Revenge is a Dish Best Served in a Meat Pie
The musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus offer an examination of humanity through the extremities of its grief.
The stories of the titular characters Sweeney Todd and Titus Andronicus parallel each other in how both demonstrate a fierce desire for revenge fueled by injustices done them. Each exhibits a frightening harshness in this passion. Having passed through grief and pain and sorrow, they find themselves left with nothing but cold, calculating hatred many mistake for madness. Sweeney vows that because “he’ll never see Johanna. No [he’ll] never hug [his] girl […] and [his] Lucy lies in ashes” (Sondheim “Epiphany”) he “will have vengeance! [He] will have salvation!” (Sondheim “Epiphany”). The idea of vengeance alone gives him life and fills him with joy (Sondheim “Epiphany”). When he learns what befell his wife and daughter when he was sent away Sweeney stews in his anger, allowing it to simmer. His partnership with Mrs. Lovett is merely the boiling point. Though the pain of his situation is overwhelming and all-consuming, it gives him the fuel he needs to survive. It is what leads him to his dark conviction that “the lives of the wicked should be made brief” and “they all deserve to die” (Sondheim “Epiphany”). Titus, meanwhile, mirrors Sweeney’s suffering when he falls into a melancholy brooding that concerns even his own family to the point they feel they must “By day and night [attend] him carefully,/And feed his humor kindly […]/Till time beget some careful remedy” for his “sorrows [that] have so overwhelmed his wits” (Shakespeare 4.3.27-31). His sorrows also stem from familial trauma in which his sons are unjustly executed, his daughter raped and mutilated, and his own hand needlessly cut off. It is a culmination of these things that inspires him to act in his madness and sorrow to “o’erreach [his enemies] in their own devices” (Shakespeare 5.2.145-146) and exact revenge.
Each consumed by the idea of revenge, Sweeney and Titus arrive at a decision that matches their bleak view of humankind. Sweeney delights in Mrs. Lovett’s idea to dispose of his victims in her meat pies,** claiming that in drastic times drastic measures must be taken (Sondheim “Have a Little Priest”). It is the perfect plan since “the history of the world […] is who gets eaten and who gets to eat” (Sondheim “Have a Little Priest”) and Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett will be facilitating that in a literal sense. No one is exempt—they’ll “serve anyone, meaning anyone, and to anyone at all” (Sondheim “Have a Little Priest”). The idea of turning the figurative idea of “man devouring man” (Sondheim “Have a Little Priest”) into the literal in order to exact revenge is a decision only a traumatized person can reach. Sweeney wants revenge on two men in particular, but expands his range to include men like them and then all mankind when his vengeance cannot immediately be satiated. Titus likewise decides to “grind [Demetrius and Chiron’s] bones to dust,/And with [their] blood […] make a paste,/And of the paste a coffin […] rear,/And make two pasties of [their] shameful heads,/And bid that strumpet, [their] unhallowed dam,/Like to the earth swallow her own increase” (5.2.190-195). Having the only things they care about in the world wrenched from their grasp and ruined gives them agency to act on their dark image of humanity. Such vivid representation of the commodification of the human body and man’s place in the world is a reality others do not realize and, once they do, cannot abide. Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies go from being “the worst pies in London” (Sondheim “The Worst Pies in London”) to being “a pie fit for a king, a wondrous sweet, a most delectable thing” (Sondheim “God That’s Good), but when apprentice Toby discovers the secret behind the meat pies it horrifies him and drives him mad. When Titus serves his meat pies no one notices anything abnormal about them. The only verbal reaction is in response to Titus killing Tamora after his revelation, affirming Titus’ and Sweeney’s perspective. In choosing retribution and seeking revenge, both Sweeney Todd and Titus Andronicus force their foes to stomach their own sufferings and therefore face mankind’s reality.
**The fact that they were already considered the worst meat pies in London makes one think she was just looking for an inconspicuous and darkly humorous method of disposal. It’s fun to think of her as being part cannibalistic already and actually looking for a win-win situation that would both benefit her business and help Sweeney with his revenge.
Other sources include:
Sondheim, Stephen. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. RCA, 1979.