William Shakespeare and *Unknown Artist/s*, Titus Andronicus

There is no column this weekend–here is last weekend’s anyway.




Kate Bush’s song “The Sensual World” draws inspiration from the character Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. For years, Bush wanted to use the words from Molly’s famous soliloquy in the song, but the Joyce estate refused to grant her permission. Until 2011, the year before the copyright was due to expire, when the estate finally decided to “allow” the musician do something she would soon be able to do without their permission anyway.

Bush’s excellent song is just one example among many of classic works, particularly those out of copyright, being used to create more art. It’s how Alan Moore can create a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example, or (this may not be a strong argument in favour of transformative works) we can read about Jane Austen characters battling the undead. It’s also how the famous science fiction author and bigot Orson Scott Card could rewrite Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a tract against homosexuality, but that is the cost of freedom, and it has certainly made me appreciate the original more.

The change can be as slight as adding new artwork to an edition of the book (since now any publisher is free to print it)—one of the most celebrated books of the last couple of years was a new edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland illustrated by the amazing Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. A recent series titled Pulp!: The Classics has chosen to reissue Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other “classic” works with wonderful pulp covers.

But sometimes the new contexts provided, the art or the cover design, seem completely inexplicable. Perhaps the publishers cannot afford to, or can’t be bothered to, come up with attractive and appropriate packaging for a book that, being a classic, will probably be bought by people for its title.  A favourite sport on the internet is the mockery of covers that, considering the well-known content of the books they enclose, make no sense. Last year readers expressed horror at a reissue of Anne of Green Gables that had chosen to depict Anne as an attractive blonde posed sexily against a hayrick. In a bookshop recently I came across a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina whose cover showed two people silhouetted against a vast (and lurid) sky filled with stars. Tolstoy may have appreciated this- the effect was vaguely science fictional, so that the plot seemed to take on almost a cosmic significance.

Sometimes the inappropriate cover, or terrible art, turns out to be just what the book requires. Such as my copy of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

At his best, Shakespeare’s a genius poet, at his worst he’s a talented hack with a great sense of humour. Titus Andronicus is a rather … divisive play. There’s mutilation and dismemberment, involuntary cannibalism, rape, murder, inappropriately flowery speeches, and occasional classical allusions, before everyone dies. It makes the ending of Hamlet look not only toned down and subtle, but quite cheerful as well.  I love the play, but then I’ve always been convinced that the whole thing’s a parody.

My first copy of the play was the creation of something called Rohan Book Company. We’re not told who the illustrators were, but they appear to have made an admirable commitment to giving the book popular appeal; they’ve chosen to dress Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in some hybrid of a fur bikini and a Wonder Woman costume. Restricted to black and white for their palette they can’t show us much blood, but there are enthusiastic depictions of swords being thrust through torsos and dismembered body parts being held up dramatically. There’s less of a commitment to basic human anatomy, but perhaps that only adds to its charm.

I’ve often wondered in the years since I read Titus Andronicus whether this edition has coloured my understanding of the play forever. Would I have thought it a terrible melodrama (or even a surprisingly meaningful one) had it come with better (or no) illustrations and an intelligent introduction? I’m not sure, but this is how it exists in my head now and I can’t regret it.


One Comment to “William Shakespeare and *Unknown Artist/s*, Titus Andronicus

  1. Somewhat on-topic: my favorite use of literature in music has to be The Waterboys’ “The Stolen Child” by W.B. Yeats. Haunting and beautiful.

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