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Reviewed by:
  • Violence Against Women in Early Modern Perfomance: Invisible Acts
  • Catharine Gray
Violence Against Women in Early Modern Perfomance: Invisible Acts. By Kim Solga. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009; pp. 248.

Kim Solga's stimulating study participates in an innovative trend in scholarship on early modern drama to interweave late-modern performance theory with historically specific representations of embodied violence. In this way, she contributes to recent critical discussion of the shattered selves and violated bodies of the Renaissance stage, but does so by calling attention to a representational and scholarly gap. Solga argues that the embodied suffering caused by violence against women is too often missed by modern scholars' analyses of stage violence and is actively suppressed or displaced by early modern representations of that violence. Her goal is to make acts and effects of violence against women visible, while calling attention to the ways in which their invisibility is actively produced and reproduced, socially and performatively, then and now. Her approach is polemical and experimental: combining analyses of historical non-literary documents, canonical plays, and recent performances, she argues for feminist practices of performance and scholarship that would stand witness to and interrogate this telling absence, rather than simply repeat it.

The book focuses on rape and domestic violence in four "iconic" plays (canonical plays that continue to be regularly performed) from the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness, Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, and Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling. Solga's introduction establishes the theoretical grounds and ethical stakes of her analysis of these plays, as she uses performance theory's emphasis on the ephemerality, absences, and alternate ways of knowing embodied in performance to theorize what she calls "the in/visible act" (16). This act is "the performance of violence against women as critical forgetting; it charges its witnesses to come to terms with what we've missed but also with how we've missed—with how we have failed to see the suffering before us, hidden in plain sight" (17). Each main chapter exposes the "latent" potential for this self-consciously critical mode of performing and witnessing in early modern plays, and then analyzes in detail selected modern performances that best "manifest" this potential (3).

Solga begins each of her core chapters by revealing how early modern conduct books, legal prescriptions, religious treatises, and architectural discourses script women's public performance of victimization in ways that work to contain female suffering and promote the patriarchal status quo. In fact, her chapters have a neat, tripartite structure: they begin with analysis of the cultural scripts regulating Renaissance representations of violence against women; then proceed to close readings of plays potentially troubling to these regulated depictions; and end with detailed explorations of recent productions that offer ethically engaged forms of feminist spectatorship.

Chapter 2, for example, analyzes the way legal discourses construct a socially condoned role for rape victims, one they must adopt when telling their story publicly in order to be taken seriously. According to Solga, Titus Andronicus depicts Lavinia as spectacularly failing to enact this approved social role, indeed failing to "act" in any readily comprehensible way at all. Through this failure, the play reveals the wider, social scripts and theatricalizations shaping public displays of victimhood. Solga argues that the best performances of Shakespeare's play help us to see rape's history as resting on a series of legal and social performances that consistently sanitize and displace women's experience of suffering—a suffering Titus Andronicus refuses to hide. The chapter concludes with an analysis of [End Page 478] modern productions that stress both the elisions and social performances that structure rape's representation, reserving particular praise for Julie Taymor's eclectic and self-reflexive film Titus.

In the next two chapters, Solga moves beyond Shakespeare to consider how representations of domestic violence are shaped by the cultural scripts and social performances associated with religious discourse (chapter 3) and engendered by architectural space (chapter 4). Her analysis of The Duchess of Malfi is particularly illuminating for revealing moments when the Duchess resists the sublimation of emotional and bodily pain required...


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pp. 478-479
Launched on MUSE
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