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Titus .png



May 10 at 7:30pm | May 11 at 2pm and 7:30pm
Sheen Center Shiner Theatre | 18 Bleecker Street

Directed by JESSE BERGER

Featuring Isabel Arraiza, Teagle F. Bougere, Jason Bowen, Kelley Curran, Clifton Duncan, Nate Miller, Alfredo Narciso, Patrick Page, Zachary Lopez Roa, and Derek Smith

One of Shakespeare’s earliest and bloodiest plays explores the desperate nihilism of a world where an unstoppable cycle of revenge has begun. Titus is Rome’s greatest general and the head of a noble Roman family. When his armies vanquish the Goths, their defeated queen, Tamora – with her paramour Aaron the Moor – unleashes a fury that brings Rome, Titus, and his family to their knees. The play’s exploration of humanity’s capacity for inhumanity is shockingly contemporary.


Titus Andronicus unfolds in a strange universe where the characters who poignantly demand sincerity or mercy from others lack the moral standing to do so. The title character is an aged war hero, who has pledged his daughter to Rome’s emperor (overruling her engagement to his brother) and lost twenty-one of his twenty-five sons in various military campaigns. Titus is committed to piety, a term that refers not only to religious observance but also to duty to parent or country. In his mind, his faithful service to the fatherland (Rome) has earned him an equivalent acquiescence from his children. However, Rome’s claim to civility and Titus’ code of honor are both thrown into question immediately. 


Titus has returned from a victorious campaign against the Goths. The Queen of the Goths and her surviving sons are among his prisoners. Titus claims the Roman gods will not allow him to grant Queen Tamora’s request to spare one of her sons, whom Titus has marked for sacrifice. She rails: "Cruel irreligious piety!" Her surviving sons mutter: "Was ever Scythia half so barbarous?" and "Oppose not Scythia to ambitious Rome." These retorts expose that, in establishing its empire, Rome has engaged in the barbarism that it would project onto other peoples, such as Scythians, Goths, and Moors. Titus’ piety and Roman virtue have both been shown to contain and even foster pitiless brutality.


By having the expected barbarians deliver these destabilizing lines, Titus attempts to trouble audience members who want to identify with Rome, producing problems of genre and expectation. In tragedy, we have come to expect if not heroes then at least antiheroes with whom we identify. But was identification really the goal of a sixteenth-century revenge tragedy such as Titus, played before audiences ruled by a militantly anti-Catholic monarch? The association of Rome with the Papacy imbues Aaron the Moor’s gibes at "Popish tricks and ceremonies” with bite. If he is mocking Catholic gestures, such as signing the cross, as empty—then, for that moment as earlier when Titus withholds pity—English Protestants would seem to align with barbarians who are also committed to gross and ruthless vengeance.


Perhaps, then, early revenge tragedies were not designed to produce recognizably human or morally exemplary characters. The genre featured ghostly visitations, protagonists driven mad by melancholy, ingenious subterfuge, vengeance, and suicide. Revenge tragedy was arguably a mixed genre offering audiences the spectacle of characters who rant, connive, and chew scenery—and not the philosophical profundity we’ve been taught to expect as the primary aim of Shakespeare.


In attempting to get a hold of Titus, I find myself reminded of Mark Twain’s warning preceding Huckleberry Finn: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."


Titus seems designed for an audience interested in outsized characters, plot twists, spying, and spectacle. Yet, again like Huck, the moral and political stakes cannot quite be disregarded. Even if Shakespeare’s audiences did not demand an explicit ethical stance, contemporary audiences might well find that imperial war, slavery, rape, and honor killing demand a moral response from us. England was a fledgling empire in 1592 when the play debuted, but the subsequent British and US-American empires extended across the globe. In those two nations, Rome would no longer seem available for vicarious enjoyment from a safe distance. Instead, it might appear an uncanny premonition of the barbarous elements of empires that conquer in the name of civility.

–MILES GRIER |  Scholar and Dramaturgical Consultant

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