Pillars of Salt: Divorce and the Systematic Erasure of Women’s Voices

At the moment, I’m doing a lot of thinking about how medieval women’s emotions, thoughts and desires are often misunderstood, dismissed, or simply not recognised – because women expressed these thoughts and desires in ways that do not resemble those of men. Because they stand outside the masculine paradigm, they are effectively invisible. The situation is further complicated, because when we scholars search for examples of vivid, emotionally expressive, thoughtful, complex medieval women’s voices, we tend to fall back of characters like the voluble Wife of Bath or the anxious Criseyde – that is, characters whose voices are not in fact their own, but written by male authors.

All of this was on my mind as I read Tim Lott’s latest column in the Guardian, here. It’s a sobering piece, and in many ways, one that should make us feel sympathy. In it, Lott announces two deeply personal struggles: the first concerning his impending divorce, and the second his recent diagnosis of ADHD. I could only nod when Lott begun by saying that this was a difficult column to write. Neither divorce nor ADHD is an easy thing to contend with, and according to Lott, the ADHD itself played a significant role in the maital problems he chronicled so publicly in his column over the years – indeed, even the process of ‘oversharing’ in this column is, he acknowledges, likely a symptom of ADHD itself. Publishing the column, Lott writes, caused his wife ‘frustration I well understand, but can do little to alleviate – other than quit writing this.’

At this point, although I acknowledge the profound difficulties living with ADHD can bring to those with the condition, I couldn’t help seeing the parallels to wider debates. I couldn’t help seeing how this column replicated wider inequalities.

ADHD is one of those conditions that is under-diagnosed in girls and women. The standard reason given for this is precisely that which I encounter when looking at medieval women. Women present differently, voice things differently. They are socially coerced to keep silent. They are not given a platform. When Lott writes about his practice of discussing the tensions within his marriage using the privilege of his public platform in the Guardian, he claims that it is the ‘compulsion’ to overshare that has ‘left my wife feeling that she is without a voice’. One could applaud his honesty in acknowledging his wife’s feelings (difficult, that). But … it’s not really the ‘compulsion’ that operates to amplify one voice while silencing another. It’s the fact that Lott is writing a column for a national newspaper, and a column that gives validation to his views. We need, so the Guardian implicitly informs us, by publishing this material, to hear the views of a middle-aged man sniping at his wife. It’s important that we listen. In my mind, I run over the columns about daily life written by women for the Guardian – Michelle Hansen, Lucy Mangan – and I can’t think of any compare to this. Women are not regularly given space to air their marital grievances, and if they do, it must be a process carried out in comic, self-mocking mode, or an outburst primly labelled as shrewish, nagging, or shrill.

Women’s voices are still systematically ignored, marginalised, silenced – and yet, writes Lott, what could he do to alleviate his wife’s frustration ‘other than quit writing this’? The question is posed almost rhetorically: how can a man be expected to give up his voice, his public platform to speak?

In a week in which we read of a judge informing a woman that she was not permitted to be unhappy within her marriage, Lott’s column speaks more loudly (and with more privilege) than he knows. In the legal case in question, Judge Robin Tolson decided that the unhappiness, discontent and emotional bullying Tini Owens described was not grounds for divorce. After all, Owens’ husband felt he knew his wife’s emotions better than she did herself.

I can’t help feeling that there’s a double standard here. How will we ever learn to recognise the ways in which women express their thoughts, emotions and desires, if we constantly hear from men telling women what their emotions must be, how ‘well’ they ‘understand’ those unvoiced frustrations women must feel, how confidently they can dismiss women’s petitions?

Strange Motherhood, King’s College Cradle, and the Women of Bethlehem

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Virgin and Child with St Catherine and Mary Magdalene

It’s hard to write a warm, cheerful, joyous Christmas post this year. I have, personally, a lot to be joyful about, but undeniably the world looks pretty bleak. Families in Aleppo and across Syria have been torn apart; refugees are struggling to find countries to shelter them, and children are amongst those unable to leave war zones. Both here and in the US, we’re looking at leaders whose views of what kinds of people – and what kinds of families and communities – deserve protection and respect, are disturbingly narrow and exclusionary. And we struggle to welcome refugees, outsiders, those who do not ‘fit’.

In this context, it seems particularly self-centred to celebrate the religious narrative of Christmas in the way we’re so often encouraged to celebrate it. Well-meaning speakers and writers try to make Mary, Joseph and the baby sound like a cosy middle-class British family. Christmas is, after all, all about ‘family’ – and family, in this case, is defined with unthinking narrowness as the stereotypical configuration of father, mother, and children as approved by the most ‘family values’ Conservative. And we smooth away the parts of the Biblical account that are sadder, more uncertain, more unorthodox, than this comfortingly secure image.

I thought of this when I opened the paper this morning, to read a vicar explaining – without the most cursory indication of guilt – how, when he and his wife were struggling to have a baby, he’d insisted his wife be subjected to a battery of intrusive fertility tests before he agreed to provide a (painless) sperm sample, on the excuse that he was suffering ‘proud man syndrome’.The piece particularly jarred with me, because I saw it just after reading a very different account of the poet Lemn Sissay’s work to provide children in the foster system with a celebratory sense of Christmas. For context, my partner described one of these tests as ‘the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced’. Startlingly, it is still legal for fertility clinics to allow these painful and potentially dangerous procedures to be carried out before a painless test that could make them unnecessary. Apparently, though, it’s nothing compared to the existential agony of ‘living in a spermless marriage’. How this is excusable or remotely Christmassy, I’m not sure. I don’t doubt the author’s genuine sense of hurt. But the emphasis of the piece reminded me, uncomfortably, of a ham-fisted rewriting of the Christmas story I recently heard, and made me think of the dangers these seemingly anodyne narratives might be doing to our capacity to empathise.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a young and earnest preacher hastening to put Joseph’s perspective front and centre. Think, the preacher urged us, how embarrassed Joseph must have felt at the prospect of any chink in his social image. Imagine how impressive it was that he resolved his issues. This is, so far as it goes, not untrue, and yet it felt to me rather an odd attempt to normalise, to bowdlerise, what is essentially, a narrative that displaces earthly paternity. With Joseph’s worries centre stage, Mary is relegated to an anodyne feminine figure bewildered by the angel’s message, and the main fears are not Herod, nor the more distant Pilate, nor even human damnation, but the fragile masculinity of an otherwise saintly elderly man. And with that resolved, there’s nothing to trouble us, to challenge us or to make us uncomfortable.

This bland accessibility contrasts sharply with the discomforting view of the Christmas story we find in medieval writings. There, Mary is not innocently bewildered by the angel’s message. She has a deep foreknowledge of events to come, and her joy at the birth is tinged with sorrow about the pain to come; the Christ-Child knows His fate. The relationships are not those of the nuclear family; many of these relationships, too, are fractured by violence threatened or remembered, by loss and suffering. Carols voice the empty lullabies of the women of Bethlehem in the shadow of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents; they are, like Peter Warlock’s lovely, startlingly irreligiously composed carol ‘Bethlehem Down,’ permeated by the lingering scent of myrrh brought to the cradle to symbolise the death; they evoke the mixed joy and sorrow of a mother who knows she will mourn. Like the Christmas readings, Christmas music is anchored in the much older words of the Old Testament. At King’s college Advent Service this year, we listened to the beautiful, odd prose set to music of ‘This is the Record of John,’ with its ancient image of the voice crying in the wilderness and Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of John the Baptist … and our baby, who can hear the vibrations from the organ we were sitting almost underneath, kicked up a storm. The other voice crying through the Old Testament – ‘a voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children’ – also echoes into the New Testament, but bitterly, as a foreshadowing of the Slaughter of the Innocents. It, in turn, is memorialised in the plangent medieval Coventry Carol. Medieval lyrics do not tell us which emotions to privilege, which families – the broken or the complete, the orthodox or the atypical – to celebrate.

These texts draw their emotional depth from allusions to relationships that lie outside of – or on the edge of – that image of the nuclear family headed by a man. I have written before about the hauntingly beautiful carol ‘Arise and Wake,’ with its roots in a medieval monastery  and its resonant picture of heaven itself as an echo of the same community of ‘brothers’ united not in blood, but in religious vows. So too, the voices of the ‘sisters’ in the Coventry Carol gathered around their doomed children, or the dialogues between angels and humans, prophets and listeners across the ages. Disruptions of the neat flow of time underline disruptions to the neat and restrictive pictures of what constitutes a family, what constitutes a community.

These temporal disruptions – images of the ending cradled in the beginning – are very old, and often literalised. We see this in the rhetoric of Lancelot Andrews, who, while he was Bishop of Ely, preached a sermon for Christmas Day 1618, broadens the emotional vocabulary of the Christmas story to its widest compass. Andrews was one of the main architects of the King James Bible, and his sermon has a similar, simple eloquence. It is filled with layered puns on the cratch, the cradle or crib in which Christ was laid, and the way people cratch (scratch) the sign of the cross to make the most primitive of signatures. Andrews writes:

We may well begin with Christ in the cratch [manger]; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross… To be swaddled thus as a child, doth that offend? What then when ye shall see Him pinioned and bound as a malefactor? To lie in a manger, is that so much? How then, when ye see shall Him hang on the cross?

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King’s College Chapel

Andrews was –  as I am indebted to King’s chaplain Andrew Hammond for observing –  a bishop tellingly immune to the calculatingly feminine flirtations of Elizabeth I; a man who never married. His moving description of a baby in a cradle is, then, not merely the voice of paternal experience, but something based more in empathy and thought. Cambridge, where he studied and where he was master of a college, was then dominated by the brooding rectangular mass of King’s College Chapel. Now, that structure is crowded on the skyline by other buildings: the spire of John’s, and the blocky twentieth-century tower of the University Library, the high concrete roofs of the Lion Yard and the Grand Arcade. Then, though, it was recognisable for its lone, distinctive shape. As Nicky Zeeman’s history of the building explains, the chapel was once known as ‘the Cradle’ on account of this shape, which resembles a high-sided, barred medieval or early Modern cradle, of the kind that was used in nativity scenes to house the infant Christ.

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Cradle of the Infant Christ (Met Museum).

This cradle – a strange, giant, stone-built crib rearing against the sky – served a congregation predominantly made up not of families and children, but a community very like that of the medieval monastery. Its name bears witness to the fact that feelings we too often imagine to be narrowly restricted to certain roles – motherhood, fatherhood – might resonate much further beyond.

Community is built, not of blood relationships, but of the shared emotions, the shared spaces, the shared volitions of people who come together. A narrative is built, not of neat and tidy steps from beginning to ending, but of juxtaposed images, juxtaposed past and present and future, juxtaposed emotions of joy and sorrow, which coexist and make room for one another.

The fourteenth-century lyric ‘Als I lay at Yoolis Night‘ captures the poignancy implicit in this doubled sense of present and future. Over on her blog, Eleanor Parker has also written about this lyric, in the version that’s found in a preacher’s handbook of 1372. But I was most interested in the copy I saw in Cambridge University Library the other day, which is the only version to survive with musical notation, and which records the name of one of its owners – John, a joculator or professional performer – and a note describing how he obtained the book. John was given his book by one Thomas Turke, sometime a Dorset vicar, but by 10th December 1418 (the date on which he gave his book away) a Carthusian monk in the Charterhouse of Hinton. This history is touching and revealing in itself, for Carthusians were, in theory, strictly enclosed in their monasteries, and even restricted from community life within the monastery, spending most of their time in solitary cells. Paradoxically, though, the English Carthusians had a keen interest in the simplest, most emotional and accessible forms of religious devotion, and frequently flouted the rules of their order in able to maintain bonds of shared faith with the most unlikely of laypeople.

The text pivots, as so many medieval carols do, around the wordless refrain of of the lullaby (‘lullay, lullay’). But it begins as a dream-vision, with the medieval singer falling asleep on Christmas Eve night – just hours away as I write this – and dreaming of a conversation between a pair of speakers, never identified by name, a maiden and her newborn child. The maiden seeks to rock her child to sleep without singing; the child – authentically and delightfully demanding – insists upon a song:

The childe him thought sche ded him wrong
And bad his moder synge

“Synge now, moder,” seyde the childe
“Wat schal to me befal
Heerafter wan I cum til eld
For so doon modres all.”

The child’s request – for a song telling what will be his future when he comes to maturity, such as all mothers sing – is met with consternation from the unnamed maiden.

“Swete sune,” seyde sche,
Weroffe schulde I synge?

Ne wist I nere yet more of thee
But Gabrielis gretynge.”

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Gabriel’s Greeting

The words are deceptively simple. Of what should I sing? .. I have not known more of you yet/ Than Gabriel’s greeting. So the maiden claims, but that ‘yet’ works against the grammar of the tense (‘I never knew’). The response sounds like – and is – an evasion, a response which, by the logic of the carol, marks Mary out from the common run of mothers who sing to their children with stories of what those children will be when they grow to maturity, and yet a response which in which Mary denies any knowledge of her position outside the common run of mothers. Gabriel’s greeting, in the lyric, is the moment in which we listeners can positively identify the speakers of the text as the Christ-child and his mother; the moment at which we know what that fate ‘what I cum til elde’ will be. Yet the moment of knowledge is inseparable from the depiction of the mother pretending not to know who her baby is and what pain is his to come. Mother and child mime the actions of a typical human family, but do so with a foreknowledge and a foreboding that echoes unspoken through the text, deepening its Christmas message to something that disrupts the tidy present moment with the timelessness of the narrative. Mary’s motherhood is both an experience shared by all mothers – a role as traditional and stereotyped as any unimaginative sermon I might hear – and also something more uncertain, unmoored, and filled with uncomfortable potential. The dreaming listener, whose vision frames the whole carol, looks back into the Biblical past to find a narrative weaving in and out of its own present and future, never stably moored.

Medieval lyrics, with their tangling of present, past and future, remind me of the poem a friend of mine, Daisy Black, wrote just a few days ago, reflecting on the aftermath of brutal violence. The poem is sad, as it must be, in the context of the current crises in Aleppo, and across Syria. Yet this new poem also offers us ways to speak about the present world without evasions, without perpetuating the unthinkingly exclusionary, narrow, and hurtful hierarchies we seek to escape.

From their plangent carols, generations of medieval and early Modern listeners and singers pieced together the stuff from which their religious communities were cemented and built up. Like stone cradles rearing dark against the skyline, or scribbled carol notations passed from man to man, or otherwise-inclined bishop-translators birthing a new Bible for a new Anglican age, these texts may seem unlikely Christmas narratives. They would make uncomfortable images for listeners who would like something ‘relatable’ to confirm cherished stereotypes. But, in all their oddity, they – and this new poem – are more inclusive than the attempts of many preachers and vicars to make a neat twenty-first century version of a Nativity story, for they contain the room to bear witness to the possibilities for sorrow and joy, for fear and hope, for the unorthodox and the strange, as well as the secure default.

I end with Daisy’s poem:

The Girls Left

Afterwards, the women of Bethlehem said never again.
They turned their faces away from the palace
And emptied all their love into their surviving children.
A group of girls grew up without brothers.
Learned to pull the plough, to herd the sheep,
To barter at the market, to cut a fair deal with traders,
To play in the streets without shame.
They wove cloth with sand worked into bright threads.
Without brothers they learned to track the stars’ remote courses.
They learned to read.
A thousand young women grew
The gritty weight of Rachel’s cries at the core of their frames.
As they sowed, cut and milled their own grain,
Herod withered softly behind his gold doors.
When the exiles returned from Egypt
The town thrummed with new stars.

*

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Happy (and hopeful) Christmas!

 

Silence, Suffering, and a Shakespearean ‘Cutted Up Pear’

 

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Hitomi Manaka as Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus (Ninagawa, 2006, RSC).

This post is closely based on part of a lecture – the second of a series – given at the University of Cambridge on 28/04/16. It includes, amongst other things, responses to the current British Library exhibition ‘Shakespeare in Ten Acts’. The lecture series was titled ‘Shakespeare: Performing the Unspeakable,’ and its two sub-parts were ‘Silence’ and ‘Suffering’. 

Recently, I gave a couple of lectures on the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays – both in themselves, and as cultural artefacts – prompt us to think about the relationships between silence, suffering, and complicity. Shakespearean silence has a compelling performance history. In Shakespeare’s plays, the scripted silences – moments when, for example, the ghost of Hamlet’s father stalks away unspeaking from Horatio, or Cordelia refuses to elaborate on her brief response to her father – are many, and well known.

But there are, too, silences of a less certain kind. Silences that teeter on the brink between scripted and unscripted, that stretch out between the stage and the audience and last just long enough to cause a stir, an uneasy rustle of doubt.

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Barbara Jefford and John Gielgud in Measure for Measure

One such example comes from Barbara Jefford’s performance of Isabella in Measure for Measure. In the script as we have it, Isabella – the virtuous novice who leaves her convent to petition for her brother’s life and attracts the romantic attention of the Duke – speaks for the last time several dozen lines before the end of the play.

In that time, the Duke twice proposes marriage to her, and twice receives no scripted answer. Some productions solve the problem – an eager nod, a horrified shake of the head – but Jefford, instead, froze in silence. She waited until the uneasy rustles and stirs of her audience communicated that their watching discomfort was too much – and only then did she speak. At the first performance, the silence reputedly lasted for around thirty seconds. As the production run continued, audiences collaborated: in their increasingly prolonged silences, they tacitly reinforced her decision to freeze out the spoken script and drown the duke’s proposal in a prolonged and shared speechless response.

Jefford’s silence allows the audience – supposedly passive – to collude with the character’s refusal to assent to a proposal of marriage that is phrased as a command. It sets into sharp prominence the assumptions about power and oppression that are latent in the text. The actress’s silence capitalizes on the permeable boundary between actor and audience, and it offers a succinct demonstration of the way in which plays – and characters, and characters’ responses – become rooted in time, snagged into the contemporary debates by hooks and links and tensions we can barely recognise, but whole constraining and constructing effect we still must feel.

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Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello. James Northcote, c. 1826.

This was the tension negotiated by Ira Aldridge, often described as the ‘first’ black actor to play Shakespeare’s Othello. Born in 1807 in New York, Aldridge worked for much of his career in Britain. Audiences of the time romanticised Aldridge – indeed, he and the companies with whom he acted encouraged this romanticisation – picturing him not as the son of freed slaves and born in New York, but as a mysterious and noble African, estranged from his natal land and bearing evocative hints of a hidden story to tell. Perhaps shrewdly, Aldridge claimed descent from the Fulani people – even then, a group (or groups) dispersed over a wide area and representing people born in several different African countries – and this deliberate exoticism was balanced by posters representing him as an ‘African Roscius,’ a name that alluded to the Roman actor and freed slave, whose name was a byword amongst Shakespeare’s own contemporaries for Classical excellence in acting.

Aldridge’s presence tacitly argued that a black actor could – and did – embody and communicate the emotions Shakespeare had written for is characters, the identity that this white dramatist had constructed for a white performer. He made visible the argument – polemical at that time and in that place  – that a black man could embody all the emotions of white humanity.  Amidst this was a tacit – and occasionally, explicit – division within Aldridge’s audiences, between those who saw his acting as propaganda to stoke contemporary arguments against the slave trade, and those who had vested interests – based on that same trade – in castigating a black man who dared to see himself as a talented actor interpreting the most canonical works of a white dramatist. For Aldridge did not only play Othello. He also – in whiteface – took on the roles Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III and Lear, and even Iago: famous roles that have been closed to black actors until very recently, and which still draw racist comments when played by actors who are other than white.

Aldridge died after a phenomenally successful career, and shamefully, his record of acting Shakespearean heroes has remained closed to actors of colour. Often, the objection made is that audiences would not accept a black Hamlet, Lear, or Richard III. The absurdity of the criticisms Ira faced is nicely captured by David Oyelowo, who comments acerbically:

Theatre by its very nature is make-believe. If I’m on stage and I say I’m in tears, you believe me. If I say I’ve got an army of 30,000 offstage, you believe me. I don’t know why if I suddenly say I’m King of England that is so much more controversial.

This outburst was in my mind as I prepared to think about the violence – not only racial, but also gendered – in one of Shakespeare’s earliest and most vilified plays, Titus AndronicusTitus is a gruesome, intensely bloody, violent and spectacular play, a play whose eponymous hero – the battle-hardened and well-respected Roman general Titus, the people’s choice for the newly-vacated post of Emperor of Rome following the death of the old Emperor and the unresolved squabbles of his two sons – experiences a devastating reversal of fortunes. Bent on revenge for his sons’ deaths in war, Titus orders the sacrifice of a young captive prince of the Goths, son of the captive queen Tamora. In counter-revenge, Tamora and her lover – delightfully known, with Shakespearean casual racism, as ‘Aaron the Moor’ – plot against Titus, arranging the rape of his daughter Lavinia by Tamora’s other sons. Not content with rape, the two men cut out Lavinia’s tongue and chop off her hands, to prevent her from speaking, or in any way gesturing or signaling, what has happened to her.

DEMETRIUS:
So now go tell, and if thy tongue can speak,
Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravished thee.

CHIRON
Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
And if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.     (Titus, Act 2, Sc. Iv, 1-4)

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Elizabeth Applyby as Tamora, Titus Andronicus, New Wimbledon Theatre, 2016.

Titus was extremely popular in its day, but it has been widely seen as unperformable, and the language in which it is criticised carries its own telling tacit messages about what it is that so signally failed to impress generations of readers. In 1687, Edward Ravenscroft declared:

‘tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works; it seems rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure.

Ravenscroft makes an obvious pun in his language of distaste: he cannot ‘digest’ a play centred on human flesh made grotesquely palatable. He is, of course, punning on Titus’ own grim revenge. Having trapped Tamora, queen of the Goths, mother of the men who raped and murdered his daughter, in his house, Titus makes his grim declaration of intent:

TITUS: … with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on (Titus, Act. V, Sc. Ii, 86-92)

This violence was complicated, in a production put on by RSC-based actor and director Antony Sher and his partner Greg Doran, which played in Johannesburg in 1995, and which is the subject of Sher’s book Woza Shakespeare. As Sher observes – and as others have subsequently recognized – the 1995 production offered a challenge to prevailing ideas about which accents were ‘speakable’ on stage, or at least ‘speakable’ for Shakespeare. The accents of the cast included a variety of South African accents – by no means British (or rather, English) ‘Received Pronunciation’. This was a double-layered resistance to silencing: not only were these accents seldom those heard on stage – and therefore, never those associated with Shakespearan tragedy or High Culture – but also, they make ‘speakable’ the racial and class conflicts represented by (for example) Sher’s version of his father’s Afrikaans accent.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Woodburne, who played Lavinia in Doran’s production, engaged in research for her role that included meetings with individuals who had undergone amputation of the tongue, for example as as a surgery for cancer. Woodburne discovered that the loss of a tongue did not merely cause sufferers to lack speech. The amputation also resulted in an inability to swallow saliva – forcing sufferers to drool, or wipe saliva constantly from their mouths. It was a lack of dignity, as well as a form of silencing.

But responses to the play reiterate some of the repressive attitudes directed, much earlier, against the playing of Othello by black actors. Sher’s book records a letter, sent privately to Doran by a would-be theatregoer (and the audience we’re talking here would be predominantly white and often Anglophile), saying:

“she could not abide the excruciating experience of the ugly accents of South Africa abusing some of the most beautiful language ever written” (Sher and Doran, Woza Shakespeare, p. 226)

The terminology of this woman’s complaint – terms of ‘ugly’ foreign accents silencing ‘beautiful’ language – is shocking, in that it casts Doran as director, and his actors, in the roles of the rapists Chiron and Demetrius, abusing Shakespeare’s beautiful language. Doran is a skilled director, and no doubt the quotation he chooses to reproduces is carefully selected, but nevertheless, its terminology is extremely telling in is tacit assumptions. The idea of ‘ugly accents’ of one country “abusing” the beautiful language of another is too disturbingly suggestive in the context of Lavinia, a woman whose ‘beautiful’ tongue is ‘abused’ and silenced by the ‘ugly’ activity of invaders to her native land, invaders who – in this production – were played by mixed-race men speaking in accents inseparable, for listening audiences, from the fact of their ethnic heritage.

Doran’s decision to remind us that whiteness is not default, that Received Pronunciation accents are not the only way to play Shakespeare, come together here, to result in a production some would-be viewers found impossible to countenance hearing. The suffering outside the play, in extremely recent South African history, made itself felt in audience’s – or potential audiences’ – attempts to impose silence on anything that suggested its expression.

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Michael Fentiman’s Titus Andronicus. RSC, 2013

For Michael Boyd’s productions of the history plays, a piece of tinned pear was used as a cut-out tongue for Henry VI, which is almost contemporary with Titus. Both the Telegraph and the Guardian offered articles that leant heavily on the insights of Sandra Smith, the RSC’s head of wigs and makeup; both articles – and remember, these are newspapers coming from quite opposed political stances – were fascinated by Smith’s accounts of how the blood of the play – and especially, the details of Lavinia’s gory tonguelessness – were created behind the scenes. The Telegraph piece explains:

“Smith’s Tupperware boxes contain three different consistencies for application to the skin: the gloopiest is thickened with cellulose from a high street chemist; the darkest is tinted with treacle. Another box contains blood balls the size of large grapes held together with cling film. Reynolds stores one in her mouth to pop when her tongue is cut out. “Don’t worry, it tastes like toffee apples,” says Smith.”

The language is pointedly gustatory, relating the blood to ‘treacle’ and to ‘grapes’ long before Smith is quoted to tell us that the actual liquid tastes ‘like toffee apples’. There’s a cosy domesticity to the description too – the blood is in ‘tupperware’; the products used to doctor it up are from ‘a high street chemist’; the wrap is ordinary ‘cling film’. It is as if we are at a cosy picnic. Later in the article we’re told, with seeming precision, Smith’s views on props for the gruesome scenes:

Only foodstuffs will cut it for body parts: chicken fillets for tongues, tinned pears for penises, lychees for eyeballs. “Anything else will roll or bounce… the sound effects are important, too.

Yet, much as we pretend, the issue is not mimesis, but the reassuring effect of being told mimesis is attempted. For there’s something more to this – the Guardian article makes the tongue, the organ of speech, ‘palatable’ in its absence. It diverts our attention from the violation that is – in left-wing terms – an epistemic violation enacted on an oppressed subject, a woman. The Telegraph, whose view is traditionally more right-wing, extends its attempt to sweeten the pill of this violence with focus on eyeballs and penises as well as tongues. The violation it concentrates upon is more generally bodily; less purely to do with speech and silence.

Rose Reynolds, playing Lavinia, used blackjacks – the sweets – to rapidly blacken the interior of the her mouth between scenes, so that she could appear convincingly orally mutilated. It’s a decision that’s ingenious in its quickness and cheapness – and disturbing if it’s funny, as this backstage edible evidence of mutilation echoes worryingly towards the cannibalistic pie – another edible evidence of mutilation – that Titus will serve to Tamora, forcing her to eat the minced bodies of her own murdered sons. This visual recreation of Lavinia’s silence substitutes blackness for absence, for lack of speech, in a way that is disturbing given the racial politics of the play.

But equally disturbing is the popularity of this detail with audiences.

Audiences do not simply suspend their disbelief – for Shakespeare, an anachronistic concept – they relate on multiple levels to imaginary character and to the actor behind. The fact that the actress sucked liquorice sweets to achieve the effect of a silenced, blackened mouth, is not mere side detail. It contextualises the disturbing way in which this play – and this performance – produces the effect of silence. Lavinia is mutilated; victimised, by mouth. Tamora, her opposite number, the villain to her innocent heroine, is, however, also a victim, and also victimised by mouth: she is forced, unknowingly, to eat the bodies of her own murdered children. The sweet food that creates the illusion of Lavinia’s enforced silence offers a disturbingly saccharine, palatable parallel to the gruesome minced meat Tamora must ingest.

The penultimate exchange of the play forces us to interrogate these responses. Lucius, son of the dead Titus, brother of murdered brothers and a raped sister, gives absolution to all the white male members of the cast. Tamora, he sentences to a shameful ending, but his most bitter venom is saved for Aaron, the black lover of Tamora:

LUCIUS: Set him breast-deep in earth and famish him;
There let him stand and rave and cry for food.
If any one relieves or pities him,
For the offence he dies. This is our doom.
Some stay to see him fastened in the earth.

AARON
Ah, why should wrath be mute and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done.
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform if I might have my will.
If one good deed in all my life I did
I do repent it from my very soul.                      (Titus, Act V, sc. Iii, 78-89)

Aaron’s rantings are – so the play text suggests – the ends of his speech; the last of his proto-Othelloesque fluency. But Doran and Sher, putting on the play in Johannesburg in 1995, refused this silencing. They allowed the final speech – unlike Aldridge, who rewrote the plot to save Aaron’s child – but they broke down a more disturbing expectation. The character who played Aaron, a black man, was not simply shuffled hurriedly offstage to prepare for the final few lines of climax. Bound, and sunk within a pit, he was positioned within the theatre foyer, ranting at uncomfortable audience members as they left. Hearing the actor make true the threat Shakespeare scripts for him – ‘why should wrath be mute and fury dumb’ – the largely white audiences of the production took refuge in uneasy silence, refusing to acknowledge what they saw.

These details should give us pause for thought. As these descriptions of palatable severed tongues and tasteful fake blood indicate, we are uncomfortable with gendered violence. We prefer to concentrate on stage effects, not the implications of those effects, just as Aldridge, the first black Othello, was required to normalise his biography into a romantic echo of Othello’s own history, to cover the narrative of an American black man with the more palatable story of an exotic African prince. So too, we romanticise. We focus on the novelty of details behind the stage (details of tinned pears and fake blood). In so doing, do we ignore the real violence, the real horror, behind the blood, the masks, and the stage props?