Context: William Shakespeare’s scorned and much maligned play Titus Andronicus contains enough violence that would even make seasoned modern viewers cringe. Yet in 1999, one fearless director, Julie Taymor, decided to adapt the little seen play in to a feature film. In this feature article I have compared the original text to its film adaptation. This article functions as both a review and an in-depth examination of both film and play. A word of caution: neither film nor play were meant for the squeamish. This article is not afraid to tackle the difficult and violent subject matter.
Spoilers and descriptions of graphic content to follow.
There’s a famous saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. One Roman general would disagree. Titus Andronicus believes that revenge is a dish best served with the meat of your enemies carefully spread across the plate.
Some critics have dubbed William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus as Shakespeare’s worst play, others call it his most violent and cruel play, but to fans, the play about revenge is a hidden gem that has been ignored for centuries. I tend to agree with the latter.
After reading the play many have asked why Shakespeare would write such a play, a play that features scenes and themes of rape, murder, war, and cannibalism portrayed on and off stage. At the time Shakespeare wrote Titus, the revenge tragedy was a popular form of entertainment, which was usually filled with excess bloodshed and cruelty done in the sake of a character’s revenge. One can imagine Shakespeare hearing about the popularity of these plays and thinking to himself: “you want bloodshed, cruelty, and revenge? I’ll give it to you!” From these revenge plays, Titus Andronicus was born.
Titus Andronicus takes the idea of a revenge tragedy to the next level. It is part exploitation, part revenge tragedy, part historical drama based in mythology, and part…well, Shakespeare. The play starts off with Roman soldiers returning home with victory to Rome after years of fighting the Goths, a Germanic people, right as the old emperor dies. The General of the Roman army is Titus Andronicus, a cold-hearted man who has spent most of his life on the battlefield it seems. He brings home with him several prisoners of war: the Goth Queen Tamora, her three sons, and a Moor named Aaron. While the two princes, Saturninus and Bassianus, fight over the throne, Titus slays Tamora’s eldest son as part of a fake sacrifice and also out of revenge for the many sons he has lost in the war. Tamora swears revenge on Titus, willing to do it by whatever means necessary.
Saturninus, a hotheaded fellow, is crowned emperor and decides to free the Goth prisoners and takes Tamora as his wife. Aaron is revealed to be Tamora’s lover and he too is in on this plot of revenge. He turns Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, from two young men in love with Lavinia, Bassionus’s wife and Titus’s only and beloved daughter, into cold-blooded rapists and killers. In a blood-curling scene, the brothers kill Bassianus as Lavinia is forced to watch, she is then dragged off deep into the woods where she is raped and mutilated. The boys cut out her tongue and cut off her hands she can’t reveal the names of her attackers. Feeling squeamish yet? Two of Titus’s remaining sons are arrested for the death of Bassianus and Titus lets Aaron cut his own hand off because he, not thinking anything through at the moment, believes that this will get his sons back. So in this version of Rome the saying goes as “a hand for a life” instead of “an eye for an eye”? Titus’s sons are killed anyways and Aaron leaves laughing with glee at his villainy.
Lavinia is able to write the name of her attackers in the ground by holding a stick in her mouth. Titus realizes what has happened and he too swears revenge, except he will go further than Tamora ever planned: he will commit one of the ultimate sins. Titus tracks Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia’s rapists, down and kills them.
Then in the play’s most notorious scene: he has Saturninus and Tamora eat her own sons unknowingly after Titus baked them into a pie. Some say revenge is dish best served cold, but here it served piping hot and it must be oh so tasty. Yes, if you thought that rape and mutilation were the most disturbing scenes this play could come up with, you have misjudged the depravity of Shakespeare’s mind. The play ends with Titus killing Lavinia, out of “mercy” (like an honor killing), then Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus kills Titus, and Titus’s eldest son Lucius kills Saturninus as Lucius’s son (Young Lucius) watches. Can you guess what this play is a commentary about? Violence.
Shakespeare might have written Titus Andronicus as a way of mocking other playwrites at the time who wrote gruesome revenge tragedies, but the play ends up becoming the very same revenge tragedy it might have started out mocking. Titus is one of Shakespeare’s most underrated and conflicted tragic heroes, or one of his worst villains depending on how one views him. This is a man who starts off at the top of his power and by the end of the play has been banished from his country, stripped of titles, has had most of his children killed with his favorite child raped and mutilated, and reverts to insanity as a way to cope with his personal tragedies. His insanity sets the stage for Hamlet who would enter Shakespeare’s mind a few years later when the Bard was at the top of his game.
Titus on Film
In 1999, Julie Taymor decided to adapt Titus Andronicus into a film, which she merely titles “Titus”. It would be Titus Andronicus’s first time on the big screen after a few made for television adaptations by the BBC in the past. Here the $25 million budget shows and is put to good use because Taymor’s adaption is Shakespeare like most have never seen before. Shakespeare’s writing is filled with anachronisms. Taymor takes this to the extreme. Her film takes on “2,000 years of violence,” as Taymor is fond of saying.
In a film very visually based, the most outstanding visual is also the most tragic: her uncle approaches Lavinia in a swamp right after she has been raped. He asks her to speak, but as she opens her mouth no word comes out, only a ribbon of blood. This visual is scored by the film’s most heartbreaking part of the score. The film is very surreal and is geared towards Shakespeare fans and art-house viewers alike, not the rowdy masses.
Play vs. Film: Changes
The most noteworthy change from text to film is Taymor’s use of Young Lucius, Titus’s grandson. Young Lucius is almost the film’s visual narrator, despite the fact that he rarely speaks. He shuttles the film from one scene to the next and is present for the film’s climax, a statement on how violence is witnessed by children. The film’s ending shot is a major change from the play. Young Lucius decides to stop another generation of violence from occurring, so he takes Aaron’s newborn son and approaches the rising sun, symbolic of the film’s message: violence ends lives, but violence can end, maybe through the lives of our children. It is a beautiful and poetic image that will last with the viewer for days, giving them hope of a new tomorrow after a two and a half hour bloodbath.
Set Design & Costumes
The film’s sets and costumes are a mixture of ancient and modern styles. Titus and his soldiers in the opening of the film wear Roman soldier garb: armored to the nines. Lavinia wears dresses throughout the film and her costumes in her first and last apperances are framed with veils—black for her introduction as a way to show she is morning her brothers, and white (a symbol of the virginity that was taken from her) for the day she dies, in a sick twist on the typical clothing a bride would wear. Lavinia and Tamora both wear red at the height of their revenge: Tamora’s coat is red in the scene before Lavinia’s rape when Tamora refuses to save the girl, while Lavinia wears a red dress when she writes the names of her attackers in the dirt. Saturninus is fashioned after fascist dictators from the thirties and everything from his car to his costumes reflect that. Chiron and Demetrius’s costumes at times are clearly influenced by the rock and grunge style at the time, but also by the costumes of the underage gang members in “A Clockwork Orange”—emulating a mix of modern and futuristic violence in their clothing. Aaron wears black and navy blue trench coats throughout the film, almost as if it’s shielding him from the blackness inside his cold soul. Titus’s armor disappears over the course of the film until the film’s climax where he wears a chef’s uniform. The Goths have tattooed bodies that in some moments, especially in some of Tamora’s scenes, almost look like snakes are crawling up her arms. Tamora’s makeup is especially reptilian at times, mirroring how she easily sheds her skin to be whatever she needs to be to get revenge and regain the power she so easily lost. The costumes in Taymor’s film are rife with meaning and symbolism.
Taymor’s film has a lot of great actors in it and they give great performances. Anthony Hopkins plays Titus, an odd choice of casting considering the cannibalistic ties to his most famous performance in “Silence of the Lambs” where he plays a cannibal. Hopkins performance took a while for me to warm up to since he plays the part at once subtly and over the top in the same scenes, but over time I have grown to see the brilliance in his performance. He becomes the tragic figure quite nicely. Jessica Lange is Tamora, a revenge goddess with the body a sexy siren on the outside while playing a bloodthirsty mother within. Harry Lennix gives a blood curdling performance as Aaron—he becomes a devilish figure that will frighten many viewers with his intensity. When he is given a long monologue where Aaron discusses his evil deeds, Lennix’s performance will make your heart stop in those moments. This is by far the best performance of his career. Another standout is Laura Fraser as Lavinia who must transform from the picture of innocence into another vengeful woman. Alan Cumming’s portrayal of Saturninus is that of a weak man with a big temper, a dangerous person to be near when his anger is roused. The whole cast portrays their characters at the top of their game, never slipping out of character for a minute, and, like the director, not afraid to make bold choices.
The Music of Titus
Another benefit of moving the story from stage to screen is the score. Musical scores can help enhance the mood of a film and Elliot Goldenthal’s score here follows this rule. When Titus and his soldiers first enter the film the score bursts to life, filling speakers with the sound of ancient chanting in the piece entitled Victorious Titus. Another standout piece is Pickled Heads, which plays over the scene where Lavinia manages to scribble the names of her rapists in the dirt. The music becomes a frenzied rush of muffled words and instruments playing incredibly fast, almost like music one would hear at a dance, but set with the visuals the piece becomes a terrifying nightmare as we see Lavinia’s surreal portrait of the rape in her memory. Her rapists are depicted as tigers lunging towards her while the music joins forces with the battling images of reality and Lavinia’s surrealistic nightmare. The score jumps between somber and brassy, unsettling and jazzy, making the listener hanging on every note. The music ties in very well with the visuals and after viewing this film several times I can’t hear one without picturing the other.
The film adaptation and the play Titus Andronicus have a social commentary at the heart of it. The film depicts the dangers of violence in general, while the play reflects the problems of excessive violence in the literature of the time. The clearest example of this is in the film when Demetrius, one of Lavinia’s rapists, is playing a violent video game while smoking a cigarette as images of a half naked women and violence flash across the screen. Both film and play are a commentary on violence and the culture surrounding violence.
Verdict: A Tough to Stomach but Necessary Viewing
I, personally, would highly recommend reading the play, seeing it preformed, or even viewing the film. Titus Andronicus is a fascinating play and has inspired a creative film and several interesting takes of the play on stage. The violence in the play and the film will upset many viewers, but that is the point of the play. The film is a very good adaptation because it transfers its message successfully to the screen while still being a highly creative and intelligent adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays.