Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Titus Andronicus

SubPlot Studios invited me to take part in designing a theater poster to sell on their shiny new website. Their main goal is to make quality and affordable poster designs available to theatre companies, high schools, and other professional venues that might otherwise not have the funds to create unique designs to promote their shows. By doing so they hope to support the performing arts in our communities and schools, while working with an array of talented artists along the way.

Here is a direct link to the poster: Titus Andronicus. If you scroll over the image you will get a feel for how fully customizable it is.

I got to choose the play, which was a pretty nice incentive. There were many great plays on the list that I would have loved to work on, but when I saw Titus Andronicus was available I felt like it was one I just couldn't pass up. It's a play I studied in college, and I remember feeling struck by it then. The blood? The animal references? How could I pass that up?

There is so much going on in Titus Andronicus, and you could hardly claim any of it to be pretty. It's considered one of Shakespeare's most violent plays, and often is looked down on as being nothing more then shock and awe. Though it is crazy violent, I find it incredibly interesting. Revenge and betrayal are the blatant themes, but the more interesting ones (at least to me) involve gender, race and power. I don't think you can capture it all in one poster. Well... maybe you can but it might make you sick, and I was looking to make something simple, striking and not terribly vomit inducing.

With so many themes to pick from I decided to focus on the character I dwell on the most and the part of the story that strikes me hardest: the rape and torture of Titus's daughter Lavinia.

Lavinia is used as a symbol of Rome, where the story takes place. Her rape is compared to its fall. Her attackers described as tigers and wild beasts. Titus even says, "...dost thou not perceive that Rome is but a wilderness of tigers? Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey but me and mine." Wild animals, hunting, and dismembered body parts (particularly hands) are mentioned throughout the play, and were other aspects I chose to highlight in the illustration.

I'm going to indulge in some personal thoughts on the play from here on out. It's a brutal topic, so if you don't wish to feel incredibly depressed you may not want to read on. That being said, if you don't mind some heartbreak and upset, please read on and let me know your thoughts.

In a lot of ways Lavinia's part in this story drives me nuts. It's painful and terrible. She's more a symbol then a character. She's considered an object most of the time. I get the impression from the start that she may be smart and willful... even defying her father's choice of suitor, and running away to marry the dude she truly loves. Nice! (Though, because of her lack of dialogue here and depending on interpretation, it's entirely possible she was dragged off by the dude caveman-fashion.) That aside, she is then used as a tool. Her suffering used as punishment and payback for the crimes of her father. Her husband, Bassianus, is killed and thrown in a pit. She is raped, her hands cut off, her tongue cut out. Silenced for a time. She hides in the woods. Insult to devastating injury, when she is found she gets referred to as "object" and an "it." Though she isn't completely silenced and eventually is able to name her attackers, it's just a small victory. For in the end she loses her life. Her own father kills her to supposedly free her from "shame." After a hypothetical discussion with another man, the Emperor, Titus is told that it's ok to kill a daughter if she is raped, "Because the girl should not survive her shame, And by her presence still renew his sorrows." Titus replies:

A reason mighty, strong, and effectual;
A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant,
For me, most wretched, to perform the like.
Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee;"
"And, with thy shame, thy father's sorrow die!

It's been awhile since I read Titus, and it's not clear to me now if death at her father's hands is even what she wanted. It certainly doesn't seem to be her decision. It's true that before she is raped, she begs for death... Still, it irks me that her rape should be her shame, and that she should be punished even more afterwards with death. Again, her true feelings would depend on the interpretations of actors and directors of the time. Maybe in Shakespeare's time she would have accepted death. Maybe in his time she would see rape as a fate worse then death, because society would see her as useless and damaged goods after. From a more modern standpoint, I'd prefer to see a Lavinia fighting to stay alive to make her own choices concerning the matter. Whether that choice be to live or die, it should be her own to make and not yet another awful thing forced upon her.

I feel so many things about this old story mirrors rape in these so-called modern times. Even now, people try to stigmatize rape victims. Try to shame them into thinking it's their fault. Make a woman feel that, somewhere along the line, she lost the right to her own body. ("How was she dressed?" "Was she drunk?" "She was ASKING for it.") Suddenly she loses all say in the matter; suddenly her body becomes an object or an it. People are questioning her right to her body, and handing those rights to the rapist for no reason at all. I've even read opinions were people compare a women's body to a person jangling the loose change in his pocket. Enticing thieves. As if having change in your pocket makes it okay for someone to steel it. As if having breasts makes it okay to rape. As if a body is something you can consider property for the taking under certain situations. A thief causes theft, as a rapist causes rape. They are who deserve the shame.

Beside all that, the money comparison makes me think back on Lavinia especially. Seems like the people in her life truly believed her body was their property and her only currency in life. Once it was abused she became basically... bankrupt? That Titus treats her as property and is able to decide what to do with "his" damaged goods afterwards is a terrifying crime in my mind. A very traditional way to think that disturbs me to no end.

I find myself writing and writing and writing. Not to mention it's on only a piece of the entire tangled story. I suppose this is why I like Titus Andronicus in the first place. It can put you into thinking rages. Which really are maddening, inspiring, and tiring all in one.


  1. Awesome as always. Titus is one of the few plays I've seen that made me physically ill. But I love it.

  2. Thanks Shaun. Have you seen it performed live? I haven't, but would like to someday.