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Watching Titus, feeling flesh

By Hester Lees-Jeffries

Last month I sat in my favourite theatre, the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon, watching Michael Fentiman’s excellent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Titus Andronicus. Titus is one of my favourite plays, loose and messy, blackly comic and oddly beautiful. It’s great to teach, good for thinking about different critical and directorial approaches, theatrical tastes in the early 1590s, and race and gender, and about those strange collisions of words and bodies, violence and beauty, too easily taken for granted by the critically jaded. After all, the body is a cultural construct, isn’t it?

It depends whose body you’re talking about. Two years ago I wrote a short essay (unpublished, and destined to remain so) about a grimly improbable coincidence: the first of a series of earthquakes that largely destroyed my home town of Christchurch, New Zealand took place (give or take a time zone) on the same day as my diagnosis with breast cancer, 3-4 September 2010. The essay was nakedly, self-interestedly therapeutic, written less to make sense of my situation than to reawaken some faith in my chemically-dulled synapses, to remind myself that I still could write and think. One of its too-easy hooks was the connection between metaphor and metamorphosis, and the violence inherent in metaphor, a transformation of one thing into another without the safety-net of like or as. All metaphors are metamorphoses, thrown together in some stage-side linguistic quick-change area; part of their pleasure is seeing the joins and seams in their logic, or lack of it, as this becomes that.

Rose Reynolds as Lavinia in the RSC 2013 production of Titus Andronicus.  Photo by Simon Annand.
Rose Reynolds as Lavinia in the RSC 2013 production of Titus Andronicus. Photo by Simon Annand.

In one of Titus’s most notorious moments, the appearance of Titus’s daughter Lavinia “her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravished,” the success of the theatrical transformation, whether stylized (as in Brook and Ninagawa) or realistic (as in Warner and Fentiman) is set against the failure of its counterpart in language. Lavinia’s uncle Marcus describes her mutilation in a speech of such vivid, luscious sensuousness (“Alas, a crimson river of warm blood, | Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind, | Doth rise and fall between thy rosèd lips, | Coming and going with thy honey breath,” 2.4.22-5) that, on the page and in the ear, the bloody scenario is prettified, abstracted, obscured. On the stage, though, the body gets in the way. It’s the combination of words and their metamorphic, metaphoric promise with the boundedness of the body, its fixity and finiteness, that makes this such a potent moment. The actor cannot, of course, be handless, tongueless; she can only be transformed with stage blood, make-up, special effects. And the illusion of her transformation itself becomes a kind of metaphor, for the insufficiency of metamorphosis, of metaphor, itself. Lavinia cannot be metamorphosed into a bird or a bush, and the words which express that possibility simultaneously deny it when they are so powerfully juxtaposed with the reality of the body.

Despite what Ovid might suggest, in quality-of-life terms, becoming a nightingale or a flowering shrub is still a pretty poor substitute for being a real woman (whatever that might be). For handless, tongueless, ventriloquized Lavinia, even language mostly fails. Taught by literature and art, however, we cling to the thought that metamorphosis might console, make things a bit better, and that to become absorbed into the world and its processes is part of the natural order of things and therefore good. There is a narrative that suggests (let’s call it Ophelia’s, and picture Millais) that to be transformed into art-as-nature, nature-as-art makes the suffering better, that natural change is by default both benign and beautiful, somehow transcending or compensating for the pain and mess, tidy, emollient consolation. Gertrude gives Ophelia a woodland burial. Change is natural, growth is good (earthquakes are natural and so is cancer). Your body’s chopped and changed, biopsied, diagnosed, pathologised, but look, it could be a painting or a poem, or the Venus de Milo.

Lavinia isn’t a real person, of course, and her body doesn’t exist. But actors have real bodies, and so do audiences and readers and critics; theatre is the most obviously somatic of literary forms, but all metaphors, at least good ones, go beyond a detached intellectual recognition and calibration of fitness and into the body itself. They are (in George Herbert’s terms) “something understood,” understood in the knees, in the gut, in the hairs on the back on the neck. (As A. E. Housman famously observed in a lecture in Cambridge in 1933, “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.” This probably holds true even if the critic lacks hair at the precise moment of the poetic encounter.) Whether carved in Roman letters or not (Titus 5.1.139), the most potent metaphors, the mots justes (not quite the same as the right words, so difficult to find when trying to talk about cancer, earthquakes, rape) are felt in the flesh. Others have written about the insidious effects of cancer on language (being introduced to pinkwash was a grimly cheering moment in the midst of chemotherapy); both cancer patients (victims, survivors) and those who have lived through earthquakes must come to terms with the new normal, capitulation to the anodyne phrase being part of the process of acceptance.

But where does this leave my flesh, my body, and what place can it have in my reading, my writing, my teaching? I must restrain my anecdotage: I don’t want to become a cancer-professional, confessional critic (while at the same time registering the suspicion that one woman’s confession is another man’s classic new historicist anecdote). I sit in the Swan, my body, my brain still the constant connecting all the performances I’ve seen in that little room, the means of summoning, with joy, gratitude, or regret, the ghosts of past companions, former selves. Lavinia’s hands are still there on the actor, and on the page. Words made flesh. And, if it isn’t too mawkishly obvious, vice versa.

Hester Lees-Jeffries is Lecturer in English at Cambridge University and a Fellow of St Catharine’s College, where she teaches and researches on Shakespeare and other early modern literature; her research has a particular focus on performance and on visual and material culture. Her new book is Shakespeare and Memory.

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Image credit: Rose Reynolds as Lavinia in the RSC 2013 production of Titus Andronicus. Photo by Simon Annand. Do not reproduce without permission. Titus Andronicus is running in repertoire in The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 26 October.

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