Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Titus Andronicus is a web of artistic gruesome acts. Kill Bill is a departure for Tarantino, not in its well crafted violence, but in its abandonment of language. The violence in Kill Bill speaks louder than any of the dialogue, which is a stark contrast to most other Tarantino films. Take Inglorious Bastards, as a stark contrast. In this film, the violence is always the conclusion of an act of speech, or bodily gesture. If Kill Bill is Tarantino’s Titus Andronicus, than Inglorious Bastards is his Othello: a play in which revenge is acted out through words rather than rash violent acts.
’A was a man, take him for all in all,
This does not suggest love as we immediately conjure at the sound of the word, but surely affection, and surely as much affection as Titus had for his sons (let’s discount the one he kills himself.) But Hamlet does not take action with the same immediacy that Titus does. There is no way Hamlet would be fooled by Aaron into chopping off his finger, even if he thought he could save his father, and Hamlet would not be foul enough to bake his enemies into a pie. Confronting his ghost-father, Hamlet says:
at which point Hamlet does not act, but seeks out rational proof. No one in the corrupt world of Titus Andronicus would need pressing from a ghost to act, the revenge would be instinctive. Hamlet takes the gut reaction of revenge and mixes it in with that human quality – rational thought, which leads to inaction until the matter is thrust upon him.
Colloquially, this is an inconsequential “you’re kidding me,” but expressed in this way – the desire not to hear – it strikes as an ominous foreshadow. For we may take Roderigo’s meaning as friendly, albeit, worried, but when Othello says –
Avaunt, be gone! Thou hast set me on the rack.
he is sincere. He does not want to know the truth. Following this, in the most famous speech of the play, he bids farewell to his senses and himself. Then, taking Iago by the throat says:
Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore. (III.iii)
Where would Hamlet be if the ghost had not told him what he did? Still mourning away? Where would Macbeth be if the witches did not poison his mind? A content Thane? Words, post-Hamlet do what only hands could do in the world of Titus Andronicus, and what only deceptive acts could do in the world of The Spanish Tragedy. So long as words are not spoken – all is well.
As for Othello calling his love a whore – and let’s for the sake of there being too many tangents ignore the bitter irony of “my love” and “a whore” in the same breath – I think it is worth noting here that this is the first insulting name Othello attaches to her, even in an indirect way. In the first half of the play, Othello refers to his wife as “my love” or “sweet” or “chuck” (which is affectionate, for some reason,) but those are taken over by whore and a series of synonyms of whore. And this was exactly as Iago planned. While Iago’s (and later Othello’s) victims find pleasure in ignorance, Iago uses words to orchestrate his revenge.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while working on his lectures on Shakespeare, scribbled a note in response to this part of the play:
The triumph! again, put money after the effect has been fully produced.--The last Speech, the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity--how awful! (Coleridge Lectures, 1808-1819)
This has led to an unfortunate misinterpretation which states that Iago has no motives for any of his actions. Some, reading Coleridge’s quote beyond the word motiveless, at least recognize that Coleridge states that Iago hunts for motives after the deed: thus his motives are no more than rationals. This is, I think, a fair reading, for the section that the note was scribbled in, but should not be confused with every one of Iago’s actions. In this matter, Iago has convinced Roderigo to fill his purse with money and follow him to the wars. He does not give a clear motive (action) for the demand, but convinces Roderigo with rhetoric and promises (words): how Desdemona will fall out of love as quickly as she fell in it: how the Moor is changeable: how he (Iago) is always looking out for Roderigo. Roderigo does not need direct action to be motivated, but the words alone sustain him – at least until the end of the play. It is after Roderigo is gone that Iago tries to “suit the action to the word” – Coleridge’s “motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity.” What Coleridge strikes on is my very theme – Othello is a world in which words alone suffice as deeds.
If we are taking Coleridge’s note as a reflection of the lines which Coleridge refers to and not the play as a whole, what then are (the no longer motiveless) Iago’s motives? It should not be surprising that in the world of words, Iago’s hate springs from the many-tongued one. For that particular reference, let’s jump back a few years, when Shakespeare wrote 2 Henry IV. Here is the opening.
2 Henry IV is driven by rumours, false reports spawning false deeds – here Shakespeare dips his toe into what Hamlet will become. Again, Hamlet’s motive – his reason for (in)action spawns from words: true or false? We never know. In Iago, Shakespeare brings back the Prologue painted full of tongues.
The truth is irrelevant: the rumour will suffice. And Iago inhabits the rumour to plant the very idea in Othello’s mind in regards to Desdemona. Beyond Rumour driving Iago to revenge, he expresses his feelings at the opening of the play in regards to him being passed over for lieutenant, a position given to Michael Cassio.
Iago’s complaint is that he – a man of practical experience – was passed over for an academic – one who had never seen battle: “mere prattle without practise.” The reason Iago gives to supplant Cassio becomes the act by which he does it – resigned that he, a reasonably experienced soldier, gains nothing by his deeds in the world of words, throws down his militaristic might and picks out the very rhetoric he curses Cassio for. Iago’s soliloquy at the end of Act I is his very own “farewell to arms.”
He hath achieved a maid
Desdemona cannot be praised in simple terms, and would a poet attempt it, he would tire himself out before reaching his full potential. In the world of words – according to Cassio – Desdemona cannot be named. Immediately following, Desdemona enters with Iago and Emilia (Iago’s wife.) Iago’s character in this moment is a strange one, even for the changeable Iago. He is not the humble ensign, nor “honest Iago” nor the villain we see in private – in this scene he takes the shape more akin to Feste before him and Lear’s Fool after him. Playing around with Desdemona and Emelia, he “praises” women as a fool would. Desdemona draws attention to this.
These are old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh I’the alehouse (II.i)
conjures up the image of Feste entertaining Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, or Falstaff in 1 Henry IV or Merry Wives of Windsor. The more relevant conclusion is that, through his superior wit and command of language (again, the qualities of a Shakespearean Fool) Iago has distorted and destroyed Cassio’s bathetic praise of Desdemona. After all, corrupting words is Iago’s business. This is most evident here:
Now we come to the final act: the night, as Iago says,
that either makes me or fordoes me quite (V.i)
‘Tis heavy night.
These may be counterfeits. Let’s think’t unsafe
To come into the cry without more help. (V.i)
Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, Desdemona, and Emelia – all are willing to rush into something without proof, to mostly tragic ends. Here we have two lords who are so much the contrary that they are unwilling to help two dying men because it is too dark, they cannot know anything their eyes cannot tell them. Thus the hyper-empiricism is just as harmful (albeit not to Graziano or Lodovico) as the loss of rationality. Iago uses the darkness and chaos to rid himself of Roderigo, and blame Cassio’s wounds on Bianca: a courtesan who followed Cassio from Venice, and one of the more pointless foils in Shakespeare.
Following this plot line to its end, we have Iago’s undoing in his own world of words. Here we realize the power struggle that exists in this world: the spoken words (which Rumour and Iago rule) and the written word. It is Roderigo’s letters – a confession of everything Iago did – that fordoes Iago. Spoken words can be twisted easily, but when words are cemented on paper and can be passed around and spoken by anyone, they are hard to tame. Combine that with Emelia’s shrewishness (another form of words that cannot be tamed) and Iago is finished: choosing as his end – silence.
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth, I never will speak word. (V.ii)
Desdemona is a wonderful character, and her death is one of those great moments of the dark sublime (see Part I, Section XV of Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.)
Othello was originally going to poison her, but Iago suggests smothering instead. What is the great impact of smothering? There are a few. Othello notes that he will kill her but not stain the white sheets with blood or ruin her fair, white skin. What I find most horrific and incredible about this form of murder is that it is the one that could be presented most realistically on stage. On stage stabbings are fun to watch, particularly when done properly, but the theatre in a stabbing, or such death, has such a great presence that we cannot for a second be fooled into thinking there is a threat of danger. Smothering is slow, and (if acted well) can trick our minds in ways false blood never can. There is a famous story of an audience member standing up and trying to save Desdemona – and if watching the play, I don’t think it is hard to see why. It is the perfect death. But I would require nine more pages just to explore the character of Desdemona, an underrated Shakespeare female character – reduced to an object even as she rejects it: more powerful than Lady Macbeth and simultaneously powerless as Lady Macduff.
But to close, I return for a last time to the world of words. Othello’s speech before killing himself includes these lines:
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richard than all his tribe, of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. (V.ii)