115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Dissecting Titus Andronicus: Seeing the Subtext of Gendered Violence

Hilda Ma, Saint Mary's College of California

     This paper explores the traumatic violence inflicted on female bodies in Titus Andronicus and locates it within a dissective culture that was fraught with imaginings of the womb. By drawing on established associations within the culture of dissection, playwrights such as Shakespeare shaped the ways in which their audience would see the violence, foregrounding the political and social subtexts of dissective culture. 

Proposal: 

Dissecting Titus Andronicus: Seeing the Subtext of Gendered Violence

     When the Globe Theatre staged Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in 2014, the show was accompanied with a warning that it would be “grotesquely violent,” yet reports spread during the opening week of audience members fainting or having to leave mid-performance. Recently, when I told my Shakespeare students about the Globe’s performance, many confessed that they, too, found the play difficult to stomach. Today’s theater-goer and reader of dramatic literature cannot help but wonder: how did the early modern audience see, understand, and cope with the staging of such gruesome violence?

     While the play includes creative depictions of 14 different deaths, the violence suffered by Lavinia, and Tamora’s consumption of her meat-pied sons, are often found to be the most troublesome. Indeed, reports of reactions to the Globe Theatre’s performance were mostly about the Lavinia and Tamora moments. Thus, a more specific question would be to ask: how did the early modern audience perceive the gendered violence, that is, Lavinia’s mutilation and rape, and Tamora’s cannibalism?

     My study looks toward medical culture and the ways in which it engaged in a dialectical relationship with early modern drama. This paper explores the traumatic violence inflicted on female bodies in Titus Andronicus and locates it within a dissective culture that was fraught with imaginings of the womb. From alluding to the gendered discourse of exploration and conquest to exploiting reverence for female saints, the commonality in these narratives is the culture of dissection. By drawing on established associations between dissection and European expansion on the one hand and female hagiography on the other, playwrights such as Shakespeare shaped the ways in which their audience would see the violence, foregrounding the political and social subtexts of dissective culture. 

Hilda H. Ma, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, English Department

Director of Composition Program

Saint Mary’s College of California

hm1@stmarys-ca.edu