Shakespeare: Violence and Violation

I have been teaching Titus Andronicus this week, one of the most violent of Shakespeare's plays. Of course, in Shakespearean plays and early-modern drama in general, acts of violence are hardly unusual. But what is particularly unsettling in this play is the way in which violence is written on the partially dismembered body of Lavinia - a body that will not die, a body that wanders the stage "speaking" through gestures and signs that incite action. In contrast, Ophelia's end seems rather decorous and civil in Hamlet. A submerged, yet intact, lifeless body is easier to render a (silent) aesthetic object than the dis/abled living flesh of the daughter of Titus Andronicus, whose wounds transmit truth despite the absence of tongue and hands. Several scholars have pointed to the liminal space that Lavinia inhabits between life and death - she is a kind of hybrid being (as a figure of the living dead) who, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, refuses to allow the atrocities of the past to remain in the shadows. Violation of innocence cannot be forgotten; memories of affliction must not be erased; truth should be heard if reconciliation is to occur. The traumatized subject ought to be staged. And yet, like Titus, the audience longs to forget by putting an end to Lavinia's misery. Titus kills her to do away with what he views as her "shame" and in the death of her "shame," his sorrow can die. Titus feels violated by her presence, just as, if truth be told, the audience often does. Justice (the killing of Lavinia's attackers and all those involved in the sequence of events that devastate the Andronici) can lead to the interment of memories. The tragedies of Titus and Lavinia, whose bodies are "closed" in the "household's monument," can be forgotten, the State can be restored to order, and the future consumes the living. But although I feel more at ease when Lavinia is gone - when I don't have to continue to testify to the truth of a body ravaged by violence - I feel even more disturbed when she is silenced in death (especially at the hand of her father who is obsessed with her "shame" rather than her innocence and value), when the truth of her experience is buried.  Should the traumatic be endlessly on display or not?  Should we remain on the threshold of suffering or bury memories of grief and loss once "justice" is secured?  What is the ethical response?

Last updated Jan. 23rd, 2009 at 11:14pm by Holly Nelson