Sunday, January 10, 2010

To Kill a Fly: Titus Andronicus

The Diamond Way Buddhist Center, on Lake Street a couple blocks east of Lake Calhoun in Uptown Minneapolis, is a great place for a cookout.

At least it used to be. I haven’t been to one in a long time, but my brother used to live there and I used to live a half mile away. Many were the summer nights we’d grill up some beer-boiled brats, eat couscous and drink Grainbelt Premium as joggers, bikers and inline skaters pilgrimaged past us to exercise around Lake Calhoun in the green and gold Minnesota twilight.

The Minnesota and Wisconsin Buddhists are a great bunch of people. When my older sister Katie first became one I thought it was weird and new age-y… but fun too. And then my older brother Ian became one after he ran head-first into a stop sign while chasing a Frisbee outside the Buddhist Center in Madison and I began learning more about it.

I was never really interested in practicing myself, mostly because I don’t really dig meditation. Plus this whole reincarnation thing is a little troubling to me. Not in principal, but in practice.

Once I was over at the Center for a barbecue and they were having an ant problem in the kitchen. A couple people were scooping the ants out of the kitchen and carrying them outside. I was tempted to just crush all the ants for them, but I think that would not have been appreciated.

Some things deserve mercy, and I certainly don’t advocate burning ants with a magnifying glass for fun… not anymore anyway. But bugs? Ants? Flies? Do you really need to worry about killing them?

How merciful can a body be?

What if you’re a Roman General whose daughter has been raped and had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out and your two sons were framed for murder and decapitated and you were tricked into cutting your own hand off? What about being merciful then?

Titus Andronicus – much like Russell Crowe’s Gladiator – wins great military victories for Rome over the Goths, and then is offered the empery:

Titus Andronicus, the people of Rome,

Whose friend in justice thou hast ever been,

Send thee by me, their tribune and their trust,

This palliament of white and spotless hue,

Be candidatus then and put it on,

And help to set a head on headless Rome. (1:1)

But Titus refuses:

Give me a staff of honour for mine age,

But not a sceptre to control the world. (1:1)

Saturninus, as the eldest son of the former emperor, is elevated in his place and then the trouble starts.

Titus has his sons kill the eldest son of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, who has come with all his family as prisoners. They murder him despite Tamora’s plea for mercy:

But must my sons be slaughtered in the streets

For valiant doings in their country’s cause?

Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?

Draw near them then in being merciful.

Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge (1:1)

But they are not merciful, and the bloodshed begins.

Saturninus then wants to take Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, for his wife. But Saturninus’s bro, Bassianus is betrothed to her. To protect their sister, Titus’s four living sons (he has already lost 21 sons to warfare) steal her away, and seeing this affront to Rome, Titus kills his own son, Mutius, to try to get her back for the new emperor.

They bring her back, married to Bassianus and Saturninus is pissed, but he decides to take Tamora, queen of the Goths and enemy of Rome as his wife. Seems like a pretty bad idea, right? It is.

Tamora, her two remaining sons, and her lover, Aaron, orchestrate vengeance on Titus. They murder Bassianus, frame it on Titus’ sons who are beheaded. They rape Lavinia, cut out her tongue, then chop off her hands and make terrible puns about it. They get Titus to chop off his own hand, and he goes crazy.

In Act 3 scene 2, Titus’s brother Marcus kills a fly, and Titus reprimands him thus:

Out on thee, murderer. Thou kill’st my heart.

Mine eyes are cloyed with view of tyranny;

A deed of death done on the innocent

Becomes not Titus’ brother. Get thee gone;

I see thou art not for my company.

Poor harmless fly,

That with his pretty buzzing melody

Came here to make us merry, and thou hast killed him. (3:2)

In his madness, Titus regrets his lack of absolute mercy. He sees that any murder done needlessly is an evil.

All this trouble could have been avoided if only Titus had listened to Alan Thicke, the wise father on Growing Pains, who lectured Ben on how quickly vengeance can escalate in the episode “First Blood” (Season 1 ep. 14). Ben gets in a fight with his hockey coach’s son, and Alan Thicke goes down to talk to the coach who winds up punching him in the stomach. Alan Thicke backs down from the fight like a big chicken, and tells Ben how if he had punched the coach back, then the coach would have come over and shot him and eventually the feud would have escalated until the hockey coach’s grandma runs over Kirk Cameron with a tank. But sadly it doesn’t come to that. Ben learns a valuable lesson and Kirk Cameron lives to have 6 home-schooled children and star in the Left Behind movies.

But Titus’s flirtation with this idea of mercy is a momentary lapse. He soon answers the call of revenge. He murders his daughter, kills Tamora’s sons, cooks them and feeds them to her, then stabs her before getting killed himself. Oh woops, I forgot to say spoiler alert.

Titus was onto something in that moment where he defends a poor fly’s life. Maybe the only way to allow there to be justice and happiness in the world is to be absolute with mercy. In Aaron we have a character of pure evil and malintention, the opposite of merciful. After he is captured he compares his dastardly deeds to the simple evil of killing a fly:

Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things

As willingly as one would kill a fly,

And nothing grieves me heartily indeed

But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (5:1)

The lesson is: be merciful in thy deeds. Killing nary a humming fly, nor a train of ants disrupting a good old-fashioned, Midwestern, Buddhist cookout. For karma is causality, and the chain of dominos that ends with you cooking two people and serving them to someone else in a bowl of chili stands precarious and ready to be triggered by even the slightest moral tremor.

This is me at Lake Calhoun on New Year's Eve.
It was 4 degrees, there were people jogging around the lake
and as you can see there is an insane guy getting ready to Para-snowboard.


  1. "That with his pretty buzzing melody"

    I think it's interesting that a fly's buzzing is referred to as melodious and pretty when in our day and age it's often a shorthand way for writers to describe decrepit conditions or whatnot. I wonder if Shakespeare sincerely thought fly buzzing was pretty or if he didn't and wanted to use the line to underlie Titus's insanity. Because you'd have to be crazy to like the buzzing of flies.

  2. It's definitely supposed to show how crazy Titus is.
    Although I just watched Julie Taymor's "Titus" and she changed the scene so that it's Titus's grandson, Young Lucius who kills the fly instead of his brother, Marcus. Anthony Hopkins plays it light, as though he's joking with his grandson, which really humanizes him, but sort of undermines the fear that we might have later on that Titus is in danger of being outsmarted by the empress.
    I'm not a Julie Taymor fan, the movie was completely overproduced, but that sort of works for this play, which is pretty much a spectacle of violence anyway.
    And damn if she didn't make some interesting choices.