Sensitive Eyes

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.

[There’s currently an interview with O’Sullivan on ABC Radio National‘s ‘Top Shelf’; but to hear her sing (and can she sing!) I highly recommend:]

Posted by Stephanie Downes

6 thoughts

  1. Great post Stephanie – There appears to be a curious vogue for performances of Shakespeare’s poems which is interesting in its own right- Gerard Logan did an RoL monologue at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011 and the South African Isango Company did a very well-received Venus and Adonis in 2012 now touring- glad to hear Camille O’Sullivan’s was worth seeing and sorry to have missed it.

    I’m really interested in early modern conceptualizations and discourses of sight, and perhaps particularly curious about the haptic nature of sights that can wound, pierce or penetrate. The ways in which eyes are agents as well as receptors strikes me as an important multivalency. So cupid must always go blindfold, and so Marcus tells Lavinia, for instance, that ‘such a sight will blind a father’s eyes’, in 2.4 and Othello tells the dead Desdemona ‘This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven/ And fiends will snatch at it’ (5.2). In RoL itself I’ve always been intrigued by the bit where Lucrece goes to look at the paintings of the tragedy of Priam as if through looking she can better inhabit her own tragedy- which she finds somehow summarized in Hecuba’s face and eyes. Lots of food for thought. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Pen! I find it odd to think about eyes on stage, when they’re so hard for an audience to actually SEE in many modern performances. There’s something of the multivalency you’re talking about in the audience-actor dynamic, too: eyes that act, eyes that are acted on…

  2. There are some suggestive lines in Jonson’s Every Man in his Humor on the power of eyes to harm or wound. This is Kitely on his plan to discipline the wife he believes to be unfaithful: “Yea, every look or glance mine eye ejects / Shall check occassion, as one doth his slave, / When he forgets the limits of prescription.”

    1. That is some quote! I don’t think I’ve seen a reference to punitive eyes in any of the texts I’ve looked at. I did write an essay years ago (unpublished, and rightly so!) on wounding eyes in Aphra Behn’s plays – The Rover, I think. What I do remember is that once I looked for references to ‘eyes’ and ‘wounding’ – that verb in particular in a proximity search – they came thick and fast!

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