Violence in literature and entertainment continues to be debated, and for good reason. One does get tired of it being so casually depicted in every imaginable format, from television and games to novels. However, in this issue of TMR I notice a good measure of violence and pain, reminding me of a truism about this and other subjects in literature—that it all depends on the handling. Few contemporary writers offer up as much violence as Shakespeare. Romeo, thinking Juliet is dead, drinks his fatal potion; then Juliet wakes up and stabs herself, sinking onto her lover for her last (and possibly first) time. Mark Antony, Cassius and Brutus all commit suicide by falling onto swords. Hamlet’s jilted paramour, Ophelia, drowns herself, while his mother, Gertrude, drinks from the poisoned chalice; Portia of Julius Caesar and Lady Macbeth both kill themselves, as does Timon of Athens, who wanders off into the wilderness, unable to take any more of the foolishness of humankind.
And those are just some of the more significant self-inflicted deaths. Listing all the other deaths in Shakespeare by murder, assassination and combat would take a while. According to an article by Hannah Furness in The Telegraph, this spring’s performance of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, at the Globe Theatre caused several members of the audience to faint. The Globe spokesperson noted that staff members are “very well trained to look after people.” What really got to the audience wasn’t just the fourteen murders or the cannibalism scene in which Titus feeds his rival Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons baked into [End Page 5] a pie, but when his virtuous daughter, Lavinia, walked out after having been brutally raped and having had her tongue cut out and arms chopped off—well, that did it. Five audience members had to be hauled out by the Globe’s very competent staff within five minutes.
That’s literature for you. In a more contemporary tour de force of violence, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, a youth gang of “droogs” happily goes about town in a festival of orgiastic “ultra-violence.” Unfortunately, what’s hard to avoid in life becomes a fundamental subject in serious art.
Compared to Shakespeare and Burgess, Jane Gillette’s story “The Trail of the Demon” is a piece of cake, even though it does describe a Washington, DC, woman who succumbs to the inclination to both revenge and racism after being mugged one evening. Dawn is a middle-aged woman who takes up running for fitness, who one day is grabbed and sexually threatened by a black teenager. Dawn’s response is not fear but anger, partly because as a teacher and neighbor she has led a long life of political correctness and community involvement. She runs after her attacker with a broken glass bottle but is unable to catch him. Afterward she is overwhelmed by her own racist response, which becomes a reflection on America’s problem with race.
The unnamed Indian narrator in Rav Grewal-Kök’s “Two Sentences” is a boy whose family fled from the violence of their native Punjab in the early 1980s, moving to Canada. The story is structured in two vignettes, each consisting of a multipage single sentence, the first taking place in the Punjab, the second in Canada. The voice is a lyrical evocation of the narrator’s early life in India and later of his experience as a student at McGill University, where he experiences a more direct kind of ethnic violence when he and his friends are attacked and he is beaten up. The story illustrates the difficulty of escaping such violence and the way it can reshape individual lives.
Terri Shrum Stoor’s “A Bellyful of Sparrow” tells the story of Larson, an old rural Southerner who is dying of lung cancer but still lusts after cigarettes. Larson is colorful, blunt and colloquial, a pragmatic old man who understands why his son Steven is selling off a portion of his morphine pills for extra cash. He is amused that his friends and acquaintances have started confessing their misbehavior to him—and he’s...