I was recently at an extraordinary performance of the Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece at Melbourne’s Sumner Theatre, partly spoken, partly sung, and both parts performed by cabaret artist Camille O’Sullivan (fabulously named for her French/Irish heritage). The show was first performed in Stratford-upon-Avon with the RSC, and has been on tour as part of the World Shakespeare Festival.
In my own work, I’ve been on the look-out for eyes and hearts of late – as they collude, conflict, collaborate in literature and in art – in preparation for a paper I’m giving at the ANZAMEMS conference at Monash in Melbourne this week. This means I’ve been ultra sensitive to references to either in my day to day, and that as a result, they seem to be cropping up everywhere.
Several moments in Shakespeare’s poem grabbed my attention during the performance. In one of them, Tarquin (O’Sullivan) enters the chamber where Lucrece (also O’Sullivan) is sleeping:
[…] about he walks,
Rolling his greedy eyeballs in his head:
By their high treason is his heart misled (ll. 367-9)
In a lot of the texts I’ve been reading (mostly verse, mostly fifteenth century, French and English) eye + heart = love, with a side serve of suffering. Here eye + heart = lust, which is by no means an unusual formulation. It’s Tarquin’s eye that is blamed for the crime: the verdict is ‘high treason.’ This isn’t a case of eye and heart working together, but of betrayal. Shakespeare’s lines inherit much from fourteenth-century (and earlier) theological debates about whether the eye or the heart should be held accountable for sin; the eye for seeing the lustful object, or the heart from translating an (innocent) image into lustful thought.
In O’Sullivan’s performance of Shakespeare’s poem, the object of lust – Lucrece – is conspicuously absent in this scene, except for a rectangle of light beamed across the stage. As Tarquin, O’Sullivan prowls about the light-filled space, every now and then stretching out into the light a part of her face or a serpent-like hand. It’s clever staging: the light is simultaneously Lucrece herself and Tarquin’s own male gaze, revealing, stripping, exposing the female body, just as O’Sullivan embodies both the rapist and his victim.
Raphaele recently posted on meanings of the word ‘sensus’ in the seventeenth century, but I’m wondering about earlier representations of the senses in literature – sight, especially, and its relationship to a thinking, feeling, sinning, or loving heart. O’Sullivan’s one woman show offers a unique experience of the poem for modern audiences; there’s little here to encapsulate the experience of early modern audiences, and the way O’Sullivan performs ‘emotion,’ I would argue, is distinctly twenty-first century (that voice, that face!) But it is profoundly sensitive to the poem’s evocation of bodily and sensory experience of the world, and how material, tangible things have a profound impact inward.
Posted by Stephanie Downes