Reading Titus Andronicus (1594) as the first text In a course on Shakespeare's tragedies, starting in January 2013, most of the M.A (English) students at the University of Hyderabad (a public university deemed to be among the elite higher education institutions of India but with a very mixed student demographic from rural, urban, and semi-urban areas), found the violence over-the-top, the characterization slim, and the lines themselves insipid.
It was only as we "read" Lavinia and the way women were narrated into and out of being that students began to see interesting parallels between a late 16th century text and 21st century India. My effort in classes was directed at pointing to the strange relevance of Early Modern ideas regarding gender and femininity, albeit refracted via imperial Rome, to present-day India. I used as the immediate context the brutal gang-rape in India's capital in December 2012--the victim died of her injuries. Three thematic parallels stood out in our discussions.
THE OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMAN AND THE WOMAN AS PROPERTY
Beginning with Lavinia's epithet--"Rome's rich ornament" (I.i)--we examined her passage from hand to hand, in a show of gendered legitimate ownership. Her father, brothers, and betrothed all move her around like a chess piece, her desires irrelevant, her opinion unsought. Reduced by the Emperor Saturninus to "this changing piece," Lavinia remains largely silent. Then female students from conservative Indian backgrounds (irrespective of religious affiliation) saw the connection: their opinions regarding their futures were often ignored in the face of overwhelming societal and familial pressures that determined a suitable time for marriage and the choice of husband.
WOMEN'S BODIES: SITES OF HONOR AND ENACTMENTS OF POWER
In the scene which precedes Lavinia's rape (II.iii), she articulates her fear of being dishonored, and to avert it, pleads for death at the hands of Tamora and her sons. My students perceived the internalization of the patriarchal code of honor which governs the lives of women in India's still largely traditional societies: an honor that is mapped on the body of...