Playing Tamora

February 2, 2017

 

 

Katherine Mayberry has been acting with Pigeon Creek since she helped to found the company in 1998. She currently serves as the company's executive director. Recent roles with Pigeon Creek include The Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, Paulina in The Winter's Tale, Dorine in Tartuffe, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, and Hostpur in Henry IV, Part I.  Recent roles with other theaters include Masha Chekhov in Anton, Himself, and Masha, Too for Ellis Arts, Zelda in The How and the Why for Alea Iacta Est, and Estelle in Dead End for Stark Turn Players. Katherine holds MFA and MLitt degrees in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin College/American Shakespeare Center, and has studied classical acting with the London Theatre Exchange and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.

 

Note: Some of this content was included in a talk the actor gave at C3 in Grand Haven on January 22.

 

I am currently in rehearsal for our all-female cast production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.    Our company sometimes does either all-male or all-female casts of plays because in Shakespeare’s own time period the professional acting companies were made up entirely of male actors.  Playing across gender means that our actors have to find ways to identify with characters who have this basic difference from themselves, and that our audiences, almost without thinking about it, confront assumptions about what is “male” or “female” behaviour.  Titus is famous as Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy.  It is one of those plays in which none of the characters are entirely good people.  In fact most of them do terrible things at some point in the play.  I am playing the role of Tamora, whom I think most people would identify as one of Shakespeare’s villains.  She may be the most monstrous female character he wrote.  I have played Lady MacBeth, and Tamora is much worse.  And yet, when the audience meets her, she has not yet become a monster.  Shakespeare lets that transformation happen in front of the audience.

When Tamora first appears on stage, she is a captive, the Queen of the Goths who has been captured by Roman general Titus Andronicus.  She and three of her sons have been brought to Rome, and are paraded in triumph to celebrate Titus’ military victories.  Then some one brings up the idea that a sacrifice would be a good idea to honor the Roman dead, and Titus offers up Tamora’s oldest son.  She pleads for his life in words that are desparately uncomfortable for me to speak, and for an audience to hear:

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,

Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,

A mother's tears in passion for her son:

And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,

O, think my son to be as dear to me!

Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome,

To beautify thy triumphs and return,

Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke,

But must my sons be slaughter'd in the streets,

For valiant doings in their country's cause?

O, if to fight for king and commonweal

Were piety in thine, it is in these.

Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:

Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?

Draw near them then in being merciful:

Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge:

Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son.

 

She asks Titus to recognize her sameness with him — they both have sons whom they love.  She asks him to recognize the ways in which her sons resemble his — they fight in defense of their home.  She asks him to exercise mercy.  And Titus ignores her pleas.  After this moment, Tamora does not speak for a long time.  She is on stage, silently observing the infighting of the Romans as they choose a new emperor, who turns out to be the spoiled patrician Saturninus.  In a strange twist, when Titus presents his prisoners as a gift to the new emperor, Saturninus frees Tamora and declares that he will marry her.  And the next time Tamora talks about Titus Andronicus, she has made a decision which she reveals only to her new husband, and of course to the audience:

 

I'll find a day to massacre them all

And raze their faction and their family,

The cruel father and his traitorous sons,

To whom I sued for my dear son's life,

And make them know what 'tis to let a queen

Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.

 

In a later scene, in which she and her two remaining sons make Titus’ daughter the object of their revenge, Tamora refuses to show mercy, citing Titus’ lack of pity as her cause:

 

Hadst thou in person ne'er offended me,

Even for his sake am I pitiless.

Remember, boys, I pour'd forth tears in vain,

To save your brother from the sacrifice;

But fierce Andronicus would not relent.

 

Shakespeare’s orchestration of the audience’s feelings towards Tamora is remarkable.  He did not have to include the moment at the beginning of the play in which she pleads for her son’s life.  The fact that the Goths are Titus’ prisoners is reason enough for them to become the play’s antagonists.  The moment in which Tamora begs Titus for mercy makes the audience feel empathy for a character who will become the play’s villain, and shows the protagonist, Titus, in a negative light.  And now the audience is caught in a moral dilemma — if they empathize with Tamora in the opening scene, does that mean they are justifying her later acts of violence?  If we are willing to examine the causes of evil behavior, are we getting too close to the people who commit it?  When a play asks us to look at the world from people who are not wholly good, or puts us directly into the moment at which a person actively chooses evil action, we have to face the question of what we ourselves would do.  Shakespeare does this same thing in many of his plays.  He gives villainous characters moments in which the audience identifies with them.  He gives heroes and heroines moments in which they do unkind things.  He makes characters the butt of laugh-out-loud practical jokes and in the next moment makes the audience question whether they should have been laughing.  And he rarely ends a play with a clear cut answer or moral.   He leaves the audience to come to those conclusions themselves.

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