Every time I teach Othello, I begin by telling my students that I long for the day when we read the story and say, “Well, this sure is pretty poetry, but we’re past insidious racism and double standards with regards to infidelity, so this really isn’t relevant.” Until then, tragedy will continue to be the most important social tool we have for talking about our social and emotional responsibilities to one another.
Titus is much the same as Othello; it is, unfortunately, as relevant now as it was in the 1600s.
Titus sometimes gets a bad rap because of the “unrealistic” amount of violence. There is a lot of bloodshed in the play, but sadly, it’s nothing you wouldn’t encounter in any of several war-torn countries in the world at present—especially those where the citizens have, as have the people in Titus, been embroiled in violence for multiple generations. It is universally true that violence begets violence. There’s a little Quaker church on Beaver Street here in Flagstaff whose banner proclaims, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” Titus exemplifies this lesson as the characters concoct violent and complex revenge plots against each other, but no one ever feels any “peace.”
Titus was Shakespeare’s most frequently produced play during his lifetime.
People often explain the play’s 16th-century popularity by undercutting the intelligence and taste of the Early Modern English society. I think that’s hardly fair. Sure, they watched dogs kill bears for entertainment and drank beer at almost every meal, but don’t we have YouTube and an opioid crisis? Elizabethans who were educated were very well educated, and those who were illiterate were still listening to some of the most evocative poetry and rhetoric available, in churches and playhouses. I think they loved Titus for the same reasons we love “House of Cards.” Titus held a mirror up to the blackest parts of the Elizabethan culture.
Our production will both lean into the absurdity perceived by the modern audience and provide, through movement and music, visceral pathways to understanding it in a modern context.
I’m really looking forward to directing this play. We’ve assembled an incredible group of artists, onstage and offstage, and I have no doubt that the show we put together will be not only spectacular and fun but meaningful and shrewd. Violence committed by one human being upon another should always be abhorrent to us, but not because of the gore or spectacle. It should not horrify so much as it should sadden. When I’m directing Titus and working with our combat choreographer, I will be focused on the human life under assault and on the loss that follows a death. This will not be a “Game of Thrones” style “slash um and forget um” play.
Then we can all look forward to contrasting this early play about revenge with the more mature Tempest.
In contrast to Titus’s exclamation,“I shall never come to bliss/Till all these mischiefs be return’d again/Even in their throats that have committed them,” Prospero’s final resolution to let his (or her) enemies walk away unpunished because, “the rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance” shows how time and experience changed Shakespeare, both as a playwright and a man.