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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Hunger Games’s Veiled Allusion to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

Let me start with a large caveat: before last Saturday, I knew absolutely NOTHING about The Hunger Games book trilogy, or the new film adaptation of the first book in the series, other than that the books were the biggest hit in publishing since Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, and that the film was breaking box office records. None of this hype had raised in me any particular desire to read the books and/or to see the film.

Then, as part of family holiday activities, I wound up tagging along on Saturday to a showing of the new film, with no expectations other than that it would probably be a well-made action movie. [From here on in, be prepared for some spoilers, if you don’t know about the books or the film]

Imagine my surprise when two hours passed quickly with no squirming in my seat (always a good sign), and with my mind working at the end. As I walked out of the multiplex, I found myself thinking that this big-budget, mass market film, while simplistic, had nonetheless managed to produce a satisfying and powerful resonance with one of the most crucial issues in current American politics— it was clear to me, even before I sampled some online interviews with the author, Suzanne Collins, that the same populist sensibility informed the story told in this film as provided the energy that fueled 2011’s global Occupy Wall Street movement--a movement which I strongly support, as evidenced by the following-linked sample of posts at my blog during the past year:

In The Hunger Games as depicted in the film, we have an authoritarian, cynical central government, which enforces its tight control over the oppressed 99% for the benefit of a morally degraded, grotesquely flamboyant and self-absorbed 1%, in part by means of a futuristic form of gladiator entertainment, The Hunger Games, which both intimidate and entertain the downtrodden plebeian masses, as well as providing spicy entertainment for the jaded elite.

As many have pointed out, this is a futuristic reimagining of the Roman Empire, emphasized via character names (Caesar, Brutus, Portia, Cinna, Cato, etc.) and even the “Capitol” of “Panem” (from the Latin for “bread”, as in “bread and circuses”, and as in the crust of bread thrown to the heroine in flashback earnly in the movie).

And speaking of ancient Rome brings me to the serendipity when has led me to write this post today, because, by pure coincidence, I saw The Hunger Games right after my own literary sleuthing had independently led me to a close examination of the one Shakespeare play which I had never previously taken seriously, Titus Andronicus:

At a future time, I will post about the OTHER literary sleuthing I was doing that led me to look closely at Titus. What occurred to me as I was watching The Hunger Games, however, was that there was an eerie parallelism between the way that the 24 contestants were rapidly whittled down, one by one, and the way that pretty much every one of the (14, by my count) main characters in Titus Andronicus winds up dead by the end of the play—what these two high body count stories have in common is that the dead are killed by each other, bloodily and in close quarters.

So,with all the Roman imagery and names in the Hunger Games, I had a strong gut feeling that it was not only Shakepseare’s very famous and popular play, Julius Caesar, which Collins had in mind while writing this trilogy. No, she was also slyly pointing to the much less well known and much less well loved early play of Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus.

I was so sure of my gut feeling, because my closer look at Titus had already led me to understand that the endless parade of grotesque violence that occurs in Titus Andronicus is NOT gratuitous, it is not frivolous or cruel, it is actually thematic and carries a highly moral message. Close study reveals that the young Shakespeare was grappling with the universal theme of revenge head-on, and was laying out a carefully constructed sequence of falling dominoes, which illustrated what happens in any human society when people begin to take the law into their own hands. What happens is that mercy goes by the boards entirely, and humans, tragically, choose instead to perpetuate a cycle of violence, until everyone is dead. In this sense, Titus Andronicus is closely akin to other greater and more famous Shakespeare tragedies in which the blood lust for revenge leave corpses strewn everywhere, such as Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet.

And doesn’t that sound like the Hunger Games? Here is the cruel logic of President Snow and his government, who created the Hunger Games so that a dog-eat-dog, shoot-first mentality (yes, the awful tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin is ALSO anticipated by Titus) would be celebrated and enjoyed, instead of being seen for the true horror that it is. Or, in Occupy Wall Street terms, let the 99% fight it out for the crumbs, and learn to love the fight, while the 1% indulge in their gluttony and titter.

And now I approach my punch line. Thinking about revenge in Shakespeare’s plays got me wondering why the central tragic character of Titus Andronicus had not made an appearance in The Hunger Games—I refer to Lavinia, the daughter of Titus, who suffers the especially cruel sequential fate of having her fiancé brutally murdered; then being dragged off to the deep forest to be raped, with the rapists using the fiance’s corpse as a pillow (and “raping” chillingly sounds a lot like the “reaping” which describes the selection process for the Hunger Games); then having her tongue cut out and her hands cut off so that, like the mythical Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she cannot accuse the culprits; then, after she does manage to nonverbally identify them nonetheless, her final fate is to be slain by her own father, Titus, because….she was raped! Sounds a great deal like the fate suffered by Jesus during his last days, doesn’t it? And that’s NOT an accident, nor, I suspect, is the opening of The Hunger Games only two weeks before Easter Sunday!

Anyway, out of curiosity, I Googled “Lavinia” and “Hunger Games” and was led to the following:

As those of you who’ve read the trilogy carefully already know, “Lavinia is an Avox [“no voice”] girl who worked as a Capitol servant for Katniss before the 74th and 75th Hunger Games…..Years later, Lavinia waited as an Avox whose tongue had been cut out for committing crimes against the Capitol….”

Not having read the trilogy myself, I will not attempt to interpret this allusion to Lavinia in Titus Andronicus beyond the superficial analysis I’ve provided, above. But don’t you find it curious that I just knew that Shakespeare’s Lavinia had to be somewhere on Collins’s radar screen when she wrote this trilogy? This illustrates the power of reading allusively.

I merely wanted to illustrate that there are not only allusive shadows in the novels of Jane Austen or the plays of Shakespeare, as I have been writing about online for the past decade, they are also to be found in popular literature and movies, if one tunes one’s antennae and listens carefully---and one’s appreciation of such popular stories can be enhanced by knowing and learning more about the high literature that undergirds it.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Arnie Perlstein said...

This P.S. is addressed to Diane Reynolds, in regard to her observations 10 days ago in Janeites and Austen-L about the _Moor_ Park apricots in MP being, in part, a veiled allusion to Othello, who is of course the most famous "Moor" in English literature:

Diane: "...To me, the two important words in the passage s are "Moor" and "Insipid." I had a flash that Mrs. Norris must be rejecting the play Othello when she calls it the most "insipid" play in the English language (though it could be anyone talking--the phraseology simply sounds like Mrs. Norris--see below). The third use of insipidity comes when Mr. Yates, jealous of Henry Crawford's acting ability, "exclaimed" against it's "insipidity" (Of course, the ranting Yates overacts) and Mr. Rushworth concurs--turning to Fanny with a "black" look and referring to HC as "an undersized, little, mean- looking man." Rushworth exaggerates Crawford's looks--he's jealous too-- but we know from others, such as the Bertram girls, that Henry is small and that he is dark. Henry excites jealousy, clearly the theme of Othello...."

As I was just rereading my post of earlier today about the veiled allusion to Titus Andronicus in Mansfield Park, I recalled one other point which had caught my eye when I reviewed Mansfield Park, and especially its shadows, against the template of Titus Andronicus, but which I overlooked, in my haste, to include in that earlier post.

And that point has to do with the _second_ most prominent "Moor" in the Shakespeare canon after Othello--those who know all of Shakespeare and not merely his "greatest hits" will immediately realize that I am referring to Aaron, the Moor, who, in Titus Andronicus, is Tamora's lover who sires a biracial child on her. But he is much more than that, in many ways he is the Iago of Titus Andronicus, a being of purely malicious evil, a literary Charles Manson who manipulates everyone around him, repeatedly getting them all to do evil deeds for him without his actually having to kill with his own hands.

And his entire character is encapsulated in his parting words as he is led off to what will be a horrific and painful death, when he speaks in exactly the same unrepentant vein as the most famous unrepentent sinner of all, Don Giovanni:

**O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

A true Satan, in other words.

But how does Aaron the Moor fit with Mansfield Park, beyond the pun on "Moor Park" apricots? Diane has surely by now realized where I am going with this, which is that, in light of my longstanding (since July 2006) speculations that the Crawfords may be mixed race progeny of the English colonial empire----perhaps even kin to Sir Thomas himself, chickens coming home to roost, so to speak---and in light of Henry Crawford's resemblance to so many of Shakespeare's malevolent shape-shifters, like Iago, Edmund, Richard III and Aarron, this makes a veiled allusion to Aaron--and in particular the biracial baby born to Tamora whom Aaron rescues from death---very interesting indeed!

Cheers, ARNIE

Grace Miller said...

I'd heard from a friend that the Hunger Games series contained numerous allusions to Titus Andronicus and encountered your blog post while researching her claims. Thank you for such a thoughtful and well-written response! It is a pleasure to read your sharp articulation.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Grace, if you're still following along here--my apologies for not noticing your comment previously, and my sincere thanks for your lovely compliment--I write for "sharp elves" and clearly you are one! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: I wish I knew why there has been a recent wave of hits on this particular post, I cannot discern from my blog statistics where they are coming from!