Shakespeare's Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance

Shakespeare's Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance

by Pascale Aebischer

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This timely study looks at the violation of bodies in Shakespeare's tragedies, especially as revealed (or concealed) in performance on stage and screen. Pascale Aebischer discusses stage and screen performances of Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear with a view to showing how bodies which are virtually absent from both playtexts and critical discourse (due


This timely study looks at the violation of bodies in Shakespeare's tragedies, especially as revealed (or concealed) in performance on stage and screen. Pascale Aebischer discusses stage and screen performances of Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear with a view to showing how bodies which are virtually absent from both playtexts and critical discourse (due to silence, disability, marginalisation, racial otherness or death) can be prominent in performance, where their representation refects the cultural and political climate of the production. Aebischer focuses on post-1980 Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre productions but also covers film adaptations and landmark productions from the nineteenth century onwards. Her book will interest scholars and students of Shakespeare, gender, performance and cultural studies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Aebischer's book analyzes a dazzling range of Shakespeare productions...she exceeds such a simplified ousting of hierarchy in the drama with what, despite some rough spots is a fascinating challenge to Shakepsearean interpretive orthodoxy." Sixteenth Century Journal Michelle Parkinson, Purdue University

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Cambridge University Press
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Shakespeare's Violated Bodies
Cambridge University Press
0521829356 - Shakespeare's Violated Bodies - Stage and Screen Performance - by Pascale Aebischer

Prologue: The gravedigger's daughter - a story of loss

Art which stays new, in Ezra Pound's phrase, is art in which the question 'what does it mean?' has no correct answer. Every narrative has, at least, a capacity to suggest a metanarrative, and art that 'works' is highly suggestive in this sense, as though the story were really a metaphor for an idea that has to be almost tricked out of hiding into the audience's consciousness.

- Tom Stoppard1

The gravedigger and his daughter will need protective rainwear? . . .
The gravediggers daughter during block 11 will bring on 'a stoup of liquor' . . . and possibly a picnic for herself and her father. . . .
After the funeral . . . the gravedigger and daughter will tip the skull and bones back into the grave and nail the trap lid onto the trap.

- Royal Shakespeare Company Rehearsal Note2

The gravedigger's daughter is surely one of the most elusive 'Shakespearean' characters. Absent from all early modern playtexts of Hamlet, she left this tantalising tiny trace in the cartload of production materials for the 1989 Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet that one of the Shakespeare Centre librarians wheeled into the reading room for me one day - and then was heard no more. As much as I searched for other pieces of evidence documenting the existence of the gravedigger's daughter, no other rehearsal note, letter in the production correspondence, or stage manager's report mentions her again. When I carefully re-viewed the archival video recording of a performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and scanned all the production photographs, all I could find were images of two male gravediggers.

The glimpse I had caught of the gravedigger's daughter in the hand-written rehearsal notes was nevertheless enough to prompt an extended reverie about this character and her creation. I began to imagine the director of the production, Ron Daniels, yielding to the pressure of the RSC's female actors clamouring for more speaking parts, however small, in the company's productions of Shakespeare's plays.3 I pictured him carefully sifting the available roles in Hamlet and eventually settling on the role of the Second Gravedigger as the least obtrusive speaking part that may be given to a woman without 'endangering' the balance of the play - obviously, a female Voltemand, or, disastrously, a female Horatio would have created 'gender trouble' (to borrow Judith Butler's evocative phrase) in suggesting that in a country where Gertrude is queen, a woman could have a political role beyond her choice of husband, or that Hamlet could feel genuine friendship rather than sexual revulsion for a woman.4 I then imagined the rehearsal: the actor trying to give a body with a history to her character who, tellingly, was no longer the independent 'Other' of the Second Quarto and Folio speech headings, but whose identity was defined in relationship to the man who has power over her. I dreamed up a scenario in which the director tried to balance out his momentous decision to cast a woman in the role by turning that role into a stereotype: the daughter who dutifully assists her father in his job and brings him his 'stoup of liquor'. The reference to 'and possibly a picnic for herself and her father' smacked of an afterthought, as if the actor had asked for a sip of the liquor and had been told that if she were well-behaved, she might get a bite of a sandwich instead.

Her presence at the end of the scene to 'tip the skull and bones back into the grave and nail the trap lid onto the trap' I visualised as another provisional and reluctant concession by the director who, I conjectured, might by that time have realised that however inconspicuous the role of the Second Gravedigger might have seemed to him at the outset, the casting of a woman had inevitably en-gendered a new framework within which the scene could be read. In this meta-theatrical framework, in which cultural meanings are generated through the use and appropriation of Shakespeare's plays,5 the modern woman's appropriation of the man's part found its theatrical parallel in the healthy young gravedigger's daughter, the smutty, intelligent working-class girl who is sensitive to social injustice, nailing the trap lid over the over-refined body of her 'privileged' ancestor whom playwright and fellow-characters have driven to marginalisation, insanity and premature death. Thus, in the margins of the play, I dreamed of an encounter in which, however tentatively, a modern young woman could meet her Shakespearean tragic equivalent, look at her drowned face in pity, bury Ophelia, wipe the dirt off her trousers and walk away perhaps to play Horatio in the next RSC production of Hamlet. And then, prompted by the ensuing silence about the gravedigger's daughter in the production documents, I pictured the director hastily changing the casting of the role, giving it back to a man before anyone could notice the implications of his early concession to the women of the RSC. I imagined a story of loss.

Introduction: filling the empty space

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.

- Peter Brook1

In the theatre, the body bears the brunt of performance; it is the material Shakespeare's text works on, works through. No body in the theatre is exempt - least of all, the spectator's. So how does the body play on Shakespeare's stage? What work does it do, and how can I account for it, bring it on stage within this text?

- Carol Chillington Rutter2

Peter Brook, when defining the essential 'act of theatre', speaks of an empty space that is filled by a man walking across it. I want to combine this mental image of the man walking across the empty space with the image on the front of this book of a man pushing a woman down and out of the frame of the picture, creating an empty space. The man is Brian Cox as Lear, the woman Eve Matheson's Cordelia at the point when Lear disowns his daughter, effectively throwing her out of the play until her reappearance in act 4. The gap left by Cordelia is thereafter filled with Lear's story as the audience watches him walk across the empty space of the heath, filling it with his suffering, madness and new-found insight. It is through the expulsion of the alternative bodies and viewpoints of Cordelia and her sisters that Cox's Lear creates the empty space of the theatre - a theatre in which the 'traditional subject has been the male subject, with whom everyone must identify' and which, at least in Britain, is still predominantly run by (white) male artistic directors and board members.3

The project of this book is to find the moments at which the empty space of theatre is created in Shakespeare's tragedies and prevent Brook's generic man from walking across it. Instead, I will seek to fill out those spaces with narratives about how these gaps come to be, about the mechanisms that lead to the expulsion of some bodies from both playtexts and their critical reception, turning stories of loss and forgetfulness into remembrance and gain. It is the white male subject of tragedy who will be marginalised in this study and forced to make way for his gendered and racial Others. Whether they are the victims of the plot in being evacuated, mutilated or killed into silence or whether they are the objects of 'bemonstering' (Q Lr 4.2.64), by which I mean the projection of meanings onto a subject that turns it into an object, bodies that are marginalised in playtexts and literary criticism may come centrestage in performance and performance studies. There, these silenced, stigmatised, mutilated, erased bodies fill the empty spaces of our stages and screens, their textual absence compensated for by their physical presence. Performance challenges the erasure of Shakespeare's violated bodies and offers the attentive spectator alternative narratives, viewpoints and protagonists.

Like the opaque theatrical signs discussed by theatre semiotician Anne Ubersfeld, when these often silent figures fill the empty space of the stage or screen as iconic signs, their purpose and effect is to stimulate 'the spectator's own inventiveness', asking her/him 'to manufacture the relationship between the sign and its intelligibility, or its relationship to the world'.4 The spectator is crucial to creating the meaning of these bodies in performance, a meaning that essentially arises out of the relationship between the bodies as signs and the contemporary 'world' of the spectator. In the theatre, Shakespeare's plays speak about the past in the present tense. Theatre is a medium in which meaning is created in collaboration between playtext(s), production team, physical and cultural context and spectator. It is in relationship to present concerns that Shakespeare's violated bodies can be made to mean in performance, and it is within the context of the present-day spectator's culture that they demand to be read. Precisely because these bodies are under threat of erasure within the playtexts, they become, like Desdemona, 'fair paper', blank pages/empty spaces onto which the interests, beliefs and anxieties of production teams and spectators can be projected (Oth 4.2). On stage and screen, Shakespeare's violated bodies become a barometer on which cultural changes of attitude can be registered as each generation makes them mean differently, using the same textual gaps to articulate ever-changing concerns. The life-expectancy of any one theatrical production, Peter Brook argues, is no longer than five years because 'Life is moving, influences are playing on actor and audience and other plays, other arts, the cinema, television, current events, join in the constant rewriting of history and the amending of the daily truth'.5 Looking at Shakespeare's violated bodies in performance, then, means looking at ourselves and our recent past; each production a snapshot of the cultural climate that created it, each a 'mirror up to nature' that gives us a glimpse of our own cultural and political history (Ham 3.2.22).


It is in Hamlet's play-within-the-play that Shakespeare perhaps best displays his awareness of theatre's potential to reflect the concerns of its audience. At one remove from the plot of Hamlet, the 'poison[ing] in jest' (3.2.229) of the Player King stresses not only the theatrical illusion of his murder but even more so the referential reality of the represented violence: while The Murder of Gonzago, as adapted by Hamlet for the purpose of 'catch[ing] the conscience of the King', is a representation of Claudius's past murder and Hamlet's future revenge (2.2.601), it is also a portrayal of the real-life murder of the Duke of Urbino in 1538.6 In Hamlet's view, the staging of the Player King's murder has the power to be both emotive and moral in its effect on the audience. At the same time, Hamlet's change of the title of The Murder of Gonzago to The Mousetrap is indicative of a more nasty side to the impact the representation of a murder may have on its audience. If a moral change is to be effected in Claudius, his conscience will have to be caught in Hamlet's trap - hardly a painless affair, as Hamlet's assertion that the play will make 'the galled jade wince' attests (3.2.237). Tragedy apparently not only represents an assault on the human body, but can itself be violent in its effect on the spectators. More than that, the context of The Mousetrap confirms Plato's worst fears about the power of represented violence to provoke violence, since Hamlet's irresolution about his revenge is momentarily forgotten as a result of watching the theatrical representation of the murder.7 It is as a direct consequence of Hamlet's emotive response to the performance that he feels that he 'could . . . drink hot blood' (3.2.381) and that he attacks his mother with metaphorical daggers and kills Polonius with a literal sword.

As portrayed in Hamlet, then, the theatrical performance of an assault on the human body may be a political intervention that may lead to further action. In this, The Murder of Gonzago/The Mousetrap reflects a strongly topical concern in late Elizabethan England about the power of drama to change its audience's attitudes and move its members to political action and insurrection. If Hamlet was indeed completed in 1601, it would be surprising if the events of February 1601, when Essex's supporters paid the Chamberlain's Men to perform Richard Ⅱ so as to prepare public opinion for Essex's rebellion, had not left a trace in the play.8 After all, Augustine Phillips, a member of Shakespeare's company, even had to make a deposition to explain the Chamberlain's Men's involvement in the whole affair. Acted by the Chamberlain's Men, Hamlet's commissioning of a specific play from the repertoire of an established company of players with the aim of ascertaining Claudius's guilt in order to achieve a political upheaval must have struck Shakespeare's contemporaries as an almost imprudent affirmation of the political power of theatrical representation. Hamlet's textual and theatrical intervention, his addition of some lines to the play as well as his instructions to the actors in which he controls their movements, furthermore sets a precedent for modern appropriators and producers of Shakespeare's tragedies in showing how subtle changes to the way in which acts of violence are represented can make these acts speak directly to their audiences about contemporary political concerns.

Ultimately, however, The Murder of Gonzago is less a political play than a familial drama. Hence the stress on the Player Queen's unsustained protestations of affection for her husband, hence also Hamlet's specification that the murderer is 'nephew to the king' (3.2.239). To stress the dimension of usurpation is to forget that the only political motivation the audience(s) can ever discern in Lucianus is his taking off the sleeping king's crown and kissing it in the dumb show and Hamlet's commentary 'A poisons him i'th'garden for his estate' (3.2.255) - significantly, the play itself does not mention this motivation. The emphasis of the words in the fragment of the play is divided between the Player King's meditations on delay and the betrayal of the marital relationship by the Player Queen. The Player Queen's future infidelity is given as much prominence as is the murder of the king. The relationship between infidelity and murder is made crudely obvious in her lines 'None wed the second but who kill'd the first' and 'A second time I kill my husband dead, / When second husband kisses me in bed' (3.2.175, 179-80). True to Dympna Callaghan's observation that 'masculine transgressions are constructed in a way that frequently displace [sic] the blame and guilt onto representations of woman in the tragic narrative',9 the guilt for the murder of the king is thus shown to be shared between the male murderer and the unfaithful woman, the possession of whose body comes to be almost synonymous with the possession of the crown. The intrigue takes place at a personal level, in which interactions between people, and especially between men and women, only secondarily come to stand for vaster political relationships, just as violence meted out on the human body comes to represent an assault on the body politic. In the old feminist adage, Hamlet's Mousetrap shows that the personal is always already political.

In its gendering of violence as male and the concomitant representation of femininity as the passive territory or obstacle that must be conquered by the male subject, The Murder of Gonzago would seem to be in line with the simple (if not simplistic) genderings of the 'mythical', archetypal text described by feminist critics. It is useful to outline these supposedly normative genderings here as a background against which Shakespeare's more complex and subversive genderings of violence may be set. In Teresa de Lauretis's words, 'the subject of the violence is always, by definition, masculine'. 'Woman', when not defined as 'an element of plot-space, a topos, a resistance, matrix and matter', takes the position of victim of the act of violence.10 The paradigm identified by de Lauretis in 'high culture' texts has also been outlined by Carol Clover's analysis of modern horror films, showing how 'violence is en-gendered in representation':11

The functions of monster and hero are far more frequently represented by males and the function of victim far more garishly by females. The fact that female monsters and female heroes, when they do appear, are masculine in dress and behavior . . . , and that male victims are shown in feminine postures at the moment of their extremity, would seem to suggest that gender inheres in the function itself - that there is something about the victim function that wants manifestation in a female, and something about the monster and hero functions that wants expression in a male.12

Because, as de Lauretis explains, the 'construction of gender is both the product and the process of its representation',13 these insistent portrayals of violence as pertaining to 'masculinity' and victimisation to 'femininity' are a way of producing equivalent genderings in the social subjects who are meant to feel interpellated (in Althusser's sense) by such ideologically inflected representations.14 As such, what passes for 'hold[ing] . . . the mirror up to nature' (3.2.22) may in fact be reactionary insofar as it works to 'naturalize sadistic violence as a fixture of masculinity'.15 In fact, as Jill Dolan has provocatively suggested, not only the staging of aggressive and violated bodies, but any 'representation of bodies is . . . ideologically marked; it always connotes gender, which carries with it the meanings inscribed by the dominant culture'.16 The stakes of any representation would therefore seem to be always already 'political' in the sense that representations seek to either consolidate or subvert the gender roles of their audiences.

A consideration of the on-stage audience's responses to The Murder of Gonzago, however, shows that the reactions of Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius are both gendered and individual, and that the process of 'interpellation' is not quite as automatic as the theorists suggest. Claudius interrupts the performance, 'marvellous distempered . . . with choler' at the realisation that he is expected to identify with the perpetrator of the on-stage act of violence (3.2.292-5). He is the only member of the audience to be immediately aware of both the personal and political implications of what he has witnessed. He immediately asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to remove Hamlet from Elsinore and escort him to England. Having taken measures to protect his body politic from the threat implied by The Murder of Gonzago, Claudius then reacts to The Mousetrap as a body natural whose conscience has been 'caught'. What is noteworthy about his abortive prayer is that he conceives of his crime primarily in familial terms: it is 'A brother's murder' that he is trying to repent (3.3.38). Similarly, the excitement Hamlet feels as a result of watching the play is expressed as a will to upbraid his mother for her sexual infidelity and to revenge his father's murder rather than Claudius's usurpation of the throne. Both men, then, are emotionally affected by the performance and identify with the male protagonist who advances the action. In this production scripted by men (Hamlet, the fictional original author of the play and Shakespeare) and acted by an all-male company, the men in the audience find it easy (though, in the case of Claudius, unbearably disturbing) to assume the position of the model spectator constructed by the production.

Gertrude, on the other hand, sees the play with different eyes. For her, as for the modern female spectator of Shakespeare's tragedies, it may be problematic that the play is written and performed by men for a male model spectator. Where Hamlet and Claudius see themselves reflected in Lucianus, Gertrude's attention appears to be directed primarily at the only female character in the tragedy, the Player Queen. If Gertrude chooses to identify with the character, if she lets herself be interpellated by the play's staging of gender, she will be coerced into a complicity with the male-authored representation of the woman as inherently false and the cause of violence and political unrest. She will have to forge a link between the actions witnessed and her own life. This is the position which the production is designed to make her adopt, as we can see from Hamlet's hopeful asides 'That's wormwood' and 'If she should break it now' (3.2.176, 219). Her famous answer to Hamlet's question of how she likes the play - 'The lady doth protest too much, methinks' (3.2.225) - predictably focuses exclusively on the Player Queen, relating the character's actions to her own personal experience of human interaction. Nevertheless, her response is remarkable in two ways. Firstly, there is no sense in which the fact that the character is impersonated by a boy actor stands in the way of her acceptance of the representation as that of a 'lady'. Secondly, and more importantly here, the response implies a critical distance on the part of Gertrude. Instead of 'breaking it now', as Hamlet hopes, Gertrude's defensive comment suggests her determination to remain aloof and her refusal to play the part of the guilty creature sitting at a play whose identification with the representation of her sin is designed to make her 'proclaim [her] malefaction' (2.2.588).

Like the opposition between Hamlet's empathy for Hecuba in the Player King's monologue and Polonius's judgment of the same performance by purely aesthetic standards, the contrast between Claudius's and Gertrude's modes of spectatorship in this scene is that between a response that is empathic and involved (Hamlet and Claudius) versus one that is aesthetic and distanced (Polonius and Gertrude). These two contrasting modes of response to the representation, whether in a description, in the visual arts or in performance, of an assault on the human body are mapped out in Elisabeth Bronfen's study of the representation of the female corpse. The choice facing the spectator of representations of violence is similar to that facing the spectator of Hodler's cycle of paintings of the terminally ill body of Valentine Godé-Darel, which Bronfen describes as follows:

Should one assume the position of a morally involved spectator, treating the represented body as though it were the same as the material body it refers to, focusing, that is, on the question of reference and in so doing denying the representational aspect? . . . Or should one assume the position of the aesthetically involved specator [sic], distanced, disinterested, treating the representation of a dying body only as a signifier pointing to many other signifiers; judged on the basis of comparison with other signifiers (previous images in the painter's [or playwright's] oeuvre, in the image repertoire of his culture); foreclosing the question of the real?17

The key distinction in Bronfen's description is between the 'morality' of empathic spectatorship and the 'distance' of aesthetic spectatorship. What Bronfen does not allow for, however, is the possibility of an indifferent or sadistically excited response - types of response that become particularly relevant in the representation of Lavinia's brutalised body in Titus Andronicus. Bronfen also precludes strategic modes of viewing, whereby a spectator may actively choose to adopt one or the other mode of response for ideological/political reasons, modes of viewing in which it might be more 'moral' to distance oneself from the spectacle of the violated body.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Pascale Aebischer is Associate Professor of Early Modern Performance Studies at the University of Exeter. After a combined honours degree (English and French) at the University of Bern and a postgraduate diploma at the London Academy of Performing Arts, she moved to Lincoln College, Oxford, where she was the recipient of a Berrow Scholarship and where she completed her DPhil. From 1999 to 2002, Aebischer held a Research Fellowship, funded by the National Science Foundation (CH), at Darwin College, Cambridge. During those years, she taught in Cambridge, Oxford and for the British American Drama Academy in London. She took up a Lectureship in Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester in 2002 and moved to the University of Exeter in 2004. She is author of Jacobean Drama (2010) and Screening Early Modern Drama: Beyond Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and co-editor of Performing Early Modern Drama Today (Cambridge University Press, 2012). In spring 2013, Pascale Aebischer became General Editor of Shakespeare Bulletin, the leading journal of early modern performance studies.

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