William Shakespeare Violence in Shakespeare's Works - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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. Something about physical injuries inflicted on human bodies seems to exercise a kind of mesmerism, both over Shakespeare's generation and our own. A hasty survey, therefore, a provisional taxonomy, of Shakespearean violence may not be out of order on this occasion.

By violence I mean (following the dictionary) the inflicting of physical pain or injury by one person on another, often with the implication of excessive force, so that one might think of poisoning someone's drink as less violent than shooting or stabbing him, even if the end-result—death—were the same in both cases. Such violence, in Shakespeare as in other playwrights, may occur either before our eyes in stage action, or be reported as offstage action, or appear in the language alone. To me the most horrifying moment of violence in Shakespeare might well be Lady Macbeth's boast of what she would be capable of if bound by an oath: 'I have given suck, and know / How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me; / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash'd the brains out, had I sworn as you / Have done to this' (I.vii.54-9).2 Perhaps even more repellent, because we not only hear it in the language but see it performed, is the quenching of Gloucester's sight, in Lear. Lady Macbeth horrifies us because of the betrayal of innocence, helplessness, and trust involved, coupled with the appalling kind of agency whereby the smiling infant becomes the weapon of its own destruction, the wall or stony earth no more than an indifferent auxiliary. The cruelty against Gloucester makes us shrink because it puts us so intimately into the skin of the victim; Cornwall's language—Out, vild jelly!' (Lear, III.vii.83)—makes us feel our own eyes being enucleated on the point of his sword.

Compared to his predecessors, however, Shakespeare seems not much addicted to violence. He rarely goes in for bizarre or outlandish forms of it, as do a number of earlier and later playwrights. He has little to set alongside such things as the flaying of Sisamnes ('with a false skin'), the shooting of the young son of Praxaspes, followed by the cutting out of his heart and its presentation to the grieving father, in Preston's Cambyses; Hieronimo's biting out of his own tongue and spitting it on the ground in order not to reveal the secret he has sworn to keep—an act of madness, of course—in The Spanish Tragedy (here I think we should imagine the Elizabethan actor as spitting out a bit of raw calf s liver); the running against the bars of his cage so as to dash out his brains by Bajazeth the Turkish Emperor and then his wife in Marlowe's Tamburlaine; the writhing of the wicked Barabas in the cauldron of boiling oil in The Jew of Malta; the thrusting of the red-hot spit into the anus of the king in Edward II, if this sickening threat is indeed meant to be carried out before our eyes.

Shakespeare, as I say, on the whole avoids such perversities and bizarreries; even his most sadistic torturers rarely gloat over their own cruelty. His most frequent episodes of violence involve swordplay, often duels between mortal enemies: Richmond vs. Richard HI, Mercutio vs. Tybalt, Romeo vs. Tybalt, Hal vs. Hotspur, Hamlet vs. Laertes, Edgar vs. Oswald, Edgar vs. Edmund, Macduff vs. Macbeth, Guiderius vs. Cloten, Palamon vs. Article, etc. In most of these cases a rough equality, of age and rank and status, obtains between the adversaries, so that the encounter takes on some of the character of a trial by combat, a feudal contest conducted according to mutually understood rules. Romeo defeats Tybalt, Macduff defeats Macbeth, Hal Hotspur, and Edgar Edmund not so much because of superior swordmanship as because of their ethical superiority: they are the virtuous characters; they are in the right, and their malicious opponents in the wrong. In so doing they implicitly revalidate, one might say, the medieval legal concept of trial by combat, which in point of historical fact had long since lapsed.

The contest between the half-brothers in Lear is of course designed explicitly as a trial by combat, but so also is the earliest and in many ways the most striking of such confrontations, which takes place between commoners in a partly comic episode. In 2 Henry VI, Peter, the Armorer's apprentice, has accused his master of treason, and been ordered to meet him in combat before the king as a test of truth. Younger than his master, and inexperienced in fighting, Peter is sure he is about to be killed by his swaggering opponent, whose neighbors are already toasting his victory. Peter, terrified at the prospect, settles his earthly affairs: he bequeaths his apron to Robin, his hammer to Will, and his money to Tom, before asking God's blessing. The two combatants then assail each other, evidently with sandbags attached to sticks—clownish weapons—and 'Peter strikes him down', whereupon the Armorer at once confesses his treason and dies. The king concludes the scene: 'Go, take hence that traitor from our sight, / For by his death we do perceive his guilt, / And God in justice hath reveal'd to us / The truth and innocence of this poor fellow, / Which he had thought to have murther'd wrongfully' (II.iii.100-5). 'For by his death we do perceive his guilt': so Richard, so Tybalt, so Hotspur, so Edmund, so Macbeth: in each case defeat signifies a moral judgement, even if no higher power is expressly invoked. So too, evidently, with Posthumus Leonatus' defeat of Iachimo, whom, however, instead of killing he simply disarms, spurred by remorse for his own attempted aggression against Imogen. And so too, no doubt, with the defeat of the French armies by the English in plays like I Henry VI and Henry V, where the French, when they win, win only by foul means, while the English, with their victories, reconfirm and make manifest, almost magically, against impossible odds, their own moral superiority.

So too, very likely, with the death of Cornwall, following the scuffle with his servant during the blinding of Gloucester. The servant, we may recall, tries first to persuade his master to 'hold [his] hand'. Only when this attempt at restraint is met with vituperation does he challenge Cornwall physically. As they fight, Regan seizes a sword and 'runs at him behind' (III.vii.72-80). In other words, she overcomes him by treachery. Cornwall's subsequent death, then, would seem to represent a judgement on him, along with the vindication of his socially inferior, hence presumably weaker and less able adversary, who (though fatally struck) has defeated his aristocratic master by mortally wounding him. So Albany concludes, at least, when he learns of the incident: This shows you are above, / You justicers, that these our nether crimes / So speedily can venge' (IV.ii/78-80)—a sentiment in which, I suspect, we are invited to concur.

To this we might add the fact that in such trials by combat, when the more virtuous character does go under it is usually by underhanded means, as when Tybalt thrusts at Mercutio under Romeo's arm. But at least it is Mercutio, far from blameless himself, who falls, rather than Benvolio. In Hamlet vs. Laertes, both contestants lose, Hamlet through Laertes' perfidy, Laertes through Hamlet's energetic countermeasures and his own contrition. In all these cases one of the combatants has broken the rules. Apart from its apparent reinforcement of the moral distinction that seems to underlie such confrontations, the encounter between Cornwall and his servant and that between Tybalt and Romeo provide instances among many of the cyclical and self-perpetuating nature of violence, which even the good cannot always escape.

From time to time we also find arrested duels, such as that between Benvolio and Tybalt, interrupted by the arrival of the prince, or that between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, cut short by the histrionic and impulsive king, or that between Hector and Ajax, halted by reason of kinship and courtesy, or that between Caius Martius and Tullus Aufidius, broken off when Aufidius' men come to his rescue and retreat with him behind the city gates. In such cases the moral implications, if not already clear, remain suspended. In addition, however, to these relatively balanced duels, in which the opponents compete on a more or less equal basis, we sometimes find deliberately unbalanced encounters, killings—usually unprovoked and unexpected—of the weaker by the stronger, the defenceless by the armed, the old by the young, the innocent by the vicious, as in the sudden spitting of the nurse on Aaron's sword, in Titus Andronicus, or the killing of the boy Rutland by the warrior Young Clifford, the old king Henry VI by the future Richard III, the unsuspecting gull Roderigo by the perfidious Iago (in the dark), or Emilia his wife by the same Iago. From these cases we recoil as we do not from the more evenly matched contests. They represent malicious, unscrupulous, self-serving aggression.

This last category moves us toward a kind I would term 'sacrificial' killing, wherein a single defenceless individual is done to death by multiple assailants. The archetype here would be the scene in 3 Henry VI where York, stationed on his molehill, is subjected to the taunts of the paper crown and the napkin dipped in Rutland's blood, before being cut down by Margaret and Young Clifford. I call this incident 'sacrificial' because it alludes so deliberately to the Crucifixion. York on his molehill is ridiculed like Christ on Calvary. The placing of the paper crown on his head, in savage mockery of his pretensions to be king, actually originates in the historical record, but the chronicle tells us that it took place after York had been killed and his head held aloft on a pole. To crown him while he is alive, cornered, and at the mercy of his enemies tightens the identification with Christ while making for a more passionate and upsetting theatrical scene. The napkin dipped in Rutland's blood, like the paper crown, intensifies the torture. Unlike St Veronica's handkerchief, of which it is surely meant to remind us, it is not designed to palliate the victim's sufferings but to aggravate them, and its effect as a talisman later on is not to stimulate faith but to spur revenge.

Of York's three tormentors, however, one is compassionate. Northumberland twice admits that the plight of their captive foe has touched him to tears: 'Had he been slaughter-man to all my kin, / I should not for my life but weep with him, / To see how inly sorrow gripes his soul' (I.iv.169-71). Plainly enough this spontaneous rush of fellow feeling is intended to direct our own sympathies. Despite York's past crimes, we find ourselves, like Northumberland, 'with him', and the emotional appeal gains in force when he dies invoking heavenly mercy. We cannot, at this moment, think of him as the ambitious, bullying oathbreaker he has been, brutal and dishonorable toward those to whom he has sworn faith. We see only a fellow human creature goaded beyond endurance before being put savagely to death.

If we ask to whom or to what York is being sacrificed, the only answer can be, to the heartlessness of war, of civil war especially, just as York's own child Rutland has previously been sacrificed, and as one of his least culpable enemies, Prince Edward, will later be sacrificed in the same play, pitilessly stabbed by his captors, the brothers Edward, George, and Richard, for refusing to play his role as prisoner meekly enough to suit them.

These cases, however, all reflect the chances of war, where the innocent are understood to be destined to suffer along with the guilty. We have every reason to think that were the positions reversed, Margaret and Young Clifford would undergo the same fate at the hands of York and his followers that they have inflicted on him, and indeed the indignities heaped on Clifford's body when he is at last killed would seem to constitute deliberate retaliation. In the case of Julius Caesar, however, also cut down by multiple assailants, the element of concerted treachery makes its appearance. He is pierced to death without warning by those he most trusts and believes loyal. His last words, 'Et tu, Brute?—Then fall Caesar!' (III.I.77), mark the point at which our sympathies swing back to him as they have done to York. Whatever Caesar's prior arrogance and boastfulness, these are driven from our minds by the note of personal betrayal sounded in the use of the proper name and the second-person pronoun at the very moment of death.

Victim of a stealthy attack, overpowered by numbers, Caesar is explicitly likened by Mark Antony to a sacrificial animal brought low by cruel hunters, and so retrospectively ennobled: 'Here wast thou bay'd, brave hart, / Here didst thou fall, and here thy hunters stand, / Sign'd in thy spoil, and crimson'd in thy lethe. / O world! Thou wast the forest to this hart, / And this indeed, O world, the heart of thee' (III.i.204-8). Needless to say, the very killing regarded by Antony as a martyrdom of the great leader is thought by its perpetrators to be a deliverance from a prospective tyrant, a sacrificial act on behalf of republican freedom. 'Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius', Brutus has urged, and 'purgers' rather than murderers (II.i.166-80). As events prove, of course, the violence committed in order to forestall violence only provokes worse outbreaks of new violence, the first of which turns out to be another act of mass ferocity, the lynching of the poet Cinna, torn to pieces for his name alone, as it would seem, by the inflamed mob, in whom Antony's rhetoric appears to have aroused a bloodlust that will not subside till it has wreaked itself on what in the event proves to be a simple scapegoat.

The ugliest, perhaps, of all such multiple stabbings occurs towards the end of Troilus and Cressida: the murder of the unarmed Hector by Achilles and his Myrmidons, in defiance of all canons of fair play, not to mention those of epic heroism. Courteous, magnanimous Hector becomes a martyr to these, a sacrifice to the outdated chivalric code which his cynical adversary exploits in order to overpower him prior to dishonoring his body in death. (A recent production of the play, at the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival in July 1987, took literally Achilles' injunction to his followers to surround their victim and 'in feilest manner execute [their] arms' (v.vii.6). The Myrmidons turned the execution into a scene of torture, in which Hector, his face impaled on their swords, was made to cry out in anguish before death.) Here, as in Julius Caesar, the violent act engenders an overwrought mood of anarchic vengeance among Hector's survivors, with the maddened Troilus at their head.

It may be that this incident is itself outdone in ugliness by the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her child at the hands of Macbeth's hired ruffians. This comes as the bloody climax to Macbeth's other deeds of blood, which start as the honorable carving up of the merciless Macdonwald in defence of beleaguered Scotland. It is climactic not only in being morally the most abhorrent of his deeds but also in being the only one we are forced to witness for ourselves. Intensifying the horror is the fact that it is essentially so unmotivated, a kind of automatic reflex of Macbeth's increasing incapacity to feel anything at all, or to react in any situation, however inappropriate, except by ordering a bloodbath. On the other hand, reconciling us to it at least in part is the courage and dignity with which Lady Macduff and her young son confront their assassins. That their fate constitutes a sacrifice of sorts is recognized by Macduff himself: he sees that they have been struck for him, with the consequence that the episode marks both the low point and the turning point in the play, the moment at which the opposition to tyranny finally and irrevocably crystallizes, and so leads to its overthrow.

At the conclusion of this sequence we have the end of Coriolanus, who goes under hurling defiance at the cutthroats ringing him round and the populace clamoring for his blood, but who, rather than defend himself, welcomes their attack: 'Cut me to pieces, Volsces, men and lads, / Stain all your edges on me' (v.vi.111-12). Aufidius' rabble-rousing turns the unruly crowd into a lynching party: 'Tear him to pieces!' they cry, 'Do it presently!' (line 120). The lords' interposition proves futile, as Coriolanus taunts his captors and dares Aufidius for the last time to personal combat—'O that I had him, / With six Aufidiuses, or more, his tribe, / To use my lawful sword!' (127-9)—at which point the hired conspirators plunge their unlawful swords into his body. In violence of this sort, where the disparity in numbers serves to make the assault a mob attack—vengeful, irrational, and impervious to any consideration of justice—the victim dies bearing witness to the greatness of his own spirit against the meanness of his assailants.

None of these instances, however, with the partial exception of the murder of Lady Macduff and her family, is sacrificial in René Girard's sense.3 None of them renews, restores, or regenerates. None of them turns the murder, once committed, into a sacred act. Quite the reverse: except in the case of Coriolanus, the sequel to which is left up in the air, they merely provoke further and fiercer cycles of violence, a more implacable resolve on the part of the survivor-avengers, and a thickening of the moral sensibilities of all concerned.

Something like moral restoration does seem to occur in a subcategory of the same type, wherein a pair or more of hired murderers performs an assassination ordered from above. In the Quarto version of 2 Henry VI, for example, the following stage direction occurs: 'Then the Curtaines being drawne, Duke Humphrey is discouered in his bed, and two men lying on his brest and smothering him in his bed. And then enter the Duke of Suffolke to them'—to commend them for carrying out his wishes so efficiently, and to instruct them to 'see the cloathes laid smooth about him still, / That when the King comes, he may perceiue / No other, but that he dide of his owne accord.'4 For reasons censorship, evidently, this scene was dropped from the Folio, its outcome being simply announced to Suffolk by the hired bullies. Before they announce it, however, they engage in a significant bit of added dialogue: 'Run to my Lord of Suffolk,' says one, 'let him know / We have dispatch'd the Duke, as he commanded', to which his companion replies, 'O, that it were to do! What have we done? / Didst ever hear a man so penitent?' (III.ii. 1-4). Clearly a new element has here entered the picture, that of the divided and guilty mind of one of the murderers.

In Richard III we find a more fully worked-out scene of a similar sort in which the murderers of Clarence, even before confronting Clarence himself, first struggle with their own consciences and fears of damnation, then argue justice and morality with their victim, until at length, one of them beginning to relent, the other stabs the Duke from behind and drags the body off to the malmsey-butt. His associate, remaining on stage, breaks into remorseful lament: 'A bloody deed and desperately dispatch'd! / How fain, like Pilate, would I wash my hands / Of this most grievous murther!' When his accomplice threatens to denounce him to Richard for his slackness, the 'slacker' retorts, 'I would he knew that I had sav'd his brother! / Take thou the fee and tell him what I say, / For I repent me that the Duke is slain' (I.iv.271-8). An in some ways even more highly charged moment occurs later in the soliloquy of Sir James Tyrrel, after he has successfully engineered the murder of the boy princes in the Tower. Musing in horror on the 'tyrannous and bloody act', 'The most arch deed of piteous massacre / That ever yet this land was guilty of, he goes on to report the anguished, weeping reaction of the two crime-hardened thugs who have actually done the deed, now so speechless from 'conscience and remorse' as to be nearly incapable of telling their tale (IV.iii.1-21).

Sir Pierce Exton, in Richard II, performs a comparable service for the newly crowned Bolingbroke. Having killed Richard in his prison cell, he instantly recoils in dismay: 'As full of valure as of royal blood! / Both have I spill'd; O would the deed were good! / For now the devil that told me I did well / Says that this deed is chronicled in hell' (v.v.113-16). All these instances thus follow a similar pattern: the instigator carefully preserves a certain distance between himself and the crime, no matter how intensely he wishes it performed. He may or may not express regret afterwards for what has happened (Bolingbroke does so, but Suffolk and Richard III do not), but in each case at least one of the paid cutthroats emerges with bitter self-reproach, either dissociating himself from the deed altogether or expressing the most passionate wish that he might undo what he has done. The direct confrontation, that is, with the flesh-and-blood victim, especially one who is patently innocent (like the young princes) or penitent (like Gloucester) or troubled in soul (like Clarence) can harrow the conscience even of the hard-shelled murderer, and arrest if it does not extinguish the thirst for reward and the ability to think of the job as nothing but a dangerous assignment for which the pay is exceptionally good. Shakespeare would seem to be implying that if violence is natural—all too natural—to our benighted species, natural too and not to be suppressed are the sometimes deeply buried instincts that pull against it, capable of emerging even in the most unlikely of representatives and under the most unpromising of circumstances.

A variant on the same theme might be the moment in King John when one of the 'executioners' who has helped bind Arthur and heat the iron to burn out his eyes is dismissed from the scene by Hubert. As he leaves the stage he announces with relief that he is 'best pleas'd to be from such a deed' (IV.i.85), thus intensifying the struggle already taking place within Hubert himself. What we witness in Hubert a moment later is moral renewal, brought on not by violence, but rather, crystallized in the decision to refrain from violence.

From all this it is but a step to the schizoid Macbeth, so convulsed by conscience before, during, and after the murder of Duncan, so certain of his own damnation, so hair-trigger in his remorse—'Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst' (II.ii.71-2)—and then, later, following the murder of Banquo, along with the professional bravos who do his bidding, so heartless, so numb to remorse, so ready to devise new butcheries like the massacre of Macduff s family. It is as if the very hyperactivity of his conscience produced a corresponding hyperaggressiveness in Macbeth, an atrophy of conscience, exposing in almost schematic form the essential mechanism: violence fated to accomplish nothing but its own unfailing self-perpetuation.

In this case, interestingly, though Banquo's murderers are never heard to recant once they have discharged their commission, prior to receiving it they portray themselves as social rejects, so embittered as to have lost all sense of restraint. Says the first: 'I am one, my liege, / Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world / Hath so incens'd that I am reckless what / I do to spite the world.' Says his comrade: 'And I another, / So weary with disasters, tugg'd with fortune, / That I would set my life on any chance, / To mend it, or be rid on't' (III.i.107-13). Life, then—society—has (as they see it) by persecuting them, dehumanized these men, rendered them indifferent to the rules by which others live, sensible only of their own grievances, and left them as their sole recourse the readiness to retaliate onto others the blows' and buffets they consider themselves to have suffered, if that will help them...

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The Politics Of Violence

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Domestic Violence

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 Literature XVI, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 3-12.

After surveying the views of Antonin Artaud, the radical French theorist, violence "enthusiast," and advocate of theatrical violence, Fly uses Shakespeare to explore the problems inherently related to the dramatic representation of violence and notes that such problems demonstrate the differences between Shakespeare's practices with regard to violence and Artaud's theories.