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.

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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