Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s cheesiest work, a sub-Tarantino bloodbath and the play I read least often. I read it again after watching Titus, the 1999 film adaptation with Anthony Hopkins reprising the role of Hannibal Lecter. As is usually the case with Shakespeare, I salvaged a few scenes and lines from the surrounding gore. Take the banquet in Act III, Scene 2. Titus’ brother Marcus strikes at a fly on the table with his knife. Titus – who has Tamora’s sons baked in a pie which he serves to their mother -- replies: “Out on thee, murderer! thou kill’st my heart / . . . . A deed of death done on the innocent / Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone.” One recalls that Hitler liked dogs and was a vegetarian.
Marcus defends himself by responding, as many of us would, “Alas, my lord, I have but kill’d a fly,” to which Titus lays it on even thicker:
“But how, if that fly had a father and mother? / How would he hang his slender gilded wings, / And buzz lamenting doings in the air! / Poor harmless fly, / That, with his pretty buzzing melody, / Came here to make us merry! and thou hast kill’d him.”
Shakespeare takes for granted human complexity. Nothing we do surprises him. Live long enough and we encounter every possible coupling of qualities within a single soul. Remember Gloucester in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport.” I recalled a happier cameo appearance of a fly in English literature. The narrator of Tristram Shandy (Vol.2, Chap. XII) tells us his Uncle Toby “had scarce a heart to retaliate upon a fly”:
“Go, says he, one day at dinner, to an overgrown one which had buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time, and which, after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him; I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going across the room, with the fly in his hand, I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head: Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape; go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee? This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”
Tristram tells us he was ten when he witnessed Toby’s act of mercy and that it “instantly set my whole frame into one vibration of most pleasurable sensation.”