Titus Andronicus. Dark play. Tragedy. Revenge tragedy. Very bloody. And yet…
There are numerous opportunities for laughs. Admittedly, some are pretty sick laughs, but laughs nonetheless.
Even if you keep a dark overall tone (serious, somber, catharsis-inducing), laughs can be mined from any of the following:
- Act Two, Scene One: Aaron’s first soliloquy
and reading this, I can’t help but wonder if this is a practice run at Richard III’s comic “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? // Was ever woman in this humour won?” soliloquy (Richard III, I.ii.227-228)
The first time we hear from Aaron, it’s a soliloquy. He begins with a dozen or so lines about the ascension of Tamora from war captive to empress. But then he moves on to talk about his “mount(ing) aloft with” (II.i.13) Tamora. He begins to refer to himself in the third person as he waxes egotistical about his “charming eyes” (II.i.16) and their “chain”-like (II.i.15) effect on the new empress. All this unrestrained self-absorption can be played for laughs.
- Act Two, Scene One: Chiron and Demetrius’ excellent adventure
If Aaron’s self-absorption is funny, so too then are Tamora’s sons’ complete cluelessness when discussing their lust for Lavinia. She cannot be seen as any possible target for their affection, and yet they ramble on about how they will woo and win:
She is a woman, therefore may be woo’d;
She is a woman, therefore may be won;
- Act Two, Scene Three: Martius and Quintus and the Pit of Despair
To have Aaron lead Martius to fall in the pit during the hunt is funny enough, but the mixture of Martius’ horror of findng a dead Bassianus in there with him and Quintus’ completely inept attempts to rescue his brother, can be hilarious:
Thy hand once more; I will not loose again,
Till thou art here aloft, or I below.
Thou canst not come to me: I come to thee. [Falls in.]
- Act Three, Scene One: Lucius and Marcus and an ax
When Aaron brings the false hope that a severed hand will release the incarcerated Martius and Quintus, both Titus’ son and brother argue over who will sacrifice his hand. The two exit, with Lucius stating “Then I’ll go fetch an ax” (III.i.184), but Marcus responding, “But I will use the ax” (III.i.185). Much wackiness does NOT ensue.
- Act Three, Scene One: Aaron’s nudge nudge wink wink
Once son and brother are off-stage, Titus has Aaron cut off the general’s hand. Aaron, on his way out with the hand tells Titus, “Look by and by to have thy sons with thee” (III.i.201), and then, in one of the wickedest asides I can remember, tells the audience “Their heads, I mean” (III.i.202). Add a wink, and you’re bound to get a laugh.
- Act Four, Scene One: Marcus’ pride and joy
After they Andronici uncover who raped and mutilated Lavinia, they all swear revenge, even little Young Lucius:
I say, my lord, that if I were a man,
Their mother’s bedchamber should not be safe
For these base bondmen to the yoke of Rome.
To which his proud great-uncle says (and I kid thee not), “Ay, that’s my boy!” (IV.i.110)… who’s not going to laugh at that?
- Act Four, Scene Two: Titus’s note
In the next scene, Young Lucius delivers a note from Titus to Chiron and Demetrius. It’s written in Latin, and though Aaron understands it, the brothers do not, adding to their Bill ‘n’ Ted-like vapidity.
- Act Four, Scene Two: Aaron’s punnage
In this same scene, the Nurse arrives, asking if any of them has “see(n) Aaron the Moor” (IV.ii.52), to which the Moor responds, “Well, more of less, or ne’er a whit at all” (IV.ii.53). Here he puns both Moor/more, and black (Moor) and white (whit)…. but it’s the Moor/more that will get the laugh.
- Act Four, Scene Two: Aaron’s seemingly anachronism
Again in this scene, the Nurse has brought with her the baby Tamora has just birthed. The baby is black. This is a bad thing, as she AND her husband, Saturninus, are white. When Chiron says to Aaron, “Thou has undone our mother” (IV.ii.75), Aaron bluntly, proudly, retorts, “Villain, I have done thy mother” (IV.ii.76, emphasis mine). This is the first literary reference in English of the use of “to do” being an euphemism for sex. Bound to get a titter or two from a modern audience.
- Act Four, Scene Three: Enter Clown
The “clown” (or “fool” in some texts) arrives as Titus is launching pleas to the gods for justice into the imperial courtyard. Titus participates in some wordplay with the low-born, and it could/should be funny.
- Act Four, Scene Four: Saturninus’ insecurity
In the next scene, we see Saturninus’ response to the notes (unpleasant and angry), and to the news that Lucius is on his way to Rome with an army of Goths. The second response is immediate insecurity: “These tidings nip me… ‘Tis he the common people love so much… the citizens favor Lucius” (IV.iv.71,74,80). This whining can be played for laughs (especially if Tamora is forced to play “mother to his youth” [I.i.335]).
- Act Five, Scene Three: Enter Titus like a cook
Before Titus enters the final scene, he has already told us his plan. Then to see him entering dressed like a cook, and bearing a steaming meat pie? C’mon. That’s funny. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1987 production*, directed by Deborah Warner, actually had this entrance accompanied by the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves theme, “Whistle While you Work.” Demented, completely demented, and pretty funny (though I think I might use the song elsewhere [see “The Andronici exit” below]).
If you’re going for a wilder ride, more horrorshow/less tragedy, the opportunities for laughter/sick humor increases greatly:
- Act Two, Scene One: Aaron’s seemingly anachronism, the prequel
At the end of Aaron’s first soliloquy, at the arrival of Tamora’s sons, the Moor exclaims: “Holla!” (II.i.25). How hip-hop for the Moor!
- Act Two, Scene Three: Aaron and the tree
When we next see Aaron, he plants the gold under the elder tree, and teasingly (incompletely) explains his purpose to the audience. In a clichéd mustache-twirling way, this can be played comically.
- Act Three, Scene One: Two heads and a hand
After Titus has sent Aaron to the emperor with the general’s severed hand as ransom, he hopes for the release of his sons. What he gets instead is the severed hand back, with his sons’ decapitated heads (just as Aaron had promised to the audience). When the Andronici have to leave the stage, Titus utters one of the most grotesquely comic passages in Shakespeare:
Come, brother, take a head;
And in this hand the other I will bear.
Lavinia, thou shalt be employ'd in this:
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.
- Act Three, Scene One: The Andronici exit
If the passage above doesn’t generate at least nervous, uncomfortable giggles, the sight of them exiting the stage in the manner Titus dictates can most certainly get a laugh. (now what if we add that “Whistle While you Work” theme to their march off-stage?)
- Act Three, Scene Two: The Andronici and the fly
The surreal killing of the fly and subsequent philosophical discussion of the value of life at the Andronici dinner table, given its context, can also be mined for laughs.
- Act Four, Scene Two: Deliverance
“Weeke, weeke! // So cries a pig prepared to the spit” (IV.ii.146-147), Aaron exclaims after killing the Nurse.
- Act Five, Scene One: Aaron physicalizes humor
When Lucius interrogates the captured Aaron, the Moor describes the treatment of Lucius’ sister: “They cut thy sister’s tongue, and ravished her, // And cut her hands, and trimmed her as thou sawest” (V.i.93). One can almost see the glee with which Aaron might mime the action of sawing when saying that last word.
- Act Five, Scene One: Aaron’s egotism, part deux
Later in that scene, Aaron goes beyond recounting his own villainies during the course of the play, to boast of what he has done in the past. Some of these are so overblown as not to be believed, but in the same way that Aaron’s egotism in Act Two, Scene One, can be lampooned, so too his ridiculous accounts here.
IF I was going to direct the play in the second fashion, I think I’d treat the violence with decreasing sensitivity…
social commentary alert!!!
- Alarbus: ritualized, dead serious (no pun intended)
- Mutius: crime of passion, shocking
- Bassianus: another crime of passion, but this time with a more theatrical/comic flourish (maybe Demetrius chases Bassianus into Chiron, and when Bassianus turns to flee the brother, he runs into Demetrius’ blade)
- Lavinia: her post-rape entrance here is the turning point in the tone of the play and the depiction of violence… her appearance must be so over-the-top as to be bordering on the grotesquely comic
- Quintus and Martius: maybe the heads are on sticks like corn dogs, or perhaps they have smiles painted on their faces (in blood?)
- Titus‘ hand: maybe it’s been given a manicure, or perhaps it’s wearing a sequined white glove (a la Michael Jackson)
- Nurse: the killings are now surreally comic (though I’m not sure how to do this one… ideas, anyone?)
- Fool/Clown: I see him dragged off stage with vaudeville hook
- Chiron and Demetrius: perhaps this is done behind a screen so that we can see only silhouettes, and their heads come off like jack-in-the-boxes (sorta like The Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life” with that creepy Billy Mumy performance)
- Lavinia: I think Titus has to kill her multiple times… she keeps coming back to life like a zombie (thus, his repeated [3x] use of “die”)
- Tamora/Titus/Saturninus: these last three sequential killings have to be wild, over the top, overkill (and I see some kind of domino-effect employed… maybe some kind of Rube Goldberg device)
Now, I would never direct the play in that comic a fashion. Of course, mine wouldn’t be dead serious (pun TOTALLY intended), either; but it would gravitate toward an attempt to achieve some level of audience catharsis, which (in my own personal opinion) the second approach pretty much precludes
The play, in my opinion, cannot be directed completely straight. It would be too dismal, too tough to stomach, too unrelenting to achieve any kind of catharsis. Too much comedy, or too light or wild a tone, leads to the same failure to achieve. The answer, as it almost always is, somewhere in the middle of the play…
UPDATE: I just did some research on this 1987 RSC production. The Titus was Brian Cox. Who’s Brian Cox, you ask? He was the first actor to portray Hannibal Lecter, in Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter, five years before Anthony Hopkins took on the role in The Silence of the Lambs. Interesting, given Julie Taymor employed Hopkins to play Titus in her adaptation Titus in 1999.