Titus Andronicus is a hideous play. Harold Bloom called it “a poetic atrocity”; Samuel Johnson refused to believe that Shakespeare was its author, writing that “the barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre, which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience … That Shakespeare wrote any part, though Theobald declares it incontestable, I see no reason for believing.” In its five grisly acts, fourteen people die; at least one is raped; throats are cut; hands, tongues, and heads are cut off; blood spurts “as from a conduit with three issuing spouts”; bodies are thrown to beasts and into pits, dragged into forests, buried alive chest-deep and left to starve; the bones of two men are ground “to powder small” and baked, with heads, into pies, which are then fed to their mother.
In other words, it’s one of those tragedies that was just crying out for an illustrated edition.
Leonard Baskin answered the call in 1970, when his Gehenna Press launched a deluxe Shakespeare imprint, beginning with Andronicus. (The only other play they ended up publishing was Othello.) Baskin—who died in 2000, and who illustrated everyone from Hart Crane to Marianne Moore to Melville to Euripides to Poe—has the perfect style for the play’s brutal, almost campy gore. “His line mocks and defeats death while outlining its image,” the artist Rico Lebrun wrote in Leonard Baskin, a monograph. “It is a fact that malicious fate has taunted him shockingly, and that to this he has answered with style. Dour, forbidding, and entire, this style, while depicting terror, is not the prey of terror.”
Below are some of the highlights to his Andronicus etchings—he made twenty-four in all. You can see more at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, which has a number of Baskin’s works in their collection.