The Lavinia Problem

Grace Lapointe
7 min readApr 27, 2020

Or the Ellen James Problem

Trigger warnings: rape, murder, torture, ableism

In William Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus, Demetrius and Chiron rape Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, and then cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her from identifying them. They then sexually harass her in a way that’s specific to her disabilities. Popular conceptions of Lavinia, including intertextual works like Kate Elizabeth Russell’s 2020 novel My Dark Vanessa, often rely on interpreting Lavinia’s particular traumas as metaphors for rape in general. I’ll call this the Lavinia problem: an example of narrative prosthesis that specifically views disability as a metaphor for rape or trauma in general, eliding other, more literal, meanings.

Shakespeare was relying on symbolism common in Elizabethan theater and developing his characters in unprecedented ways. So, my issue with the Lavinia problem is less with the classic literature itself and more with recent imitations, references, or criticism that unquestioningly use disability or rape as metaphors. This is so common that it may be unconscious and unintentional on the author and characters’ parts. Still, it ignores the reality that disabled people are much more likely than non-disabled people to be sexually assaulted. It’s also a reductive reading that flattens Lavinia as a character. Lavinia is frequently described as “passive.” However, interpretations that ignore her disability and her use of writing deny what little agency she has.

In a 2010 journal article, Caroline Lamb points out that Shakespeare uses the medieval metaphor of the body politic, likening a populace to a human body, to describe Rome throughout Titus Andronicus. He also frequently uses bodies, particularly disabled bodies, symbolically. She emphasizes that Shakespeare also describes disabled people’s resilience and lived realities. Lamb explains:

“Shakespeare’s focus on the disabled body’s material, human existence is important. Snyder and Mitchell argue that literary narratives habitually rely upon the idea of disability/the disabled body. This dependence oftentimes results in the very same metaphorical appropriation of being disabled that Susan Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor critiqued in 1978, before the advent of disability studies as an academic discipline… Snyder and Mitchell argue that the concept of disability has been used in literature and art at the cost of marginalizing disabled people themselves. Mitchell and Snyder call this literary dependency upon disability ‘narrative prosthesis’, and claim that it surfaces as either a mode of characterization or as ‘an opportunistic metaphorical device’ in literature. Given Titus’s striking use of a disabled body politic metaphor, we might wonder whether Sontag was right to name Shakespeare in her critique.” (Lamb 47–48).

Lamb writes that Titus and Lavinia both die after becoming disabled, not necessarily because of their disabilities, but because the avenger conventionally died in Elizabethan plays. This is the only point where I really disagree with her. Titus’ murder of Lavinia is explicitly an honor killing because she was raped. To a lesser extent, it can arguably also be a mercy killing, if Titus considers her post-traumatic life ruined and thinks she’s better dead than disabled. This is a trope and an assumption that persists in literature and politics today.

The play apparently construes Lavinia’s rape and disabilities as signs of lost honor and a ruined life, but it also literally shows some of the complex realities of Lavinia’s lived experiences. Immediately after they rape her, Demetrius and Chiron taunt Lavinia about her disabilities:

http://shakespeare.mit.edu/titus/titus.2.4.html

Act 2, Scene 4

Enter DEMETRIUS and CHIRON with LAVINIA, ravished; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out

DEMETRIUS

So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,

Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.

CHIRON

Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,

An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.

DEMETRIUS

See, how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.

CHIRON

Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.

DEMETRIUS

She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;

And so let’s leave her to her silent walks.

CHIRON

An ‘twere my case, I should go hang myself.

DEMETRIUS

If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.

Exeunt DEMETRIUS and CHIRON

Enter MARCUS

My note from first reading this: Look at what’s happening here. They’re mocking her for her disabilities, which they caused. This is a form of ableist sexual harassment that uniquely targets disabled people. It is dehumanizing, yet humiliatingly personal. Later in this scene, Lavinia’s uncle Marcus finds her. When reading or watching this play, I always wish he’d ask, “Who did this to you?” — and then start listing everyone they know. Of course, that would not have allowed Lavinia to make her own reference to Ovid’s story of Philomel and then write her rapists’ names in the dirt. So, while Lavinia may seem passive by today’s standards, she’s more active, complex, and innovative than some readers and writers make her seem.

Vanessa in My Dark Vanessa mentions writing a paper on Titus Andronicus for her professor Henry in college and using that to process her own rape. Reading the passages from Russell’s novel, Vanessa seems to be metaphorically relating to Lavinia being silenced. Vanessa says about her own paper: “I focused on her torn-out tongue and torn-off hands, her subsequent silence, the failure of language in the face of rape.” Granted, Vanessa is a fictional character, and her paper isn’t real. So, we can’t read it and critique it. However, Vanessa apparently follows a popular — but specious and ableist — interpretation of Lavinia.

“The failure of language in the face of rape” is the antithesis of what’s actually happening in the play. By referring to a book and inscribing her rapists’ names in the dirt, Lavinia finds a way to use her disabled body to communicate. Like many disabled people, she must find the innovations and assistive devices that make other people understand her. That’s a triumph of language, not a failure. It’s also a triumph of a disabled person’s ingenuity and resilience after trauma.

Many people do consider sexual assault incommensurable with language — literally unspeakable — and I don’t mean to invalidate or criticize that or any other trauma response. What I’m criticizing are interpretations of Lavinia’s disabilities in Titus Andronicus as representing the failure of language and her dismemberment as representing rape in general. As I wrote here in December 2019, people often use ableist metaphors so often that they forget they are figurative. This is a problem because it skips several steps logically and conflates the reality of disability with reductive, ableist assumptions and symbols.

Because My Dark Vanessa is a first-person novel about trauma, its reading of Lavinia is best understood as an insight into Vanessa’s character, rather than at face value as literary analysis. As a function of her trauma, Vanessa tries to relate everything to her abuser, Jacob Strane. These references are often reaching, relating tangentially to one another or not at all. Vanessa even relates Lavinia to her and Strane’s favorite book, Nabokov’s Lolita. She finds a passage with “Lo laughing at a newspaper column advising kids that if a strange man offers you candy, you should say no and pencil his license plate number on the side of the road.” For comparisons like this to work, readers would have to ignore Lavinia’s physical disabilities and their outside knowledge of the play, viewing everything only through Vanessa’s experiences.

It’s also worth noting that Lo and Lolita are two of Humbert Humbert’s many nicknames for Dolores Haze, not her own. Giving Vanessa his copy of Lolita is part of Strane’s long attempt to remake her into his sexual object, as Humbert does to Dolores.

John Irving’s 1978 novel The World According to Garp satirizes the fallacy of using rape or disability as metaphors for any other experiences. Here, I described his novel’s fictional, radical feminist group the Ellen Jamesians as “a group of women who cut out their own tongues in a sense of misguided solidarity with Ellen James, a real, twelve-year-old girl whose rapist cut her tongue out. The real Ellen James wants nothing to do with them. She’s horrified that people have co-opted her, willingly inflicting a trauma on themselves that she never would have chosen. They also apparently view her disability as a metaphor. Instead of respecting her lived experience, they tried to apply it to themselves, making a general point about women being metaphorically ‘silenced.’ The Ellen Jamesians’ biggest sins include appropriation, ableism and exploiting it for shock value, and self-serving, false allyship.”

I understand that Vanessa Wye was raped repeatedly in Russell’s novel and may feel both literally and figuratively silenced. But I dislike interpreting Lavinia’s mutilation or her rape as a metaphor. Both are equal, literal, horrific aspects of Lavinia’s trauma. Predators often target disabled people because they think we’re incapable of defending ourselves: fighting back, running away, identifying our attackers, or being believed. In Lavinia’s case, by mutilating her, Demetrius and Chiron try to render her incapable of identifying them. They then harass and mock her for her disabilities.

Lavinia’s character arc, then, is about a young woman dealing with the dual trauma of rape and violent mutilation. As a disabled person, she must re-learn how to communicate. Scratching Demetrius and Chiron’s names in the dirt is an example of her agency as a character, as well as a form of accessibility, which we often must invent ourselves. Interpretations that fail to take this aspect of Lavinia’s character into account, viewing it primarily as a symbol, are examples of disability erasure. They also ignore much of the action of the play.

Works cited

LAMB, CAROLINE. “Physical Trauma and (Adapt)Ability in ‘Titus Andronicus.’” Critical Survey, vol. 22, no. 1, 2010, pp. 41–57. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41556344. Accessed 27 Apr. 2020.

RUSSELL, KATE ELIZABETH. My Dark Vanessa: A Novel. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2020.

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