In Patricia Davis’ most recent post on HowlRound, she writes about how Taffety Punk’s Riot Grrrls are able to wring humor from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Very few people actually like Titus Andronicus. It is a gory follow up to the work of Seneca and a lamer precursor to the work of John Webster. We appreciate it for what it is, but rarely like to talk about it, much less to produce it on the stage. Davis notes that one of the reasons it is neglected is because there are scenes that are so gruesome in their tragedy that they either make us laugh or shuffle uncomfortably in our seats. What was great about the Riot Grrrl’s production is that they took the humor and instead of shunting it to the side, they elevated it. The farce is written into the text, so why not use it?
I am of the opinion that we need to think this way about a lot more of Shakespeare’s plays. there are things that we decide to blow off to the side because they don’t quite fit. If we took the entire play at face value, we might be getting some new stories. Let’s take Romeo and Juliet as an example. Do we think about Romeo and Juliet as a timeless and powerful love story because we are genuinely moved or do we think it to be so wondrous because that is what we were told that it was? Don’t get me wrong, I love Romeo and Juliet. But I think we miss something when we play it as a pure romantic tragedy. Some of the lines are just too sappy to be taken as serious love. Furthermore, I am not convinced that Shakespeare himself meant us to take Romeo and Juliet as a a pure romantic tragedy. It doesn’t read the way Shakespeare writes love. We’ve all read his sonnets. Those poems are no where near Petrarchan (in form or content). He takes the sappy cliches that Petrarch wrote and inverts them, making it clear that such cliches do not amount to love. Yet, he writes Romeo and Juliet entirely in the Petrarchan mode. It just doesn’t add up.
Now, if we took the over the top cliches at face value, they would probably be funny…like really funny. It would take the play from something rather mushy to a commentary on the stupidity of infatuation, making us reevaluate what we call love. And all this could be articulated through the guise of extremity. Address the funny. Its there are in it important. It makes the play tell its story better. This is exactly what Riot Grrrl was doing in their production of Titus. Quite honestly, I’d like to see more theater artists dare to take on Shakespeare at fa(r)ce value.