Archive for July, 2011


A Study of “Poor Susan”: Poetic Principles and Ambiguity Analyzed

As arguably the most popular Romantic poet in the history of literature, William Wordsworth is regarded by many to be the exemplar of the poetic craft.  As the Romantics preferred illustrating emotional/intuitive themes in their poetry over the hard-line concept of reason, a type of verse was born that gave readers a figurative breath of fresh air and centered on common, natural subjects and themes that were both full of definitive meaning and ambiguity.  The purpose of this essay then argues that despite his “Poor Susan” being a somewhat minor poem in the canon of Wordsworth – Peter Manning regards it as never being “central to the presentation of Wordsworth” (Manning 351) – it nonetheless remains compelling in that it addresses both social and gender themes of the early 19th century Romantic period.  Additionally, while it fits nicely around the poetic principles outlined by Wordsworth in his Lyrical Ballads, there is an arguable level of ambiguity surrounding Susan herself – which makes the poem even more receptive to a thoughtful and critical interpretation.

Wordsworth specifically defined a set of poetic principles that he regarded as necessary for the creation and handling of Romantic Era poetry.  First among these is the choice of subject from common life, with a touch of the humble, rustic, or simple.  This could also include elements of the natural world, for nature held a tremendous amount of importance for the Romantics.  Hand in hand with this concept is the use of common language, not flowery or ornate, but increasingly literal and exact in its descriptiveness.  He continues this guideline with the charge of gazing steadily at the subject, after which a spontaneous overflow of emotion will carry the poet into what he terms “emotion recollected in tranquility.”  This concept is best defined as the inspirational muse from which creativity flows forth – summarily gained only by deep introspection into the subject and a reverence for what it can display.

In this particular poem, ambiguity, or double-meaning, is also introduced as we meet Susan in the early morning hours on a London street.  As any student embarks on the task of critical interpretation, noticing ambiguity about her occupation, or why she is on the street at this hour, is vital to any real discussion.  Attempts at understanding what kind of woman Susan really is will certainly aid in the analysis.   David Simpson even argues in his article, “What Bothered Charles Lamb about Poor Susan?” that the work “is a very sophisticated poem…in particular and general ways” (Simpson 603).  This is to say that what is seemingly simple about the story is really anything but.  And while it may be easy to suggest that Susan is just a plain servant maid, an equally compelling argument can be made that she is indeed a prostitute (read: fallen woman) at the end of her “work-day.”  With this crucial ambiguity in mind, we can also address some of the social implications that would be prevalent during this era – including how women were viewed, what effects societal bias had on the lower class, and what role the Industrial Revolution may have had in framing much of this context.

Since subject matter is one of the most important poetic principles according to Wordsworth, it follows that this topic must serve as an appropriate jumping off point for our discussion.  The poet’s choice of subject fits nicely into his definition that it must be from common life – for we see a very common woman from a lower class background simply oozing humbleness.  Readers see her in a “plain russet gown,” carrying “her pail,” which are vivid images very unlike those associated with the upper-middle class.  She is what Manning calls “the rural girl transported to the city,” (Manning 361), and there is textual evidence to suggest that she has come to the city for economic reasons (her possession of a pail contributing to this idea of work), and not as a prostitute as the ambiguity would suggest.  As representative of this lower class, we are given a clear picture as to how this class of people may have been treated during this time.

Wordsworth’s use of common language solidifies this poem as also fitting into the poetic principles framework.  Not only does it use simple language to describe picturesque elements such as an “ascending” mountain, “green pastures”, and a “single small cottage…of the dale,” it brings to light the girl’s vision of her home in the country, something she is currently removed from, but longs for. He uses these elements to draw his reader into understanding the contrast between the pastoral setting of the country and the mean morning streets of the city, where “volumes of vapor…glide.”  David Simpson confirms this area of London as being “the place of work of the most miserable and unfortunate among that class.” (Simpson 593).  Wordsworth also uses this language to identify female images, such as the “nest like a dove’s,” and the notion in the final stanza of “receiving,” which is generally female in nature.  Both examples speak to the nurturing side of the female, which is in stark contrast to Susan’s character.

A third instance of the principles involves the steady gaze a poet must have in order to reach the overflowing emotion mentioned earlier.  There is little doubt that one would certainly have to gaze intently to come up with the level of emotion exhibited in this poem.  How else would a poet gain such intimate insight into the simple, sweet song of a rare bird in the city?  How else, other than by close observation, would a poet notice the notes of “enchantment,” or describe nature in such colorful detail?  In another example of how emotion is treated, my interpretation of the poem argues that Susan has been exiled to the city, away from her country home, which is the “only dwelling on earth that she loves.”  Placing this interpretation within the context of the time would indicate that she has done something to justify the exile, with the most reasonable explanation (in early 19th century idiom) being that her misdeed was sexual in nature.  Now she makes her living as a lowly servant maid, outcast and removed from her former life.  For a young English girl, the only acceptable solution and “place of resort would often be the streets of London” (596).  This would also explain what Simpson terms her “melancholy response to the thrush’s song,” (593) which is something she has heard against the “silence of the morning” for the last three years.  It fairly suggests that hearing the sweet melody of the bird reminds her of a happier place and time.  This, by all accounts, represents what Wordsworth would most assuredly term “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Much of this analysis also must consider that the Industrial Revolution created an extremely large jump in the urban population.  With more people in the area, an increased merchant class, and an exploding economy, there would necessarily be work to be found for a young girl like Susan.  Economically speaking, she was doing the only real thing she was qualified (expected?) to do.  The only other source of income for a female in her position would be prostitution, but I see very little evidence in the text that she fell to this option.  An additional point to be made in regards to the poem’s conclusion revolves around the idea of “thy Father” opening the door – most likely to welcome her back.  I prefer to interpret this not as Susan’s earthly father, but as a Christian allusion to God the Father.  Wordsworth’s capitalization of the word “Father” must symbolize something, and I think it is unlikely that this treatment of the word is accidental.  So in a sense, this is Susan’s acceptance, or redemption, in God’s eyes for her mistakes on earth.  This discussion maintains that yes, Susan was a fallen woman, but that redemption comes in the end as she is allowed to “hear the thrush sing from a tree of its own,” which can be viewed as a symbolic representation of her idea of heaven.

As with all critical readings, interpretations can be somewhat open and most often subject to even deeper criticism.  This is just one of many possible interpretations of one of Wordsworth’s less regarded poems.  As David Simpson remarks, in regard to the popularity of the work, “the ignoring of this poem (by critics) comes as no surprise” (590).  While this makes the task of a critical reading a little more difficult, it nonetheless offers us good, challenging work to undress some of the elements of subject, language, and emotion that we find within Wordsworth.  By doing this, a student can begin to understand how the poetic principles work, and see them in a definitive application.  Overall, the poem is a excellent study of Romantic-era verse and embodies exactly what the era was about – emotion in composition and expressing that emotion over reason.  For Wordsworth (who viewed the poet as removed from the reader by mere degrees), this was how he clearly thought of his craft:  being alive with elements of the natural, a spontaneous outpouring of sensation, and early 19th century idealism, with “emotion recollected in tranquility” leading the way.

Works Cited

Manning, Peter J. “Placing Poor Susan: Wordsworth and the New Historicism.” Studies in Romanticism 25.3 (1986): 351-369.

Simpson, David. “What Bothered Charles Lamb about Poor Susan.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol. 26.No. 4, Nineteenth Century (1986): 589-612.


The Rarer Action: Finding A Modern Redemptive Form in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Society has for centuries employed long-standing and effective systems for the punishment of criminals.  These methods have been defined by several resulting effects, whether they are transformative, reformatory, rehabilitative, or even complete failures.  Hank Rogerson has presented in his Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary a group of prisoners dedicated to the staging of William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest.  After consideration of both sources, a real need for further study becomes apparent in meshing the two into a solid explanation of theme:  such as salvation and recovery. The purpose of this essay, then, is to argue that while there is a definitive, tangible relationship between the inmates we meet in Rogerson’s documentary and the themes and characters of Shakespeare’s play, a gap still exists between the rationalization and defense of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program.  In several ways, the program works to provide educational and cultural advancement for those who have been sentenced to prison for their heinous crimes.  But is the focus on Shakespeare the right rehabilitative answer?  Should we even be concerned with a question such as this?  And how does the Bard’s The Tempest serve as an appropriate complement to the struggles and realities of prison life?   From an objective view, this argument will attempt to answer (if indeed answerable) many of these questions using Shakespeare’s text as a comparative tool and Rogerson’s film as a real-life application of some very real, sometimes disturbing, societal themes.

After reading The Tempest, the obvious themes that stood out were those revolving around redemption, forgiveness, and the equally compelling question of how to achieve both.  For Prospero, this realization came after he was unduly stripped of his power (relevance) and exiled to a remote desert island.  For the prisoners in our documentary, they also experience exile from society – but in a much different and extremely more consequential way.  Whereas Prospero was tricked by Antonio and his co-conspirator Alonso, resulting in his banishment, the inmates in Kentucky are imprisoned due to their own criminal (consequential) actions.  When we talk about forgiveness and redemption in the play, I think the focus should be on two things:  Prospero’s rationale to forgive those who wronged him, and what the effect of that redemptive action really became.  In a slight twist for a well-argued discussion of the documentary, forgiveness and redemption should center on the actual inmates and the question of whether or not they should be allowed forgiveness, and ultimately, freedom.  Wrapped up in all this analysis is the question of how does Shakespeare fit into the whole of the argument?

To analyze the film in terms of how it interprets the play in this particular instance is a decidedly stiff challenge.  We aren’t necessarily looking at a modern film adaptation, but more of a complementary/companion work – which leaves us with some seriously vexing questions.  The comparisons are easily defined – Prospero is banished, just like the prisoners.  Redemption is represented by his eventual forgiveness, which is what the inmates ultimately seek.  But how are the two related?  For one, even though I have some very conservative thoughts on the abstract, I feel everybody should be allowed forgiveness.  As difficult as it is to rationalize criminal activity (maybe completely impossible), and as much as I detested the crimes that were associated with men like Sammie (murderer) and Leonard (rapist), the Christian in me offers that redemption is not only advantageous to the soul, it is also a requirement demanded from God.  I think Prospero would be in agreement with me, as he famously states, “Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury / Do I take part.  The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance.”  His fury?  Juxtaposed against his virtue?  This declaration of “fury” is an excellent word to illustrate how rational people would consider their emotions over the crimes these men committed.  Being “furious” is highly representative of how the majority of our classmates felt about the film, too, according to several blog posts.  But Prospero, despite his much deserved anger, chooses to take the higher road and allow his evil brother and conspirators a second chance.  When he, in Act 5, tells Antonio, “most wicked sir, whom to / call brother / Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive / Thy rankest fault,” we see the depth of his sincerity and the power of his virtuousness.  Could we as a society ask that much of ourselves to give Rogerson’s prisoners some form of the same?

Secondly, it is an interesting point to examine how a savage and primitive character like Caliban compares to some of the inmates?  Without singling out any one man, but rather lumping them together as “criminal” or “monstrous”, there can be a strong and valid argument that their situations are very much the same.  There is ample evidence that Caliban deserved his own “imprisonment” as a slave for his attempted rape of Miranda early in the play.  In fact, this crime conveniently mirrors some of the crimes illustrated in the film.  In Act 3, Scene 2, the imprisoned, resentful (but not emotionless) Caliban talks about sleep and dreaming, and how he thought the clouds would open “and show riches / Ready to drop upon me,” but wakes up crying to the reality that this wasn’t going to happen.  A thoughtful look at this instance would compare his plight to that of a man like Ricky, who faced two life sentences without a chance at parole.  In his existence, which is to say a life without hope, we see that Caliban’s words are eerily similar.  What hope did Ricky have?  Was he ever going to be allowed a shot at redemption and eventual freedom to see light outside the prison walls?  Probably not, but the two scenarios are similar in that they show some of the despair associated with trying to overcome guilt and rationalize some harsh situations.  Sammie, too, makes the comment that he “just wants to leave here so badly,” or something to that effect, mirroring Caliban’s anger at being Prospero’s slave and tied to the island.

Another comparison between the two situations can be found in the question of responses.  What is there to say about the possibility of Antonio repeating his crime?  If granted redemption by Prospero, what would keep him from doing the same thing again?  What about the prisoners?  I think this deserves at least some consideration given the fact that such a possibility exists.  In the play, we are astounded that Prospero would “my charms…break,” and “drown my book” of magic, but he does it in a way that leaves him completely vulnerable in the end.  Does a modern day Antonio (Red, for example) take advantage of this gift of grace?  My contention is that an argument can be made that complete redemption can never be achieved.  Red, for example, was released on parole – but eventually went back to a life of crime and received an even longer sentence.  It would be unfair to have a frank discussion about these themes and how they stack up against Shakespeare’s text without at least considering this possibility.  My own study of the play suggests to me that Ariel would be thankful for the release.  Caliban is most definitely appreciative, as he promises to “be wise hereafter / And seek for grace.”

Much of the discussion up to this point has been about how the two sources compare to each other in terms of theme.  At this point, it is necessary to look at another very real application of the film and the play, which is to what effect does any of this information have on anything.  For me, it places value on the play by using it as a tool to try and correct a group of incorrigibles.  It is proof positive that despite the result, there is at least an attempt being made to introduce these incarcerated men to the beauty of the Bard’s prose and vivid imagery.  If nothing else, it gives them an alternative to the mundane prison life and a chance to expand and fill their minds with something of value – not drugs, or violence, or other negatives that have consumed them thus far.  In the character of Prospero, the prisoners can learn much about virtue, and most importantly, humility.  For what can be more humble than excising oneself of hatred, and resentment, and a former life (evidenced by his casting off of his magical accessories) and liberating the guilty?  In the virtuous Miranda, they can see that goodness is rewarded, despite what environment you find yourself in.  Honestly, was there any hope in her that she would be released from the island after twelve years of captivity?  Maybe the inmates could use her character as an excellent example of not letting the small details of circumstances disallow doing the right thing.  Sammie said it himself in one interview – that if he just got rid of guns, he’d do better as a man.  If he hung around a better crowd (changed his environment), he would improve his situation.  But those things didn’t help Sammie, primarily because what was inside him never changed.  His attitude, emotions, and inner being never matured enough to overcome the negative.  Miranda’s inside was inherently good, decent, and virtuous, so she was unaffected by exterior forces that would have reduced lesser individuals like Sammie (exile, lack of social opportunities, limited education, etc.)  All of this points to some very crucial revelations that there is indeed value in using a mystical play from the Renaissance to speak to modern day criminals.  What is compelling in this study of literature and its cumulative effect on society is that we sometimes miss the opportunity to share its value.  And for that reason, if for no other, sharing the Bard’s words at least gets the subject of education and reform rolling in a very positive way.

In hindsight, and thanks to updated information on the Shakespeare Behind Bars website, we can look at the prison cast of The Tempest and see how they fare today.  It is perhaps one of the strongest indications of whether or not the program has succeeded, or has merit of any kind.  On average, most of the inmates are in the exact same position, eight years later.  Analyzing this information alone would tell us that perhaps learning lines of Shakespeare and dressing up in magician’s robes has done nothing to rehabilitate these men.  I offer here that it probably will never achieve that goal, and that if the ultimate ambition of the program is to rehabilitate, then it has failed.  What I do like about it, however, is that it gives prisoners a literal education in something that they may never have had exposure to up to this point.  It allows them to take all the redemptive thematic elements of Shakespeare’s work, all the words of old Prospero, “I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art,” [read:  I do forgive you, you heartless bastard], and all the arresting subplots of the story to form thoughtful and introspective self-evaluations.

This marrying of Shakespeare’s 17th century play and Rogerson’s astute look at Kentucky state prisoners has most certainly triggered a thoughtful look at the value of redemption and the virtue of those who both seek it (Sammie, Leonard, etc.) and those who freely grant it (Prospero).  And while it is generally understood that several students will give several equally diverse interpretations, this singular argument maintains that the Shakespeare Behind Bars program is a positive step in the overall education of some very hardened criminals.  I hesitate at the conclusion of this essay to label the state’s efforts as “rehabilitative” only because I’m not sure if that word accurately illustrates the intent of the program.  Or, taking it a step further, I’m not even sure that it’s possible to rehabilitate these criminals.  What I do know, however, is that by placing a copy of The Tempest in the hands of a man who used those same hands to violently strangle his wife, society is at least making an honorable attempt to purge these inmates of their demons and guilt, and give them something of relevance to present to a judgmental society.  As the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand reconciled two fathers who had long been enemies, perhaps an introduction to Shakespeare can reconcile an equal amount of resentment in the lives of the prisoners.  At Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, just hearing the words of Prospero echoing in the common room should give us the hope of promise, “As you from crimes would pardoned be / Let your indulgence set me free.”  Shakespeare may not be the answer, but it certainly deserves the chance to try.


Antony and Cleopatra: A Non-tragic Study of Shakespeare’s Tragedy

In literature, “tragedy” can have any number of meanings or fluid interpretations. For William Shakespeare, tragedy generally involved the deaths of most of the main characters (in five Acts). His Antony and Cleopatra assuredly involves death, but is the play itself “worthy” of the tragic tag? From an interpretive standpoint, cohesive arguments could likely be made for both – either the play retains its traditional “tragic” label, or the label is removed by thoughtful and evidentiary consideration. The intention of this argument then becomes this: while there is certainly a great deal of thematic ambiguity surrounding the question of tragedy in Antony and Cleopatra, overwhelming evidence shows that the play really isn’t tragic at all – simply a causal effect of bad judgment, shallow self-analysis, and passive (if at all) reactivity.

To initiate any real and formative discussion on the subject of tragedy in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, a working definition must be introduced. supplies one such appropriate definition of the term:
“In literature, the concept of tragedy refers to a series of unfortunate events by which one or more of the literary characters in the story undergo several misfortunes, which finally culminate into a disaster of ‘epic proportions’. Tragedy is generally built up in 5 stages: a) happy times, b) the introduction of a problem, c) the problem worsens to a crisis/dilemma, d) the characters are unable to prevent the problem from taking over, e) the problem results in some catastrophic or grave ending, which is the tragedy culminated.”

This definition works in several ways, but the most important is that it qualifies the rationale behind our ability to objectively classify a work as “tragic”. Not only does it set forth strong parameters, but it also provides a nice chronological timeline of events that works well as a template when entering into such a debate. It thus becomes the interpreter’s task to decide whether the work in question fits well within this established reasoning.

Mark Antony and Cleopatra are not tragic figures. By our definition, there is the caveat that “the characters are unable to prevent the problem from taking over”. This is where the crux of our argument resides. Antony and Cleopatra had every opportunity to prevent their deaths (if we contend that death is the ‘disaster of epic proportions’ in our definition). The problem is that they don’t do anything of any real relevance. Antony is seen as being driven by lust, and of having his heart “pursed up” upon first seeing Cleopatra. By succumbing to this emotion, he allows himself to be manipulated and all his decisions become rooted within that context. As lust overwhelmed his good judgment in terms of his relationship with his soldiers, his wife Octavia, and even within his own self-evaluation, the statement can be made that he had (and completely gave up) control over his situation. Antony, despite his successes in the political and military arenas, is a very reactive character – he waits until things are done to him before he acts himself. Cleopatra, relishing in the spoils of being queen of Egypt, is a master manipulator, making their relationship bad (or depending on the view, at least ill-fated) from the beginning. There is no tragedy in this. While she effectively loses the empire for Antony in Act 3, Scene 10 with the apt illustration of, “nag of Egypt…the breeze upon her… hoists sails and flies,” it can be interpreted not as tragic, but merely unfortunate that Antony has withered under her spell once again. The inference is that he could have denied her and disallowed her manipulative power.

Another problem with this play being categorized as a tragedy lies in the conclusion, with both characters being ordered to the same grave by Caesar. This act, many critics might say, smacks of a happy ending. Two lovers reconciled in eternity certainly doesn’t seem all that tragic or cathartic from this aspect. While some may argue that their deaths are what symbolize the tragic element, this argument maintains that death isn’t the end of the story. When Caesar states that, “no grave upon the earth shall clip in it a pair so famous,” that becomes the point when any discussion of “disaster” or “epic proportions” falls silent. They are now paired together in perpetuity, not because of any “tragic” timeline of events, but because they couldn’t see past themselves (selfishly), understand their inherent nature (rationally), or remove themselves from a sense of fate (willfully). If anything, there exists a trace of sympathy, or pathos, but not enough to be confused with tragedy.

Perhaps a final and more inclusive illustration of the entire argument is this: as representative of the audience, Enobarbus might be the best lens through which to study the main characters of the play. He is the somewhat cynical “Everyman”, but his opinion/loyalty to Antony gives us great perspective when studying and commenting on how actions turn into consequence (non-tragically). In Act 2, Scene 2, he reveals that Antony, “pays his heart / For what his eyes eat only.” From this perspective, Antony is completely smitten with something he cannot have, and pays an accordingly steep price.

In reality, this is just one interpretation of many that could be ascribed to Shakespeare’s work. As with any interpretive assignment, students probably split the opinion down the middle with equally compelling arguments. For the sake of this argument, however, it is essential to remember two things. One is that sad doesn’t have the same meaning as tragic. Death isn’t always tragic. It can sometimes be glorious and honorable and fated. Secondly, and if we are to remain true to our initial definition of the term, we will see that much of what happens within the context of Shakespeare’s play is merely unfortunate and does not fit within the actual definition. There were really no “happy times” to start our story, and it never escalated (or declined) to a level our definition would suggest. Behind this reasoning, a case for thoughtful interpretation becomes necessary and an argument is born. For all intents and purposes, although a sad commentary on some very important elements such as pride, lust, manipulation, and moral weakness, this play cannot be called a tragedy. To do so not only flies in the face of accepted definitions, but also infers that death automatically complements “tragedy”. In this case, “sympathy” would be a much more apt description.


Titus vs. Titus Andronicus: Sex, Politics, and Society as Interpretive Themes

Titus Andronicus, a tragic play written by William Shakespeare, is both uniquely violent and thematically diverse. It bursts with such deeply-rooted elements of pride, sexuality, and revenge and explores such thematic concepts as language, race, gender, and politics. As such, it lends itself to an immense and widespread array of interpretations and analysis. This is most certainly true in the context of filmmaking, in that this play has so many acceptable and explorable areas in which to form differing commentaries. Since both the modern-day film version, Titus, and the original 16th century play have some wildly different illustrations of character, theme, and in some cases, plot, it becomes necessary to view them comparatively to gain a more complete understanding of some very complex elements. The main purpose of this essay, then, is to argue that while it is agreed that there are many possible interpretations of the play, there exist three distinct areas in which Julie Taymor’s film adaptation interprets Shakespeare’s original work – these originating from a sexual, political, and social standpoint. It is from this framework, thematically, that the biggest argument of interpretation must flow forth, with it being of equal importance how these views interact, either positively or negatively, with a personal interpretation of the primary text.

In order to initiate a cogent argument concerning something as broad and subjective as film interpretations of a four-hundred year old play against modern day views, some definitions are indeed necessary. In this essay, the force behind the main argument is that Taymor’s viewpoint must be measured against the three core thematic elements of sex, politics, and society. Granted, these are heavy and broad-reaching terms, both in modern culture and in Shakespeare’s time, and a clear understanding is needed to fully embrace the concepts the director is attempting to illustrate on the big screen.

Sexuality has been something essential to culture since the Creation, and its importance must not be overlooked or understated. It is simply the recognition of, or emphasis upon, sexual matters. It revolves around the age old concept of boy meets girl and that which allows the human race to grow and remain viable. It is that animalistic urge that guarantees the future of human life, and its power is immeasurable. In terms of our two main sources, sex plays a crucial role – as we see this theme being present in almost every major character. From Titus and his progeny of 26 children, to the physical relationship between Tamora and Aaron, to the sexual abuse of Lavinia, there is no mistaking that sex is a major theme for both Taymor and Shakespeare.

Politics is best defined by how governments are established, and how they function. In ancient Rome, particularly in Titus Andronicus, we see a period which is framed around a very unstable political environment. Within this framework, several political themes stand out. One is the initial struggle for power between Saturninus and Bassianus, while another could be Tamora’s role as the new Empress of Rome.

Society, as the aggregate participation that forms and shapes a community, plays an important role in both of our sources because the plot (any real interpretation of it) teaches society by both its positive and negative lessons. Society can learn from Titus’s mistakes as well as from what his honor and duty to family force him to do. Societal lessons can also be gained by cultivating normal relationships with others – not the drama-filled, complex relationships we see in both the movie version and the written play.

The first area to delve into is the way that the film version interprets the play from a sexual standpoint. As mentioned earlier as background information, sexuality is a key ingredient when looking at or discussing interpretations. Specifically, there are two instances that pertain to sexuality in Shakespeare’s work that stand out, but that Taymor removes (in a positive way) completely from the film. The implication and inferences are there, obviously, but the viewer doesn’t see anything. The first instance is the brutal attack on Lavinia by Chiron and Demetrius. Viewers see her physically dragged away, but we are not reintroduced to her until after the violent sexual attack has taken place. The manner in which this is interpreted by Taymor is a just one, in that it grandly emphasizes the brutality of the act, in a sense, by excluding it from our eyes. We “see” the violence without literally seeing it. Illustratively, it gives the viewer the idea that the rape was so heinous that it does not need to be presented visually. We see enough of both the physical and emotional effects of her attack afterwards and upon her discovery by her uncle to “read between the lines” as to what has happened. The power of this depiction exists more in the negative space, or absence, which creates a very powerful image. While this particular example obviously contains an extreme amount of violence, a sexual act has taken place – which shows how grotesque the need for sexual gratification can be. Even Taymor’s depiction of Chiron and Demetrius as sexually hungry young men with the minds of children was an impressive interpretation of their characters. The notion that they were dealing in such adult activities (sexually) but behaved in such a child-like way only added to their “creepiness,” something that enhanced their character immeasurably over Shakespeare’s illustration of theme.

The second instance in the film that was a positive sexual interpretation was there was no visual representation of the physical [read: procreative] relationship between Tamora and Aaron. In Shakespeare’s written word, we know they were lovers, but we see only one short scene in the film with them together. This confirmed my personal view of the sexual relationship in that it wasn’t necessary to show any more than that in the film. By excluding any love-making scenes, Taymor actually made the discovery of their “blackamoor” child seem that much more dramatic. If we, as viewers of the film, had seen full-on sexual contact instead of mere hugging in the woods, the dramatic effect of a child showing up in Act 4 wouldn’t nearly have had the same effect. Personally, this discovery came as a tremendous shock to me, and strongly reinforced, a) how well Shakespeare illustrated the power sex really has, and b) how Taymor was able to visually bring this illustration to life. Interestingly, there is one area of sexuality that Taymor inserted into the film that was not present in the play. When Titus shoots his message-bearing arrows into the Roman court, Taymor inserts the image of a wildly erotic sexual orgy occurring at the same time the arrows arrive. This is perhaps using certain liberties as a director and taking them to extremes. Whether its intent is to excite viewers or give a glimpse into Roman sexual behavior of the time, it is inconsistent with the original and may or may not be a valid interpretation.

The second core theme in which interpretation is important revolves around politics. Politically speaking, Taymor’s film interprets the play by giving viewers a realistic depiction of how power is sought after, obtained, held, and even abused. The brother against brother struggle at the outset of the film was much darker than expected upon reading Shakespeare’s words. There was definitely the inference in the primary source that both Saturninus and Bassianus wanted control and authority, but Taymor’s interpretation took it a step further by showing how the brothers had an almost red-hot hatred and/or jealousy for one another. Saturninus looked like he could kill Bassianus over the throne, something much different from what I read in the play’s opening scene. Personally, this missed the mark of my original interpretation of how the brothers’ relationship really was. Taymor gave Saturninus such a mean-spirited edge, something I completely did not pick up on with the primary text. Obviously, I knew there was a race for power, but Taymor made the point more clearly in how she pitted the siblings against each other. There is also the idea of abusive power, or dishonesty, which I think Taymor portrayed well in her film. The physical representation of a rat-like Saturninus fell right in line with his “rattish” behavior – sneaky, conniving, and dishonest – all for personal gain.

Additionally, there was the film’s illustration of Tamora as the new Empress of Rome and how affected she was by her newly gained power. The movie depicted her as an evil and calculating force and a vengeful mother, which I thought was right on target with my interpretation. Her physical presence, her eyes in particular, showed such vengefulness that one could never obtain from reading Shakespeare’s description. Also, along these same lines, Tamora used her political status to influence her husband, Saturninus. She was able, early in the play, to convince her husband to smooth over the earlier injustices of Titus and his sons. Taymor’s physical depiction of the vindictive Empress, in a much grander way than the play’s text could have, showed just exactly how much sway her political power had. This was most evident in the way she physically appealed to Saturninus. Finally, it is interesting to note that the Empress was seen as having a very protective love for her sons, despite their evil weaknesses. In this respect, the film and the play mirrored each other.

The third core element of this analysis is how the film interprets the play in terms of the social arena. One particularly glaring interpretation that stood out almost immediately was how the different races were portrayed, specifically the black Aaron vs. the white/Roman community. While Taymor’s interpretation of this was decent, I thought it could have been taken a little further, increasing the divisive line of black vs. white that I thought Shakespeare most clearly defined. I personally viewed Aaron as being darker, and more sinister than the lighter colored actor portraying him. Aaron and Tamora’s son was certainly darker than his father, and in my mind’s eye I thought Aaron should appear the same as the son.

Another social illustration which I thought Taymor took significant liberty with was the inclusion of Young Lucius into the story as a main character. Certainly Shakespeare did not intend to give this young boy such a prominent place in his story? Surely he did not intend for his readers and viewers of the play to see the narrative through this adolescent’s eyes? The ending of the film, which shows Young Lucius carrying Aaron’s son away (inferring perhaps, safety?) does nothing for this particular viewer in terms of happy endings. If anything, I personally got the sense that the boy may now be allowed to grow up and perhaps avenge the execution of his father, and carry on his sire’s villainous ways. There must be a great degree of certainty that Shakespeare would not have concurred with Taymor in using this amount of directorial liberty? Instead of interpreting this added scene as a joyous, calming conclusion, I viewed it as circular in theory, with the son potentially coming back decades later to exact a painful revenge on his father’s assailants. Even more so, the young Moor could set in motion events ten times worse than his father did. This particular piece of interpretation was, for me, a little too far stretched out and, in fact, detracted from what was surely Shakespeare’s original intent.

Obviously, this analysis just scratches the surface in terms of the limitless possibilities for interpretation that exist between Julie Taymor’s film version entitled Titus, and William Shakespeare’s original play, Titus Andronicus. For example, the film’s setting which used an anachronistic mixture of ancient vs. modern – what was the meaning behind that? Did one even exist? How does that illustration work thematically? Does it work at all? Did Taymor’s depiction of economical themes mesh with the original? And how was Lavinia’s “voiceless-ness” a commentary on strict gender roles of Shakespeare’s idiom? Most worthwhile discussions concerning something with this amount of breadth would have to include many of these thematic elements and would also have to explain how Taymor saw them differently from the original. Not only that, but each element would have to be explored more deeply, which is beyond the scope of this paper. These are simply a smattering of the innumerable ways the film version could interpret the play. However, the fact remains that despite its subjective nature, interpretation is a key element in studying literature, especially something as far-reaching and influential as a Shakespeare play. In this particular discipline, finding literary value in theme and representing that value in another form is an impressive feat. To do it with a classic work of Shakespeare, such as Titus Andronicus, is even better.