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Shakespeare’s Tragedies:  Violation and Identity

Alexander Leggatt


Cambridge University Press, 2005
$25, 228 pages, ISBN-10 0-521-60863-5


Reviewed by Andrea Trocha-Van Nort



Why is the notion of identity a problematic concept in the context of Renaissance Theater?  What causes a character’s identity to shift? Alexander Leggatt’s book provides a comprehensive examination of seven of Shakespeare’s tragedies—Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth—with a view to debating the crisis endured by victims of some form of violation or defilement.  Identity and violation are examined in a comparative manner, beginning with the earliest play, Titus, and working toward the last of the major tragedies, Macbeth, following the order most commonly accepted as the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays.  The strengths of this work lie not only in the connections established between the plays over the course of the study, but also in the conclusions drawn regarding the audience’s participation in “redefining” victims. The author, Alexander Leggatt, Professor of English at University College, University of Toronto, has in the past, from 1987 to 1998, published widely on Shakespearean and Renaissance comedy. 

From a performance-studies viewpoint, Leggatt’s study leads to fresh consideration of the degradation of relationships in these works when violation forces an alteration in identity. As a first emphasis,  characters’ words become a source of confusion, either inappropriate given the context or ineffectual in conveying meaning: through the author’s lens, the act of verbal interpretation can itself disfigure.  Leggatt holds that, due to the juxtapositions of different actions in the plays, the names given to acts altering identity seem to create further ambiguities. Secondly, the double rape and maiming of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus serve as the paradigm according to which the other plays will be compared; unsettled identity problems from this early play are shown to crop up in various forms in the six other plays. The author explores these problems in a comparative format, showing how one play can either respond to or even “heal” [29] the offenses of this early play. What is communicated visually in Titus Andronicus through the staging of the violation of Lavinia becomes fully internalized in the words of the drama by the time of the writing of Macbeth

Leggatt’s study of Titus Andronicus brings the reader to see the boundaries created by identities:  “This was thy daughter,” as Marcus says when he first brings Lavinia back to Titus. From this Leggatt builds argumentation founded on the loss of identity—and consequently boundaries between oneself and others—as the product of violation. After being raped and mutilated, Lavinia becomes at once “herself and a nameless thing” [24]. Lavinia can no longer be read, nor can she correct others’ misguided interpretations of herself or of her violation (and her husband’s murder). In what Leggatt calls a “general crisis of language,” he points to Titus’s certainty of his ability to “understand” his daughter [III.ii.35-45], which, over the course of the monologue, moves toward a voiced need to “try” to understand her, a need which, for the author, involves “coercion” [20], “invasive[ness]” and “appropriation” [21]. Even as Titus speaks for Lavinia and maims himself to become like her, Leggatt believes Titus cannot read anyone but himself.  Moreover, when Lavinia again uses language, she must do so indirectly and, ostensibly, collectively, through a reference to Ovid and names: “Stuprum – Chiron – Demetrius” [IV.i.78]. The author calls this moment a “recover[y] of community” as Lavinia uses “the voice of a whole culture” [22] to accuse Tamora’s sons.  As the play finishes with Titus’s revenge, the author indicates that the characters involved in the violation have suffered a shift in identity: Lavinia remains nameless, while Chiron and Demetrius, as Rape and Murder, “are reduced to what they have done” [24], and, once named, dealt with. Despite this, Leggatt believes, as he writes in the conclusion to the book, the dramatist never rid himself of the specter of Lavinia, and in the tragedies that follow Titus, he must return to the “wounds” and “silence” [209] repeatedly, internalizing what is “physical and literal” [205] in this early play. 

Romeo and Juliet is presented by Leggatt as a “heal[ing]” of Lavinia’s wounds [29], through Romeo’s first lines to Juliet, albeit leaving new matters to be resolved. The initial restorative words and loving gestures set off violence:  “love itself becomes directly violent, expressed through acts of violation that are also acts of love. Violence parts the lovers; in the end, only violence can bring them together, united in death” [54].  ames cannot be effaced, and for Leggatt, any attempt at bridging this chasm between the lovers must therefore involve violence. The marriage, instead of promising new life, meets with death—that of Lady Montague—just as their wedding night cannot be separated from Tybalt’s death. The second wedding night, necessarily, must be wrought with further confusion and murder, penetration by a dagger, and the bothersome presence of Paris’s body in the tomb, “an image of the manly world of violence, and of the conventional world of marriage” [51]. For the author, the final scenes as well reveal the backward nature of actions: the families “parody the bargaining over marriage portions” [53] when promising gold statues to honor the fated lovers. Although at first Juliet’s experience seems to smooth over Lavinia’s, familial obligations in the play dictate what actions represent, keeping a love experience from being determined solely by the lovers’ intentions.  

Identity and violation function differently for Leggatt in Hamlet, as the nameless breaks into the eponymous hero’s life, much as circumstance made Lavinia nameless. Inconceivable, Old Hamlet’s ghost must “usurp” its own form [I.i.49-52]; similarly, the use of “this thing” and “it,” for Leggatt, seals the figure’s ambiguity. Violating natural order, the Ghost’s crossing from Purgatory—which the author points out did not exist for England’s official religion—breaks with the descent toward the family tomb of the prior plays. From several points of view, the Ghost is key for Leggatt:  “as Lavinia produces a crisis of language, the Ghost produces a crisis of meaning, in which Hamlet finds thought taking a wrenching leap into the unknown, the unthinkable” [57]. The uncertainty that accompanies the Ghost seems, for the author, to permeate the characters’ perceptions vis-à-vis “others”; he points to the frequent spying, prying and interpreting in the play. The author states, “the problem of reading other people expands into a problem of reading the world” [63]; moreover, as Hamlet calls his “own role as an interpreter into question” [64], recognizing his inability to see further than his own condition, this problem of reading others and the world becomes more complex. The author shows that Hamlet’s readings of Gertrude and Ophelia vary, as does his reading of himself.  Deepening his study of interpretation, Leggatt revisits the “word” problem so often discussed with regard to Hamlet, saying the play’s style is “full of gnomic aphorisms in which reality is caught in words, pinned like a dead butterfly” [66]. Condensed and generalized, language independently censors, summarizes, or, in cases, stigmatizes.  Regarding reading male characters, Hamlet is, interestingly, a play like Titus depending on foreign forces to restore order, a fact which, Leggatt advances, empties the word “enemy” of meaning [13-14, 79]. Finally, the author concludes that Hamlet’s departure from conventional revenge-play structure turns around what Hamlet and the Ghost share:  their name [81]. Hamlet becomes, over the course of the play, “a figure like his father” [83]. Citing his appearance in Ophelia’s closet as well as the shock he causes Claudius upon his return to Denmark:  “Hamlet ends with Hamlet absorbing the identity of a dead man, named like him and soon to be dead like him. At the end, a figure in armor stands over his body” [82]. Just as The Tempest cannot technically be a revenge play as Prospero is still alive, from Leggatt’s viewpoint identity and violation bind Hamlet and the Ghost inextricably, defying conventional revenge-play forms.

Linking Troilus and Cressida more closely with the tragedies—an idea corroborated by the order of the plays in the Folio—Leggatt finds violation in the “kissing scene,” violation followed by loss of identity and voice. “[T]he kissing of Cressida—alone, outnumbered, unreadable both in silence and in speech—has had disturbing echoes of the rape of Lavinia, and suggests that what is at stake here may be, if not the breakup of the universe, the breakup of a human identity” [86]. Leggatt draws together an analysis of the wider play by questioning the audience’s role in determining meaning and identity throughout before bringing attention to the shared culpability—audience along with stage text—in the kissing scene, Cressida’s story being “shadowed by the war story” [95]. Characters and audience alike, according to the author, experience disillusionment with roles and role playing: “the play is full of soldiers who are recreant because they are in love, and the chivalric ideal comes into this gritty, disillusioned play with a certain archaic stiffness” [91]. This can be seen as well in the role-playing associated with love, Leggatt shows, which sets the play apart from Romeo and Juliet. The “misgivings” [95] of the lovers separate them while the interpretations men give of Cressida separate her from the audience as well: “Cressida now appears to be a blank space, a tabula rasa on which men compete to write their own interpretations” [99]. Leggatt reads Cressida’s struggle to refashion herself in light of her new circumstances as lost from the outset, as the letter seems to prove [V.iii]; that Troilus should “tear and scatter” it, for the author, reflects Cressida’s new identity, one fragmented and lost [111].

Leggatt’s interpretations of identity and violation in Othello are some of the most insightful in the entire book. Through Iago’s early comments, Othello and Desdemona are shown by the author as no longer human in Iago’s eyes, a fact which constitutes the first violation [114]. This leads to a larger “view of the marriage as an act of violation [one which is] never completely dispelled” [116]. As they are subject to interpretation by others, their social identities are constantly revised. Moreover, as in Titus, identity is altered for both victim and perpetrator. Not only is Desdemona “reread,” so to speak, but Othello also, according to the author, loses his identity:  “[…] he that was Othello” [V.ii].  Interpretation thus becomes for Iago a “destructive force” [124], one which in the end destroys Desdemona:  “she cannot be herself; and for her to assert her truth is to deny herself, leaving her with no identity at all” [135]. For Iago, this translates into “a cancellation of identity:  Iago invades Othello, changing his nature, only to find he has left himself empty” [123]. Identity is, however, expanded by Desdemona’s last statements, couched as they are in contradiction. Here, for Leggatt, she “does not just resist interpretation; she controls and extends it, opposing to its reductiveness a double vision of Othello and of herself” [138]. Finally, the audience’s tendency to interpret is again brought into question by the author: “If we thought that whatever harm Iago does in the play we at least were safe from him, we have to think again” [128]. The foundations of Othello and Desdemona’s love, “shocking to the conventional mind, unsettle their identities and lead to mutual estrangement” [144]: Leggatt sees the audience as actively participating in this destruction of identity as well.

As for Titus and Othello, victims and violators alike see their identities dissolve in King Lear.  Using this approach, the author studies the way Lear acts on Cordelia, viewing her banishment as the destruction of her identity: “We / Have no such daughter” [I.i.264-65].  Yet, Lear’s decision is of course “the unraveling of his kingdom, and of his own identity” [150]. Through relationships, the author contends, we are defined, and when those “relationships crumble, so do the identities that depend on [them]” [155]. In the case of a king, this means necessarily the destruction of his kingdom, and Lear’s unwillingness to recognize himself or Goneril [I.iv] seems to reveal his awareness of his guilt. Secondly, for Leggatt, in dealing with the chaos and suffering set off by Lear’s actions, the characters are forced to redefine themselves [162]. Lear, Edgar, Gloucester, and Cordelia rebuild their identities over a major portion of the play. Lastly, an invading army again redirects plot:  Cordelia’s foreign soldiers arrive to right wrongs. Of note, Leggatt’s reading of Cordelia’s drawing Lear “out of the grave” as an act of violation enables the author to reveal a paradox: “Lear being forced out of his grave, denied the peace of death, is given a new life; and losing his identity has freed him from the solipsism and egotism that blocked his full engagement with the world” [168]. Embracing Cordelia, restoring his identity, Lear nonetheless moves the play thematically towards its tragic end, through his awareness of his error.

Problems with agency and language, for Leggatt, give opacity to stage actions in Macbeth. The author points out that while early battle scenes can appear confusing with regard to who accomplishes what, language fails to describe events accurately at key moments. This approach extends to the language used to describe the physical, exploring the “disconnection of eye and hand” [184]; although this is not a new insight, Leggatt carefully links it to the notion of identity. Macbeth, unlike other violators, does not lose his identity but instead loses acquaintance with his own body. This has consequences on his actions: “That he lets a dagger lead him [II.i.42] is a sign that his own will is suspended” [185]. Action thus puts an end to character [II.ii.72], and, as in Lear’s case, Macbeth’s actions bring about Scotland’s suffering as he disrupts identity for all in the play. Yet, the author asserts, this power he holds over others brings about his own undoing:  the unnaturalness Leggatt shows Macbeth creating in others in the end defeats him, in the form of Macduff in his unnatural beginnings [191-92]. The instability of Lady Macbeth’s gender complicates our perception of Macbeth as well, as, according to Leggatt, she commands at home (“my battlements,” I.v.40) and “impregnate[s]” her husband: “That I may pour my spirits in thine ear” [I.v.26]. The author questions the couple’s sexuality as Macbeth is without issue, and as, for him, the marriage of the Macbeths serves no other purpose than killing Duncan, importantly, in his bed (196). Leggatt calls the play “one of Shakespeare’s most intimate dramas, his fullest examination of a marriage” [204]. This builds, again, on observations made on representations of marriage in the prior plays. 

From his perspective of violation and identity, Leggatt is exploring, on a deeper level, the human bond itself. Although in this book he limits himself to the tragedies, in his conclusion the author brings forward the notion of self-awareness in The Tempest, pointing to the “new and disturbing questions” [209] regarding identity in what most consider to be the last play written entirely by Shakespeare. What began as seeming simplistic—“Relationship is a way of fixing identity” [3]—becomes an enlightening study of the unpredictable nature of human bonds.  One of the strengths of the book has to do with the author’s comparative prowess, reminding the reader of finer links between plays; at the same time, by limiting himself mostly to textual comparisons, source texts that could add to meaning are somewhat missing (we found formal ones only on 18, 26, 41, 43, 122, 181, and 194-95). Flaws are in no way numerous nor egregious enough to lessen the overall value of the analysis (“sleepy exhaustion” [45], limiting “humanity” to simply “relationships and […] identity” [145], or “more noisy” [203]). However, some readings seem somewhat implausible:  for example, Marcus’s supposedly “re-enact[ing] the offense [of rape], eroticizing her body and making her bleed” [18] simply by describing her bleeding mouth.  Lastly, the author seems to forget that the word “parody” involves, by definition, humor: he repeatedly employs the word for “violent” or “grotesque” acts, such as Lavinia’s rape as a “violent parody” of love [10] or Othello’s threats to leave blood on Desdemona’s bed as a “grotesque parody” of that of a virgin bride ([138]; also, “a parody of love-making more grotesque and violent than the controlled, symbolic love-deaths of Romeo and Juliet” [140], and “Goneril has not just taken his identity: she has invaded his body in a parody of sex, sullying it as Chiron and Demetrius sullied Lavinia” [158]). These examples seem to plead for clearer language, not simply Bahktine’s definition of “parody.”

For the present reader, Leggatt’s analyses of Troilus and of Othello seem to be the most innovative, with those of Titus and Hamlet the most deeply examined.



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