Recent commentary on the question of revenge in Shakespeare's plays frequently alludes to the dramatic genre known as revenge tragedy, a form that achieved widespread popularity in the late Elizabethan and Jacobean period. The most notable English example of this form is Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587), a play which helped formulate the conventions of this genre and to which Shakespeare's adaptations are frequently compared. Critics do not agree on the extent to which Shakespeare's treatment of revenge adheres to or diverges from the standards established by Kyd and others. Eleanor Prosser (1971) asserts that Shakespeare scrutinized the moral and ethical quandaries facing the revenger much more closely than did any of his predecessors or contemporaries. She argues that his depiction of revenge generally reflects normative religious and ethical precepts that condemn personal retaliation for a wrong; indeed, she contends, Shakespeare endorsed the idea that revenge is the prerogative of heaven. By contrast, Michael Cameron Andrews (1978) claims that regardless of moral or religious injunctions against personal vengeance, Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences shared a universal, instinctive desire to see violence repaid with violence—and that Shakespeare understood and even, on occasion, sympathized with this impulse. Despite disagreements over what his works may reveal about the dramatist's attitude toward revenge, scholars uniformly regard Hamlet and Titus Andronicus as the plays that come closest to the revenge tragedy model.
Like many other critics, Charles and Elaine Hallett (1980) maintain that Hamlet broke new ground; they argue that although Shakespeare incorporated the central elements of revenge tragedy in the play, he freely adapted them to facilitate an exploration of Hamlet's attempt to reconcile his actions with the evil implicit in the pursuit of revenge. In their judgment, the principal distinction between Hamlet and its predecessors is Shakespeare's complex characterization of the revenger. In his discussion of Hamlet, Mark Rose (1971) also considers the stock role of the revenger, proposing that while Hamlet is not averse to the idea of bloody vengeance, he finds the traditional form of revenge philosophically and aesthetically contrary to his image of himself. For John Kerrigan (1981), too, revenge is unsuitable to the prince's nature. Moreover, he contends that Hamlet is convinced that revenge is pointless, for, unlike remembrance, it cannot restore that which has been lost. David Scott Kastan (1987) asserts that Hamlet tries to persuade himself that revenge is a means of restoring the past, but ultimately he rejects vengeance, both because it is futile and because it entails replicating the crime that incited it. Evaluating Hamlet as a version of revenge tragedy, Michael Neill (1983) similarly points out that the revenger's pursuit of retribution for past wrongs traditionally—and paradoxically—leads him to imitate the actions of the object of his vengeance.
The reciprocal relationship between victims, villains, and revengers is an important feature of commentary on Shakespeare's other revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. Douglas E. Green (1989), for example, remarks that the avenger in this play becomes a mirror image of his enemies, for Titus's acts of retribution are as shockingly evil as the deeds that led to them. Eleanor Prosser contends that Titus is a good man who has been genuinely wronged, but his extravagant grief leads to madness, and he forfeits our sympathy with the form of his vengeance on Tamora and her sons. In sharp contrast, Michael Andrews thinks it probable that Shakespeare's original audience applauded the “grisly propriety” of Titus's strategy and regarded it not as a heinous crime but a justified act of revenge. Comparing Titus to other revenge dramas, particularly The Spanish Tragedy, Lawrence N. Danson (1974) describes it as an anomaly, especially with respect to its rhetoric. In Shakespeare's play, he suggests, language becomes so elaborate, and rhetorical exhibitions so overwrought, that there is no longer any connection between words and emotions, or between language and objective reality. Also addressing the issue of language and signification in Titus, Douglas Green argues that the play is replete with instances of men, especially Titus, suppressing attempts by women to articulate their suffering, determine its meaning, and exact their own revenge.
Though the majority of commentary on Shakespeare and revenge focuses on Hamlet and Titus, critics have identified the theme as an important component of other Shakespearean works, including comedies and romances as well as tragedies. Michael Neill, for example, discusses the question of the revenge motif in Macbeth, characterizing the play's protagonist as a revenger who becomes increasingly isolated and whose incremental violence masks a feeling of powerlessness. Richard Madelaine (1998) links the final scene in Othello with culminating episodes in English revenge tragedies, and he considers the climactic scene in The Spanish Tragedy a “major influence” on Shakespeare's depiction of the murder of Desdemona. Harry Keyishian (see Further Reading) examines the destructive power of revenge in Julius Caesar, noting that its various manifestations share a common idea: “blood is eloquent and demands vengeance.” In another essay, also from 1995 (see Further Reading), Keyishian focuses on the revenge motif in 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, and Richard III. He maintains that these plays usually sanction vengeance when it promotes the cause of justice—and always endorse it when it is carried out against the French—but condemn it when it is executed for the purpose of enhancing personal reputation or position.
Both Michael Neill and James Black (1986) address the question of revenge in The Tempest. Neill describes Prospero as “a reformed revenger,” a man for whom patient optimism has replaced retaliation as the surest means of securing the future. Black links the play with contemporary revenge tragedies and compares it, in particular, with Hamlet. As with revenge tragedies, he points out, The Tempest keeps the audience in suspense with respect to whether Prospero will exact vengeance on the conspirators—his decision to forgive them is not revealed until the final scene. Finally, Karen Robertson discerns elements of revenge tragedy in Twelfth Night, especially with regard to Maria's scheme to deceive Malvolio with the forged letter. She notes that through its depiction of a female character who devises a revenge strategy ingeniously suited to her intention—the exposure of Malvolio—Twelfth Night inverts a dramatic convention and challenges male domination of the social hierarchy.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Rose, Mark. “Hamlet and the Shape of Revenge.” English Literary Renaissance 1, no. 2 (spring 1971): 132-43.
[In the following essay, Rose asserts that Hamlet, having had the role of revenger imposed upon him by the ghost, endeavors to redefine the part and mold it according to his own moral and aesthetic values. ]
Like most tragedies, perhaps like every tragedy, Hamlet is a play about the limits imposed upon the mortal will, a play about the various restrictions that flesh is heir to. Polonius speaks to Ophelia of the “tether” with which Hamlet walks and the image is a useful one to keep in mind for it suggests both that the prince does have a degree of freedom and that ultimately he is bound. Laertes cautions Ophelia in a similar manner and develops more explicitly the limits on Hamlet's freedom. The prince's “will is not his own,” Laertes says,
For he himself is subject to his birth. He may not, as unvalued persons do, Carve for himself; for on his choice depends The safety and the health of this whole state.(1)
What Laertes means is simply that Hamlet as heir apparent may not be free to marry Ophelia, but he says much more than he realizes. Hamlet is indeed subject to his birth, bound by being the dead king's son, and upon his “carving”—his rapier and dagger-work—the safety and health of Denmark do literally depend. Possibly...
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SOURCE: Prosser, Eleanor. “Shakespeare and Revenge.” In Hamlet and Revenge. 1967. Reprint, pp. 74-94. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971.
[In the following essay, Prosser surveys a number of examples of Shakespearean characters who either choose or decline to pursue personal vengeance. She finds no evidence that Shakespeare's plays portray private revenge as divinely sanctioned, required by a code of honor, or justified by social convention; instead, she argues, they repeatedly link revenge with such pernicious traits as irrationality, impulsiveness, and madness.]
Even though revenge was generally condemned in the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, theatrical convention is not a certain guide in interpreting a given play. Obviously Shakespeare was not bound by a tradition that saw King John as a pre-Reformation hero or Hal as a raucous, thieving wastrel. We cannot understand Shakespeare's Lear by analyzing audience reaction to the sentimental penitent of the old King Leir. In these and other cases, Shakespeare transformed an old convention. The extended analysis of non-Shakespearean revenge plays just completed has had only one purpose: to correct the assumption that Shakespeare's contemporaries automatically considered revenge a duty of both piety and honor. His audience and other playwrights on the whole clearly did not. But what of Shakespeare himself? If it were true, as Bertram Joseph...
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SOURCE: Danson, Lawrence N. “The Device of Wonder: Titus Andronicus and Revenge Tragedies.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 16, no. 1 (spring 1974): 27-43.
[In the following essay, Danson contends that as in the great Elizabethan dramas that followed it, the supreme tragic action in Titus Andronicus is not revenge but the formalization of death.]
The proliferation of generic categories for Elizabethan drama is a problem as ancient as Polonius' naming of the parts: “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.” One firmly entrenched category is that of the tragedy of revenge, which (according to Fredson Bowers) “has been classified as a definite, small subdivision of the Elizabethan tragedy of blood”; plays belonging to that category “treat, according to a moderately rigid dramatic formula, blood-revenge for murder as the central tragic fact.”1 But the rigidity of the formula is, in fact, questionable. Indeed a striking characteristic of the most notable of the so-called revenge tragedies is that “the central tragic fact,” the act of revenge itself, when it finally comes, seems something of an afterthought, is, at any rate, quite muddied in its motivations. Hamlet, for instance, never really does discover his means of revenge, or consciously...
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SOURCE: Andrews, Michael Cameron. “Hamlet: Revenge and the Critical Mirror.” English Literary Renaissance 8, no. 1 (winter 1978): 9-23.
[In the following essay, Andrews challenges the notion that Shakespeare's plays adhere to orthodox religious and ethical precepts that condemn the pursuit of personal revenge. Using Titus Andronicus as his chief example, the critic maintains that Elizabethan audiences might have responded sympathetically to revenge figures if their cause was just and that Shakespeare himself withheld moral judgment in the case of at least some of his blood revengers.]
Hamlet is a highly personal play. We bring to it all that we are. As L. C. Knights has observed, “more than with any other play, critics are in danger of finding reflected what they bring with them.”1 The gratifications of interpretation may turn out to be gratifications of another sort; instead of serving the play, we are likely to make it serve us. Kenneth Muir, commenting on C. S. Lewis' view of Hamlet, emphasizes this danger: “It was inevitable, Lewis thinks, that Coleridge should ascribe to Hamlet his own weaknesses; it was equally inevitable that the pacifists should regard Hamlet as a pacifist, and that the Freudians should diagnose their favourite complex. To Lewis, the explanation is that Hamlet is not an individual at all, but Everyman, haunted by the fear of being...
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SOURCE: Hallett, Charles A., and Elaine S. Hallett. “Hamlet.” In The Revenger's Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs, pp. 181-222. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
[In the following essay, the Halletts offer a detailed appraisal of Hamlet in terms of Shakespeare's merger of the traditional revenge tragedy form with his broader vision of the tragic consequences of the search for truth. Emphasizing that the play and its protagonists represent unique expressions of this form, the critics demonstrate Shakespeare's refinements and alterations of a number of revenge conventions.]
'Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood, And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on.
To discuss Hamlet solely in terms of revenge is somewhat like attending to the trellis rather than the rosebush it supports. Shakespeare's Hamlet transcends the revenge theme, and any criticism of it from this point of view alone can hardly be exhaustive. Yet the revenge theme in Hamlet cannot be ignored, for it is the basis of the play's structure: an interpretation that neglected it would be inadequate in the opposite direction. Nor could any study of the revenge tragedy motifs themselves be complete without...
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SOURCE: Kerrigan, John. “Hieronimo, Hamlet and Remembrance.” Essays in Criticism 31, no. 2 (April 1981): 105-26.
[In the following essay, Kerrigan discusses the connection between revenge and remembering in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, with special reference to The Choephoroe of Aeschylus. Preoccupation with the past is a hallmark of both Elizabethan tragedies, Kerrigan notes, but he points out a significant difference: Whereas Kyd's protagonist Hieronimo avenges his son by slaying his murderers, Hamlet, believing that vengeance is futile, honors his father's memory but does not kill Claudius expressly in revenge for his father’s death.]
As The Choephoroe, the second play in Aeschylus's Oresteia (458 B.C.), begins, Orestes stands beside his father's tomb, thinking about the past. He offers Agamemnon a lock of hair and laments that he was not in Argos to mourn at his father's funeral. He seems to be sunk in passive grief. But his contemplation of the past suddenly turns into a cry for vengeance: ‘O Zeus,’ he says, ‘grant that I may avenge the death / of my father, and of your grace fight on my side!’1 Exactly the same movement of feeling is experienced by Electra when she, in turn, comes to the tomb with the chorus of libation bearers. She recalls the circumstances of Agamemnon's cruel murder, then shifts abruptly from...
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SOURCE: Neill, Michael. “Remembrance and Revenge: Hamlet, Macbeth and The Tempest.” In Jonson and Shakespeare, edited by Ian Donaldson, pp. 35-56. London: Macmillan, in association with Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, 1983.
[In the following essay, Neill discusses the theme of revenge in Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Tempest. He asserts that Hamlet and Macbeth are antitypes—the first seeking to preserve the past and the second to obliterate it—and contends that both are destroyed by their obsession. By contrast, Neill suggests, Prospero redeems the past not by revenging it but by restoring it.]
In this paper I shall be looking at three plays—Hamlet, Macbeth and The Tempest—as versions of revenge tragedy. I am not proposing any contentious reclassification. Shakespeare's contemporaries did not envisage a distinct species of drama called ‘revenge tragedy’: and the ‘genre’ is really only a modern abstraction from a recurrent set of conventions, all of which make their individual appearance in plays we should not normally think of labelling ‘revenge tragedies’ at all. In choosing to emphasise those aspects of my three plays which link them to a ‘revenge tradition’, I want only to place them in a fresh perspective:1 in so doing I hope also to suggest some new ways of thinking about this...
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SOURCE: Black, James. “Shakespeare and the Comedy of Revenge.” In Comparative Critical Approaches to Renaissance Comedy, edited by Donald Beecher and Massimo Ciavolella, pp. 137-51. Carleton Renaissance Plays in Translation Series, no. 9. Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions Canada, 1986.
[In the following essay, Black suggests that The Tempest may be read as a “revenge comedy” that features a protagonist who has the power to retaliate for wrongs done to him yet chooses not to do so. He calls attention to the many elements the play has in common with conventional revenge tragedy, particularly Hamlet.]
Renaissance revenge tragedy is a widely recognized and clearly definable literary form whose most famous—indeed supreme—example is Shakespeare's Hamlet.1 Fredson Bowers, tracing the development of revenge tragedy up to and past Hamlet, into its Jacobean decadence, convincingly argues that in Hamlet the form had developed as far as it could go.2 Certainly after Titus Andronicus, his early attempt in the genre, and Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote no more revenge tragedies. But in the blazing sunset of his career, with The Tempest, he devised or accomplished a new genre—a Renaissance revenge comedy.
The Tempest is one of only three Shakespearean plays not extensively adapted from existing sources,3 though...
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SOURCE: Kastan, David Scott. “‘His semblable is his mirror’: Hamlet and the Imitation of Revenge.” Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 111-24.
[In the following essay, Kastan asserts that Hamlet tries to persuade himself that revenge is a means of restoring the past, but ultimately rejects vengeance, both because it is futile and because it entails replicating the crime that incited it.]
Through the streets of Jerusalem at the present day crawls one who is mad and carries a wooden cross on his shoulders. He is a symbol of the lives that are marred by imitation.
What replication should be made by the son of a king?
Hamlet is not alone in attending to the compelling voice of a ghost; Shakespeare himself apparently remembered the “ghost which cried so miserally [sic] at the Theator, like an oister wife, Hamlet, revenge.”1Hamlet's source, almost certainly, is the play that Lodge recalls, the Hamlet for which Henslowe records a performance at Newington Butts in June of 1594, and Hamlet, too, shares a name with a prior Hamlet. Both the play and the prince seek their individuality in their complex relationship with the past, relations obscurely...
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SOURCE: Green, Douglas E. “Interpreting ‘her martyr'd signs’: Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40, no. 3 (fall 1989): 317-26.
[In the following essay, Green suggests that the female characters in Titus Andronicus are reflections of the protagonist and that his revenge mirrors theirs, even as it obscures their suffering and distress. Green maintains that both Tamora and Lavinia represent a threat to patriarchal power: Tamora, because the murder of her son gives her just cause to seek retribution; and Lavinia, because if she could speak she would tell of her domination by male authority, in the persons of her kinsmen as well as her rapists.]
Today we are questioning the cultural definitions of sexual identity we have inherited. I believe Shakespeare questioned them too, that he was critically aware of the masculine fantasies and fears that shaped his world, and of how they falsified both men and women.1
… by text we mean not something that is self-same on the page, not the inertness of an implacable letter, but rather those slippages and multiplications which determine and fix only to unmoor again, making all places provisional, all sites relational, all identity a matter of differences scarcely perceivable because forever changing.2
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SOURCE: Roth, Marty. “The Blood that Fury Breathed: The Shape of Justice in Aeschylus and Shakespeare.” Comparative Literature Studies 29, no. 2 (1992): 141-56.
[In the following essay, Roth remarks on the parallels between Aeschylus's Eumenides and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, with special reference to their depictions of the conflict between old and new orders of revenge and justice.]
Two thousand years before Portia appealed to the “Jew” for mercy and then defeated him, the maiden Athena convened the world's first court of justice. She stood between Orestes and the Erinyes, who were, like Shylock, doggedly bent on revenge. She too made an appeal to sweet “Persuasion.” Aeschylus' Eumenides (458 B.C.) is a play about justice, but instead of the static dimension of rights and wrongs it is worked out in dark and vivid shapes: heavy breathing, tension in the jaw and fingers, an aching to bite and tear.
The Eumenides dramatizes certain truths about revenge and justice that are also present in the Merchant of Venice (1597) in a less obvious form. These are, first, that revenge is no less a legitimate form of justice for being hideous; and second, that justice is a creation of value that has little to do with the tangled arithmetic of legal systems. Aeschylus and Shakespeare dramatize that mystery of justice that we still live with...
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SOURCE: Robertson, Karen. “A Revenging Feminine Hand in Twelfth Night.” In Reading and Writing in Shakespeare, edited by David M. Bergeron, pp. 116-30. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Robertson focuses on the gulling scene (Act III, scene iv) in Twelfth Night, emphasizing the rarity of a revenge perpetrated by a woman. She asserts that Maria's literacy skills as well as her shrewd understanding of Malvolio's vulnerability are hallmarks of a person capable of challenging established orders of social hierarchy.]
At the core of the gulling plot of Twelfth Night lies a letter, deliberately forged in a feminine hand. In the second act, in response to the impotent fulminations of Sir Toby against Malvolio, Maria promises to invent a device that will correct the overweening self-love of the steward, “And on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work” (2.3.152-3).1 In assuming the prerogative of the pen for the correction of vice, she positions herself as a satirist who corrects the abuses of the times. In a play that turns on inversions of gender and struggles of class, one resistant female subject writes a letter that she describes as a revenge. The success of her effort in routing Malvolio's ambition tends to mask the inversions of gender implicit in the writing of that letter and the oddity of feminine construction...
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SOURCE: Madelaine, Richard. “Putting out the Light: A ‘Snuff’ Variant?” In Shakespeare: Readers, Audiences, Players, edited by R. S. White, Charles Edelman, and Christopher Wortham, pp. 207-19. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Madelaine analyzes the murder of Desdemona in the context of climactic scenes of death and violence in English revenge tragedies. The critic argues that although Shakespeare made use of the dramatic conventions associated with such “snuff” scenes and anticipated audience response to his depiction of erotic violence, he modified these conventions and challenged that response by highlighting Othello's alienation and depicting Desdemona as innocent of lust.]
In terms of my topic, the interesting features of the murder of Desdemona in Othello1 are: first of all, its unremitting sensationalism; second, the eroticism in the presentation of its violence; and third, the extent to which the erotic violence is emblematized. All these features, I contend, give the scene strong affinities with climactic episodes in certain Italianate lust-focused revenge tragedies, which I call ‘snuff’ scenes.
If the term offends, my defence is that in discussing Othello and the public theatre repertoire of the time, we are talking about popular entertainment, albeit at the upper end of the market (the...
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Anderson, Linda. “Early Comedies.” In A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 23-56. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.
Maintains that in Shakespeare's early comedies revenge serves as a structural device, along with intrigue, mistaken identity, and public humiliation. Surveying The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labor's Lost, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Anderson suggests a gradual evolution of revenge in these plays, from its use as a technique for advancing the plot to its function as a means of correcting social behavior.
———. “Problem Comedies.” In A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 126-68. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.
Evaluates Bertram in All's Well that Ends Well and Angelo in Measure for Measure as objects of comic revenge, arguing that once they repent, both deserve mercy, not vengeance. Anderson also points out that even though Troilus and Cressida dramatizes what is inherently a tale of revenge, it places greater thematic emphasis on pride, honor, and jealousy than on vengeance.
Coursen, Herbert R., Jr. “That Within: Hamlet and Revenge.” Bucknell Review 11, no. 3 (May 1963): 19-34.
Identifies the conflict...
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