Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Stage Hands: Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and the Agency of the Disabled Body in Text and Performance

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Stage Hands: Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and the Agency of the Disabled Body in Text and Performance

Article excerpt

The article examines the depiction of the disabled body in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus in light of modern productions. Although scholars and critics have discussed the symbolic potential of the severed hands in the play, none has considered the repeated material reconstruction of Titus's and Lavinia's hands by stage properties in performance. Both well-known productions by Peter Brook and Julie Taymor involve a near obsessive replacement of Lavinia's severed hands with ribbons, branches, or wooden hands. In so doing, these stage properties become "stage hands"-or theatrical prostheses-that seek to fulfill the audience's imagination of the body in its previously whole state. While Shakespeare's text presents the handless bodies of Lavinia and Titus as disabled avengers, such disabled capability-and culpability-is obscured in modern performances that "prop" Lavinia and Titus with theatrical prosthetics. The article considers the mutilations of Lavinia and Titus and their subsequent regeneration as disabled avengers, as well as the prosthetic impulses of Brook's and Taymor's productions, in order to more fully understand Shakespeare's complex treatment of disability in his early works.

Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is full of moments that direct our attention towards the isolated parts of the body that later become, literally, isolated from the bodies in the course of the drama. As heads, hands, and tongues are referenced and then violently removed, Titus Andronicus places a distinct emphasis on the disabled body as a product of violent action. While dismemberment should annihilate the Andronici, Shakespeare instead uses the theatre and dismemberment to transform Lavinia and Titus into revenging spectacles. Lavinia's and Titus's insistent and inescapable presence on the stage, despite their amputations, propels the audience to re-examine its own preconceptions about bodily wholeness and revenge. Yet, both well-known twentieth-century productions of the play-Peter Brook's 1955 RSC production and Julie Taymor's 1999 film version of her 1994 staged production at the Theater for a New Audience in New York-involve near obsessive replacement of Lavinia's severed hands with theatrical prosthetics.1 Both Brook's and Taymor's productions use stage props as prostheses to occupy the void that dismemberment engenders, emphasizing the absence of the hand with the presence of the theatrical object. Brook's highly stylized stage production adapted Shakespeare's text severely, cutting much of the language and, in the case of Lavinia's dismemberment, used ribbons flowing over her wrists and between her lips to symbolize the blood flowing from her amputated limbs. Taymor portrayed Lavinia's mutilation onstage and screen as a symbolic hybrid: a woman merged with a tree, her hands replaced with branches. These objects become "stage hands," or theatrical prosthetics, which seek to fulfill audience imaginations of the body in its previously whole state. Unlike Shakespeare's text, when these productions of Titus Andronicus use theatrical objects as prosthetics the body is no longer seen as a disabled body capable of violent retribution, but a disabled body in need of assistance.2

Brook's and Taymor's productions and their prosthetic impulse to "prop" the disabled body reflect more upon our own, modern, conceptions and biases about the disabled body than they do of Shakespeare's text and culture. This article examines the various mutilations in Titus Andronicus on the page and stage and in light of recent conversations in disability theory and performance studies. I contrast the prosthetic impulse found in recent performances of the play with Shakespeare's text and its sustained attention to physical mutilation and disability, revealing a complex relationship between violence and the disabled body that is often overlooked in Titus Andronicus when the body is "propped" by theatrical objects.

Dismemberment and Titus Andronicus

Dismembered bodies in the theatre present audiences with a physical, bodily representation of corporeality that grounds the figurative imagination. …

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