Instructors’ Teaching Experience

I taught this play in a unit on violence, and it worked wonderfully—students are not really put off by the violence, having been exposed to much worse on the screen, and they enjoy getting into what Shakespeare is saying about what happens in the play. We discussed questions of revenge and when it might be necessary or allowable, and then examined how the play wanted us to think of the actions of its characters, which took some doing but was interesting to ask students to consider. [Jacob Horn,]

I cannot say enough good things about how well this play teaches. Because it’s so immensely plot-driven, students overcome the (perceived) difficulty of the language quickly and settle in to making moral judgments about the characters and actions of the play. They like to be told that this is “bad, horror film” Shakespeare, which seems to make the literature less untouchable and more easily critiqued. I give only one lecture when I teach this play (a quick explanation of the Green World theory at the beginning of Act Two) and pretty much let the students drive discussion. Pertinent questions if things get dull: Are there ANY good parents in the play? Who’s the best? Is Titus mad? If the Goths are supposed to be barbaric, what does that make the Romans? Also fun to let the students keep a body count. [Erin Mann,]

Classroom Strategies

Writing Assignment: Theme and Execution

As their final project, I require the students to film or stage this play on paper, in order to think about the play as a dramatic piece and not just words on paper. They’re asked to write a 4-page critical paper that selects a theme from the play (family, violence, revenge, race, outsiders, madness, childhood, fatherhood, honor, etc.) and then choose the one scene in the play that best demonstrates what the play says about that theme. So a student writing on fatherhood might choose the scene in Act III when Titus sacrifices his hand and claim that the play valorizes sacrifice over reason (or whatever).

For the second half of the assignment, then, they must plan the staging of the scene they’ve analyzed however they’d like, using at least three elements from a long list: casting, set, costume design, musical score, special effects, make-up, and so on. They must explain their decisions, usually in about 300 words per element, elaborating on how their staging emphasizes the theme by referring to specific moments in the text. Professional presentation is the only limit I put on their creativity. I get phenomenal results from students who get into the imaginative aspect. A music major wrote and recorded a score over which he had two friends read the dialogue, a business major designed a “pitch” for a film, including an ad that he designed and glued into a magazine, a cover letter, casting suggestions, and a website. Storyboards, CDs, portfolios, and fabric swatches are common. Bonus: this is a ridiculously fun assignment to grade, and can be adapted to any play (or at least, I’ve had similar good luck with A Streetcar Named Desire). [Erin Mann,]

Screening Taymor

Since students respond to visual stuff so well, I screened the majority of Taymor’s Titus then discussed some of the extra visual material in the film. Instead of discussing whether Taymor gets it “right” in her presentation of specific characters, we focused on how her additions change things—notably in the scene where Saturninus forgives Titus and the scene where Lavinia writes the names of Tamora’s sons. Both of these have interesting additions that in no way alter the text of the play, but instead change the way we relate to it, and students enjoy thinking about how to restage/refilm it themselves. [Jacob Horn,]

The Baby’s Fate

When Lucius initially meets Aaron outside of Rome, he intends to kill both Aaron and his child, but Aaron asks Lucius to spare the baby in exchange for an admission of guilt for all of the things Aaron has done. Lucius grants this, but after hearing all of Aaron’s treachery, it is interesting to ask students whether the baby survives the play or not. What would it mean to the play for the baby to survive? What about if it is killed? Students will almost always have an opinion about this, but if you ask them to back it up with examples from the text, things get even more interesting, since sometimes students have a difficult time finding evidence to support their arguments, and it changes the game a little. This idea was originally Professor Miriam Gilbert’s, so I want to give her credit here, but I also want to attest to how well it works. [Jacob Horn,]