Staging Violence and Terror


by Susanne Rupp and Tobias Döring

In one of his most intriguing stories, Plutarch tells us about a ruthless tyrant well known and widely feared for his own violence who, when he saw violent spectacles on stage, was noted to shed bitter tears. In his Defence of Poesy, Sidney has retold this story so as to show the moving power of theatrical performance and, in particular, to establish what he famously calls “the sweet violence of tragedy”. But his oxymoronic phrase gives rise to several questions: Does the weeping tyrant demonstrate the efficacy or uselessness of theatre? Is ‘sweetened’ violence on stage a cover, a commemoration or perhaps a revelation of actual violence at large? What aesthetic, what political and what commercial interests might be served in staging violence and terror, and for whom?

The works of early modern dramatists, both in their contemporary and in present-day enactments, offer many reasons to pursue such questions—as indeed the current rise of critical interest in these issues shows. Francis Barker still observed in 1993 that we are generally accustomed to think of culture and violence as antithetical terms. More recently, however, the opposite view seems to have become so prominent that the culture of violence—on stage and screen no less than in theory and history—increasingly calls for attention. What is at stake, therefore, in the popular as well as critical fascination with viewing and reviewing spectacles of violence?

The contributors to the Wissenschaftliche Seminar offer a wide range of approaches to and insights into the issue of violence and terror on the Shakespearean as well as contemporary stage. Margret Fetzer and Bettina Boecker explore the generic implications of the topic. Margret Fetzer (“Violence as the ‘Dark Room’ of Comedy”) argues that violence is as common in Shakespeare’s comedies as in his tragedies and histories, albeit being employed for different strategies. With reference to Twelfth Night, she presents a case study of the context and generic framing of violence and thus brings out the particularities of violence in comedy as opposed to tragedy. Bettina Boecker (“You like to watch, don’t you? Violence in Cymbeline”) maintains that violence in romances is anything but harmless. She argues that spectatorship is an integral part of violence and that violence in Cymbeline is presented as essentially theatrical. Thus, taking up the notion of the romance’s generic metatheatricality, Bettina Boecker proposes that Cymbeline is less concerned with violence as such than specifically with spectacles of violence.

In her contribution on Jürgen Gosch’s recent production of Macbeth (“‘Genuine’ Violence on Stage? Jürgen Gosch’s Macbeth”), Christina Wald emphasizes the paradox inherent in the production’s reception. While Gosch highlights the theatrical frame and follows an anti-illusionist aesthetics, the stylisation of violence on stage was experienced as more ‘real’ by a large part of the audience than productions indebted to realism.

Ulrich Kaiser (“Violated Bodies, Truth and Language in Titus Andronicus”) challenges the assumption that a body marked by violence is invested with evidence and truth. Instead, in his analysis of Titus Andronicus, he argues that the play produces the violated body as evidence and reality while at the same time foregrounding the discursive, (inter)textual and ‘ideological’ construction of the violated body.