understand her, but not by conversing with her.

Mark, Marcus, mark! I understand her signs... (Titus in III.1)

Instead they try to interpret her from her behaviour: weeping, turning away her face, kneeling, and so on. Somewhat like trying to interpret an infant, or a hound.

Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven,
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet
And still by practice learn to know thy meaning...(Titus in III.2)

Well, there's the word "nod", but Titus seems to be talking about a behavioural clue rather than a gestural sign. He never asks her any question that might prompt a nod. Nor does anyone else. Titus, Marcus and Lucius all tend to apostrophize Lavinia, rather than talk to her. They ask rhetorical questions to her face, but expect no reply.

How to explain this? In a modern production it's a no-brainer; you'd play Lavinia as so patently traumatized that no-one could expect to get anything out of her until, in IV.1, she shows herself anxious to communicate.

But did the age of Shakespeare have any conception of trauma? I think if Shakespeare had intended some such naturalistic depiction of trauma, he would have shown the others asking her urgent questions and failing to draw a response. But asking urgent questions is just what they don't do.

They don't all see Lavinia the same way. The affectionate Marcus is powerfully aware of Lavinia as being, though agonizingly,  the same person she always was, "my niece". Lavinia, we understand, has resided in Rome with Marcus while Titus and his sons have been campaigning; uncle and niece have a close friendship.

Titus is less obviously affectionate; "my daughter"  doesn't come to his lips, though later "sweet wench" and "sweet girl" does. He treats her more as a comrade in arms, as someone drastically changed, perhaps the vampiric creature of blood that I mentioned earlier. We may warm more to Marcus's response, but you could also argue that his nostalgia for a lost normality fails to recognize, as Titus does, the apocalyptic change in Lavinia's life. And when Lavinia comes before Titus, he and Marcus reverse roles: Marcus (as it were anticipating Titus' feelings) says: "This was thy daughter." and Titus (frozen, and as it were defensively) replies: "Why Marcus, so she is."

NB. In Marcus' great speech when he discovers Lavinia in II.5, he comes very close to understanding what's happened to her, partly on the basis of Lavinia at one point turning her head away for shame. But later he seems to forget about these insights.  (Shakespeare has got a bit ahead of the plot here; the Philomel connection is not supposed to be revealed until Lavinia's page-turning in IV.1.)


Titus. Sirs, strive no more; such withered herbs as these
Are meet for plucking up, and therefore mine. (III.1)

Who is the elder brother? This line tends to enforce the impression that Titus is the elder, which makes sense as he is indisputably the head of the family. Titus calls Marcus (with some irony) a "young huntsman"; Marcus describes his brother as "old Andronicus"; Tamora calls Titus "this good old man", and Titus calls himself "aged". This is all consistent. And yet, my impression persists that Titus is actively in the prime of life but that Marcus is an old man, and not only because, towards the end of the play, he talks of "my frosty signs and chaps of age". He fusses and clucks, and advises his brother as if he, Marcus, is an elder whose own life-decisions are in the past.


Titus (aside). I know them all, though they suppose me mad,
                      And will o'er-reach them in their own devices;  (V.2)

Surely one of the most unnecessary asides ever. Only Tamora and her dimwits believe that Titus is harmlessly mad; Titus, like Hamlet, can hardly be bothered to conceal his vindictive meaning. Tamora has been cunning in the earlier part of the play, but, like her sons, she now seems to be sleepwalking to her fate.

She also ignores a basic rule of Kyd's revenge convention (The Spanish Tragedy and his lost Hamlet**): revengers are always more or less mad. The revenger goes mad with grief and suffering from the appalling wrongs they've sustained. The revenger can pretend to be more mad than they really are in order to throw others off the scent. But an element of genuine madness is essential, because this supplies the audience with a ready pardon for revenges that usually go beyond normal punitiveness. Titus baking up Tamora's sons in a pie, for instance.    

[**accepting the persuasive suggestion of Harold Brooks.]

If Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius are very feeble compared to their malign presence earlier in the play, that's partly down to the author. No doubt about it, the quality of the play takes a nose-dive after IV.1. Shakespeare simply doesn't seem very interested in Andronicus working out his revenge. All his interest had exhausted itself in the desolate suffering of the central scenes.


Currently, Titus Andronicus  has the best Wikipedia entry of any Shakespeare play. Thanks to whoever you are!

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