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"The gnawing vulture": Revenge, Trauma Theory, and Titus Andronicus



DEBORAH WILLIS


Abstract
Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus offers an in-depth exploration of revenge as a perverse therapy for traumatic experience. Reading the play in dialogue with modern trauma theorists helps us move beyond blind spots in feminist treatments of the play that, among other things, focus on Lavinia to the exclusion of other trauma survivors. Trauma theorists frequently draw parallels between the experiences of combat veterans and rape survivors, examine ungendered as well as gendered features of trauma’s effects upon subjects, and demonstrate that family members and others close to a survivor often develop symptoms of secondary trauma. Similarly, Shakespeare in this play examines trauma as a cross-gendered phenomenon and explores the effects of traumatic loss, humiliation, and powerlessness upon family groups. Yet no character in the play has flashbacks, intrusive memories, or nightmares, key symptoms for modern diagnoses of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Instead, Shakespeare explores the multiple yet related ways that revenge provides a container for the potentially overwhelming emotions produced by traumatic loss and humiliation. The play’s three main spectacles of revenge—the sacrifice of Alarbus, the rape of Lavinia, and the final bloodbath—rework the traumatic events that precipitate them, allowing survivors the chance to reenact traumatic scenes with the roles reversed and to repair narcissistic injuries through increasingly over-the-top displays of violence: revengers get even with enemies by outdoing them and their retaliatory practices have an intimate relationship with theater. The play calls attention to the permeable line between victims and perpetrators and, through its exploration of the “double death” produced by traumatic loss and narcissistic injury, suggests a possible explanation for the intractability of retaliatory cycles. Ultimately, reading Titus Andronicus in dialogue with trauma theory shows that the play makes an important contribution to current conversations about trauma, healing, and revenge.



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