chapter  8
23 Pages

· Titus Andronicus: strange images of death

I t is impossible yet again to fix the date of first performance or the theatrical provenance of this play with any certainty. The most informed opinion places it in 1589-90,1 that is within a year or so of the probable composition of The Spanish Tragedy/ and many passages of the verse are infused by Marlowe's potent rhythms. 3 It was a popular play, performed successively by Pembroke's, Strange's, Sussex's, and the Chamberlain's Men. It may have been performed at the playhouse at Newington Butts and then been moved to join Doctor Faustus in repertory at the Rose in 1594, when the companies could return to London after the ferocious plague of 1593.4 It is the only Elizabethan play of which we have definite record of a private performance: a company from London presented it as the culmination of the Christmas Revels of 1595-6 offered by Sir John Harrington to his two hundred guests at Burley-on-the-Hill in Rutland. Of the performance Anthony Bacon's French secretary, Jacques Petit, opined that 'la monstre a plus valeu q Ie suiect'5 - the worth of the spectacle exceeded that of the text. It was revived in Jacobean times. Just as Hamlet admitted that the old-fashioned style of Marlowe was nevertheless 'as wholesome as sweet', so Ben Jonson, drawing up articles of attention for his audience at the Hope, had to conceed that the method of Titus Andronicus, by 1614 even more out of date, could not be dismissed:

He that will swear Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays yet, shall pass unexpected at, here, as a man whose judgement shows it is constant, and hath stood still these five and twenty years, or thirty years. Though it be an ignorance, it is a virtuous and staid ignoranceand next to truth, a confirm'd error does well-such a one the author knows where to find him. (Bartholomew Fair, Ind., 107ff.)

In modern times reluctant acceptance has turned to embarrassment. Shakespeare's authorship has been denied, and it has seemed a chore for editors and sometimes a temptation for sensation-mongering directors. Critics who have entered the play armed only with the literary probes of genre, plot, and character have been led into impasses or premature

inferences of lack of substance or quality. The play could be labelled melodrama in that its resolution is imposed on rather than developed from the action although there is little of the conflict between good and evil found in that genre. If narrated baldly, the plot contains little obvious significance: it is merely complicated and gathers to almost ungraspable swiftness towards the end. Reading the text alone would indicate that Titus achieves none of the final recognition that seems to me to be the prime attribute of a tragic hero-his impulsive actions at the end of the play are no different from those at the beginning, and the one scene that seems to bring him to a kind of awareness, III.i., does not really focus on his consciousness as do the recognition scenes of the great tragedies, but is presented merely as the most savage of a set of savage spectacles. Recognition may subsume despair, but not rest upon only that.