I took this picture – from King Lear – at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival back in 2012. I often show it to pupils who try to tell me that Shakespeare is ‘boring‘. Or indeed I give them some of the plot details from Titus Andronicus that have caused such concern of late …
It’s taken me a little while to allow this one to sink in to the extent that it became a ‘crime’, but in the Dock, ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, I give you no less than the English Faculty of Cambridge University (or at least some members of that august institution) …
It’s been quite well-publicised that lectures on Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors have been given ‘trigger warnings’ for content about sexual assault.
It is a fact that literature does not come with age ratings. I don’t see why it should either, in an age when those ratings mean nothing anyway, and parents routinely allow their charges to play GTA or COD, or to watch Love Island, or Naked Attraction, or indeed Eastenders/Coronation Street … all products which normalise violence and sexual misdemeanours of all kinds.
So I’m trying to get to grips with what’s going on here …
What, exactly do people – students of literature, in fact, and the ‘cream of the crop‘ you’d imagine – think they are going to get at Uni? A load of scripts for the sixteenth-century version of The Waltons? I’m completely with Dr. David Crilly (artistic director of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival) – and not just because I know him – when he says:
If a student of English literature doesn’t know that Titus Andronicus contains scenes of violence, they shouldn’t be on the course.
And what, exactly, is the thinking behind these trigger warnings? Why do these academics (again, I’ll use the phrase ‘cream of the crop’), feel it necessary to give them? Are they scared of being accused of something? You know what? People who are upset – and I don’t mean to sound harsh, because some people have had awful life experiences that I can only guess at – can simply leave the room.
Or, are the academics simply underestimating the students? By the time mine finish Year 9, they have heard Curley’s Wife threaten to have Crooks (complete with ‘N’ word) strung up on a false allegation. During their A Level Literature, they’ll have read of the shocking treatment of Anne Neville by Richard III – and that’s just a starter, compared to the graphic content of:
Edward II: where a king is murdered on-stage by anal-rape with a red-hot poker; or
Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’: featuring a graphic description of premature ejaculation on a pair of virgins’ wedding night (and heavy hinting that the female protagonist has been sexually abused by her father); or
Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’ featuring graphic sexual language throughout and the classic ‘Frau Freud’, which I reproduce for you below.
All of these I have read in class, aloud, to classes mostly comprising 16-17 year old girls. No-one has felt the need to run from the room yet. Perhaps I have just been lucky …
FRAU FREUD, by Carol Ann Duffy
Ladies, for argument’s sake let us say
that I’ve seen my fair share of ding-a-ling, member and jock,
of todger and nudger and percy and cock, of tackle
of three-for-a-bob, of willy and winky; in fact,
you could say, I’m as au fait with Hunt-the Salami
as Ms M Lewinsky – equally sick up to here
with the beef bayonet, the pork sword, the saveloy,
love-muscle, night-crawler, dong, the dick, prick,
dipstick and wick, the rammer, the slammer, the Rupert
the shlong. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no axe to grind
with the snake in the trousers, the wife’s best friend,
the weapon, the python – I suppose what I mean is,
ladies, dear ladies, the average penis – not pretty …
the squint of its envious solitary eye … one’s feeling of pity …
WE CANNOT, MUST NOT, WIPE ART WITH ANTI-BACTERIAL WIPES BEFORE ALLOWING THE NEXT GENERATION TO HANDLE IT …
‘Colleagues’ (in the broadest, most egotistical and presumptuous sense) at Cambridge University, you are committing a Crime Against Shakespeare. Stop it. Now.
For another, funnier, perspective on the issue, I recommend you head over to the Bard and Bible website …