The Vulnerable Body on Stage: Reading Interpersonal Violence in Rape as Metaphor

  • Lisa Fitzpatrick
Part of the New Directions in Irish and Irish American Literature book series (NDIIAL)


In her 1994 essay ‘Ireland and the Iconography of Rape’, Sabine Sharkey analyses the texts of Edward Spenser and Sir William Petty to identify their deployment of the language of rape and husbandry to describe the process of colonising Ireland.1 As she points out, this metaphoric use of language is not limited to Ireland but is part of the colonial reporting and conceptualisation of the period: John Donne addresses his mistress as ‘my America, my New-Found-Land’, and George Chapman imagines Guyana as a virgin and the English ‘industrious knight, soule of this exploit’ as her bridegroom. This metaphor persists in cartoons, travelogues, histories, and literature from at least the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries, and examples can be found in imperial and postcolonial theatre and drama in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, amongst others. Sharkey draws on the work of Stallybrass and Kosofsky-Sedgwick to investigation the use of rape to construct narratives that promote colonial agency, arguing that the ideological discourses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries define women as valued male property and commodities for exchange between men,2 so easing the conflation of woman and nation. Thus Ireland in Luke Gernon’s seventeenth-century text is described as ‘at all points like a young wench that hath the green sickness for want of occupying’. She lies open and receptive to potential husbands: ‘betwixt her legs (for Ireland is full of havens) she hath open harbor, but not much frequented’.3 The land is ripe for the rape or seduction that constitutes the first step, the invasion; the second step is the development of a constant relationship expressed in terms of sexual union. The metaphor persists so that Victorian iconography such as the Punch cartoons by John Tenniel and others depicts a delicately feminine Hibernia clinging to either her tall strong sister Britannia (often drawn in armour), or to John Bull, with Hibernia now in a family relationship as sister, daughter, or occasionally wife.4 Colonisation and colonial domination is thus naturalised as a sexual or familial relationship with Ireland as the female (dependent, subordinate) partner.


Sexual Violence Interpersonal Violence Social Ontology Symbolic Violence Postcolonial Theatre 
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Articles, Books, Pamphlets, Television Programmes and Websites

  1. Bal, Mieke, Reading Rembrandt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991; Amsterdam: Amsterdam Academic Archive, 2006).Google Scholar

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© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lisa Fitzpatrick
    • 1
  1. 1.ColeraineUK

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