- Shakespeare's Tragedies: Violation and Identity
In Shakespeare's Tragedies: Violation and Identity, Alexander Leggatt engages in close reading of seven Shakespearean plays — Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth — to identify and [End Page 640] analyze a number of features associated with violation and violence. Watching Leggatt trace patterns throughout these plays is fascinating and enjoyable — among other virtues, the book is elegantly written — but, although Leggatt answers many questions, he raises at least a couple that remain unanswered.
In discussing Shakespeare's earliest tragedy, Leggatt focuses on the question of "Who or what is Lavinia?" (17). In Leggatt's reading, Chiron and Demetrius not only rape and mutilate Lavinia, but also rob her of her identity, which, however, is restored, at least to a degree, when she returns to her family and her father insists that she is still his daughter. However, Leggatt views interpretation in the plays — particularly male interpretation of women — as another potential threat to identity; although he sees the male Andronici as attempting to "read" Lavinia at least in part out of sympathy for her plight, he recognizes that their interpretations of Lavinia may be mistaken. Other components of the pattern Leggatt finds in the play include boundary crossing and doubling.
Having outlined the paradigm established in Titus, Leggatt explores its elements as they appear in six additional plays, including several of the most famous and popular. Often, these elements appear in different forms in the later plays: for example, whereas Titus's interpretation of Lavinia is compassionate, Iago's interpretation of Desdemona, which he transfers to Othello, is malevolent, and Lear's original interpretation of Cordelia — that she loves him only — is simply wrong. Whereas Titus and Tamora seek revenge on each other's families, the similarities between such enemies as Edgar and Edmund or Macbeth and Macduff are more subtle. In addition to the doubling, echoing, and mirroring Leggatt identifies within each play, he also traces parallels and connections among the plays, as in the boundary-crossing of Romeo breaking into the Capulets' tomb, while Hamlet's father's ghost crosses the same boundary in the other direction by returning to haunt his son. Repeatedly, Leggatt refers back to Titus: as he puts it in the book's conclusion, "As the ideas of violation and identity develop through these seven tragedies we see a series of reactions and contradictions as one play ricochets against another; and we see an internalization of what in Titus Andronicus is physical and literal" (205).
One particularly interesting aspect of Leggatt's reading is the emphasis he places on the importance of the plays' women. Despite the masculine worlds depicted in most of Shakespeare's plays, Leggat views female characters as key figures, even in such militaristic plays as Titus and Troilus. They are, however, depicted as key because the men in the plays do not — perhaps cannot — understand them; they are represented as enigmatic texts, subject to various, but usually erroneous, interpretations. Leggatt describes the female characters in Hamlet as "unreadable"; although he notes that "the Ghost was similarly unreadable" (75), it is not clear (to me, at least) that the male characters are more legible than the female ones, particularly as the Prince of Denmark himself is a notorious conundrum whom the play's other characters continually seek to interpret.
Although some readers may have reservations (as does this reviewer) about classifying Troilus as a tragedy — and Leggatt himself expresses some doubt, [End Page 641] despite asserting that the ambiguity of the play's genre is another example of boundary-crossing — the inclusion of a (possible) comedy seems less proble-matic than the omission of several unequivocal tragedies, including Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra. Given Leggatt's recognition of Shakespeare's earliest Roman play as the precursor of many of his subsequent plays, it seems more than a little strange that all of the later Roman tragedies are virtually...