From as far back as 1687, readers have sought to relieve Shakespeare of the burden of Titus – ‘the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his works’, Ravenscroft sneered; ‘It seems rather a heap of rubbish than a structure.’ Such commentators allow Shakespeare a ‘master-touch’ or two, the occasional blossom on the dungheap… Behind the dismissal lurks, one suspects, a fastidious distaste for cannibalism, rape, and mutilation.
Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, 1975
So let’s begin with a “blossom on the dungheap.” The old warrior Titus, teetering on the brink of madness, contemplates the hideously mangled body of his beloved daughter, Lavinia. She’d been raped, her hands were chopped off and her tongue cut out, but time has passed, and the family has gathered for supper. Since she has no hands, her father must feed her. As he offers her a morsel to eat, Titus tells his brother Marcus that he “can interpret all her martyred signs.” Then, in lines so powerfully compassionate one could almost imagine they were lifted from an early draft of King Lear, he tells his “gentle girl”:
Speechless complainer, I will learn thy thought;
In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
As begging hermits in their holy prayers.
Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to Heaven,
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet
And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.
Like the violated and disfigured Lavinia, sometimes her creator requires such devotion. Shakespeare, who undoubtedly wrote most of this wretched textual body, also winks and nods, and makes his signs to us, his stunned readers, pleading for a competent translation of his first tragedy. Yet generations of scholars have never wrested a meaning worthy of him from these garbled signs.
Why does the noble Titus, hero of this revenge play, impulsively kill his own son? After the burial of Mutius in the first act, no one speaks of the boy again. What dramatic purpose does it serve for Titus to send a clown bearing pigeons to the emperor with a petition that encloses a knife? Certainly, it is no laughing matter when the poor fellow hears he must be hanged for it. Most disturbing of all, why must Lavinia also die by her own father’s hand? Nothing in the old warrior’s tender ministrations to his daughter prepares us for that cruelty. In his creation of a Rome violated by authority, with the silenced Lavinia at its heart, the playwright just about begs us to read his lips. Yet many critics today still see his antics as nothing more than a youngster’s gory but profitable bombast, whipped up to please the rude groundlings.
The best short description I’ve encountered of Titus Andronicus is J. Dover Wilson’s, who says it is “like some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells.” Expand the timeline from “Elizabethan” to “Tudor,” (1485 ~ 1603) and you have the design of Shakespeare’s clever mousetrap, delineated into its three major components:
* The first part of the device is the broken-down Roman cart of the obviously flawed play itself, just mobile enough to roll past the queen’s censors and onto the London stage, sometime between 1589 and 1594.
* For the second part, the author takes the bleeding corpses associated with one particular and noble family off of a Tudor scaffold and, through the metamorphosis of language, transports them into what he calls a “Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedy.”
* The third and most vital component is the driver, an Elizabethan fool in motley who plays the mock executioner of his foes and steers his ghostly cart we know not where or why until we see that some of his riddles bait the queen: that is the deadly spring in his invention.
As Schoebaum notes, “from as far back as 1687” readers have found Titus Andronicus to be uniquely stiff and incomprehensibly savage. Shakespeare’s first “Romans” orate through jaws clamped in rigor mortis; as costumed cadavers, they inflict more random cruelty upon each other than you’ll find in any other play in the canon. This unpleasant singularity piqued my curiosity, so I began a dedicated investigation into the play’s sources, the author’s obscure intentions, and the persistent authorship questions bedeviling all of Shakespeare’s works. By widening the scope of critical, scholarly and historical sources one routinely consults in Shakespeare studies, I hoped to make sense of what the playwright tried – but seems to have failed miserably – to do.
While researching the lives and works of earlier poets from whom Shakespeare may have learned a few tricks of the trade, I stumbled upon an odd confluence of image, event and language that echoed a passage in the play. With this new insight into the author’s sources and historical biases, I’ve slowly excavated the lost Tudor scaffolding of Shakespeare’s earliest Revenge play, and even more slowly translated my findings into the prose you are now reading. If at long last, I’ve finally got it right, Shakespeare and the Howards should guide you through the tragic life of Henry Howard, the poet earl of Surrey, (born in 1516 and beheaded in 1547) and show the horrors that befell his extended family during the long reign of Elizabeth’s terrifying father, Henry VIII.
Step by step, you’ll discover how the playwright incorporated these stories, in chronological order but ingeniously transported to Ancient Rome, throughout Titus Andronicus. Once you put these two parts – the dramatic Roman vehicle and the executed Howards – together, you may begin to see how readily someone with sympathy for this noble house could have staged Shakespeare’s play as a defiant challenge to the last of the Tudors. In Julie Taymor’s cinematic version of Titus Andronicus, the aura of Mussolini, the Italian dictator shot to death in 1945, remains pertinent and disturbingly vital a half century later, in her 1999 production. Why couldn’t a cheeky, upstart playwright smuggle the bloody tyrant Henry VIII, who passed on peacefully in 1547, onto the London stage of 1594? Imagine the box office potential: Great Harry, whose final judicial murder smote the head off the poet earl of Surrey, hauled from the grave to face Justice, if that goddess will consent to appear, or abysmal Revenge, if she will not!
Though he hoodwinked posterity, Shakespeare would not have fooled his fellows. Every scene in this “Roman” play echoes key events in Henry Howard’s history, beginning before the poet’s birth with his grandfather’s great victory over the Scots at Flodden in 1513 and concluding with the death of his father, Thomas Howard II, 3rd duke of Norfolk, shortly after Queen Mary’s ascension to the throne in the summer of 1553. From start to finish, Shakespeare’s tragedy of old Titus – the beheading of his sons, the rape and mutilation of his daughter, the loss of his hand – circles erratically around the macabre dance of power between the Tudors and the Howards.
During her short reign (1553 – 1558), Mary Tudor was kind to the Howards who survived her father’s tyranny, but in 1572, her half-sister Elizabeth signed the death warrant that brought Henry Howard’s eldest son Thomas to the scaffold, where his “head was at one chop cut off and showed to all the people.” Thomas Howard III, 4th duke of Norfolk, was her relative – her mother, Anne Boleyn and Henry Howard were first cousins. As all of England would learn soon enough, the queen now had the blood of her own kin on her hands. A generation later, in 1589, Norfolk’s eldest son, Philip Howard, earl of Arundel (whom Catholics today know as Saint Philip) went on trial for treason, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him.
Would Howard blood once again be shed to safeguard the throne of the Tudors? Enter into the public arena our Bedlam fool in cap and bells, madly heaping limbs, charred corpses, severed heads and headless trunks onto his rickety Roman cart, then driving his rig right past the nose of the English Inquisition and up onto the boards of whichever London theater would dare to receive him…