To present the most violent situation, one needs to adopt the calmest way....
--Tang Shu-wing (2004: 134)
From Rome to Asia: Shakespeare in Violence
Shakespeare's most modern insight into the hellish darkness of humankind's inhumanity is undoubtedly his invention of violence, be it expressed as war, vengeance, murder, rape, or any other form of cruelty and hatred. The questions left behind by the dramatist are: which dramatic language is the most appropriate for presenting violence to today's audience--mimetic realism, stylized formalism, parodistic absurdism, or some other approach? Is violence actable? Are victims of violence representable? The issue of representation is both ethical and aesthetical. And in the global context of geodramatics, between "Western" and "Eastern" productions, what kind of theatrical presentation can lead to an effective societal representation of violence? How can Asian theatre traditions enrich the exploration of the problematics of artistic (re)presentation of violence? Titus Andronicus, the most violent play attributed to Shakespeare, shows us how violence exercises its mighty power through human desires. It is a breathtaking thrill that has reemerged in recent decades to require us to rethink the present human condition in the world of violence. When the ancient Roman story was retold by Taiwanese, Japanese, and Hong Kong theatricians in the new millennium, Shakespeare was violently reinterpreted in Asia. This article will first review six stage and filmic productions to discuss the problematics of different approaches to this play and then focus on the most recent Hong Kong production that effectively deals with the staging of violence in the age of commercial reproduction.
Titus Andronicus, believed to be Shakespeare's earliest tragedy and composed around 1593, relates the family feud between Titus Andronicus, a fictional Roman general, and Tamora, the captive Goth Queen. The audience is confronted with cruelty in the very first scene when Lucius, one of the four surviving sons of Titus, lops off the limbs of Tamora's oldest son and incinerates his entrails as sacrifice for Lucius's twenty-one brothers who died in the decade-long war against the Goths, though the rites are carried out offstage. To avenge her oldest son, Tamora marries Saturninus, the new emperor of Rome, and adopts the stratagem designed by her slave-lover Aaron the Moor. A conspiracy is formed to murder Saturninus's younger brother; ravish his wife, Lavinia, Titus's only daughter; and incriminate Titus's sons. After the gang rape right on top of her husband's dead body, Lavinia's tongue is cut out and her hands are chopped off, so that she can neither speak nor write to reveal the crime committed by Tamora's two remaining sons. Aaron then hews Titus's hand as a ransom for his two sons' lives but returns to him only their severed heads. Lucius is banished, but he seizes the opportunity to instigate and lead the Goths in waging a vengeful war against Rome. The brutal tale climaxes with a cannibal banquet, at which Titus serves Tamora cakes baked with the flesh of her sons before stabbing her and then himself being slain by the emperor, who in turn is assassinated by Lucius. Lucius thereupon becomes Rome's new ruler, who orders Aaron to be starved unto death.
With thirteen characters killed onstage, massacre is the prime spectacle of Titus. Violence characterizes not only the action but also the language of the revenge genre, as exemplified in the following monologue of Titus before Tamora's sons:
You know your mother means to feast with me,
And calls herself Revenge and thinks me mad.
Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,
And with your blood and it I'll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase. …