Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Shakespeare, Street Harassment and the Etruscans

Yes, really.

I'm working on the first draft of my second book at the moment. It's great fun, almost a formalised extension of this blog. The big idea is to explore the relevance of Etruscan culture to the modern world, incorporating analyses of historical texts and archaeological materials. But, as I've blogged about before, it's written for a popular audience.

I'm chugging on through- nearly done with Chapter 7. This is my favourite part of the book so far, because it deals with some pet interests of mine- the lives of Etruscan women and the state of modern feminism.

In the course of writing it, though, I've gone down the rabbit hole of chasing a stereotype. Etruscan women were independent and lascivious- everyone knows that. It's a scholarly trope. But where does it come from?

Well, the obvious answer is Livy. But how does Livy wiggle his way into England? Of course, the educated elite might have been reading Ab Urbe Condita for themselves, but Etruscan women also feature in a rowdier format.

In Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, we have a prologue designed to clarify the poem. Here are the Etruscan women:

“The other ladies were all found dancing and revelling, or in several disports.”

It's only a sentence, but an interesting one. In the original text, Livy describes the same women as:

"passing their time in feasting and in luxury with their acquaintances."

Shakespeare, has chosen to go further. He deliberately implies that the Etruscan wives are misbehaving- and their misbehaviour has a sexual undertone. The word disport, while meaning unrestrained enjoyment, has a sinful implication here. In several disports? In Elizabethan bawdy talk, disport has a definite link with copulation and sexual play.

The sexual infidelity of Etruscan women is useful to Shakespeare- it sets up a direct contrast with the purity of his Lucrece. It is her chastity, and not her beauty, which first inflames the villainous Sextus Tarquinius, who will go on to rape her and bring down disaster on his family.

In Livy's account, I would argue that there remains an implication that the Etruscan women are responsible for the demise of the Tarquinii as a ruling dynasty. For Shakespeare, however, they are more sinister. It is their sexual availability, not their dedication to luxury, that causes Lucrece's death with its spiralling consequences. One of the poem's messages is that the availability of loose women damages all good women, and not just by repute.

It's a fascinating scenario- one of the first appearances of Etruscan women in the English language. To what extent it is responsible for the survival of the stereotype of Etruscan women, I don't know. But there are plenty of issues in here that impact our lives as women in the 21st century. Women's enjoyment of pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, is still considered problematic by our society. Look at the victim shaming of revenge porn, or the hooting tabloids and the sidebar of shame.

There is another aspect to this shaming behaviour too. A particular politician's recent statements on women-only carriages after the exposure of figures of the rate of sexual harassment on public transport emphasise our daily encounters with the Sextii Tarquinii of the Tube. The rationale of these abusers remains that some women (denigrated with terms like "slut" or "whore")  like their behaviour.

In Shakespeare and in the street, the equivalents of the Etruscan women- women taking pleasure - are still being blamed for attacks on other women.

When will they be absolved of responsibility for the acts of men?

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