The MFA in Creative Writing Program at Manhattanville College

May 23rd, 2013

Dumb Show

The hand. Exploratory, intrepid organ. Reaching far from its trunk. Instrument of the fifth sense: touch.

We touch something to know it. We make contact. In the dark, the hand knows what the eyes cannot. It eases around corners. It reaches the top shelf. It sorts, arranges, classifies.

There is a story, one sentence long, of an American slave, who, about to be sold away from her family, cut off her hand and flung it in her master’s face.i

* * *

Shakespeare’s Lavinia enters Titus Andronicus with two hands, a tongue, and, perhaps, a virgin. She is married off by her father to a man she doesn’t love in a political alliance. Her wedding occurs off stage. In the first act, she speaks only twice.

In the second act:

Enter…Lavinia her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravished.ii

Painful stage directions in perfect nanometer. The “and” does it. The commas. Wait for it. There is more. Her hands, her tongue. And ravished. Shakespeare grieves for his character as only a writer can–through punctuation and a groomed sentence.

The violence done to Lavinia’s body is committed offstage. We see her post-mutilation. The audience is asked to bear witness to the true abomination of rape–the aftermath. The gruesomeness of the shocked, changed self. Remembering, remembering impotence and the expiration of choice.

Lavinia is chopped, fashioned, into a fantasy. She cannot speak. She cannot scratch. She is three holes. But she still has teeth. They forgot to knock those out.

She is silenced.

I feel this danger. In my bellybutton, that once connected me to my mother. In my snatch, trim, hollow (Shakespeare’s words, not mine). I feel it. Me, of 2013. Me, woman, writer, of two hands and tongue.

How different are we, Lavinia?

* * *

Rape begins with the hand.

Hands grab you. Take hold of your throat. Clamp your mouth. Tie your wrists above your head. Pry open your legs.

The horror of other people’s hands.

The woods, a site of desire. For the newly married sex of Lavinia and Bassianus. For the adulterous, interracial love of Tamora and Aaron and the genesis of their half Goth, half Moor babe. I think of him as brother, the only one I have in all of Shakespeare for Othello and Desdemona never did conceive.

The woods, the site of Lavinia’s rape. On her back, she looked up at the pine trees of Rome, their needled branches. Alive and chlorophyllic, bristling in the wind. She looked at the trees standing straight above the humped shoulders of the brothers, Chiron and Demetrius.
When the brothers turned her over, she nestled in the dirt. It took the shape of her mangled form. It accepted her blood as if it was water.

Act IV, Scene I. Lavinia’s nephew, Young Lucius, runs onstage with books under his arms, Lavinia racing after him. She takes a book from Lucius–Ovid’s Metamorphosis. She turns pages with her stumps, thudding them against the tale of Philomel and her rape in the woods. Her father, uncle, nephew watch as she takes a wooden staff in her mouth and writes in the sand: Stuprum (rape in Latin)—Chiron—Demetrius.

Act V, Scene III: Lavinia enters with a veil over her face. Her father has baked her rapists in a pie that their mother, Tamora, is unwittingly eating. Titus unveils Lavinia. Titus kills Lavinia. His final words to her, a command: “Die, Die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee and with thy shame thy father’s sorrows die” (5.3.35-36).

* * *

January 1594: the first staged performance of Titus Andronicus.iii During Shakespeare’s lifetime, it was the most popular of his plays. In 1597, a new English law was passed that redefined rape as a “crime against the person of the woman rather than against the property of her family.”iv

How many lawmakers’ daughters, wives, sisters, mothers, lovers, sat in the seats of the Globe and wept for Lavinia?

Shakespeare had two daughters. His eldest, Susana, born six months after his marriage to her mother. In his will, he left the bulk of his estate to Susana. To his wife he left, “the second best bed.” Something difficult to interpret. Something possibly cruel.v

The only thing known about Shakespeare’s daughters–the dates of their births, marriages, and deaths. And that neither could read or write.

Lavinia was literate.

The staging of Lavinia’s maimed entrance is the dramatic focus of Titus Andronicus. In 1951, director Peter Brook opted for a highly stylized rendering. Lavinia, played by Vivian Leigh, had scarlet ribbons trailing from her wrists and mouth. She entered to “the slow plucking of harp-strings, like drops of blood falling from a pool.”vi

In Elizabethan times, Lavinia was played by a boy or man (a man or a boy can also be raped. Do not forget that). A fringe of dough mixed with blood gave a severed look to Lavinia’s stumps. The actor concealed a pig’s bladder filled with pig’s blood in his mouth.vii He bit down on cue. A 16th-century squib.

I wonder if, in playing the part of Lavinia, there is an element of relief. One has no hands for most of the play. Hands, the part of the body an actor most commonly struggles with. Flighty, awkward, when empty of prop. The last part of the body to give itself over to a character.

I knew a director who, in rehearsal, tied the hands of an actress at her sides.
She fell into her character, suddenly, like something dropped. She began to act.

* * *

Lavinia is text. She is the words of her author. She is made of language. And it was language that was taken from her.

No. Stop. Don’t. Please.

Words of command, of action. Words that govern. Words that fly through the air like darts.

Throughout the play, the words that precede Lavinia’s name are orders: Come, Speak, Kneel, Die.

In Louisiana and Texas, days before Hurricane Rita, people boarded up their windows and wrote messages on them. GO AWAY RITA. WE DON’T WANT YOU RITA. LEAVE US ALONE RITA.

How human a thing: to write a note to a hurricane.

No. Stop. Don’t. Please.

Pleasure. That, too, taken from Lavinia.

What is love, sex, without hands and tongue? How to stroke, lick, quarrel, promise? Lavinia’s mutilation represents a never-ending rape. Her truncated ability to give pleasure as well as receive. The ruination of her sense of touch, of haptic curiosity.

Love is in the senses. It is not just the sight of the beloved, his smell, the timbre of his voice, his taste. It is touch, prehension. The cup, press, spread of your hands against his body. Lavinia can take her lover in her mouth. Arouse with her stumps. But she cannot memorize his face with her fingers. She cannot make a fist inside a boxing glove. She cannot slap a raw chapatti from palm to palm. She cannot form calluses hoeing beans under a Lenten moon. She cannot lift a thumb, while scuba diving, to initiate a rapid ascent. She cannot feel the green skin of a tree. She cannot lace herself, finger to finger, to a wide-hipped woman on a wooden dance floor. She cannot braid the hair of a black-haired child. She cannot grope the dark, cold walls of a cave. She cannot scratch the head of a stray dog. She cannot pick a tomato, hanging in a dash of sunlight, and feel its juice, the burst of seed, against her tongue. That, the warm taste of lust.

There are hands you do not forget the touch of.

The last hands Lavinia felt on her body were not her own and were unkind.

Once cut, we never again see Lavinia’s hands. They are lost, offstage, in the woods, in the wings. I think of them, separated and rotting amidst the pines. I think of Lavinia writing, her stumps moving quickly over a keyboard. She is screaming in all caps.

But this is a revision. After all, Lavinia is gone. She died on the page, in an inky grave of italics. He kills her.viii That is all it took. Two pronouns of differing gender flanking a verb in present tense. And, a period.

That is the end of Lavinia. A life dictated by men. A life, motherless, unprotected. A life handed from one man to another. A life mute, before and after her tongue was cut. I have read scholarship that compares the mutilated body of Lavinia to the mutilated body of Rome. To me, her mutilation embodies her gender. She was always handless, without actions of her own, without agency. She was always mute. The maiming made her condition public, manifest. She is the woman in the play without a job (unlike the Nurse), the woman who is not a mother (unlike Tamora). Once Lavinia has been cut, men react to her suffering and pain. They do not want to see it. They want her pain to end so their pain, that comes from seeing hers, will end.

I cannot revise her death. So it is written, so it is done. Still I search the text for a getaway. For an alternative.

There is always space, time, between the acts.

Lavinia, Lavinia, I have a plan.

At the end of Act IV, you must part the curtain, and run, Lavinia, from the theatre, before your father murders you.

A man, garbed in black, will cue a scraping wind. He will point a narrow spotlight. For you are small, and need no wider beam.

I see you, a basket hanging from your left stump. Inside the basket are your hands. You want to do something beautiful for them. You walk, mutely, thirty blocks, from Broadway to Chelsea. You push my buzzer with the tip of your nose and climb three flights to my apartment. When I open the door, I recognize your dress, centuries out-of-fashion and ripped near the crotch. You sit on the edge of my sofa, and I offer you a glass of water. You grip it between your stumps. I take your hands from the basket, hold them in my lap. They are rigid, blue, and flecked with forest leaves. I flick away maggots and squeeze henna from an icing-tube. I draw arrows, daggers on your fingers, and feathers on your thumbs. I draw hundreds of eyes to ward off the evil to which you are prone.

We sit for twelve silent hours. The henna hardens. I crumble the black shell. Your hands–covered once more in red. The head of a peacock, a swollen lotus, vines and eyes and arrows.

Tongueless, you smile.

I place a pen between your teeth, smooth a sheet of paper on the table. Write out again the names of those who have wronged you, Lavinia. I will hold your hands in my lap and when you spit the pen from your mouth, I will say the words aloud for you.


iMichel Neill, Putting History to the Question, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000) 168. [back]
iiWilliam Shakespeare, “Titus Andronicus,” The Arden Shakespeare, ed., Jonathan Bates (London: Thomson Learning, 2002) 266.[back]
iiiBates 98. [back]
ivMadalina Nicolaescu, “Lavinia’s Mutilated Body,” Universitatea din Bucuresti 2002 [back]
v“William Shakespeare’s Biography,” Absolute Shakespeare.com September 2005 [back]
viRebecca Brown, “Titus Andronicus in Performance,” Shakespeare.org 2004 [back]
vii“Shakespeare’s Answers,” TSL Education Limited, December 2000 [back]
viiiBates 267. [back]

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Neela Vaswani is author of the short story collection Where the Long Grass Bends, and a memoir, You Have Given Me a Country. She is the recipient of the American Book Award, an O. Henry Prize, the ForeWord Book of the Year gold medal, and many other honors. She is also co-author of the Middle Grade novel-in-letters, Same Sun Here. She has a Ph.D. in American Cultural Studies, lives in New York City, and teaches at Manhattanville College’s MFA in Writing Program and Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing Program. An education activist in India and the United States, Vaswani is founder and curator of the Storylines Project with the New York Public Library.

What motivates her to create:
“Gut answer: I don’t really know. I just know that it happens and that I feel lucky and alive when it does.

“Thought-out answer: Love of place, people, dogs, words, plants, complexities, culture; a compulsion to push back at injustice; a need to voice my perspective and find an architecture for my particular language and rhythms; wanting to understand something or someone better; a good book, movie, piece of music, or art.”