Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Hamlet and Titus Andronicus

This fall semester I am taking a Shakespeare class with an amazing professor who makes the class so entertaining. The first play we tackled was Hamlet and I was super excited to read Hamlet because I have never read it and it is one of Shakespeare’s more popular tragedies. After reading Hamlet I don’t see how it is one of his more popular tragedies.

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The play starts out with some of the guards seeing Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Why is this significant. Hamlet’s father had passed away about two months ago so Hamlet was looking for direction especially when his mother decided to marry Hamlet’s uncle two months after his father’s death. What is so interesting about the play is that it is all written from Hamlet’s point of view. He is the main character of this play and so everything is somewhat seen from his point of view which is interesting considering it is a play and you don’t really have a point of view. Upon seeing his father’s ghost Hamlet is told by the ghost to seek revenge on his uncle who murdered Hamlet’s father. It’s a regular Lion King, which I didn’t realize was a form of Hamlet until after reading the play. Hamlet is broody, and downright weird throughout the entire play and ends up getting his lover Ophelia to kill herself because he is so focused on revenge. It wasn’t a revenge play because while there was revenge to be had Hamlet wasn’t a likable character. I honestly didn’t want him to get revenge and found myself rooting for King Claudius. I felt sorry for Ophelia and I didn’t like the queen mainly because she moved on so easily. I can’t assume things about the marriage because since it is written from Hamlet’s point of view I don’t know what to make of the marriage between Hamlet’s parents. Did Gertrude love her husband or did she marry him out of duty? There is a lot that has to be assumed about the relationships in the play because Shakespeare limited the audience with Hamlet’s opinions and point of view. It’s clever because it makes one rethink the whole revenge thing. Usually the revenger is justified but in this instance is he or is Hamlet just a brooding, angry teenager? He did have the crown taken away from him, and his mother disrespected his father but Hamlet’s actions lead me to hate him. He is brash, reckless and has clear disregard for anyone but himself.

The next tragedy we read was Titus Andronicus and I enjoyed this play much more.

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The play opens with Titus Andronicus returning from war with the goths, with his dead sons in tow and the queen of the Goths, Tamora, and her three sons. Titus immediately kills Tamora’s oldest son in revenge for the deaths of his sons and thus starts a chain of events that eventually leads to his death. Tamora upon witnessing the death of her eldest child determines to get revenge on Titus. First she pledges herself in marriage to the emperor of Rome, Saturninus, (who was appointed emperor by Titus after telling the populous he didn’t want to be emperor and that Satuninus, being the eldest son of the previous emperor had the right to the throne), after Titus’s daughter Lavinia ran away with Bassianus who happened to be Saturninus’s younger brother, and probably the better choice for Rome. Tamora has established herself in a position of power but she has one fault and that is her moor lover Aaron. Aaron is inherently evil and wishing to help his lover Tamora engages her two remaining sons to further seek revenge on Titus. He tells Chiron and Demetrius to rape Lavinia and disfigure her (cut our her tongue and cut off her hands) and murder Bassianus. Aaron pinned the murder of Bassianus on two of Titus’s sons and then had Titus cut off his own hand to try and “save” his sons. Of course Aaron is is evil and doesn’t actually deliver the hand to the emperor so Titus’s son’s can be saved. The one interesting thing about this play is after these events occur Tamora gives birth to a black baby. After reading the play the events all seem to occur within three or four days so how does Tamora get away with being pregnant with Aaron’s baby and no one noticing? The theory that my professor told me is that this is Shakespeare’s way of marking time. Tamora was hoping to pass the child off as Saturninus’ child but because it is black she cannot. Aaron was going to swap out the child with another moor child that was born white so as that a moor could one day ascend the Empire but his plans are thwarted by his own love of his child. While the moor leaves Rome to take his child into the wilderness to raise it, Titus murders Chiron and Demetrius after learning from Lavinia that they were the ones that had raped and mutilated her and had also killed Bassianus. An interesting questions arise after the scene where Lavinia finally revealed her rapists. Why hadn’t she told anyone sooner? She had written their names in the sand so clearly she could still write despite the loss of her hands, so why wait until now? I am not sure of this other than again timing and the fact no one had thought to question Lavinia of the fact that she had been raped. Obviously she had been mutilated but the question of rape never arose and it very well could be because of the time period and that rape was never quite defined until the 19th century.

After murdering Tamora’s two sons Titus bakes them into a pie and serves the pie to Tamora and Saturninus. It is during this scene that Lavinia asks her father to take her life and he does so. Titus then stabs Tamora, Saturninus stabs Titus and Titus’s only remaining son stabs Saturninus. This all happens quite quickly and while many scholars have spent countless hours criticizing this play I rather like the dramatic ending and the violence throughout. This is a tragedy and by definition should be filled with tragic events. It clearly isn’t going to end happy and yet people still find something to criticize about this play. If you want a story full of violence, rape, gore, murder, cannibalism¬†then Titus Andronicus is the play for you.

-A

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