This is the feast that I have bid her to/And this the banquet she shall surfeit on. (Titus Andronicus, Act 5, Scene 2)
I want to try and avoid too many references to Game of Thrones in this post, and it’s just as well I’m looking at the climax of the play because it allows me to explore another controversial series which is unbelievably popular with its fanbase – Hannibal. I think you’ll see why when we get to the end.
I’ve said previously that this play has two scenes for which it is justifiably notorious – Lavinia’s rape and mutilation at the hands of Tamora’s sons in Act 2, and the final dinner party in Act 5. Like Hannibal (arguably a modern-day counterpart) Titus considers himself quite a chef and insists on preparing the banquet himself. It’s easy to see why when all is revealed in the course of dinner. He has invited everyone (all the main characters are present, except Aaron, who is kept offstage as Lucius’ prisoner) and serves the Imperial party himself, before dropping the first of his bloody bombshells.
In the middle of the main course, Titus murders his daughter – who has spent the majority of the play in dumbshow – in front of all the guests. If that wasn’t enough, he then points out to the Empress that the pie she has just eaten contained the corpses of her two sons, whom he had murdered while she was off getting changed. In the chaos that ensues, everyone except Marcus, Lucius and young Lucius are dead. Even the stage directions suggest the level of mayhem:
He kills Saturninus. Uproar. (Stage Direction, Act 5, Scene 3)
It does beg the question of whether everyone has to die; but I think they do and it’s an entirely necessary scene. There wasn’t really anywhere else for the story or characters to go; this final, brutal dinner party offers the audience a sense of catharsis from the relentless cruelty inflicted throughout the rest of the play. In amongst all the bloodletting and cannibalism, a sense of justice has emerged. Unlike Hannibal, this isn’t killing for pleasure or for the sake of it, but to redress the universal balance – the cruel are punished and the just are allowed to live. Titus has done wrong, partly in killing Tamora’s son but also in killing one of his own sons – and he also dies. Lavinia’s death is itself couched in controversial terms which would have rung true for a 16th century audience but perhaps do less so today. Tragic as the play is, there is a glimmer of hope at the end that civilisation has prevailed.
I do find Titus Andronicus to be a wholly underrated play. Many people can’t see beyond the blood, gore and brutality to the actual story underneath – which is sad, and tragic, but not without hope and it’s certainly not boring. It’s also quite a short play, which helps if you have a slightly limited attention span. I hope that in this age of Game of Thrones and Hannibal it gains a new, appreciative, audience – or at least one that has a stronger stomach.