Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Taking Pleasure, or the Ethics of Reading Rape and Murder (Part I)

Not so very long ago, I taught a course in early modern drama in which we read Marlowe's Edward II, and watched Derek Jarman's film version. It wasn't the only film we watched; for example, we also read Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and saw the Julie Taymor film version. After each film, my students wrote a journal responding to the film as a production of the text; the assignment asked them to think about changes to the plot, the ways film makes some things possible or "necessary," costuming, and so forth, to choose one or two issues, and write a couple pages.

An aside: here's a quick run down of each play's plotline (and a more in depth plot for Edward II and Titus Andronicus.)

Edward II
Edward II, on the death of his dad (creatively named Edward), invites his paramour Galveston to return to his side. The nobles are jealous of Galveston's return to power, and eliminate him. Edward finds a new favorite, Spencer, elevating he and his father to positions of power; again, the nobles are jealous, and Edward's wife, Isabella, too. Isabella turns to Mortimer (a noble) for "comfort" and goes off to France with their son (also creatively named Edward, and later known as Edward III, but that's another play). Edward II has military problems, is captured by the English nobles. The Spencers are executed, as is Edward II. Edward III comes to power, orders Mortimer executed, and imprisons his mother, Isabella. (It's stories like these that make most families seem entirely functional, eh?)

Titus Andronicus
Set in ancient Rome, Titus Andronicus begins with Titus' victorious return from war with the Goths, bringing along his captives, Tamora (Queen of the Goths), her sons Alarbus, Demetrius, and Chiron, and Aaron (a Moor, who we later learn is Tamora's lover, and father of her baby in the play). Titus sacrifices Alarbus at the Andronicus family tomb, and faces the question of Rome's leadership: the powers that be offer Titus the job, though the previous emperor's two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, both want the job. Titus sides with Saturninus, and the two decide that Saturninus will marry Lavinia, Titus' daughter. But Bassianus takes Lavinia, having apparently established a pre-contract with her; Titus's sons side with Bassianus, and Titus kills one of them (Mutius) in a scuffle. Saturninus, now emperor, takes Tamora as wife, and releases her sons and Aaron. So much for the first scene.

Aaron leads Chiron and Demetrius to take revenge on the Andronici by killing Bassianus and raping Lavinia, and cut out her tongue to keep her from telling. But because they've all read the story of Philomela, they decide that cutting off her tongue is insufficient, so they cut off both her hands, too.

(This is one of those plays where, just when you think it can't get worse, it does. I'm leaving out another cut off hand, a couple cut off heads, and a murdered midwife.)

Despite inconveniently having no hands, Lavinia eventually reveals the identity of the rapists. Titus takes revenge by capturing Chiron and Demetrius. And because he, too, knows the Philomela story, he makes a nice pasty out of them, and invites Tamora (their Mom) over for dinner. Then he kills Lavinia and Tamora; Saturninus kills Titus, and Titus's remaining son, Lucius, kills Saturninus. (Again, this play makes me realize how blessedly boring my life is!)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

When I looked at my students' journals after Edward II (most of which were pretty good for each film), one of my students had written what amounted to basically a diatribe about being forced to watch a film which deals with homosexuality in pretty overt ways because homosexuality is a sin and so forth. His language and sentence structure were jumbled, worse even than his usual writing, which I read as evidence that he was really upset. So I asked him to come talk to me about his journal. He did.

And he was tense, as you'd expect, and unhappy, frustrated, angry, all those things. He told me how utterly offended he was that he'd been forced to read such a vile play and to watch the movie, and he said that he felt I didn't respect his religious beliefs because I'd given him such a low grade on the journal.

So I asked him why he hadn't been upset when we'd read and watched Titus. After all, I continued, his religion put murder explicitly in the Ten Commandments as one of the absolutely worst things to do, and the play was full of murders. And yet, not only had he not been upset, but he'd enjoyed reading/watching the mayhem, enjoyed talking about the rape, the mutilations. (My response was evidently unsatisfactory, as the student dropped the course shortly after leaving my office.)

Here are the ethical questions:
What does it mean to make art of horrible acts (historical or imagined)?
What does it mean to choose to teach art (in my case, plays, poetry, novels, etc) that represents horrible acts?
And what does it mean that I take great pleasure in these texts?

ps. The Blogspot spell-checker just doesn't much like early modern names or possessives.

1 comment:

  1. I can see a fundamentalist student having a hard time with the Jarman film. It's a hell of a lot more explicit and overt than many other versions, I'd say -- partially because Jarman is just that way. And I'm not sure that the play is meant to be read in that way -- historically, the friendship is an issue (hence the alleged method of Edward's death), but aren't there lots of other issues?

    And we do live in a culture where sexuality in general is less acceptable as a topic for drama or comfortable discussion than is violence.

    I don't think it's really that odd. Did you warn the students in advance about the Jarman film? I always offer a disclaimer up front when I'm going to show or offer as a paper topic anything that might be too violent or sexually offensive to some people.

    I realise this sounds more critical than I mean it to be. And I'm not saying we should make allowances or excuse people from assignments because they might find them offensive -- it's college and sometimes people need to have their worlds shaken up a bit.

    To answer your questions, I think it can mean a lot or a little, because the author/audience can be discussing those topics for a broader purpose, or for prurient reasons. On the surface, both works have a lot in common with Law And Order: SVU.

    But they also have things in common with tragedy. ANd they're both amazingly over the top and that appeals to people.

    Do you take pleasure in the texts because they're beautiful in some way? Or because they're fun in an Elizabethan (or are they late enough to be Jacobean?) slasher film way?

    btw, I do think your calling the student on why one was OK and the other wasn't was a good call. But maybe not a completely fair one, either, given that one can be perfectly fine with homosexuality and still find Jarman to be annoying as hell. Or maybe it's just that I do? I admit I think he's incredibly interesting, but ultimately overrated, because I think he can reappropriate texts and subjects as badly as Mel gibson does.