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Why it’s right for Titus Andronicus to come with a trigger warning

Cambridge University is warning students of Shakespearean violence and gore. And so it should.

Trigger warning: this article features discussions of sexual violence and suicide. 

Few undergraduate students are familiar with Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare’s spin on Senecan tragedy takes traditional tropes of the genre and adds excess to excess.

The play centres on revenge in the aftermath of a brutal rape, but it doesn’t feature the act of rape itself. Instead, it shows the princes who raped and mutilated Lavinia, taunting her in the aftermath. Horrifically, they goad her to call for help or to take her own life in the wake of such anguish; she is incapable of doing either, because her assailants have severed her hands and tongue from her body.

The play’s ongoing relevance is in its portrayal of the feelings of futility associated with victimhood: how do I report my rape when my rapist is a powerful person? How can I find the words to share my experience without endangering myself?

Harvey Weinstein’s and Bill Cosby’s victims have shared these sentiments about the struggle to make people believe their own allegations. The #MeToo campaign has shown just how many people have experienced sexual harassment and assault, and the backlash from victims has demonstrated how significant barriers, including fear of being blamed and losing employment, prevent people from reporting their assaults to the police, or even using the hashtag itself.

Regarding the much-discussed decision of the Cambridge University English faculty to issue trigger warnings for lectures discussing Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors, David Crilly, Artistic Director of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, objected: “If a student of English literature doesn’t know that Titus Andronicus contains scenes of violence, they shouldn’t be on the course.”

This perspective is monstrously elitist. It is presumptuous to expect that undergraduates should have any familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays beyond the “greatest hits” that they covered in their earlier education. As a Shakespeare lecturer at a university, my single expectation is that my students read the play in the days leading up to the lessons where we discuss it.

It would be a mistake to assume that trigger warnings are overprotective or pose an invitation to skip class. People who object to trigger warnings invalidate the struggles of those who have survived some of the worst possible experiences, yet still have the resilience to pursue higher education.

Short, parenthetical warnings acknowledge that graphic depictions of assault can cause significant emotional pain, and that students coping with post-traumatic stress require time to cope with their emotions. My own warning when teaching Titus reads:

“While I strive to ensure that my classroom is a safe space, it is important to recognize that Titus Andronicus deals with topics of rape and mutilation, and can take you by surprise. Please read the entire play before this lesson, to ensure that you have the private time and space to grapple with it and emotionally prepare for classroom discussion.”

While the Guardian article refers to unnamed “mental health professionals” who “have advised against trigger warnings on the basis that exposure to potentially uncomfortable discussions is more conducive to healing than avoidance”, this view neglects the student’s potential physical or emotional incapacity in the face of a traumatic trigger.

Triggers can cause far more serious responses than politely muted tears, and these warnings compassionately offer students the opportunity to prepare by experiencing these genuine responses ahead of class time, safe from inquiring looks and questions from their peers.

For some professors, like University College London’s John Mullan, warning students of each distressing work of literature is the “way madness lies”. Mullan’s unfortunate choice of words is nonetheless a lived reality for the many who suffer mental illness as a result of trauma or assault, which is only now being discussed as endemic on university campuses.

Cambridge University’s spokesperson has stated that, “it is not a policy of the English faculty to have such warnings”, but the fact that it has begun to include them indicates that this conversation must be had at the systemic level.

Academics and professionals, including Mullan and Crilly, fear that “sensitivity will inevitably curtail academic freedom”, but what about the academic freedom of my students to read in spaces free of exposure and interrogation? Academic freedom must not become shorthand for teaching without a concern for the way our students are learning.

Dr Erin Weinberg is an instructor of Shakespeare at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus. She tweets @TheBardolator

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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia