Sederi Yearbook 21

Sederi 21
Sederi 21 — 2011
Berta Cano Echevarría & Ana Sáez-Hidalgo
Francisco J. Borge López
ISSN 1135-7789


Jonathan P. A. Sell, “Learning to Scrawl: The Evolutionary Strain in Titus Andronicus.” SEDERI 21 (2011): 91-116.


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Much has been written on the semiotic obsessions of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, less on their relationship with matters of theme. This paper argues first that the play’s engagement with the mutual relationships between language, labour and society draws on classical and early modern accounts of the symbiotic evolution of language and civilised society. It then suggests that the play’s particular rhetorical and kinesiological focus on hand and tongue anticipates the metonymies deployed in Darwinian accounts of human evolution. Key to this reading is the well-known scrawl/scrowl crux: far from opting for a definitive, exclusive meaning, the paper proposes that the semantic uncertainty unleashed at the crux mimics the play’s representation of Rome’s and, in the last resort, humanity’s hesitation between literate civilization and creeping barbarism. No longer a merely lexical quibble over the competing, variously obsolescent and emergent, notions of crawling, gesticulating and scribbling, the crux becomes the touchstone of an evolutionary reading of the play. Just as scrawl/scrowl debates endlessly between different stages on the human evolutionary scale, so Titus Andronicus leaves its readers and audience in uneasy contemplation of Rome’s­ – and their own – perpetual teetering on the brink of degradation.

Keywords: Titus Andronicus; evolution; civilization; barbarism; language.




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