Violence in Shakespeare's Works
Violence in Shakespeare's Works
Violence takes many forms in the works of Shakespeare, including warfare, murder, suicide, rape, and mutilation, and it appears to serve a variety of purposes. As an issue of critical debate, Shakespeare's use of violence has been both attacked and defended by modern analysts. While some scholars study the ways in which Shakespeare's use of violence reflects the attitudes of his time, others focus on the implications of the reaction to violence in Shakespeare's works by modern audiences and critics.
In his review of Shakespeare's use of violence, Jonas Barish (1991) identifies several categories into which violent episodes may be divided, including sword play and warfare, sacrificial killings, self-inflicted injuries, sexual violence, and comic violence. Barish argues that unlike his predecessors, Shakespeare did not seem to be "addicted" to violence. Rather, he observes in Shakespeare a gradual decline of violence for its own sake and an increasing tendency to equate violence with disorder and tyrannical behavior. Only in Titus Andronicus, which features both cannibalism and an excess of sexual violence in the rape and grotesque mutilation of Lavinia, does Shakespeare seem to "wallow" in violence, according to Barish.
Other critics focus more concertedly on the violence perpetrated against women in Shakespeare's plays. In her examination of Othello, Sara Munson Deats (1991) maintains that the play both legitimizes violence and negatively stereotypes women. This legitimation and stereotyping, argues Deats, "underlie the phenomenon of wife battering." Deats goes on to note that the psychological portraits of abuser and abused as depicted by Shakespeare have changed little in the twentieth century. Similarly, Emily Detmer (1997)'analyzes the pattern of domination in The Taming of the Shrew. Detmer stresses that despite Petruchio's physically nonviolent "taming" of Kate, his domination of her is an inherently violent act.
The political purpose of violence is another area investigated by critics. Derek Cohen (1993) explores the use of violence, by a monarch in Henry V. Cohen argues that in this play, violence serves the aims of the monarchy and is "employed ... in the service of order and success." Henry V methodically uses warfare as a means of realizing political success. Cohen also notes how Henry threatens the captured French citizens with sexual violence in order to seal his victory and prevent further resistance. Although Henry has been attacked as a Machiavellian ruler, Cohen suggests that the play seems to assert that violence has been used appropriately and that the instruments of violence have fallen into the "right" hands. Taking another approach to the politics of violence, Leonard Tennenhouse (1989) examines the parallels between violence in Shakespeare's plays and politics in Elizabethan England. He explains that the Elizabethan concept of political power resided in the body of the ruler, Queen Elizabeth, and he argues that as Elizabeth's health deteriorated, Elizabethans struggled to separate the concept of the power of the monarchy from the "female aristocratic body." Tennenhouse maintains that the violence done to the female aristocratic body in plays such as Hamlet demonstrates the attempt of Shakespeare and Elizabethans to relinquish the idea that political power and the body of the ruler were inextricably entwined. While Shakespeare's true intentions will never be known, his use of violence within his works will continue to incite debate, and although moral conclusions and modern implications may be advanced and attacked, it may be agreed that on some level, violence plays an integral role in Shakespeare's works.
Jonas Barish (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Shakespearean Violence: A Preliminary Survey," in Themes in Drama: Violence in Drama, 1991, pp. 101-21.
[In the following essay, Barish examines the theme of violence as it appears in Shakespeare's plays, and suggests that throughout his career Shakespeare gradually lost interest in gratuitous violence and increasingly connected violence with disorder and tyranny.]
We live, as we are often told, in a violent age, and it would seem that one of the things about the Elizabethans and Jacobeans that make us feel close to them is their own fascination with violence. As long ago as 1940 (in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642) Fredson Bowers cited numerous instances of violent behavior in society at large—of private duels fought in disregard of the laws forbidding them, of grudge assassinations performed by hired ruffians, of the use of lingering poison and other stealthy forms of murder for disposing of one's enemies—to demonstrate that the playwrights who brought violence onto the stage were not being merely melodramatic, not merely catering to the appetite of their audiences for bloody deeds remote from their experience, but realistic as well.1 In both epochs we find not only the omnipresent fact of violence, but a kind of fixation on it, extending not only to violence itself but also to the representation of violence....
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The Politics Of Violence
Leonard Tennenhouse (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Violence Done to Women on the Renaissance Stage," in The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence, edited by Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, Routledge, 1989, pp. 77-97.
[In the following essay, Tennenhouse explores the political implications behind the portrayal of violence perpetrated against the aristocratic female body in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.]
The following essay deals with the particular form of violence directed against the aristocratic female body in Jacobean drama. I will be considering that body as well as its treatment as a discursive practice, I do not take it to be either a "real" body, or a "mere" representation of the female, but rather an actor playing the part of an aristocratic woman. That such a practice existed there can be no doubt. Around the year 1604, dramatists of all sorts suddenly felt it appropriate to torture and murder aristocratic female characters in a shocking and ritualistic manner. This assault was quite unlike anything seen on the Elizabethan stage—even at its most Senecan. If any statement holds true about violence done to these female characters, it is that such violence is never simply violence done to them as women. It is always violence done to one occupying a particular position in the social body as it was conceived at...
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Sara Munson Deats (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "From Pedestal to Ditch: Violence Against Women in Shakespeare's Othello," in The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, Plenum Press, 1991, pp. 79-93.
[In the following essay, Deats argues that the play Othello legitimizes violence and the "negative stereotyping of women, " both of which "underlie the phenomenon of wife battering. "]
Today, most civilized persons would label wife battering an unspeakable crime, a crime that supposedly does not occur in educated middle-class or upperclass families. Yet until the nineteenth century, wife beating was authorized, even advocated by society, and even today, according to psychologist Terry Davidson, 50% of contemporary marriages are marred by some form of wife beating. A Harris poll taken in the 1970s concluded that physical violence against spouses occurs with equal frequency in all income groups, and this violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated against women (1978, 3, 6).
Central to the problem of wife battering is the legitimation of violence—against women, against children, against the elderly, against animals, indeed against all defenseless groups—as an acceptable method for solving problems. Many studies of this issue conclude that as long as violence continues to be authorized in...
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Cohen, Derek. "The Rites of Violence in 1 Henry IV." In Shakespearean Motives, pp. 22-35. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988.
Maintains that / Henry IV explores the differences "between beneficial and harmful violence" through the use of ritual or sacrificial violence.
Deer, Harriet A. "Untyping Stereotypes: The Taming of the Shrew." In The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, pp. 63-78. New York: Plenum Press, 1991.
Examines the spousal abuse which occurs in The Taming of the Shrew and claims that the play "does not encourage such behavior; rather it reveals how destructive and widespread is its hold on society."
Dolan, France E. "Revolutions, Petty Tyranny, and the Murderous Husband." In Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700, pp. 89-120. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Examines the literary and legal representations of spousal murder in early modern England, noting that while a wife's murder of her husband was viewed as petty treason, a husband's murder of his wife was regarded as petty tyranny. Within this context, Dolan reviews the political implications of Shakespeare's Othello.
Fly, Richard. "Shakespeare, Artaud, and the Representation of Violence." Essays in...
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