Summer Shakespeare III

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2023: Wednesdays, 1:00-3:00 p.m. Eastern Time
June 14 - Aug. 16

June 14:
Troilus and Cressida

June 21:
Titus Andronicus

June 28:
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Fantasy and Allegory

July 5

July 12:
King John
Outlying Histories

July 19:
Timon of Athens

July 26:
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Villainy and Purity

Aug 2:
Prejudice and Metaphor

August 9:
King Henry VIII
Contemporary Politics

August 16:
Pastoral and Romance

Titus Andronicus

This is often cited as being Shakespeare’s worst play. T. S. Eliot went so far as to call it the worst play in the world. I’m personally not persuaded that it is either. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it plays much better on stage or film than on the page. It’s also probably worth noting that it was Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime.

Things to consider while reading Titus Andronicus

In order to appreciate the play at all, you probably need to have (or cultivate, at least for the purposes of this exercise) some appreciation for the Renaissance revenge drama. There’s a long tradition, starting long before Shakespeare and continuing well into the seventeenth century, of plays in which the primary motion of the story is the fulfillment of a vast and bloody revenge on someone who usually deserves it. This is worth knowing something about, since even if you never cross paths with Titus Andronicus again, it will help you come to a much better understanding of other things as well — Hamlet, among other things.

It also makes a good foil to some of the other late tragedies, like King Lear and Othello, and, at the most unexpected points, breaks out into Shakespeare’s lyrical and intense tragic verse of the sort we’re accustomed to attribute to King Lear or parts of Hamlet or Othello. Even among revenge dramas, however, Titus Andronicus has to take some kind of prize for the gruesome. Horrible things happen to the principal characters, whether they deserve it or not (and as often as not, they don’t), and they keep getting worse.

Titus Andronicus and what has come before

There really is nothing in this course so far to bear comparison with Titus Andronicus. It is on a completely different level from Troilus and Cressida, which is largely cynical and faintly comic. This is neither cynical nor comic, unless the sheer scope of the grotequery is likely to push you over the edge into a fit of the horrified giggles (I’ve seen it happen). The characters are all hideously sincere, their passions are raw and insatiable, and they set in motion a cascade of revenge in which there really is never an option to stop or even to reflect on what it is they’re doing. It’s visceral, even mindless in some ways — and yet it remains powerful in some respects, too.

In the broader view of Shakespeare dramas, it does bear comparison with:

Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)

Symmetries in the play

Problems in the play