Well, first off, it’s Anthony Hopkins as a sort-of-cannibal – a welcome return! Titus, the first filmic version of Shakespeare’s first tragedy Titus Andronicus, was made eight years after Silence of the Lambs, which had brought Hopkins fame and an Oscar for best actor. He had played other monsters in the years between Titus and Silence, including Richard Nixon and Pablo Picasso. A couple of years later (2001) he reprised the role of Hannibal Lecter in the movie Hannibal, so Titus was a handy reminder of that sudden Hannibal facial contortion. The movie Titus cost $25 million to make, and grossed less than a tenth of that, so it was, in technical language, a bomb. Shame, as it is a rollicking version of one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays, and the cast is sublime.
Shakespeare was well aware of stories of strange foreigners known as anthropophagi, or as Columbus had named them “cannibales” (a corruption of the name of the Carib tribe whose neighbours had been telling him tall tales about them). Later references, particularly to the monstrous anagram Caliban in The Tempest, were more nuanced, probably due to his reading of the essays of Montaigne. But in Titus, although there is a POC or “Moor” who is a malevolent villain, it is not the Moor who is the cannibal, and the eating of human flesh is done neither for gustatory or psychotic reasons – it is an act of revenge.
Titus refuses power in Rome, never a good idea in tragedies, and is subsequently betrayed by the Emperor Saturninus, a role camped up mightily by Alan Cumming, and his bride Tamora, Titus’ sworn enemy, played by the splendid Jessica Lange. There is much bloodshed, even for Shakespeare, quite a lot even for a cannibal blog, but the act of cannibalism is an “innocent” one, in the sense that the person eating humans is not aware of the contents of the pie until digestion has commenced. Much like the Board of the Baltimore Philharmonic, unknowingly tucking into the second flautist around Hannibal Lecter’s dinner table.
The cannibal, the person who eats human flesh, is Tamora, and the flesh is that of her sons, who have not only raped Titus’ daughter, killed her husband and cut off her hands, but have also cut out her tongue to stop her giving evidence against them (based on another Greek myth – Philomela). Yeah, that trick was never going to work, and so we find them hanging upside down, buck naked, while Titus explains his plans for them:
Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,
Like to the earth, swallow her own increase.
And so he does, and Mummy rather enjoys the pie, until Titus explains his little jest, and kills her. The Greeks of course were very big on revenge cannibalism – think Atreus and Thyestes – so Shakespeare had plenty of literary meat for his inspiration. Well, we’ve all been to awkward family dinners, but these guys take the cake. Or in the case of Titus, the pie.