- Violence against Women in Early Modern Performance: Invisible Acts
In the summer of 2007, I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello at the Globe Theatre in London. I vividly remember the climactic bedroom scene, as this Desdemona (Zoe Tapper) did not die quietly, but frantically attempted to escape her murderous husband (Eamonn Walker) in a protracted death scene. This was followed by the equally gruesome murder [End Page 577] of Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting, Emilia (Lorraine Burroughs). As we stood among the groundlings, I remember thinking: this is a horrible play. But the feeling did not last; for, at the end of the production, the entire cast performed a morris dance that revivified the murdered women and dissipated the tension of our collective experience of domestic violence and murder. Did this production stage the spectacle of violence against women or the spectacle of its erasure? Is it possible to stage scenes of violence against women in an ethical way? Why is such a grisly play so popular with modern audiences? These are the questions that animate Kim Solga’s Violence against Women in Early Modern Performance: Invisible Acts, a study that enjoins “feminist spectators” to avoid the “percepticide,” in Diana Taylor’s words, that so often rendered violence against women culturally invisible in the early modern period as well as today (17).
A series of questions motivate Solga’s investigations, beginning with a simple observation: given that the early modern stage is so spectacularly violent, how and why does violence against women so often go “so spectacularly missing” (1)? What does it mean to “rehearse early modern violence against women as both visually stunning and culturally invisible” (4)? In addition to examining recent stage performances of early modern tragedies, Solga also lobs pointed questions at the discipline of performance studies, asking, Does it transform violence against women from a complex material reality into a mere trope? Questions such as these – which proliferate and expand throughout the study – rhetorically enlist the reader in what is equally a critical and an ethical project. The result is a hybrid book in a couple of senses. First, Solga examines the staging of violence against women in the early modern culture in which these plays were first produced and the modern theatrical spaces in which they are still performed. Second, she constructs both a theatrical history and a “performance ethics,” interpreting early modern cultural history via current debates in performance theory (3).
Solga begins each chapter by citing the work of feminist scholars, in order to establish the cultural meaning of certain forms of violence against women, before turning to a play that stages the way in which such acts are made legible as something other than violence against the female body. Changes in the legal, social, and moral status of violence against women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted in “the imminent need to stage-manage the appearance of ongoing household violence within the larger public sphere”; thus “the early modern effacement of violence against women was . . . the product of spectacle management” (11). This “spectacle management,” which occurred in spaces such as the household and the courtroom and in print, shifted acts of violence against women into new registers, whereby rape was [End Page 578] understood as a form of property crime and domestic violence a means of “reasonable correction.” The treatment of early modern spectacle as a form of effacement is, at first encounter, counterintuitive: Solga argues that “performance functions in early modern England to render women’s experiences of violation invisible in plain sight, actionable (perhaps) in extreme circumstances yet also strangely unrecognizable in those same circumstances as violence to be acted upon for a woman’s sake” (177). Thus spectacle – onstage and off – is, ironically, a means of erasing violence against women. (This claim constitutes Solga’s most pointed critique of the arguments of performance theorists such as Peggy Phelan, who, she argues, tend to fetishize “disappearance” as unequivocally valuable.)
Solga contends that the plays considered in this study – including Shakespeare’s Titus...