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.


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