This term I gave a lecture about how sexual assault is portrayed in drama. Over the hour, my students and I considered extracts from Sarah Kane’s 1995 play Blasted and William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and in particular how traumatic experiences can be treated in art and in criticism in more or less ridiculous, comic, or frivolous ways. Writes Ian Burrows, a teaching associate in the faculty of English at the University of Cambridge in The Guardian.
In the lecture timetable sent to students before term starts, I signalled that the way this discussion was conducted might be particularly difficult for those who had personally encountered abuse or assault. Very few lectures offered to students by my faculty are accompanied by such trigger warnings, but I attached mine in the knowledge that I’d be discussing these issues extensively, and that I’d be considering how the playwrights in question demean their victims by theatrical means.
I did this last year, too, but this time round the Telegraph, the BBC, the Guardian and others yarked up a story with headlines such as “Cambridge students warned Shakespeare plays may distress them” and “Cambridge Uni students get Shakespeare trigger warnings”. By the time the Independent ran it, Kane wasn’t mentioned any more; soon enough, opinion columnists were failing to mention either the focus on Kane or the extended examination of sexual assault. In the Observer, David Mitchell why-oh-whyed about students “being protected from the knowledge of, among other things, what one of Shakespeare’s plays is about, in case it upsets them”.