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Longing for Titus' big screen debut.


This article examines the emotional imbalance inflicted upon the title character in Julie Taymor's film adaptation of Titus Andronicus. The murder and torture of his children brings to the fore Titus' longing for stability, thus urging a cognitive assessment of the impact resultant from familial destruction. His internal struggles disclose the complexities involved in balancing love and sadness, compassion and anger. By acknowledging the intertwining of dichotomous emotions, students see in the film a character that defies stereotype or strict categorization as an unfeeling murderer.


With the release of Titus, the major motion picture based on Shakespeare's The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, educators for the first time have the opportunity to show scenes of this macabre play to their classes. [1] Since some may fear that a production of such a bloody drama may disturb student sensibilities or divert attention away from the play's artistic merit, I attempt here to ease this worry by submitting a strategy of how to incorporate the film into the classroom in order to heighten student appreciation for the play. Since it is "arguably the most filmic of all Shakespeare's plays," a pedagogy illustrating Titus' salience not only allows the student to discern how the play's shocking and outrageous visual elements comment upon a father's (in)ability to console and unify his victimized family, but also undoes expectations of violent cinematic dramas. [2] This article seeks to create a means for student viewers to connect personally with the film so that the tortures, dismemberments, and grisly murders do not disaffect their critical consciousness.

Since the idea of "personally connecting" may connote an emotionally-laden sentiment, its import here is to affirm the students' own experiences, apply this knowledge to the action on the screen, and recognize that the play's value supersedes mere violent gratuity. The sought-after connection derives from a heightened awareness of internal coping mechanisms--particularly longing--and their capability to maintain mental stability. Subsequently, the scenes most suitable for class discussion revolve around the father-daughter relationship between Titus and Lavinia. [3] This familiar dynamic brings to light the human qualities in an otherwise inhuman play. Titus' struggle with his children's torments forces the audience to recognize the multiple pressures altering his state of mind. Director Julie Taymor chooses not to show explicitly the play's mutilations, focusing instead upon the consequences of these horrors upon Titus' concept of paternal care. [4] The result is a character portrayal of a father's longing to express compassion and preserve his sanity. This dual perspective invites the viewer to consider the manageability of those tragedies that exceed the bounds of human decency.

Longing defines Titus' self-destruction and highlights the play's ethical quagmires, for it refers directly to a juxtaposition of positive emotions with negative ones, such as love and sadness, or happiness and depression. It is a need for something without which one's life does not feel complete. [5] Approaching the movie from this angle provides a methodological framework that corresponds with the students' real-life experiences from which they understand the compounding of conflicting emotions and its effect upon one's sense of well-being. The sorrow accompanying their separation from their families and the joy in cultivating their independence work hand-in-hand as part of their collegiate maturation. Consequently, they can appreciate the pressures imposed by emotional difficulties. This connection with Titus and his family proffers an avenue to grasp how difficulties of this kind can cause irrational or anomalous behavior. They recognize the value intrinsic in seeking and studying the interior composition of the Titus character. Such an interpretative search fosters a conscientious examination of the psyche's complexity and need for secure relationships. Hence, by placing the play's violence within a recognizable context, Titus' depiction of grief and familial longing does not dissociate itself from student experience.

In the film, Taymor's direction underscores the growing desolation that separates a father from his family and his consequent need for dependable companionship. The paternal dysfunction disturbingly apparent at the beginning of the play gives way to a desperate campaign to fight off distance and alienation from his loved ones and reacquire the ability to support them. However, to avoid a maudlin depiction of his woes, Taymor must cast an actor whose screen presence prompts the audience to consider conscientiously all the factors that affect Titus' condition. Keenly, she assigns Sir Anthony Hopkins to the title role. As his fame draws largely on his academy-award winning performance as a psychiatrist who eats human flesh in Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins fits perfectly into the role of a mentally tortured "hero." I urge them to note how their own internal coping mechanisms have already "kicked in" to shield them from the emotional disquietude sure to arise from these scenes. I ask them to reflect on how Titus, who must endure these atrocities first-hand, will bend under this stress, how sadness and anger will vie for psychological dominance. With this in mind, we speculate upon the raw emotion, hurt, and longing that we are about to see in the most invidious act in the play: Lavinia's rape and Titus' attempt to cope with this crime.

Before showing this scene, I must be mindful of the wide range of experiences and tolerances that exist within the classroom. Explaining that this is one of the most disturbing scenes in the entire Shakespeare canon and that for centuries many theatergoers have opted not to even watch the play, I offer them the choice to watch the film. I start the movie at the point where Tamora callously ignores Lavinia's pleas for mercy and release from the hands of her sons, Chiron and Demetrius. True to the text, Taymor does not shoot the actual crime, concentrating instead upon the atmospheric setting and its conveyance of the tragedy. The camera first shows the aftermath of this brutality by slowly zooming in on a desolate environ where nothing grows and only desiccated trees remain. These trees are grounded in the thick mud of a dying swamp. Metaphorically, the setting underlines the spirit-breaking effects of such a ruinous offense. The camera then views from the back Lavinia's pale body amongst the high branches of a barren tree and comes to rest on the perpetrators, Chiron and Demetrius. Accentuating their moral corruption, the camera watches from a distance as they mock Lavinia and abandon her. By not dwelling upon the cruelty done to her, Taymor avoids a sensationalistic approach to the crime. [6] Instead she looks at the victim's condition. Lavinia wears an unstained white undergarment; her hair falls unkempt down her shoulders and the sides of her face; and, perhaps most telling, branches have replaced her once delicate hands. This substitution resolves one of the most difficult decisions in directing Shakespeare's text. The stage line reads--"Enter the Empress' sons with Lavinia, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished (2.3)." [7] Although a significant discharge of blood from her limbs and mouth would obviously result in a realistic portrayal, Taymor emphasizes the psychic damage upon Lavinia. [8] This proves much more unsettling than the physical loss. In fact, no blood appears at all until her uncle, Marcus, approaches and asks why she does not respond to his questions. When she attempts to answer him, the musical score increases in volume as blood pours from her lips. This visual embeds itself upon the students' conscience.

To help shake the students loose from their paralytic reaction to this scene, I ask if someone can give a visceral response to what they just watched. Beverly, a bright and expressive student, offers her view--
 Even though we read and discussed this in class, watching it was
 far more upsetting than I thought it would be. (Pause.) What the
 hell is Tamora's problem? That woman is evil incarnate.

The floodgates open with other student responses. Some express agreement with Beverly's position; others cannot get beyond Lavinia's mournful condition; and others, even with the tasteful yet disturbing depiction, find the scene too emotionally disconcerting to say anything positive about Taymor's directorial interpretation. With this fervor pulsating throughout the room, I ask how they would comfort Lavinia. They are unsure what to say, unsure what would offer solace. Their silence, I suggest, can be attributed to the conflicting elements in their intense longing for Lavinia's welfare. While pleased that she survives the ruthless mistreatment of Tamora and her sons, they are deeply troubled as to what Lavinia can do to regain her sense of control and dignity. Poignantly, Taymor has Marcus finish his speech, "O, could our mourning ease thy misery!" with Lavinia in his arms (2.4.57). His words sound frail and ineffective when juxtaposed with the stark evidence of savagery. I pose the questions--"Will his words help ease her misery? If not, what more can be done?" [9] As they remember the image of disheveled Lavinia looking at her uncle, their answers drift back intermittently, not as forceful or certain as the judgment passed on Tamora's offspring. Having exposed the unexpected difficulties in expressing compassion to a victim of extreme cruelty, we turn our attention to Titus.

Prior to Lavinia's rape, Titus has been consumed with a desperate hope for the acquittal of his two condemned sons. Taymor has accentuated the implausibility of this hope by having the Roman tribunes walk by him, ignoring his pleas; she then places Titus facedown on a cobblestone road ruminating over his murder of Mutius. Such a sight underscores the unrest rampaging his psyche and reveals the first dimension of the longing impulse: a concerted focus upon an object or oneself. [10] His sullen fixation on the fate of his sons prevents him from seeing the tattered thread holding his remaining family together. A momentary silence serves as the focal point of this scene. [11] When Marcus shows his brother, Titus, and his nephew, Lucius, Lavinia's loss of hands, Lucius turns away in disgust. Taymor, however, does not permit Titus to do the same. Rather, she directs him to stare straight at Lavinia and deliver his words with a strained, controlled voice. The notable absence of emotion works just as effectively as Lucius' turning away in conveying the horror. To accentuate it further, Taymor has Titus reach for Lucius' sword in an effort to cut off his own hand. This action speaks to the inability of words to convey compassion and assuage pain. In addition, it indicates that he cannot bear the weight of witnessing such a crime against his own flesh and blood. When Titus afterwards embraces Lavinia tightly to assure her that the future does hold hope, the scene fosters a belief that a paternal redemption, no matter how minimal, may be possible.

With these scenes before the class, I clarify the underlying import of the "longing" stratagem. It provides a framework with which to interpret Titus' state of mind so that neither the aberrant conditions he is subjected to nor the aberrant actions he takes wholly alienate the audience. By accepting that a functional human response system is in place to explicate how individuals cope with tragedy, the student can see clearly how both the play and the movie make its psychic impact by relentlessly exceeding any "objective correlative" that one might attempt to establish between its action and relatively normal human experience as we tend to define it in our everyday lives. The longing stratagem underscores how the experiences of the Andronicus family, for the most part, surpass normative human interaction: the family having been driven to this extreme both by its enemies within Rome and by actions taken by the family's patriarch. This view prevents a blanket dismissal of the violence as simply offensive. Instead, the students become open and willing to explore the more profound tragic elements at work in this play. As our discussion of longing establishes a connection to Titus's family relations and inner depth of character, we become more open to the larger forces and conventions at work in the play and film. Its study is not a panacea to resolving all the difficulties of the text, but as a means to probe deeply into the titular character both to spur on further inquiry and to serve as a lodestone to guide succeeding interpretations, such as Taymor's expanded role of young Lucius to re-establish human relations within the Andronici.

The students' awareness of the longing impulse helps them disengage their precipitate negativity against Titus. They sense Titus' difficulty in reconciling longing's uneven polarity between distress at Lavinia's condition and joy that she lives. An intrigue concerning Titus' emotional evolution (or de-evolution) results. In response, we carefully examine Titus' caring response to his family. When Marcus tells his brother that "consuming sorrow" will overcome him when he sets his eyes upon his daughter, Titus does not turn away in abject horror as does Lucius. Standing firmly, Titus looks straight into Lavinia's eyes and delivers his lines stolidly:
 Fainthearted boy, arise, and look upon her.
 Speak, Lavinia, what accursed hand
 Hath made thee handless in thy father's sight? (3.1.66-8)

The chaotic unbalance of sadness over his daughter's injuries and his relief that she is alive unleashes a destructive longing within his psyche. His emphasis upon the word "hand" highlights another dimension of longing, specificity. Unable to grasp the abstract severity of the crime, Titus must divert his attention to an object with discernible parameters, not allowing his grieving process to run rampant. Once fixated upon this object, he can complete the process of longing by choosing to be either an active or passive respondent to that object. Titus chooses an active role by attempting to cut off his own hands. Though Lucius prevents him from completing the desired action, the attempt at dismemberment betrays the conscious desire for something better. Accordingly then, Taymor situates each member--Titus, Marcus, Lavinia, and Lucius--on a crossroads facing away from one another. By having each family member stare out into the horizon, pondering what has been lost and what remains, she creates a contemplative mood reflecting the burden of longing weighing upon each member. Although their paths may be divergent, their immediate connection to one another becomes apparent when Titus crosses through the intersection and holds Lavinia. His comforting embrace raises the specter of hope, eclipsing the heavy sadness and depression that threatens his love and happiness.

The infamous bloody banquet scene where Titus, Lavinia, Tamora, and Saturninus all meet their fate is appropriately filmed as a mixture of comic absurdity and disbelief. Half the class laughs at the array of exotic ways to commit murder: swallowing a silver ladle, shooting a Luger, or shoving a candelabrum into the chest cavity. The other half remains mute, shocked that the play can find even more ways to portray a maelstrom of violence. Their disparate responses complete our discussion of longing, its role in Titus' characterization, and the personal connection to this coping mechanism. Their reactions personify how an individual can experience two different emotions at once and how disorientating this effect can be, especially when facing a disturbing situation. Although it does not excuse Titus' disregard for the value of life, it provides a foundation for the students to scrutinize the play's merit and the film's unique perspective.


[1] The cinematic potential for this play has seemingly been realized in the late 1990s with the release of four cinematic adaptations. Excluding Taymor's picture, the remaining three are as follows: Lorn Richey's Titus Andronicus (1996), Christopher Dunne's Titus Andronicus (1999), and Richard Griffin's William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (2000) Of these three productions, only Dunne's is readily available for purchase through commercial distributors. This production, however, grossly stresses the play's excessive gore and violence, thus making it difficult, if not impossible, to recommend it for the classroom.

[2] Deborah Cartmell, Interpreting Shakespeare on Screen (New York: St. Martin's P, 2000), 11.

[3] Numerous recent articles examine Lavinia's singular role as a victimized female. Among others, see Bernice Harris, "Sexuality as a Signifier for Power Relations: Using Lavinia, of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus," Criticism 38 (1996): 383-406; Sara Eaton, "A Woman of Letters: Lavinia in Titus Andronicus" in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, Eds. (Bloomington: Indian UP, 1996), 54-74.

[4] Taymor makes clear that she abhors the violent tendencies of today's filmmaking. She states in one interview: "I am so sick of stories like Pulp Fiction where you have a bunch of low-lifes being violent in a stereotypical low-life way. No real story." See Richard Schechner, "Julie Taymor: From Jacques Lecoq to The Lion King." The Drama Review 43.3 (1999): 45.

[5] Olle Holm, "Analyses of Longing: Origins, Levels, and Dimensions." Journal of Psychology 133.6 (1999): 624.

[6] To see how this portrayal of Lavinia differs from traditional presentations of female victims in Shakespearean plays, see Carol Chillington Rutter, "Looking at Shakespeare's Women on Film," in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film. ed. Russell Jackson (Cambridge UP, 2001), 241-60.

[7] All quotations are taken from the Arden edition of Titus Andronicus ed. Jonathan Bate (New York: Routledge, 1995).

[8] For a short study on the image of violence in literature, see Jill Nichols, "Violent Believing," Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery, (1995): 391-95.

[9] To see a helpful illustration of presenting questions to a class about a Shakespearean film, see Michael J. Collins, "Using Films to Teach Shakespeare," Shakespeare Quarterly, 46.2 (1995): 233.

[10] Holm, 626.

[11] For a thorough discussion of silence's import in Shakespearean tragedy, see Philip C. McGuire, Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences, (Berkeley: U of California P, 1985).

David Strong, University of Texas at Tyler

Dr. Strong's teaching-research agenda includes Early British Literature Survey, Shakespeare, and Scholastic philosophy.
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Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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