Reason Writers Around Town: Who Speaks for Titus Andronicus? Nick Gillespie on his favorite Shakespeare play at National Review Online


I participate in a Shakespeare's birthday symposium over at National Review Online, where contributors range from Mark Bauerlein (Reason contributor and web-video phenom!) to Heather MacDonald (Reason sparring partner over the years!) to Joe Queenan (Reason contributor back in the good old days when Hershey bars only cost a quarter, I tells ya, and earlier than our online archive covers!).

The question put to these noble few, this band of brothers: Pick your favorite Shakespeare play and explain why you love it.

The final medal count, btw, was: King Lear (with about 4.5 votes, depending on whether you're counting ballots in South Florida or not) and bunch of single-interest protest votes for wacky third-party candidates, including my own for Titus Andronicus (which, when you think about it, is kind of like the Ron Paul of the First Folio!). To wit:

Titus Andronicus is not only Shakespeare's first tragedy but by common acclamation his least accomplished drama. Indeed, Bardolators in past centuries routinely claimed that there was no way Shakespeare could have ever authored a dog so nasty as this; more recently, Harold Bloom argued it can be salvaged only as a parody of mediocre Elizabethan revenge tragedies.

Yet the play, based on a story of rape and revenge in Ovid's Metamorphoses and shamelessly pinching from Jasper Heywood's English-language version of Seneca's Thyestes, still speaks to modern audiences for reasons that go far beyond its over-the-top violence (think Quentin Tarantino with an unlimited budget for ketchup) and bizarre fixation on torture and dismemberment (think, um, Quentin Tarantino with an unlimited budget for ketchup). Set in ancient Rome and chock-full of human pies, Titus Andronicus tells a story in which all political and martial power is wielded bluntly and horrifically and in which everyone is doomed by the limits of gender, race, and rage. It brilliantly depicts and reveals the aristocratic, pre-modern world in which the individual is given no room to flourish and no meaningful representation in the public or private sphere. First staged at the very dawn of the modern era, in which the individual would finally (if imperfectly) be allowed to create his or her own future, Titus Andronicus remains a bizarre, stomach-turning, and wonderful reminder of a universal, stultifying social order that the world was fast putting behind itself in favor of something approaching liberty for all.

Yes, I do like my art politicized.

More words, words, words here.

Given the bardolatrous subject matter, it's not surprising that the ghost at this buffet is literary critic Harold Bloom, whose The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages I reviewed 15 years ago (!) in Reason.