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Excuses, excuses… tragic guilt and extenuation

13 May 2005

This article by Dr Edward Forman came second in the 2004 re:search writing competition.

Female shall murder male: what kind of brazenness Is that?”  Æschylus (~458 BC), Agamemnon

Vous savez, avec un bon avocat, quand on plaide le passionnel …” (“Well, you know, if you get a good lawyer and say it was a crime of passion …”) Jean Anouilh (1969),

In July 1995 Emma Humphreys was released from prison. She had killed her partner Trevor Armitage in 1985, but after ten years her conviction for murder was overturned in what was widely greeted as a ‘landmark’ ruling. It was the first time English courts had accepted a defence of provocation – as grounds for a conviction for manslaughter rather than murder – where the killing had been triggered not by a single explosive event, but by a series of incidents which gradually drove a female victim of bullying to turn on her male tormentor. After this case, juries and judges could take account of the cumulative effects of long-term violent mistreatment, and could do so even if those effects included incidents in which the eventual killer fantasised about or publicly threatened revenge, so that it was a very delicate judgement as to whether the killing resulted from a temporary loss of control or was the realisation of a plan. On the evening of his death, Armitage had incited two other men to rape Humphreys, threatening to beat her up if she resisted, and had then taunted her as she contemplated suicide. She stabbed him to death with a knife with which she had previously been attempting to slit her own wrists.

Three thousand years before this case was considered by the English Court of Appeal, King Agamemnon returned home from the Trojan War. He had lived a violent life in a bloodthirsty age: he married Clytemnestra after killing her former husband, his cousin Tantalus; he assented to the ritual sacrifice of their daughter Iphigeneia as the cost of success in Troy; during and after the expedition he openly lived with concubines Chryseis, Briseis and Cassandra, treated exploitatively as the spoils of war. Clytemnestra had long found consolation for her husband’s absence in the arms of another of his cousins, Ægisthus, and greeted his return, unsurprisingly, with bitter resentment rather than joy. Luring him with false expressions of relief and pleasure into a bath, she killed him.

What is the relationship between these two sordid stories of domestic violence? Should the judge or the jury, in considering the case of Emma Humphreys and others like her, have been subjected to the influence, or the challenge, of Clytemnestra, as she has been presented in tragedies, from Æschylus to Eugene O’Neill? Her case is not a legal precedent, but does it contribute validly to the ethical framework for a modern legal decision? When sociologists coin terms like ‘battered woman syndrome’ or ‘learned helplessness’, and use them to extenuate violent responses,  what can they learn from classical tragedy? – and can they in turn influence the æsthetic effectiveness of art and literature from the past, by opening up new perspectives on  archetypal human situations, based on contemporary experience? This sort of interaction between the ancient and the modern is particularly relevant in the study of performance, since an actress playing Clytemnestra – or Medea or Phædra – on a 21st-century stage will only affect her audience if she conveys both the permanent importance of her distress and its immediate urgency.

When sociologists coin terms like ‘battered woman syndrome’ and use them to extenuate violent responses,  what can they learn from classical tragedy?

Research and scholarship in the Arts and Humanities is seldom a matter of inventing new things, but it does involve a quest for fruitful new ways of seeing the familiar, of making an artistic or literary heritage relevant to new audiences, and of exploring relationships in unexpected areas. The case of Clytemnestra is one of several which I have been exploring in a study of tragedy – Classical, French, Shakespearean and modern – in relation to the theme of extenuation and mitigating circumstances (or, as the more jaundiced might call them, mere excuses). The definition of tragedy has always been very slippery, and may even give rise to the sort of debate over terms which gives academic research a bad name. For me, tragedy is characterised by its exploration of areas of moral ambiguity, where the protagonists feel responsibility, guilt and shame, but where more detached observers are aware of extenuating factors. As a result, tragedy raises awkward and deep questions about the justice of a universe in which misdemeanours, miscalculations or errors of judgement are followed by disproportionate retribution.

Examples abound from all periods of tragic drama. Would a modern Medea get away with manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility? Was Macbeth suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? What does the genome project tell us about Hamlet’s feelings of helpless insecurity? Should Œdipus at Thebes have made more of his defence of ignorance, as would the shamed and ashamed communists scathingly described, thousands of years later, in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Could Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, or Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar named Desire, have done anything, or at least more than they did, to escape from the peer pressure that led them inexorably from the American dream into the American nightmare?

By investigating these potential excuses for shameful action, in law, in ethics and through the worked examples provided by tragedy, I hope to be led both towards new insights into the nature of human responsibility and towards a re-evaluation of the power of performance art to help us assess human behaviour with justice and compassion.

Edward will use his £300 prize to fund a study trip to Paris and other French theatres, where production traditions of the works he is interested in are often interestingly different from British equivalents.

Dr Edward Forman/Department of French

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