[Q]uestions of context and literary intertextuality are one thing, while the experience of watching the work itself performed is quite another. For Titus Andronicus is, to repeat, one batshit crazy play. It is surreal, nightmarish. It is also, to a surprising degree, rather vile. Some members of the audience weep, which is understandable; but I can testify that at least one patron wanted to take a shower afterwards.(A friend of mine passed out while watching Julie Taymor's film version.)
During the forum at the Shakespeare Theatre over the weekend, Denise Albanese mentioned that she frequently teaches Titus at George Mason. I gave her a call to ask about that. And also, frankly, just because I wanted to discuss about the play with somebody who had lived with it for a while. (Exposure to its surrealistic overload does leave you wanting to “talk it off,” as it were.)
“It’s almost always the first play I teach,” she said. “I do that because very often students have only encountered Shakespeare in high school and have a misunderstanding of him as safe, moral, and dull. This one really dislodges the idea that Shakespeare is full of eternal moral truths. It takes place in a different world from what they expect.”
And how does Titus go over with her students?
“Many of them have a very hard time with it,” she told me. “They expect to be able to like somebody in a piece of literature, to find somebody they can identify with, and that is quite difficult in this case. It’s hard to identify with Titus, who kills his own son for dishonoring him. The moral ambiguity of the play is very, very difficult for some of them.”
Such confusion seems appropriate, in a way. Yet I suspect that there is a certain moral ambiguity about experiencing Titus Andronicus as containing moral ambiguity.