Continuing through Shakespeare's collected plays, I found myself knee-deep in the gore of Titus Andronicus. Then, to my surprise, after the cruel absurdity of a four-way quarrel about who was keenest to lop off his hand - and surely no play exists anywhere that displays anything like such a keen interest in hands as this one - Shakespeare, through Titus (who, having won the argument, is now minus one hand) provides what may be the world's first crash diet plan:
"So, so, now sit, and look you eat no more
Than will preserve just so much strength in us
As will revenge these bitter woes of ours."
While not very tempting, it does beat the banquet served up at the very end of the play, about which the less said the better, beyond, "Ugh".
And yet, unpleasant as this play is, glimpsed through the ever rising pile of corpses and hacked off of limbs are numerous charming traces of the natural world - possibly the element that I love best in Shakespeare:
"O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute"
"When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o'erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad ..."
"Poor harmless fly,
That with his pretty buzzing melody
Came here to make us merry"
"the burning tapers of the sky"
"...ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys,
Ye white-limed walls, ye alehouse painted signs,
Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean,
Can never turn the swan's black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood"
"Why, so, brave lords, when we do join in league
I am a lamb; but if you brave the Moor,
The chafèd boar, the mountain lioness,
The ocean swells not so as Aaron storms."
"'Wheak, Wheak' - so cries a pig preparèd to the spit."
"I see thou wilt not trust the air
"...as swift as swallow flies ...
I'll make you feed on berries and on roots
And fat on curds and whey, and suck the goat,
And cabin in a cave ..."
"These tidings nip me, and I hang the head,
As flowers with frost, or grass beat down with storms."
"Is the sun dimmed, that gnats do fly in it?
The eagle suffers little birds to sing,
And is not careful what they mean thereby,
Knowing that with the shadow of his wings
He can at pleasure stint their melody."
"I will enchant the old Andronicus
With words more sweet and yet more dangerous
Than baits to fish or honey-stalks to sheep
Whenas the one is wounded with the bait,
The other rotted with delicious feed."
"We'll follow where thou lead'st
Like stinging bees on hottest summer's day
Led by their master to the flowered fields"
"But where the bull and cow are both milk-white
They never do beget a coal-black calf."
"I ... laughed so heartily
That both mine eyes were rainy like to his"
"Make poor men's cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and haystacks in the night"
"I am Revenge, sent from th'infernal kingdom
To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind"
"There's not a hollow cave or lurking place,
No vast obscurity or misty vale ..."
"And then I'll come and be thy Waggoner
And whirl along with thee about the globe,
Provide two proper palfreys, black as jet ..."
"You sad-faced men, people and sons of Rome,
By uproars severed, as a flight of fowl
Scattered by winds and high tempestuous gusts,
O, let me teach you how to knit again
This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf"
The play also, for good or ill, has what might be seen as the first ever variant of the Maximilian joke ("F*#!* Maximilian", "I do", "So do I") in the film Cabaret:
"Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother
Aaron: Villain, I have done your mother."
That is from Act 4, Scene 2, in which Aaron's speeches on his own child and on skin colour are, for me, among the best things in the play - narrowly followed, if you can take the violence, by Marcus's speech on finding his niece minus tongue and hands, plus Titus's grief stricken moments in Act 3, Scene 2.
Titus is surely the forerunner of poor Lear, Aaron a blend of Iago and Caliban. Tamora is incomparably vile. The way in which race is dealt with - that is to say, the play's, by today's standards, racism - seems shocking, which demonstrates that progress has been made.