Horrid Spectacle: Violation in the Theater of Early Modern England

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Horrid Spectacle: Violation in the Theater of Early Modern England, by Deborah G. Burks. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2004. Pp. viii + 456. Hardcover $60.00.


Violation is a concept that has recently appeared in the title of several works concerning early modern English drama. Alexander Leggatt' s most recent book, Shakespeare's Tragedies: Violation and Identity (2005) and Pascale Aebischer's Shakespeare's Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performances (2004) are just two examples. While these two books narrowly focus on Shakespearean texts and performances, one of the many strengths of Deborah G. Burks's book is to approach violation imagery with a wide scope in order to examine the "portability" of the rhetoric of violation not only in the drama but in a broad range of nonliterary texts as well. Fortunately Burks's project does not simply seek to create a catalogue of such instances; instead, her work persuasively demonstrates the "durability and adaptability of violation as a figure for disruptions of the normative relations among superior and subordinate members of society" (12). Another strength of this analysis is that Burks joins other recent scholars who reject the traditional periodization that links Restoration drama with a long eighteenth century. Seeing the seventeenth century as a whole, Burks attends to violation imagery as a "key piece of the history of political discourse" in order to "recapture a sense of the seventeenth century as a continuous series of moments and movements; a sense of continuity that has been lost to students of literature because of the way we tend to break the period into isolated pieces" (24).

For Burks, the drama played a vital role in political debates both before and after the restoration of the monarchy: "Plays initiated, continued, echoed and replied to the debates - about domination and subjection, rule and rights, prerogative and property holding, sovereignty and citizenship - that were central to the events of the period" (29). Burks carefully reads not only the drama, but also the religious and political texts with the eye of a literary critic in order to see the cultural conversation among genres and authors at specific moments within this turbulent century.

The book is divided into three sections, each with three chapters. The first section is entitled "Acts and Monuments of Violation" which has chapters anchored on readings of John Foxe's Actes and Monuments, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and George Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois. At the foundation of Burks's project is her careful reading of Actes and Monuments which will be recalled throughout the book. One such reoccurring image of violation is when Roman Catholic persecutors enact violence against a victim's body and will. A playwright himself, Foxe's Protestant polemic shares many characteristics of the drama, the tyrant play in particular, and Burks argues that many of the moments are consciously theatrical and interested in representing the spectacle of the horror visited on innocent victims. As every drama needs conflict, Burks identifies the battle here as one where the persecutors abuse the bodies of their victim, but they fail to violate their will. Anne Askew, for example, is tortured but refuses to give in to the demands of her persecutors to name names. The battle of wills is won by the victim, even as her body is violated to the point of death. Polemists like Foxe and John Bale often depict the papist persecutors as imposing their wills on their victims in a way that brings sexual pleasure to the perpetator. It becomes more about the pleasure of exhorting power over a woman than it is about extracting information. In a fascinating examination of the woodcuts included in Actes and Monuments, Burks argues that together they "depict the Marian persecutions as the fruit of an unholy alliance between church and state authorities. The result is a picture of individual tyranny and collective abuse of power on the part of England's highest officials" (43). …