Shakespeare’s England is a patriarchal society that is ruled by a female monarch. Women are extensions of male property; the action and behavior of women are a commentary on male power. Queen Elizabeths reign has created fear and anxieties that threaten male power. These fears and anxieties manifest within the bodies of female characters; Tamara, Lavinia, and Ophelia. The female body, body in the plays, are threats to masculinity. The plays respectively are Titus Andronicus and Hamlet.
Tamora’s body is a manifestation of the male expectation of female power.
“Tamora illustrates male fear of transgressive, contaminating female”(Dunn-Hensley 105.) Especially in regard to her sexuality. Tamora uses her femininity and sexual prowess the moment she has the ability too. “My worthy lord, if ever Tamora/Were gracious in those princely eyes of thine”(1.1.430-31.) Tamora uses feminine submissive language to convince Saturninus to make peace in public and plot revenge in secret. My lord, be ruled by me, be won at last / You are but newly planted in your throne;/ Yield at entreats:/Ill find a way to massacre them all (2.
1.445-53) Tamora transgresses from queen, prisoner, to wife. She appears happy and subordinate. “She will play handmaid fulfilling his sexual desires”(Dunn-Hensley 105.) Thus, representing the expected behavior of an Elizabethan woman. Therefore, Tamora’s display of role reversal can be seen as a patriarchal exhibition of fear. “Women’s bodies are metaphors for societies threatened”(Woodbridge 46.) Tamora controls Saturninus and by extension Rome, the same way the females are an extension of male power.
Tamora’s body is a depiction of barbarism. She enters the play in confinement like a beast. Dangerous femininity can be seen in Tamora’s sexuality and barbarity. “Symbolically, Tamora is linked to barbarism because… of her intimate connection… with the blackmoor…and the gaping hole in the forest”(Dunn-Hensley 107.) The fear is that Tamora has the ability to infect the country with her barbaric body. Primogeniture is important in Elizabethan society. A queen must be virtuous and pure for the “integrity of the royal line”(Dunn-Hensley 107.) Tamora and Aaron’s baby poses a threat to the kingdom. “Our empress’ shame and stately Rome’s disgrace”(4.2.60.) It is clear to see the disdain in the language used to describe the infant.
A joyless, dismal, black and sorrowful issue
Here is the babe, as loathsome as a toad
Amongst the fair-faced breeders of our climb.
The empress sends it thee, thy stamp, they seal
And bids thee christen it with thy daggers point
Her womb and body have become infected and tainted. Killing and christen the baby is an attempt to purify Tamoras body. Tamoras womb has quite literally bred disorder for Rome (Dunn-Hensley 107.)
Tamora’s illegitimate child signifies the risks of female sexual desires. The language in Titus Andronicus is suggestive that there is a parallel between dangerous female desire and the pit in the forest.
Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers
Upon whose leaves are drops of new-shed blood
As fresh as morning dew distilled on flowers?
The language is suggestive of female body parts. The tone is fearful and anxious. Thus, insinuation that female sexuality is something to be feared. The pit is covered in blood suggesting child birth and death, linking it Tamoras polluted womb of child birth and potential death for Rome. Tamora and the pit are tainted devouring wombs. The expression becomes literalizes her position as devouring mother by consuming her own children (Dunn-Hensley 108.) Ingesting her own children creates a stronger image of a foul polluted body and death is the only fitting that she is devoured by beast and birds.
Tamora represents barbarism while Lavinia represents civilization and Rome. Tamora’s encouragement of the violation and rape of Lavinia is symbolic of her attack on Rome. Rome invades the Goths, they thrust “its masculine armies deep into the virginal territory of the Goths”(Woodbridge 48.) Therefore, Tamora gives Lavinia’s body to her sons for “unsanctioned penetration and pollution.”(Woodbridge 49)
Hadst thou in person ne’er offended me,
Remember, boys, I poured forth tears in vain
But fierce Andronicus would not relent.
Therefore away with her, and use her as you will;
the worse to herm, the better loved of me
Lavinia’s attack strips her of any form of strength or power. Her muteness signifies her powerlessness. Speech is a powerful tool with the ability to create chaos. Lavinia’s speech can name her attackers, Tamora’s involvement in the attack as well as her indiscretions with Aaron. The removal of her tongue is the removal of her power. The patriarchal society fears female sexuality because of its ability to destroy. However, they also fear chastity and power because it signifies strength such as Queen Elizabeth. “Chasity can be a tool, a mystification”(Schwarz 216.)
According to Eaton the women in the Elizabethan stage are tortured smothered or dismembered for two reasons; they are either “subject of clandestine desire or they have become the object of desire” (190) that threatens the community. The violence towards the body is giving men power over female sexuality. Lavinias rape and mutilation are an image of grotesque violation of chastity and power. Everything that makes Lavinia a woman and the strength within her is attempted to be taken away from her. Her virtue makes her violated and impure, her tongue and hands removing any ability to communicate. Death would have been less shameful.
Tis present death I beg, one thing more
That womanhood denies my tongue to tell.
O, keep me from their worse than killing lust,
and tumble me into some loathsome pit,
where never a man’s eye may behold my body.
Lavinias body is the “emblem of shame sorrow and revenge” (Eaton 185.)The violence that inflicts Lavinia’s body is “sexual disfigurement ” and allows the male body to “subordinate the female body to male authority… for symbolic power of the sexual body to authorize patriarchy”(Eaton 190.)
There is a threat within Lavinia that is less subtle than Tamora “She mirrors Titus not only humble but also a superbus”(Green 322.) Lavinia’s remarks against Tamora is not a justification for her attack. It is a demonstration of male “blind pride… assuming her own moral rectitude and consequent power ” (Green 323.) In other words, the scene that took place before Lavinias rape and mutilation shows Lavinia as hubris.
Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning,
And to be doubted that your Moor and you
Jove shield your husband from his hounds today!
Tis pity they should take him for a stag.
Lavinia is a passive suffer. “Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be…there is a difference between the passive be an active being.”(Schwarz 216) Tamoras revenge is aggressive and done ultimately with her own hands. Lavinia relies on the domineering male in her life to act out the revenge. A strong image is Lavinia holding her fathers dismembered hand in her mouth. And, Lavinia, though shalt be employed/Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth (3.2.281-82.)
In Shakespeare rape is presented as severe pollution that its only purfier is death (Woodbridge 56.) Thus, Titus kills his rape-polluted daughter(Woodbridge 56/)as the only attempt to purify her
Killed her for whom my tears have made me blind.
And have a thousand times more cause than he
To do this outrage, and it now is done.
Saturninus responds with what was she ravished (5.3.53.) Implying that being ravished justifies Titus killing his daughter.
Ophelia’s body is the epitome of patriarchal oppression. Ophelia economically and psychologically relies on her father and brother. Upon introduction of her character, it is evident that she is submissive to the domineering males in her life. Laertes, her brother, lectures her about Hamlet and the importance of her virtue. “Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain”(1.3.28.) Polonius, her father, continues with a similar lecture. However, Polonius’s concern for her virtue derives from self-preservation. Elizabethan England is a patriarchal society in which the women’s actions are an extension of male power. Therefore, Ophelia’s virginal body can represent Polonius success as a patriarchal figure. Ophelias body presents itself as a site of discourses which define, control and contain it (Hamana 143.) The men control and employ Ophelia because they fear her sexuality and how it has the potential to ruin their reputation.
Marry, I will teach you. Think yourself a baby
That you have taen these tenders for true pay
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly,
Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase
Running it thus) youll tender me a fool.
Polonius scorns Ophelias affection. He implies that she is naive and young therefore unable to make her own choices. Polonius will tell her how to feel and act ensuring she cannot turn him into a fool. Any indiscretion Ophelia carries out with Hamlet will deflate any illusion of power Polonius has. Ophelia, compliant, immediately tells her father of Hamlets strange behavior. My lord Lord Hamlet comes before me (2.1.76-83.) She refers to both her father and Hamlet as lord, indicating a submissive character. However, both men are using and controlling her. Her father commands her to stay away from Hamlet and report any interactions. Hamlet addresses her in a sexual and mad matter knowing she will tell her father. Hamlet and Polonius employ her body to further their own deceitful agenda. They care little for the mind just the usefulness of the body, as a result, Ophelia is grossly abused by [Hamlet] in a series of verbal assaults deploying a misogynist rhetoric (Hamana 145.)
You jig and amble, and you lisp; you nick-name
Gods creatures and make your wantonness your
Ignorance go to, Ill have no ont; it hath made me mad
to a nunnery, go.
Hamlet implies that her sexuality and femininity is making him mad. Ophelia has been a picturesque Elizabethan woman. Assuming that Hamlet is transferring his frustrations on her, once again employing her for his selfish needs.
The trauma of being a pawn eventually causes Ophelia to succumb to madness and suicide. The scene depicting Ophelia’s madness interrupts the progress of the play. “Ophelia becomes the central focus dominating and overwhelming other characters by the sheer force of her series of songs speeches…and body language”(Hamana 146.) It is assumed by the characters observing Ophelia that she has gone mad from grief and unrequited love. Polonius notes “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, / But in battalions; first, her father slain;/next your son gone” (4.5.78-80.) According to Hamana “erotomaniacs” is an Elizabethan ideology. It is a masculine based theory that women become irrational from unrequited love and sexual frustration. Ophelia’s madness releases her from the oppressive restraints on her body. Her madness gives her an excuse to talk about social issues without ramifications. Her body can be controlled by her mind. In losing her mind she lost the ability to be controlled.
Ophelia’s body in death is a manifestation of the “representation and deployment of the body by male-stream ideology”(Hamana 149.) The language in Gertrude’s speech depicting Ophelia’s death is indicative of sexual symbolism. Gertrude’s language implies that Ophelia’s suicide is caused by her repressed sexuality. According to Hamana “Long purple flower” is a phallic symbol and “mermaid-like” is an erotic female symbol. Thus, Ophelia’s body is sexualized in death. The passage foundations arise from the Elizabethan convention that the female body is sexual and frail. (Hamana 150) Laertes emphasizes this point when he reacts to the news of Ophelia’s death. “Let shame say what it will. /When these are gone, /The woman will be out”(4.7.186-87.) Seemingly, the “woman” that will be out is her sexuality and frailty. Descriptions of Ophelias death in literature is haunting and beautiful. Hamana gives an example of Gaston Bachelard depiction of Ophelia’s drowning. “The truly feminine death… which is a beautiful immersion and submersion in the female element” (Hamana 150.) It is arguable that the surface of the body is not beautiful nor does it “erase its underlying negative representation of the female body” (Hamana 150.) Gertrudes speech is a patriarchal representation of an ideal feminine death when realistic a drowning is grotesque in nature. The tissues in the body began to inflate, the skin distends, and the body becomes swollen due to the bacteria within the body. Ophelia’s tragedy does not lie in her death. Her tragedy lies within the restrictive nature of her life; the only form freedom she gains is through her insanity.
The removal of Lavinia’s tongue and hands silences her in life. Ophelia’s drowning, after outbursts of mad speeches, silences her in death. Tamora attempts to devour Rome, devours her children and in death, she is devoured. These women threatened the patriarchal society with their femininity and sexuality. Their deaths are destructions of the manifested fear.