Tag Archives: Titus Andronicus

Merkel’s view of Titus Andronicus

Hi Marie: Having promised to read your material online (The First Mousetrap) and consider your theory that Titus Andronicus is an allegory for the fate of the Howard family, I am half convinced that you’re right, even more than half.  I have to hold off a bit because I don’t see the kind of clearcut connections between the play and the Howards, the kind we can see with some of the other plays, but that doesn’t mean you’re not right, or at least on the right track.  An early version of the play may well have been more clear.  As with plays like Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet, plots and characters were sometimes revised to fit later situations, so the version of Titus that ended up in the First Folio could also reflect such revisions, not necessarily by Shakespeare.

I don’t see that you claimed anywhere in your chapters or introduction that the author was the Earl of Oxford (did you and I missed it?).  In fact, you make a few comments that seem to connect its creation with William of Stratford.  Once Oxford is seen as the author, a possible connection with the Howards becomes much stronger.  They were his family, he was in their camp from his early 20s to his early 30s, and with Sussex and then Hunsdon as his patron (1572-’82) he had every reason to write in their defence.  Also, with Oxford as author, he would have had no need of Holinshed, for his primary source would be his Howard cousins, whose family history lay at the tips of their tongues.

You ask (rhetorically) if it’s possible to see Titus as Sir Thomas Smith.  Of course not, but it’s certainly possible to see in young Lucius’s notalgic wish to sit again on his grandsire’s knee a reference to how de Vere may felt at times during the five months he was left alone at Queens’ College.  In his first year or two with Smith, at age four and five he would still have been young enough to be taken onto his tutor’s lap for comfort or instruction.  I believe that the five months at Cambridge must have been a very lonely and stressful time for a little eight-year-old.  I think it’s entirely possible that when he wrote the part about Lucius he was recalling this moment.  I believe he was recalling this same period when, in King John, he visualized Prince Arthur living with a man who had been ordered to kill him, begging for his life, then trying to escape.  Not that de Vere’s Cambridge tutor, Thomas Fowle, had any such wicked intention, but it wasn’t his tutor he was recalling, only his own childish fears.  (It’s clear from Fowle’s biography that he was a hot-head.)

You point to the family relationships among the early patrons of the Court Stage, something worth repeating.  All three of the patrons who worked to get control of the Court Stage in the 1570s (and to keep it from then on) were direct descendants of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, your candidate for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.  To repeat: these were the Earl of Sussex, Ld Henry Hunsdon and Ld Charles Howard.  Howard relations of lesser rank were also the first and second Masters of the Revels, Edmund Tilney and Sir George Buc.  In short, almost everyone in charge of what got produced, both at Court and beyond, until the Pembrokes took over in 1615, were men descended from the 2nd Duke of Norfolk.

Most place Titus early, but in my view never early enough.  I’ve long seen it as the one early play that made it into the canon unrevised (at least, unrevised by Shakespeare).  We have other unrevised plays from that time, but they’re considered anonymous or are attributed to other writers.  The stilted, pompous language of much of it, the unreal female characters, the exceedingly  impressionistic treatment of history and use of Senecan horror tropes all suggest a very early origin.  These factors suggest that it was written by Oxford no later than his early 20s and possibly even in his late teens.  If written when he was 17 or 18, the reference to Lucius’s mother giving him Ovid would have been in time for Oxford’s mother to have seen the play.

It’s been suggested (by others?  by you?) that Tamora, Queen of the Goths, represents Mary Queen of Scots.  If this is about the Howards I don’t see how she could be anyone else.  Black Aaron could represent Bothwell and his baby represent the future James I.  Mary’s marriage to Darnley, the birth of James, the murder of Darnley, her marriage to Bothwell and flight to England all took place when Oxford was 17 and probably still spending most of his time at Cecil House where Mary was feared, hated and demonized, possibly to an extent that doesn’t come through in the records.  (English history is still confused about Mary;  as of now, the most detailed and trustworthy version of her life and fate is John Guy’s 2004 biography.)

It was what to do about Mary Queen of Scots that was the over-riding subject of political concern just as Oxford entered the adult world of Court politics and Inns of Court theater (The Supposes and Jocaste at Gray’s Inn 1566-’67).  So it makes sense that among his first attempts to entertain this community with something original would have been this effort to present the Howard case in Senecan technicolor.  That his close connection to Cecil House reflects William Cecil’s embroilment in Scottish affairs at this time, not only in Titus, but also in first versions of Macbeth and James I, also makes sense.

Other parts of the play may reflect later events.  Oxford’s writing for the Court and Inns of Court went into high gear in 1572 when Sussex took over as Lord Chamberlain and began his push to take the Court Stage away from Leicester.  A rewrite of Titus may show his reaction to the execution of  his cousin Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk that same year.

In any case, his involvement with the play, and with the Howards, would necessarily have ended in 1580-’81 when he broke with Norfolk’s brother, Henry Howard.  This fight was no tiff between friends, but a deadly duel in which Oxford accused his cousin of treason and Howard accused Oxford of murder and pederasty.  Once Oxford saw his cousin as the Iago who had broken up his marriage and so deeply damaged his wife’s reputation, most of his nastiest villains would be based on Henry Howard, something that could not have escaped the man’s acute paranoia.  Even if we could somehow account for the old-fashioned style, it’s unlikely that ever again he’d write anything that might seem in any way to promote the family that seemed determined to destroy him throughout the early ’80s.  (The dedication of Robert Greene’s Tritameron of Love (printed 1587, but probably written two years earlier, may have been a deliberate effort to show that Philip was not included in Oxford’s blacklist.)

I do not believe this play was written for performance at Court.  If it was, then it was not about the Howards.  To have performed such a crudely violent play before the Queen, one that ripped open unhealed wounds, would have been sheer lunacy.  It is said that no one ever mentioned her mother in Elizabeth’s presence.  No one, least of all Oxford, would have dared to touch her deepest and most personal anxieties in this way.  Most likely he wrote it for his favorite audience, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court.”  Many early versions of his best plays can be seen as pleading a particular case to this audience of lawyers.

I don’t agree that a great dramatist like Shakespeare would ever change character personas in midstream, with Titus representing Thomas Howard at one point and Henry VIII at another.  If this is what’s happening it must have been done by some later reviser.  No doubt Shakespeare did sometimes conflate historic noblemen with their descendants, not only for dramatic purposes, or because peers and their heirs were known by the same titles, but because, at that time,  men and women were still seen less as individuals than as limbs of a single ongoing entity, the Family.  In this way kings could be addressed as “England,” or “France.”  However, to conflate a character with his enemy  or his moral opposite would be to utterly lose the message, something no dramatist would ever do, not even one still learning the ropes.

The problem may be with rewrites.  In my view, Oxford would not have cared about this play after 1581, but anything by him would have been valuable later.  It may be that Henslowe had one of his writers do some surgery on it that left it making very little sense in terms of finding the original source.  If the original reflected the kind of political dynamite that you suggest, there would have been more than one reason for such a revision.

Your material is very well-written and easy to follow, difficult where such a complicated story is concerned.  I know how hard it is to make a complex narrative clear for readers.  Shakespeare turned to drama, but we can’t do that, can we?  My hope is that someday we’ll be able to see how and where every play fits into the true story, not only of Oxford, his tutors, patrons, and the other writers, but of the entire Elizabethan period.  So I’m happy to see that you are on the case.  More power to you.