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Come Down and Welcome Me to This World's Light: Titus Andronicus and the Canons of Contemporary Violence

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"Come Down and Welcome Me to This World's Light": Titus Andronicus and the Canons of Contemporary Violence

Philip C. Kolin, University of Southern Mississippi

Early criticism of Titus Andronicus tried to come to terms with the violence in the play by confining its horror to Elizabethan England. The bloody grotesqueries in Titus were seen as characteristic of Shakespeare's age. In the process, both the times and the mores were indicted; Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audience were tainted. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, pronounced that Titus was "obviously intended to excite vulgar audiences by its scenes of blood and horror."1 In the early 1850s, Georg Gottfried Gervinus similarly attacked Titus and accused Shakespeare of pandering to the Elizabethan demand for blood and guts: "If it be asked, how it were possible that Shakespeare with his finer nature could even have chosen such a play even for the sake of love of opportunity … we must not forget that the young poet must always in his taste do homage to the multitude, and that … he would be stimulated to speculation upon their applause, rather than by the commands and laws of an ideal."2 A few years later, John Addington Symonds added more coals to the fires over which Titus was roasted: "Playwrights used every conceivable means to stir the passions and excite the feeling of their audience. They glutted them with horrors."3 The editor of the original (1904) Arden edition of Titus, H. Bellyse Baildon, credited Shakespeare for writing Titus and claimed that he was "afraid of mulcting his audience of the sensationalism they loved."4

Some sophisticated readers and playgoers of the twentieth century continue to deprive Titus of praise. J. Dover Wilson characterized Titus as a foolish parody—the revenge play heaping revenge upon itself. Titus was "a huge joke which, we may guess, Shakespeare enjoyed twice over, once in the penning of it, and again in performance, while he watched his dear groundlings, and most of those in the more expensive parts of the theatre also, gaping ever wider to swallow more as he tossed them bigger and bigger gobbets of sob-stuff and raw beef-steak."5 Similarly, for the novelist Evelyn Waugh, the "text seemed to hold no potentiality save burlesque."6 Dan Sullivan began his review of a 1967 production noting that "this gory and ungrateful play … is so crudely pitched at the lowest element in the Elizabethan audience—what might be called the bear-baiting crowd—that some scholars refuse to believe that Shakespeare actually wrote it, and most wish that he hadn't."7

Coleridge's response, or Waugh's, or Sullivan's is culturally myopic. Claiming that Titus's violence is crude and unapplicable to audiences today is misleading and unfair; it depoliticizes any attempt on the part of critic or director to interpret Shakespeare in light of contemporary anxieties and instabilities. The Elizabethan-myopic school of Titus criticism by branding the play as sixteenth-century Grand Guignol missed the mark...

(The entire section is 5,206 words.)