Come Dine With Me, Andronicus Style

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.

A Charitable Murderer

‘Tis present death I beg, and one thing more/That womanhood denies my tongue to tell/O keep me from that worse than killing lust/Amd tumble me into some loathsome pit/Where never man’s eye may behold my body/Do this and be a charitable murderer. (Titus Andronicus, Act 2, Scene 3).

Lady Macbeth is rightly considered to be one of Shakespeare’s finest female characters, but I think Tamora, Queen of the Goths from Titus Andronicus is often forgotten. Both women are in positions of power and given to murder and manipulation to sustain their status – and lose it, alongside their grip on reality. Unfortunately, because Titus Andronicus is such a highly controversial play, Tamora is often overlooked, and I think that’s a bit unfair. For a female actor, it’s a terrific part to get one’s teeth into – and much more fun to play than Lavinia.

Tamora is always set up as the arch villainess, as she uses her sons – and at her lover’s instigation, her husband – to wage something of a vendetta against the Andronici, as the family of Titus are clllectively known. The reasoning behind this is set out in Act 1, when Lucius demands of Titus (and gets) Tamora’s eldest son as a blood sacrifice at the interment of two of his brothers after wars against the Goths. Her subsequent elevation to Empress of Rome – mainly by making sure she catches the eye of the histrionic emperor, Saturninus – puts her in a position where her vengeful fantasies can become reality.

She starts by framing two of Titus’s three surviving sons for the murder of the emperor’s brother, Bassianus, and having the last one – Lucius – banished from Rome for life. She then permits, if not actively encourages, her sons to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia in ne of the play’s most infamous scenes. At no point does Tamora make secret her aims, going so far as to tell her new husband in an early aside:

I’ll find a day to massacre them all/And raze their facton and their family,/The cruel father and his traitorous sons/To whom I sued for my dear son’s life. (Titus Andronicus, Act 1, Scene 1).

Unfortunately for Tamora, power quickly goes to her head and – anticipating Lady Macbeth’s own descent into madness – she starts to fudge reality with her own murderous fantasies. In part, the birth of her son (fathered by her Moorish lover, Aaron) reinforces the tenuous nature of her position but in attempting to rid herself of the Andronici completely she loses everything. I’ll discuss this point in a later post, so I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say that I can’t see any emperor of Rome tolerating being quite so openly cuckolded.

Titus Andronicus is quite an early play and the nuances of character are not so well developed as they are in his later masterpieces such as Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Hamlet. Even so, Tamora is a meaty role that allows an actress to play a wholly unrepentant villainess confident in her sexuality and quite at home with her cruelty. If she reminds me of anyone, it’s Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones – and there are a few people who would say that wasn’t a bad thing at all.

Bruce Robinson May Love Jack But He Hates The Victorians

jack

Considering how much credit I’ve got on my Amazon account at the moment, it really was rather naughty of me to have bought this in Waterstones, but I justified it by picking up a couple of Lego Batman figures while I was there*. It’s also had very good reviews, was longlisted for a number of awards and was recommended to me while I was reading the blurbs on the back by a little old lady with a mauve rinse as being “the best of the lot”. So it wasn’t much of a contest really.

Now, I have to confess that I’ve only read the first chapter (and it’s a rather thick book) but I’ve already alternated between outrage, horror and a couple of giggling fits. Bruce Robinson, a wonderful American screenwriter, wastes no time in stripping the veneer off Victorian values and showing them up for the hypocrites they were. He does it with a caustic wit that I can see myself quoting rather a lot for the foreseeable future. If I may offer a few quotes:-

“Reactionary nostalgia for the proprieties of Victorian England is unfortunate, like a whore looking under the bed for her virginity.” (That’s the opening sentence. What a start.)

*In 1888 you could f*** a child for five shillings, but you couldn’t read Zola. What the Establishment didn’t like about Zola was his treatment of the working class, who he had the French neck to represent as human.” (I rather like Zola as well.)

“MPs call themselves ‘Honourable’ because no-one else would.” (Ouch)

I have not come across a book so righteously – and rightly – angry in a very long time. I think in this era of right-wing Little England mindset (and I daren’t know what to think about the other side of the pond, apart from it being quite terrifying) this kind of “Victorian values” thinking is all too common. It’s lovely to have a blunt, honest appraisal of what it was really like, and what bloody appalling double-standards were applied, even if this is meant to be a book about a murderer. It may yet be – I’ve got another twenty chapters to read yet. If they are half as good as the first one, I’m going to be delighted.

And I really must buy that little old lady a cup of tea next time I see her. She really does know a good book when she sees one.

* I got Commissioner Gordon and Mr Freeze.

DUDLEY AND STEPHENS – A VARIATION ON THREE MEN IN A BOAT

raft

This is an old case from the mid-1800s but is interesting because it raises quite a few questions about what constitutes a defence to murder. It also continues a theme I have previously broached on here, which some people may find offensive. It doesn’t bother me much as I don’t eat meat anyway.

After a shipwreck in the mid-Atlantic, Messrs Dudley and Stephens found themselves adrift in a small boat with the 18 year old cabin boy, Richard Palmer (there was a fourth man with them, but he played no part in what happened next, so I’m ignoring him). After a week, they had run out of food and had minimal fresh water left, and there was nothing on the horizon to indicate that there was a chance of rescue. So they decided to draw lots on the principle that the loser would be murdered and eaten, to give the others more chance of surviving. No prizes for guessing who drew the short straw.

So, Dudley and Stephens promptly slit the poor lad’s throat and proceeded to live off him until they were finally rescued about three weeks later. They were near to death when they were picked up and freely admitted what they had done, but claimed they had killed the boy “out of necessity.” Unfortunately, the Court disagreed that it was ever necessary to kill anyone, so Dudley and Stephens were found guilty and hanged.

Now I was thinking about how this principle applied, especially since many years later, the survivors of an air crash in the Andes were acquitted of the same charges in very similar circumstances – but then the penny dropped. The Andean crash survivors hadn’t killed anyone. They survived by eating people who had already died, so they hadn’t committed murder and consequently could not be liable.

Clearly, it seems to be the Court’s way of thinking that in such a situation, a person would simply have to starve, unless they can show that the person they are eating died without their assistance – which could be tricky, given where most of the evidence will end up. That said, it’s worth bearing in mind in case you ever find yourself stranded on a life raft with someone you don’t like very much and you’re miles from the nearest takeaway.

Conan Doyle – Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

“I suppose that I am commuting a felony. but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life.”

Originally, I was going to write about the title – I mean, unless you know a fair bit about gemstones, you may be puzzled as to what a blue carbuncle really is. Let me immediately put you out of your misery – it’s a sapphire cut en cabochon and looks something like this:

61sarc30_12

No, the thing that has really struck me about this Sherlock Holmes story – from the original collection, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – is actually just how revolutionary and prescient Holmes is in not handing the villain over to the police. He clearly has an opinion that the role of prisons play and it seems has rather a low opinion of them. Whether or not he is right is a debate that still rages amongst criminologists and penal theorists today, but at the end of the nineteenth century, such opinion was well nigh seditious.

Most prisons are large, cold, unforgiving places, frequently overfilled and understaffed and where – to all intents and purposes – the friends one makes inside depend on how well you fare. It is often said that prisons make criminals; I don’t know if this is true, I haven’t looked at the statistics recently. It is also possible that many of the people who are currently in prison probably shouldn’t be there – although equally and likewise, there are a few people not in prison who probably should be.

In sitting in judgment, Holmes has stated that James Ryder ought not go to prison; the fact that his crime has been discovered by Holmes, and that he has lost both the gem and a good Christmas goose has shown that his crime did not pay, is enough to set him on the straight and narrow for life. But there was another criminal in the mix who was forgotten – Lady Morcar’s made was Ryder’s accomplice, as Holmes states earlier in the story, but nothing is said about her fate. Will she make a second attempt to steal her mistress’s jewels, and will she be more successful without the simpering twit that she ended up with in this adventure?

We are not told, and I think the story loses nothing by this. However, I look forward to the sequel where the emerald bracelet disappears and is found in with the Christmas sprouts.

The Height of Luxury

orient-express

Reading about the Detection Club, I discovered to my glee that for a long time I had something in common with Agatha Christie (we don’t share it any longer for reasons that will become obvious) – one of our longstanding ambitions was to travel on the Orient Express. It was a journey from Istanbul to London, returning from a trip to see her second husband, Max Mallowan, an archaeologist in what is now Iraq, that Christie conceived the setting for one of her most famous stories. I, unfortunately, have yet to set foot on the train, although I often see it ready for boarding in the summer at Victoria Station.

Even Michael Palin’s been on the Orient Express – it formed the first part of his journey Around the World in 80 days and, if I remember, he disembarked at Venice, rather than going on to Istanbul. As far as I’m concerned, it is the ultimate in luxury long-distance train travel. Having done my fair share of long-distance train travel over the years, I’m quite looking forward to doing some more in a bit of luxury.

I’m not sure that it’s changed much since Agatha’s journey – although I doubt many murders are carried out in the sleeping carriages these days.

Arsenic in the Sugarbowl?

crockery

If you haven’t already read Shirley Jackson’s final novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, please be reassured that the title of this post gives nothing away. In fact, if you haven’t worked out the identity of the murderer in the first fifty pages or so, perhaps you need to read a bit more Agatha Christie – because it’s really quite obvious, I’m afraid.

In fact, the character I’m more interested is one of the survivors of that event – Uncle Julian Blackwood. Now it would be very fair to say that he’s a bit of a strange old bug; confined to a wheelchair since the murders and apparently with a tenuous grip on reality. Jackson seems content to suggest that Julian’s afflictions are a direct result of his recovery from arsenic poisoning, but this doesn’t seem right to me. Admittedly, everything I know about arsenic comes from reading a lot of Victorian crime histories (it was a great favourite in those days, as it was easy to get hold of and administer) and, of course, the Great Agatha, but she much preferred cyanide. Still…

Before the murders, Julian was apparently fully ambulant and happily married, although having to live with his brother and his family due to being somewhat impecunious. Yet when the reader first sees him, he’s confined to a wheelchair (and frequently confined to his bed), on a restricted diet and often unable to recognise the two women he sees on a daily basis – Constance is often mistaken for his late wife, while Merricat is simply not recognised at all.

Julian’s vagueness is reinforced by his frequent questioning of Constance – “did it really happen?” His memory is failing and he keeps copious notes on the murder and the trial. He says he is writing a book about it, but tellingly reveals on page 62:

“I really think I shall commence chapter forty four,” he said, patting his hands together. “I shall commence, I think, with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie.”

Is he actually writing the definitive version of events, or simply his version of events? When Miss Wright visits unexpectedly, he takes considerable glee in showing her the dining room and entertaining her with his account of the fateful night – which he seems to remember very well indeed. I can’t help but think this is Jackson taking a sideswipe at Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, but I digress.

My point is that I have never seen portrayed anyone survive arsenic poisoning to suffer from such limb paralysis as to render them virtually immobile or any apparent symptom of dementia – from what I can gather, that isn’t how arsenic works. I can only assume, therefore, that it wasn’t just arsenic in the sugarbowl. Given that both Constance and Merricat are well versed in herbal toxicology (which they must have learned from somewhere, so I’ll open the suspect list to include the rest of the family), it wouldn’t be too much to assume that some kind of natural neurotoxin was added to the mix – at least, this would explain Julian’s symptoms much better. Whether it was added to ensure that the family died quickly, or by someone who didn’t realise that the arsenic was already there, isn’t elaborated on by Jackson, so I’m afraid we’ll never know.

I don’t think Hercule Poirot would have taken much time over the investigation though.