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Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is undoubtedly one of the Bard’s most gruesome plays, dealing with the realms of civilization and barbarism, and how the two intersect. From being introduced as an accomplished leader to dying as a deranged murderer, the titular character soon succumbs to his ill-considered senses of justice and retribution. In Act 3 Scene 2 of this play, four members of the Andronici—Titus, Lavinia, Marcus, and young Lucius—are gathered for a light meal, quickly diving into a conversation regarding Lavinia’s inability to easily express herself through verbal or written language. The discussion concludes with Titus pledging to become his daughter’s interpreter and translate her gestures for the others to comprehend (“Titus Andronicus”). As this scene so fully encapsulates the play’s themes of language, communication, power, and the breaking down of such societal features, I felt it would be appropriate to reimagine Titus as a Deaf man, and deliver one of his monologues through American Sign Language.
Following her violent sexual assault and brutal mutilation by Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia is left with neither a tongue nor hands to comfortably express her opinions and grief. Rather than being allowed to create her own method of communication, the men of the play—Titus and Marcus, namely—force their preferred solutions onto Lavinia. Not only do they infringe upon her remaining shreds of agency, but, by objectifying her, reduce her status as a human being as well. This demonstrates Titus’ inability to abandon his role as a general on the battlefield, more than willing to delegate specific parts and positions for the people in his life and firmly set in his decisions. The tragedy, then, lies in his failed transition from a resolute commander to a loving father, hence leading to his eventual spiral into his blood-soaked pursuit of vengeance. Taking this into account, the idea of a Deaf Titus seemed fitting as a literal representation of his domineering attitude, as the only voice he hears (so to speak) is his own, and he is adamant that his logic and reasoning stand most securely.
Whilst seeking a method to this madness, particularly regarding how Shakespearean English could be translated into ASL, I stumbled upon a resource that proved immensely helpful to my drafting process. The ASL Shakespeare Project, created in 1999 by four members of Yale University, was started in an effort to provide actors, teachers, creatives, and Shakespeare enthusiasts alike with guides to how ASL Shakespeare productions can be done (“The Project”). The site includes free downloadable lesson plans and reference videos, all explaining how each facet of Shakespeare’s use of language can be expressed through ASL. For example, the use of transformational signs—signs with the same foundational handshape—can emulate Shakespeare’s use of rhyme and rhythm, while cultural references—modifying language to being more directly relatable to members of the Deaf community—elevate ASL Shakespeare to more than just a simple lingual change. This immerses everyone involved to a deeper level of comprehension, subsequently emphasizing the importance of an effective mode of communication in the absence of the spoken word.
In my approach of characterizing Titus, I wanted to communicate his misguided tenderness the most. Though he aims to be considerate towards and accommodating of Lavinia’s predicament, he is unaware of how his displays of crude humor to cope with the facts of the situation make him seem incredibly insensitive. By simultaneously assuming he is knowledgeable enough to understand Lavinia and refusing her the chance to express herself on her own terms, his good intentions are overshadowed by his thoughtless behavior. Based on this scene alone, this introduces the audience to a Titus less easily categorizable, who blurs the lines between a good man and a bad one. Similarly, it invites a group of hearing people to confront their preconceived notions of what a Deaf person is—plainly Deaf, or lacking of hearing—and what a Deaf person could be—how one could demonstrate strength and confidence, as well as tactlessness and indiscretion—in the face of possessing what is often viewed as a weakness.
Moreover, in Act 3 Scene 1, prior to the Andronici meal scene, Aaron convinces Titus to cut off one of his hands as penance to the Emperor in exchange for his sons’ freedom. This offering is ultimately rejected and returned alongside Martius and Quintus’ heads, leaving Titus partially incapacitated and thoroughly humiliated (“Titus Andronicus”). In addition to recovering from his voluntary amputation, Titus has to adapt in a manner similar to Lavinia, as their ways of physical expression are compromised. While this alludes to their familial bond, albeit an unconventional one, it also adds to the poignance and tragic quality of the scene, as Titus fails to allow Lavinia her agency and further removes her access to a platform for the conveyance of her thoughts. Lavinia is thus reduced to a commodity, like language, without a rightful place or voice of her own, whose sole value lies within how much use the other characters can find out of her. Furthermore, much of ASL requires two functional hands—one dominant, one supplementary—to fully relay the signs. While Deaf-Blind people are often mentioned as a sub-category within the broad expanse of the Deaf community, encounters with people who cannot physically articulate the signs are rare. This impacts both the signer’s delivery and the conversation partner’s recognition of the signs, creating room for further recalibration.
In conclusion, my choices of performing a section of Titus Andronicus using American Sign Language, and reimagining Titus as a Deaf man, were the conglomerate result of wanting to explore the limits of language and the effects of physical disability. At heart, it has opened my eyes to the world of ASL Shakespeare and the many assumptions I’ve made regarding the relationship between English and ASL. Having been a student of ASL for the past 3 semesters, I have fortunately been exposed to Deaf culture and am regularly challenged to alter my mode of communication for class every week. As this is not the case for many of my classmates, however, I would most certainly be interested in devoting a larger-scale project to seeking a balance between immersion and accommodation in an ASL Shakespeare production for hearing people. Between on-site, voiced interpreting and displayed subtitling, what would provide hearing audiences with the best Deaf theatre experience without negatively impacting their ability to follow what is happening onstage? My performance is but a scratch on the surface of a much greater search for better accessibility in the world of theatre, both classical and contemporary. If anything, I hope to at least inspire a conversation about how separated the hearing and Deaf communities are, and why it is vital for everyone to bridge that gap and build a more sustainable environment, in which hearing and Deaf theatre enthusiasts can interact and coexist.
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