Shakespeare Lives Here

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Last Sunday, I attended the first session for a one-credit course I am taking called Cross-Cultural Theatrical Experiences. Professors Holly Pickett and Shawn Paul Evans both taught classes abroad last spring term studying theatre and developed this new course as a reflection on our experiences abroad.

My class, Shakespeare In Performance, travelled to Stratford-Upon-Avon and London, UK to study several of Shakespeare’s plays and see them performed at some of the most prestigious theaters for Shakespeare in the world. Some might ask, why is it important to see Shakespeare’s plays in performance? Why not just read the plays? Before the course, I found myself wondering how it would feel to walk the streets Shakespeare walked in Stratford, see the home where he was born, and walk across the Thames towards Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

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Students from Professor Pickett’s “Shakespeare In Performance” in front of the Globe Theatre in London

Our reintegration Cultural Theatrical Experiences course seeks to reflect upon the experiences we had abroad and especially how theatre can still be relevant to our lives. After our conversation in class on Sunday, I started thinking about what it was like to see Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at the Globe Theatre in London. Really, I shouldn’t use the verb “see.” It was an experience. As a groundling at the Globe, the play is really more like a rowdy sporting event. This was especially true for Titus, which is Shakespeare’s most gruesome and violent play. This week I have been thinking more about how written works translate into theatre, and ultimately how they relate to our lives and the world. To read Titus is one thing – you see violent descriptions and stage directions revealing murders, rape, and mutilation – but to see it, to be there amongst the victims, is an overwhelming and shocking experience. I was struck ultimately by the role of women in Titus Andronicus, and how the performance amplified the written word in this particular play.

The Globe’s performance of Titus Andronicus certainly opens up a lot of questions about society, especially war and violence. I found the role of women particularly important and extremely shocking in this production. Women in this production are almost always victims of violence, sometimes participate in violence, and are almost always sexualized in Titus Andronicus. In Act I Scene I of Titus Andronicus, the Romans sacrifice Tamora’s son’s life. Tamora, Queen of the Goths, begs Titus for mercy and pleads with him to spare her son’s life. Indira Varma’s performance in this role highlights the immense pain that haunts a mother after her son’s slaughter.

Tamora’s sons, Demetrius and Chiron, attack and rape Lavinia. Following this act, the brothers cut off Lavinia’s hands and cut out her tongue so that she could not speak of her attackers. Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s performance as Lavinia was extremely traumatizing, but also moving. It was incredible how shattered Lavinia’s character seemed when she came out onto the stage, mutilated, unable to move, unable to speak. It was not even the blood coming from her body that disturbed me, but the pure emotional trauma that Lavinia endured. Her innocence destroyed, her body ravished. The physical manifestation of this pain was apparent, despite Lavinia’s inability to vocalize the brutality of it the way that Tamora does in the first scene.

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Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia at the Globe

Although these violent events are the same in the written play as they are performed live, it leaves the viewer with a completely different feeling in her gut. Several audience members fainted and many of us felt sick to our stomachs watching the gruesome acts performed in this play. There’s something different about seeing things on an actor’s face and in her gait and her voice (or for Lavinia her lack of voice) that shakes your bones and gnaws at your heart. Shakespeare wrote his plays for performance for a reason – he knew that they would have more power to influence the audience when they were acted, lived almost, rather than only read.

While literature can have powerful implications and reactions, I find something valuable in a dramatic experience that is very different from reading the words on a page. We still relate to these issues in life today: the power-hungry characters, the violence, the tragedy, the treatment of women – that’s the reason so many people felt faint or actually fell to the ground in the Globe Theatre that day. Shakespeare wrote a play that meant something to his audience and continues to mean something to us today. Seeing this on stage and putting a face to a name and seeing a real woman as a victim makes us feel these implications on a grander scale. For now, I’ll continue to read what I can and see literature performed whenever possible to gain that extra perspective.

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3 Responses to Shakespeare Lives Here

  1. Annie Persons says:

    I couldn’t agree with this post more. I like how you noted that despite the almost laughable amount of murder in this play, the ravishment of Lavinia falls outside of this absurd territory and belongs to a more universal one. It is hard not to feel anger and disgust for her while reading the play, but seeing it in person was what made the emotional impact of the situation hit home for me, too. It’s impossible not to feel pain for Lavinia when you see her on stage, and you’re right that the element of empathy that comes with seeing performance live is something Shakespeare understood. I also find it interesting that many authors employ the same macabre violence that Shakespeare utilizes in this play with its multiple murders. But I think that the effect is different in a novel than in a play, because, like you say here, of the element of performance.

  2. Taylor McPherson says:

    Great insights! When I saw Shakespeare performed in Stratford-upon-Avon, I too got so much more out of it than I did by just reading the play. You’ve found a great way to put into words what that feeling is.

  3. Elise Petracca says:

    This post brings back a memory I treasure: seeing Titus performed at The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, Summer 2012. I had never read Titus Andronicus before and somehow had no idea what it was even about, so a tutor of mine at Oxford recommended that I go into the performance completely blind. I am so glad I did. People use the phrase “hanging on the edge of my seat” all the time; I was out of my seat and hanging over the balcony’s rail…

    It was such an incredible performance, and you’re so right to point out the distinction between “seeing” and “experiencing.” I still have not read the play, I only have that production as reference. But it’s funny to think how people say “the book is always better” than the movie because when it comes to Shakespeare, you can get two entirely different experiences from reading or watching the play. I guess I know how I’m spending my Christmas break (reading Titus)!

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