restricted access Shakespeare's Tragedies: Violation and Identity (review)
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Reviewed by
Alexander Leggatt. Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Violation and Identity Cambridge University Press. ix, 328. $75.00, 28.99

This gracefully and impeccably written study argues that seven Shakespeare plays share central thematic motifs concerning personal violation and the ravaging of identity. Many of Leggatt's specific analyses offer fresh perceptions founded on close observation; there are particularly subtle readings from Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, King Lear, and Macbeth.

The plays discussed (Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello, in addition to those already mentioned) span the first three quarters of Shakespeare's writing career. Reference is made also to plays as late as The Winter's Tale. That career is often viewed as naturally dividing into phases, each having distinct characteristics of theme, style, and genre. In addition, those Shakespeare plays usually labelled his 'mature' tragedies – which encompass the second half of Leggatt's list – are themselves often viewed as more diverse in tone, construction, and outlook than are other frequently distinguished clusterings, such as Shakespeare's second history cycle, his mid-period 'problem plays,' or his late 'romances.'

Leggatt's claims for Shakespearian themes widely in common are therefore bold, exceeding in reach classic studies by the likes of Northrop Frye and G. Wilson Knight. This approach has a potential for opening critical vistas. Yet one must ask if the patterns alleged are convincing and consistent.

Consistency is clearly achieved, for each chapter compares a new play with a pattern established in the first chapter. This initial paradigm, happily not a platitude based on currently favoured critical attitudes, arises from a close reading of the the rape and mutilation of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. [End Page 407]

Occasionally it may seem that uniformities are forced onto texts. One instance is in a proposal that the carrying off of Lavinia by her precontracted husband Bassianus, called by Saturninus a 'rape,' sets a pattern for Lavinia's subsequent sexual violation and her mutilation by Chiron and Demetrius. Leggatt is well aware that 'rape' had a double meaning. So is Bassianus, who says, '"Rape" call you it, my lord, to seize my own – / My true betrothed love, and now my wife?' while invoking the protection of 'the laws of Rome.' But Leggatt does not identify this linguistic doubleness as highlighting a contrast in the play's first scene between an act defending marital faith and Titus's vindictive hewing the elder brothers of Chiron and Demetrius to pieces, or his peremptory slaying of his own son Mutius. Leggatt also elides the violent patriarchalism imaged in Titus's choosing later to exterminate Lavinia.

I find odd also a repeatedly made assertion that Romeo and Juliet's attitude to love excludes its procreative functions. The reverse is true of the Nurse; and all others in the play have variously blinkered views of sexual love, but the tragedy is surely that the young lovers do not.

My final examples are repeated assertions that Edgar 'manipulates,' 'tortures,' and even 'kills' the blinded Gloucester. Rather than evidencing such an 'undercurrent of cruelty,' Edgar's actions might better be viewed as a son's attempts to heal or preserve his desperately injured father, despite the cost to himself of his continued disguising.

A speculation upon Leggatt's arguably forced readings reveals a possible undercurrent of the whole study. Often its phrasing resembles that seen in the 'object relations theory' of depth psychology. Examples include Leggatt's 'identity created by splitting himself off from his father'; 'projected his own split reality on to Cressida'; 'can only deal with what he has done by splitting himself in two'; and 'on the basis of suffering ... the play's relationships are slowly and painfully reconstructed ... [but this] restoration is infused with memories of the damage it is trying to cure.' I am not suggesting either unconscious or unacknowledged borrowing (I suspect independent discovery). My point is that all the phrases just quoted except the last focus on what object relations theory calls the 'paranoid-schizoid position,' a phase of psychic development characterized by 'splitting' and involving powerful fantasies of torture or mutilation. Only the last locution alludes to the so-called 'depressive position' in which a reintegration...