BOOKS: Tragedy of an Elizabethan Psycho

Article excerpt

The Arden Shakespeares, with their drippy-hippy covers, spurred generations of students to tutorial one-upmanship, furnished actors with tantalising variants on well-worn speeches and turned directors into enthusiastic texual scholars. Now the series is being relaunched with a third edition, beginning with Titus Andronicus, edited by Jonathan Bate, King Henry V (T W Craik) and Antony and Cleopatra (John Wilders). Making definitive texts for the Shakespeare canon may seem the bibliographical equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge; the second edition took 20 years to finish, but the third will be complete by the end of the century.

Although a benchmark in Shakespearean textual scholarship, it is intended to be authoritative but not authoritarian. "It's more about showing how different editors approach the text and how they come to their decisions," says Trude Spruyt, of Routledge. "We encourage readers to question those decisions by understanding what they are based upon." Jonathan Bate's passionate and stylish introduction to Titus Andronicus, adapted and extracted here, pays due regard to feminist and post-'60s literary theory, with its emphasis on linguistics, and discusses innovative stagings to make us see the play anew.

Shakespeare's earliest and bloodiest tragedy has had a curious history. It was hugely successful in its own time - indeed, it perhaps did more than any other play to establish its author's reputation as a dramatist - but it has been reviled by critics. Yet Peter Brook's production with Laurence Olivier as Titus was one of the great theatrical experiences of the 1950s, and Deborah Warner's with Brian Cox was the most highly acclaimed Shakespearean production of the 1980s.

The play began getting a negative press among literary critics in the 18th century because it was thought to be in bad taste. Not only is a hand chopped off on stage: worse, dreadful puns are made about it ("O handle not the theme, to talk of hands,/Lest we remember still that we have none"). But fashions in taste go around and come around, and in its willingness to confront violence, often in ways that are simultaneously shocking and playful, our culture resembles that of the Eliza-bethans more than that of Dr Johnson. To understand Titus Andronicus is at once to perceive its proximity to King Lear and to apprehend the difference between a slasher movie and a tragedy.

SPACE AND STRUCTURE

Elizabethan theatres allowed for triple-layered performance. There was a gallery or upper stage, the main stage which projected into the auditorium, and the cellarage below the stage, reached by a trapdoor. In Titus Andronicus Shakespeare made bold and innovative use of all three levels.

Where the first act is dominated by the question of who controls the upper stage, symbolic of the Capitol, of power over Rome, the second is dominated by the pit, represented by the trap-door. Attention shifts from the body politic to the human body. The forest is a place where desire can be acted out: Tamora comes to make love to Aaron, Chiron and Demetrius rape Lavinia.

The rape cannot be shown on stage, but it is evoked through the simultaneous action of the pit scene. We do not have to be card-carrying Freudians to see the connection between what we know Chiron and Demetrius are doing to Lavinia, and Quintus' description of a "subtle hole", "Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers / Upon whose leaves are drops of new- shed blood", or Martius' reference to "the swallowing womb / Of this deep pit". "This detested, dark, blooddrinking pit", "this fell devouring receptacle", "this gaping hollow" (OED's earliest record of the adjective), "the ragged entrails of this pit": the language becomes darkly obsessive, evocative not only of death and hell but also of the threatening female sexuality of Tamora. The "mouth" of the pit becomes crucial when we realise that Lavinia is not only being raped but also having her tongue cut out; throughout the play, the action turns on mouths that speak, mouths that abuse and are abused, mouths that devour. …