Shakespeare and Trigger Warnings

Students at the University of Cambridge have been issued trigger warnings ahead of lectures on Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and “The Comedy of Errors.” As expressed in English faculty documents, discussion of the plays would include “discussions of sexual violence” and “sexual assault.” While policies at the University of Cambridge leave the application of trigger warnings to discretion of the lecturer, the university has nevertheless been heaped with media censure for its supposed complicity in a culture that is gradually encroaching upon intellectual freedom. The act has even faced scrutiny from those associated with the university.

“If a student of English Literature doesn’t know that ‘Titus Andronicus’ contains scenes of violence, they shouldn’t be on the course,” David Crilly, the artistic director at The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival related to The Telegraph. He elaborated, “This degree of sensitivity will inevitably curtail academic freedom. If the academic staff are concerned they might say something students find uncomfortable they will avoid doing it.”

As trigger warnings have grown increasingly pervasive, some academics have raised their concerns over use in a rigorous intellectual context. Mary Beard, a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, exclaimed that it was “fundamentally dishonest” to avoid the harrowing realities of history or literature. In the United States, concerns have been raised since even books as seemingly innocuous as Mrs. Dalloway, Things Fall Apart, and The Great Gatsby have generated controversy for purportedly having triggering effects on students. Nevertheless, those arguing for trigger warnings are certainly doing so with “a genuine wish not to risk upsetting students,” as Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge admits.

Some students unfortunately are forced to contend with the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder after enduring experiences of sexual violence of some form, and these students are precisely the ones who would feel safeguarded by trigger warnings which caution readers or listeners of the disturbing material to come.

Generally speaking, millennials are far removed from the proximity to violence that have for ages characterized essential elements of the human experience. Naturally, these realities when portrayed in art or fiction are thus quite troubling to modern sensibilities, and they tend especially to evoke traumatic memories in those who have already suffered. Thus, the question naturally arises where the boundary should lie between intellectual discourse and sensitivity to people of all communities and backgrounds.