Like many modern readers and viewers, I am not shocked or outraged but rather fascinated by Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy and most notorious play. Wikipedia assembles a good collection of critical sputtering at this revenge drama’s sensationalist logic of rape, mutilation and murder, from Samuel Johnson censuring “the barbarity of the spectacles” to T. S. Eliot deriding it as “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written” to Harold Bloom’s more ambivalent assessment of Andronicus as “poetic atrocity.”
With Johnson (or the era for which he is the canonical critical spokesman) begins the modern conviction that literature should morally improve its audience; such a priority clashes with the canonization of the Elizabethan theater, a form of popular art in its early phase before institutionalization or domestication could tame it, an art whose practitioners tried on forms and values like costumes and seized spectators’ profitable attention by any means necessary. Hence the inability of certain thinkers—Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Steiner—to grasp the phantasmagoric Shakespeare at all.
Eliot often wrote criticism as a dishonest defense against his own art, but he also wrote the 20th century’s best poem because he kept his dirty ear to the ground so he could hear pub conversation, cabaret jazz, rumors of war, and the sorrows of casual sex, as well as his reminiscences of Ovid, Augustine, Buddha, and Webster. As Leslie Fiedler wrote in “The Middle Against Both Ends,” his classic 1955 defense of high and low culture against the middle mind:
Behind the opposition to vulgar literature, there is at work the same fear of the archetypal and unconscious itself that motivated similar attacks on Elizabethan drama and on the eighteenth-century novel. […] I should hate my argument to be understood as a defense of what is banal and mechanical and dull (there is, of course, a great deal!) in mass culture; it is merely a counterattack against those who are aiming through that banality and dullness at what moves literature of all worth.
Even by Eliot’s time, popular culture was on its way to becoming mass culture, far more mechanized and routinized in its bottom-line orientation and lowest-common-denominator address than the Elizabethan drama or the early novel. The experimental, extremist poetry and fiction of the modernist little magazines therefore had a serious claim on being among the most vital artistic forces of the time, along with popular forms like jazz.
And by the 1950s, when modernism was already approaching its academic canonization, Fiedler defended the comic books under moralistic attack by his fellow intellectual Fredric Wertham, precisely because he persuasively associated their amoral, unsettled liveliness with modernism’s own notorious illiberalism: both spat at the middlebrow conviction that humane letters should be heathy, hygienic, and wholesome. To apply this analysis to our own time gives us pause. What if the next century takes the strongest art of our era to be not our politely transgressive autofictions or prestige TV dramas but rather the work of dirty Instagram poets, surreally socialist podcasters, and fascist-curious YouTubers? Given the precedents of Andronicus and Eliot, we can hardly rule it out.
But I write on Shakespeare’s birthday, so back to Shakespeare I go. Titus Andronicus is, again, his earliest tragedy, written around the early 1590s, probably in collaboration with George Peele (scholars agree that the stiff first act is likely not Shakespeare’s work).
The plot is a complex but logical working out of a revenge cycle. It begins when the old warrior Titus Andronicus returns to Rome after having defeated the Goths (and having lost 22 of his sons in the fighting). He brings as captives the Goth queen Tamora with three of her sons and her sub rosa lover Aaron the Moor, and he executes Tamora’s eldest son as requital for his own parental losses. Moreover, he has returned in the midst of a succession quarrel—who will govern Rome? As conquering hero, Andronicus is allowed to choose the next emperor and appoints Saturninus.
But a further argument ensues over who should be queen: Andronicus’s daughter, Lavinia, already betrothed to Saturninus’s brother, or the Goth queen Tamora, on whom Saturninus sets his amorous eye? In the ensuing scuffle, Andronicus kills another of his own sons, and Tamora ends up as empress. From this position, and with the collaboration of her two remaining sons and the villainous Aaron, she composes a revenge plot whose grisly centerpiece is the rape and mutilation of Lavinia in the woods during a royal hunt. The tongueless, handless Lavinia subsequently manages to inform her father who has harmed her while simultaneously alerting the audience to Shakespeare’s literary sources when she calls his and our attention to a passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: