BOOKS: Tragedy of an Elizabethan psycho

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The Independent Culture
The Arden Shakespeares, with their drippy-hippy covers, spurred generations of students to tutorial one-upmanship, furnished actors with tantalising variants on well-worn speeches and turned directors into enthusiastic texual scholars. Now the series is being relaunched with a third edition, beginning with Titus Andronicus, edited by Jonathan Bate, King Henry V (T W Craik) and Antony and Cleopatra (John Wilders). Making definitive texts for the Shakespeare canon may seem the bibliographical equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge; the second edition took 20 years to finish, but the third will be complete by the end of the century.

Although a benchmark in Shakespearean textual scholarship, it is intended to be authoritative but not authoritarian. "It's more about showing how different editors approach the text and how they come to their decisions," says Trude Spruyt, of Routledge. "We encourage readers to question those decisions by understanding what they are based upon." Jonathan Bate's passionate and stylish introduction to Titus Andronicus, adapted and extracted here, pays due regard to feminist and post-'60s literary theory, with its emphasis on linguistics, and discusses innovative stagings to make us see the play anew.

Shakespeare's earliest and bloodiest tragedy has had a curious history. It was hugely successful in its own time - indeed, it perhaps did more than any other play to establish its author's reputation as a dramatist - but it has been reviled by critics. Yet Peter Brook's production with Laurence Olivier as Titus was one of the great theatrical experiences of the 1950s, and Deborah Warner's with Brian Cox was the most highly acclaimed Shakespearean production of the 1980s.

The play began getting a negative press among literary critics in the 18th century because it was thought to be in bad taste. Not only is a hand chopped off on stage: worse, dreadful puns are made about it ("O handle not the theme, to talk of hands,/Lest we remember still that we have none"). But fashions in taste go around and come around, and in its willingness to confront violence, often in ways that are simultaneously shocking and playful, our culture resembles that of the Eliza-bethans more than that of Dr Johnson. To understand Titus Andronicus is at once to perceive its proximity to King Lear and to apprehend the difference between a slasher movie and a tragedy.


Elizabethan theatres allowed for triple-layered performance. There was a gallery or upper stage, the main stage which projected into the auditorium, and the cellarage below the stage, reached by a trapdoor. In Titus Andronicus Shakespeare made bold and innovative use of all three levels.

Where the first act is dominated by the question of who controls the upper stage, symbolic of the Capitol, of power over Rome, the second is dominated by the pit, represented by the trap-door. Attention shifts from the body politic to the human body. The forest is a place where desire can be acted out: Tamora comes to make love to Aaron, Chiron and Demetrius rape Lavinia.

The rape cannot be shown on stage, but it is evoked through the simultaneous action of the pit scene. We do not have to be card-carrying Freudians to see the connection between what we know Chiron and Demetrius are doing to Lavinia, and Quintus' description of a "subtle hole", "Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers / Upon whose leaves are drops of new- shed blood", or Martius' reference to "the swallowing womb / Of this deep pit". "This detested, dark, blooddrinking pit", "this fell devouring receptacle", "this gaping hollow" (OED's earliest record of the adjective), "the ragged entrails of this pit": the language becomes darkly obsessive, evocative not only of death and hell but also of the threatening female sexuality of Tamora. The "mouth" of the pit becomes crucial when we realise that Lavinia is not only being raped but also having her tongue cut out; throughout the play, the action turns on mouths that speak, mouths that abuse and are abused, mouths that devour.


The linguistic turn taken by post-1960s literary theory put criticism in a position to catch up with the play's characteristically Renaissance obsession with the problem of meaning. The silencing of Lavinia raises exactly that problem: "I can interpret all her martyred signs," claims Titus in the manner of a confident semiotician, but he finds that gesture is more ambiguous than spoken language. Only when a text is inscribed upon the ground can interpretation be confirmed.

When the characters are not revenging or raping, they are reading - reading texts and citations, reading the book of Ovid in which the narrative of the drama is pre-written. Writing demands to be read but it is always open to misconstruction: when Titus sends a message on a scroll to Chiron and Demetrius to say that he has deciphered their action, they misinterpret it (though that cunning reader, Aaron, does not). The text is full of word games, puns and verbal sleights; in this way Titus takes us towards the extraordinary linguistic self-consciousness of Hamlet. Yet there is a truth behind the words, a meaning which through pain-ful interpretative work can be unfolded: "But I of these will wrest an alphabet / And by still practice learn to know thy meaning." That truth is rape.

Frequently in the play the female body is figured, in proto-Freudian fashion, in terms of absence, severance and open wounds. The pit containing the corpse of the husband, over which Chiron had planned to perform the rape, is one figuration of Lavinia's body. But what are we to make of Lavinia being forced to put her father's hand in her mouth, which is as wounded as her genitals? And of her uncle then making her put a stick in that mouth, with which she writes the word "rape"?

And, it might be said, if woman is not silenced and mutilated, then she must be demonised, as she is in the figure of Tamora. Heine thought that she had the charisma of Milton's Satan: "a bewitching, imperial figure with the marks of a fallen divinity on her brow" (Romantics, 544). I would say that she also has touches of the complexity which makes Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra no mere demons but rather two of the most rewarding female roles in the repertory of world drama.


In the 20th century, with its looser decorums, the rape has been restored to the stage, but until recently the rape victim's entry and her uncle's verbal response to it have remained deeply problematic for directors. Eugene Waith claimed in 1957 that the post-rape scene was an aesthetic failure since it was written in an opulent Ovidian language that was grotesquely inappropriate on stage.

An even more influential, because theatrical, statement of this position came two years earlier with Peter Brook's Stratford production, in which Vivien Leigh played Lavinia to Laurence Olivier's Titus. To "the slow plucking of harp-strings, like drops of blood falling into a pool", Leigh entered with scarlet ribbons trailing from her wrists and mouth. The visual stylisation was brilliant - it shaped the predominant theatrical approach to the play for 30 years - but in order to highlight it the scene was made into a silent tableau. Most subsequent productions have reintroduced the speech but cut it very heavily.

Deborah Warner's production which originated at the Swan in Stratford- upon-Avon in 1987 was remarkable for its textual fidelity. Not a single line was cut. The Warner version of Marcus' speech brought the text squarely into the present. For Warner in her direction of Marcus, and Sonia Ritter in her portrayal of Lavinia, achieved what they did because rape matters to them as late 20th-century women more than it could possibly have done to Shakespeare writing for Marcus and to the boy who first played Lavinia. The scene was so powerful because our culture is more conscious of rape and its peculiar vileness than many previous cultures have been: so it was that the words from the 1590s (when rape was very rarely reported to the authorities or acted upon by the courts) worked a new effect in the context of the1980s.

The Brook and Warner productions represent strong alternative directorial choices. Stylisation enabled Brook to bring out the play's ritualistic and emblematic qualities; realism enabled Warner to bring out its representation of how ordinary human beings can be driven to extremes of violence and cruelty on the one hand, resilience and tenderness on the other.

! The first three plays in the third edition of the Arden Shakespeare are published by Routledge at £5.99 paperback, £30 hardback.