Rape and the Appropriation of Progne’s Revenge in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Or “Who Cooks the Thyestean Banquet?”

  • Karen Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

Titus Andronicus centers on the family of Titus, a Roman general who disastrously refuses to accept the mantle of rule on his return from the conquest of the Goths and sparks the animosity of the new emperor, Saturninus, as well as the Goth queen, Tamora, whose son he sacrifices. Vengeance is visited on him through the execution of two sons falsely accused of murder, the amputation of his hand through a trick, and most spectacularly, the rape and mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia. Lavinia, seized in Act I, wed, raped, and mutilated in Act II, is presented as a spectacle of extreme suffering who outdoes her classical antecedents, Philomel, Lucrece, and Virginia. The emendations from the two primary sources in Ovid and Livy are signaled as piquant variations to surprise the audience.1 Like Lucrece, she is the virtuous wife whose rape exposes the sexual licence that contaminates the ruling family and precipitates their overthrow. Like Virginia, she has a father who removes the pollution of her rape by killing her. Yet, she becomes a Philomel with a difference, for not only is her tongue, like Philomel’s, cut out to prevent testimony against her rapists, but she suffers the further mutilation of the loss of her hands so that she will be incapable of weaving a cloth that reveals her rape.

Keywords

Europe Coherence Assure Hunt Arena 

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 3.
    Bate, ed., Titus Andronicus, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Rout-ledge, 1995), p. 90. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Titus Andronicus are taken from this edition.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Alfred Harbage and Samuel Schoenbaum, Annals of English Drama (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), pp. 38–39 record James Calfhill’s adaptation of a Corraro play, Progne, produced at Christ Church, Oxford, on September 5, 1566.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    See E. Jane Burns, Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 115–50, for a rich analysis of the Philomela story.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    For an early feminist discussion of the Ovidian influence, see Nancy L. Paxton, “Daughters of Lucrèce: Shakespeare’s Response to Ovid in Titus Andronicus,” Classical Models in Literature, ed. Warren Anderson, Walter Dietze, and Zoran Konstantinovic (Innsbruck: Inst. fur Sprachwissenschaft der Univ. Innsbruck, 1981), pp. 217–24. Paxton distinguishes the violence of Lavinia’s rape from interpretations that collapse it with other forms of symbolic and emotional violence in the play. For feminist examination of the meaning of rape in the Lucrèce poem, see Coppélia Kahn, “The Rape of Lucrece in Shakespeare’s Lucrèce,” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 45–72. See also Kahn’s “Lucrece: The Sexual Politics of Subjectivity,” Rape and Representation, ed. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 141–59, for discussion of the scopic economy of rape and the construction of masculine subjectivity. Her work on Lucrèce has paralleled my examination of Lavinia.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    For a feminist rereading of Levi-Strauss’s The Elementary Structures of Kinship, see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 40–41. See also Butler on Gayle Rubin’s important, early feminist essay on Levi-Strauss, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), cited and discussed by Butler, pp. 72–77.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    See Gwynne Kennedy’s recent book, Just Anger: Representing Women’s Anger in Early Modern England (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    For a psychoanalytic study of maternality in Shakespeare’s later plays, see Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992) and for a cultural study of the demonic mother, see Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    My understanding of the meaning of the story of Philomel is grounded in Jane Marcus’s “Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet: Toward a Feminist Aesthetic” in Art and Anger (Miami, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1988), pp. 215–49, and Patricia Klindienst Joplin’s “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours,” in Rape and Representation, ed. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver, pp. 34–64. My reading of Lavinia has been deepened by the sensitive analysis of the meaning of the suffering woman by Cynthia Marshall in “‘I can interpret all her martyr’d signs’: Titus Andronicus, Feminism, and the Limits of Interpretation,” in Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, ed. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), pp. 193–211. Her psychoanalytic approach differs from my placement of the play within Elizabethan juridical arguments over vengeance.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Ovid’s critique may perhaps signal the difficulty of transforming barbarians into Romans. For a study of Ovid, see Joseph B. Solodow, The World of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988). I am grateful to Molly Levine and Margaret Fusco for directing me to this work. For two recent feminist analyses of the Metamorphoses, see Genevieve Lively, “Reading Resistance in Ovid’s Metamorphose,” pp. 197–213 and Alison Keith, “Versions of Epic Masculinity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” pp. 214–39 in Ovidian Transformations: Essays on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Its Reception, ed. Philip Hardie, Alessandro Barchiesi, and Stephen Hinds (Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 1999). For a study of Ovid in the Renaissance, see Lynn Enterline, “Petrarch Reading (Himself Reading) Ovid,” in Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Valeria Finucci and Regina Schwartz (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), pp. 120–46.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    See Catherine Belsey’s argument in Subject of Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1985), particularly on murderous women, pp. 129–48.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 14. Despite the exclusion of women from justified vengeance, some female members of the Jacobean audience may have derived new understandings for feminine agency from the concomitant representation of revenging women as monstrous Furie. Such possibilities seem opened more by Jacobean revenge tragedies than by the Elizabethan Titus.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 25.
    The exclusion of women from bands of revengers can be contrasted with the transformation of the foolish courtier, Balurdo, in John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, into a sensate man capable of judging and punishing the tyrant. See Karen Robertson, “Antonio’s Revenge: The Tyrant, the Stoic and the Passionate Man,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England IV, ed. Paul Werstine (New York: AMS Press, 1989), pp. 92–106.Google Scholar
  13. 33.
    William Whately, A Bride-bush (London, 1623). I am grateful to Gwynne Kennedy who first drew my attention to this text.Google Scholar
  14. 36.
    Elizabeth V. Spelman, “Anger and Insubordination” in Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, ed. Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), pp. 263–73.Google Scholar
  15. 37.
    My understanding of the distinction between power and authority is taken from Michelle Rosaldo’s “A Theoretical Overview,” in Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere’s Women, Culture, and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976). She quotes M. G. Smith: “Authority is, in the abstract, the right to make a particular decision and to command obedience…. Power …is the ability to act effectively on persons or things, to make or secure favourable decisions which are not of right allocated to the individuals or their roles” Government in Zazau (London, pp. 18–19), cited by Rosaldo, note 2, p. 21.Google Scholar
  16. 39.
    David Cressy, in Literacy and the Social Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), notes that two women householders signed an instrument of association in 1642, but does not note women’s names in the 1584 bond.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 45.
    See Ian Donaldson’s valuable study of that process in The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformations (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982).Google Scholar
  18. 49.
    On women and cloth production in general, see Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years New York: Norton, 1994). For women in Early Modern cloth production, see Judith Bennett, “Medieval Women, Modern Women: Across The Great Divide,” in Culture and History 1350–1699: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing, ed. David Aers (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), pp. 147–75 and Merry Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 97–100.Google Scholar
  19. 50.
    Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), pp. 194–228, places Philomel as revenger within the context of female authorship. For a recent study of the problems of female authorship more generally, see Wendy Wall, “Dancing in a Net: The Problems of Female Authorship” Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 279–347.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Karen Robertson

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations