Friday, July 28, 2006

Friday Poetry Blogging and Questions of Rape

This week I've been working on The Tempest with students at a local theater group's program (as those who read regularly know). Sexual issues are big in The Tempest, mostly centered around Prosporo's desire to get his daughter married to the "right" guy, Ferdinand, Prince of Naples. In order to do that, of course, he has to keep her from having sex before marriage (with either Caliban or Ferdinand), has to avoid incest, and get both Miranda and Ferdinand to want to marry each other.

Act 2, scene 1 has a bit where Prospero accuses Caliban of having nearly violated Miranda's honor. One one level, he may be accusing Caliban of trying to rape Miranda. On another level, even if Miranda and Caliban were both consenting and wanting to have sex, Prospero would interpret it as a dangerous violation of Miranda's honor.

Caliban's response is all about peopling the island, making little Calibans. He doesn't conceive of his sexuality in terms of violation or honor, but in terms of reproduction. It's perhaps amoral, but not immoral. It certainly doesn't necessarily give a sense that Caliban used violence towards Miranda.

Miranda's response is more in line with her father's, which doesn't say much about her attitude before or during, but gives a sense that she now feels Caliban's a threat or potential threat. Still, before the near encounter, she seems to have been close with Caliban, teaching him language and such.

So, as Caliban matured, and Miranda matured, he became a sexual threat on some level, at least through Prospero's paternal eyes.

In Prospero's show (in Act 4) for Miranda and Ferdinand, Ceres comes on and mentions how she doesn't want to appear if Venus or Cupid are around. That's a reference to the Prosperpina story, in which Ceres' daughter is taken by Hades (aka Dusky Dis), driven by Cupid's arrow.

Partly, he's trying to teach Miranda and Ferdinand to value marriage as a long term practice, including sexuality and fertility, and partly he's keeping them busy so they don't get busy, so to speak.

Thus, threats of rape and storied rape are on my mind this week, along with trying to teach some students (some of whom are scarily conservative) about how this play talks about sexualities.

One of my favorite poems is William Butler Yeats's "Leda and the Swan." Leda, in case you aren't all into mythology, is Helen's Mom. Yes, that Helen, the famous Helen of Troy. Helen's Dad is Zeus, a god whose sexual and violent nature is often dangerous to those around him. When Paris steals Helen away (or rapes her, in one old sense of the word, abduction), his actions lead to the Trojan War and the eventual destruction of Troy.

Rape's a difficult subject at best (and should be), but all the more difficult when it somehow becomes a thing of beauty through art. I love this poem, and I'm troubled by it. I love the way it imagines that one act of violence may engender more violence and more violence down the line, even to the point of destroying a culture. And in the final line, the horror of imagining that Leda might gain a sort of omniscience about what's to come without being able to do anything to affect or change the future. This poem just leaves me with chills.

William Butler Yeats

"Leda and the Swan"

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By his dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
How can anybody, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins, engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?


I'm headed out of town for a couple days. I understand there are some people who actually take Shakespeare's texts and put them on stage! Imagine! I must explore this activity! /grin

1 comment:

  1. have fun with the shakespeare! i had never read that yeats poem, thanks for highlighting.