Shakespeare in a Year: April

Content warning: sexual assault, mutilation, homicide, suicide

In April I have consumed the following Shakespeare works:

  • Titus Andronicus
  • The Rape of Lucrece

Thanks to a bit of international travel and a bit of a reading slump, I didn’t get as far as I’d hoped with this project in April. I strongly recommend not consuming these two works back to back for reasons that will become clear. You could say that I chose… poorly.

Thankfully the next plays on deck are significantly lighter in tone, so I intend to resume a quicker pace in May.

Titus Andronicus

I watched Julie Taymor’s 1999 film adaptation, simply called Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and quite a star-studded cast, actually. The film has a surreal take on the source material that works surprisingly well.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert suggested the play might have been sort of an Elizabethan slasher story. Audiences in Shakespeare’s time tended to favor gory violence in their plays, and since this was one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, he might have felt the need to amp up the violence to get attention. Since much of the plot is already kind of ridiculous, the deliberate anachronisms like arcade games don’t seem so out of place.

That said, I generally don’t care for slasher films, so this wasn’t one of my favorites. Also, the characterization felt really thin, so it was hard to feel invested in any of the characters. I didn’t imagine that I’d say Titus Andronicus is less sympathetic than Richard III for me, but here we are.

The plot is basically a bunch of people choosing violence practically every moment of their lives, which can at least be entertaining at times. Most of the actors take a campy approach to the material, which feels correct. To give you an idea of the tone of this play, one character says as he’s about to meet his end that he wishes he could have done more evil deeds.

Two characters serve as exceptions to the above description. Marcus, Titus’s brother, seems to be the only adult in the room. Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, is a sweet young woman, and you can guess what happens to her in a story like this. More on that in a bit.

The Rape of Lucrece

The title pretty much gives away the plot. Is the whole story as depressing as the title suggests? I’m afraid it is.

I don’t understand why Shakespeare chose this Roman story as his source material, although maybe he didn’t, since this was a commissioned work. But even if his patron chose the source material, I don’t understand what Shakespeare was going for. I at least understood his take on Venus and Adonis, even if I found it bizarre. The Rape of Lucrece falls flat from a storytelling perspective before we even get into the content.

There’s been a lot of discourse about the portrayal of rape in fiction, and some of it has raised valid points. Of course, none of this discourse existed in Shakespeare’s time, so it seems unfair to evaluate his work by those standards. But this story still feels incredibly odd, even by the standards of that time.

Tarquin, the rapist in this story, spends the whole time on his way to rape Lucrece thinking it’s a bad idea and he shouldn’t do it. So, um, why do it, then? You could just not, you know. I know we wouldn’t have a story then, but what I’m getting at is we have no understanding of Tarquin’s motive here. And once Tarquin commits the rape, he immediately feels bad about it. So why’d you go to all that trouble, dude?

Lucrece feels shamed by the attack, which is at least realistic. She identifies her attacker to her husband and immediately kills herself. Her husband and his soldiers vow revenge on Tarquin, and we learn in the last line of the poem that Tarquin is banished. No confrontation? Come on!

A “lesson” I got from both this poem and Titus Andronicus is that virtue doesn’t pay for women. In Titus, both Tamora and Lavinia meet violent deaths, but at least Tamora had some fun first. Although Lavinia did get a taste of vengeance when Titus killed her rapists in her presence. And maybe Shakespeare was trying to make some sort of commentary on a vicious cycle of violence. I’d buy that, although that doesn’t make me enjoy the story any more.

But The Rape of Lucrece just leaves me confused. A woman is raped and driven to suicide, and for what? We never find out what Tarquin’s motivation is or see him get his comeuppance because it’s merely summarized in one line. This is easily the most frustrating work of Shakespeare’s that I’ve encountered in this project, and I’m glad we’re done with the narrative poems for a while. I’m also glad that most of the upcoming plays in the list are comedies.

May preview

In May I plan to get through at least the following works:

  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • Romeo and Juliet

I’m particularly interested in revisiting Romeo and Juliet, since I had to read it in high school, and I suspect it will hit quite differently for me now.

Have you changed any of your opinions of a Shakespeare play after rereading it? Let’s talk about it in the comments!






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