Titus Andronicus

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The Play’s the Thing: Titus Andronicus is a war hero coming back to Rome (with captives in tow) who is initially renowned by the about to be emperor Saturninus but the tide turns when Bassianus takes Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, against her will and marries her, leaving Saturninus to marry Tamora, former queen of the Goths, who has a serious grudge against Titus for killing her firstborn son. Tamora’s two sons make a plot her lover Aaron, a Moor, to set up the murder of Bassianus so they can rape Lavinia (and afterwards cut out her tongue and cut off her hands) while everyone’s out hunting, and then the brothers pin the murder on two of Titus’ sons. Titus’ sons are executed even though Titus cuts off one of his own hands to try and save them, another of his sons is banished and heads off to ally himself with the Goths, and Titus learns what’s happened to his daughter and plots revenge. Lavinia manages to communicate who her rapists were to her father and uncle, who continue to further their revenge plot while we also learn that Tamora gave birth to a black baby which could be seriously bad news if her husband finds out. Titus kills Lavinia’s rapists, feeds their heads to their mother, reveals her infidelity to Saturninus, kills Lavinia and Tamora, and is killed by Saturninus who in turn is killed by Titus’ son, Lucius, who is named the new emperor who will save Rome from the Goths and all this tragedy.

Heroes and Villains: The prize this time around goes to Marcus Andronicus, Titus’ brother, who is just such a sympathetic character and treats everyone in his family with such respect and dignity.

Speech to Know: Titus’ speech in Act III when his sons are taken away to be executed is so beautiful and sad.

“Why ’tis no matter, man: if they did hear
They would not mark me; or if they did mark
They would not pity me; yet plead I must,
And bootless unto them.
Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones;
Why, though they cannot answer my distress,
Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes,
For that they will not intercept my tale:
When I do weep they humbly at my feet
Receive my tears, and seem to weep with me;
And were they but attired in grave weeds
Rome could afford no tribune like to these.
A stone is soft as wax, tribunes more hard than stones;
A stone is silent, and offendeth not, –
And tribunese with their tongues doom men to death.” (III.i)

View from the Pit: I have been avoiding Titus Andronicus for years, having been familiar with the basic plot elements, I didn’t feel compelled to spend time immersed in such a dark work. And there’s no denying the plot is bleak with the utter hell Lavinia is put through and the slow descent of Titus Andronicus and all of the obligatory deaths that a tragedy requires. But the play is also riveting in its tragedy like a train wreck in slow motion. The beautiful dialogue also goes a long way to making this play worth encountering despite the dark subject matter. While the characters mostly exist for things to happen to, Titus and his brother, Marcus are truly dynamic men whom it is sad to watch suffer as their family is slowly picked off. Also of note is Aaron the Moor who is a pure villain. While he’s not as nuanced as that delightful creation, Iago, he is an interesting character to study as he takes such glee in the vile acts perpetrated on the Andronici that leaves the reader so horrified.


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The Play’s the Thing: In ancient Britain, Imogen, daughter of Cymbeline, the king, is in trouble because she married Posthumus Leonatus rather than her idiot step-brother, Cloten, like her evil step-mother (who is trying to kill Imogen) wanted so Posthumus is banished to Italy where he makes a bet with an Italian named Iachimo that Iachimo won’t be able to seduce Imogen in his absence. Iachimo smuggles himself into Imogen’s bedchamber, steals her bracelet while she’s sleeping, and gets enough details to convince Posthumus that he slept with his wife, which drives Posthumus ’round the bend a bit. Imogen gets a letter from Posthumus and head’s off to Wales (much to the consternation of everyone at home) only to discover it was a plot to have her servant murder her but the servant refuses and tells her to disguise herself as a man until they can straighten everything out, leaving her in Wales to meet her (unkown to her) long lost brothers and Cloten heading off with an evil plan to rape Imogen. Cloten gets his head chopped off by one of the (still unknown) brothers, Imogen looks a little dead for a while (thanks to evil step-mother poison) and then joins up with one of the Roman military leaders as they head off to attack Britain while the brothers head off to defend Britain with their kidnapper in tow. Posthumus hearing false news of Imogen’s death regrets his assassination of her, the Brits and Romans fight and eventually make up, the evil step-mother dies, Cymbeline forgives Imogen, she and Posthumus are reunited, and the long lost brothers are restored to their roles as princes and everyone lives happily ever after (thanks to a literal deus ex machina).

Heroes and Villains: Imogen is definitely my favourite, partially because I like her name, and partially because she’s just a really great heroine.

Wordsmith: “bo-peeping” (I.vi)

Speech to Know: Posthumus gives a really great penitent speech while in prison when he still thinks Imogen is dead.

“Most welcome, bondage! for thou art a way,
I think, to liberty: yet am I better
Than one that’s sick o’ the gout; since he had rather
Groan so in perpetuity than be cur’d
By the sure physician death, who is the key
To unbar these locks. My conscience, thou art fetter’d
More than my shanks and wrists: you good gods, give me
The penitent instrument to pick that bolt,
Then free for ever! Is’t enough I am sorry?
So children temporal fathers do appease;
Gods are more full of mercy. Must I repent?
I cannot do it better than in gyves,
Desir’d more than constrain’d: to satisfy,
If of my freedom ’tis the main part, take
No stricter render of me than my all.
I know you are more clement than vile men,
Who of their broken debtors take a third,
A sixth, a tenth, letting them thrive again
On their abatement: that’s not my desire:
For Imogen’s dear life take mine; and though
‘Tis not so dear, yet ’tis a life; you coin’d it:
‘Tween man and man they weight not every stamp;
Though light, take pieces for the figure’s sake:
You rather mine, being yours: and so, great powers,
If you will take this audit, take this life,
And cancel these cold bonds.” (V.iv)

View from the Pit: I had absolutely no familiarity with Cymbeline when I began reading it and was thrilled to discover in the midst of all the tragic endings of the ancient histories I’d read thus far, a play with a happy ending. The play itself is an interesting mix of fairy tale with the evil step-mother and step-brother, Greek drama with an actual appearance from Jupiter himself (a literal deus ex machina), and some Shakespearean standard elements with a cross-dressing woman, hidden princes, drugs that fake death, and a king who doesn’t realize what he had until he’s lost it. The play also has intriguing dash of British nationalism thrown into act III, which is particularly fascinating as the play ends with Britain bowing to the will of the Roman empire and Caesar (Augustus in this case). Not the most polished of the plays but a nice change in the midst of all the tragedies.

Antony and Cleopatra

A Blogger’s Note: Many apologies, fair reader, for the recent gap in posting after promising to be all caught up. Epic fail on my part. But having returned from vacation and seeing my brother off into the land of wedded bliss, I am back and ready to tackle all things Bard. However, because these posts are increasingly taking longer to write, I’m now shortening my summaries of play contents. One sentence per act. Not so great as serving as a cheat sheet anymore but it means I can get through a post in significantly less time.

The Play’s the Thing: Antony and Cleopatra are madly in love (even though she’s a crazy cow) but there’s issues brewing in Rome that will pull Antony away. Antony makes up with Caesar and even marries Octavia, Caesar’s sister, to make things better between them as they head off to battle Pompey but then end up signing a treaty. Antony ditches Octavia and goes back to Cleopatra to fight in a battle which he loses because Cleopatra’s an idiot and sails away. Antony and Caesar go to battle which ultimately ends up going in Caesar’s favour and which makes Antony pissed at Cleopatra, so she fakes her death to make him like her again and then he stabs himself. Antony lives long enough to kiss Cleopatra goodbye and then she kills herself by letting asps bite her.

Heroes and Villains: Ugh, a lot of really annoying characters floating around in this play but I suppose if I must choose, I like Enobarbus who manages to maintain his sanity for most of the play.

Speech to Know: Antony gives the best speech when he decides to really leave Cleopatra in act IV for her perceived disloyalty.

“O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more:
Fortune and Antony part here; even here
Do we shake hands. – All come to this! – The hearts
That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark’d
That overtopp’d them all. Betray’d I am:
O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm,
Whose eye beck’d forth my wars and call’d them home;
Whose bosom was my corwnet, my chief end, –
Like a right gipsy, hath, at fast and loose,
Beguil’d me to the very heart of loss.” (IV.xii)

View from the Pit: Antony and Cleopatra is not going down as one of my favourite plays. I studied it in high school and didn’t dislike it, but this time around I found many of the characters highly irritating and a great number of them suffer from Too Stupid to Live syndrome. Cleopatra is characterized as a manipulative, ditzy, and emotionally isolated cow and Antony is the guy who’s terrified of losing his power but can’t leave the woman who is forever causing him to do just that. I just can’t weep for two characters who end up killing themselves because they’re idiots. Also, the political element is underdeveloped and unless you’re pretty familiar with the various alliances and shifts in power that is happening in the background, it can be a bit difficult to follow.