The Vulnerable Body on Stage: Reading Interpersonal Violence in Rape as Metaphor

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This essay sets out to explore the representation of rape and of the body’s subjection to sexual violence in two plays that use rape as a metaphor for colonization, drawing upon Bal’s theory that such texts lose the experience of the victim. It also explores the ethical implications of staging violence and corporeal vulnerability. The plays are Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain, and Bill Morrison’s The Marriage from his Love Song for Ulster trilogy, both of which perform a representation of rape in view of the audience, and use the violence as a metaphor for colonial domination. Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of violence has been useful here: he identifies two categories of violence, subjective – the most visible kind, with an identifiable agent – and objective, which appears to operate outside of agency. He further divides objective violence into systemic and symbolic modes. Symbolic violence is embedded in language but, crucially, is not simply a matter of hate speech or incitement; it is concerned, rather, with ‘the imposition of a certain universe of meaning’. Systemic violence is described as ‘the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems’. This form of violence crucially has no real perpetrator: the perpetrator is the system, with the compliance (or wilful ignorance) of the majority population. Symbolic violence, meanwhile, is the means by which dissenting elements come to be identified and understood as aberrant or destructive, a threat to the well-being of the community. In these plays, the systemic violence of colonialism is rendered visible through its representation as interpersonal or subjective sexual violence; but I will argue that there is also a point at which the interpersonal violence requires to be read on its own terms.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Body in Pain in Irish Literature and Culture
EditorsEmilie Pine, Naomi McAreavey, Fionnuala Dillane
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-31388-7
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 18 Dec 2016


  • Gender
  • Affect
  • Violence
  • Vulnerability
  • Rape
  • Performance


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