Razors to the Heart: William Shakespeare and Horror Fiction

(A shot from Julie Taymor’s Titus Adronicus)

Over the course of his career, William Shakespeare made many a foray into the darker regions of drama. Beginning with Titus Andronicus, the playwright experimented with different ways in which he could show humanity at its worst. These visions depended on depictions of cruelty, agony and alterity. As his career continued, Shakespeare crafted ever more subtle and interiorized visions of this darkness, moving from the gleeful carnage and hysterical hyperbole of Titus to the complexities of King Lear and Macbeth. When Shakespeare is seen as an author of stories of horror, the movement from one of his earliest tragedies to one of his last shows a modification of his artistry, an improvement in his ability to wound his audiences, and a deeper, more nuanced understanding of humanity.

            The consideration of these plays as instances of “horror fiction” may come as a shock in itself to many who have been critically shaped by the prejudices of the “Realistic” School. Surely, they may feel, great, cannonical works of art cannot fall anywhere near a category which includes the strange likes of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Aickman or Clive Barker. The inclusion of William Shakespeare in such a genre may seem like an affront, if not a pitiable act of literary poaching. The catagorical anxieties implicit in this sort of “genrecism” are fascinating in themselves, though outside the scope of this present essay. Suffice it to say, one of the great critical minds of this age, Harold Bloom, has already set the precedent, albeit in a manner which was probably not intended to be complimentary. In his magnificent Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom writes that Titus Andronicus is “the Shakespearean equivalent of what we now respond to in Stephen King and in much cinema” (Bloom 78). He goes on to argue the play must have been meant as a parody of other, more bombastic writers, most probably of Christopher Marlowe. There is certainly internal evidence that Shakespeare was referencing/parodying other plays (a comparison between Aaron the Moor’s speech on the gallows and Marlowe’s Jew of Malta’s explanation of his infamies, for instance). However, this does not mean he meant the play to be taken as a complete farce. The mutilation of Lavinia, to take an obvious example, is so brutal that a careful mixture of aesthetic distance, appreciation of extremity and pitying incredulity must be maintained in order to get any “fun” out of it (that is needed, or a strong dose of misogyny). Bloom shows flat disbelief that anyone could think of Titus as a prefiguration of the later sublimities of Lear (Bloom 79), but the two plays have so many elements in common that it seems more incredible not to see a progression. Lear’s horrors are, certainly, more internalized, more often rarified into verbal and cognitive descents into the abyss, particularly when compared to the actual pits and abattoir-scenes of Titus. Bloom’s own language concerning the later play locates it within a horrific universe. He writes of Macbeth, “The kingdom, as in King Lear, is a kind of cosmological waste land” (Bloom 524). This is the terror of Samuel Beckett’s plays, and not that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (to which Titus could be fruitfully compared), but it is a species of horror nonetheless.

            Noël Carroll, in his essay “The Nature of Horror,” provides a useful way in which to understand the nature of art which depends on eliciting fear. First, he discusses how the frission created by a work of horror differs from that a person experiences when confronted by an actual situation. He also argues that this aesthetic fear is not merely being scared of something dangerous. In his explanation of the monstrous entity (or situation), Carroll writes, “Rather, threat is compounded by revulsion, nausea, and disgust. The monster is so unwholesome that its very touch causes shudders” (Carroll 53). He then uses Mary Douglas’ ideas concerning the “transgression or violation of schemes of cultural categorization” (Carroll 55) to outline the nature of this repulsive impurity. Interstitial creatures or objects, for instance, cause acute discomfort due to their elusion of typical catagories. Similarly to Julia Kristeva, Douglas and Carroll locate the abject within the precincts of terror-making substances. Bodily fluids, such as the copious amounts of blood shed during Titus Andronicus, take on a disturbing resonance because of their problematic nature, one suspended between living and dead tissue. Carroll adds,  “Categorical incompleteness is also a standard feature of the monsters of horror” (Carroll 55). This includes, most obviously, figures who have suffered some significant severance. Titus has several, visceral instances of this dismemberment, as well as commentary by other figures on their dismay at seeing someone in such a state. In King Lear, Shakespeare presents one exquisitly prepared instance of this physical disintegration. However, spiritual mutilation is more prevalent in the later play. Carroll also mentions demonic possession as an imupure state, in that it results in characters of a heterogenous ontological status. Neither Titus nor Lear are supernatural stories, and hence neither contains an actual possession. However, both contain numerous references to animal-human hybridity, and thus hint at more subtle forms of possession.

            The monstrous in Titus Andronicus finds itself expressed in vivid ways. Lavinia is the gold standard. When Lucius sees her mangled state, he says “Ah, that this sight should make so deep a wound / and yet detested life not shrink thereat” (Titus 3.1.245-246). She is not alone in experiencing truncation. Titus cuts his own hand off, and several others are lopped, chopped and diced up. The baking of Demetrius and Chiron into Goth pies is a further instance of this monstrous violation of categories: eaters become eaten. The persistence of their corporeality, the abject presence they continue to have on stage, is also not unique. Titus’s hand has a lengthy stage-life after its removal from his body politic. Animals, as has been mentioned, are invoked as symbols of the savagery into which the state of Rome is descending. This, from Titus: “Why foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive / That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?” (Titus 3.1.52-53). Bassianus is transformed into a “slaughtered lamb” (Titus 2.3.223), while Lavinia calls Tamora (who is often compared to a variety of animals) “beastly creature” (Titus 2.3.182). This categorical mixing reappears in King Lear. However, the beasts mentioned in the later play take on a more fantastic, nightmarish cast. Goneril, according to Lear, has a “wolvish visage” (Lear 1.4.286), suggesting something more lycanthropic than merely calling her a wolf would have. Earlier in the same scene, her father compares her ingratitude to a “sea-monster” (Lear 1.4.238). These passages suggest the mutability, the instability of the nature of these characters, as well as the potential these situations have for breeding non-human agents. Of course, it is Edgar’s bizarre description of a many-nosed fiend (Lear 4.6.69-72) that comes the closest to a description of an actual monster. There are two figures in the two plays who come close to being actual fiends: Aaron the Moor and Edmund. Their shared sociopathic disregard for the feelings of others, as well as a certain nihilism in regard to their own fates, link them as birds of a terrible feather. There is at least one example of physical deformation in Lear: the blinding of Gloucester. The description of his plucked out eye as a “vile jelly” (Lear 3.7.86) transforms this “window of the soul” into an abject blob of flesh. However, most of the mutilation/discorporation in this play takes place within the characters. As Marjorie Garber writes, in her monumental Shakespeare After All, “Later Shakespearean tragedies, though they contain key moments of unspeakable bodily violation… often tend to translate and internalize such physical degradations as metaphors, rendering them metaphysical” (Garber 84). One might add “ontological” to that “metaphysical.” The natural love parents and children are expected to have for one another is severed, or shown as never having existed in the first place. Edmund and Cornwall, to name two obvious examples, are shown to be lacking in even the most fundamental virtues of fellow-feeling. Lear’s madness is an internal mutilation, an image of a man with a lopped off mind. The state experiences a collapse even more believable, and frightful, than that Rome experiences in Titus. One fairly major character, Lear’s Fool, vanishes altogether from the play after giving a cryptic prophecy. His preternatural grasp of the situation, as well as his strange, alien nature, goes a long way toward making him an interstitial, almost supernatural character. Finally, recalling Bloom’s description of Lear’s landscape as a “cosmological wasteland,” we may see this play as unravelling on the surface of some uncanny world where horror lurks just behind the curtain. An analysis of the ways in which these horrors are presented offers more insight into the effects they may be intended to have on the audience.

            Jack Reese has analyzed Titus as a work of aesthetic horror with structural components in mind. In his “The Formalization of Horror in Titus Andronicus,” he isolates “certain highly formal elements in the play which subdue (or “abstract”) the horror” (Reese 78). Reese points out Shakespeare’s highly formalized, almost allegorical construction of characters in this early play. Lavinia certainly acts as a symbolic manifestation of Virtue or the State in its most idealized form, and her subsequent destruction may be seen as representing all sorts of psychic and/or psychological despoilation. He also explains how “The repetition of very obvious motifs or themes – visual or verbal – tends, of course, to make a play more artificial” (Reese 81). These motifs include the tendency toward “pleas and supplications” (Reese 80-81), be they from Titus, Tamora, Lavinia or any one of the other figures who spend quite a bit of play-time on their knees, figuratively or literally. Finally, he shows how the very stage directions the author included serve to rigidly formalize the spatial relations of the characters on the stage. For Reese, Shakespeare uses these formal elements as an alienation effect, comparable to Brecht’s techniques, in order to create some space between the audience and the more terrible events to which he is going to expose them. Reese evades, however, the positive aspect whatever horror actually reaches the audience despite this formalization is meant to have. Carroll’s notion of the effects of “art-horror” on the reader/spectator fill this lacuna nicely. When King Lear is compared to Titus using Reese’s ideas, significant differences emerge. Lear, for instance, uses repetitions too, but in this play it is often single words which are repeated. Lear, imagining what he will do when he catches his miscreant sons-in-law, thunders “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill” (Lear 4.6.176). Later, his dead daughter in his arms, he moans “Howl, howl, howl, howl” (Lear 5.3.256) and “Never, never, never, never, never” (Lear 5.3.307). Aside from indicating a case of auto-echolalia, what purpose could these repetitions have? As well as emphasizing certain themes central to the plot (that of Nothingness, for instance), they perform the opposite task of Reese’s alienation. Severe emotion is shown, here, destroying a man’s capability of moving on, of disentangling himself from one primal feeling. The audience is dragged into the orbit of his hatred, his agony, rather than given a way in which to escape its devastating power. Spatial relations are constantly being disrupted as well, particularly in the scenes involving Gloucester’s blinding (Lear 3.7) and in the scene of Edgar’s psychotherapeutic trickery (Lear 4.6). Where the author may have once intended the safety net of formalized depictions of pain and sorrow, he now intends a more disruptive (although subtler) effect.

            This effect has implications which go beyond that of eliciting a shiver or two. Shakespeare (as well as most horror authors) clearly intended, in both Titus and in Lear, to provoke a response with more significance than that of mere repulsion. Molly Easo Smith, in her “Spectacles of Torment in Titus Andronicus,” studies the earlier play with an eye toward the public aspect of the plot. In particular, she discusses the use of public torture and execution, and the ways in which these proceedings often led to a contrary result than that hoped for by the authorities perpetrating them. She examines Aaron the Moor’s trials and how his crazed raving actually serves to extend his life. He is, she says, “a typical figure of the scaffold, one of several criminals celebrated in popular ballads and broadsheets as they defied authorities through their brave speeches and bold demeanour during their last moments” (Smith 316). Aaron takes advantage of his moment on the gallows to brag, to spit and rave at the state he hates. As a nihilistic misanthropist, this state can be seen as that of humanity in general, rather than merely Rome. Smith also argues that Aaron’s villainy ironically acts to highlight that of Rome’s heroes, particularly in relation to Lucius. Aaron’s monstrosity is one of not fitting into any of the handy categories with which the audience approaches the play. He is labeled according to his ethnicity/nationality, yet this play seems to take place before the time of Mohammed and hence Aaron’s status as a Moor is questionable, if not simply one of Shakespeare’s endearing anachronistic flubs. At any rate, there are no other Moors in evidence with which to compare him. He is unique in this play, a mad, word-crazed black unicorn. His lack of empathy places him possibly further from humanity than even Tamora, who seemed human until she lost her son Alarbus. Alarbus is important to Smith’s analysis as well. The brutal sacrifice of this character is an early indication that Rome’s status as the reasonable and “Western” state is being questioned by the play. It is certainly a sign that Lucius, who asks for this man’s life for his own murderous religious practices, is not a laudable, humane standard to hold up against the brutal Other of the Goths. Finally, Smith examines Lavinia as an image of the mutilated state, and compares the headless state of Rome with that of Aaron at the end, when he has become “a talking head left to torment Lucius and the Roman public in general by reminding them of his past victories over the Andronici” (Smith 326). She sees in Titus Andronicus a complex questioning of notions of alterity, and argues that the horrors so openly displayed may form a vital part of that interrogation.

            King Lear bears out many of these same themes, albeit in a more internalized fashion. Edmund, for instance, is an alien too. His lack of feeling for his father, brother and his general lack of sympathy for the human species and its attempts at understanding the nature of things (Lear 1.2.109-125) mark him as an outsider. He is a bastard, and until his machinations take hold of his father’s mind can expect little in the way of property or title after Gloucester’s death. These differences, however, are nowhere near as visible as those which set Aaron aside from the others of his play. This is a central part of Edmund’s diabolitry: the way in which he mixes in with the rest of the cast, even making a name for himself as a trustworthy fellow. If Aaron is a monster like Dracula or Freddy Krueger, with a “monstrous” appearance, a predilection for racking up scores of victims and a talent at evading death, Edmund is Norman Bates, the boy next door, driven by secret compulsions and pathological hatred. Aaron and Edmund both experience a sliver of redemption toward the end of their respective careers. Aaron shows sympathy for his child and Edmund tries retracting the doom he has passed on Cordelia and Lear. However, even here Shakespeare’s increasingly subtle technique is in evidence. Aaron loudly explains his affection for his “thick-lipped slave” (Titus 4.2.174). His cooperation with Lucius makes perfect, even Darwinian sense. There is little-to-no evidence that he has experienced anything like a personal change toward being more empathetic. Edmund, however, seems in his last moments to be making a move toward personal transformation. There is simply no reason why he should try to save the lives of Cordelia and Lear. His metamorphosis comes in two steps: he is affected by Edgar’s description of their father’s last moments (Lear 5.3.198-200) and by the sight of the bodies of his dead lovers (Lear 5.3.238-240). However, Shakespeare sticks to his newer, more subtle aesthetic program by not explaining the precise cause of Edmund’s change. This malleability of his character, particularly in that it manifests as something like self-malleability, is part of what makes his character uncanny, eerie, even in his turn toward kinder behavior.

            Finally, the question of the state and its eventual fate are presented as of vital interest in both plays. In both, the audience is left with the disquieting sensation that things are not going to get any better. Garber focuses on the image of the state as a dismembered body, starting with Marcus’s depiction of Rome as being “headless” (Titus 1.1.186). She writes that “It is typical of Titus Andronicus… that this apparently conventional metaphor will take off, will virtually explode into a nightmare of literalization, once the protagonist makes a bad choice” (Garber 82). She then goes on to draw a parallel with Lear’s abdication of the throne. Titus’s early choices, his assent to the murder of Alarbus, his selection of Saturninus as Emperor, his attempted marrying off of his daughter to this man, and finally his own murder of his son Mutius, are horrifying to behold. An audience can only watch these events with either a loathing for the Roman or a pitying terror, somewhat akin to the feeling one gets watching someone wander upstairs in a creepy old house in a horror movie. His decisions serve to further mutilate the state, not to mention his daughter. The political solution, at the other end of the play, is not much better. Lucius, bloody boy that he is, takes over the state and immediately starts ordering barbarous punishments and shameful treatments of the dead. His takeover indicates the potential restart of a cycle of violence, an ending familiar to anyone who has read or watched certain horrific narratives, in particular slasher or “torture porn” films such as Saw. Lear’s resolution is more complicated, although even more bleak, and its beginning seems even less likely to have resulted in this sort of devastation. Lear demands a public declaration of love from Cordelia and is peevishly unsatisfied with her honest answer. As Smith pointed out (with references to Foucault’s studies of punishment) in regard to Aaron, Lear’s public disowning and shaming of Cordelia had the opposite effect he may have intended. He immediately loses his best friend, Kent, and Lear’s other daughters, although clearly already less than sympathetic to their father, are pushed even further in the direction of not trusting him. The horror of this situation is subtle, emotionally nuanced when compared to Titus and his son-murdering ways, but it bears vivid and terrible fruit. At the end of the play, England has a new head, that of Edgar’s, and it is clearly a better one than that Rome is saddled with at the climax of Titus, but the devastation is more complete. The surviving figures are left halt, crushed, suicidal and nihilistic. The gore spilled nowhere near as copiously in Lear as it did in Titus, but the result is even more awful.

            In both Titus Andronicus and King Lear, William Shakespeare dramatized the collapse and destruction of individuals, families and nations. He did so in a heightened fashion, intending to and succeeding in creating atmospheres of fear, revulsion and heartbreaking pathos. Over the years between the two plays, however, he had honed his technique, finding ever more nuanced and cognitively complex ways in which to render this sort of devastation. He had transitioned from a narrative of gaudy, hieratic and stylized spectacle to one of apocalyptic, psychologically deep and verbally brilliant nightmare. In both cases, his audience may find themselves feeling, along with Titus, “These words are razors to my wounded heart” (Titus 1.1.311). That they keep coming back for more of this special type of wounding is not only a testament to Shakespeare’s enduring power as a creator-sadist, but also speaks to the efficacy and beauty of the horrific in literary representation.



Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. Print.

Carroll, Noel. “The Nature of Horror.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 46, No.1 (Autumn, 1987): 51-59. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.

Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare After All. New York: Random House, Inc., 2004. Print.

Reese, Jack. “The Formalization of Horror in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 1 (1970): 77-84. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” Edited by Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 739-813. Print.

—. “Titus Andronicus.” Edited by Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 124-179. Print.

Smith, Molly Easo. “Spectacles of Torment in Titus Andronicus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 36, No. 2, Tudor and Stuart Drama (1996): 315-331. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.

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