Exam Reading – Titus and the Performance Space of Rape

Rereading Titus concurrent with Lefebvre, helped me generate more questions and ideas related to the spaces of the play, specifically the space (or non-space?) of Lavinia’s rape. In this post I want to think about the space of the rape – the hunting scene and the way the forest is described, but also the offstage space in which the act of rape ultimately occurs. In conversation with Lefebvre, can we analyze the forest space as a pre-existing space that scripts its own use in a particular way? Or, as Lefebvre suggests, is there also a way in which the actors shift the parameters of the space to reinscribe its function, perhaps even creating the space as they move through and use it? Finally, how is the status of offstage space shaped by the creation and manipulation of the onstage space in this scene?

In the scene immediately preceding the rape, the forest (where, presumably, the rape also occurs) is the site of interactions between various characters who describe the space in different ways. In the 185 lines before the rape in 2.2, the space is described differently (could we say reinscribed or rewritten) several times. First, Tamora encounters Aaron alone in the forest space and describes it with the following lines:

The birds chant melody on every bush,
The snakes lies rolled in the cheerful sun,
The green leaves quiver with the cooling wind
And make a chequered shadow on the ground. (2.2.12-5)

In this pleasant first description, nature seems aligned with Tamora’s mood. The birds are chanting and even the snakes seem harmless, lying rolled in the warm and “cheerful” sun. The wind is just cool enough to make the leaves “quiver,” charging the scene of nature with a sexual energy analogous to Tamora’s in these early moments of the scene. Jonathan Bate footnotes these lines in his Arden edition by referencing the “Ovidian-style description of a locus amoenus (pleasant place), in which the landscape reflects the state of mind of the speaker.” But, he then suggests that Tamora’s second description later in the scene is “expanded and inverted” to create the opposite mood (169). Here are her later lines, after Bassianus and Lavinia come upon her alone in the forest space:

A barren detested vale you see it is;
The trees, though summer, yet forlorn and lean,
O’ercome with moss and baleful mistletoe;
Here never shines the sun, here nothing breeds
Unless the nightly owl or fatal raven. (2.2.93-7)

Bate’s suggestion that this shift is modeled on Ovidian-style spatial description is certainly a convincing one. Such a reading seems synonymous with the play’s heavy references to Ovidian myths, including several in this very scene. But I’m hesitant to exclusively submit these moments to an easy troping because such a reading omits the reality of the stage space. It shunts the work that the words of the play perform in creating space here to the realm of Tamora’s mental and affective states, categorizing the entire space of this scene under what Lefebvre would call “mental space.”

Instead, I would argue that Tamora’s rescripting of the space provides the problematic destabilization this space needs to have in order to resist its own spatial practice. For Lefebvre, “spatial practice” refers to “perceived” space and defines the “particular locations and spatial sets characteristic” of a space (38). Given the play’s obsession with patterns and examples – characters fitting into various patterns of classical tragic figures (and here I do agree with Bate’s reading) – the space of the forest should almost necessitate Lavinia’s rape. In other words, according to the expectations based on the spatial practice of the forest (especially in relation to the primary myth of Philomela patterning this moment), the rape might be said to be pre-scripted by the environment in which it is set. Aaron says as much when he first describes the forest space to Chiron and Demetrius, describing it as “fitted by kind for rape and villainy” (1.1.616). Titus too expresses this sentiment later in Act 4 when Lavinia is finally able to expose the deed:

Ay, such a place there is where we did hunt –
O, had we never, never hunted there! –
Patterned by that the poet here describes,
By nature made for murders and for rapes. (4.1.55-8)

Titus reads the forest space as “patterned” on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “by nature made for murders and for rapes.” With both Aaron and Titus’s lines, the play suggests that the forest space, before the actors/characters enter into it, is already scripted for the deed Chiron and Demetrius perform within it. Such a presupposition parallels Lefebvre’s claim that “every space is already in place before the appearance in it of actors” (57). “This pre-existence of space,” Lefebvre goes on to argue, then “conditions the subject’s presence, action and discourse” (57).

Ultimately, though, I want to suggest that Titus resists such a patterning, resists the idea that a space is pre-conditioned for certain actions to unfold within it and in this resistance presents an argument about the space of the theater itself. It is particularly Tamora’s doubled description of the forest space that does this work. Her second description, in every way an inversion of the first, invites us to read this space as malleable and conditional. Malleable in the sense that it can be rewritten even in the very moment of its inhabitance, and conditional in the sense that only when certain requirements are met can it facilitate any kind of pre-scripted use. It is perhaps this malleability, the instability of the stage space of the forest that necessitates the play’s positioning of the actual rape offstage. In rewriting the stage space, Tamora makes it rewritable – susceptible to reinscriptions by other characters and, therefore, questionable in its facilitation of the rape. I would even go so far as to suggest that Tamora’s reinscription permits a kind of rhetoric of consent to map itself onto the space itself. By rewriting the forest stage space and making it susceptible to other rewritings, Tamora invests the space with too much malleability and flexibility to then consent to the rigid parameters of the rape pattern. The pattern of the forest space no longer must be played out in a specific way because Tamora shatters the pattern. In order to fulfill the promise of the rape, then, the play must shift the positioning of it to a space that consents to the act – the offstage space and, consequently, the space of the audience’s imagination.

Such a reading has significant ramifications for the question of consent in Titus and performance in general, along with the role of the audience in violent acts of performance. I want to also keep thinking about the ways in which Titus does allow us to “see” a version of the rape played out on the stage. In the short scene when Chiron and Demetrius are taunting Lavinia after the rape, for instance – how might that small tableau change my argument? Additionally, scholars have argued that Lavinia’s writing in the sand, finally revealing both the act of rape and her rapists, is the play’s most visceral “performance” of the rape itself. How does that moment fit into my analysis here and might it problematize the rough rhetoric of consent in 2.2?

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