The Need for Lavinia's Voice: Titus Andronicus and the Telling of Rape

By Detmer-Goebel, Emily | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

The Need for Lavinia's Voice: Titus Andronicus and the Telling of Rape


Detmer-Goebel, Emily, Shakespeare Studies


IN ACT 2 OF SHAKESPEARE'S Titus Andronicus, Lavinia refuses to name rape; she refers to an impending sexual assault as that which "womanhood denies my tongue to tell" and as a "worse-than-killing lust" (2.3.174, 175). (1) Lavinia's chaste refusal to say the word "rape" reminds the audience that even to speak of rape brings a woman shame. As feminists have pointed out, an environment that makes it shameful to speak of rape disallows a critique of rape and the culture that sustains it. (2) And yet, while the world of the play suggests how early modern culture's construction of gender "denies" a woman the "tongue" to talk of rape, the play also feeds on the unrest that such silence creates.

Feminist critique of rape representations often explores "telling" as a question of authorship or subjectivity. For example, the first question that many feminist critics ask of various early modern representations of rape is: Who is really doing the talking; who is telling this story of rape? (3) Such questions are particularly useful when pursuing the cultural politics of lines such as Lavinia's quoted above. Feminist scholars have rightly pointed to the myriad ways that patriarchal culture silences women, but it is too simple to say that silence always serves (and is preferred by) patriarchal culture. Sometimes patriarchal culture needs and wants female speech--of a certain kind, under certain conditions.

Few have considered the way these texts also reveal patriarchy's discomfort with silence about rape. (4) For many feminist critics of Titus Andronicus, for example, Lavinia's enforced silence is posed as simply an oppressive requirement of patriarchal culture. (5) No doubt the mutilation of Lavinia is brutally oppressive, yet Lavinia's silence is troubling to some men in her world. Speaking may be threatening, but so is silence. Revealing rape may be dangerous for some men (the rapists), but it is necessary for others (the father, the current or future husband). Until Lavinia is able to testify about her rape, it goes undetected and unpunished. Lavinia's family depends on her willingness and ability to tell that she has been raped if they are to revenge it.

Just as the play illustrates the cultural need for both a raped woman's silence and her testimony, statutory laws of rape and abduction reflect a legal tradition undergoing change with regards to a woman's non-consent and accusation of rape. While statute law represents legal principles that may or may not line up with practice, I read both the legal and dramatic discourses as evidence of how power is assigned to raped women's claims, and how, in turn, that powerful speech is perceived, represented, and contested. By exploring the relationships between statutory law and the play, I argue that Titus Andronicus dramatically registers the culture's anxiety over men's increased dependence on women's voices and, in doing so, shapes and sustains early modern England's contradictory attitude toward a woman's accusation of rape.

"`Rape' call you it"?

Rape is the centerpiece of Shakespeare's fictional history of Rome. (6) More

than any other early modern English play, Titus Andronicus has the "pattern, precedent, and lively warrant" (5.3.42) of rape hovering throughout. References to the legendary rape stories of Philomela, Lucrece, and Virginius are used as shorthand for understanding character and motive in four of the most important actions in the play: Aaron's tutorial in rape, Lavinia's revelation of the crime, Titus's murderous revenge against the rapists, and his killing of his own daughter. (7) Even the play's "precedent," Ovid's Metamorphosis--the grandfather of rape stories--is literally brought onto the stage.

These heavy-handed references to rape suggest an interest in rape as rape rather than just as a convenient metaphor for chaos or disorder. (8) In a like manner, Lavinia's silence elucidates more than just an oppressive gendered ideal of feminine decorum. …

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