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Prix du mémoire de la Société Française Shakespeare

The Spectacle of Violence in Julie Taymor’s Titus: Ethics and Aesthetics

Prix du Mémoire de la Société Française Shakespeare 2010
Anne-Kathrin Marquardt

Can the son's eye behold his father bleed?

There's meed for meed, death for a deadly deed.

  1. Summary

Until only about 50 years ago, Titus Andronicus was largely ignored by critics and directors. Shakespeare’s most violent play was rejected for its alleged bad taste and its poor dramatic quality. The revenge tragedy portrays a successful Roman general, Titus Andronicus, coming back home after a long war with the Goths in which he lost many of his sons. Upon arrival, he is asked to elect the new emperor and, in the name of primogeniture, chooses Saturninus, the candidate most unfit for the throne who chooses his former enemy, Tamora the queen of the Goths, for a bride. After Titus executes Tamora’s son to appease the spirits of his children slain in the war, she swears bloody revenge. Together with the moor Aaron, she plots to have her sons rape and mutilate Titus’s daughter Lavinia. Titus’s sons are accused of murder and executed; in an unsuccessful attempt at paying for their liberation, he cuts off his hand. Then it is Titus’s turn to take revenge: he slaughters Tamora’s sons, bakes them into a pie and feeds them to their mother, who is then killed together with Aaron and Saturninus.

Despite this gruesome catalogue of atrocities, since Peter Brook’s landmark production of 1955 the play has been performed successfully all over the world. It seems possible again to find meaning in the gruesome acts of cruelty displayed on stage, to make this play say something about the society we live in today.

Julie Taymor, the acclaimed director of the film Frida, directed the play in 1994 and adapted it for the screen five years later. Her film Titus draws on numerous cultural and iconographic references to create a complex network of meanings in which past and present reflect on each other, thus exploring violence from a great variety of perspectives.

Critics nevertheless remain divided as to Taymor’s ability to avoid glorifying violence instead of putting it at a distance. The approach is often a normative one: a film about violence should ultimately educate the viewer to reject violence – otherwise the display of gore is unacceptable – and must therefore be judged in terms of success or failure to comply with certain implicit moral rules. Success or failure, however, are rather difficult to assess. Critics often come to very different conclusions, as do most viewers. Some see the movie as an insightful analysis of violence that gives food for thought, others see a tasteless display of gore unable to elicit reflection. Even though it is of crucial importance, the question of audience reaction (or possibly even education) cannot be answered fully.

The approach taken in this work is therefore to explain, rather than to judge, the ways in which Taymor attempts to explore violence. The purpose is to lay bare the mechanisms used in the film to dissect the ways in which we experience, perpetrate and look at violence. Without losing sight of the ethical implications, I wish to focus on and investigate the aesthetics of the violent spectacle.

In the first chapter, I outline the contexts in which the play and the film are to be understood and look at general aesthetic modes in the movie. The second chapter is dedicated to the specific problem of the depiction of women as victims – more specifically of Lavinia’s rape – taking into account the project outlined by some critics of a feminist representation of violence. The role of the spectators as potential agents in a story of violence, as dealt with in particular through the figure of Young Lucius, is addressed in the last chapter.

  1. Extract from chapter one

There is always something jarring in the clean, perfectly organised choreography of Taymor’s rituals and the emotional response they elicit is often more complex than simple fascination. This impression is enhanced by the fact that Taymor does not shy away from showing blood to mark the savagery hidden behind the cleanliness of the ritual. In the perfectly choreographed ceremony during which Alarbus is killed, Taymor blatantly juxtaposes the two kinds of emotion. One cannot help but admire the beauty of the mechanism of sacrifice, but a close-up of visibly raw human entrails also undercuts this potential fascination and turns it into disgust. The sharp contrast between the cold mechanic movements of the Andronici and Tamora’s passionate plea for the life of her son helps to underline this double effect even more. The motif is taken up later in what Taymor calls a Penny Arcade Nightmare (PAN). We see Titus and Tamora facing each other as if ready for battle. Between them, burning limbs appear and then a torso. We then watch as a mark appears on the chest, made by an invisible knife, exactly identical to that made by Titus on Alarbus’s chest. So we now recognise these limbs, this torso, to be those of Alarbus, who stands between Titus and Tamora and symbolises the cause for the ensuing revenge plot. But when the mark is made, and only then, does the torso appear to be breathing, faster and faster. In other words, it comes to life again when it has been doomed to death by the fatal mark. Taymor opposes the clean choreography of the sacrificial ritual to the fact that it is centred on a human being who is doomed to be executed. Her PAN looks back to the previous scene and underlines once more the cruelty inherent in Titus’s ‘irreligious piety’ (I, i, 133).

Although Taymor makes the Elizabethan mindset, and its readiness to interpret severed body parts as bearers of meaning, available to the modern audience, she takes into account the modern sensitivity to the body as the most intimate possession of the individual. Her bodies are not only abstract symbols, they are also bodies in pain. Taymor uses this double aesthetic approach for greater emotional effect as the juxtaposition of fascinating mechanic ritual and disgusting bloodshed elicits a very complex audience response. No matter how abstractly she shows the cutting off of Titus’s hand, seeing Aaron use it as decoration is nauseating, as is the bath-tub scene in which Titus draws blood from his stump to write with it. The spectator is thus caught between this double emotion. To some, fascination and disgust might simply reinforce one another and give rise to the subtle tickle one feels when watching a gory horror film – fascination and simultaneous disgust for bloodshed certainly both play a role in the appeal of the genre. In unleashing boundless barbarity upon the spectator, Taymor risks a glorification of violence. For other spectators, though, this double emotional response will entail a conscious reflection on what they see and how they have themselves responded to it. The disgust that we feel (maybe a bit too late) for the perfect choreography of barbarity that we have just witnessed might encourage us to distantiate ourselves from our previous fascination. We are then disgusted not only because of the cruelty of what we have seen, but also because of our own positive response to it. Taymor lets us feel just enough fascination for the violence in her film to enable us to gain some distance to our own attitude to watching violence. Her approach thus hovers between the glorification and the condemnation of violence, and much depends on the willingness of the spectators to analyse their own reactions to what they see.

This aesthetic ambiguity also accounts for the strange atmosphere emanating from the scene in the woodcarver’s shop. We can see hundreds of little statues of saints, madonnas, some broken, some intact, and many body parts, especially hands. This concentration of human body parts is beautiful and moving as we can see the artist trying to imitate the human form as best he can. This impression of beauty is enhanced by the use of a quasi-religious music for this scene and a beautiful bright light, in contrast with the dominant grey of Titus’s house, which gives the scene a somewhat religious atmosphere. But it is also creepy – it seems strange that a piece of wood should be sufficient to supply the loss of a real limb of flesh and blood. The perfection with which these pieces of wood imitate the human form is eerie and disturbing, and in the end it points to the fragility of the human body, which can be broken and dismemberment and pieced together again just as easily as one of the wooden puppets in the shop. Later on, Lavinia’s prosthetic hands certainly help her when she tries to communicate with her family or take part in the family dinner, but in the end it remains difficult for her to make herself understood. Much of the film’s aesthetic approach to the human body and to severed body parts may therefore be summed up in the ambiguity of these prostheses, which can complete and thus, to a degree, heal the body, but which keep referring back to the lack they cannot entirely make up for. Lavinia’s wooden hands are thus much more ambiguous than some feminist critics give Taymor credit for. In this film, severed body parts, just like Lavinia’s prostheses, are abstract objects, potentially objects of art like the hands of statues, and they can be understood in a symbolic way and be admired for the artistic craft that produced them. But they also, inevitably, signify lack and pain – Taymor does not forget to remind us of this as her film foregrounds the cruelty behind the mechanic rituals of sacrifice. Her visual approach thus creates a fragile balance between aesthetic fascination and shocked disgust. This atmosphere is not unlike that of the Merchant of Venice, where we cannot but accept that the formal laws of society say Shylock is right in claiming his due, but we are shocked to see that what is at stake in the relentless ritual of justice is a pound of human flesh.

Rituals in this film are both fascinating and disgusting precisely because of their orderly relentlessness. Taymor shows that in this play, civilisation and barbarity are not opposed, barbarity lies at the very centre of the civilised clean ritual. Not only does she show that the body is both an abstract signifier and a source of intimate pain, but there is also a suggestion of violence even in the way the ritual itself is carried out. The soldiers’ dance in the opening sequence is not only visually appealing as we see beautiful bodies move in synchrony, it is also somewhat frightening if one takes into account the fact that they are warriors. Presumably, they are not quite as disciplined in battle, and it seems that their potential savagery will be held in check by military pomp for only so long. Taymor plays with this double connotation of the disciplined army versus the savage army in battle by making the soldiers dance in full uniform and with clay on their faces, the distinctive sign that they have just come back from war. Moreover, the circumstances under which this particular sequence was shot add a connotation of violence. The coliseum shown in the film is not the original in Rome, though that is obviously what it represents, but a very similar one in Croatia. The war broke out in 1999 only a few months after the crew had finished shooting the film. The extras who played Titus’s soldiers were members of the Croatian police academy, men who had been known to be ‘much more than adorable’ in the past, as Harry Lennix (Aaron) ironically observes.

The hunt during which Lavinia will be raped is another example of an ambiguous ritual – it is shown both as a civilised ritual of amusement for the aristocracy and as a savage and wild activity. The first pictures show graceful riders in elegant dress and mounted on beautiful horses, but this is juxtaposed with the pictures of barking dogs chasing their prey. The imagery of the hunt runs through the entirety of the text as the literal hunt of act two transforms into the slightly more metaphorical hunt of Lavinia, who is turned into a doe by the language of the text (II, i, 25-6). When Titus swears to be avenged on Chiron and Demetrius for the rape of his daughter he turns this imagery against them: he promises to ‘hunt these bear whelps’ (IV, i, 96). Taymor picks up on this and presents Chiron and Demetrius as animals in an abattoir ready for their transformation into meat when Titus is about to kill them. We have been prepared for this by the scene in which Titus cuts off his hand, which takes place in a kitchen full of meat hanging on hooks. Titus is perfectly calm as he explains to the boys how he will bake them into pies and feed them to their mother. He thus uses once again the clean relentless ritual that we had seen him use in Alarbus’s case. He does not kill the rapists in a random way: his gesture is fraught with meaning. This is not slaughter, but a carefully planned execution. However, once again, this sense of clean choreographed ritual stands in sharp contrast with the sight of blood pouring forth from the boy’s throats, hanging upside down ‘like sausages’, to use Taymor’s phrase. Barbarity and orderly ritual are once more connected.

One of the most potent symbols of the film, the ever-present Roman she-wolf, sums up this ambiguous nature of ritual in the film. Traditionally, the animal is linked to the mythical story of the foundation of Rome by Romulus. She is a nourishing figure, since she enabled Romulus and his twin brother Remus to survive despite the death of their mother. Hence her exaggerated teats on most representations, including the famous Capitoline wolf. She is therefore the symbol of Rome as the centre of civilisation. But in Taymor’s film she appears as a predatory figure with long and sharp teeth. The most impressive occurrence of the she-wolf is in the Senate, above Saturninus’s throne, at the very heart of what symbolises Roman political life and its claim of representing a higher civilisation. Once again, barbarity and civilisation are closely linked, this time in one and the same visual symbol.

Le mémoire a été publié par Trafo. ISBN 978-3-89626-932-4. Téléchargez la page de couverture ci-dessous.

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