- Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance: Invisible Acts by Kim Solga
Kim Solga’s valuable study directs critical attention to a particularly problematic issue: to perform violence against women during England’s early modern period, whether in the playhouse or the public square, was also to perform its transformation and erasure. In other words, when violence against women was reenacted as public spectacle, particularized experiences of pain and trauma were generalized to make them comprehensible to social and theatrical audiences. Solga sets out to make these mechanisms of disappearance discernable for modern practitioners and audiences alike by conducting a comparative analysis of the legal commentary, conduct literature (which provided instructions on household matters such as wife beating), and dramatic texts that survive early modern performances of gendered violence. Although it attends to early modern plays’ originating social contexts, this is not a book about reconstructing the original practices of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Rather, it is concerned with formulating an ethical, feminist strategy for producing and witnessing these plays today. Solga coins the term “in/visible” to refer to a bimodal means of witnessing both violence and the mechanisms of its disappearance in the act of performance. This redirects the reader’s attention to the importance of staging an encounter with what has gone missing and how.
In order for abuse of women to be rendered legible within early modern England’s masculine social sphere, victims had to graft their experiences of pain and abuse onto highly prescriptive behavioral models. For instance, Solga delves into how rape protocol required its victims to publicly frame their personal experience of violence as a crime against the household. In this process, women’s internal, physical, and emotional experiences of rape, battery, and in some cases [End Page 331] death are streamlined and sanitized in terms of their effects within a patriarchal system. Solga’s introduction effectively roots this thesis in feminist scholarship and performance analysis in order to foreground the production-oriented case studies that follow. These case studies successfully elucidate the ways in which marriage manuals and instructional morality texts surrounding rape and wife beating not only deal with shifting definitions and legalities surrounding gendered violence but also make allowances for that violence’s inevitability. The comparative analysis of these sources illustrates how the texts that survive representations of women’s bodily distress in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods inform one another and work in conjunction to displace particularized experiences of assault and abuse. Solga selects Titus Andronicus, A Woman Killed with Kindness, The Duchess of Malfi, and The Changeling not only because they reference, enact, and perhaps place pressure upon culturally determined reactions to sexual molestation, corporal punishment, and psychological torment but also because each play has enjoyed a recent production that strategically challenges passive spectatorship to denaturalize violence as well as its occlusion. For instance, Deborah Warner’s production of Titus Andronicus for the Royal Shakespeare Company made Lavinia’s rape central to the production rather than a peripheral catalyst for her father’s revenge trajectory. Warner’s staging emphasized how quickly the male characters made Lavinia’s experience of sexual violence entirely about themselves. The actress playing Lavinia utilized an increasingly catatonic physicality. She remained off to one side, in low light, while her father took center stage to express his offense and self-pity while forgetting his violated daughter entirely. The character’s constantly collapsing body was either ignored or repositioned as a kind of living marionette until her father snaps her neck in the final moments of the play.
Each chapter centers around one of these plays and conducts a similar performance analysis of a recent production that engages with the selective utilization of acting techniques, audience demographics, and directorial innovations intended to trouble scripts that render the female body-in-pain dumb or transform dying women into stoically suffering icons of grace. These case studies present models for ethical, feminist production strategies for approaching otherwise problematic works. They also shed light on discourses of gendered embodiment circulating...