Rape, Revenge, and the Rethinking the Renaissance

- And Titus Andronicus and Violence on the Modern Stage


Writing: Lucy Edwards


In Act II Scene III of William Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus (1593), Chiron and Demetrius revel in their joint rape and mutilation of Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, during the hunt. Although the brutal violence is originally enacted offstage, the perpetrators, motivated by lustful revenge, mock Lavinia after cutting out her tongue and amputating her hands so that she is unable to identify them. Additional horror is created as the two men abandon Lavinia in the forest – unable to speak and without hands she is rendered helpless whereupon Marcus discovers her, poetically mourning her wretched state. The physical depiction of the aftermath of rape is utilised to shock and repulse the audience through its brutality. Both interesting and disturbing in its treatment of sexual violation, the play’s willingness to confront violent domination and cruelty remains relevant and challenging to modern audiences. In a modern context, this scene takes on a new significance for an audience more attuned to the severity of rape. Although retaining its original meaning, Naturalism gives the scene a new, terrible power through visual possibilities and psychological depth of character which could not be generated on the Renaissance stage.


Originally performed in Elizabethan playhouses, such as Henslowe’s Rose Theatre, staging Titus Andronicus was simple. Audiences were comprised of a mix of social strata; the upper class were separated on the tiered levels of the rounded theatre while commoners stood in the courtyard surrounding the thrust stage. Due to this scene’s classical connections to Ovid’s story Procne and Philomela, the action has a close association to dramatic poetry. Thus, the drama of Renaissance England was conventional, not realistic, using heightened poetic language, aside and soliloquy which relied largely on imagery. Women were totally absent on stage as young boys were employed to play female roles, donning face paint and elaborate costume. The highly stylistic performance style lends itself to being ‘presentational’ theatre rather than creating completely believable drama. Therefore, minimal setting was employed - one or two columns resembling trees, for example in this scene, would represent the entire forest. The open-air roof of theatres meant performances took place during the day due to lack of artificial light. Aristotle’s three notions (unity, place, time) were less of a concern for Renaissance playwrights who often included two or more plots within a play, mixed conventions of both tragedy and the comic while freely changing dramatic location. The Peacham drawing provides valuable evidence about the combination of ancient and Shakespearean; costumes mingle ages as Titus wears a toga while his soldiers appear akin to Elizabethan men-at-arms. The brutality of the crime also works offstage in the context of the use of blood on the Early Modern Stage; due to the expense of extravagant costume companies would have had a financial imperative when presenting bloody violence on the stage. Therefore, Lavinia’s offstage abuse would allow time to apply blood carefully while protecting expensive garments.


As Shakespeare looks back to classical antiquity, ‘the horrors are all classical and quite unfelt… the tone is cool and cultured in its effect’. When performed adhering to traditional convention, Lavinia’s rape is rendered unstageable; Marcus’ long poetic speech therefore acts as a report of the brutal offstage violence. Due to the capacity of the Elizabethan audience to produce a mixed response to onstage drama, there is a level of detachment from the violence. Thus, lyrical language is needed as it poses an explicit contrast between its poetic beauty and Lavinia’s pitiful state which expresses the implicit brutality of what she has undergone offstage. Shakespeare constructs language powerful enough to form an image which forces the audience to think about Lavinia’s ordeal; not only can we see her defiled form on stage, we are encouraged to pity her further through Marcus’ ‘mourning’. He, as well as the audience, are forced to look at the mutilated Lavinia. Moreover, the Elizabethan fascination with public execution, which to some degree desensitised audiences to brutal violence, means that the use of blood in this scene is absolutely necessary for the intended effect; Marcus’ description alone is not enough to disturb the audience. Although the use of props was minimal, Renaissance theatre employed animal blood or paint to generate the effect of blood. Thus, the presence of blood not only makes it horribly blatant what has happened to Lavinia, it feeds into the sensationalism which violent tragedy tended to provide.


The play addresses contemporary issues through the Roman setting subtly attempting to provoke reflection. In staging Roman ritualistic violence, Shakespeare needed to demonstrate what it involved. But this brutality draws parallels between Roman barbarity and Elizabethan society. Spectacles of violence aimed to have effects besides sympathy; both violence of the Roman colosseum and Tudor bear-baiting were intended to arouse glee. Furthermore, the presentation of Lavinia’s violated body directly contradicts the chastity of Elizabeth I. In generating mixed responses in patriarchal Elizabethan society, audiences, especially the male spectators, might have understood the rape not just as a physical violation but a political disorder; not only does it completely debase Lavinia but also represents the theft of one man’s property by another. Titus views his daughter as his possession until she marries, and this authority passes to her husband. Rape, in a Renaissance context, is both personal and political; the domination of the female body as ‘sexualised enemy territory to be conquered reflects Elizabethan England’s frequent identification of its geographical boundaries with the physical boundaries of its Virgin Queen’. The raped Lavinia thus acts as both a female victim and the symbolic figure of the conquered Roman body politic.


In contrast, Naturalism allows for a development and depth of character, creating a more homogenous response of pity in a modern context far more attuned to the vileness of rape. The most notable convention of Naturalistic theatre is that of the ‘Fourth Wall’; an invisible divide between audience and action in which actors ignore the spectator’s presence, meaning they become voyeurs eavesdropping on the action taking place. This separation of audience and performer is emphasised through lighting; the auditorium of the typically end-on stage space is dimmed, and therefore focus is drawn to the stage. The nature of the audience in contrast to that of the Renaissance playhouse as being less interactive creates a sense of voyeurism and thus makes the scene far more unnerving for the audience as they become complicit in Lavinia’s attack. Naturalistic characters are presented as possessing a psychological dimension unseen in earlier theatre; the actor does not focus on presenting to an audience but rather attempts to inhabit the character as a real individual with thoughts and emotions. Stanislavsky’s ‘Magic if’ would encourage the actress to place herself in Lavinia’s position, rendering both the extreme physical pain and emotional trauma caused by the ordeal. The Naturalistic concern with verisimilitude means that setting and props play a greater role in the action; characters’ interactions with their surroundings emphasise the idea that the audience are merely witnessing a ‘slice of life’ and that these characters (and their environments) could exist outside the theatrical world. As an authentic vision of life and human behaviour, a Naturalistic Titus Andronicus would therefore produce a believable representation of the forest, with coherent costume in contrast to the minimalistic set and mingling of costume seen in Shakespeare’s context – this creates a totally new experience for the audience. One which is so realistic that it becomes impossible to dismiss as mere entertainment.


With this in mind, the most notable change in convention from Renaissance to Naturalism is undoubtedly the presence of female bodies on stage. This adds a chilling realness to Lavinia’s rape; the audience cannot immediately comfort themselves with the knowledge that, using male actors, this is fictional and are forced to confront the true horror that rape of the vulnerable female body presents. Moving from the Elizabethan playhouse to Naturalism allows for the replacement of Marcus’ verbal report with visual representation. That is to say, in a modern Naturalistic setting, with its looser decorum, the rape can be restored to the stage; as Bate notes, ‘whilst no longer unstageable, the scene is still thought to be unspeakable’ (59). Thus, Marcus’ long poetic speech could be seen as out of place to modern audiences as a culture far more conscious of the vileness of rape than Early Modern society, when rape was rarely reported to authorities or dealt with legally. As Papp states, ‘if one wants to create a fresh emotional response to the violence, blood and multiple mutilations of Titus Andronicus, one must shock the imagination and subconscious with visual images that recall the richness and depth of primitive rituals’ (165). Therefore, Naturalism provides a means with which to make the horror of Lavinia’s ordeal more meaningful and therefore, emotional for contemporary audiences. The concern with representing a believable event and realistic reactions to its barbarity are intended to make the audience believe the violence instead of treating it with humour or dismissing it as merely part of the larger action. Furthermore, extra textual aspects of Naturalistic performance enhance a far stronger response on the modern stage. The enclosed theatre allows for the manipulation of artificial light to heighten certain effects for the audience. Due to the Naturalistic genre, the light cannot be too unrealistic, but could draw attention to the visceral barbarity Lavinia has endured using a spotlight.


As Bate notes, this scene introduces the two registers of grief and comedy. The former is presented in Marcus’ slow acknowledgement of the suffering his niece has endured. In contrast, Chiron and Demetrius exemplify a reaction to rape as a string of cruel jokes: ‘She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash’ and ‘If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord’. For Elizabethan audiences these macabre puns act as a ‘heightening and release of tension’; they would most likely be directed out towards the audience due to the interactive relationship between actors and audience, encouraging laughter. Yet in a Naturalistic setting with the presence of the ‘Fourth Wall’, this opportunity for laughter is removed and the audience witness only the cruel mocking of a victim. Thus, Chiron and Demetrius’ dialogue takes on a new meaning; as well as the verisimilitude of Lavinia’s suffering, the cultural differences between Early Modern society and our own make it difficult to share in this release and instead only leaves us horrified.

In contrast to the Renaissance emphasis on poetic language, Naturalistic scripts rely on subtext; it is often what is not being said which is the most important aspect of a scene. Thus, a Naturalistic Titus Andronicus could cut Marcus’ long speech and instead focus on the visual effect that the physical suffering of Lavinia provides. Slight adaptations to Chiron and Demetrius’ dialogue would be made in order to generate believable language without losing its effect as keeping the taunts furthers the horror for the audience:


Demetrius: ‘If you have a tongue to speak, go and tell who it was who did this to you’

Chiron: ‘Go home, call for water and wash your hands’


In conclusion, translating this scene from the Renaissance stage to a modern Naturalistic genre provides an opportunity to explore violence with powerful psychological dimensions. The presentational nature of Renaissance theatre and poetic language of this scene generated mixed responses to the spectacle of violence– comedy, pathos and glee. The convention of interacting with the audience breaks down the theatrical illusion of a fully realised world and in doing so removes much of the force of the barbarity for an audience receptive to public violence. However, with complex characters, Naturalistic theatre does not provide an entertaining escape from reality but rather poses a forum with which to exhibit the recognisable, non-theatrical world on stage; through visual representation rather than Marcus’ imagery, the genre exposes the utter cruelty of Lavinia’s ordeal which evokes nothing but horror and pity.


Image: Via Wikipedia Commons

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