Titus Andronicus: The New Hannibal Lecter

by Chara Kitsaki  

When Julie Taymor presented to the world her screen adaptation of one of the most violent Shakespearean tragedies, in 1991, cinema viewers were greatly surprised. Her bold intermingling of time, presenting almost a thousand years of human history in approximately a hundred and sixty minutes, and her widely evocative casting, refigured the play and made hers, one of the most remembered adaptations of Titus Andronicus.


While drawing on the original tragedy and preserving almost the entirety of the Shakespearean dialogue, Taymor employs a variety of insinuations to embellish her plot. Perhaps one of the most allusive scenes is the murder sequence of Chiron and Demetrius. Shots of a dimly lit kitchen, extreme close-ups to the face of Anthony Hopkins and the stark naked bodies of the two young men hanging from meat hookers are only few of the examples Taymor employs to ignite associations to the mind of her viewers. Based on this sequence, questions begin to arise as to the ways the casting of Anthony Hopkins, and all the connotations his persona invokes, change our understanding of Shakespearean Titus.


From the nature of the term, allusion is a regulated negotiation between the audience and the artist[1]. The instability of the device stems from its very character; inviting the viewers to draw from prior external associations to enhance their initial understanding. In ‘Titus,’ and particularly in the slaughter sequence of Chiron and Demetrius, Taymor employs the association of Anthony Hopkins as Titus with his persona as Hannibal Lecter to further the Shakespearean original. Simply casting Hopkins for the role of Titus, the character who prepares what in essence becomes a cannibalistic banquet, at a time when Hopkins was preparing to play Dr. Lecter in Hannibal, enables the two figures to merge. This alignment of Titus and Dr. Lecter in Taymor’s film disturbs the seemliness of ‘heritage Shakespeare’ and adds more layers to an already multi-dimensional dramatic persona[2].


One of the ways by which the casting of Anthony Hopkins alters our view of Titus, particularly in the sequence of Chiron and Demetrius’s murder, is by presenting cannibalism as a fascinating, on the verge of voyeuristic, action. Seen through the lens of late twentieth century blockbuster horror motion-picture, such as ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ directed by Jonathan Demme and David Fincher, Early Modern revenge cannibalism becomes a gourmet expression of personal refinement. When first entering the dark kitchen, where Chiron and Demetrius are hanging, Titus is wearing a white bathroom robe and walks with ease across the room[3]. His white clothing comes in contrast with the heavily shaded room, thus making Titus the most prominent feature of the scene[4]. Similarly, in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ just before Dr. Lecter violently attacks two guards, he wears a bright white prison uniform that separates him from the dark clothing of the police officers[5]. This colour association becomes the first direct visual connection between the two characters, hinting at what later becomes an intentional allusion. Furthering the associations, the extreme close-ups to Titus’s face while soliloquising[6] ‘Hark, villains! I shall grind your bones to dust,[7]’ are an almost palpable parallel to Demme’s and Fincher’s choice in ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ to have subsequent close-up shots of Anthony Hopkins’s face[8]. The line between Hopkins’s Titus and Hopkins’s Dr. Lecter blurs causing viewers to respond to Titus in the way one might respond to Hannibal Lecter. In ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ the figure of Dr. Lecter, while abhorrent for the violent cannibalistic acts it performs, ignites a peculiar fascination and allure in the audience. The persona of Dr. Lecter seems to captivate the viewers with his witty remarks, quick retorts and methodical way of thinking. Through this indirect association of Titus and Dr. Lecter, Titus’s own actions of murdering Chiron and Demetrius and cooking them into elaborate pies become an equivalent act of appeal.


Perhaps the most telling evocation of Hopkins’s Dr. Lecter, further adding to the viewer’s fascination with Titus, is the smacking sound of his lips minutes before he slices Chiron and Demetrius’s throats[9]. A detail that was neither included in the Shakespearean text nor in Taymor’s original screenplay, Hopkins’s queer sound signals not only to the cannibalistic act that is about to follow, but also to the disturbing sound that Dr. Lecter delivers the first time he appears. This almost cue-recognition sound significantly alters the appropriateness of the imminent consumption of Chiron and Demetrius while also confusing the audience’s standpoint on cannibalism. Both of Hopkins’s cinematic portrayals seem to built upon a fascination/repulsion way of perceiving extreme states of violence. The scenic directions of the screenplay ‘INT. TITUS’S KITCHEN – NIGHT[10]’ and the reference to ‘meat hookers’ and pigs hanging around the room foretell the fate of Chiron and Demetrius, making the viewers attesters to a progressing form of cannibalism. Taymor’s final shot of Titus sweeping red blood on his white bathrobe uttering ‘I will play the cook,’ a phrase taken verbatim from Shakespeare’s play, turns revenge cannibalism into ‘gourmet cannibalism[11]’ thus, making the viewers complicit as ethical spectators more than it is at any other moment of the film.


Apart from adding to the fascination, and the role the audience assumes, the Titus/Lecter dichotomy refashions the motives behind Titus’s plans. Alluding to the methodical killings of Dr. Lecter, Titus’s plan shifts from a mere deed of revenge to a fascinating ploy of murder. Titus from the original play is an essentially ambiguous character. While assuming the role of a returning warrior, glorified from fighting and praised by the Romans, he is also presented as an impulsive and passionate man. Taking this already equivocal character and alienating with the face of psychopathy in late 20th century horror fiction, Taymor adds an almost entirely new strand to his reading. In the murder sequence, Shakespearean Titus alludes to the Ovidian tale of Philomela and Tereus. Thus, subtly reminding his readers of Lavinia’s violent rape and reiterating the eye-for-an-eye element behind his decision to slice Chiron and Demetrius’s throats. In contrast, Taymor’s adaptation, while pertaining most of Titus’s monologue, omits any reference to the Ovidian tale, potentially implying that Titus’s motives for the killing of Tamora’s sons have now changed. By deciding against this indirect reminder of Lavinia’s rape and opting for a close-up shot of Titus as he swipes the blood on his white bathrobe[12], Taymor implies that now, powered by the act of murder, Titus’s incentive has radically changed. While the scarce stage directions in the play leave vague the placement of Lavinia on stage, in Taymor’s adaptation Lavinia is lurking as a ghost in the background; a haunting but otherwise secondary character[13]. Focused on Titus, Taymor’s interpretation suggests that altered by murder, and closely connected to Dr. Lecter, this Titus has turned from a father seeking revenge for the mutilation and violation of his daughter, to a calculating and conniving criminal.


Apart from altering the motives behind Titus’s revenge, in Chiron and Demetrius’s murder sequence, Taymor takes an already crumbling image of ‘civilised Rome’ and casts on it an even wider net of cultural allusions and visual stimulants. The city that she imagines not only mirrors the superfluity of twentieth century, through indirect associations to Hannibal Lecter, but also assembles artefacts of approximately two thousand years of Western society. As Jonathan Bate comments in his introduction to Taymor’s screenplay, her work is ‘deeply responsive to the past and yet highly relevant to the future.[14]’ Compared to the scarce stage directions in the original writing of the brothers’ murder, whereby the reader is not fully aware as to whether the killing takes place inside or outside, Taymor chooses to set her sequence in an interior space. On the one hand, the kitchen acts as a prompt for the cannibalistic act that is about to follow, yet on the other, it functions as an enclosed space for keeping the most violent of actions in the film away from the public eye. While the initial scenes of sacrificial murder take place in an open area, that of a perceived Roman arena, where the enormous public is clearly visible, the murder of Chiron and Demetrius in Taymor’s ‘Titus’ is hidden. The only onlookers in the scene of the killing are the Kinsmen, Pubius and Valentine. By dressing them in dark and positioning them in an already dimly-lit room[15], the perceived observers become almost invisible. The latter, combined with the associations to Dr. Lecter and with the limited spectators to his murders, suggest that for Taymor, while cannibalistic acts cannot be erased they can be very well concealed from the public.

Overall, Taymor’s casting of Anthony Hopkins as well as her scenic choices in Chiron and Demetrius’s murder sequence are far from coincidental. While pertaining most of the Shakespearean dialogue of the scene, Taymor adds layers of interpretation and allusions by introducing the new twentieth century dichotomy of Hopkins’s Lecter and Hopkins’s Titus. Taymor invites her viewers to imagine her work as a meditation on humankind’s history and, in her own words ‘blends and collides time, to create a singular period that juxtaposed elements of ancient barbaric ritual, with familiar, contemporary attitude and style.[16]


Denis Cutchins and Lawrence Raw, The Pedagogy of Adaptation, ed. by James M. Welsh

(Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2010), p. 41 – 52.

Julie Taymor, Titus: The Illustrated Screenplay, Adapted from the Play by William

Shakespeare, First Edition edn (California: Newmarket Press, 2000), p. 1 – 7.

Liberty Stanavage and Paxton Hehmeyer, Titus out of Joint: Reading the Fragmented Titus

Andronicus (Newcastle upon Thyme: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), p. 1 – 7.

Sarah Hatchuel, Shakespeare, from Stage to Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

2004), p. 116.

Shakespeare, William, and Jonathan Bate. Titus Andronicus. London: Routledge, 1995. Print.

‘Titus’, dir. by Julie Taymor (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1999).

Thomas Cartelli and Katherine Rowe, New Wave: Shakespeare on Screen (Cambridge: Polity

Press, 2007), p. 69 – 94.

The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. by Michael Neil, David Schalkwyk

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 646 – 647.

‘The Silence of the Lambs’, dir. by Jonathan Demme (Orion Pictures, 1991).





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