William Shakespeare Violence in Shakespeare's Works

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(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...

(The entire section is 64,784 words.)