It’s All in the Execution: How Representations of Executioners Protect Hegemony | Jacob Fowler

In many examples of media, there is an unsettling figure that looms over the stage, novel, or film. The figure is often quiet, marked only by an ominous presence and domineering silence. This figure is the executioner and, of course, is rarely presented as a masochist blood-fiend who relishes in the fundamentally cruel vision of justice that is capital punishment. Rather, there is a persistent movement in media to present the executioner not as an enactor of capital violence, but carrying out a necessary task. The trope of the silent, stoic executioner helps dignify and humanize the perpetration of mass violence against the predominantly poor and vulnerable and desensitize us to state sponsored destruction. This representation is rooted in a historical moment that saw Christendom use its totalitarian power to push people away from seeking pleasure and toward venerating the pursuit of pain. As we explore the impetus of the proliferation of this trope- and the trope itself – we will track how the preservation of power and the celebration of violence is embodied by this seemingly arcane character type.

Epicurus, the Hellenistic Greek philosopher, died in 270 BCE, and although only a few fragments of his texts and three of his personal letters were spared by the agents of time, his philosophical advancements are still a dominant influence on today’s secular philosophy. Epicureanism, however, has been controversial since its early stages, and was threatened most when most culture and politics were controlled by the church. Epicureanism asserted that since everything was made of atoms, and ultimately there was no afterlife, one should spend their earthly time focusing on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Even this rudimentary definition of his work makes it clear: Epicurus would have no place in a world ruled by the early Church.

Since his model was incompatible with early Christianity— or as one friar stated, “Epicurus utterly destroys religion”— his influence posed a threat to the Church’s ideology.[i] Thus, something was to be done about his legacy and the church ventured down two routes to dismantle it. The first was the obvious and tantalizing choice of defaming his name. This started in the fourth century AD and has remained a surprisingly potent case against both Epicurus and his followers. Perhaps one of the most famous instances of this type of attack was Saint Jerome’s defamation of Epicurus’s most influential disciple Lucretius. Saint Jerome posited that Lucretius took a love potion and committed suicide after the potion drove him mad. Even though no biographical documentation of Lucretius exists  – and neither do love potions –  this particular aspersion has proven to be so pervasive that even twentieth century scholars have claimed that “Jerome was too good a scholar and too honest to record as fact what he would have known… to be false.”[ii]

Despite its endurance, the character attacks were ineffective at leading people away from Epicurus’s teachings during late antiquity. So the church turned course and instead focused on upending his philosophical tenets, especially those surrounding pleasure. The church labelled the pursuit of pleasure as demonic, establishing “pleasure as a codename for vice”. [iii]This, while certainly less fun than accusing people of potion-driven madness, proved more effective for the Church, since the process of convincing followers to discard pleasure as vice proved extremely compatible with the culture of early Christianity. A system with a surfeit of martyrs seamlessly incorporated the value of pain as a means of quasi-martyrdom, a way of leading people closer to God. And this doctrine of self-harm quickly proliferated throughout  Christendom, giving increasing rise to stories like a dying Saint Theresa torturing herself with nails or nuns whipping themselves so emphatically that onlookers were left with blood splats on their person[iv]. Which is to say, the plot had worked. Epicureanism had been abandoned writ large, its tradition carried on only in secret, and most of those subjected to the widespread power of the church began to view pleasure as sin and pain as virtue.

It follows rather easily that the veneration of inwardly directed, private pain would find its way into the public sphere. This mass public desire to witness pain found its logical performative end on the execution stage. The execution, embodied by the executioner, helped not only laud violence but demonstrate power, thereby simultaneously condemning the pursuit of pleasure by killing those who opposed the Church and supporting the ruling class. In the Foucaultian sense, executions are events that “arouse feelings of terror by the spectacle of power.”[v] This spectacle in reverence to— and in service of— power needed a figure to carry out the bloody business of killing criminals, since it would be poor practice for the cardinal or bishop to be the one wielding the axe. Thus, there was a need for a proxy figure. The executioner became the figure that represented power without actually having any themself.

Essentially a play actor, the executioner was expected to be an enigmatic figure whose only interaction with society was their violent duty. Executioners were pariahs, bussed in to provide their hegemonically necessary task; or as Stassa Edwards writes, “Apart from required attendance at church services, where they and their families were restricted to a designated pew, executioners only entered the city to perform tasks relating to their office.” When performing their task, they were instructed to be silent, steely and domineering, and their names were kept secret in order to destroy any lingering remnants of personal identity. The aura of the executioner became part of the spectacle, and through this presentation they signaled that not only were they performing a civil task, but they were performing the natural and necessary work of God. This aura became pervasive and is captured by many early representations of executioners.

Looking at an example from the sixteenth century we see a triangulation that proved to be dominant in most representations of executioners. This triangulation juxtaposes the stoicism of the executioner, the madness of the condemned and the awe of the spectators. The piece, titled Exécution de Gosson sur la place d’Arras, is an engraving completed in 1587 that depicts a high profile execution from the eighth century. The condemned is kneeling with a fearful expression which is obfuscated by a dark shading that consumes the face; a visual metaphor suggesting the corruption of countenance. The raised stage is accentuated by the arena-type wave that the onlookers are positioned in. A mix of soldiers and civilians that suggests solidarity between the militaristic and the private, the crowd is a collection of viewers that are transfixed on the violence. And of course, in the privileged center of the piece is the executioner, an enlarged head with a calm and stern face, his defined arms gracefully swinging an axe.

Image result for Exécution de Gosson sur la place d'ArrasExécution de Gosson sur la place d’Arras, 1587 (Source: BNF)

This piece embodies an artistic endeavor that was common during this period wherein the usual understandings of space and size are manipulated to accentuate certain figures. The foreground objects are not the biggest but the central figure of the executioner is. By making this center figure the largest, the piece warps standard perceptions of space and creates a bird’s eye view in which the viewer is forced to view the image “as it looks to the heavenly patronage”.[vi] If the viewer is being asked to look at the piece as a heavenly body would, and the executioner is clearly placed in a position of privilege, then this artistic rendering affirms the executioner as a servant of God, acting within the defined natural order. This triangulation of stoicism, madness, and enthrallment, as well as the inversion of spatial principles can be seen throughout the art world. However, the stoic representation of executioners does not only exist in the visual arts, it also has a dominant, centuries-long hold in literature.

Let’s take a look at an example from the early twentieth century in Vladmir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading (1935). What can be seen here is the same triangularization that we see in visual art. In the final scene of the novel the madness of the condemned, the stoicism of the executioner, and the awe of the crowd are all juxtaposed as the main character, Cincinatus, tries to grasp his imminent end. The ending is ambiguous and there is room to believe that Cincinatus escaped, but there is also a suggestion that the escape was a fantasy. However, one cannot be concerned with whether the escape was “real” or not because the presence of the executioner— and the extensive power that he represents— is too dominant to escape from, and thus it does not matter if the final scene is a true escape from death or a dream-induced fantasy. Escape does not mean freedom. After his lengthy imprisonment, Cincinatus is fully aware of the full vision of dominant power. Inmuration is less dependent on the act of execution but rather the omnipresent aura of execution, embodied by the stoic executioner who only appears in the final pages. Cincinatus throughout the novel succumbs to his own paranoias that result from the fear of execution. This fear is not catalyzed by the prison warden nor his neighbor in this prison, nor even the conditions of the prison, but rather an ever-consuming fear of what the executioner will bring. Thus, Cincinatus, free or dead, is still succumbing to the natural, inevitable dominance that is carried out by the executioner. What this points to is not that Nabokov was actively writing to protect the ruling class— in fact one could present a compelling reading that he is critiquing it— but the ubiquity of this trope. By 1935, Epicureanism was no longer the subject of harsh criticism by the Church, yet the sentiment of the natural relationship between violence and power was still embodied by the executioner figure. Thus, the strands of anti-Epicurean belief are so pervasive that they still linger, if only in the representation of the power, pointing to an important aspect of the executioner figure: the paradoxical yet transcendental aura of the figure.

While the Church did not suffer from a dearth of martyrs, they did lack a cohesive story that simultaneously prioritized pain and privileged worldly power. The core tenet of the faith is centered around martyrdom, yet the story was incompatible with the cultural shift that the Church was trying to force, the effects of which we see from the Baroque to Nabokov. For the Jesus story to preserve its palpability and violence, the perpetrators of violence must be presented as a symbol of the corruption of man, not stoic handlers of justice. A reworking of the Passion to align the necessity of violence with the necessity of power would far too revisionist to serve its desired function. To preserve power through both the spectacle of executions and the artistic renderings of them, the executioner became transcendental to the execution and even to the power it protects.

Even though the executioner never actually had any power, the nominal role and fictional portrayals became figures of edification. The proclaimed naturality of execution lifted the enactor of violence, rather than the benefactor of it— the ruling class— as a dominant figure. Imagine that the ruling class is placing the executioner as a shield to hide themselves from any potential repercussion. This worked to serve the ruling class, and while it ostensibly further distanced them from the actual performance of pain, they still reaped the benefits of it. This  also allowed for an odd, if inadvertent, juxtaposition between pain and power wherein leadership could be seen as a mere event, while State violence has to be seen as natural and disparate from any lunacy or corruption that might hold power at the time. This means that even when those in power are corrupt, their office is sanctified by the executioner, or, in other words: to preserve power, violence must transcend it.

This brings to mind a rather striking scene from the Disney version of Robin Hood (1973). In this scene we see the animated fox portraying Robin Hood sentenced to death for deception. As he condemns Robin Hood, Prince John’s antics are portrayed as juvenile, with his crown sliding off his head and spittle flying out of his mouth. Yet the behavior of the condemnor is somehow removed from the violence that it manifests. When the executioner— who is a rhino, and let’s not go down that rabbithole— is called upon to carry out the task, the scene takes on a significant change. It is more ominous, but more so; it is more procedural: a rhythmic drumming begins, the expressionless rhino moves forcefully but in a controlled manner, and even the framing of the shot changes, as the audience is now forced to look up on the executioner instead of at eye level like with Prince John. In this way, the executioner’s actions are presented not as evil, but as natural. It is as if the film is pushing the viewer to accept capital punishment as disparate from the power-driven motives that promote it. Everything points to the rhythmic nature of executions while preserving the power of the king. Whether Prince John or King Richard is on the throne, the executioner will remain there to preserve power, to maintain structure and order in a regulated, natural way. This trope, therefore, can be tracked from Baroque art to animated twentieth century cartoons, a nearly unparalleled level of consistency that dominates art forms.

While it was effective for squashing Epicureanism for a while, and despite the pervasiveness of the executioner trope, and the centuries long onslaught of the Church on Epicureanism, the system has lived on. Epicureanism has retained a vitality that seems irrepressible. Philosophers, economists, and politicians have all proselytized the virtue of an Epicurean belief system. Even Thomas Jefferson said, as quoted by John Quincy Adams, that, “the Epicurean philosophy came nearest to the truth of any ancient system of philosophy, but that it has been misunderstood and misrepresented.” While Jefferson had plenty of moral failings in his personal philosophy, he understood that there was a movement actively pushing against Epicureanism through a mode of disinformation. The massive cultural shift from prioritizing pleasure over pain is embodied in the false representation of Epicurean pleasure to the false representation of how executioners embody justice. While perhaps it seems like an inconsequential battle (one between Hellenistic philosophers and Christians) this dialectic has a much larger significance.

Self-flagellation, sacrifice, and austerity are all ideals that the capitalist class imposes on its workers. While often any religious overtones have been effaced— although certainly they have their place, especially in rightwing rhetoric— the principle of pain as more virtuous than pleasure is certainly still dominant. People are asked to place their pleasure to the side so that some greater system can survive. Whether the issue is healthcare or housing, those in power are quick to claim pleasure as vice and self-punishment as preferred. Additionally, we are instructed to see violence not as a means of oppression but as a natural component to our system. The execution is just one of the many cultural and political modes in which power is preserved and violence is venerated. Often, events that are presented as basic issues that should be respected by all, regardless of ideology, are centered around violence. Some examples include the death of Osama Bin Laden and the deluge of hagiography surrounding the police. Even if no one in government wields an axe anymore, they still depend on the presumed natural order that privileges violence as a means of communication with the people. The intertwined role of media to preserve power is essential to understanding the relationship between power and media. From CIA-funded Jackson Pollock to superhero movies that are little more than military worship propaganda, the implementation of media as a tool to preserve power is well-documented and well-alive. The executioner is just one of the more historically prevalent examples, but as the figure’s prevalence dwindles in the age of lethal injection and hopeful abolition of capital punishment, rest assured it will be replaced by something else.


[i] Roberts and Donaldson, 490

[ii] Gain, 545

[iii] Greenblatt, 102

[iv] Greenblatt, 108

[v] Foucault, 58

[vi] Arnheim, 168

Works Cited

Adams, John. Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Philadelphia, 1874

Arnheim, Rudolf. New Essays on the Psychology of Art. Berkeley, University of Berkeley Press, 1986

Foucault, Michel Discipline and Punish (trans Sheridan). London, Penguin, 1979

Gain, D.B. “The Life and Death Of Lucretius.” Latomus, vol. 28, no. 3, 1969, pp. 545-553.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve. New York, W.W Norton and Company, 2011.

Roberts, Alexander, and Donaldson, James. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1951.

Jacob Fowler (he/him/his) is an elementary school teacher living in Oakland, CA. He recently graduated from Pitzer College with a BA in World Literature. His work has appeared in Barren Magazine, Selcouth Station, Soft Cartel, and The Sunlight Press, among others. You can find him on Twitter @jacobafowler.

Literary Landscapes: Characterizing Space Through Dreams and Reality | Margaryta Golovchenko

It is easy – if not natural – to think of space as a material based, geographically rooted term. At the same time, there is sense of intimacy associated with the term which registers on a subconscious level, entailing a system of accepting and refusing entry, whether to people or objects, which is based on predetermined criteria. The mind, meanwhile, is capable of correlating the physical shell of space with the bodily presence waiting to inhabit it; the presence serves as the creator who curates a tableau through movement and manipulation. As a result, the idea that space is empty becomes problematic, for objects never simply end up where they are and instead are always undergoing some form of conscious or subconscious accumulation and arrangement. While in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of Four the idea of emptiness is dispelled by material excess as a form of “filling”, the poems of Louise Glück’s A Village Life present the individual in the dual role of object-creator; occupying and embodying the space as well as manipulating it. It is in the movie Inception that the final aspect of the problem is seen through the close coexistence between object and subject, in which the dichotomy of creation and recreation is mediated through personal meaning. The result is a redefinition of space as a concept that is conceived within the mind before it obtains a physical form, the goal of which is to subvert the strange until the foreign becomes the familiar. In the process space is dominated by emotions, which shape space based on an internal sense of rules and eliminate any possibility of neutrality.

The physical entity of space is the first link in understanding the effect human presence has on their surroundings through personal intervention. This is often manifested in the form of arrangement and the ordering of objects which, in the case of Thaddeus Sholto’s room in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, manifests itself in the form of overabundance. Watson’s amazement at his surroundings is evident from his catalogue-like account of the details in the room which, “[i]n that sorry house […] looked as out of place as a diamond of the first water in a setting of brass[i]. These objects are meant to engage all of the senses, as he points out the “lamp in the fashion of a silver dove […which,] [a]s it burned[,] filled the air with a subtle and aromatic odour[ii], suggesting that it is not enough simply to fill the space. Rather, the goal is to create an atmosphere, an experience that would assail the visitor in an almost transcendental manner, inadvertently transforming the room into a microcosm which appears as if ripped out of the Orient through its desire to imitate, yet simultaneously shows no real attempt to integrate into the London cityscape beyond. This appeal to the senses is, according to Jan Švankmajer, the very difference between curation of a formal space of the museum and the informal space of the bedroom, where museums are the objective and rational form of organization whereas a bedroom is a subjective cabinet of wonders, driven by the emotions[iii]. The objects reconstruct the narrative Sholto has transposed from himself, as a patron of artists and lover of elegance, onto them, making them difficult to admire due to the presence of an almost overbearing context, preventing the viewer from “reading” them in isolation. Furthermore, Doyle uses the room as a physical, albeit distanced, presence of the imperial mindset, which saw “[t]he Orient […] not [as] Europe’s interlocutor, but [as] its silent Other[iv], the objects selected not so much due to their aesthetic values as much as what they are capable of representing. The physical space is akin to “a shell [that] is not merely a being that once lived, but one that is still alive[v]; stagnation prevented not only by the fact that items can be moved individually, but also due to the fact that rearrangement also changes context and, as a result, a purpose.

There is an immediacy to objects as a result of their maneuverability, made more significant when occurring on a larger scale of an entire room. However, they simultaneously evoke a sense of distance and anticipation by indirectly referring to a human presence, whether past or future, which engages with them by deciding what goes together and what is taken out. This gives space the status of a threshold, like in the case of Bartholomew Sholto’s chemical laboratory, with its “double line of glass-stoppered bottles […and table] littered over with Bunsen burners, test-tubes, and retorts[vi]. In contrast to Thaddeus’ room, Bartholomew’s should instead be read as a form of characterization, as it gives the reader a first impression of the man before he can be “encountered” through the page, using visual language to indicate how the environment was manipulated and interpreted through the human body. While a room is not always occupied, the human presence within it is always felt either through the presence or absence of certain objects, the way a modern stove “without the red glow of the coals […eliminates] the whole mood of winter […] and with it the pleasure of family gatherings round the fire.”[vii] The individual is the catalyst in the life of physical space, determining the movements of the objects as well as their overall “lifespan”, resulting in “the house’s virtues of protection and resistance [being[ transported into human virtues […] acquir[ing] the physical and moral energy of a human body[viii] that is like the breath of life which makes space feel lived-in.

At the same time, space is also governed by a second force which is, for the most part beyond the influence of the human hand; specifically, this is the relationship that exists between objects and the natural elements. In this case, human presence is essential as a means of acknowledging the presence of nature as an important companion to the physical which, in the case of things like dust, can be further manipulated as extensions of it. Watson’s description of the neighbourhood in which Thaddeus Sholto’s house is located, with its surrounding “[l]ong lines of dull houses […] relieved by the course glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the corner[ix], while looked down on by Doyle, is exactly what Tanizaki argues for, believing that the process of deterioration as well as the presence of the elements are necessary to the existence of space. He sees them as forces that dictate how objects are appreciated, for “we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and sheen that call to mind the past that made them[x], although he later follows this by distinguishing between Oriental and Western taste, the latter constantly concerned with “bettering his lot[xi]. Human presence in space can be felt before the physical occupation takes place, instead felt through objects which serve as visual histories of movement.

Space comes to life not only through the interaction of various components of the object landscape, but also from the “metaphorical” layer of emotions that is inevitably added when people are present. In her collection A Village Life, Louise Glück captures the way human presence is not only an influence but is a landscape in its own right that is shaped instead by social rather than curatorial rules. The “clusters of metal tables [around the fountain] / […] where you sit when you’re old / beyond the intensities of the fountain […] / [which] is for the young, who still want to look at themselves. / Or for the mothers, who need to keep their children diverter[xii] are imbued with connotations of age, reflecting the lives of their users not through physical wear but through associations they are imbued with. It is this very “use value” that determines “what you can do in a place[,] / but after a while you exhaust that place, / so you long for a rescue.”[xiii] The captivity and freedom found within a space are difficult to imagine if it remains empty of human presence, in a state free of interpretation. The captivity that arises from transposing one space onto another, capturing both in an isolated bubble of time, results in a space “of organic habits […] recapture[ing] the reflexes of the ‘first stairway’ […] push[ing] the door that creaks with the same gesture[xiv] which cause one to see space not for what is there but for how it compares to the habitual, making the foreign into the familiar without giving credit to what is physically present before the individual at that very moment. It is this subconscious comparison that is the greatest “threat” experiences by the physical space from the individual, especially if they are like Baudelaire’s flaneur, for whom “it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite[xv]. This difference in seeing space, “the seeing of things, which belongs / to the science of optics, versus / the seeing beyond things, which / results from deprivation[xvi], is characteristic of a space that has come fully under the control of the social space, which determines how it is to be read as well as who is privileged enough to do so, initiating the segregation and restriction that is to follow.

While the idea of private and public spaces has been hinted at so far in the essay, it is significant to consider this characterization of space separately, as it affects both the object- and people-scape as well as serves as yet another form of contextualization. The works of Doyle and Glück find themselves in a relative center between these two terms — neither present the reader with any clear rules regarding the movement of objects or people, yet both create some semblance of boundaries that can be found in any space one considers to be, in some way, personal. While Sherlock and Watson need the approval of McMurdo to enter Pondicherry Lodge, Glück’s poems focus on the personal bubble of daily life and the decision to interact with others or with one’s environment voluntarily. Just as Švankmajer distinguished between formal and informal collecting, there exists an equivalent pair of private and public space, which is similarly centered on the concept of collecting. The historical “transition from exclusively private or royal collections to public museums was slow, made possible only by a huge conceptual leap in the thinking about the relationship of the private and public sphere, and by the emergence of the modern state[xvii], demonstrating that the underlying feature of space is that it is, first and foremost, always owned by someone, an individual or a collective, who, like the curator mentioned earlier, is privileged with deciding what kind of “life” the space will lead and how it will evolve. The outsider is thus faced with the questions of whether or not is beneficial for them to change the space and, more importantly, whether such a change is possible and what measures need to be undertaken, as the owner of the house has the power to exert their will and arrange their haven as their please, until “think[ing] of the wall, [one doesn’t] think prison. / More the opposite — [one] think[s] of everything [they] escaped, being here[xviii]. Due to the nature of a collective space such as a museum however, it has the greater added responsibility of serving as a mediator and a representor of the social in the material and, particularly in modern society, this implies that the individual has a say in how this representation is to occur, as well as what context is appropriate or desired.

Context, as well as an overarching narrative, is significant for both forms of space presented so far, especially if one considers what is omitted in its creation. While the term exile is typically used to refer to people and their social space, it can arguably be applied to the material as well, to objects that have found themselves in a similarly out-of-place state and “compensate[e] for disorienting loss by creating a new world to rule[xix]. In fact, the dependence mentioned earlier that objects have on human presence, which is necessary for creating and defining the relationship that exists between them, can be classified as a sort of kinship, a “nationalism” with a similar intention of integrating that arises from a condition of estrangement.[xx] Naturally, there is a question of severity and the extent of harm when it comes to this kind of dislocation and decontextualization, which varies from the individual to the object. It is instinctive also to ask which of the two suffers more, and while such a question is difficult to answer with a generalization, it draws attention to how such an issue can be overcome; through a reconstruction of space not by creating an exact replica, but through an amalgamation that results in a hybrid form.

Reconfiguration is the defining feature of the dreamscape, which presents the aforementioned shuffling of information but does so subconsciously rather than deliberately. More specifically, the spaces of dreams are subject to “the condensation of elements of different places in one dream location […and] the selection of a few elements of a totality or the representation of one part of the setting only[xxi], at times making it difficult to trace the original source, as was possible in the case with Doyle. They also heighten what Glück portrays as an emotionally, even personally, charged space that is the construct of the individual. This concern with originality and origin is found in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, for not only is “the subject’s mind […] always [able to] trace the genesis of the idea […but] [t]rue inspiration is impossible to fake”[xxii], the element of curation now given the more specific goal of replication. Saito’s assertion that his carpet, while “stained and frayed in such distinctive ways […was] very definitely made of wool […whereas now he was] lying on polyester[,] which means [he is] not lying on [his] carpet in [his] apartment[xxiii]. While space- and objects specifically- maintain an aspect of the personal which has been explored so far, it becomes highly individualized and almost secretive in Inception, to the point where Arthur’s explanation of Totems to Ariadne is followed by a refusal when she attempts to hold his own. This newfound element of danger, imbedded in the role of the Architect who should “never recreate places from [their] memories […as] building from […] memory is the easiest way of losing […] grasp on [reality]”[xxiv], implies that personal space is a form of the private, that it is eternally found at the crossroads between the real and the imitative, just like a dream is the disguised wishes and internally supressed conflicts of an individual.[xxv] The added distance that is created between the spectator and the actors in the medium of the film, which, as Benjamin argues, causes the camera “not [to] establish a realm apart from the physical world, but instead [to explode] the prevailing world into rubble, piercing the veil of dissimulation[xxvi], presents the dreamscape as a space that remains governed by the very same dichotomies of public and private, object and person, as the waking world, except there is a greater fear of failing to dissociate the signifier from the signified. The mind is a space that is not independent from society or its influences, and while Inception proves that there are aspects of it that remain untouchable and isolated even from a foreign presence, the emotional and private is dependent on the physical for its manifestation, which can then, with some reconnaissance, be decoded.

The essay has focused on defining space as location-based, with the different spaces of the three texts similar to stations on a subway map — the individual travels from one to the other, creating a feeling of definitiveness.This travelling is important to consider- albeit briefly -, at this point in the essay, as it raises the question of whether mobility, due to its function of going rather than arriving or being in, is capable of being a “neutral space” as a result of this in-betweenness. While walking lacks the set boundaries found in Doyle’s novel, confined space is dependent on the act of walking as a way of amassing, which one must then traverse in order to enjoy it, much like one does a garden, “designed to be experienced in motion as a series of compositions dissolving into each other rather than as a static picture.”[xxvii] It is more akin to the general landscape of Glück’s poetry, which exists as a backdrop for the social relations which establish themselves in its forefront, particularly if the act of walking is considered as a semiprivate space like it was in courtship.[xxviii] In fact, walking is hardly the neutral form of space that it appears to be, arguably even more gendered than an enclosed space due to the fact that “[i]t makes women’s sexuality a public rather than a private matter[xxix], while the act of following an existing path is a recombination of the past with the present, serving as “a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there[xxx]. By moving, especially walking, one is inevitably undergoing an act of cross-pollination, carrying over aspects of previous spaces which get broken down, some kept while others are discarded. Movement is the anticipation for the arrival to a structured space, for which the social structures of the road serve as a preparation.

Space, in whichever form it takes, is dependent on the process of planning and execution, but also requires an agreement on the part of the decision makers regarding what it will look like in the end. It is the efforts to structure the physical landscape and then fill it with association and the subconscious which points to the primary role of space as a container for the personal and emotional, which manifest themselves differently based on the person and thus eliminating any chance of a complete uniformity. Yet it is the element of anticipation, the feeling of incompleteness which arises from the possibilities of filling and replacing, which makes physical space definitive and the subconscious space endless, for the latter is constantly finding ways in which to mediate the physical.


[i] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (London: Spencer Blackett, 2000), 48.

[ii] Ibid., 49.

[iii] Jan Švankmajer, “Cabinets of Wonders: On Creating and Collecting,” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 11, no. 2 (2011): 103.

[iv] Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002), 202.

[v] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1994), 113.

[vi] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (London: Spencer Blackett, 2000), 85.

[vii] Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (London: Vintage, 2001), 8.

[viii] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1994), 46.

[ix] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (London: Spencer Blackett, 2000), 45.

[x] Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (London: Vintage, 2001), 20.

[xi] Ibid., 48.

[xii] Louise Glück, “Tributaries,” in A Village Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 6.

[xiii] Louise Glück, “In the Café,” in A Village Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 13.

[xiv] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1994), 14-15.

[xv] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 2012), 9.

[xvi] Louise Glück, “Bats,” in A Village Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 34.

[xvii] Philipp Blom, To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting (London: Penguin, 2003), 112.

[xviii] Louise Glück, “Olive Trees,” in A Village Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 55.

[xix] Edward W. Said, Reflection on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002), 181.

[xx] Ibid., 176.

[xxi] Christina Iosifescu Enescu, Christina M., Jacques Montagero, and Lorenz Hurni, “Toward Dream Cartography: Mapping Dream Space and Content,” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 50.4 (2015): 225-226.

[xxii] Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan (2010; Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures).

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Christina Iosifescu Enescu, Christina M., Jacques Montagero, and Lorenz Hurni, “Toward Dream Cartography: Mapping Dream Space and Content,” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 50.4 (2015): 226.

[xxvi] Gertrud Koch and Nancy Nenno, “Cosmos in Film: On the Concept of Space in Walter Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art’ Essay,” Qui Parle 5, no. 2 (1992): 66.

[xxvii] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 2001), 90.

[xxviii] Ibid. 232.

[xxix] Ibid., 235.

[xxx] Ibid., 72.

Margaryta Golovchenko is a poet and reviewer based in Toronto, Canada. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as The Hart House Review, Acta Victoriana, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Contemporary Verse 2, while her reviews can be found or are forthcoming in Alternating Current, Adroit Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, and Empty Mirror. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks and is about to begin her MA in art history at York University.

You can find her on Twitter at  @Margaryta505

An introduction to homosexuality and homoplatonic relationships in the British Army of 1910-1918 | Edward Ashworth

I. Pre-war context

  1. Society

In Edwardian Britain –  unlike many of its European colleagues –  homosexuality was strictly forbidden; even more between men, even more in the Army. Still populated by hardened Regulars, the strict obedience to King’s Regulations would ‘take a hit’ with the arrival of the New Army battalions; then the Territorials; then the conscripts in 1916.

Perhaps because the Wilde trials were still very present in the British public’s mind, laws against homosexuality were severely enforced during this period, more so than  during the interwar period and the Second World War. This led to an unavoidable lack of source material concerning homosexuality during the Great War.

One must keep in mind that the Edwardian era was immensely different in its perception of relationships between men. Despite the laws quoted above, camaraderie and close intimacy between men were, curiously, very much tolerated, and even more between young men and their older counterparts [1]. A look at a few dozens of photographs from the era is enough to point out that positions presented by comrades-in-arms – whether homosexual or heterosexual –  would be considered queer through today’s male gaze. The line between legal male friendship and illegal homosexuality was indeed very thin.


A group of officers posing outside a French brothel.

  1. The army as centre of homosexual fantasies

Before he enlisted in the Great War as an officer, one of the unashamedly homosexual photographer Montague Glover’s favourite subjects was soldiers. [2] As explained by James Gardiner in his book, the main homosexual fantasy in Edwardian Britain, not much different from today, was of the soldier (especially the ones of the Royal Guard, which would later earn themselves a reputation of being ‘readily available’) and the sailor. Many of Glover’s photographs were taken at the Guards’ Barracks in London and represented soldiers and cavalrymen of the Royal Guard sometimes even in their undergarments. The others were privately taken at his home and represented men he liked in Guard uniforms, supplied by Glover himself.

Gardiner makes a note of how widespread male prostitution was around Wellington Barracks. It was not only a feature of the British army; before and during the war, in both the British and French armies, soldiers on leave (furlough) would earn some extra money on their rather weak pay by offering their services. Not  just the Guards’ barracks were famous among the homosexual community at the time, but officers often took advantage of their position to ‘introduce men from the ranks to prospective clients on a commission basis’.

I suspect this practice would have faded out with the arrival of the war, when men had other things to do than stand guard all day.

II. The Great War

  1. Paternalism

The ‘natural distance’ between officers (at the time, almost exclusively members of the British upper class) and Other Ranks led to the doctrine, mainly enforced since the Victorian era, of ‘paternalism’ [3]. It consisted in a much closer relationship to the men than other armies at the time; what is indeed the relationship of a father to his sons or an elder brother to his younger counterparts. (See  First World War poem ‘In Memoriam’ by Ewart Alan Mackintosh, linked below).

This doctrine would prevent the British Army from starting mutinies such as the Chemin des Dames in the French Army, in 1917. Officers were indeed responsible for the good care of their platoon or company and were even to sign documents certifying that their men were properly clothed and washed.

From paying supplies from their own pocket for their men, closing their eyes on minor offences or saving their lives (and vice-versa), subaltern officers were strongly encouraged to keep a positive relationship with their men. The line of military authority and strong friendship with the men would blur even more with the arrival of New Army and Territorial battalions. Less keen on discipline, –  especially of newly commissioned officers, among which the youngest were 19 –  far less than the men of the platoon they were meant to command, such stringency became difficult to enforce. [4]

Relationships between subalterns and Other Ranks (and especially between the officer and his soldier-servant) would properly be called ‘love’ and a prime example of homoplatonic affection allowed for the reason of social class distance supposedly making homosexuality impossible. Although officers favoured relationships with officers and men with men, this was not always the case.

Former First World War serviceman Thomas McIndoe would recall in 1975, rather amusedly, how an officer exclaimed ‘Oh, what a lovely clean boy!’ after being thoroughly impressed by his shaving done with a brand new razor – quite rare at this time in the trenches –  before asking him to help with his own growing facial hair. [5]

  1. Development of physical intimacy

The First World War changed men’s perception of physical touch and intimacy, and this is particularly visible in period literature. On many pictures, it is possible to see soldiers cuddling up for warmth on firesteps in the hard of winter, officers dining with their men rather in their dugouts, wounds being treated or blankets being pulled up.

Sharing a tent or living near each other in an almost permanent fashion led men to tolerate some things (although more so from married men than single ones) better than before the war. ‘Brook, Jackson and myself all had homosexual tendencies (…) and in the days and nights of stress we masturbated, but kisses on unshaven faces were rare, and then only at moments of acute danger’. [6]

Others momentarily accepted the possibility of comfort, before turning back on it such as Second Lieutenant Yates who denounced his fellow officer, Second Lieutenant Ernest Dunn, for sexual acts they had shared earlier. ‘(…) It is evident that Dunn was quite open about his need for comfort and emotional support due to his continuing fragile mental condition; a need to which his accuser seems to have initially responded positively’ [7].

One thing to be noted is that even heterosexual men could be ‘pushed towards that kind of temptation’ as women in the frontline were rare and the existence of brothels not immediate. Indeed, as Lord Kitchener recommended to resist ‘both temptations’ (wine and women), the British Army had no official brothel. The French would open theirs – some buildings separated between those for men and those for officers that the British soldiers, fearing to die as virgins, would rush to visit – but this would not happen until 1915.

Tommy Keelee (an odd and yet heterosexual fellow, who had spent some time of the war dressing as a woman to play on frontline theatre stages for female company-lacking soldiers who did not quite guess he was a Lance Corporal in disguise) recalls being inappropriately touched by a sergeant with whom he had to share a room: ‘[He] felt the sergeant’s hand wandering near his bottom. He brushed the hand away, but it returned. ‘Don’t you dare!’ said Tommy, but the sergeant did dare, so (…) says Tommy, ‘I really battered his head and face’. (…) ‘But, I was a bit sorry for him afterwards. There was no such thing as real girls around, and anything was good enough.’ [8].

III. Modern perception of the Great War

  1. The War Poets

It must be noted that the modern public views the Great War through historical figures, among which many were homosexual or related to homosexuality in some sort of way.

The most famous of them might be the war poets (Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Graves and many others). Their relationships and homosexuality shaped their poetry in such a way that it would be unthinkable to deny their nature. Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves were all known to have engaged in same-sex affairs in their lifetime ; Charles Sorley and Ivor Gurney are also suspected of having male lovers. [9]

By extension, their poetry and perception of male affection (very present in Owen’s poetry; The Ghost of Shadwell Stair, There was a navy boy, Maundy Thursday, etc.) shaped the general public’s vision of the Great War due to their heavy presence in British secondary education.

They also happen to be the prime example of why there is such a lack of material on First World War homosexuality. After the war, Wilfred Owen’s brother, Harold, burned or censored many letters written by him to which one must add the bag of letters that Owen explicitly asked his mother to burn without reading a single one of them. [10]  Their contents remain unknown.

  1. Other notable figures

Although extremely uncertain, claims have been made that Lord Kitchener, the iconic poster figure of the war, was homosexual. He indeed lived for nine years alongside his companion, Captain Oswald Fitzgerald. Although such claims cannot be confirmed, especially due to Kitchener’s habit of burning his own papers, there was certainly a very intimate relationship between the two of them that, if it cannot be called homosexual, was certainly homoplatonic. [11]

Another famous literary work representing the First World War in the eyes of the general public would be ‘Journey’s End’, by R. C. Sherriff. Himself a First World War officer, he is described as such by one of his biographer : ‘His love life is a total mystery. (…) Most (…) seem to have intuited that he was gay – a likely hunch I’d say’. [11] Another biographer, Roland Wales, adds,  ‘Throughout his entire life there is no evidence of Sherriff entering into any kind of physical relationship with anyone’. [12]

The play describes homosocial relationships between officers at the time. Captain Stanhope, kept under the watch of the older officer Lieutenant Osborne (nicknamed ‘Uncle’) is, during one of his drunken hazes, tucked in bed by him. ‘Kiss me, Uncle,’ he demands. ‘Kiss you be hanged,’ Osborne answers. [13]

Staged by James Whale, a former First World War soldier and a known homosexual Hollywood director, the first film actor for the role of Stanhope would be Colin Clive who had given in to drunkenness due to not coming to terms with his sexual orientation. Whale seems to have seen an interesting parallel between the two men.

Finally, a focus on the famous work ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain brings us to an important example that is Edward Brittain, the brother she lost to the war.

An officer in the Sherwood Foresters, he  was given a ‘talk’ by his commanding officer in June 1918, warning him that the army censor had discovered letters from him, sent to another officer, talking about having sexual relationships with Other Ranks in his company. Brittain, afraid of having to face a court-martial for an offence that was more so an offence for corrupting his social inferior than for acts of homosexuality, threw himself into enemy fire the next day to avoid bringing that kind of shame to his family. [14]

After many efforts, Vera Brittain finally came to know the truth about his death, from his commanding officer, which she seems to have staged in her book ‘Honourable Estate’.

As such, it is interesting to see how forbidding homosexuality in the ranks seems to have reinforced that temptation more than anything else. The perception of the First World War by the modern British public is undoubtedly shaped by the life experiences of its main figures, a phenomenon not present in other armies at the time.


[1] ‘Fighting Proud’, Stephen Bourne

[2] ‘The Private Pictures of Montague Glover’, James Gardiner

[3] ‘Six Weeks: The Shot and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War’, John Lewis-Stempel

[4] ‘Some Desperate Glory: the diary of a young British officer,’ Edwin Campion Vaughan

[5] ‘Shaving in the Trenches: Washing and Grooming in the Great War’, Alun Withey

[6] ‘The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-Ling’, Eric Hiscock

[7] ‘Jamaican Volunteers in World War I’, Richard Smith

[8] ‘The Telegraph’, 2013, Joshua Levine

[9] ‘Youth that dying touch my lips to song’: The poetry of men who loved men in the First World War‘, Kevin Childs

[10] ‘Wilfred Owen’, Dominic Hibberd

[11] ‘Journey’s End: The Classic War Play Explored’, Robert Gore-Langton

[12] ‘From Journey’s End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches’, Roland Wales

[13] ‘Journey’s End‘, R. C. Sherriff

[14] ‘Vera Brittain: a Life’, Mark Bostridge

Edward Ashworth was born in Corsica but gained an interest in British history & culture after teaching himself English.

He has been awarded several prizes by the French Ministry of Education and the French National Veteran Office for his work on the First and Second World War. His additional work in the Wellington Street Review can be found here.

Further Reading:

Santanu Das

Ken Childs


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Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania – Bayard Taylor
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Bertram Cope’s Year – Henry Blake Fuller
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Intertextual Re-creation in Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys – Bertrand Cardin
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‘Youth that dying touch my lips to song’: The poetry of men who loved men in the First World War – Kevin Childs
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and Modernist Fictions of Identity – Laura Green
Slash fandom, sociability, and sexual politics in Putin’s Russia – Sudha Rajagopalan
Homophobia in Marlowe’s Edward II – Gelson Peres de Silva
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“Kiss Me on the Lips, for I Love You”: Over A Century of Heterosexism in the Spanish Translation of Oscar Wilde – Sol Rojas-Lizana, Laura Tolton & Emily Hannah
Everything is Out of Place: Radclyffe Hall and the Lesbian Literary Tradition– Gillian Whitlock
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Review: ‘The Woe of Roanoke’ by Mathew Horton | Annabel Mahoney

This review and the poem it discusses contains reference to violence,
cannibalism, death (including children), colonisation, racism, suicide,
sexual violence (including rape and incest), torture and murder.
Discretion is advised.


Epic poetry – in all its intergenerational, preternatural and moralistic glory –is a staple of most student literature, wherever in the world you may be. As a child, I ‘studied’ an Fhiannaíocht – a medieval Irish collection about the hero Finn mac Cumhaill and his warriors, the Fianna – and Beowulf, which made me scared of Grendel. While it would be easy to slap the label ‘epic’ on any poem deemed ‘long’ – and at 205 pages, The Woe of Roanoke more than qualifies –Mathew Horton’s account of murder and cannibalism runs so deep and so entrenched into the lifeblood of the genre.

The Woe of Roanoke is formed of nine different poems (‘books’, in the context of the collection) divided into three parts and an epilogue, all of varying length. Book One tells the story of ‘Black’ Agnes Bean, daughter of Sawney and den mother to her numerous siblings. After the murder of her lover by her mother Agnes manages to escape her family and marries a ploughman. Weighed down by guilt and grief, she is driven to confession ten years later.

The themes of grief and loss run strong through The Woe of Roanoke. Agnes’s narrative is temporarily overtaken in Book Two by Thomas Hume, ex-lover of King James VI and I [Historical note: King James ruled as James VI of Scotland from 1567 and James I of England and Ireland after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Despite sharing a monarch under the Union of the Crowns, England and Scotland continued to be autonomous states until the Acts of Union in 1707]. Hume lost his parents to the vigilante groups searching for the Bean clan. Part of the force which uncovers the Bean cave, Hume witnesses the humiliation of the monarch at the hands of Sawney himself.

The Woe of Roanoke does not portray James in a flattering light. Historically, James was obsessive about witchcraft. Under his reign in Scotland, the first witch trials in the British Isles began in earnest. The Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 made witchcraft and consulting with those suspected thereof a capital offence; a law which was spread to England in 1604 after James’s accession. He was known for personally supervising the judicial torture of women suspected of being witches. His ‘theological’ treatise Daemonologie, published in 1597, examined necromancy, black magic and how the implications of both justified the execution of suspected witches. Daemonologie went on to become a foundation text for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, of which James was a patron. James was also known for his same-sex affairs, most notably with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham whose unpopularity led to his assassination in 1628.

None of this historical context is wasted by Horton. James is presented almost farcically; a pantomime villain with a sword. After the raid on the Bean cave, James begins to purge his kingdom in order to keep his reputation intact. Hume flees to London, where the death of Elizabeth later brings James. His English coronation, which takes place in Book Three, is notably Roman in its style and influence; excess and decadence offset by the background of plague-ridden London.

The plague itself is a malleable thing. While not as infamous as the Black Death of 1360-3 or the Great Plague of 1665, 1603 saw an outbreak of plague in London which lasted for eight years and claimed the lives of approximately 43,000 people.[i] In the context of the poem, the plague is implied – in the mind of Hume, at least – to be a result of a dying curse from Agnes Bean. Within his quarantine inside a brothel (itself an interesting parallel with the lack of moral fortitude associated with his nemesis James), Hume suffers hallucinations of the Bean clan. Fittingly entitled ‘A Ruined Hume and Bean’, the third book of this poem brings together the casual ghastliness of epidemic and disregard for human life associated the Early Modern period with the mystic undertones integral to epic poetry.

The second part of The Woe of Roanoke leaves Scotland and England behind as the ship of colonists The Lion makes passage to America. Book Four introduces a new voice to the narrative; wealthy merchant Humfrey Dimmock, who provides an insight into the tensions between the Puritan settlers and the mariners on board. In the middle of this conflict is a Scottish boy named Blue Bill Brown. The unrest on board is fuelled by Blue Bill, who encourages dissent between the colonists and the primary antagonists on the staff, the pilot and the cook’s assistant.

This conflict takes up the majority of Book Four, and Book Five finds Blue Bill living with Chief Wanchese, the last known leader of the Roanoke people, to whom Bill’s blue skin and red hair are a source of fascination. Given the Algonquian name ‘Matwau’ (meaning ‘Enemy’), Blue Bill stalks and terrorises the colonists’ isolated camp, who are also battling food and water shortages. Bill becomes an almost preternatural presence among them. Book Six concerns Eleanor Dare – mother of the ‘first white child’– kept chained alive inside a cave by Blue Bill, the son of Sawney and his daughter Black Agnes. Eleanor tries to keep her grip on reality by shielding her child from the worst of the cruelty that surrounds them; a parallel of Black Agnes’s narrative in the first book. As she loses her grip on sanity, her murdered husband Ananias appears to her. Eleanor begs Ananias to protect their teenage daughter Agnes as she succumbs to her fate as a captive.

The third part of The Woe of Roanoke knits together the strands of London, Virginia and the fate of the colony itself. Book Seven starts with an excerpt from Sallie Southall Cotten’s The White Doe, a 1901 self-styled ‘legend’ about the fate of Virginia Dare. The work is proudly colonialist; the dedication reads ‘To The National Society of Colonial Dames of America; WHOSE PATRIOTIC WORK HAS STIMULATED RESEARCH INTO AN IMPORTANT AND INTERESTING PERIOD OF THE HISTORY OF OUR BELOVED COUNTRY’[ii]. Book Seven’s six line quotation ends with the phrase ‘The fierce brawny red man is king of the wold’, repeated three times like an incantation.[iii] The duality of ‘wold’, an almost-archaic phrase referring to a piece of high, open uncultivated land or moor and ‘world’ is clear here. The wold on which Blue Bill rules is the world; it is the beginning and the end of the lived experience of all who come across him. It brings to mind Macbeth’s witches on the heath; the meeting of two spaces in a land deemed ‘unclaimed’. The book continues with James I still tormented by his memory of the Beans. The colony briefly thrives, before a mysterious wedding prophesises a ruination which unfolds through the rest of the book.

Part Eight – broadly told as a conversation between Blue Bill and Matwau, both embodying a separate character – highlights the script-like nature of the poem. The individual speakers and their idiolects, intercut occasionally with lines from the omniscient Narrator, feels very much like the text of a Jacobean tragedy. Horton carries this atmosphere forward into Book Nine, with the ruin of Roanoke told by Chief Powhatan – whose proper name Wahunsonacock is the title for the ninth book – to John Smith, of Pocahontas infamy. Wahunsonacock recounts the final climactic battle against Matwau, the ‘tawny cannibal King’ to bring the poem to its ostensible finish.[iv] In true epic poetry form, the defeat of evil does not mark the end. Hearing of the tragedy of the colony and the spread of the Bean clan, King James orders a sustained effort into their eradication; one of his lieutenants is Enn, one of the original raiders of Sawney’s cave.

It is not the poem’s close – the glumly prophetic warning ‘Matwau was not the last one-/Madman believed messiah/More rejects were to follow on/As sheep will seek pariahs’ – which cements its epic form, although that is certainly a part of it. [v] The cyclical nature of the narrative, of violence begetting violence and the repeating of the same intergenerational mistakes is a hallmark of the genre. Other characteristics of the epic; the supernatural, the breadth of setting, the objectivity of the central voice (in this case, the narrator) are immediately evident in Horton’s verse. Others are less so. One of the seven primary features is the hero; a character deemed to be historically or legendarily significant. Sawney Bean himself was most likely fiction – or at the very most, a significant embellishment – and many of the other characters, while being historical figures in their own right, are unlikely to be labelled as ‘historically significant’. Is Sawney, by dint of his legendary status and as the overall connecting force between the books, the true hero of this piece? Is it King James? It is not required that the hero be good.

Horton plants narrative themes within the text – colonialism, the critique of monarchy, the externalisation of evil as disease – and he manages to sustain them through the whole 205 page effort. While Macbeth’s influence is present, there is the intriguing thought that The Woe of Roanoke could be seen as the inverse of Shakespeare’s Henry V, itself a mediated metaphor for the colonisation of Ireland. The legend of Sawney Bean is believed to be a piece of anti-Scottish propaganda invented after the Jacobite Risings. The Woe of Roanoke also presents an interesting inversion of another popular propaganda myth, that of the ‘savage native’ which was used by Europeans as a pretext to invade, massacre and enslave indigenous groups during the colonisation of North and South America. The savagery of colonisation is made manifest in Blue Bill, whose very existence is used as an excuse for further invasion and terror at the end of the piece.

Other influences are visible in the scheme and metre of Horton’s work. Book Four, ‘Dimmock’s Yellow Diary’, which focuses on the voyage out to America brings to mind Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in its verses which run ‘Half a crew, no wind blew/Both boats were lagged in loiters/Lazy, for the spirits knew-/Chastisement for exploiters’, and ‘Like men morphed into mannequins/Pus coughed from corrupt lungs/Like the strangled cut from scaffoldings/With scurvy bloodied gums.’ [vi] [vii] The brief homage to Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est in ‘coughed… corrupt lungs’ – which may or may not be intentional – serves to underline the futility of the viciousness inflicted throughout the course of the text. Horton has had some fun with the historical background of the text; ‘Four cannon and some cannon shot/And gunpowder to blow their plot’, a reference to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a plan to assassinate King James by blowing up the Houses of Parliament on November 5th is just one of the historical witticisms planted in the text.[viii]

Horton manipulates the verse in a way which spares the reader none of the savagery associated with his narrative. Wahunsonacock recalls finding the corpse of his wife ‘…stripped of every sinew/Eye sockets stuffed with plumes’; the ruins of the colony described as ‘… Its corrupted sin/Like feasting on the flesh of men/Or laying with your kin.[ix] [x] The colonisers bring ‘disease, disgust, despair/Convinced us It was sacred’.[xi] There is a vivid veracity to the verse, one which does not shy away from showcasing all the horror and violence of its subject.

The rhyme and rhythm are varied throughout the course of the poem. Some verses are deceivingly simple in their structure, such as ‘Johnny Bright was set alight/His treachery uncovered/His torched remains were torn by kite/Dog, rat and crab and buzzard’ has an almost nursery rhyme-like skip to its structure.[xii] Similarly, ‘An English boat was spied to float/Into Chesapeake bay/Matwau slit five English throats/To scare the ship away.’[xiii] Compare this to the comparatively long opening verse of the poem, which runs ‘T’was not just the gale that chilled his skin/As he mulled on the cannibal captured within./In trembling state he clenched his cane/To rap tap the gate of the jail in the rain.[xiv] These variations are not limited to individual books of the poems either; in Book One, The Ballad of Agnes Bean from which the previous quotation was taken, is the verse ‘They say I’m a witch/Which I say to them nay!/I’m a Christian now/I know how to pray’ which echoes the ABCB structure of the fate of Johnny Bright.[xv] Within the same verse are the follow-on lines ‘I’m repented of sin lamented the crime/A new son’s arrived. A husband who’s kind’; the change in rhyme scheme abrupt.[xvi] Horton wrong-foots the reader in many such instances, allowing his rhythm to become familiar before snatching it away.

Other times the rhymes flow on and on; the verse ‘Five years in a pit with a fern for a door/A toil for food in the soil on the floor/Rat and root and dreams of boar’ describes the squalor which Sawney, his wife and their early children lived in before migrating to their infamous cave.[xvii] The verse feels claustrophobic and tight, but the rhyme does not feel laboured. There are similar moments of exposition, such as ‘He came into the world callous and brawny/Alexander she named him/They nicknamed him Sawney’, in which it would be all too easy to fall into the trap of forcing a rhyme for rhyme’s sake –  you cannot, after all, write this poem without the word Sawney.[xviii] Yet Horton’s admirable writing and eye for rhythm surmount these challenges without the reader realising there was a challenge to begin with. Horton does not sacrifice rhyme for image; the verse ‘The hangman was a man of frock/The noose was tightened by the parson/A forced recluse, now half an orphan.’ exchanges the half rhyme of ‘parson’ and ‘orphan’ for the role of the diocese in the judiciary, which is so integral to the background against which Horton is writing.[xix]

That is not to say the work is flawless. As with any poem, and particularly in a poem of this length, there are words and phrases which do not quite sit right. There are some continuity errors in the rhyming; ‘kirk’ and ‘clerk’ are rhymed on page 28, the word ‘clerk’ pronounced in the American-English manner /klɜːrk/. [xx] In the opening pages of the poem, ‘clerk’ is rhymed with ‘dark’, where ‘clerk’ is the British-English pronunciation /klɑːrk/. [xxi] However, in a work of almost 900 verses, it is to be expected that not every verse measures up to exactly the same standard. There are moments of incredible skill; the lines ‘The grog soaked ogre, half hungover/Eyed his empires’ fall; ‘They added to the mound of meat/With severed hands and severed feet’ and ‘This pulsing place that now was raw/A crucifix on every door’ were all moments of writing that I found particularly outstanding.[xxii] [xxiii][xxiv] There are moments of humour as well – the dead remnants of the Bean clan are referred to as ‘baked Beans’ at one point in the text – which manage to offset the tone of the poem from what could be an atmosphere of unrelenting gloom.[xxv]

Mathew Horton has produced something incredibly uncommon. While the thought of the sustained length of an epic – not to mention the other genre-specific characteristics – would daunt even the bravest of us, The Woe of Roanoke is plainly a labour of love for Horton. His enthusiasm shines through the text, and his thorough research into the historical background of the piece is testament to his dedication. While its subject matter and violence may be off-putting to some readers, for those interested in some of the more traumatic areas of the past (or perhaps to fill that Game of Thrones hole), The Woe of Roanoke could well be the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Paperback, 244 pages
Published May 15th 2017
ISBN 1521294194


Mathew Horton’s The Woe of Roanoke is available from Amazon.

The Wellington Street Review received a copy of this book from its author in exchange for an honest review. Neither author nor publisher are affiliated with the Wellington Street Review or its staff.

[i] Graunt, John (1759), Collection of Yearly Bills of Mortality, from 1657 to 1758 Inclusive

[ii] Southall Cotten, Sally (1901), The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare (

[iii] Mathew Horton, The Woe of Roanoke, p.140

[iv] Horton, Woe, p.167

[v] Horton, Woe, p.205

[vi] Horton, Woe, p.88

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Horton, Woe, p.32

[ix] Horton, Woe, p.p. 159

[x] Horton, Woe, p.p. 164

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Horton, Woe, p.136

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Horton, Woe, p.3

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Horton, Woe, p.4

[xvii]  Horton, Woe, p.9

[xviii] Horton, Woe, p.5

[xix] Horton, Woe, p.25

[xx] Horton, Woe, p.28

[xxi] Horton, Woe, p.9

[xxii] Horton, Woe, p.48

[xxiii] Horton, Woe, p.41

[xxiv] Horton, Woe, p.36

[xxv] Horton, Woe, p.54

Was Shakespeare Sexy? Modern Pop Culture and Will’s Sex Appeal | Jesse Hernon

Since the late 20th century, a specific question regarding the perception and interpretation of the life and works of William Shakespeare have occasionally permeated the cultural discussion surrounding his legacy. Between “the mess that the new punk version of “Romeo & Juliet” makes of Shakespeare’s tragedy” (Ebert), and the 1998 Academy Award winning, “reminder that Will Shakespeare was once a young playwright on the make” (Ebert, Shakespeare in Love), a new image of Shakespeare began to take form. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet had hot teen stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes breathlessly reciting sonnets to each other and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love gave a pop culture take on Elizabethan London with Tom Stoppard cred. With Shakespeare being so mass-consumable and prolific in an award season sort of way, new audiences were introduced to the Bard and were left wondering; Was Shakespeare… Sexy?

It’s not that Shakespeare-as-hot wasn’t sort of a staple of our modern understanding. According to data website Pricenomics in a 2016 study of  “notable professional performances” since 2011, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night are the most performed (Kopf). Presumably, these are the plays people have the most access to and the ones that, for a modern audience, shape an understanding of what Shakespeare’s all about. All three are romances, and while they very in genre beyond that there’s definitely a fair amount of musing on the nature of love in all of them. They also show up in abundance of pop culture interpretations, beyond Shakespeare in Love and Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story and High School Musical both take on Romeo and Juliet as teen-centric musicals. Teen comedy She’s the Man is a modern re-interpretation of Twelfth Night. Midsummer becomes the focal point of the BAFTA Award-winning and popular high school English class required watching Dead Poet’s Society. Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are among the most popular taught in modern high school English classes (French). Modern audiences are most likely to be exposed to Shakespeare as a romantic, and to understand his work as intrinsically connected to modern ideas of romance. Even if you think Romeo and Juliet are dumb teens, you’re contextualizing their relationship through your 21st century understanding of what relationships are and should be.

It’s not unjustified. Shakespeare either invented or at least popularized the term “star-crossed lovers” and we still think there’s something undeniably hot about the forbidden romance trope that these plays all, in some way, focus on. Shakespeare’s often described as being universal, and his understanding of how to capture romance certainly has proven to be timeless. However, the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love has a different take on Shakespeare’s romantic legacy. Rather than focusing on the sensuality of Shakespeare’s plays, John Madden, Marc Norman, and Tom Stoppard are more interested in exploring the sexiness of Shakespeare’s life. As Roger Ebert commented in his review of the film, “’Romeo and Juliet’ must have been written by a man in intimate communication with his libido” (Ebert, Shakespeare in Love).

Shakespeare in Love presents a modern Hollywood love story through the lens of the world of Elizabethan theatre. Ebert opens his review summarizing a scene that demonstrates the tone of the movie: “There is a boatman in “Shakespeare in Love” who ferries Shakespeare across the Thames while bragging, “I had Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.” As Shakespeare steps ashore, the boatman tries to give him a script to read” (Ebert, Shakespeare in Love). The film’s central storyline revolves around a young William Shakespeare, portrayed by Joseph Fiennes in a puffy sleeved shirt with a deep v-neck, engaging in a whirlwind star-crossed romance with a young noblewoman who is engaged to another man. The script borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s iconic romances, the film climaxes with the premiere of Romeo and Juliet, which mirror’s the young Will’s own doomed romance. His love interest, Viola de Lesseps, borrows her name from the protagonist of Twelfth Night, and the final scene implies their relationship inspires Shakespeare to write the piece.

The film was undeniably a hit, grossing an estimated $279,500,000 worldwide (Nash Information Services), receiving generally favorable reviews, and winning big at that year’s Academy, Golden Globe, and SAG awards. Shakespeare in Love’s popularity has lasted over the years since its release, with Disney Theatrical commissioning a stage adaptation in 2013 (Cox) that premiered in London to favorable reviews from The Telegraph (Spencer), Independent (Taylor), and The Guardian (Billington), who commented, “On the one hand, it suggests commercial theatre is a timelessly precarious business: on the other, it flatters us with its references to the specific conditions of Elizabethan theatre”. It’s not hard to see why people like Shakespeare in Love. Similar to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, it grounds Shakespeare’s life in a modern context and brings someone we revere as a great literary figure to a more relatable level; that of the horny kind-of-a-hack starving artist type. Modernizing Shakespeare’s world goes a step beyond modernizing the world of his text, it doesn’t functionally add any understanding to the plays themselves, but it does make us feel like we can understand the mind of a man who has been canonized as the one, true Great Playwright. Besides, it is fun to imagine what inspired Shakespeare, isn’t it? We don’t know much about his life, beyond what we know about his plays and what we know about Elizabethan theatre, and speculation about why Shakespeare wrote what he wrote (or in some cases, if he wrote it at all) has long been a popular topic. With pop-culture takes on his work aiming to keep the plays fresh, a pop-culture take on his life certainly makes sense.

While modernizing Shakespeare has clearly been a trend for at least the past few decades, in 2017 something new happened. A divisive take on Shakespeare, and an artistic attempt at a fresh, modern, and cutting edge take. Sparking discussion regarding the portrayal of politics, religion, diversity, TNT’s 2017 drama series Will presents a punk rock remix of the Shakespeare in Love premise on ecstasy. It’s not hard to find reviews panning the premise of Will. On paper, it reads similarly to the Shakespeare in Love take; a young William Shakespeare travels to London to make a name for himself as a playwright, cheat on his wife a bit, and generally get up to some wacky antics while accidentally espousing now-famous dialogue. Marlowe shows up to do… something cryptic in the background. A woman acts in a play disguised as a boy, the beats are all there. There are two main differences. First, Will reads like it was written by the worst high school English teacher you can imagine. This aspect doesn’t go unnoticed; several reviews call out the show’s try-hard attempt at coolness specifically. In a review for Variety, Sonia Saraiya writes, “It also, quite painfully, places [Shakespeare] in a Renaissance pub’s “rap battle,” as if “Will” is a trying-too-hard English teacher informing you that Shakespeare was the original hip-hop artist of the streets” (Saraiya). Secondly, Will is fucking insane.

The first and most obvious deviation from the successful modern Shakespeare formula from the 90s and 00s is the wildly anachronistic aesthetic. Sure, Shakespeare in Love isn’t exactly period and Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet is firmly rooted in a 90s California aesthetic, but there’s something particularly jarring about seeing a young Will Shakes wearing jeans and a doublet walking around a version of London populated by a mix of citizens in community theatre quality approximations of period dress and dudes sporting spiked mohawks and leather and full tattoo sleeves. The Shakespeare-but-punk vibe might work if there it didn’t feel so glaringly obvious, but more importantly, if there was any consistency as to where the anachronism ends and the historical evocation begins. Will treads the familiar boards of Shakespeare falling for a woman he can’t have, this time James Burbage’s spunky daughter Alice. Norman and Stoppard craft the romance between Will and Viola in Shakespeare in Love to fit the established mold of Shakespeare’s romances, the relationship plays on the proven-timeless tropes of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night in order to posit them as a source of influence. Will attempts to play with these ideas, but veers so off course with its star-crossed pair and, as it does with many other story threads, ties the conflict back to a fixation with the theory that Shakespeare was secretly Catholic. Ultimately, the show is more interested in assembling a vaguely historical portrayal of the persecution of Catholics by the English government in the 16th and 17th centuries, as Richard Topcliffe tortures those surrounding Shakespeare in hopes of ratting out Catholics in hiding, and the single season of the show culminates in the premiere of Richard III, presented as a totally punk rock takedown of Topcliffe.

Don’t get me wrong, this Shakespeare is definitely still sexy. There are plenty of steamy scenes between Will and Alice, and the plot of an entire episode revolves around the main cast attending an orgy thrown by Sir Francis Bacon. Even Marlowe gets in on the “what inspired his genius” action, and occasionally shows up to have gay orgies and participate in occult rituals until he writes Doctor Faustus. Will doesn’t get everything wrong, the general operation and performance practices of the Elizabethan theatre were clearly researched, and while the show indulges in wild speculation (William Shakespeare belonged to an underground Catholic society! Christopher Marlowe was a debased Catholic-hunting Devil-worshiping spy!), it engages in some reasonably grounded ones as well (A Midsummer Night’s Dream being commissioned for a wedding ceremony, Marlowe’s homosexuality, the refreshing diversity of the cast). The biggest problem is that the show, despite its desire to teach you that Shakespeare was super hot and edgy, never makes an effort to separate the actual research that went into it from the outrageous fiction. Whatever Will has to say about what Shakespeare was or wasn’t, it doesn’t say it well.

Ironically, Will probably borrows more ideas from Shakespeare in Love and Luhrmann‘s Romeo and Juliet than Shakespeare’s actual work to examine the inner workings for the Bard’s mind. It’s telling that executive producer Craig Pearce also co-wrote Romeo and Juliet with Baz Luhrmann, and while Luhrmann’s aesthetic influence is clear, he had no direct involvement in shaping Will. It’s not surprising that Pearce’s pop-culture take on Elizabethan theatre is more derivative of other pop-culture iterations of Shakespeare than the actual texts. As Saraiya points out:

I’m no expert on cool, but haven’t we all trod this ground many times before? […] It’s been over 20 years since that film and “Shakespeare in Love”; about a decade since teen movies “She’s the Man” and “Deliver Us From Eva” applied the Shakespeare formula to high school. To belabor the point: Joss Whedon’s black-and-white, modern-day “Much Ado About Nothing” is just five years old, 2014’s “The Hollow Crown” on BBC cast well-known heartthrobs like Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead roles, and for pete’s sake, “The Lion King” is based on “Hamlet.” (Saraiya)

At this point, we’ve seen Hot Modern Shakespeare, whether the focus is his life or his work, done for at least two decades. Why do we still care if he’s sexy? If the critical and commercial failure of Will is any indicator, maybe we don’t. Independent’s Paul Taylor ends his review of the recent Shakespeare in Love stage adaptation with, “And the backstage re-angling, the impassioned presentation of the death scene Romeo and Juliet, and the haunting intimations of Twelfth Night, sharpened by the suggestion that the censorious Master of the Revels is a forerunner of Malvolio, are all masterly.  It makes you feel grateful to be alive” (Taylor), suggesting the lasting success of the piece is less in the romance or sheer modern edginess of it all, but the aspects that are purely rooted in a genuine love of Shakespeare. What Will and so many other soap opera tinged examinations of historical figures get wrong is that timelessness is not the same as a modern sensibility imposed upon history, it is thoughtfully contextualizing what it is we find relevant and universal about the past. Does every modern adaptation of Shakespeare do this thoughtfully? No. Shakespeare in Love is full of corny pop culture gags, and while its exploration of what inspired Shakespeare is a bit far-fetched, but in many ways the script is less interested in answering the question of what his life was like and is more about how the way we contextualize Shakespeare’s work impacts the way we understand him as a writer. We don’t need someone to present the idea that Shakespeare would have rap battles in bars as Pearce does in the first episode of Will, and perhaps we don’t need to bring anything but our own passion to the work to make Shakespeare sexy. Maybe that’s a corny sentiment, but trust me, it’s not as bad as the scene in Will where bright eyed young Shakespeare looks at a literal pile of shit and espouses, “A turd by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Works Cited

Billington, Michael. “Shakespeare in Love review – a heady celebration of the act of theatre.” July 23 2014. The Guardian . Website. 8 March 2019.

Cox, Gordon. “Disney Theatrical Gets Busy with ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘Newsies’.” 13 November 2013. Variety. Website. 8 March 2019.

Ebert, Roger. “Romeo and Juliet.” 1 November 1996. Roger Ebert. Website. 20 February 2019.

—. “Shakespeare in Love.” December 25 1998. Roger Ebert. Website. 20 February 2019.

French, Esther. “Which Shakespeare plays are most often taught in high school English classes?” 30 August 2016. Folger Shakespeare Library. Website. 20 February 2019.

Kopf, Dan. “What is Shakespeare’s Most Popular Play?” 22 September 2016. Pricenomics. website. 11 February 2019.

Nash Information Services. “Shakespeare in Love (1998).” 1998. The Numbers. Web site. 8 March 2019.

Saraiya, Sonia. “TV Review: ‘Will,’ TNT’s Punk Rock Take on William Shakespeare.” 9 July 2017. Variety. Website. 8 March 2019.

Spencer, Charles. “Shakespeare in Love, review: ‘the best British comedy since One Man, Two Guvnors’.” 23 July 2014. The Telegraph. Website. 8 March 2019.

Taylor, Paul. “Shakespeare in Love, Noel Coward Theatre, review: Deliciously funny and absurd.” 23 July 2014. Independent. Website. 8 March 2019.

Jesse Reagan Hernon (he/him/his) is a Cleveland-based essayist and stage manager. Jesse has worked as a stage manager for Cleveland Public Theatre, Maelstrom Collaborative Arts, and The Public Theater, among others. As a writer, he is interested in exploring our modern relationship with historic dramatic texts and examining the performative aspects of daily life.  He holds a BA in Dramatic Arts from Cleveland State University.

Find him on Twitter @jessereag and Medium @reaganhernon