On May 5 (AKA Cinco de Derby), I went to the downtown library to participate in the reading of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first and bloodiest tragedy. It really packs the crimes and taboos in there: war crimes, kidnapping, blood sacrifice, filicide, deception, murder, rape, adultery, mutilation, wrongful execution, miscegenation*, treason, impersonation, insanity, revenge, rebellion, cannibalism, honor killing, more murder, regicide, and execution by starvation. It’s kind of over the top. In fact, as we read aloud, we sometimes found the descriptions of violent, horrific events filled with the blackest of black humor, and couldn’t help laughing. The first death occurs with more rapidity than in any piece of literature I can think of offhand. The dramatic irony of Marcus interrogating his niece about why she won’t talk, not knowing she’s had her tongue cut out, was so overwhelming to the reader that he had to pass the remainder of the speech on to the next person in the circle.
I read aloud with the group this time, round-robin style. It’s funny how stressful it is to have everyone’s attention on you for a long speech. I had the honor of reading Aaron’s long speech in which he describes the plot to rape and mutilate Lavinia and urges Tamora’s sons to participate. It was fun to infuse my voice with utter villainy.
At the end of the play, I felt the pity and fear that you’re supposed to with a tragedy, but there was a lot of disgust mixed in there too. A black sense of humor really was necessary to truly enjoy this one, especially the lines and phrases that struck home with such biting irony.
*Of course, we now know that there is nothing wrong with couples and children of mixed races, but in Shakespeare’s time and for a long time afterward, it would have been considered a taboo, especially a European woman taking an African man as a lover instead of vice versa. I only list miscegenation, which is itself a racist, outdated term, here because the play makes such a big deal of it and I wanted to accurately count the taboos as the original audience would have percieved them. It’s certainly not comparable to the other items in the list.