Lavinia's mutilated body


Enter the Empress/ Sons with Lavinia, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished.[1]

These are the stage directions for act two, scene two. The rape and mutilation is not shown on the stage, only the maimed body is displayed. One of the reasons why the play is not very effective when reading is that unlike in its staged version we cannot see Lavinia's body, which in performance is an almost constant presence on the stage.

The translation into theatrical terms of the extreme act of violence perpetrated on Lavinia's body has always been a challenge to directors. Peter Brook opted for a highly stylized, post Artaudian form. Lavinia, played by Vivian Leigh, had scarlet ribbons trailing from her wrists and mouth. Leigh's entrance in this scene — to "the slow plucking of harp-strings, like drops of blood falling from a pool"— was the most striking moment of the performance.[2] Deborah Warner's realistic production at the Swan in Stradford upon Avon in 1988 was equally striking, not least because, unlike the Brook version, it did not cut a single line and rendered the whole of Marcus's problematic speech, which he delivers upon seeing Lavinia. The sheer contrast between the beauty of Marcus's elaborate verbal patterns and the repulsive to express what Lavinia had undergone and lost.(Bate, 63)

The theatrical images foreground the importance that the play attaches to the injuries inflicted to Lavinia, injuries that acquire priority over the death of her two brothers as well as over that of her husband. Her abused body will serve as a "map of woe" to guide Titus's actions of revenge. It is as a palimpsest of various classical discourses (Ovidian, Petrarchan [3]) that traverse the play, it is inscribed with complex, overdetermined political significances that establish analogies between the female body and the body politic, between the domestic and the political.

The analogy between the female body and the body politic was a common place in the Elizabethan period. It is alluded to in the opening scene where Marcus makes known the tribune's decision to offer the crown to Titus to "help to set a head on headless Rome" (1.1. 186). Marcus's speech to the Roman citizens in the last act, when both the emperor and the empress as well as Titus have been killed and the Goths headed by Lucius have conquered the city, offers a political alternative that would teach them to "knit again/…. These broken limbs again into one body" (5.3.71) The dismemberment of Lavinia's body therefore powerfully visualizes the collapse of Rome. What is striking is how the figurative becomes the actual.

If the body politic is associated with the body, the issue further raised is of the relation between the head and body. The commonplace patriarchal understanding of the governance of the head over the body is complicated by the fact that the ruler, the emperor, is elected to the throne, which indicates that the consent, if not the free choice, of the people has an important role to play. The fact that Titus decides to ignore the choice of the people is shown to have grievous consequences in the play. The significance of the body has therefore to be rethought: Marion Wynne-Davies mentions the argument initiated by the Jesuits according to which the monarch had to keep faith with his/her subjects, as the head must look after the other members of the body.( Marion-Wynne Davies, 140). Sid Ray suggests that the play actually invites the audience to understand the relation between ruler and his/her subjects not only in terms of the body metaphor but also in terms of the analogy between the household and politics, between marriage and the rituals of election and crowning. He relies upon the study of Protestant marital tracts which foregrounded consent in marriage: the ritual moment of taking the hand of the bride was displaced by the moment of hand fasting, which suggested mutual consent, implying that the bride had to consent to be ruled and governed by the husband. The value of these concepts lay in their being a vehicle in promoting a constitutionalist vision on the king's power. Consent in the act of marriage involved that the authority of the husband and by analogy of the king was derived from the consent given by the bride and the people respectively. Coronation was understood as a kind of a marriage in which the bride, i.e. the people, had the right to consent and would thereby impose some binding obligations upon the monarch.( Ray, 29 ) The rape of the female body, and indirectly the violation of the body politic, was now understood to be an act of extreme invasion and destruction of the self. The power relation it introduced, namely between the rapist and his helpless victim, was an approximation, in the view of constitutionalists, of the tyranny that absolute monarchy would inevitably lead to.

The new law on rape passed in 1597 chimed in with the new vision both on women and on governance. It redefined the very concept of rape as a crime against the person of the woman rather than against the property of her family and thereby it allotted women more room for self-determination in relation to their bodies.[4] The new meanings related to consent and rape suggest the magnitude of the devastating effects that the rape performed in the play was supposed to have in personal and political terms. Rape is Lavinia's hidden wound. Yet it is the other mutilations that first strike the audience. Their correct reading can lead to the truth about rape. This is Marcus's reading, which invokes the master text behind the play—Ovid's Metamorphoses:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands

Hath lopped and hewed and made thy body bare

Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments

Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in

And might not get so great a happiness

As half thy love. Why dost not speak to me?

[Lavinia opens her mouth]

Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,

Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind,

Doth rise and fall between thy rosied lips,

Coming and going with thy honey breath.

But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee

And, lest thou shouldst detect him, cut thy tongue. (2.3. 21-26)

Ovid's story tells how Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, who tries to conceal the assault by cutting out her tongue. However, she portrays the events in a tapestry and sends it to her sister, Procne. The two sisters are united and revenge themselves upon Tereus by killing his son and serving up the flesh for him to eat. Tereus tries to slay them but all three are metamorphosed into birds.

Lavinia's lopped limbs,[5] the tongue and hands Demetrius and Chiron cut off thus outdoing Tereus, stand metaphorically and metonymically for the inner wound, which can only be made manifest in indirect ways or via signs that have been contrived by tradition (dishevelled hair). The mutilations inflicted upon Lavinia's body further bring about her silencing and the erasure of her agency. In terms of public politics this involves the erasure of the body politic as a voice and an acting subject in its relation with the ruler. Michael Neill has pointed out that the lopping off of hands had wider implications in the early modern period.(Neill,44) It is interesting that it was the Spanish conquerors in America who were reported to have inflicted this injury upon the native people. Drawings with the atrocities of the Spanish (who were the English people's political and religious other) suggest the violation of an important taboo- the erasure of the capacity of the body to mean, to convey significations by itself and by its movements. The injury radically de-humanizes the body, reducing it to dull matter. The language of hands was considered to be a basic, universal language that could boast a prelapsarian, pristine transparency and which could bring about the communication across different peoples and races. The act of cutting off hands could therefore be said to produce the breakdown of this primary language and hence of all languages. The breakdown of language implies the collapse of civilization, its decay into barbarian non-meaning and sheer violence.

This paper sets out to prove that the disastrous situation that Lavinia's mutilated body signifies has been partially brought about by the very person who wants to revenge her injuries. Titus is Lavinia's avenger and the leading, though not the only revenge hero in the play, but he is implicated in the very acts he raises against. In his total investment in patriarchal absolute ideologies Titus is shown to evince the features of a tyrant and to support a tyrant. The paper will consider the severed hand as an icon of Titus's departure from the political self that has wrought disaster upon both Rome and his family and will further investigate the trajectories of public and private revenge in the play.

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Last update: August 2002
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