Construing meanings of violence

This book sets out to identify the ways in which violence is interior to major discourses informing norms of action, codes of conduct and processes of subject formation in Shakespeare's world. Close readings of six Shakespearian texts (Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, The Rape of Lucrece, Richard II, 1 Henry IV, Henry V) highlight the constitutive role violence plays in the articulation of notions of justice (divine or secular justice), of honour and sacrifice, of ideal government and the ideal ruler, but also in discourses on female desirability or on female agency. Central to the investigation of the meanings and uses of violence in the texts under discussion are the questions related to legitimacy and legitimisation: what discourses are mobilized to legitimise violent actions? What eroded or emerging and still vacuous definitions of social and political reality have to be substantiated by means of violence? In what ways is violence posed as a cultural presupposition in the construction of a series of identities (religious, national, political, gender)? I am further interested in tracing the changes in the limits that moral and ethical injunctions impose on the use of violence. For example, what type of sacrifice is no longer acceptable. When can killing, raping and looting no longer be employed in the vindication of martial values? When does the transgression of these limits actually enhance heroic glamour? Under what circumstances does obedience to the king no longer absolve soldiers of the acts of violence they commit serving their king? What kind of violence does obedience to the law involve? Which law? Whose law? What is and what is not legitimate violence in the pursuit of justice?

No overarching theoretical definition of violence is used in the essays as the meanings attached to it are worked out in the various contexts they appear. The readings proposed often suspend the close textual analysis in order to widen the hermeneutic scope and explore a variety of other texts that have bearing on the issues discussed. Faithful to the (new)historicist perspective adopted, the essays in this book investigate discourses ranging from texts on warfare, on government or on political resistance to popular ballads and chapbooks. The Shakespearean texts are considered also against earlier English Reformation plays or against plays written by Shakespeare's older or younger contemporaries. The essay on The Rape of Lucrece touches on new ways of looking in Reformation Europe and discusses the poem in relation to Lucas Cranach's paintings of Lucretia. My gloss on these texts is located in the context of cultural and political perspectives on violence recurrent in present day Eastern Europe and it inevitably bears the imprint of theoretical approaches that are at a remove from the forms of violence represented in Shakespeare's plays. I have found, for example, Elaine Scarry's seminal book The Body in Pain to be invaluable to my investigation of the role violence plays in substantiating eroded values and ideals. Furthermore her analysis of the political significances of the injured body has been very useful to my discussion of Shakespearian representations of the mutilated body.

Rene Girard's theoretical approach is another major source of insights, though his notions of "good" and "bad" forms of violence have been of less use to my investigation.[2] By and large my approach sets out to avoid the treatment of issues related to violence in terms of binary oppositions. I have tried to grow out of the Manichean frame that has attempted to resolve the issue of violence by associating it with the other, generally understood as the adversary. Recent international events, such as the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and the terrorist attack upon the World Trade Centre have increased my sense of the urgent need to think beyond the construction of violence as the mere violation of the self-same by an external other.

Walter Benjamin's notion of Gewalt signifies both the notion of the infringement of the self by external others and the opposite of this violation of the self. Being derived from the verb walten, "to rule or preside", the term Gewalt designates the act of ensuring order within the self (also viewed as an institution) and of imposing this order upon others. This approach highlights the problematic nature of the self and of all attempts towards self-determination or to the restoration of the order of the self. Benjamin's essay The Critique of Violence has further been crucial to my understanding of the interiority of violence to law and justice and has enabled me to trace the plurality of meanings the early modern period attached to the notion of the sword.

I have turned to Derrida's later work on violence to play postmodern volatile distinctions and his controversial suspension of the ethical against early modern discourses that shaped the plurality of the meanings of sacrifice and duty in plays such as Titus Andronicus, Henry IV, Henry V .
This criss-cross of early modern and postmodern positions has been conducive to a rethinking of the strong positive valorisation that much of the politically committed cultural materialism has attached to acts of subversion and transgression. While I fully support the revisionary impetus of cultural materialist and feminist criticism, I cannot but highlight the overdetermined character of notions such as transgression in Shakespeare's plays. The thrust of these essays is to foregrand the very difficulty of applying to Shakespeare's plays neat oppositional categories such as domination and subversive transgression.
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