Category Archives: Plays

Creative Casting of Revenge Tragedy: “Romeo and Juliet” meets “Game of Thrones”

One of Shakespeare’s earliest revenge tragedies is Romeo and Juliet. I’m a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, and was looking forward to seeing if Sir Kenneth Branagh could top it with his most recent stage production. I saw the play as-live through Kenneth Branagh Theatre Live, and was really pleased with the way it was adapted to the setting of 1950’s Italy, complete with monumental hand gestures and Sophia Loren looks. The cast included the timeless Sir Derek Jacobi as the oldest performing Mercutio on record, Lily James continuing her ingénue streak as Juliet, and Richard Madden, formerly Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark, performing on a twisted ankle as the simultaneously bright-and-teary-eyed Romeo.

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On top of the exciting casting of the main characters, I was extra impressed to see that women were cast as traditionally male characters, like the thugs Sampson and Gregory, and a servant of the Capulets, named Peter. Peter delivers one of my favourite lines in the play. Unaware that she is speaking to the enemy of her master, she tells Romeo of a party being held by Capulet: “If you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray, come and crush a cup of wine.” I love the imagery of that line: the violence of the crushing, the bloody splatter of squished grapes, and the destroyed cup, discarded and forgotten in the festive ruckus of the masquerade. Despite the violence of this image and the invitation’s deliberate exclusion of the Montagues, Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to be violent towards Romeo when he appears at the party and ogles Juliet. Capulet admonishes Tybalt:

 

Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone;
He bears him like a portly gentleman;
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-govern’d youth:
I would not for the wealth of all the town
Here in my house do him disparagement:
Therefore be patient, take no note of him:
It is my will, the which if thou respect,
Show a fair presence and put off these frowns,
And ill-beseeming semblance for a feast.

 

Despite the fact that the Montagues are his enemy, Capulet refuses to “here in my house do him disparagement”: he forbids violence against a guest in his home, no matter who that guest is. Capulet escalates in rage not at Romeo’s attendance, but at the insult of Tybalt’s intended violence. Capulet’s response immediately brings to mind the concept of “Guest Right,” which entitles any guest who shares the bread and salt of their host to their host’s protection while under that roof. This is a topic that keeps coming up in my favourite show: Game of Thrones. Like any living, breathing person right now, I’m pretty obsessed with it. This season, the show’s violence has escalated to Shakespearean proportions. In order to avoid ruining it for those of us who aren’t caught up, I’d like to talk about Shakespearean resonances with a revenge scene from much earlier in the show: The Red Wedding.

 

SPOILER ALERT: Stop now if you don’t know what The Red Wedding is and don’t want to read spoilers!

 

The Wedding between Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey is meant to consolidate the treaty between House Stark (represented by the King in the North) and House Frey, who control an tactically-important river crossing in the fictional setting of Westeros. The Wedding was meant to be between Walder Frey’s daughter and the King in the North, but King Robb meets someone young and beautiful during the War of Five Kings (the book and show marry him to two different characters), and can no longer fulfill his promise to Frey. Father of the bride-to-be Walder pretends to forgive Robb for his breach in their agreement, and feeds the King the bread and salt that signify the Freys’ protection.

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Robb Stark and his wife Talisa on Game of Thrones

 

Frey, however, is fed up with not being taken seriously by his allies, and forges an unholy alliance with the enemy Lannister faction, as well as a trusted soldier from within Robb’s own ranks. After the most important members of Stark’s army are seated around Walder’s table and are listening to the cacophonous wedding music performed by disguised members of House Frey, the “musicians” pull their weapons out from the instruments and bloodshed ensues. Robb dies. His mother dies. His pet direwolf dies. Many loyal members of his army die. They trusted Walder Frey because of Guest Right, and died for it.

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Robb crying over his wife’s lifeless body during The Red Wedding

So how does this tie back to Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet? Because Richard Madden plays Robb Stark and Romeo. By considering the “creative casting” behind Branagh’s production, we can think more deeply about the topic of revenge: when is revenge just and what constitutes a low blow? Who deserves revenge and when is an avenger in the wrong? Richard Madden may change his accent and cut his hair, but both of his characters fall in love with women that they shouldn’t. Their impulsive marriages come at the cost of their lives, and the lives of those they love. Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to “make a mutiny among my guests” at the feast, but Tybalt finds another opportunity to attack Romeo, leaving behind the bodies of Mercutio, Tybalt himself, and Lady Montague, who dies of her grief when her son is banished from Verona.

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Romeo crying over Juliet’s lifeless body in Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet

Tragedy is defined by the number of dead bodies onstage at the end of a play. Revenge is the impulse to kill, and revenge tragedy is when the impulse to kill ultimately kills the killer, as well. By thinking about revenge on TV today, we can reflect on those beautiful little details that Shakespeare left behind for us. By reflecting upon the issues that Shakespeare brought up in his revenge tragedies, we can gain a greater appropriation for the politics and drama that we continue to consume today.

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Mercutio and Tybalt: casualties of revenge tragedy

 

 

 

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The Fassbender Macbeth and Shakespearean Riddles

I finally got the chance to see the 2015 film adaptation of Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Based on the after-show rumblings, the people in the theater seemed pretty split between those loving the production for its visual sumptuousness and having such a hunky actor speak in verse, and those begrudging Kurzel for privileging style at the cost of the comic relief scenes, which were all cut.

I get it: I was waiting to see what they’d do with the Porter scene, too. I love when Macduff Jr. cheekily challenges his mum on the morality of whether every single liar should be hanged by every single honest man. These parts were missed, but what remains is a production streamlined to reflect Macbeth’s own subjective: what does he see? how does he feel? What’s left is his descent into madness.

In the process of this descent, Macbeth kills all of his friends / competitors, defending his crown while the rest of Scotland turns on him. He makes one final visit to the “weird sisters,” who foretell whether he will win the war or be vanquished once and for all. They respond with the following riddle-like stipulations:

1: “None of woman born shall harm Macbeth.”

2: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”

Ultimately, Macbeth hears only what he wants to hear. To the Scottish king, their responses are not cryptic but clear: your cause is just, you will survive this war. To someone terrified of being defeated without an heir of his own, Macbeth hears that it is impossible to vanquish him, just as it seems impossible for a person to be born from anyone but a woman, or for a forest to exist anywhere but where it is rooted.

To me, the most important quality of any adaptation is whether it makes me think about the play in a new way. Kurzel’s Macbeth does this with the final battle scene. In most productions that I have seen, the allied powers transport Birnam Wood to Dunsinane by camouflaging themselves in the leaves and branches of Birnam Wood, effectively going unseen by Macbeth until it is too late. This convention is exceptionally clever: it requires surprisingly little effort in order to stage something that, to Macbeth, seems so impossible. Because I’ve seen the scene staged in this fashion so many times, I wasn’t expecting this production to go in another direction. But boy, did they! Instead of bringing the forest to Dunsinane through camouflage, Malcolm’s army sets Birnam Wood ablaze. That’s right: the final battle is staged on the smoky, ashy, periphery of a giant forest fire!

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Coming disturbingly full-circle from the misty heath on which the first battle was set, what we get is a stark contrast between natural order and man’s interference:

  • Duncan, the natural king, vs. Macbeth, the regicidal usurper
  • Mist vs. ash
  • Nature’s inherent fearsomeness vs. destruction at the hands of men

Macbeth disturbs the natural order by killing the natural king. Kurzel epitomizes the subsequent challenges facing the usurper by showing not only man, but nature rising against Macbeth to restore Malcolm to his rightful seat.

So that leaves us with the question: is it worthwhile to brave the January cold in order to see this film? My answer: most definitely. See Kurzel bring the unexpected to Dunsinane! And if that’s not steamy enough for you, know that you’ll also be getting some of this:

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Not bad, Fassbender. Not bad.

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Bullying in Shakespeare

To engage young people in the wonderful world of Shakespeare, educators tend to begin with old faithful: Shakespearean insults. The exercise is easy to set up and on top of being hilarious, the obscure jokes help educators to sneak in little lessons on Shakespeare’s language: “Why is that particular word insulting? Here’s a history lesson!” Truth be told, most of the expressions are slang for erectile dysfunction or venereal disease! Pretty risqué!

Today, while watching The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part 1 (2012, dir. Richard Eyre), I thought about another way of bringing Shakespeare into classroom conversation: let’s talk about bullying. So often we read Shakespeare’s speeches as meditations on virtues we should possess: selflessness, mercy, and courage. But what about when Shakespeare shows us a really awful character, someone who has charisma, but delights in causing others pain? Do we ignore those characters? Not a chance.

A drunk Hal and Falstaff

A drunken Hal and Falstaff

We find a Shakespearean bully in Prince Hal, Henry IV’s son and the future Henry V. Hal spends all of his time at a tavern in a scummy part of town, and it pains his father that he’s not participating in his courtly duties. Hal delivers a soliloquy about how he’s just waiting for the perfect time to show the whole kingdom that he’s worthy of the crown. Yet, even after he shares these lofty aspirations, Hal maintains his persona as the guy who can “drink with any tinker in his own language during my life”; he prides himself on being able to speak the language of the common people, and sees that as a selling point for his new generation of kingship.

But is it possible that Hal genuinely enjoys being at the pub because he can lord himself over all the guests and staff? This is a big change from being shamed by his father back home at court! Hal asserts his dominance at the Boar’s Head Tavern by playing a trick on the slack-witted busboy, Francis. Francis has a busy role, and as all the customers call out to him, he delays helping them by calling back, “Anon, anon!”, showing that he’ll be there soon. Hal gets his buddy Poins to call out to Francis from another room, while Hal monopolizes the busboy through meaningless conversation. Francis is forced to keep shouting “Anon, anon!” to Poins, but Hal laughs hysterically because he asks Francis stupid questions that he keep answering with, “Anon, anon!” This goes on for a while, much to Francis’s increasing anxiety.

Hal and Poins: Besties.

Hal and Poins: Besties.

Francis’s limited vocabulary is the butt of Hal’s joke; it’s easy for the one brought up by the kingdom’s finest tutors to laugh at the uneducated, but I find Hal to be the worst kind of hypocrite because he prides himself on his ability to speak the language of the people and then uses it to exploit them. Francis is overworked and underpaid, and instead of pitying his need to work so hard, Hal creates more obstacles to prevent him from getting his job done.

It’s important to ask: Why is Hal doing this? We know he does this to share a laugh with Poins – is it because Hal doesn’t have friends in the manipulative world of court, and is trying to cement his friendship with the bar rat Poins, instead? The joke definitely indicates something about Hal’s self-consciousness. Even beyond his desire for friendship, I see a character that is so busy delaying his own coming of age that he’s displacing his own anxieties onto the innocent Francis.

What might seem to be a silly prank is nonetheless bullying because Hal is exploiting Francis’s subservient position.  No matter how loudly Poins calls for him, Francis is obviously going to delay helping Poins (calling back “Anon, anon!”, on cue) because it is his responsibility to make the Prince comfortable; his livelihood depends on the Prince’s favour. So it is okay when Hal finally lets Francis finally leave by bellowing at him, “Away, you rogue! dost thou not hear them call?”? No! He’s exploiting his social inferior for his own amusement! That’s not fair, and it’s not the kind of attitude that people should emulate when trying to be “princely.”

Goneril and Regan: don't mess with these two.

Goneril and Regan: Don’t mess with these two.

So the next time you’re studying one of Shakespeare’s plays, look for the bullies. It could be Gratiano in Merchant of Venice, the terrible Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus, or maybe the bully is a woman, like Goneril or Regan in King Lear. Watch out for them: Shakespeare’s bullies are everywhere. They offer us the chance to learn about the motivations and weaknesses of all kinds of difficult people, and with those lessons, we can develop strategies for how to overcome negative influences and channel our struggles into something positive.

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Arresting Images in Measure for Measure

I haven’t done an “Arresting Images” post in a while, so it’s about time that I do! “Arresting Images,” just to recap, are words that Shakespeare uses that make you stop and think, “Wow! He just made something so seemingly normal or overdone sound so meaningful, so memorable! That must be why we’re still studying his work after 400 years!”

Carmen Grant as Isabella and Tom Rooney as Angelo in the 2013 Stratford Festival production of Measure for Measure

Carmen Grant as Isabella and Tom Rooney as Angelo in the 2013 Stratford Festival production of Measure for Measure

I recently saw the Stratford Festival’s production of Measure for Measure and it reminded me of all the arresting images that this play has to offer. Although the plot isn’t particularly well-known, you’ve probably seen the metaphors printed on a coffee mug or fridge magnet.

The play is about the nature of justice: when the Duke of Vienna feels like he hasn’t been fulfilling his duty to uphold the law, he takes a short hiatus to wander the streets in costume, putting himself in touch with the voice of the people while the scrupulous Angelo holds down the fort.

William Holman Hunt's painting of Isabella telling Claudio to prepare for his execution

William Holman Hunt’s painting of Isabella telling Claudio to prepare for his execution

When Angelo takes the reigns, people are surprised at his severity. Isabella, a nun-in-training, begs Angelo not to execute her brother for the crime of impregnating his girlfriend, who had enthusiastically consented to the union. The stand-in Duke responds:

“The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept.”

Isn’t that amazing? Angelo is showing that he is waking up the legal system of Vienna. Angelo sees the citizens as assuming that they can get away with breaking the laws (in this case, laws against premarital sex) because the Duke hadn’t enforced them. While Angelo is waking up the legal system, he offers the people of Vienna a harsh wake-up call.

Isabella begs Angelo to forgive her brother’s youthful impetuousness, and says that Claudio will remedy the crime by marrying and taking care of the expectant Juliet (no, not that Juliet). Angelo refuses to yield to this reasonable solution, and offers the most outstanding metaphor as to why it’s necessary for him to start upholding the law:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Crow perched on a scarecrow

Crow perched on a scarecrow

That line is worth reading twice, three times, and then putting it up on a wall somewhere. Instead of saying that “my town, my rules,” Shakespeare provides us with an unforgettable image that even those without farmland can understand: scarecrows are not scary enough. Men with guns are scary, dukes with the power to execute men are scary, but scarecrows are all show, with little power to deter the vultures that might destroy the crops and lead to greater repercussions. Angelo may not be shocked and appalled by Claudio’s engagement in consensual sex, but it’s his job to uphold the law where the Duke was too lenient, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

When discussing the notion of mercy in Shakespeare, people usually refer to Portia’s “The quality of mercy” speech in The Merchant of Venice. Yet, Measure for Measure offers outstanding, and frankly underrated meditations on the nature of mercy, and why sometimes it’s important to allow the legal system some wiggle room in order to let people coexist in peace.

Thematically, this play interrogates whether a binary even exists between justice and mercy, and metaphorically, it offers outstanding imagery of the battle between darkness and light. Lucio is Claudio’s best friend, and his name is derived from Latin words that mean “light” or “shine.” Angelo represents his foil (his character opposite), but instead of being the darkness to snuff out Lucio’s light, he’s the cold that threatens to overcome Lucio’s shining sun of humour and optimism. Lucio calls Angelo

“a man whose blood / Is very snow-broth”

I need a cup of soup even thinking about snow-broth!

Brrr! I need a cup of soup even thinking about snow-broth!

– isn’t that amazing? It gives me the chills just to think about it! I think about the slush that I walk on in the winter, and the countless bowls of soup it takes to warm me up, and that shows me that I would never want to deal with someone so stubborn, so disagreeable, as to be comprised of snow-broth.

So that brings my quick exploration of Measure for Measure’s arresting images to a close. I’m not sure why this play isn’t taught in high schools. It’s got material on teen pregnancy, good quotes for pre-law keeners, and ultimately offers essay topics that are ripe for the picking. Have you tried teaching Measure for Measure in your classroom?

 

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Kenneth Branagh’s New York stage debut as Macbeth

Last night, I found proof that the theatre gods exist. That’s a pretty big claim to make – what event could be so huge?? I’ll tell you: in June 2014, Kenneth Branagh is making his New York stage debut!!!

Why is this a big deal? For a number of reasons!

Branagh as Macbeth

–       First off, Branagh has brought so much to the world of Shakespeare in performance. He has directed a number of Shakespeare films, including As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, and has performed some of the greatest Shakespearean roles, including Hamlet, Richard III, Iago, and Henry V. At the rate he’s going, it’s no surprise that people (myself included), consider him the Laurence Olivier of our generation.

–       He’s just getting off an eleven-year hiatus from the Shakespearean stage. He has spent the interim busying himself by directing small art house films like Thor, you’ve probably never heard of it.

–       Branagh’s initial return to the Shakespearean stage was this summer, where he co-directed, and delivered a critically acclaimed performance of Macbeth for the Manchester International Festival. The incredibly short run, only 18 performances, was fuelled by such high demand that it sold out instantly. I was so excited when I found out that he’d be performing in England at the same time that I was there, but no matter who I begged, what scalpers I Googled, or which favours I tried to call in, the response was the same: sold out.

–       Despite the demand, the audiences were limited to less than 300 viewers per performance. To appease disappointed Bardolators, the production was at one point relayed on giant screens outside the theatre in Manchester, bringing in no less than 5000 people!

–       For those of you who indulge in the “Mackers Myth” (the rubbish superstition that saying the name “Macbeth” will bring your production bad luck), according to some shady reports, one actor in Manchester was struck by Branagh’s sword, and needed to go to the hospital after final curtain.

–       In an age of unique Macbeths, this one made its presence known by being staged in a deconsecrated church in Manchester. And while I have every intention of dashing to the movie theatre on October 17 to catch National Theatre Live’s broadcast of the Manchester production, I am still going to jump on the opportunity to book tickets for the New York production. As opposed to making his New York stage debut on Broadway, Branagh’s Macbeth will be staged at the Park Avenue Armory. Rather than replicating the original production, it will be re-imagined to best suit the vast, 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall.

–       Although Branagh calls this setting “epic”, Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian teases us by saying that the space has a capacity for audiences sized anywhere between 200-5000! I can’t tell if I’d prefer the former or the latter, as long as I can be one of them!

So: where will you be in June 2014?

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The Hollow Crown: Henry IV part 1

One way to fight the winter blues is to accept that it’s too cold for any sane person to leave the house. Instead, we must find ways to enjoy the great indoors. My proposed solution is twofold: the first is the miracle of slow-cooked applesauce. While you don’t get the pleasure of licking the tinfoil lid off the childhood favorite, eating it warm, straight out of the slow cooker, will change your life forever. The second part of the solution is to get into your jam-jams and comfiest robe, and watch lots and lots of movies.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

…Shakespeare movies, that is! I’ve been downloading way too many BBC adaptations and watching too few, so last night I decided to change that. I’ve been on a little Tom Hiddleston kick lately (can you blame me?), so I started with 1 Henry IV. I consider this the most unfortunately-named Shakespeare play, as its boring title doesn’t signify its compelling main character (Prince Hal), the fun he has with Shakespeare’s most comic character (Falstaff), and coming of age that Prince experiences in this play.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

This production is certainly well cast. Few actors make better brooding, guilt-ridden rulers than Jeremy Irons, slightly less lecherous than in his role as Rodrigo Borgia, and Hiddleston plays a bright-eyed mischievous Prince Hal. Michelle Dockery, fresh from Downton Abbey, glows, alabaster as ever, and I really enjoyed the way Richard Eyre amped up the flirtiness between Kate and Hotspur, who is often portrayed as loving his horse more than his wife.

Prince Hal and Falstaff

Prince Hal and Falstaff, besties for life?

Simon Russell Beale, who has been treading the boards of the English stage nonstop for the past couple of years, was a good Falstaff. Good, not great, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. I love the character, an irresponsible, lecherous, glutton who leeches off friends both high and low, yet his true devotion to Hal peeks through. What I don’t appreciate is that Richard Eyre thought it necessary to back each of Falstaff’s sympathetic speeches with an affecting violin track. I recognize that medium of film allows for certain enhancements to the text that the stage does not, but that does not mean that Shakespeare’s words themselves need more enhancing than an actor’s clear voice. Take, for example, the following speech:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

This is one of the most profound speeches in the Shakespearean canon. Honour inspires me to fight, by why should I, when I might just die? What is the value of dying in the name of honour? Will honour heal my bloody wounds? Will honour take care of my family when I’m gone? The dead man can find few, if any, practical applications for honour, so why pursue it? Falstaff asks these rhetorical questions, offering a catechism in the name of the Abbot of Unreason, all the while showing just exactly how reasonable he is. Falstaff is the one to make us question the nature of heroism: is the king heroic for forcing his army to fight and kill a hundred thousand “rebels”, who on any other day would be counted as fellow countrymen? Is Hal heroic for leaving the tavern in order to aid the King in a war that was only brought on after his father took the crown from Richard II? Falstaff may be a leech on society, but Shakespeare’s words show he is the one shrewd enough to know the finality of death, a truth that need no violins to prove it.

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Tamora, Queen of the Goths: a tribute to a she-villain

Mirror, mirror on the wall…who’s the fiercest she-villain of them all?

“Unsex me here”: Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

The go-to answer is usually Lady Macbeth, and not without reason. She’s ambitious, and her words leave such an emasculating sting on Macbeth that he is driven to kill King Duncan. While he wants to reap the benefits of being king, it is Lady Macbeth who shows him that, to make a royal omelet, one must first crack a few crowns.

Lady Macbeth is most notable for her lack of stain-remover and for the heartlessness of the following rant:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

Lady Macbeth’s baby is one of those great Shakespearean mysteries. We know that Macbeth has no sons, and thus the crown will pass to Banquo’s, but what of that baby? Was it Macbeth’s, or Lady M’s by another man?  Has she already dashed that baby’s head into the concrete? We never really know, but her threat to “dash” the baby’s brains out has made her an eternally compelling she-villain.

“Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’ top” – Jessica Lange as Tamora

But now I’d like to make the case for Tamora, Queen of the Goths, the underrated she-villain of Titus Andronicus. Mother to four sons over the course of the play, she is the true embodiment of “Hell hath no fury like a Mama Bear scorned.”

Tamora’s first words are some of her most compelling, as she begs Titus to spare the life of her firstborn:

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother’s tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome,
To beautify thy triumphs and return,
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke,
But must my sons be slaughter’d in the streets,
For valiant doings in their country’s cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful:
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge:
Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son.

 

Tamora pleading with Titus in the Peacham drawing: the only surviving contemporary Shakespearean illustration

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