illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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.

Mark Rose (essay date 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Shakespeare has in mind the imagery of Julius Caesar and Brutus' pledge to be a sacrificer rather than a butcher, to carve Caesar as a dish fit for the gods, for, like Brutus, Hamlet is concerned with the manner of his carving. But the word is also Shakespeare's term for sculptor, and perhaps he is thinking of Hamlet as this kind of carver, an artist attempting to shape his revenge and his life according to his own standards. Yet here, too, Hamlet's will is not his own: there is, he discovers, “a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (V.ii.10-11).

From the first scene in which the prince appears, Shakespeare wishes us to perceive clearly that Hamlet is tethered. He contrasts the king's permission to Laertes to return to France with his polite refusal of Hamlet's request to return to Wittenberg. Denmark is in fact a prison for Hamlet, a kind of detention center in which the wary usurper can keep an eye on his disgruntled stepson. Claudius acclaims Hamlet's yielding as “gentle and unforced” and announces that he will celebrate it by firing his cannon to the heavens, but what he has done in fact is to cut ruthlessly the avenue of escape that the prince has sought from a court and a world that he now loathes. One other more desperate avenue still seems open, and as soon as the stage is cleared the prince considers the possibility of this course, suicide, only to remind himself that against this stands another sort of “canon,” one fixed by God. Hamlet is tied to Elsinore, bound by his birth; on either side the road of escape is guarded and all that remains to him is his disgust for the world and the feeble wish that somehow his flesh will of itself melt into a puddle.

Hamlet's real prison is of course more a matter of mental than physical space. “Oh God,” he exclaims to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (II.ii.258-60). The erstwhile friends suppose Hamlet means he is ambitious for the crown, but the bad dream the prince is thinking of, the insubstantial “shadow,” as he calls it, is evidently the ghost and its nightmarish revelation. If Claudius has tied him to Elsinore it is of little consequence compared to the way the ghost has bound him to vengeance. Hamlet's master turns out to be even a more formidable figure than the king. Ironically, Laertes' and Polonius' remarks upon what they conceive to be the limits placed upon Hamlet's freedom immediately precede the scene in which the prince at last encounters the ghost and discovers what it means to be subject to one's birth. “Speak,” Hamlet says to the ghost, “I am bound to hear,” and the ghost in his reply picks up the significant word “bound” and throws it back at the prince: “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear” (I.v.6-7). Hamlet cannot shuffle off his father's spirit any more than he can the mortal coil. The ghost's command is “Remember me,” and after his departure Shakespeare dramatizes how from this charge there is no escape. Hamlet rushes about the stage seeking a place to swear his companions to secrecy, but wherever he makes his stand the ghost is there directly—“Hic et ubique,” the prince says—its voice crying from the cellarage: “Swear!”

The ghost binds Hamlet to vengeance, but there is another and more subtle way in which the spirit of his father haunts the prince. It is one of the radical ironies of the tragedy that the same nightmarish figure who takes from Hamlet his freedom should also embody the ideal of man noble in reason and infinite in faculties—the ideal of man, in other words, as free. The ghost of King Hamlet, stalking his son dressed in the same armor he wore in heroic combat with Fortinbras of Norway, becomes a peripatetic emblem of human dignity and worth, a memento of the time before the “falling-off” when Hamlet's serpent-uncle had not yet crept into the garden, infesting it with things rank and gross in nature. It is no accident that Hamlet bears the same name as his father: the king represents everything to which the prince aspires. Hamlet, too, has his single combats, his duels both metaphorical and literal, but the world in which he must strive is not his father's. The memory of those two primal, valiant kings, face to face in a royal combat ratified by law and heraldry, haunts the tragedy, looming behind each pass of the “incensed points” of the modern “mighty opposites,” Hamlet and Claudius, and looming also behind the final combat, Hamlet and Laertes' poisoned play, swaddled in a show of chivalry as “yeasty” as the eloquence of Osric, the waterfly who presides as master of the lists.

Subject to his birth, tethered by Claudius, and bound by the ghost, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of freedom, with the dignity that resides in being master of oneself. One must not be “passion's slave,” a “pipe for Fortune's finger / To sound what stop she please” (III.ii.72-74)—nor for that matter a pipe for men to play. The first three acts are largely concerned with the attempts of Claudius and Hamlet to play upon each other, the king principally through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet through The Mousetrap. It is Hamlet who succeeds, plucking at last the heart of Claudius' mystery, pressing the king to the point where he loses his self-control and rises in a passion, calling for light. “Dids't perceive?” Hamlet asks, and Horatio replies: “I did very well note him” (III.ii.293, 296). I should like to see a musical pun in Horatio's word “note,” but perhaps it is far-fetched. At any rate, Hamlet's immediate response is to call for music, for the recorders to be brought, as if he thinks to reenact symbolically his triumph over the king. What follows is the “recorder scene” in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern once again fail with Hamlet precisely where he has succeeded with the king:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.


Immediately after speaking this, Hamlet turns to Polonius, who has just entered, and leads the old courtier through the game of cloud shapes, making him see the cloud first as a camel, then as a weasel, and finally as a whale. Though Claudius and his instruments cannot play upon him, Hamlet is contemptuously demonstrating that he can make any of them sound what tune he pleases.

Hamlet's disdain for anyone who will allow himself to be made an instrument perhaps suggests his bitter suspicion that he, too, is a kind of pipe. One of the most interesting of the bonds imposed upon Hamlet is, it seems to me, presented in theatrical terms. Putting it baldly and exaggerating somewhat for the sake of clarity, one might say that Hamlet discovers that life is a poor play, that he finds himself compelled to play a part in a drama that offends his sense of his own worth. Hamlet is made to sound a tune that is not his own, the whirling and passionate music of the conventional revenger, a stock character familiar to the Elizabethans under a host of names, including Kyd's Hieronimo, his Hamlet, and Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus. The role of revenger is thrust upon Hamlet by the ghost, and once again it is profoundly ironic that the figure who represents the dignity of man should be the agent for casting his son in a limited, hackneyed, and debasing role. That Hamlet should be constrained to play a role at all is a restriction of his freedom, but that it should be this particular, vulgar role is especially degrading.

Lest I should seem to be refashioning Shakespeare in the modern image of Pirandello, let me recall at this point that he is a remarkably self-conscious playwright, one who delights in such reflexive devices as the play within the play, the character who is either consciously or unconsciously an actor, or the great set speech on that favorite theme of how all the world is a stage.2 Of all Shakespeare's plays perhaps the most reflexive, the most dramatically self-conscious, is Hamlet. This is possibly due in part to the circumstance not unprecedented but still rather special that Shakespeare is here reworking a well-known, even perhaps notorious, earlier play, a circumstance which permits him to play off his own tragedy and his own protagonist against his audience's knowledge of Kyd's Hamlet. In any case, the self-consciousness of Shakespeare's Hamlet is evident. Here the play within the play is not merely a crucial element in the plot but a central figure in the theme. Here Shakespeare actually introduces a troop of professional actors to discuss their art and give us examples of their skill onstage. Here even a figure like Polonius has had some experience on the boards, acting Julius Caesar to a university audience, and nearly every character in the play from the ghost to the king is at some time or other seen metaphorically as an actor. So pervasive is the play's concern with theater that, as many critics since Maynard Mack have noted, simple terms like “show,” “act,” “play,” and “perform” seem drawn towards their specifically theatrical meanings even when they occur in neutral contexts.

If Hamlet is Shakespeare's most self-conscious play, the prince is surely his most self-conscious character. An actor of considerable ability himself, he is also a professed student of the drama, a scholar and critic, and a writer able on short notice to produce a speech to be inserted in a play. The prince is familiar with the stock characters of the Elizabethan stage—he lists a string of them when he hears that the players have arrived (II.ii.328ff.)—and he is familiar, too, with at least two Elizabethan revenge plays, not counting The Murder of Gonzago, for at various times he burlesques both The True Tragedy of Richard III, that curious mixture of revenge play and chronicle history, and The Spanish Tragedy.3 Moreover, Hamlet habitually conceives of his life as a play, a drama in which he is sometimes actor and sometimes actor and playwright together. We recall immediately that in the third soliloquy (“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”) he speaks of having the “motive and the cue for passion” (II.ii.571). Only slightly less familiar is his description of how on the voyage to England he devised the plot of sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths with a forged commission:

Being thus benetted round with villains,
Or I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play. I sat me down,
Devised a new commission, wrote it fair.


And we remember that in the final scene the dying Hamlet addresses the court—and probably the actual spectators in the Globe as well—as you “that are but mutes or audience to this act” (V.ii.336).

Hamlet's first reaction to the ghost is to leap enthusiastically into the familiar role. “Haste me” to know the truth, he cries, that I may “sweep to my revenge” (I.v.29-31). And a few lines later he launches into his vow of vengeance, the furious second soliloquy (“O all you host of heaven!”) in which he calls upon heaven, earth, and hell, addresses his heart and his sinews, and pledges to wipe from his brain everything except the commandment of the ghost. It is a tissue of rhetoric passionate and hyperbolical in the true Senecan tradition, a piece of ranting of which Kyd's Hieronimo would be proud. Hamlet's self-consciousness as a revenger is suggested by the speech he requests when the players arrive, the story of Pyrrhus' bloody vengeance for his father's death. What he sees in this story is an image of his own father's fall in the crash of father Priam and, in the grief of Hecuba, the “mobled queen,” an image of how Queen Gertrude ought to have behaved after her husband's death. But what he also sees is in Pyrrhus a horrible reflection of his own role, and significantly it is the prince himself who enacts the first dozen lines describing the dismal heraldry of the revenger.

Art for Hamlet is the mirror of nature, designed to provoke self-examination. Very reasonably, then, his interview with the players prompts him in the third soliloquy to consider his own motive and cue for passion, to examine how well he has performed as a revenger. Excepting his stormy vow of vengeance, Hamlet has so far controlled himself rather strictly in his duel with Claudius; he has not, by and large, indulged in much cleaving of the general ear with horrid speech in the normal manner of a revenger, and his contempt for such a manner is implicit in his description of what the common player would do with his cue, amazing the very faculties of eyes and ears and drowning the stage with tears. Hamlet's aristocratic taste is for a more subtle species of drama, for plays like the one from which the story of Pyrrhus comes, which he praises to the players for being written with as much “modesty”—by which he means restraint—as cunning. Yet now, with the stock role he is to play brought home to him by the actors, Hamlet falls into the trap of judging himself by the very standards he has rejected and is disturbed by his own silence. Theatrically self-conscious as he is, Hamlet is naturally preoccupied by the relationship between playing and genuine feeling. He touches upon this in his first scene when he speaks to Gertrude of his outward “shapes of grief”:

                                                                                                    These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passes show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.


How is one to distinguish mere shape—in theatrical parlance the word means costume or role as well as form—from the real thing? Or conversely, if the usual shape is lacking, how can one be sure of the substance? After the interview with the players, it is the latter problem which concerns Hamlet, for now he wonders whether his refusal to play the revenger in the usual shape, his reluctance to drown the stage with tears, means simply that he is unpregnant of his cause. As if to prove to himself that this is not so, he winds himself up again to the ranting rhetoric of the revenger, challenging some invisible observer to call him coward, pluck his beard, tweak his nose, and finally hurling at Claudius a passionate stream of epithets: “Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! / O vengeance!” (II.ii.591-93). But this time at any rate the role-playing is conscious and a moment later the aristocrat in Hamlet triumphs and he curses himself for a whore, a drab. To rant is cheap and vulgar; moreover, what is presently required is not the player's whorish art but action. And so, with superb irony in his choice of means, Hamlet decides to take his own kind of action: “I'll have these players / Play something like the murder of my father / Before mine uncle” (II.ii.606-08).

Hamlet's difficulty is aesthetic. His problem is one of form and content, of suiting the action to the word, the word to the action—that is, of finding a satisfactory shape for his revenge. Inevitably he is drawn to the pre-existing pattern of the familiar revenge plays: life imitates art. Inevitably, too, his sensibility rebels, refusing to permit him to debase himself into a ranting simpleton. I find no evidence that the idea of revenge, of taking life, is itself abhorrent to Hamlet—he is not after all a modern exponent of nonviolence—rather it is the usual style of the revenger that he disdains. He objects to passionate rhetoric because to him it typifies bestial unreason. The conventional revenger, the Hieronimo or the Titus Andronicus, responds mechanically to circumstances, beating his breast in grief and crying wildly for revenge. Such a man is Fortune's pipe, the puppet of his circumstances, and the prisoner of his own passion. When Hamlet praises the man that is not “passion's slave” he is not merely repeating a humanist commonplace; he is commenting on an immediate problem, asserting a profound objection to the role in which he has been cast. At stake, then, for Hamlet is an aesthetic principle, but it is a moral principle as well: the issue is human dignity. In a play in which earsplitting rhetoric becomes the symbol of the protagonist's burden, it is suitable that “silence” is the final word from his lips as he dies. “The rest,” he says, referring to all that must be left unspoken but also to the repose of death, “is silence” (V.ii.359).4

The nature of Hamlet's objection to his role is elaborated in his address to the players, a speech too frequently overlooked in interpretations of this play, and which Shakespeare has included because it permits the prince to comment indirectly on his most vital concern, how one ought to play the part of a revenger. Hamlet's demand is for elegance and restraint—in a word, for dignity in playing. Lines are to be spoken “trippingly on the tongue”—that is, with grace—rather than clumsily “mouthed” in the fashion of a town crier. Nor should the player permit himself gross gestures, as sawing the air with his hand; rather he must “use all gently,” and even in the very torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of passion—the moment of extremity when the temptation to strut and bellow is greatest—must “acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness” (III.ii.7-8). The actor who tears a passion to tatters may win the applause of the groundlings who are only amused by noise, but he is worse than Termagant or Herod, those proverbially noisy stock characters of the old mystery plays which Hamlet disdains as ignorant and vulgar drama. It is interesting that Hamlet mentions Herod and the mythical infidel god Termagant: he means to suggest that undisciplined acting is not merely poor art, an offense against the “modesty of Nature,” but an offense to all that a Christian gentleman, a humanist like himself, stands for. “O, there be players,” he says a few lines later, “that I have seen play … that neither having th'accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably” (III.ii.30-37). To rage and rant is to make oneself into a monster. The crux of the issue is this: like his father—“'A was a man, take him for all in all” (I.ii.187)—Hamlet intends to be a man.

The player answers Hamlet's indictment of vulgar acting by assuring him that his company has improved its style: “I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us, sir.” This complacency irritates Hamlet. “O, reform it altogether” (III.ii.39-40), he snaps in reply. Hamlet's concern is intense and personal precisely because his own life has taken the shape of a vulgar play, a crude and commonplace tragedy of revenge. The prince's response—tantalizingly like Shakespeare's working over what must have seemed to him the crude and commonplace material of Kyd's Hamlet—is to “reform it altogether.” Since he cannot escape the role, Hamlet intends at least to be a revenger in a style that offends neither the modesty of nature nor his sense of human dignity. He intends to exercise discipline. I do not mean to suggest that Hamlet, like the singing gravedigger, has no feeling for his work. On the contrary, much of the drama lies in Hamlet's war with himself, his struggle to reduce his whirlwind passion to smoothness.

Hamlet and Lear are the only two of Shakespeare's tragedies with double plots. The Gloucester plot in Lear provides a relatively simple moral exemplum of one who stumbled when he saw and lost his eyes in consequence. This is a commonplace species of Elizabethan moral fable designed to set off the more complex and ambiguous story of the king. The story of Polonius' family works analogously in Hamlet. Each member of the family is a fairly ordinary person who serves as a foil to some aspect of Hamlet's extraordinary cunning and discipline. Polonius imagines himself a regular Machiavel, an expert at using indirections to find directions out, but compared to Hamlet he is what the prince calls him, a great baby. Ophelia, unable to control her grief, lapses into madness and a muddy death, reminding us that it is one of Hamlet's achievements that he does not go mad but only plays at insanity to disguise his true strength. And Laertes, of course, goes mad in a different fashion and becomes the model of the kind of revenger that Hamlet so disdains.

Hamlet knows he is playing a role, but Laertes is blissfully unselfconscious about his part. The prince boasts to his mother that his pulse “doth temperately keep time” (III.iv.141), but Laertes' brag is of his stereotyped rage: “That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard” (IV.v.117). Laertes—to adapt Nashe's famous allusion to Kyd's old Hamlet—if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, will shamelessly afford you handfuls of tragical speeches, ranting in the best manner of English Seneca:

To hell allegiance, vows to the blackest devil,
Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes, only I'll be revenged
Most throughly for my father.


What comes is not quite the revenge Laertes expects, for the situation is not so simple as he supposes; rather he finds himself on account of his unthinking passion an easy instrument for Claudius to play, becoming, in his own word, the king's “organ.” The advice that Polonius gave Laertes might have stood the young man in good stead if he had followed it: “Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportioned thought his act” (I.iii.59-60). Ironically, Polonius' words perfectly describe not Laertes' but Hamlet's approach to revenge. From the very first Hamlet has understood the practical as well as the aesthetic importance of controlling his rage. “But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (I.ii.159), he says at the end of the first soliloquy, and it is interesting in the light of the play's general association of lack of discipline with noise, with rant, that even here control is connected with silence.

Shakespeare contrives to have his two revengers, the typical Laertes and the extraordinary Hamlet, meet at Ophelia's grave, where the prince finds Laertes true to form tearing a passion to tatters, bellowing to be buried alive with his sister. Hamlet steps forward and the technical rhetorical terms he uses, “emphasis” and “phrase,” together with the theatrical simile of making the stars stand like “wonder-wounded hearers,” like an audience, reveal his critical attitude, his professional interest in the quality of Laertes' performance:

                                                                                                    What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wand'ring stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers?


According to the probably authentic stage direction of the first quarto, Hamlet at this point leaps into the grave alongside Laertes, suiting outrageous word to outrageous action by challenging the young man to a contest of noise, of rant. What will Laertes do to prove his love for Ophelia, weep, tear himself, drink vinegar, eat a crocodile? Hamlet will match him. Does Laertes mean to whine, to prate of being buried under a mountain higher than Pelion? Why, then Hamlet will say he'll be buried too, and let the imaginary mountain be so high that it touches the sphere of fire and makes Ossa by comparison a wart. “Nay, an thou'lt mouth,” the prince says, using the same word with which he had earlier described the manner of vulgar actors, “I'll rant as well as thou” (V.i.285-86).

Hamlet is mocking Laertes' style, but the bitterness of his mockery, the nastiness of it, derives from his own sincere grief for Ophelia. In a world of overblown rhetoric, of grotesque elephantine shows, how can a man of taste and discernment be understood? Moreover, since the usual sound and fury so often signify nothing, how will a man of genuine feeling be believed? This burlesque of Laertes is Hamlet's last act of bitter rebellion against the vulgarity of his world and the role he has been constrained to play in it. Moreover, it is a reversion to his earlier and fiercer mood, the proud, contemptuous spirit of the prince before the sea voyage; for, as most critics observe, the prince who returns from sea is a changed man, resigned, detached, perhaps “tragically illuminated.” Having refused to kill the king when the time was every way propitious—that is, when he found Claudius kneeling in empty not genuine prayer—and then, having chosen his own moment to act only to find that instead of the king he has murdered Polonius, Hamlet seems to have allowed his sinews to relax. He has let himself be thrust aboard ship, let himself in effect be cast onto the sea of fortune that is so common an image in Shakespeare and the Elizabethan poets, that same “sea of troubles” against which he had earlier taken arms. When the opportunity to escape the king's trap arises, Hamlet seizes it, leaping aboard the pirate ship, but what he is doing now is reacting to circumstances rather than trying to dominate them wholly. The prince returns to Denmark at once sad and amused, but, except for the single flash of “towering passion” at Ophelia's grave, relatively impassive. He has ceased to insist that he must be above being played upon by any power.

And yet, before Hamlet consents to the duel with Laertes about which he has justified misgivings, he plays a scene with that impossible fop Osric, the emblem of the empty courtesy of Claudius' court. Just as Hamlet earlier led Polonius through the game of cloud shapes, so now he toys with Osric, leading him to proclaim first that the weather is warm, then that it is cold, and finally warm again. At the penultimate moment, Hamlet is demonstrating that if he wished he might still play upon the king and his instruments like so many pipes. Hamlet's mocking Osric, like the scene with Laertes in the grave, recalls the early proud manner of the prince; nevertheless, Hamlet no longer seems to be in rebellion: rather than bitter contempt he displays amusement that at the end he should be forced to share the stage with a waterfly. The prince's motto is no longer “heart, lose not thy nature,” but “let be.” He has ceased to struggle for absolute freedom in his role, ceased to insist that he alone must be the artist who, in all senses of the term, shapes his life. He understands now that, in Laertes' words, he cannot carve for himself. One can at best be a collaborator in one's life, for there is always another artist to be taken into account, “a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (V.ii.10-11).

The Hamlet who speaks of special providence in the fall of a sparrow is not perhaps so exciting a figure as the earlier Hamlet heroically refusing to be manipulated. There is something almost superhuman in the discipline, consciousness, and cunning of the earlier Hamlet: certainly he makes superhuman demands upon himself, insisting that he be in action like an angel, in apprehension like a god. But Hamlet has discovered that, finally, he is subject to his birth, that he is neither angel nor god, and, in an ironically different sense, it can now be said of him what he said of his father, “'A was a man, take him for all in all” (I.ii.187). King Hamlet fought his single combat in an unfallen world of law and heraldry; his son must seek to emulate him in a corrupt world of empty chivalry and poisoned foils; and yet, in its way, Hamlet's duel with Laertes is as heroic as his father's with Fortinbras, and in his own manner Hamlet proves himself worthy of the name of soldier.

“Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage” (V.ii.397) is the command of Fortinbras which concludes the play, a command which not only ratifies Hamlet's heroism by using the term “soldier,” but in its theatrical allusion reminds us that much of his achievement has been in the skill with which he has played his inauspicious role. If all the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players, then the reckoning of quality must be by professional standards. By these standards Hamlet has proven himself a very great actor indeed, for he has taken a vulgar role and reformed it so that it no longer offends the modesty of nature or the dignity of man. Even a man on a tether, to pick up Polonius' image again, has a certain degree of freedom. One may be cast in a vulgar role and still win distinction in the manner the role is played. Or one may be tied to the story-line of a crude melodrama and still produce a Hamlet.


  1. I.iii.18-21. Quotations from Hamlet are from Edward Hubler's Signet edition (New York, 1963). I trust that the extent of my debt to Maynard Mack's classic essay “The World of Hamlet,The Yale Review, XLI (1952), 502-23, will be obvious. I am also indebted to my friend and colleague Howard Felperin for many illuminating remarks which have helped to shape my reading of the play. After completing this study, my attention was called to Lionel Abel's essay on Hamlet in Metatheatre (New York, 1963) which deals with some of the problems treated here from a different perspective.

  2. The most complete study of dramatic self-consciousness in Shakespeare is Anne Righter's Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London, 1962).

  3. III.ii.260 and III.ii.299-300.

  4. In his excellent study of Style in Hamlet (Princeton, 1969), Maurice Charney remarks that “one of the conclusions we may draw from Hamlet's stylistic virtuosity is that he thinks of experience as a work of art that can only be mastered by aesthetic means” (p. 318). Charney goes on to note that the usual moral analyses of Hamlet's character do not take account of his commitment to excellence of style.

Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 asserts, that “in Shakespeare's work in general we cannot find an overwhelming condemnation of revenge,” such a break with the dominant ethical, religious, and even dramatic code of his day would be of great significance.1 But is it true?

A comprehensive study of revenge motifs throughout the Shakespearean canon would deserve an entire book, for the elements of revenge—injury with its accompanying retaliation, whether intended or actually inflicted—appear in almost every play.2 For our purposes, a brief survey of the characters who face a situation in some way analogous to that of Hamlet will suffice. To this end, let us first eliminate all out-and-out villains: characters whose motive for revenge is flimsy at best (Iago, Shylock), wholly invalid (Cornwall and Regan), or merely rhetorical (Aaron, Duke Frederick, Don John).3 Such characters are personifications of evil, merely revenging themselves on virtue, and thus are irrelevant to the case of a virtuous character who has sustained a real injury. It is worth noting, though, how useful a motive Shakespeare found revenge to be. Aaron has no defined motive, and yet he rivals any genuine revenger in his rhetoric:

Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.


Perhaps we are to assume that his capture provides sufficient cause, but apparently the matter of motive is unimportant in the play. Aaron is a villain; therefore Aaron seeks revenge.4

Just as villainous revenges on virtue are irrelevant for our purposes, so too are comic revenges on folly. In passing, though, we should note that even in such cases as the revenges on Malvolio in Twelfth Night, on Falstaff in Merry Wives of Windsor, and on Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, compassion tempers retribution. In such cases, moreover, we see a social unit exposing a wrong in order to restore social health, not a private man inflicting pain in order to revenge a wrong. The sanity of Windsor welcomes Falstaff back with laughter; Illyria seeks only Malvolio's goodwill, and with such charming people it may win him over; under Lafeu's tender care, there may even be hope for Parolles.

The many revenge motives of warring factions, most clearly seen in the tangled threads of the Henry VI plays, are also tangential to our discussion. For the most part, the issues in war are not private revenge, but power—despite the passionate vows of vengeance that echo across Shakespearean battlefields.5 Remove the rhetoric of revenge and the wars would continue. This fact, however, indicates once more how useful Shakespeare found the motive to be in establishing an atmosphere of horror. One has only to think of “fell” revenging Clifford slaughtering the boy Rutland, or of the “she-wolf” Margaret, glorying in York's tears and offering him a napkin dripping with the blood of his son (3 Henry VI, I.iii, I.iv). Or consider the ambiguous Antony of Julius Caesar. He has not yet assumed his role as Shakespeare's spokesman when he kneels by the dead body of Caesar and speaks the bloodcurdling prophecy of impending chaos:

                    Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.


Surely this speech does not indicate moral approval of revenge. The monstrous power shortly to be unleashed is seen as rising from hell, rising “hot” with rage to cry for wanton destruction. That this speech is not merely colorful rhetoric in the classical tradition, and thus inadmissible as evidence of the play's ethical perspective, is made clear by Antony's tactics at the funeral. He appeals to the mob not to save Rome from the pollution of the murderers, not to effect justice, not even to punish: he appeals solely to personal motives, arousing his listeners by presenting Caesar as a friend who has deserved their loves and thus their loyalty. We immediately see the results in the maddened shrieks “Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!” (III.ii.208) and in the insane butchery of Cinna the poet. At this point in the play we have little doubt that Antony is a ruthless demagogue who has tricked the mob into serving his own terrible purpose, and tricked them by appealing to one of man's most dangerous emotions: the desire for revenge.

Despite the several clues noted, the three types of revenge motif discussed—villainous revenges on virtue, comic revenges on folly, and revenge motives incidental to power struggles—are all irrelevant to the problem that Hamlet faces. Our concern is with the basically virtuous character who sustains (or thinks he sustains) a serious injury but has (or thinks he has) no recourse to the law. Three groups of characters are relevant: those faced with a supposed injury (Othello, Leontes, and Posthumus); those faced with a genuine injury, ranging from an affront to honor to the death of a close friend (Romeo, Hotspur, Henry V, the Trojans in Troilus and Cressida, Lear, Coriolanus, and Prospero); and those faced with the wanton murder of immediate kin (Titus, John of Gaunt, Isabella, Edgar, Macduff, and Hermione).6

Moving from the least to the most relevant, let us first touch upon the trio of revengers-for-false-cause: Othello, Leontes, and Posthumus. At first glance, it may seem pointless to consider these three. Obviously each man is dreadfully wrong to doubt his wife's faithfulness. Obviously the audience deplores each man's “revenge,” for, like the villain-revenger, each is in reality attacking virtue. For that reason, the ethics of revenge would seem to be beside the point. But what if the three wives in question were indeed as faithless as their husbands' black imaginings have painted them? Would we then watch the ensuing events with satisfaction? I do not think so. In each play, the error is not merely the gullible belief in an obvious falsehood; it is the violence in each man that leads him not to seek punishment with justice but to inflict revenge.

Consider the close connection of the destructiveness of revenge with the destruction of Othello himself. At the climax of the temptation scene, Othello is finally overcome. In a wild roar, he delivers his will to the “demi-devil” Iago as he utters a terrible vow:

                                                                                                              Look here, Iago;
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
'Tis gone.
Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!(7)
Yield up, O love, they crown and hearted throne
To tyrannous hate!


And then, his “bloody thoughts” swelling “like to the Pontic sea,” with horrible irony he takes a sacred vow by Heaven never to pause “till that a capable and wide revenge / Swallow them up” (453-60). Were Desdemona guilty, I doubt that our horror and pain at the complete disintegration of Othello would be any the less.

So too with Leontes. His mad jealousy awakens a greedy obsession with revenge, not a desire for justice. When obscene images first rise in his seething mind, he immediately orders the murder of his wife's supposed lover; when that plot fails, he decides, “for present vengeance, / Take it on her” (The Winter's Tale, II.iii.22-23). The purpose of the “just and open trial” he announces is not to determine Hermione's guilt, for in the same breath he adds that his heart will be burdened until she is dead (II.iii.205-6). As in Othello, doubting a faithful wife is folly, but taking upon oneself the right to punish is madness.

Cymbeline might almost be considered an answer to those critics who see Othello's and Leontes' error primarily in terms of their credulity. Posthumus too believes a lie; he too tortures himself with lewd imaginings; he too rages for revenge; he too devotes himself to the service of hate. But he honestly and deeply repents. If this change were merely a convention Shakespeare used because he was then in his “reconciliation period,” he might easily have had Posthumus repent after learning the truth, a familiar expedient in the seventeenth-century drama. He does not. Still believing Imogen guilty, Posthumus comes to see that his guilt in ordering her death was the greater.8 The extended repentance scenes, including the “forgiveness” masque, are usually drastically cut in performance, and with good reason. They can pull the play out of focus. Instead of relying on last-minute conversion, Shakespeare develops Posthumus's penitence into two full scenes, writing for it some of his most moving lines (V.i.1-17, V.iv.3-29). The conclusion seems unavoidable that his interest in the ethical issues outweighed his dramatic instinct.

Nonetheless, it might be argued that the cases of Othello, Leontes, and Posthumus cast no light on the audience's attitude toward revenge per se, since their attention, as well as the playwright's, is focused on the fact that each man's revenge is predicated on an untruth. More relevant to the issue in Hamlet are several primarily virtuous characters who have sustained a real and serious injury. Let us first turn to those whose injury, though severe, is less so than Hamlet's; less severe, that is, than the murder of immediate kin.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has its roots in the Italian vendetta, the blood feud nourished by revenge. The almost reflex action of Lady Capulet in demanding an eye for an eye shows the vendetta to be a way of life to her (III.i.181-86). With complacent ease, she promises vengeance on Romeo for killing Tybalt, contentedly assuming that the mere assurance of bloody retaliation will stop the tears of a grieving young girl (III.v.88-93). Her perversion of values is chilling. It is this code of death and hate that dooms the lovers—and not wholly as an external force over which they have no control. Romeo himself makes the tragedy inevitable by doing the one thing he fervently did not want to do: he surrenders his will to the claims of his emotions and kills a Capulet. From the moment that Romeo throws rational patience back to Heaven and gives himself to rage, the lovers are doomed:

Away to heaven, respective lenity,
And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!


Benvolio later tells us that Romeo had not desired to take revenge on Tybalt until that very moment; but that one moment of fury does, indeed, make him “fortune's fool” (141). The destruction of the lines of both Montague and Capulet is fittingly viewed as “a scourge” that Heaven has “laid upon [their] hate” (V.iii.292).

In Hotspur, we have another fool of fortune whose anger provides the fuel for his own destruction. Even though he is a highly sympathetic character, the determination of this “wasp-stung and impatient fool” to “revenge the jeering and disdain'd contempt” of his King gives impetus to the forces of rebellion (1 Henry IV, I.iii.236, 183). No matter whose side has the greater justice in the issue of ransoming Mortimer, the ensuing civil war is, at best, born of a desperate gamble for honor over an eggshell. Of course, Hotspur's motives of “honor” differ from those of Worcester and Northumberland. The point is that this glowing young hothead's passion for revenge allows him to be manipulated.

When the issue is not an eggshell but a country, and the motive and cue for passion thus infinitely greater, Henry V responds not with fury, but with reason and humanity. In the increasingly popular attempt to blacken the character of Henry, several critics have viewed the traitors' scene as evidence of Henry's egotism and vindictiveness (II.ii.12-181). Nothing could be further from my reading of the scene. It is quite clear that Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey must be executed for the abortive plot to murder their King, and in Holinshed Henry summarily pronounces sentence when he learns of their treachery. In Shakespeare, the “trick” by which Henry gets the men to sentence themselves is not to be viewed as a petty cat-and-mouse game. It is a device by which the traitors, in their own malice, pronounce their own doom. Throughout the scene, as I envision it, Henry is struggling to rise above his personal feelings, and on the whole he succeeds. Of course he is human. Of course he is hurt. But his “I will weep for thee” to Scroop betrays no anger. “Touching our person seek we no revenge,” he insists, and the context suggests that we are to believe him. When he dismisses the traitors to death, he expresses no satisfaction that they are going to the Hell they richly deserve; instead, he prays that God forgive them, that He grant them “patience to endure, and true repentance.”

The entire scene is constructed to make it clear that genuine repentance has been awakened in each of the traitors, and awakened precisely because of Henry's control and compassion. Before Henry's speech detailing their guilt, the three men have shown only hypocrisy and malice. After his speech, they are different men. Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey all repent their guilt in heavily doctrinal language familiar to every member of the audience.9 In all their speeches, they recognize that it is the greater mercy of God to punish the sinner rather than let him continue in evil, a theme that later would prompt some of Shakespeare's richest poetry.10 They are thankful that Divine Providence has arrested their evil (“Our purposes God justly hath discover'd. … But God be thanked for prevention”). They repent their treason because it was a sin, not because they fear punishment (“I repent my fault more than my death. … My fault, but not my body, pardon, sovereign”). They rejoice in their contrition and punishment (“I in sufferance heartily will rejoice. … I do at this hour joy o'er myself”). These three professions are each voiced twice, in the manner of a musical fugue. We know nothing of the men themselves or their motives. Seemingly the only motivation for repentance is their impending death—which motivation they deny—and the King's speech. The extended scene thus serves to show the kingly grace of Henry instilling the love that must be added to fear before man can truly repent.11 In Henry's situation, he could be enraged at treason without alienating audience sympathy. As God's vice-regent on earth, he is the agent of divine revenge. Yet the movement of the scene implies that the “sacred duty” here is not to inflict revenge on the man but to aid in the salvation of his soul.

As scholars have increasingly remarked, the debate between Troilus and Hector in Act II, Scene ii, of Troilus and Cressida is directly relevant to Hamlet's dilemma.12 Also deserving attention is the revenge theme at the core of the play. The original cause of the pointless conflict was not Paris's lust for Helen, but simple revenge. Paris had been commissioned merely to take a Greek captive, any captive, in retaliation for the Greeks' capture of an old “aunt,” who is never even named in the play. Hector voices the play's perspective on all ensuing events when he charges that “pleasure and revenge / Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice / Of any true decision” (II.ii.171-73). The issue was tainted from the beginning.

Throughout the play, revenge is the nurse of barbarism and irrational frenzy. Troilus, scorning Hector's “vice of mercy” in granting life to Greeks he has downed in battle, dedicates himself to “venom'd vengeance”—a policy that the temperate Hector rejects as “savage” (V.iii.37-49). A few moments later Hector's position is vividly confirmed. Achilles, “arming, weeping, cursing, vowing vengeance” (V.v.30-35), is so maddened by Patroclus's death that he descends to bestial savagery, setting his rat-pack of Myrmidons on the defenseless Hector. We cannot hope that the insanity is over when, at the play's end, Troilus takes new strength in “hope of revenge” (V.x.31).

The association of revenge with madness is highly significant. Though Achilles may not be clinically insane, he loses all rational control as he rages forth, “crying on Hector.” In a brief emblematic parallel, Ajax, who has also lost a friend, “foams at the mouth,” “roaring for Troilus” (V.v.35-36). So too with Othello. In the moment that he vows revenge, he loses his power to reason, his self-possession. Indeed, Othello loses his mind, in a symbolic sense at least, in a violent seizure. Thus it is especially significant that in King Lear, Shakespeare's one major treatment of true madness, we can identify the exact moment at which the mind begins to crack—and that moment coincides with the first vow of vengeance. As his two daughters stand revealed before him, Lear first sees the abyss begin to open. Though he prays to the heavens for patience, he defies tears—“women's weapons,” the only consolation that resignation would offer—and surrenders himself to rage:

                                                                      No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall—I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.


His mind is sputtering as if short-circuited. And at this point the storm breaks.

Though many questions of “right” and “wrong” are ambiguous in Coriolanus, its hero's plan to take revenge on all Rome seems clearly judged. The decision to embrace his enemy as a means to that revenge is hopelessly, even childishly, stupid. But more, the decision to take such revenge, whatever the means, is morally wrong. It is, as in King Lear, “unnatural.” It leads him to reject all natural ties (“Wife, mother, child, I know not” [V.ii.88]), to humiliate his dearest friend, to embrace his and Rome's enemy, and to plot the destruction of his native land. Though the issues are not black and white, we cannot for a moment believe that the argument of the play vindicates Coriolanus against all the bonds of kin and country.

In all of the cases discussed thus far, revenge—both the child and the nurse of rage—inevitably leads to mental, physical, and spiritual destruction. The health of man and society requires patience. But on what is patience based? Stoic elimination of the emotions that feed revenge? The most familiar Shakespearean quotation on revenge denies the Stoics' view. Prospero, challenged by the compassion of Ariel, is finally moved to pardon his enemies:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. …

(The Tempest, V.i.25-28)

This rather cryptic speech is illuminated by a passage from Montaigne's essay “Of Crueltie”; in fact, several parallels of diction and idea (here italicized) suggest that Florio's translation was Shakespeare's actual source.

Methinks Virtue is another manner of thing, and much more noble than the inclinations unto Goodnesse, which in us are engendered. … He that through a naturall facilitie and genuine mildnesse should neglect or contemne injuries received, should no doubt performe a rare action, and worthy commendation: but he who being toucht and stung to the quicke with any wrong or offence received, should arme himself with reason against this furiously blind desire of revenge, and in the end after a great conflict yeeld himselfe master over it, should doubtlesse doe much more. The first should doe well, the other vertuously: the one action might be termed Goodnesse, the other Vertue. For it seemeth that the very name of Vertue presupposeth difficultie, and inferreth resistance, and cannot well exercise itself without an enemie.

Editors of The Tempest often gloss Prospero's use of “virtue” as “forgiveness,” but such a gloss is slightly misleading.13 Shakespeare's meaning is that Prospero's specific type of forgiveness is a “rarer action” than that of a patient Griselda, who forgives easily because she feels no anger. Prospero is no Stoic. He deeply feels the injury, yet his reason is now in command. In electing to take the part of his “nobler reason” against the claims of his fury, he has acted with the “virtue” defined by Montaigne. As was noted with Cymbeline, the rejection of vengeance has often been dismissed as irrelevant to Shakespeare's earlier plays and considered an attitude limited to his later “reconciliation period.” When we recall Henry V speaking words of compassion to the traitors, even though he too is “struck to th' quick,” we find exactly the same spirit of mercy and forbearance.

Let us turn now to those characters who face a situation closely analogous to that of Hamlet: Titus Andronicus, John of Gaunt, Isabella, Macduff, Edgar, and Hermione. Each of them is, at least at the opening of the play, predominantly virtuous; each has suffered the murder of a close member of his family, knows the identity of the killer, and has no recourse to the law.

Titus Andronicus is a very curious play, and its hero a very puzzling character.14 At first glance it seems ludicrous to speak of Titus and Hamlet as related, yet they are at least cousins, if not brothers: as Fredson Bowers has shown, both are direct offspring of the Kydian revenge play.15 Although few scholars would offer Titus as evidence that Shakespeare and his audience unquestioningly approved of personal revenge, the character is sufficiently ambiguous to require close attention.

The first act offers either a very fuzzy characterization of Titus as a noble hero or a very subtle characterization of him as a rash and self-indulgent man who is potentially dangerous. It is difficult to determine which. A useful guide may be found in an eighteenth-century chapbook in the Folger Library: The History of Titus Andronicus, The Renowned Roman General. … It appears to be a late descendant of a very old version, and may even represent Shakespeare's source. If it does, Shakespeare made several significant additions and changes. Not one of Titus's decisive actions in the first scene is based on the chapbook. Each of them seems to have been added to establish a specific characterization.

First, Titus's decision to resign his title and bestow it on Saturninus is clearly unwise. In a twenty-line exchange immediately preceding Titus's entrance, the characters of the two candidates have been revealed to the audience: Saturninus is violent and arrogant; Bassianus is dignified and humble. Although Titus's decision seems motivated by humility and patriotism, his choice of Saturninus is fraught with danger. Second, Titus's decision to sacrifice Alarbus is seen as barbarous, even though it is ascribed to pious motives. The audience's pity would align it with Tamora: not only because she is a terrified mother (automatically the odds are on her side), but also because her noble plea for mercy is juxtaposed to the vicious eagerness of Lucius to “hew [her son's] limbs.”16 We agree with Tamora that even if Titus's motives are religious, the sacrifice is a “cruel, irreligious piety” (I.i.129-30). Third, Titus's killing of his own son Mutius is also treated unsympathetically. In theory, one might justify the act as a sign of Titus's loyalty, on the grounds that Mutius has just defied his newly established sovereign by helping to steal the emperor's intended bride for Bassianus. In production, however, I doubt that the audience would see the killing in this light. Saturninus is an embryonic tyrant. Bassianus, though rash in seizing his betrothed, is clearly a wronged hero. No matter how good Titus's motives, our sympathy is with Bassianus and Mutius. Moreover, even Titus's motives are suspect. As he attempts to stop the escaping lovers, Mutius bars his way. In a swift reflex action, he stabs his son, crying “What, villain boy! / Bar'st me my way in Rome?” (I.i.290-91). The deathblow is not the necessary but regretted stroke of justice; it is a brutal retaliation for an affront to Titus's prerogatives. He later attributes his action to honorable motives, but his concern is with having been personally dishonored. Although I do not think that Titus is intended to be as “overbearingly proud and haughty” as Bowers suggests, he is surely to be interpreted as rash, headstrong, and self-centered.17

Despite the suggestion of certain negative traits in Act I, Titus moves through the next three acts in the role of oppressed virtue. He suffers blow upon blow, each successive torture undeserved, each inflicted by the most fiendish villainy. This virtuous posture is marred only by excessive grief, which is explicitly judged by all as dangerous. In the first scene of Act III, we find the first hint that his passion exceeds the bounds of moderation. Pleading to the senators and tribunes of Rome for mercy to his falsely accused sons, he “lieth down,” a movement of abandon that Shakespeare later found useful for Constance and Richard II. When Titus sees his ravished, mutilated daughter, understandably his grief “disdaineth bounds” (III.i.71). Left to his own instincts, no member of the audience would coolly judge the wails of lamentation as irrational; nonetheless, Shakespeare warns both the audience and Titus through Marcus:

O brother, speak with possibilities,
And do not break into these deep extremes. …
But yet let reason govern thy lament.


Finally, when Saturninus scornfully returns Titus's severed hand and the heads of his sons, he throws off all control and breaks into mad laughter. Throughout these first three acts, Titus is primarily a good man whose genuine wrongs have led him to excessive grief and thus to madness. The audience is undoubtedly sympathetic, but it must be uneasy when Titus shows Lavinia how to commit suicide without using her hands, when he stabs wildly at a fly, when he shoots his arrows with messages to the gods—Marcus, all the while, commenting on his frenzy.

Despite his wrongs, his grief, and his madness, Titus withstands the temptation to revenge for three and a half acts. Even when two of his sons are killed, he does not turn to private revenge. True, he sends his exiled son Lucius to raise an army among the Goths, but he himself does nothing. Seeking the aid of Rome's enemy is scarcely the act of a patriotic Roman, but the assault by the Goths never takes place. That thorny problem is kept offstage and thus outside the audience's real awareness. Even when Lavinia reveals the names of her ravishers, Titus does not act. Marcus, our norm, makes it clear that we are not to attribute his inaction to cowardice, sloth, or madness (IV.i.123-29). No matter how great Titus's cause, how great his sorrows, he is “yet so just that he will not revenge. / Revenge, ye heavens, for old Andronicus!” Making a clear allusion to the Biblical injunction against private revenge, Marcus cries out to the heavens to “hear a good man groan,” for Titus himself is still trusting to heaven, despite the inexplicable delay of divine justice. He continues to bide his time, relieving his tortured spirit by sending riddling taunts to his enemies.

But the heavens delay too long. IV.iii is a scene of choice that explains how we are to view Titus's bloodthirsty revenge in the fifth act. Now wholly insane, Titus has brought his family and friends to the fields, all of them equipped with bows and arrows. Justice, he tells them, has fled the earth. Some he sends to cast nets for her in the ocean; others he orders to dig down to Pluto's kingdom and seek her there. Humoring his lunacy and hoping, with Marcus, to convince Titus to join with the Goths, the digging kinsmen return him Pluto's message: Justice is not in hell,

                              but Pluto sends you word,
If you will have Revenge from hell, you shall:
Marry, for Justice, she is so employ'd,
He thinks, with Jove in heaven, or somewhere else,
So that perforce you must needs stay a time.

At this, Titus finally rebels:

He doth me wrong to feed me with delays.
I'll dive into the burning lake below,
And pull her [Revenge] out of Acheron by the heels.


With that decision, he begins wildly shooting arrow-borne messages to the gods, and the scene closes as he sends a clown to Saturninus with another riddling letter, an action that results in the death of the innocent fool.

When we next see Titus, he is completely “rational” in the modern sense (that is, in contact with reality); he sees through Tamora's disguise as “Revenge,” coolly tricks her into leaving her sons as hostages, and forthwith slits their throats. From this point on he is, if not a “villain-revenger,” at least a tainted revenger who has forfeited our sympathy. The murder of Tamora's two vicious cubs would, in itself, undoubtedly call for our instinctive applause. But when Titus, not content with merely slaying them, stops their mouths to prevent any pleas (a typical villain's device in Renaissance drama) and then taunts them with his ghastly plans to make mush of their bones and blood, mold it around their severed heads, and serve the tempting “pasties” to their mother—the stomach of the most hardened spectator would surely rise.

This grisly speech is nothing, however, compared to the final catastrophe. First, Titus's killing of Lavinia is treated in such a way as to alienate sympathy. In the chapbook, Lavinia begs her father to kill her. In the play, Shakespeare treats her killing as a sudden, shocking slaughter, not as a requested act of mercy. To be sure, Titus recalls the example of Virginius, generally epitomized as a noble Roman father compelled by love and honor to kill his daughter. Nonetheless, Titus's argument is that the living presence of a dishonored daughter would bring constant shame and sorrow not to the suffering girl, but to the father. Even before the final horror, Titus has lost all claim to virtue.

But there is one more blow that, when reading the play, we may overlook. As Titus turns to the banquet table to gloat over Tamora, we read that she “hath daintily fed” already of the two loathsome “pasties” (V.iii.61). Without seeing a production, we can only dimly sense the impact of this scene. In the excitement of Lavinia's death, we have forgotten the bloody banquet already begun. Now we are reminded—and in a sudden wave of nausea remember that Tamora has already eaten.18 Mercifully, Titus immediately stabs her (an actress could not maintain the required violent reaction for long) and, again mercifully, Titus is immediately killed. The audience could stand no more.

Any assumption that Shakespeare automatically conceived of blood revenge as a “sacred duty” must grapple with Titus Andronicus. It must also face the fact that among all the potential revengers-for-murdered-kin remaining to be considered, not one is so portrayed as to suggest that vengeance is commanded by God, required by honor, or expected by custom.

The decision facing John of Gaunt in Richard II is not strictly relevant to Hamlet. Gaunt is urged to rebel against an anointed king whose right to the throne is unquestioned. The issue is clearly political.19 Nonetheless, Gaunt's argument against killing the man who ordered his brother's murder is pertinent to our investigation:

Since correction lieth in those hands
Which made the fault that we cannot correct,
Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven. …


When the Duchess of Gloucester charges that his forbearance is not patience but “pale cold cowardice” and despair, he answers, “God's is the quarrel” (l. 37). Though the primary issue here is civil obedience, Gaunt echoes the traditional injunction against private revenge.

The relevance of Isabella in Measure for Measure is apparent. Few critics today would argue that she is either a paragon of virtue or the epitome of selfish prudery. Somewhere between the two extremes, wherever we see the truth to lie, most would agree that the basic plot line is concerned in some way with a change in Isabella for the better. And however we define that change, it is expressed by a decision to reject revenge. Hearing of her brother's supposed execution, our gentle novitiate explodes in an extravagant threat against Angelo: “O, I will to him and pluck out his eyes!” The Duke cautions her with the familiar exhortation to patience: “Give your cause to heaven” (IV.iii.124,129). She endeavors to control her vindictiveness, but her fury breaks forth when she publicly confronts Angelo with his perfidy. It is against this violence that we see the full significance of her eventual plea for mercy to Angelo. All human instinct understandably urges her to demand a life for a life. The Duke makes this point emphatically:

Against all sense you do importune her:
Should she kneel down in mercy of this fact,
Her brother's ghost his paved bed would break,
And take her hence in horror.


Family loyalty, natural emotion, common sense—all human considerations preclude charity. But Isabella takes that suprahuman step to the “rarer action,” forgiveness.

Macbeth and King Lear both provide test cases, for they have been cited as evidence that Shakespeare unquestioningly accepted the morality of revenge. Patrick Cruttwell is not alone in believing that “the whole moral weight of Macbeth is behind the personal and bloody vengeance which Macduff vows and takes on the man who has killed his wife and children, and the whole moral weight of Lear is no less behind Edgar's challenging and killing of Edmund.”20 This study suggests that, on the contrary, Shakespeare carefully avoided imputing motives of personal vengeance to either character.

In Macbeth, only one passage can be offered in support of a revenge ethic. In his soliloquy on the battlefield, Macduff roars for Macbeth to show himself, swearing that if someone else has stolen from him the right to kill the tyrant, “my wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still” (V.vii.14-23). In the light of the rest of the play, I find the speech a contradiction. Elsewhere, the denial of personal revenge motives to Macduff is explicit. The dominant note is struck when we hear that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England, where he has gone to beg the King's help in liberating Scotland. In the messenger's report, there is no hint of vengeful vows or of righteous fury aching to be unleashed. There is only the hope—“with Him above / To ratify the work” (—of freeing the bleeding land from tyranny in the name of the legitimate heir. Lennox gives the mission religious sanction: he will send “some holy angel” to England to warn that caution is needed to hasten the day when “a swift blessing” returns to Scotland (

In the extended dialogue between Malcolm and Macduff, the emphasis is entirely on love of country. We hear not one word of vindictive hatred for Macbeth. He is called “treacherous,” “untitled tyrant,” and “devilish,” but the most objective observer could say no less. Almost all the emotion in the first part of the scene is aroused by grief for Scotland. Even when Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children, his major reaction is stunned grief. He is angry at himself for exposing them to danger, not at the man who murdered them. The nearest thing to a vow of personal revenge is Macduff's prayer that the heavens give him the opportunity to kill “this fiend of Scotland” in battle (IV.iii.230-33). It is clear, however, that all is surrendered to the will of Heaven. The forthcoming campaign is to be seen as a divine mission, not as a campaign of personal vengeance.21

A word should perhaps be said about Malcolm. It is true that he offers the “medicines of our great revenge” as comfort to the stricken Macduff (IV.iii.214), but in context the word has no force. Malcolm is treated solely as the divinely appointed agent of God's punishment. Had Shakespeare wished, he could easily have given Malcolm a blood revenge motive. Following the murder, he has an uneasy suspicion of Macbeth, but Shakespeare never makes his suspicion explicit. As with Macduff, Shakespeare seems to be avoiding an obvious motive.

In King Lear, the case of Edgar is unequivocal. He neither desires nor takes revenge in any way whatsoever, other than to effect the “revenge” of outraged order on evil. There is not one suggestion in his wanderings as poor Tom that he awaits an opportunity for personal vengeance. On the contrary, his is the voice of patience despite the most painful afflictions ( When he intercepts Goneril's letter revealing the plot on her husband's life and Edmund's role in it, he resolves to go to the British camp solely to expose the treachery. It is for this reason alone that he enters the lists. Edgar's purpose is not to kill the brother who wronged him but to prove by combat that Edmund is a traitor to his King. That his motive is in no way vindictive is shown by his first words when he reveals himself to the dying Edmund: “Let's exchange charity” (V.iii.166). Saviolo, it will be recalled, believed single combat legitimate only for the justifying of a truth and only if the challenger proceeded in the proper spirit. Edgar fulfills these criteria. He proceeds without hatred, motivated by “love of virtue, and regarde of the universall good and publique profite.” Edgar acts, “as it were, the minister to execute Gods devine pleasure.”22

In The Winter's Tale we have another of Shakespeare's late “reconciliation plays,” and again the reconciliation is not effected by the mere trickery of romance conventions but motivated by the familiar ethical and religious concepts with which we have been concerned. Leontes' repentance is couched in thoroughly orthodox terms, and Hermione's forgiveness is carefully prepared. If one wished to be hard-headed about the play—and who does?—one might wonder what on earth could possess the woman to forgive her husband. On the other hand, if one were Christian enough to expect her to forgive Leontes, one might ask why she waited for so many years. The answers are found in Hermione's magnificent defense in the trial scene. No one could accuse her of having no “objective correlative” for her grief and outraged dignity. She minutely inventories Leontes' many wrongs, culminating, as she believes, in the outright murder of her newborn child. She is proud, even gloriously defiant, as she stands unbending, secure in the conviction of her known integrity. This regal creature, made of steel, is no sentimental Griselda who will welcome her penitent husband with clucks of tenderness one minute after he learns of his error. She will wait until the wound heals. And yet, fully aware of her husband's guilt and mitigating it not one jot, she closes her defense with words of charity:

The Emperor of Russia was my father:
O that he were alive, and here beholding
His daughter's trial! that he did but see
The flatness of my misery, yet with eyes
Of pity, not revenge!


In all this evidence—over thirty characters, drawn from most of the Shakespearean canon—we find no suggestion that Shakespeare expected his audience to accept without question the validity of private blood revenge. The evidence suggests, rather, that his plays rely on the orthodox ethical and religious injunctions against it. Despite a maturing of both dramatic skill and thought between Titus Andronicus and The Tempest, the portrayal of the revenger seems to remain constant. Titus and Prospero are two sides of the same coin: Titus in his madness embracing revenge and thus descending to the hell of barbarism and destruction; Prospero in his sanity exercising his nobler reason and thus rising to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Revenge motifs recur throughout the plays. Again and again the surrender to revenge is seen as the surrender of reason, the surrender at least to rashness and at most to madness. Similarly, a decision to take revenge is often accompanied by an explicit rejection of some clear virtue or good. Just as Lear denies his daughters, Coriolanus predicates his revenge on the total rejection of the natural bonds of family (“Wife, mother, child I know not”). The rejection may take the form of symbolically flinging virtue back to heaven before vowing vengeance: Othello blows “all [his] fond love … to heaven” and Romeo cries, “Away to heaven respective lenity.”

Of special pertinence is the frequency with which revengers associate their motives and actions with Hell and the demonic. In Titus Andronicus we hear that the man who seeks private revenge must dive to the bowels of hell. In his madness, Titus takes that plunge. Antony envisions Caesar's spirit, an epitome of revenge, rising “with Ate by his side come hot from hell.” Othello calls up “black vengeance, from the hollow hell.” Coriolanus resolves to pursue his revenge “with the spleen / Of all the under fiends.” None of these characters is originally demonic in purpose, as are Iago and Aaron. The language is not the mere rhetoric of villainy.

In none of the foregoing do I intend to suggest that Shakespeare was a dour, inflexible moralist, consigning his revengers to Hell with grim satisfaction. At a given moment in a play—the moment when Romeo stabs Tybalt, when Coriolanus defies the screaming mob, when Hotspur rages at personal insult—we often instinctively identify with the very action that later, when we are released from emotional involvement, we see in ethical perspective. Shakespeare's plays show a deeper penetration into the nature of the ethical dilemma involved in revenge and a greater compassion for the revenger than do the plays of his contemporaries. Even so, they bear out Cutwolfe's view that revenge in Elizabethan drama was “continually raised from hell.”

With—let us note—the possible exception of Hamlet. In his treatment of the Ghost, Shakespeare breaks new ground, demanding a fresh response by transforming a theatrical convention. If we approach the play with certain preconceptions, we may be blind to a radical change in ethical perspective. This chapter has not attempted to use Shakespeare's other plays to interpret Hamlet. It has merely questioned one particular preconception: that Shakespeare's plays in general reflect an approved code of private blood revenge.

On the contrary, on the subject of revenge, his plays reflect agreement with sermons, moralist tracts, poetry, and other plays of his day. No matter how base the injury, no matter how evil your enemy, no matter how dim all hope of legal redress, leave the issue to Heaven; “God's is the quarrel.” In Richard III, Clarence's words to his murderers succinctly state a plea implicit in play after play:

If God will be revenged for this deed,
O, know you yet, he doth it publicly:
Take not the quarrel from his powerful arm;
He needs no indirect nor lawless course
To cut off those that have offended him.



  1. Conscience and the King (London, 1953), p. 44.

  2. To my knowledge, no comprehensive study has been made of revenge motifs in Shakespeare's plays. Fredson Bowers's important study, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, was concerned primarily with the Kydian convention and thus discussed only Hamlet and Titus Andronicus. The chronicle histories provided a focus for Divine Vengeance, by Sister Mary Bonaventure Mroz (Washington, D.C., 1941). Sister Mary compiled a valuable history of the revenge motif from pagan times to the Renaissance, but her analysis of the plays should be approached with caution. Attitudes are often attributed to Shakespeare on the authority of atypical views or early Renaissance codes repudiated in Elizabeth's day.

  3. Concern about anti-Semitism has too often led us to gloss over Shylock's real motives for exacting revenge. Yes, he has been taunted, but, it is emphasized, for his usury. He is thoroughly frank about his motives: Antonio has hurt his thriving business by lending money without interest (III.i.50-52) and, an even greater injury, has helped to save Shylock's debtors from impending foreclosure (III.iii.21-24). His revenge is motivated solely by malice, not by any desire for justice, and thus is villainous in intent.

  4. Shakespeare's early sensitivity to the association of revenge with villainy may be seen in a minor change in King John. In the source play, the Bastard's anger at the imposed peace with France is motivated primarily by his own desire for personal revenge against Austria (for dishonoring his father, Coeur-de-Lion). Shakespeare apparently cut the vindictive personal motive in order to strengthen the Bastard as a hero devoted solely to his country's cause. Though the change is a small one, it suggests that Shakespeare questioned the wisdom of associating revenge with a norm figure.

  5. The campaign planned by Coriolanus, the wars of Hotspur, Malcolm, and Macduff, and the combat of Edgar and Edmund are special cases, to be discussed below.

  6. Edgar sits uncomfortably in this list, for of course Gloucester was not “murdered.” However, if we were to put Laertes in Edgar's position, I think we would grant him the potential motives of a blood revenger. On the other hand, Malcolm is omitted because he never has positive knowledge that his father was murdered. He will be touched on only incidentally in the discussion of Macduff.

  7. Craig and Qq: thy hollow cell. The Folio reading seems much more probable. Shakespeare's frequent reference to “hollow earth” and “hollow ground” makes the adjective a logical description for Hell (e.g., Taming of the Shrew, Induction, ii, 48; Richard III, III.ii.140, and Othello, IV.ii.79). Either reading obviously means Hell, but the present study suggests that Shakespeare probably used the explicit word. As noted in Chapter II, a conventional vow of revenge often took the form of defying Heaven and invoking Hell. Later in this chapter we will note Shakespeare's use of the same convention in Titus Andronicus and a modification of it in Romeo and Juliet and other plays. Othello is not merely contrasting “vengeance emerging from its lair and love enthroned and crowned” (M. L. Ridley, new Arden Othello, Cambridge, Mass., 1958, p. 120). He is flinging his love back to Heaven and invoking Hell, surrendering his will to the service of hate.

  8. In his penitence Posthumus recognizes that Imogen should have been saved to repent. This is one of the explicit arguments offered against revenge by most Renaissance thinkers.

  9. There is abundant evidence that both Shakespeare and his audience would have recognized the specific points of doctrine used in this scene. The same matters are repeated again and again, and in remarkably similar language, not only in such treatises as Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity but in popular manuals for meditation and prayer (such as Thomas Becon's The Sick Man's Salve, John Norden's A Progress of Piety, and William Perkins's A Golden Chaine), in the familiar Book of Common Prayer, and in countless sermons (see especially the works of Bradford and Sandys, and, of course, the extremely influential homilies appointed to be read in the churches). With only minor differences, the same points were familiar to Catholics. Moreover, it is impossible that the language used in this scene is chance rhetoric. A recognizable core of repentance doctrine is heard throughout the plays: e.g., in the Prayer Scene in Hamlet, in Edgar's healing of his father's despair, and in the penitent speeches of Angelo, Leontes, and Posthumus.

  10. E.g., Posthumus's prayer in Cymbeline (V.iv.11-28).

  11. “Fear worketh no man's inclination to repentance, till somewhat else have wrought in us love also.” Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, The Works …, ed. the Rev. John Keble, 3d ed. (Oxford, 1845), III, 9. Apparently we are to believe in As You Like It that Orlando's “kindness, nobler ever than revenge,” not only saved Oliver's life but also effected his miraculous conversion (IV.iii.129). In Rosalynde, the evil brother fully repents before entering the forest.

  12. See below, pp. 169-70.

  13. Montaigne's Essays, trans. John Florio, II, 119. Of course, Montaigne's point is slightly different: he is distinguishing true patience from the passivity of an amiable nature. See my article on “Shakespeare, Montaigne, and ‘the Rarer Action,’” Shakespeare Studies, I (1966), 261-64.

  14. For our purposes, let us consider that the play is by Shakespeare. Even if he had no hand in it at all (which seems impossible), an analysis of it is pertinent in our understanding of the early Elizabethan attitude toward revenge.

  15. Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, pp. 109ff.

  16. Tamora herself requires no close attention here. Though she is introduced sympathetically, from Act II on she is revealed as a mere pawn of the demonic Aaron. Her revenge-for-a-son motive is dropped. As a villain-revenger she is thus eliminated from discussion.

  17. Bowers, p. 112. Bowers suggests a parallel with Lear in Titus's decision to relinquish his title, but Titus's choice is not so flagrantly for reasons of personal gratification as Lear's. Even so, the decision is imprudent at best.

  18. I have never seen a production of the play but wonder if the killing of Lavinia might not be almost ignored by the audience, once the actual feast has started. The scene requires very careful direction.

  19. As Lily Bess Campbell has noted, all of Act I, Scene ii, of Richard II is Shakespeare's invention, a scene inserted solely to emphasize the doctrine of passive obedience (Shakespeare's “Histories,” San Marino, Calif., 1947, pp. 195-97). In Holinshed, Gaunt and York plan vengeance on Richard but wait to see if he might reform. Shakespeare has Gaunt explicitly reject all thought of revenge.

  20. “The Morality of Hamlet—‘Sweet Prince’ or ‘Arrant Knave’?” Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 5 (London, 1963), p. 119.

  21. Later Mentieth says that “revenges burn” in Malcolm and Macduff, but he is reporting on offstage action (V.ii.3). When we see the two men leading their forces at Dunsinane, both are unemotional and efficient, devoting full attention to battle plans.

  22. See above, pp. 14-15.

Lawrence N. Danson (essay date 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 overcome whatever scruples or fastidiousness has kept him so long from it; rather, he stumbles into it when the Claudius-Laertes plot misfires. Kyd includes in Hieronimo's revenge at least one character (the Duke of Castile) who seems extraneous to his revenger's concerns; while Titus Andronicus (most bafflingly, if revenge is what the play is about) kills his daughter Lavinia. By the time of Webster, in a play like The White Devil, the question of who is revenging himself on whom for what is almost impenetrably unclear. So badly, indeed, do these plays fulfill the expected formula that we must begin to suspect either that the greatest dramatists were very imperfect at their craft, or that the critical category describes plays that they had little intention of writing.

Something, I suggest, other than revenge ought to be sought as the “central tragic fact” of those plays for which it is really worth speaking of a “central tragic fact.” For a play like Chettle's Hoffman, “revenge” will do as well as anything else; but it makes, I think, imperfect sense to class Hoffman with Hamlet. For the greater so-called revenge tragedies something is wanted which will show their affinities with other great tragedies of the period rather than isolating them in a separate, mechanically derived category. But that is an enormous task, and what I intend to do here is something much more modest: to look for that tragic fact (by which I mean something of the deepest concern to the protagonist as well as, esthetically, to his creator) in a single early play, Titus Andronicus; and only incidentally (by way of excursions, when they are warranted, into other plays, especially The Spanish Tragedy) to push that fact towards greater generality.

And we can begin by remembering that, however despised Titus Andronicus may have become, it was throughout Shakespeare's career a very successful play. Ben Jonson, with his own career to protect in 1614, had reason to be contemptuous of old workhorses like Titus and The Spanish Tragedy: “Hee that will sweare, Ieronimo, or Andronicus are the best playes, yet, shall passe unexcepted at, heere, as a man whose Iudgement shewes it is constant, and hath stood still, these five and twentie, or thirtie, yeeres.”2 But if we today share Jonson's superior smile we should do so uneasily, for we have learned not to be complacent about that audience whose taste for blood and bombast made possible, not only Hieronimo and Titus, but Hamlet and Lear as well. The popularity of the old plays well into the Jacobean period is a fact of significance for the history of drama: by Jonson's time, the parts of Titus and Hieronimo had become closely associated with the player's amazing power to force a responsive passion in his listeners.

This simple historical consideration leads immediately to something approaching a paradox. For while Titus Adronicus is a play that could elicit an audience's sympathetic response, it presents to us the image of a world in which a man's words go unheeded and his gestures unacknowledged, a world unresponsive to his cries, demands, prayers. The world of tragedy is (to borrow a phrase from Northrop Frye) “the world that desire totally rejects: the world of the nightmare”;3 and in Titus the nightmare is that widely familiar one of the unutterable scream, the unattainable release from horror through outcry or gesture. Now there is a relationship to be observed between these two facts, that (on the one hand) the play found a responsiveness in its audience and that (on the other) the material with which the play deals is the characters' inability, within the world of the play, to find an adequate hearing. It is a relationship which, because it bears upon a basic aspect of tragic theory—that things painful to behold in life can yet give us pleasure when transmuted into art—may point the way towards our “central tragic fact.” But to find that relationship we must turn to the play and trace its pattern of withered gestures and virtual silence.

The first instance I cite is one which, like much in the play, teeters on the brink of the ludicrous—for Titus (like King Lear) is a play that deals so insistently with man in extremis that the comic grotesque is always available to relieve us from the burden of its inordinate vision. At the beginning of Act IV, young Lucius enters fleeing from his aunt Lavinia; deprived of her tongue and hands, Lavinia, by her incomprehensible gestures, can only terrify the child as she tries to calm him. Now Titus and Marcus enter and interpose for Lavinia:

Fear her not, Lucius: somewhat doth she mean.
See, Lucius, see how much she makes of thee;
Somewhither would she have thee go with her.
Ah, boy, Cornelia never with more care
Read to her sons than she hath read to thee
Sweet poetry and Tully's Orator.(4)

Lucius is carrying his copy of Ovid; in it Lavinia directs their attention to “the tragic tale of Philomel,” and then painfully writes in the sand the names of her ravishers.

Now amidst all this pathos, the egregious touch is the reference to “Sweet poetry and Tully's Orator.” For Tully's Orator is, in all probability, Ad M. Brutum Orator, the epistle in which Cicero depicts his ideal orator. And the reference underscores how nearly Lavinia has been reduced to the barely human, the almost-monstrous: her grotesque inability to communicate sets her at the opposite pole from Cicero's orator, the man who is able to bring to bear all the distinctively human characteristics in the accomplishing of his high art. The reference might almost seem a cruel joke—but it is not meant to be one, for to the Elizabethans this matter of speaking well, of oratory, was a matter of the highest seriousness: “Oratio next to Ratio, Speech next to Reason, [is] the greatest gyft bestowed vpon mortalitie.”5 The idea ran deep: in the earliest English-language textbook of logic, Thomas Wilson's Rule of Reason (1551), the example given of “an undoubted true proposition” is “Homo est animal ratione praeditum, loquendi facultatem habens. A man is a liuing creature endewed with reason, having aptnesse by nature to speake.”6 We shall have to return to the question of oratory and rhetoric later; here it is only necessary to realize what it means to be deprived of the humanizing gift of speech, and to follow out the image that Lavinia presents and that comes to dominate the play: the image of man tongueless, limbless, sunk in a world inimical to his fundamental need to be understood, but still trying by every means to speak—to make known his pain and (by the act of making it known) his very humanity to the gods and his fellow men.

It would be tedious to record all the instances of beseeching and petitioning in Titus; there are too many of them. It is, however, worth noting that the first disappointed petitioner is the (temporarily) conquered Queen of Goths, Tamora, and that it is Titus to whom she prays for her son's life:

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother's tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me.
.....Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son.

(I.i.104-08, 120)

But what Tamora calls a “cruel, irreligious piety” demands the sacrifice of her son; and the only response to her entreaty is the announcement (in what may be Shakespeare's worst half-line), “Alarbus' limbs are lopp'd” (l. 143). Within the same act, Titus' sons and brother kneel and beseech him to allow Mutius burial (which, grudgingly, he does); and Titus, his sons, his brother, and Tamora plead for favor from Saturninus.

One may be tempted to say that all the succeeding instances of Titus' own inability to gain an adequate response to his entreaties arise from that first instance of his deafness to Tamora—as (to take a comparable instance) one might be tempted to say that Lear's sufferings all result from his willful deafness to Cordelia's expressive silence. But that would be too narrow a view of either play. Like Lear's, Titus' punishment so far exceeds the crime that the prevailing deafness to the human voice in its cries for mercy or justice is made to seem endemic to the play's world, beyond any one man's causing. In Act II, Lavinia's mutilation takes place against the ironically gay noise of dogs and horns (II.ii.1-6); but for Aaron the Moor, “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull” (II.i.128), and there Chiron and Demetrius are to “strike her home by force, if not by words” (l. 118). As Tamora had pleaded, now Lavinia pleads:

O Tamora, thou bearest a woman's face—
I will not hear her speak; away with her!


And even as Chiron and Demetrius (offstage) slake their lust (and incidentally Tamora's revenge) on Lavinia, it becomes Titus' turn to plead. Aaron has arranged matters so that Titus' sons seem guilty of Bassianus' murder; and, like Lavinia's plea, Titus' plea on their behalf is cut off in mid-cry:

High emperor, upon my feeble knee
I beg this boon, with tears not lightly shed,
That this fell fault of my accursed sons,
Accursed, if the fault be prov'd in them,—
If it be prov'd! you see it is apparent.


The need to find a satisfactory response to these interrupted pleas becomes (as the incidents of frustration mount) an overwhelming concern. Lavinia, “her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd,” is, as we have seen, the monument that most forcefully figures this need. But we must notice, too, the response of the other Andronici to Lavinia. Marcus, for instance, is the first to encounter his mutilated niece, and he gives us one of the clearest statements of the motif:

Shall I speak for thee? shall I say 'tis so?
O, that I knew thy heart, and knew the beast,
That I might rail at him to ease my mind.
Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.


Lavinia's case, Marcus says (in one of the numerous echoes of the Ovidian tale), is worse than Philomela's:

Fair Philomel, why, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met. …


The means of expression lost to Lavinia, the burden of expression now falls on others: “Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee: / O, could our mourning ease thy misery!” (II.iv.56-57).

And on Titus himself the burden of expression falls most heavily. At the opening of Act III, we find Titus pleading with the judges and senators for his sons' lives. When his words fail, he falls upon the ground to write in dust “My heart's deep languor and my soul's sad tears” (III.i.13). Although the tribunes will not heed Titus, “yet plead I must,” and

Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones,
Who, though they cannot answer my distress,
Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes,
For that they will not intercept my tale.


Now Lavinia is brought before Titus. The imperious need for relief through expression, which has already led to his writing in dust and pleading with stones, leads now to the contemplation of a further series of fantastic actions:

Shall thy good uncle, and thy brother Lucius,
And thou, and I, sit round about some fountain,
Looking all downwards to behold our cheeks
How they are stain'd, like meadows not yet dry,
With miry slime left on them by a flood?
And in the fountain shall we gaze so long
Till the fresh taste be taken from that clearness,
And made a brine-pit with our bitter tears?
Or shall we cut away our hands like thine?
Or shall we bite our tongues, and in dumb shows
Pass the remainder of our hateful days?
What shall we do? let us that have our tongues
Plot some device of further misery,
To make us wonder'd at in time to come.


“Plot some device of further misery, / To make us wonder'd at in time to come”: Titus' final lines are worth some attention, for in them is found the motivation for the grotesque actions that are to follow, as well as an important clue towards that “central tragic fact” we are seeking. To “plot some device” can mean simply “to plan, contrive, or devise” (OED [Oxford English Dictionary], “Plot,” v1, 3) “an arrangement, plan, scheme, project, contrivance; an ingenious or clever expedient; often one of an underhand or evil character; a plot, stratagem, trick” (OED, “Device,” 6). But both “plot” and “device” have other connotations, of a specifically artistic and dramatic nature, which indicate that Titus' lines have significance for the playwright's as well as the revenger's craft. The word “plot” is, of course, especially common in this double sense throughout the drama of the period, and requires no special comment here. “Device,” as Titus uses it, carries a related double sense which, although less common than “plot,” can yield even richer insights into the relationship between the esthetic requirements of the playwright and the existential concerns of his characters. According to the OED (whose definitions I quote at length because they form a progression, of immediate relevance to us, from a type of nonverbal expression to purely verbal expression to verbal and gestural combined), “device” can mean: “8. Something artistically devised or framed; a fancifully conceived design or figure. 9. spec. An emblematic figure or design, esp. one borne or adopted by a particular person, family, etc., as a heraldic bearing, a cognizance, etc.: usually accompanied by a motto. 10. A fanciful, ingenious, or witty writing or expression, a ‘conceit.’ 11. Something devised or fancifully invented for dramatic representation; ‘a mask played by private persons,’ or the like.” In Titus Andronicus, as well as The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine—indeed in most of the tragic drama from the late eighties and the nineties—we find these various forms of expression (the related senses of “device”) in more or less uneasy mixture. Marlowe's “mighty line” is no more striking, for instance, than his use of essentially nonverbal tableaux (Tamburlaine's shifting colors, from white to red to black, is an example), which are the stage equivalent of heraldic bearings. Hieronimo's “play … in sundry languages,” with which The Spanish Tragedy culminates, is a “device” in the final sense cited from the OED. But before reaching it there have been other, less variously expressive, sorts of “devices.” Hieronimo has staged an entertainment made up of a series of heraldic bearings, which he interprets for the benefit of his stage audience (I.iv). And throughout the play Kyd more subtly introduces “devices” that figure forth the play's central concerns. What is for our purposes most interesting to observe is how many of Kyd's “devices” comprise more or less static conceits for the difficulty Hieronimo and others find in achieving justice through the use of words—as if the variety of dramatic techniques were mirroring the characters' own wrestling with the problems of expression; to cite only a few examples: an old man who has lost his son pleads for redress to a Knight Marshall who has lost his son; Pedringano goes blithely to his death while a messenger points to an empty box that is supposed to contain a written pardon; Belimperia, who knows the truth of Horatio's murder, drops a message written in blood to Hieronimo—who suspects a trick (or “device,” in the related sense) and fails to heed its contents.

Titus Andronicus similarly contains a series of devices that adumbrate the imperious need for relief through expression. The mutilated Lavinia is, as we have seen, the central such device, a conceit for the nearness of man to monster when deprived of the humanizing gift of expression, and (more narrowly) an emblematic figure for the plight of the voiceless Andronici in a now-alien Rome. The responses Titus proposes—weeping all day into a fountain, passing their days in dumb-shows—are related devices, here with the added implication of dramatic spectacle. A bare recital of the actions that do follow will sound ludicrous, unless we recognize them for the devices they are, intentionally conceited, emblematic—and each related to the same basic problem of expression needed but denied: Titus sacrifices a hand to save his sons' lives; thus mutilated he and Lavinia pray to heaven—and receive his sons' severed heads in reply. Lavinia writes the names of her ravishers in the sand, and Titus proposes transferring the words to brass. Titus sends weapons wrapped in a riddling message to Chiron and Demetrius. At Titus' bidding the Andronici shoot petitioning arrows at the gods; and because Terras astraea reliquit, Titus proposes searching for the goddess at sea or underground. Finally there is Titus' revenge itself, in all its elaboration (for here the sense of dramatic performance, “a masque played by private persons,” is strong) and apparent excessiveness (involving his own and Lavinia's deaths); but of this example, where tableau, words, and gesture combine in a culminating action, we must reserve discussion until we can explore the latter part of Titus' injunction: “Let us that have our tongues / Plot some device of further misery, / To make us wonder'd at in time to come.

Here it is necessary to acknowledge an anomaly that will already have been apparent. Titus Andronicus is, I have said, a play about silence, and about the inability to achieve adequate expression for overwhelming emotional needs; but the thing we may notice before all else in it, before even its physical horrors, is its extreme, obtrusive rhetorical elaboration. Again the situation is similar to that in The Spanish Tragedy: surely there is something absurd about the loquacity of Titus and Hieronimo, endlessly talking and with endless elaboration about their inability to make their cries for justice heard. Indeed it is an absurdity that was not lost on the plays' near-contemporaries, as the many parodic echoes (especially of Kyd's play) attest. Hieronimo's famous speech, “O eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears; / O life, no life but lively form of death” (III.ii.1-2) is remarkable for various reasons, not least of which is its excellence as a rhetorical showpiece. In fact it is so remarkable, so insistently calling attention to its own artifice, that it inevitably provoked the backhanded compliment of parody. In Marston's Antonio and Mellida, for instance, Piero's hysterical commands, “Fly, call, run, row, ride, cry, shout, hurry, haste; / Haste, hurry, shout, cry, ride, row, run, call, fly” (at which point he lapses into Italian: III.ii.262), makes farce of the rhetorical ideal of copia (the use, to put it crudely, of the most words to say the least) which is realized in the completion of the first movement of Hieronimo's lament: “Eyes, life, world, heavens, hell, night, and day, / See, search, shew, send, some man, some mean, that may—” (III.ii.22-23).7

But it did not really need a Marston to prick the bubble of Hieronimo's rhetoric: a glance at the situation shows that Kyd has built in his own criticism. For just as Hieronimo is so copiously and asyndectically pleading for the means of discovering his son's murderer, “A letter falleth”; it is Bel-imperia's, and it contains most succinctly all that Hieronimo needs to know—but, as we have seen, it goes unregarded, to become another in the play's series of thwarted communications. Hieronimo is so caught up in his own elaborate rhetoric that he can no longer effectively connect with the words of others, a dilemma that culminates in his “play … in sundry languages” where (to quote Jonas Barish's excellent account),

The effect, perhaps, would have been to suggest the extremes to which language can evolve, the lengths to which verbal ingenuity can be carried and how unintelligible words can become when they lose their moorings in the reality they are meant to express. The jabbering in four languages turns the whole phenomenon of speech under a strange phosphorescent glare, revealing it as a kind of disembodied incantation, a surrealistic dance of abstractions, divorced from roots in lived existence.8

The confusion that Hieronimo's playlet breeds is the perfect epitome of Kyd's larger theatrical world, in which the greatest gift of man's reason, the faculty of speech, has only contributed to man's undoing.

Kyd, as Professor Barish suggests, is aware not only of “the pleasures” but also of “the perils of rhetoric”; and so, I believe, is Shakespeare. And this self-consciousness in regard to their chosen medium is most significant, for it points towards the very close but very uneasy relationship between drama and rhetoric in this period. To the Elizabethans, indeed, orator and actor were essentially the same. In one of his additions to The Overburian Characters, for instance, Webster asserts that “Whatsoever is commendable in the grave Orator, is most exquisitly perfect in [‘An Excellent Actor’].”9 Curiously, it seems to have been as much the use of action as of language which established this identity; the Overburian sketch justifies the comparison of actor and orator by noting that “by a full and significant action of body, he [the actor] charmes our attention.” This apparent anomaly, that action should be the quality which links orator and actor, is taken up by Francis Bacon in his “Of Boldness”:

It is a trivial grammar-school text, but yet worthy a wise man's consideration. Question was asked of Demosthenes, what was the chief part of an orator? he answered, action: what next? action: what next again? action. He said it that knew it best, and had by nature no advantage in that he commended. A strange thing, that that part of an orator which is but superficial, and rather the virtue of a player, should be placed so high, above those other notable parts of invention, elocution, and the rest; nay almost alone, as if it were all in all.10

The commonness of the relationship is worth noticing here, but so too is Bacon's contemptuous tone. For by “action” (that “virtue of a player”) Bacon means only the particular gesture of hand and body which must accompany speech; it is a merely technical skill, the suiting of the action to the word and the word to the action which Hamlet recommends to his Players; and it is a sufficiently limited notion of action to justify Bacon's contempt.

Most importantly for us, this relationship between oratory and acting, based on a rather mechanical notion of “action,” indicates a real danger for the dramatist. In some of the “devices” we have noticed in Titus and The Spanish Tragedy the danger is apparent, for such passages tend to be more or less static—speaking pictures unnaturally situated within the frame of the surrounding action. If drama was in debt to “Tully's Orator” and the other textbooks of rhetoric that were at the heart of Elizabethan education, it was also possible that drama would perish beneath the burden of the loan. Much of Elizabethan drama did in fact succumb; Gorboduc, for instance, although Philip Sidney (since he was not a playwright) could afford to luxuriate in its “stately speeches and well sounding Phrases,” is dead to us because it remained rhetoric and never found any really organic way to suit its words to its actions. Inevitably, therefore, it became the superior playwright's task to broaden the notion of “action” beyond the particular gesture until it encompassed the whole play, to find the “action”—now in a sense closer to Aristotle's (in the Poetics) than to Bacon's—that would convert the raw materials of drama (including language) into the form of drama. In Titus Andronicus we see that conversion taking place before us; here the struggle is in the open, the struggle to turn the language of words into the language of action, to convert (even by way of rhetoric) rhetoric itself into dramatic, and specifically tragic, form.

We see Shakespeare's recognition and handling of the problem in the paradoxical ineffectuality of the play's rhetoric—paradoxical, because however stirring it may be to the audience it is useless to the character in achieving, in his fictive world, the results he intends. Titus has cried out to the very heavens (having exhausted the world of men, of dust and stones) and, through elaborate imagery, sought to involve the most elemental forces of nature in his lament. His words are of no avail, yet he must speak:

If there were reason for these miseries,
Then into limits could I bind my woes:
When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o'erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threat'ning the welkin with his big-swol'n face?
And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?
I am the sea. Hark how her [Lavinia's] sighs doth blow;
She is the weeping welkin, I the earth:
Then must my sea be moved with her sighs;
Then must my earth with her continual tears
Become a deluge, overflow'd and drown'd;
For why my bowels cannot hide her woes,
But like a drunkard must I vomit them.
Then give me leave, for losers will have leave
To ease their stomachs with their bitter tongues.
          Enter a Messenger with two heads and a hand.


Here again is recognition that “Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd, / Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.” But though “action” may be the chief part of oratory, for Titus it is the vast gap between even the most rhetorically elaborate speech and effective action which is most painfully noticeable. The action that breaks off Titus' lament is one of the play's most horrifying devices for that gap. Titus' lamenting is compulsive: men in such extremes must speak out; but it is also, apparently, useless.

And it can be worse. For as the need to find relief through expression becomes more pressing, and as the rhetoric in response becomes more extreme and obtrusive, we find that from the heights of linguistic invention we are plunged into the nadir of madness and mad-speech. Thus Titus, having sought to ease his stomach with his bitter tongue and receiving his sons' heads and his own hand in response, is for a moment ominously still; Marcus prompts him: “Now is a time to storm”—but Titus' only reply is the laughter of the mad (III.i.264). There may, however, be another way of looking at this descent into madness: the plunge may be, like Gloucester's from the cliffs near Dover, no plunge at all; it may be a mere step, an inevitable progression from linguistic elaboration to the dissolution of language itself. What is it, after all, that disturbs us about the rhetorical showpieces? Is it not that in them language has become too prominent, breaking the expected bonds between words and world until we feel that the former has gained mastery over the latter? Mad-speech is similarly a language that has lost its connections with objective reality, words without referents in the shared world of the sane. The art of rhetoric, which can be the index of man's reason, can also, when it grows to a surfeit, become the token of madness.

So crucial is the matter of madness to most of the great Elizabethan tragedies, and so important for this discussion is the relationship between mad-speech and rhetoric, that a brief look at Shakespeare's greatest portrait of madness is justified here. And we may notice that, as Titus sought “some device of further misery / To make us wonder'd at in time to come,” so King Lear, driven to desperation by the insouciance of Goneril and Regan, utters the strangled vow:

                    No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things,
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.


Weeping is not the language Lear needs:

                    You think I'll weep;
No, I'll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping, but yet this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep.


But, as he has feared from the start, only one mode is left, that last desperate means (to which Titus and Hieronimo also are brought) to fulfill the human imperative to speak: “O Fool! I shall go mad” (l. 288).

When we discover Lear on the heath (III.ii) he has become almost incapable of hearing any voice but his own and that of the thunder. Only fitfully is he aware of those around him; but those few moments of awareness are most significant, for breaking through the obsessive language of invective are the first tentative sounds of a new language that might serve to bind man to man:

          My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
And can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel.
Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee.


But this language and the communion it allows is premature. The process of dissolution is only beginning, and Lear's wits must turn utterly before they can turn again.

The hectic riddling of the fool and the cacophony of Poor Tom are stages on the way to the linguistic disintegration reached in Lear's great mad-speeches. A capable editor, like Professor Muir, can provide the missing clues that will reveal what he calls the “undertone of meaning” in those speeches; but while the meaning is important, so too is the mode of speech itself, a mode defined in the New Cambridge edition as “ideas following each other with little more than verbal connection”:

No, they cannot touch me for coining; I am the king himself. … Nature's above art in that respect. There's your press-money. That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper: draw me a clothier's yard. Look, look! a mouse. Peace, peace! this piece of toasted cheese will do't. There's my gauntlet; I'll prove it on a giant. Bring up the brown bills. O! well flown, bird; i' th' clout, i' th' clout: hewgh! Give the word.


Associations of sound more than of meaning provide the structure of Lear's discourse. The meaning of Lear's interior drama is determined by the whim of his words.

And the drama remains private: only Lear can know the infinitely complicated rules that generate his mad language. “I will preach to thee. Mark,” says Lear; and his sermon begins well enough: “When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools” (l. 184). But immediately the discourse is shunted off onto a detour created by a secondary association of sound or meaning: “This' a good block!” And suddenly Lear's sermon gives way to “a delicate stratagem to shoe / A troop of horse with felt,” and the wish to steal “upon these son-in-laws, / Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” The sermon returns upon itself to the world of Lear's private obsessions, excluding any conceivable congregation of listeners.

Lear's mad-speech isolates the speaker, thus subverting one essential function of language. In Titus Andronicus there are also moments when a speaker's words reveal him locked in the privacy of his obsessions—and those moments are precisely those of the fullest, most magniloquent rhetorical elaboration. Such a moment we have encountered in Titus' extended comparison of himself as earth and Lavinia as “weeping welkin” (III.i.219). A more subtle and perhaps more significant example comes in III.ii; it begins with Titus' promise to the silenced Lavinia that she will still, somehow, be heard:12

Speechless complainer, I will learn thy thought;
In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
As begging hermits in their holy prayers
Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven,
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet,
And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.


It is a noble speech in its determination that human ingenuity can overcome the barbarity that has silenced Lavinia; and here Titus' rhetorical copiousness is ironically appropriate and moving. But almost immediately the optimism is shattered: Marcus strikes at a fly which has settled on his dish, and Titus launches into a series of fantastic speeches—speeches that seem still to have been reverberating in Shakespeare's mind when he came to write King Lear:

Out on thee, murderer! thou kill'st my heart;
Mine eyes are cloy'd with view of tyranny:
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus' brother. Get thee gone;
I see thou art not for my company.
Alas, my lord, I have but kill'd a fly.
“But”? How if that fly had a father and mother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings,
And buzz lamenting doings in the air!
Poor harmless fly.
That, with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry, and thou hast killed him.


With Marcus' explanation that “it was a black ill-favour'd fly / Like to the empress' Moor,” Titus swings violently about; now killing the fly becomes “a charitable deed,” and Titus demands,

Give me thy knife, I will insult on him;
Flattering myself as if it were the Moor
Come hither purposely to poison me.
There's for thyself, and that's for Tamora.


Titus' prosopopoeia on the harmless fly, with his “lamenting doings” and “pretty buzzing melody,” is an extraordinary thing—purposefully sentimental, beautifully realized as poetry. And considering Titus' mental state, one is even able to forgive the illogic by which a murdered fly laments his parents' bereavement. Fine: but what has become in all of this of Lavinia? And what of the effort to “wrest an alphabet” from her gestures? The possibility of communion is shattered as Titus wanders off in his acrid smoke of rhetoric. At the very moment that the need for human communication is most forcefully presented, we witness words destroying their natural function.

We arrive here at a nexus of concerns which can reveal that “central tragic fact” we are seeking. The playwright in the world of his craft and his characters in their created world are faced each with an analogous problem: how to break out of rhetoric, that high gift which has become a prison, and achieve the action which will suffice? For the playwright, as I have said, that action must be one broadly conceived, sufficient to transform the language of words into the language of drama, to create (to put it simply) a stageworthy tragedy. And how this can be achieved is indicated by Titus' desire to “Plot some device of further misery, / To make us wonder'd at in time to come.” The theatrical implications of the first part of Titus' line we have already glanced at; and we may notice that, as the moment of Titus' revenge approaches, such double entendre becomes more frequent: Tamora, creating a masquelike “device” of her own (she is disguised as Revenge, Chiron and Demetrius as Murder and Rape), comes to where Titus “ruminate[s] strange plots of dire revenge” (V.ii.6); Titus plans to “o'erreach them in their own devices” (V.ii.143); and when he has killed Chiron and Demetrius he announces as the next part of his plan that “I'll play the cook” (V.ii.204). Through such suggestions of a play-within-a-play, the world of reality and the world of the stage begin to merge in a way that animates Ralegh's poetic cliché, “Thus march we playing to our latest rest, / Only we die in earnest; that's no jest.” In Titus Andronicus, the earnest of death becomes inextricably bound up with the jest of playing.

But in what way can the play's “plot of dire revenge,” which includes the deaths of Lavinia and Titus himself, satisfy the demand that it be a plot “To make us wonder'd at in time to come”? Again we must attend to a special sense of Titus' language. According to J. V. Cunningham, the word “wonder” (L. admiratio), in a tradition descending from Aristotle, was closely associated with the particular emotion supposed to derive from tragedy. “The effect of astonishment or wonder is the natural correlative of unusual diction, as it is of the unusual event,” he writes; in particular, “The high style, the forceful, the grand—the style of Demosthenes and Aeschylus—will evoke that wonder which is akin to fear, and will be especially appropriate to tragedy.”13 But we have already seen that Titus Andronicus carries with it, just as it is exploiting the language of wonder, the recognition that even the most unusual diction and the highest style will not suffice: action, and that a very special action, must animate the otherwise imprisoning rhetoric. And the action that will not only fit but transform the words is death: for the Elizabethan dramatist, death is what can provoke “wonder” in time to come. J. V. Cunningham explains:

The tragic fact is death. Even the most natural death has in it a radical violence, for it is a transition from this life to something by definition quite otherwise; and, however much it may be expected, it is in its moment of incidence sudden, for it comes as the thief in the night, you know not the day nor the hour. Hence the characteristics of suddenness and violence which are attached to death in tragedy may be viewed as artistic heightenings of the essential character of death: the unnaturalness of the tragic event is only pointed and emphasized by the unnatural precipitancy of its accomplishment.14

In this play, when words have done their uttermost and failed, Titus breaks through the barriers of incommunicability with the gesture that, because it is the gesture most provocative of wonder, is definitive of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy. He takes the final step from rhetoric through madness to death.

If the assertion that death is our “central tragic fact” seems something of an anticlimax, the fault may be that we know so much more than the Elizabethans—and (as Mr. Eliot said), “they are that which we know.” But why, if the simple (but also infinitely complex) fact of death is all that we arrive at, not accept the term “revenge” and leave it at that? The answer, I think, is suggested in a phrase used (in a different context) by a recent critic, who writes of “The choice of revenge as the metaphor for action.15 Revenge itself, that is to say, is subsumed in a larger purpose; and one aspect of that purpose is immediately pertinent to this discussion: the need for a culminating action that will bring “wonder” out of rhetoric in time to come. Revenge is only one of the various routes to the ritualization of death which permits the Elizabethan dramatist to conclude his tragedy with the expressiveness of a consummatum est. The sense of something attained, at once fearful and wondrous, is the playwright's solution to the problem that haunts so much of Renaissance literature, be it sonnet or tragedy; the proboem, to use Spenser's word, of mutability. The resolution in death will assure the sort of enduring memorial Titus and his creator seek.

The demand for permanence explains a function of that saving remnant which is present at the tragedy's close, the Horatios and Edgars, who promise to remember the events and report them “aright / To the unsatisfied.” In Titus, it has to be admitted, the remaining Andronici are annoyingly wordy, a fact that may be in part forgivable under the circumstances: they have been voiceless in Rome long enough. Still, this is a long way from the more honest ending of King Lear, with its bathetically simple, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” and its recognition that not all the words in the world can balance the weight of the action we have witnessed. The great tragedies of this period—whether of blood, revenge, or tragedy pure—culminate, like their important precursor Titus Andronicus, in the acting out of death, and the rest is, necessarily, silence.


  1. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1940), p. 62.

  2. Induction to Bartholomew Fair, in C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, Ben Jonson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52), VI, 16.

  3. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 147.

  4. J. C. Maxwell, ed., The Arden Edition (London: Methuen, and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1961). All other references to Titus Andronicus are to this edition.

  5. Sir Philip Sidney, “An Apologie for Poetry,” in Gregory Smith, Elizabethan Critical Essays (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1904), I, 182. Sidney's commonplace must be allowed to stand here for the wealth of texts which might be cited. Among modern scholars who have studied the relationship between the rhetorical tradition and Elizabethan drama, my greatest debt is to Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1954).

  6. Quoted by W. S. Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England 1500-1700 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1956), p. 18.

  7. The Spanish Tragedy, ed. Philip Edwards (London: Methuen, 1959). Antonio and Mellida The First Part, ed. G. K. Hunter (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1965).

  8. The Spanish Tragedy, or The Pleasures and Perils of Rhetoric,” Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 9 (1966), 81.

  9. The Overburian Characters, to Which is added A Wife, ed. W. J. Paylor (Oxford: Blackwell, 1936), p. 76. The character of “An Excellent Actor” was added in the sixth impression, 1615; its attribution to Webster is generally accepted, and the piece is included in F. L. Lucas' edition of Webster.

  10. The Works of Francis Bacon (“Popular Edition”), ed. Spedding, Ellis, and Heath (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1857), II, 116.

  11. Kenneth Muir, ed., The Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1952).

  12. The authenticity of this scene has been questioned, especially on the grounds that it necessitates the re-entry of characters who have exited at the end of the immediately preceding scene. The scene may be a later addition, but I see no reason to attribute it to any hand other than Shakespeare's.

  13. Woe or Wonder (Denver: Univ. of Denver Press, and Toronto: Burns & MacEachern, 1951), p. 73.

  14. Ibid., p. 59.

  15. Philip J. Finkelpearl, John Marston of the Middle Temple (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969), p. 160. My italics.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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 between redemption and revenge as the essence of Hamlet's spiritual struggle. In Coursen's view, the prince's desperate fatalism at the close of the play signals that he has chosen hatred over benevolence and damnation over salvation.

Gottschalk, Paul. “Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 2 (spring 1973): 155-70.

Focuses on the prayer scene in Hamlet, arguing that the prince's soliloquy in this scene manifests guilt and self-condemnation, for at this point in his extended attempt to define himself, Hamlet has become a villain. Gottschalk adds, however, that by the close of the play, Hamlet rejects the avenger's role and chooses instead to abide by the will of Providence.

Holbrook, Peter. “Nietzsche's Hamlet.Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): 171-86.

Proposes that Nietzsche found in Hamlet a means of developing and explicating his conviction that the principal goal of the individual is to create a unique self. In Holbrook's judgment, Nietzsche correctly viewed Hamlet as a man who rejects the notion that his actions should be determined by another—that is, by the ghost of his father, who would use him as an instrument of revenge.

Jacobs, Henry E. “Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy, and the Ideology of the Memento Mori.Shakespeare Studies 21 (1993): 96-108.

Compares Shakespeare's use of the memento mori emblem in Hamlet with its function in three revenge dramas from the same period: Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, Chettle's The Tragedy of Hoffman, and Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy. Jacobs maintains that unlike the protagonists of these plays—for whom relics of mortality act as goads to vengeance—Hamlet meditates on Yorick's skull as part of his thoughtful preparation for death.

Keyishian, Harry. “Destructive Revenge in Julius Caesar and Othello.” In The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare, pp. 81-99. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995.

Discusses three pursuers of revenge in Julius Caesar: Mark Antony, the Roman crowd, and the dead Caesar.

———. “Varieties of Revenge in the First Tetralogy.” In The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare, pp. 123-35. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995.

Comments on similarities and differences among various revengers in 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, and Richard III. He notes that this group of plays consistently represents vengeance as a means of self-gratification rather than a moral or ethical action, and he categorizes the revengers: York and Old Clifford as archetypes of factional revenge; Young Clifford as an indiscriminate revenger; Margaret as a personal revenger; and Richard III as initially a factional revenger but ultimately a prototype of utter vindictiveness.

McGuire, Philip C. “Bearing ‘A Wary Eye’: Ludic Vengeance and Doubtful Suicide in Hamlet.” In From Page to Performance: Essays in Early English Drama, edited by John A. Alford, pp. 235-53. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995.

A detailed analysis of the fencing match in Act V of Hamlet. McGuire points out that, unlike other Renaissance revenge tragedies, the death of the antagonist in Hamlet is not the result of the hero's careful plotting; indeed, Claudius's death is the inadvertent result of his and Laertes's scheming against the prince.

Paris, Bernard J. “The Tempest: Shakespeare's Ideal Solution.” In Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, pp. 206-25. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

A psychoanalytic reading of The Tempest which suggests that Prospero manifests an internal conflict between aggressive vindictiveness and passive self-effacement that mirrors the ambiguity in Shakespeare's own personality.

Proser, Matthew N. “Madness, Revenge, and the Metaphor of the Theater in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Pirandello's Henry IV.Modern Drama 24, no. 3 (September 1981): 338-52.

Maintains that in the course of the dramatic action, Hamlet abandons his youthful roles, tries out and feigns new ones, and finally achieves an identity appropriate to his social role as Denmark's leader and to his broader function as a sacrificial hero whose death renews a moribund nation.

Rees, Joan. “Revenge, Retribution, and Reconciliation.” Shakespeare Survey 24 (1971): 31-5.

Compares the way Shakespeare made use of three different dramatic forms—revenge, retribution, and reconciliation—in Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and King Lear.

Sacks, Peter. “Where Words Prevail Not: Grief, Revenge, and Language in Kyd and Shakespeare.” ELH 49, no. 3 (fall 1982): 576-601.

Examines the dramatic representation—in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Hamlet—of the failure of conventional ceremonies and language to assuage grief. Sacks explains that whereas Titus and Laertes feel that the only recourse to unconsolable loss is revenge, Hamlet's response to loss is profound melancholy.

Skulsky, Harold. “Revenge, Honor, and Conscience in Hamlet.PMLA 85, no. 1 (January 1970): 78-87.

Questions whether Hamlet is prompted to revenge by hatred or honor. Skulsky remarks on the prince's association of revenge with suicide and conscience with cowardice, and concludes that Hamlet falls into the error of believing that he has been chosen to be the agent of divine punishment.

Michael Cameron Andrews (essay date 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 dead, and burdened by original sin. But Lewis's theory, ingenious as it is, invites the retort that he too, the amateur theologian, has saddled Hamlet with his own prepossessions.”2 Both protagonist and play, one may add, have appealed to one of our current prepossessions. Valuing multiplicity of meaning as we do, we hold Hamlet in our heart of hearts. It is a play in which many meanings dance. And, of course, since Hamlet has so much in it, critics are encouraged to find more—something overlooked, misconstrued, or imperfectly sensed by previous writers.

Contemplating the vast outpouring of heterogeneous commentary, Elder Olson began a discussion of Hamlet with the melancholy observation: “In the present condition of Hamlet studies, it is almost useless to offer one more interpretation of the play.”3 Yet the play persists; like its portentous Ghost, it would be spoke to. And much of what has been written in the years since Olson's essay confirms the soundness of his diagnosis of the state of Hamlet criticism: “… problems, methods, and solutions of the most fantastic order seem often to be given an authority equal to or even greater than that of the most solid scholarship, as if the criteria on which authority depended were novelty and ingenuity rather than cogency of proof” (p. 225).

Inevitably, of course, all readers and critics of Hamlet must form some opinion concerning what may be called the play's attitude toward Hamlet and his revenge. And it is here, I think, that the temptation to read our prepossessions into the play is particularly strong. Since many critics regard blood revenge as a great evil, they contend—to state the matter most simply—that Hamlet should either abstain from vengeance altogether, or undertake it in the proper spirit. For some only the former would suffice;4 for others, Hamlet may emerge from the play a noble and sweet prince if he can achieve vengeance without tainting his mind with hatred—if, in short, he learns to act as God's minister rather than out of personal vindictiveness.5 There are two schools of thought as to whether Hamlet passes this test, though most critics join Fredson Bowers in answering in the affirmative.

The most influential recent discussion of this subject is Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge. Because of my profound disagreement with the critical approach her book represents, I should like to indicate some of the fundamental differences in our premises.

I agree with Prosser that “our truest guide to understanding Hamlet is our intuitive response” (p. xiii). But I disagree as to the nature of this response. Like some others before her,6 she argues for a dual response: emotional approval followed by moral judgment. “Is it not at least possible,” she inquires, “that the Elizabethan audience could instinctively identify with the revenger and yet—either at the same time or later, when released from emotional involvement—judge him, too?” (p. 34). This sounds plausible enough—until one realizes that Prosser means post-theatrical judgment as well as responses experienced during a performance.7 To speak of judgment during a play is one thing: it is true, for example, that our attitude toward Richard III and Macbeth changes; in a sense, we kill with them, but are dissociated from them before the end of the play, so that each dies alone. For both of them, there is judgment within the play. The idea that a moral judgment arrived at after a play has equal authority is, I feel sure, a dangerous one—dangerous because we are only too eager to substitute our own moral notions for the dramatic experience created by the playwright and actors.

Even in the case of judgment within the context of the play, the degree of distancing required entails a marked loss in tragic effect. Judgment and the tragic emotions, as A. C. Bradley long ago pointed out, have little to do with each other: “When we are immersed in a tragedy, we feel toward dispositions, actions, and persons such emotions as attraction and repulsion, pity, wonder, fear, horror, perhaps hatred; but we do not judge.8 What has happened, I believe, in much recent criticism of Hamlet is a rebellion against the immersion of which Bradley is speaking. We are not likely, nowadays, to hear that Hamlet moves us because we feel ourselves in him, or him in us. Reacting against our natural tendency to identify with Hamlet, critics strive to maintain a judicial attitude. Hamlet has been moved from the heart's core to the realm of the other.9

Even so, Shakespeare makes it difficult to bring Hamlet to the bar. For the main objection to sitting in judgment on Hamlet is Hamlet. The judicial critic is in the awkward position of warning us not to be taken in by effects the playwright evidently sought to achieve. Even John Vyvyan, for example, who argues that Hamlet disowns his higher nature in seeking vengeance, candidly remarks: “Hamlet is so fully successful in hypnotizing himself that he partially hypnotizes the audience as well. We have to pinch ourselves awake in order not to accept his valuation of the other characters.”10 Whether or not we are desirous to be pinched, the judicial critic strives to pinch us to our senses. But the playwright, not the critic, must release us from tragic involvement—if he desires—and free us for judgment. When he does so he is about other business than tragedy. In Hamlet, the evidence suggests that Shakespeare was about tragedy.

Judgment within a play is something over which the dramatist exercises control. This is not the case with our reflections after—or outside—the play. Thus, if Tamburlaine is made magnificent in the theater, how relevant is the post-theatrical judgment that we really should not admire that sort of man?11 When we talk of withdrawing moral approval from what we were seduced into accepting during the play, we are probably saying that we don't like the dramatist's ideas, not that we were insufficiently alert to the nuances of his play. The double response theory, with its hot baths of emotionalism followed by cold showers of judgment,12 has little to recommend it when the cold shower is not turned on by the dramatist. In the case of revenge tragedy, as I shall explain, the danger of distorting our actual experience of the play is particularly acute.

Roughly one-third of Hamlet and Revenge, for example, deals with “Elizabethan Attitudes towards Revenge.” The purpose of this investigation, as stated in the preface, is to counteract the erroneous impressions fostered by previous scholarship: “The dominant critical tradition has explicitly told us: ‘Forget your own ethical code. The study of certain facts indicates that it is irrelevant in Hamlet.’ The facts, I submit, tell us exactly the opposite” (p. xiv). What the “facts” reveal, in short, is that we should set aside the red spectacles prescribed for us by revenge-ethic critics. By using our own unaided vision we will see better. For the Elizabethans responded to Hamlet in the same way that we will—once we learn to trust our instinctive response.

But what, according to Prosser, did the Elizabethans believe? These are her findings for the society in which Hamlet was written: “… on the subject of revenge, [Shakespeare's] plays reflect agreement with sermons, moralist tracts, poetry, and other plays of his day. No matter how base the injury, no matter how evil your enemy, no matter how dim all hope of legal redress, leave the issue to Heaven; God's is the quarrel” (p. 94).

It is somewhat disconcerting to discover that the chase had this beast in view. The Elizabethans saw their plays through moral spectacles (at least in retrospect)13; we share their opposition to revenge as something barbaric and unchristian. In both cases, aversion to revenge is considered instinctive.

So described, man is a creature who has taken his civilization straight; savagery and violence have lost their primordial appeal, in thought as well as in deed. The most that such a man can do at a revenge play is to grant temporary sympathy to what he cannot ultimately condone.

But is this man? Eric Bentley, commenting on the revenge theme in Hamlet, has noted the fundamental ambiguity of our response: “There is an unresolved ambiguity here which is not that of the play alone, or even of its author: it is the ambiguity of a whole civilization—a civilization that has never made up its mind but has a double, nay, a triple, standard: preaching forgiveness, while believing in justice, while practicing revenge.”14 The Christian tradition, it is true, attempts to replace hatred with love, revenge with forgiveness; vengeance itself should be left to God. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” Yet, as Freud has observed, “What no human soul desires there is no need to prohibit; it is automatically excluded. The very emphasis of the commandment Thou shalt not kill makes it certain that we spring from an endless ancestry of murderers, with whom the lust for killing was in the blood, as possibly it is to this day with ourselves.”15 The problem, according to Freud, is our unwillingness to admit what we are: “Our unconscious is just as inaccessible to the idea of our own death, as murderously minded towards the stranger, as divided or ambivalent towards the loved, as was man in earliest antiquity. But how far we have moved from this primitive state in our conventionally civilized attitude towards death! … Is it not for us to confess that in our civilized attitude towards death we are once again living psychologically beyond our means, and must reform and give truth its due?” (p. 234). Prosser, who would grant our “conventionally civilized attitude” toward revenge the status of an instinct,16 seems unaware of any conflict between profession and reality; her theory of audience response thus requires precisely the self-deception Freud considered “psychologically beyond our means.”

It seems to me, on the contrary, that audiences are fully capable of responding to revenge tragedy for reasons that have nothing to do with conventional morality or religious ethics. Quite simply, audiences find the drama of “one [character] who has done something and one who is going to get him because he has done it”17 deeply satisfying. Many Elizabethan revenge plays are entirely consonant with the moral and religious precepts of the age; they are, in a sense, cautionary works. But my concern here is to emphasize the existence of another kind of revenge play, more savage than didactic, appealing to the instinctual side of man. This form of revenge tragedy encourages the audience to indulge the instinctive desire to require violence with violence. Setting aside its panoply of precepts, the audience could feel what it must, not what it ought to feel.

In the Elizabethan period, to be sure, the truer form is the rarer form. It would be most surprising if the religious and moral thought of the period had not impressed itself on the drama, leading to many plays in which revenge was presented as evil.18 But this is only to say that dramatists showed themselves ready to give audiences what they were supposed to want (and quite possibly thought they wanted) instead of meeting a deeper, more inarticulate need. Indeed, it could be argued that the religious temper of the age heightened the need for some means of indulging the very instincts that were, by general agreement, immoral. Thus an Elizabethan audience might enter the theater believing that revenge should be left to God but, caught in the dark music of the play, become vicarious participants in violence. This is the reason for the enormous emotional appeal of the revenge play in its pure and savage form, before didacticism sets in. The implacable emotional logic of blood for blood is at the heart of revenge tragedy. What is denied in civilized life is furnished in the theater. Revenge tragedy speaks to unaccommodated man, and what our response reveals about us is not pleasant to contemplate. The revenger raises his sword. The audience leans forward for the kill. It is not a time for compunction. We are given what we desire. In that sense, at least, vengeance is ours.

I have said that the double response theory, suspect in general terms, is particularly misleading when applied to Elizabethan revenge tragedy. It should now be evident why this is so. A man may respond, while in the theater, to ideas with which he would not normally be in sympathy. If his response does not imply ambivalence in an area where ambivalence is forbidden, he may be willing to admit that he was so caught up in the play that he temporarily accepted its standards; in the real world, he feels sure, he would react differently. But suppose the play appeals to what a man actually feels, but cannot admit feeling, even to himself?19 When the spectator, his dream of passion ended, re-enters the world of the preacher and the moralist, what might he be likely to do? In such a case, surely, the tendency would be to attempt to rationalize the nature of the experience. But, for all that, the experience would still be there. It happened; it was true. And, at another performance, it would happen again—unless he refused to yield himself to the play.

To this point I have mainly been speaking theoretically. But there is evidence that the Elizabethans found, in the theater, the kind of freedom I have been describing.20 At a comedy, for example, there would be no reason to suppose that audiences responded in a manner consonant with moral and religious precepts. Something of a moral holiday is surely suggested by Stephen Gosson's complaint: “… in the theaters they generally take up a wonderful laughter, and shout all together with one voice, when they see some notable cosenage practised, or some sly conveyance of bawdry brought out of Italy. Whereby they show themselves rather to like it than to rebuke it.”21 Gosson is admittedly no impartial witness, but he would hardly risk destroying his credibility by misrepresenting audience response. On the basis of their experience in the theater, many of his readers would be able to judge for themselves.

But to delight in gullery or bawdry is relatively harmless; few would be as strict as Gosson. To delight in blood revenge is a more serious matter. Yet some plays show themselves rather to like it than rebuke it—and audiences responded to these plays with considerable enthusiasm.22

Irving Ribner, like Prosser, has emphasized that the Elizabethan revenge play is usually moral as well as bloody: “While audiences may have delighted above all in the sensationalism and spectacle of horror, the heroes of such plays … tended to vitiate themselves by the very act of vengeance-seeking and to die as fully tainted by evil as the villains who had injured them.”23 Revenge was, after all, the prerogative of God. Yet, in a passage anticipated by Freud's remarks on the implications of Thou shalt not kill, Ribner goes on to note the possible significance of the age's tendency to protest too much: “The vengeance of God inevitably will be executed, even by the sinner upon himself should there be no other means. We need not assume that this was a doctrine to which all Elizabethans assented; the very need of Tudor moralists constantly to assert it may suggest that many theatre-goers could sympathize with the blood revenger” (p. liii). “Traffic lights,” as a social anthropologist has remarked, “are not found where there are no automobiles.”24 What is implicit in the repeated admonitions of the moralists is sometimes explicit in the plays. If “the sweet violence of a tragedy” (in Sidney's phrase) was unleavened by the addition of moral judgment, audiences could indulge this sympathy and share the revenger's bloody triumph without any necessity of judging him or themselves.

The Spanish Tragedy, which with Titus Andronicus established revenge tragedy on the Elizabethan stage, reveals at least as much about underlying attitudes toward blood revenge as many volumes of sermons. Kyd's drama affords ample proof that audiences did not require their violence seasoned with moral judgment when the cause was great and the revenger a man with whom they could identify. Philip Edwards, who has gone even so far as to say “The only essential reading for Hamlet is (besides Hamlet) The Spanish Tragedy,25 elsewhere writes of the play's “power … to lull an Elizabethan conscience while it was being performed”: “It could well be said … that it is a poor play which depends on the audience suspending its belief in law and mercy. And yet a swingeing revenge-play has its own emotional satisfaction for the audience. Vengeance is exacted from evil-doers by a man whose wrongs invoke pity; in enabling an audience to forget their daily docility and to share in Hieronimo's violent triumph, it may be that Kyd has justified himself as an artist more than he would have done in providing a sermon on how irreligious it is to be vindictive.”26 That would seem a just assessment of what the play does for its audience. It is pointless to insist that Hieronimo is guilty of criminal violence. Of course he is—but not in the world of the play. Instead of presenting him as he would appear in conventional moral terms, the play portrays his vengeance, terrible though it is, with approbation rather than censure. Hieronimo has done what he had to do, and he was right to do it. His death is not the seal of his guilt but a rite of passage, for we are told that in Elysium his anguish will be metamorphosed to eternal bliss: “Andrea. … I'll lead Hieronimo where Orpheus plays, / Adding sweet pleasure to eternal days” (IV.v.23-24).27 The enemies of Andrea, and of Hieronimo, on the other hand, will be tormented in “deepest hell.” Thus is the audience encouraged to share, as in a dream, the passion and triumph of Hieronimo, who slays his enemies in this life and sends them to punishment in the next.

Shakespeare is often considered too enlightened, too humane, to write approvingly of revenge. L. C. Knights, for example, declares himself unable to believe that Shakespeare “could temporarily waive his deepest ethical convictions for the sake of an exciting dramatic effect.” That Shakespeare was in the business of providing exciting dramatic effects does not deter Knights: “It is almost like believing that Dante, for a canto or two, could change his ground and write approvingly, say, of the enemies of the Empire.”28

Without claiming any special insights into Shakespeare's “deepest ethical convictions,” Prosser turns directly to his plays; she concludes that, as Shakespeare cannot be said to approve of blood revenge in any of his other plays, such approval should not be taken for granted in Hamlet: “In all this evidence … we find no suggestion that Shakespeare expected his audience to accept without question the validity of private blood revenge. The evidence suggests, rather, that his plays rely on the orthodox ethical and religious injunctions against it. Despite a maturing of both dramatic skill and thought between Titus Andronicus and The Tempest, the portrayal of the revenger seems to remain constant. Titus and Prospero are two sides of the same coin” (p. 93).

The problem is not simply failure to distinguish between revenge tragedy as a form and plays which merely employ revenge motifs. Though little can be learned about Shakespeare's dramatic attitude toward revenge by comparing works as unlike in intention as Titus and The Tempest, no harm would be done if the revenge play received its due. It should not be treated as an adumbration of what is in reality quite another play; that “the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” is true enough of The Tempest—but that is in another dramatic country.29 Furthermore, Prosser's description of Shakespeare's “portrayal of the revenger” is of doubtful validity. At least two plays—Titus and Macbeth—take a far more favorable view of revenge than she is willing to allow.

Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's only real revenge tragedy besides Hamlet, carries blood revenge as far as it can go: blood is poured not by the cup, but by the bellyful. Like The Spanish Tragedy, Titus is used by Prosser as an example of how the revenger becomes corrupted and loses the audience's approval. The killing of Demetrius and Chiron is the turning point: “From this point on [Titus] is, if not a ‘villain-revenger,’ at least a tainted revenger who has forfeited our sympathy” (p. 88). Yet, in this instance, Prosser has been induced to relax some measure of her usual moral rigor: apparently she would approve of Titus' vengeance if he were not quite so cruel: “The murder of Tamora's two vicious cubs would, in itself, undoubtedly call for our instinctive applause. But when Titus … stops their mouths to prevent any pleas (a typical villain's device in Renaissance drama) and then taunts them with his ghastly plans to make mush of their bones and blood, mold it around their severed heads, and serve the tempting ‘pasties’ to their mother—the stomach of the most hardened spectator would surely rise.” Before the play is over, she asserts, “Titus has lost all claim to virtue” (p. 88).

I do not deny that strong stomachs are in order. Yet it seems very likely that many in the audience cheered Titus' stratagem for its grisly propriety rather than responding with horrified revulsion. For Titus Andronicus, like The Spanish Tragedy, presents personal vengeance in a manner that accentuates the revenger's bloody triumph rather than his moral guilt. When Titus finally acts, he does not forfeit his moral position in the play: he is a good man, his enemies embodiments of evil (something of this is surely conceded by Prosser in her reference to “vicious cubs”). By the time suffering changes to action, the previous events of the play have created in the audience an emotional need for a vengeance which will provide adequate restitution; we have been given, so to speak, the formula for Titus' vengeance. Titus in his cook's attire may be grotesque enough, but he is serving what we want.

Neither Titus nor Hieronimo survives his revenge. Unlike Hieronimo, who takes his own life, Titus is slain after revealing what Tamora has fed on and stabbing her to death. Saturninus kills Titus, and is in turn slain by Lucius, who avenges his father: “Can the son's eye behold his father bleed? / There's meed for meed, death for a deadly deed” (V.iii.55-56).30 Set in such a context, it is difficult to see Titus' death as evidence of his moral guilt. The revenger dies, and is revenged; instead of being punished, Lucius becomes the next emperor of Rome.

From a dramatic point of view, Shakespeare may be said to hurry past the death of Titus; it is perfunctory, undeveloped. Yet it is clearly necessary to remove Titus from the play. In securing vengeance, he has ended his reason for living: death comes as no catastrophe, but as a triumphant departure at the full flood-tide of emotional vindication. He can hardly be imagined living on. In his vengeance is his end.31 His death, in this sense, is like Hieronimo's.

There is another reason why Titus must die. Though in the theater, where spectators are confronted with dramatic impressions rather than legal evidence, for Titus to be struck down at this moment is no punishment for criminal misdeeds; in life such a man would stand condemned by law. Titus' death, while not imposed by us, neatly solves the problem of what to do with him at the end of the play. For him to face formal judgment would oblige the spectator to judge: the world of the play would be set against the world of Elizabethan justice.32 According to the latter, Titus should be condemned to death; for the play to spare him would seem unjust, if not morally outrageous. But by making Titus fall by Saturninus' hand, Shakespeare prevents the question of Titus' guilt from becoming an issue: it is not an issue because it is never really raised. Hence Titus remains a good man even as he betters the instructions of his sadistic tormenters. As Marcus, “the reverent man of Rome,” says of his brother's vengeance:

Now judge what cause had Titus to revenge
These wrongs unspeakable, past patience,
Or more than any living man could bear. …
Have we done aught amiss, show us wherein. …


It is Titus' unspeakable wrongs, the justice of his cause, that we remember. We judge the cause, not the legality of vengeance. Titus never loses his “claim to virtue.”

For Prosser, as we have seen, a character who sheds blood for blood forfeits this claim: Shakespeare would not have us approve of him. Hence when she comes to discuss the revenge motif in Macbeth there is an obvious problem: how does Macduff, who might seem an exception to her rule, escape condemnation? The answer must be dealt with at some length, for Prosser is aware that the play is a crucial one, a “test case,” for her theory. Although Macbeth is often “cited as evidence that Shakespeare unquestioningly accepted the morality of revenge,”33 she argues that the play contains “only one passage [which] can be offered in support of a revenge ethic. In his soliloquy on the battlefield, Macduff roars for Macbeth to show himself, swearing that if someone else has stolen from him the right to kill the tyrant, ‘my wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still’” (pp. 90-91). Prosser is quite frankly unable to account for this: “In the light of the rest of the play, I find the speech a contradiction. Elsewhere, the denial of personal revenge motives to Macduff is explicit” (p. 91).

But if the speech is out of character it is an odd place for Shakespeare to be careless. Is the evidence as explicit as Prosser believes? Here is her view of Macduff's motives: “Even when Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children, his major reaction is stunned grief. He is angry at himself for exposing them to danger, not at the man who murdered them” (p. 91).

Such a Macduff would indeed want the natural touch. But let us consider Macduff's actual response to the revelation that his family has been slaughtered:

My children too?
Wife, servants, all
That could be found.
And I must be from thence!
My wife kill'd too?
I have said.
Be comforted:
Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge,
To cure this deadly grief.
He has no children.—All my pretty ones?
Did you say all?—O Hell-kite!—All? …


It seems to me that “And I must be from thence!” is rather an outcry of baffled pain (Why couldn't I have been there!) than of anger. But what is of crucial importance is Macduff's enigmatic response to Malcolm's suggestion that he cure his grief by taking revenge. Professor Muir, who gives three possible readings, prefers the one a blood-revenger would intend: Macbeth, that is, has no children to be slain in requital.35 However this may be, the speech is followed by an unequivocal burst of anger, for one presumes that “Hell-kite” is not a term of self-reproach.

Not that Macduff does not blame himself. It seems to him that such innocents would never have been allowed to perish if Heaven were not using their deaths to punish him for his own sins:

                                                                                                    Did Heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff!
They were all struck for thee. Naught that I am,
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls. …


But when Malcolm redirects his attention to Macbeth—“Be this the whetstone of your sword: let grief / Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it” (ll. 228-29)—Macduff again turns his thoughts to vengeance:

                                                                                                    … gentle Heavens,
Cut short all intermission; front to front,
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland, and myself;
Within my sword's length set him. …

(ll. 231-34)

This, Prosser remarks, is as close as Macduff comes to “a vow of personal revenge” (p. 91). But while there is piety in it—as she notes, it is a prayer—there is also something else. Of course Macbeth is the country's enemy, but Macduff also clearly hates him for imperative personal reasons. The ending of his speech, not quoted by Prosser, emphasizes this aspect of his motivation: “… if he 'scape, / Heaven forgive him too!” (ll. 234-35). These lines, surely, suggest implacable hatred.

Nor does the end of the play show Macduff in a more charitable spirit. When finally given the chance to confront Macbeth with self-comparisons, he charges the “Hell-hound” to battle. They fight on even terms until Macduff's revelation of the manner of his birth. Now Macbeth refuses to fight. But Macduff, refusing to let his vengeance slip from him, taunts Macbeth into continuing. If justice were all he sought, Macduff might ask his enemy to yield in other words than these:

Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o' th' time:
We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole, and underwrit,
“Here may you see the tyrant.”


Goaded beyond endurance, Macbeth is induced to “try the last”; Macduff re-enters with the head of his enemy. The time is free, but so is Macduff. He has had his revenge.

We may now return to Prosser's view of the play. Macbeth, she asserts, does not contradict her theory that Shakespeare never approves of personal revenge. It is true that Macduff emerges untainted, but only because he is no blood revenger: “… all is surrendered to the will of Heaven. The … campaign is to be seen as a divine mission, not as a campaign of personal vengeance.”36

The play suggests it is both. Instead of supporting Prosser's argument, Macduff remains a step on which she must fall down, or else o'erleap, for in her way he lies. To anticipate Hamlet: Macduff is prompted to his revenge by excitements of his reason and his blood. He is no impersonal minister, but what he is doing is just.

The plum survives its poems, Hamlet its critics. Yet if we accept invitations to approach this highly personal play by way of its background, wariness is appropriate. When this background includes other plays, we should remember that these plays are things in themselves:37 breadth of scholarship, though giving an imposing sense of solidity, cannot provide assurance that a writer is examining the evidence with impartial eyes. For as we have seen, special pleading may assume the pleasing shape of scholarly objectivity; the “background” may be construed according to one's prepossessions. Here too we may find, in Olson's phrase, “novelty and ingenuity rather than cogency of proof.”38

William Troy once observed that the critic's “problem is always to discover the approach that will do least violence to the object before us, that will reconcile the greatest number of the innumerable aspects that every object presents to the understanding.”39 If we wish to “do least violence” to Hamlet, we must examine in some detail how it shapes our responses—how it creates itself in our minds. This is not my purpose in the present essay. I have sought only to demonstrate that an Elizabethan audience did not necessarily respond to revenge in moral terms; that Shakespeare does not impose moral judgment on all his revengers; and that Hamlet would not be a startling play if it presented blood revenge in a way that aroused approval as well as sympathy. My point is not that Hamlet must be such a play, but that it could be. What shocks the virtuous philosopher may delight not only the chameleon poet, but the theatrical audience.


  1. L. C. Knights, An Approach toHamlet” (Stanford, Calif., 1961), p. 11.

  2. Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare: Hamlet, Studies in English Literature, 13 (London, 1963), 13.

  3. Elder Olson, “Hamlet and the Hermeneutics of Drama,” Modern Philology, 61 (1963-64), 225.

  4. Most notably Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 2nd ed. (Stanford, Calif., 1971). One might mention, among others, John Vyvyan, The Shakespearean Ethic (London, 1959); Herbert Randolph Coursen Jr., “The Rarer Action: Hamlet's Mousetrap,” Literary Monographs, ed. Eric Rothstein and Richard N. Ringler, 2 (Madison, Wisc., 1969), 59-97 (text), 213-17 (notes); Harold Skulsky, “Revenge, Honor, and Conscience in Hamlet,PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], 85 (1970), 78-87.

  5. See especially Fredson Bowers, “Hamlet as Minister and Scourge,” PMLA, 70 (1955), 740-49.

  6. Prosser cites three “parallel discussions” (p. 34, n. 71). One could add others—e.g., John Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, Eng., 1951), pp. 270-71.

  7. For example, she speaks of the way an audience “may have sympathized strongly with the very actions that later, in ensuing scenes or after the play, they strongly, if sadly condemned” (p. 73). (Italics added.)

  8. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1955), p. 36.

  9. See T. J. B. Spencer, “The Decline of Hamlet,” Hamlet, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 5 (1963), 185-99.

  10. Vyvyan, p. 45.

  11. Prosser grants this possibility: “A skillful playwright can make even heresy attractive. Tamburlaine may be a case in point. An even better example … is Bussy D'Ambois” (p. 35).

  12. I adapt Jean Paul Richter's “hot baths of emotion followed by cold showers of irony,” a “formula” for romantic irony quoted by Harry Levin, James Joyce: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. (London, 1960), p. 41. (I am indebted to Professor Levin for this reference.)

  13. See above, n. 7.

  14. Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (New York, 1964), p. 331. In 1966, Richard Speck was convicted of murdering eight Chicago nurses. Cf. the Associated Press account of the reaction of the father of one of Speck's victims to the news that Speck's death sentence had been commuted: “John Matusek of Chicago, father of Patricia Matusek, said, ‘I'd just as soon see him go free right now. God-fearing people would take care of him’” (The Virginian-Pilot, Nov. 22, 1972, p. 1).

  15. On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York, 1958), p. 230.

  16. Cf. D. J. Palmer, Renaissance Quarterly, 21 (1968), 228: “There is an irony, perhaps unintentional, in Miss Prosser's use of the word ‘instinct’ to describe both Hamlet's desire for revenge and our own reactions to the play. …”

  17. Gareth Lloyd Evans, “Shakespeare, Seneca, and the Kingdom of Violence,” in Roman Drama, ed. T. A. Dorey and Donald R. Dudley (New York, 1963), p. 128.

  18. As Fredson Bowers remarks, “The public utterances of moralists and preachers insisted that revenge was evil, and the dramatists soon bowed to the doctrine.” Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Princeton, N.J., 1940), p. 279.

  19. Cf. Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish,” in Unpopular Essays (New York, 1950), p. 108: “The doctrine, professed by many modern Christians, that everybody will go to heaven, ought to do away with the fear of death, but in fact this fear is too instinctive to be easily vanquished. F. W. H. Myers … questioned a woman who had lately lost her daughter as to what she supposed had become of her soul. The mother replied: ‘Oh well, I suppose she is enjoying eternal bliss, but I wish you would not talk about such unpleasant subjects.’”

  20. I have already mentioned Tamburlaine; see also n. 11.

  21. Stephen Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions (ca. 1582), quoted by Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art (Madison, Wisc., 1954), p. 94.

  22. Cf. P. J. Ayres' illuminating discussion of prose fiction, “Degrees of Heresy: Justified Revenge and Elizabethan Narrative,” Studies in Philology, 69 (1972), 461-74.

  23. “Introduction,” The Atheist's Tragedy, Revels Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), p. li.

  24. Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Honour and Social Status,” in Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, ed. J. G. Peristiany (Chicago, 1966; rpt. 1974), p. 67.

  25. Philip Edwards, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London, 1968), p. 84.

  26. “Introduction,” The Spanish Tragedy, Revels Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), p. lx.

  27. I quote from the edition of Philip Edwards. Prosser's view of the play may be noted: “On the surface, the play seems an emphatic portrayal of the ravages of revenge, arousing increasing apprehension and horror in the audience as Hieronimo moves from excessive grief to rage to madness to crafty intrigue to demonic barbarism. Unfortunately, there are several contradictions” (pp. 51-52). This speech is one of them. Though she doubts that Hieronimo appeared “wholly justified” to Kyd's audience, she admits to uncertainty: “we can never be sure exactly how the Elizabethans judged Hieronimo” (p. 52).

  28. L. C. Knights, An Approach toHamlet,” p. 46. Knights goes on to assert: “If this ghost turns out to be one who clamours for revenge, then we have every reason to suppose that Shakespeare entertained some grave doubts about him.” See also Gunnar Boklund, “Judgment in Hamlet,” in Essays on Shakespeare, ed. G. W. Chapman (Princeton, N.J., 1965), p. 118.

  29. Cf. Coursen (n. 4 above).

  30. Titus Andronicus, ed. J. C. Maxwell, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd ed. (London, 1961).

  31. Cf. Prosser's account of the end of the play: “Mercifully, Titus immediately stabs [Tamora] … and, again mercifully, Titus is immediately killed. The audience could stand no more” (p. 89). See, however, E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923), II. 458; and H. S. Bennett, “Shakespeare's Audience,” in Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Peter Alexander (London, 1964), p. 63.

  32. In The Spanish Tragedy, Kyd's use of a pagan frame helps to separate the play from life. As Philip Edwards notes in the introduction to his edition, “Kyd creates, and successfully sustains, his own world of revenge, and attitudes are sanctioned which might well be deplored in real life. The moral world of the play is a make-believe world; the gods are make-believe gods” (p. lix).

  33. Prosser's other test case is King Lear; there, as she demonstrates, Edgar fulfills her requirements.

  34. Ed. Kenneth Muir, Arden Shakespeare, 9th ed. (London, 1962).

  35. See Muir's note at IV.iii.216.

  36. P. 91. Prosser concedes, however (p. 91n), that we are later told that “revenges burn” in both Macduff and Malcolm; but she dismisses this as “an offstage action.”

  37. See Rosalie L. Colie, “Preface” to Some Facets of “King Lear”: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, ed. Colie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto, 1974), p. viii.

  38. Especially regrettable, therefore, is Prosser's advice to the reader who is not “particularly interested in historical backgrounds” (pp. xiv-xv). She would have this reader—and one fears he is legion—refer to her summaries rather than the evidence on which they are based: “If … he feels comfortable with the perspective established in each summary, I urge that he skip all the background material and move immediately to Part II and the discussion of Hamlet” (p. xv).

  39. Selected Essays, ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman (New Brunswick, N.J., 1967), p. 121.

Charles A. Hallett and Elaine S. Hallett (essay date 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Shakespeare, Hamlet

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 considering Hamlet, the keystone of the genre.

Up to this point we have been dealing with flawed plays. The Spanish Tragedy was mocked even in its own time for its exaggerated rhetoric, and Hieronimo, because of his constant attitudinizing, has become to us more a comic figure than a tragic one; we will sooner smile at his hysteria than weep over the poignancy of his situation. The value of Kyd's experiment, as drama, lies primarily in the impulse it gave to subsequent writers to venture into new channels. Antonio's Revenge, too, has a mechanical quality that puts us off. Since its characters lack both credibility and scope, they do not win our admiration, and the episodes, occasionally interesting in themselves, never really convey to us a sense that each scene follows inevitably from its predecessor. Antonio's Revenge remains of interest for scholars mainly as a result of plot similarities between it and Hamlet, which have led to speculations of their common origin in a Hamlet play by Kyd. Because of the aesthetic inferiority of these early works, the revenge play has gained, both in its own time and ours, the reputation for vulgarity.

In Hamlet, we find everything transmuted. A finer imagination is at work and its effects upon the material are evident at every level of the play, from dramaturgical invention to intellectual scope. The revenge experience is now linked to another, a wider experience, the experience of knowing. Shakespeare's protagonist, thrust into the dilemma of the revenger, focuses on his own mind's reactions to the experience as much as on the experience itself. Of necessity he must also probe the mind of Claudius, and in the process he inspects as well the minds of Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia. All of the other major characters desire to unlock and enter Hamlet's mind. The very structure of the scenes reflects this basic human drive to know. In one scene after another Shakespeare utilizes the “observation sequence,” wherein a concealed character spies on another in the attempt to creep unawares upon his thoughts and capture them. So strong is this idea that the play itself seems to ask, how much can one man see of another man's mind? How completely can he comprehend his own? And how far can he penetrate into that unseen realm beyond, the “undiscover'd country” to which the human mind is the only gate?1 Again and again the revenge motifs are adapted to illuminate these, the central questions of human existence. It is a testimony to the basic rightness of Kyd's impulses that in expressing this personal vision through the revenge tragedy form, Shakespeare not only uses all of the motifs found in the prototype but respects their essential integrity as a configuration grounded in experience.


Our initial experience in Hamlet is of the ghost. And this is as good a place as any to begin an examination of the refinements Shakespeare made in the form. Earlier scholars, in writing about the evolution of the revenge-tragedy ghost, universally express a sense of relief when King Hamlet takes over from Andrea and Andrugio. J. A. Symonds's response is typical:

Shakspere, who omitted nothing in the tragic apparatus of his predecessors, but with inbreathed sense and swift imagination woke those dead things to inorganic life, employed the Ghost, all know with what effect, in “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar.” It is not here the place to comment upon Shakspere's alchemy—the touch of nature by which he turned the coldest mechanisms of the stage to spiritual use. Enough to notice that, in his hands, the Ghost was no longer a phantom roaming in the cold, evoked from Erebus to hover round the actors in a tragedy, but a spirit of like intellectual substance with these actors, a parcel of the universe in which all live and move and have their being.2

Symonds's enthusiasm is matched by many in the generations that followed him. But often, as here, the improvements in the motifs are discussed almost exclusively in terms of dramaturgy. The skill with which the motifs are radically altered to fit Shakespeare's personal vision, and yet altered so carefully that they retain their integral relationships with the experience of revenge, is still rarely appreciated, even in Hamlet. In analyzing the ghost motif, therefore, we shall attempt to distinguish between those refinements stemming from Shakespeare's superior dramaturgical instincts and those occurring because of his deeper insights into life.

One of the dramaturgical functions of Kyd's ghost was to provide exposition; Andrea acts as a prologue. Not so in Marston, who preferred to emphasize the effects of the ghost upon the revenger. Marston let Piero acquaint the audience with his own villainy and delayed the ghost's entrance until the time came for Antonio to learn what Piero had already told the viewers. Shakespeare, by beginning his revenge action in the middle, creates a situation in which the ghost both apprises us of past events and informs Hamlet of Claudius's guilt. This magnificent bit of restructuring permits Shakespeare to come immediately to the crucial point in the revenge action, without spending two acts (as Marston does) on the static lamentations of grief. It also provides him with a compelling and suspenseful introduction to his play. This early introduction of the ghost focuses the drama squarely upon the question “what will Hamlet do with the information given him by the Ghost?” Shakespeare's use of the ghost as an expository device goes far beyond anything that his predecessors had done for dramaturgical brilliance. It makes the ghost an integral part of the action.

The skillful positioning of the ghost's revelation is not all that differentiates this ghost from earlier ones. Shakespeare's ghost, as many have noted, has been given a character. Earlier playwrights were satisfied if their ghosts communicated an aura of terror. It was enough that there was on stage “a voice mouthing vengeance.”3 The point was made. Shakespeare's ghost is humanized. It appears in a “fair and warlike form,” the customary “foul sheet” of the earlier ghost abandoned for martial armor. No ghost before King Hamlet had been particularized so vividly:

So frown'd he once when in an angry parle
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.


It was about to speak, when the cock crew.
And then it started, like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons.


                                                  Look with what courteous action
It waves you to a more removed ground.


These details are quite aside from those that describe King Hamlet while he was alive; the details here vitalize the Ghost as ghost. On the bulwarks we see him move “with martial stalk,” we watch him appear and disappear at will, and we find him “as the air, invulnerable” to the sword thrusts of the baffled soldiers. Later we learn that the Ghost has a keen interest in the world he has been separated from and would influence its events; he desires to be revenged upon Claudius but—a humanizing detail much appreciated by critics—would protect Gertrude. We also discover something about the way the Ghost spends his time in the afterworld—Old Hamlet, having been “sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head,” apparently has sins upon his soul which he must expiate and is therefore “doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confin'd to fast in fires.” The suffering which he undergoes in his “prison house,” he informs us, is as horrible to imagine as the crime which put him there. These details have a definite dramatic purpose; they endow the ghost of Denmark's former king with a vivid and memorable character. Where Marston's Ghost is plainly and simply an embodiment of the passion he symbolizes, Shakespeare's is that and a particular human soul as well.4

Yet Shakespeare has not sacrificed those supernatural qualities which give the ghost its significance in terms of the revenge tragedy form. He clearly links his ghost with the world beyond. Much theological discussion has been occasioned by the references to purgatory made by the Ghost, but Robert West is correct in warning that it is unnecessary to search for—is indeed impossible to pin down—the religious denomination of this wandering spirit. The same references to the afterworld which serve to humanize the Ghost also emphasize, as West asserts, “its tenuity, its frightfulness, its special knowledge, and the dubiety of its nature and purposes,” in other words, its mystery.5 The fear and awe with which its sudden appearances and unearthly manner inspire those who first detect it work in the same way. As the onlookers—Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio—are “harrowed with fear and wonder,” as they “tremble and look pale,” as they connect the appearance of the apparition with “some strange eruption to our state” and set it in the context of the times when “graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets,” we, too, experience their terror. No ghost is more humanly real than the Ghost in Hamlet, yet at the same time no ghost is less of this world.

Few people would challenge the supernatural reality of the Ghost, but not all understand clearly the reason for Shakespeare's insistence that the Ghost is not a figment of Hamlet's imagination.6 Many, for example, believe that the Ghost is issuing a command that has a divine origin—Hamlet is, for them, a hand-chosen agent of God, even though the Ghost's demands contradict the orthodox teachings of Holy Writ.7 Because Shakespeare has the Ghost call attention to the difference between its brand of justice, which is to be applied to Claudius, and a higher justice, that to which Gertrude is subject, one is probably correct in assuming that the playwright did not wish to identify the Ghost's justice with Heaven's. Moreover, the dramatic origins of the Ghost in an amalgamation of Kyd's Andrea and his allegorical companion Revenge, the presentation of this figure as something that loses its power under the influence of the Savior, and the Ghost's own emphasis upon Hamlet's being bound by a natural rather than a religious duty, all suggest that Shakespeare, like his predecessors, viewed the Ghost as an embodiment of the spirit of revenge. Yet like them he sees this spirit as something more than human instinct. It does exist within the individual—Hamlet's “O my prophetic soul” testifies to this—but, as a “force” of nature which all men recognize, it has at the same time an ontological reality, a universality, that is as mysterious and as difficult to comprehend as is the Ghost itself. Shakespeare has used every device in his power to assert both the reality and the compelling authority of this irrational external force which the Ghost embodies.

That authority, of course, and the nature of the offense which draws the specter back to earth to make his demands, distinguishes this revenge from those (like Ferdinand's in The Duchess of Malfi) involving perverse and diabolical fury far out of proportion to the cause. If the Ghost tells us anything, it tells us that the crimes of Claudius are so insupportable that Nature itself has broken form, thrusting itself “unnaturally” into the human order to insure that the crimes will not go unpunished. Shakespeare, it should be noted, presents the authority as having a binding effect upon the avenger; the action of Hamlet is far less concerned with the revenger's movement toward a decision to abandon the divine and embrace the natural (as in The Spanish Tragedy) than with his attempt to comprehend the relationship between the two conflicting imperatives. Shakespeare's Ghost has a near-absolute authority that makes it a forceful antagonist to the Everlasting whose canons Hamlet would also adhere to and thus places the prince in the classic tragic situation: either way that he moves will be right—and thus wrong.

While Shakespeare's Ghost retains the symbolic role it had held in The Spanish Tragedy and Antonio's Revenge, stirring Hamlet into a rage against Claudius and thus initiating the fatal impulse toward excess, it is also made the carrier for a new theme. This Ghost embodies, simultaneously, its creator's vision of human perfection. We are told that in his lifetime the elder Hamlet was a judicious king, a valiant warrior, a devoted husband, and a beloved father. But he is even more than this. Hamlet could envision man to be “noble in reason,” “infinite in faculties,” in action “like an angel,” in apprehension “like a god,” because he had such a model before him in the person of his father:

See what a grace was seated on this brow:
Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill,
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.


The elder Hamlet shows us man raised to his highest potential. Still the former king is more. Constant comparisons are made between him and Claudius that indicate what Denmark has had to settle for in his place—one brother with an eye like Mars, the other but a mildewed ear; the former a fair mountain, the latter a barren moor; the first Hyperion, the second a foul satyr. Through the juxtaposition of the two characters and their respective reigns, Shakespeare associates the dead king with the noble past, the usurper with a “poisoned” present, so that King Hamlet emerges as a symbol of an irrecoverable Golden Age.

Many commentators speak as though Shakespeare's modifications of the ghost motif can be explained simply on the principle of good taste. Not so. The new symbolism assigned to the Ghost arises from the necessities of Shakespeare's own personal vision. In taking up the revenge form, Shakespeare uses it to explore in depth a concept that has been only latent in the earlier tragedies we have examined—the attempt of the revenger to come to terms with evil. Both Hieronimo and Antonio puzzle over the problem but in neither play is the theme so integrally related to both character and plot as in Hamlet.

Evil impinges itself upon Hamlet initially through his widowed mother's hasty acceptance of Claudius. Her callousness adds to his realization that a great man such as his father can die, the painful knowledge that greatness can be forgotten “within a month.” Already he begins to question the value of life. His later disovery, that Claudius had murdered his father, shatters him completely, and where before he only longed for death now he actively contemplates suicide. If this is what the world is like, concludes Hamlet, then no action is worthwhile. At the same time, the father whose very loss has led him to this conclusion enjoins Hamlet to undertake the ultimate act of murder on his behalf. This is the basis of Hamlet's dilemma and the conflict from which plot, character, and theme will develop. It becomes essential, therefore, because of the nature of Shakespeare's vision, not only that the Ghost embody the spirit of revenge but also that it epitomize human dignity, majesty, and worth.

It is a testimony to the genius of Shakespeare that these seemingly incompatible demands of the form and the vision have been reconciled. A labor of Hercules is required to yoke together a ghost conceived after Kyd as that vengeful unrelenting force which is released into the world to restore order when an imbalance is created and the ghost as Shakespeare's personal vision required it; that is, to superimpose upon the prototype that majestic demigod we see through the reminiscences of Hamlet and Horatio. The adaptation is as radical as the one made by Marston when he attempted to present the ghost as the agent of Heaven, and we have just noted how badly Marston failed in tampering with the motif. Yet Shakespeare has not failed.

Why do we not reject Shakespeare's Ghost? One reason is that to facilitate the merger Shakespeare has played down the Ghost's connection with excess, leaving this aspect to develop from the action of the play rather than from the will of the Ghost and instead associating the Ghost subtly, through its solicitude for Gertrude, with compassion. The events which convey the sense of excess, Polonius's death, for example, or Ophelia's madness, remain direct by-products of Hamlet's pursuit of vengeance, but they seem to occur accidentally. Neither Hamlet nor the Ghost is made responsible in the brutal way that their counterparts in Antonio's Revenge are responsible for the death of Julio and the subsequent cannibalistic defiling of that boy's body. Given Hamlet's character (and the playwrights invariably seem to make their ghosts reflect the characters of their revengers), it is more fitting that the excess, though inevitable, should arise as an accidental rather than a deliberate result of the revenge passion. This dramaturgical structuring which slightly divorces the excess from the original demands of the ghost helps us to accept the exalted role which the ghost now plays.

There is another technique used to render the adaptation in the ghost motif acceptable. The perfection associated with Old Hamlet has to do with his former life and, being a picture of the past, is somewhat detached from his present activities as a vindictive ghost; indeed, the fact that so magnificent a personage was less than immortal, and the human condition such that he could be reduced to the level at which we find him on the battlements, serves more to sharpen our sense of loss than to make us question Shakespeare's artistry. Thus, the very nobility of the Ghost's past tends to convince us that what it asks of Hamlet is far more reasonable than what Andrugio had asked of Antonio, even though in essence the request of both ghosts is the same. Shakespeare has so controlled our responses that the image of the old king as a paragon of men is never tainted by his demand for vengeance but, on the contrary, his demand seems the more justified, on the grounds that the corruption which set in upon his death must be reversed. An adaptation that in lesser hands might have come across as a gross contradiction appears in Shakespeare's no discrepancy.

It will do us no good to appreciate Shakespeare's artistry if we are not clear about exactly what this ghost does ask for, as the demand made upon the prince dictates the action of the entire play. Exactly what does this spirit of revenge demand? And is that demand just? The Ghost asks Hamlet to punish Claudius for a heinous deed, a deed for which the punishment of death is well deserved. It demands that Hamlet respond in terms of the law of nature—blood for blood—not in terms of courts and trials (a course which in any event is impossible because of Claudius's position as the highest authority in the realm). Hamlet must kill his uncle, mercilessly, in cold blood. There is a justice to the Ghost's demand for the king's death, and certainly this deed of Hamlet's will have beneficial results for the state, which Claudius is polluting. In fact, Shakespeare sets up the situation in such a way that Hamlet cannot refuse to comply, for Claudius must be punished and, the plot tells us, only Hamlet can do it. Yet though the end is good, the means to that justice involve irrational actions which will in their turn need to be punished. To do what the Ghost asks is to risk damnation, to avoid it seems like cowardice, and to escape the whole problem through suicide is only to arrive back at square one—daring damnation. Hamlet has two choices—dishonor or self-destruction—and recognizes early the ironic injustice in his own plight. A further danger in the situation, one Hamlet does not foresee, is that where the order of nature is involved what begins as a desire for justice can run amuck and end in inconceivable waste. Here again there is the potential for injustice. The Ghost's demand, while having a strong element of justice and even necessity about it, has also, in itself and its effects, a tendency to initiate further injustice. The situation is unavoidably tragic.


Let us now turn to the knotty problem of Hamlet's madness. It is hoped that the revenger's madness has been presented in this book in terms that will allow the reader to accept the word madness as a suitable name for the mental state which surfaces in young Hamlet after he meets with the Ghost. Nevertheless, Hamlet is the least maddened of all revengers. As we have defined it, the revenger's madness is a state of mind originating in a temporary fit of excessive passion but later magnified into an obsession by the subsequent refusal to expel the root cause of that passion from the mind. In avengers like Titus or Hieronimo, the fits increase in intensity and duration and occur with greater and greater frequency, while the periods of lucidity diminish concurrently. But all revengers are not equally distraught. The personal vision of the playwright, combined with the character traits he has given his hero, determine the extent to which the revenger lapses into insanity. In this play we find a revenger who has a surprisingly high degree of control. Thus, in insisting upon the madness of Hamlet, we are asserting only (1) that Shakespeare has drawn a mind in which the passion of revenge has gained a definite foothold and (2) that passion's effect upon the psyche is a primary subject of the drama. Hamlet never goes the full route into lunacy.

Definite refinements have been made upon the madness motif in Hamlet. An important step in appreciating what Shakespeare had done with this motif is to recognize that two separate conventions are involved. There is the “antic disposition,” which, technically, must be understood in terms of the disguise convention and compared to Hieronimo's third-act impersonation of the patient man, Antonio's transformation into a fool, and Vindice's appearance as Piato. Then there is Hamlet's “sore distraction,” which involves the actual state of his psyche as it attempts to deal with the injunction placed upon him by the Ghost. Strictly speaking, the madness motif pertains only to the sore distraction. Yet the disguise and the madness motifs in revenge tragedy are closely related, for, as we have seen, the disguise underscores the dislocations of identity taking place in the hero. It is thus in Hamlet: the disguise, that is, the antic disposition, indicates that “nor th' exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was.” Because of this, and also because the particular disguise Hamlet chooses is that of lunacy, the antic disposition must be considered in any discussion of the madness itself. “Antic disposition” and “sore distraction” then, or disguise and madness—to these two conventions Shakespeare has given intense life.

Exactly how do the two motifs of disguise and madness interact in Hamlet? What Shakespeare has done with them exceeds what he has done with the ghost. It is obvious from Titus Andronicus that Shakespeare realized the purpose of madness in the revenge story—that a good man will commit the act of murder only in high passion. His problem was to make the madness credible without making it stagy or sensational. Given his personal vision of Hamlet as the courtier, soldier, scholar, it would not do to send him out to fire arrows at Jupiter. Some more subtle dramatic device was needed to convey to the audience the sense that Hamlet is “mad.”

Fortunately the source story already contained the perfect solution; in it, the revenger feigns madness. Shakespeare uses the madness of craft with double effectiveness. First, though the antic disposition does not replace the madness, it emphasizes Hamlet's distraction by making his mental state a matter of central concern to others (and thus to the audience) from the moment Hamlet returns from his interview with the Ghost uttering “wild and whirling words.” Second, while making the question of the madness more central, the antic disposition simultaneously distances us from Hamlet's real madness and consequently renders that madness more mysterious.

Let's take the last point first. Because Hamlet drops into his chosen role and out of it as occasion demands, the disguise creates an ambiguity that is reflected in the endless critical debate over Hamlet's madness—is he mad or is he not? And if he is mad, when is he mad? Certainly in many instances we are perfectly aware that Hamlet has switched into his antic disposition, and at such moments we are far more conscious of the operation of intelligence and a quick wit than of a warped imagination:

What do you read, my lord?
Words, words, words.
What is the matter, my lord?
Between who?
I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards …


As Polonius says, there is method in such madness, and we delight in it, as Hamlet himself does. In this sense Hamlet's “playing” serves to unveil the hypocrisy in others. But there are moments when the distinction between reality and role is not so clear, moments when it seems that Hamlet has to grasp at the role to disguise emotions that are about to overwhelm him. Such is the case in the “nunnery scene” with Ophelia. Here the antic disposition blends with something that lies very deep in Hamlet's troubled consciousness. The scene is so written that it will never really give up its essential mystery and reveal to us where Hamlet's acting ends and his own agony begins. There are also moments when we are not sure whether Hamlet is feigning at all. The ambiguities constantly being generated by the antic disposition make it impossible to distinguish where sanity ends and madness begins. The uncertainty is deliberate. Through it, Shakespeare shows us that the revenge passion has thrown Hamlet off balance. He also makes us feel the limitations one man labors under when he would know another man's mind.

This brings us back to our initial point about the antic disposition. If Hamlet's own behavior as he endeavors to seem mad tends to make us wonder about his real state, so also does the constant reiteration by everyone else of the statement that Hamlet is mad. Hamlet's ruse gives the opposing forces at the court their primary motivation in the early acts of the play—their desire to discover the reason for his alteration. As a direct result of this disguise. Shakespeare is able to fill the play with references to Hamlet's madness. These come primarily from Claudius and Gertrude:

                                                  Something have you heard
Of Hamlet's transformation; so call it,
Sith nor th' exterior nor the inward man
Resembles that it was.


An' can you by no drift of conference
Get from him why he puts on this confusion,
Grating so harshly all his days of quiet
With turbulent and dangerous lunacy?


And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet's wildness.


I like him not, nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range.


                                                                                                    O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience.


                                                                                                    How does Hamlet?
Mad as the sea and wind when both contend
Which is the mightier.


The king and the queen, who are continually discussing Hamlet's “lawless fit,” are echoed by enough members of the court to make us feel that everyone in the play is convinced of the truth of the charge:

He waxes desperate with imagination.


                                                  I have found
The very cause of Hamlet's lunacy.


Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper?


Against this kind of subliminal persuasion that Hamlet is mad, we have the prince's own protestations (“I know a hawk from a hand-saw” and so on); however, these are undercut by his occasional admissions to the contrary. In actual fact, Ophelia's comment leaves the most lasting impression on us; it seems to express so much of what we feel:

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword,
Th' expectation and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th' observ'd of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled out of time, and harsh;
That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!


Ophelia has been misled in this scene by Hamlet's disguise. But such is the poetry of her speech, such her love of Hamlet (resembling ours), that her lament seems to catch the essence of Hamlet's character and situation.

In short, though we know intellectually that Hamlet feigns madness, we submit emotionally to the repeated suggestion that Hamlet is no longer himself. Thus, through this double use of the antic disposition to create ambiguity and to provide a barrage of witnesses who doubt Hamlet's sanity, Shakespeare gets the effect of a madness without debasing Hamlet. Nowhere else in revenge tragedy is the disguise used so inventively or so profoundly.8

By itself the dramaturgical manipulation of the audience described above is not sufficient to render fully the experience of madness which is so essential a part of the tragedy of revenge. Shakespeare is neither dishonest nor unwilling to confront the task of representing the madness on the stage as it really is. But here again, Shakespeare goes far beyond the commonplace.

Undoubtedly Shakespeare means us to see that the burden the Ghost has imposed upon Hamlet has altered the prince and that the alteration takes the form of a “distraction.” Hamlet himself chooses this term to express the effect of the Ghost's revelation upon his psyche:

                                                                                                                                            Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe.


Significantly he uses the term again in his apology to Laertes at the end of the play:

                                                            This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish'd
With a sore distraction. What I have done
That might your nature, honor, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet!
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If 't be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged,
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.


This speech has puzzled critics. Prosser, as we have noted, finds it incomprehensible: “Samuel Johnson and others have wished, and with good warrant,” she says, “that Hamlet had not offered his nonexistent madness as a defense. The curious wording of the speech may, of course, be simply a lapse on Shakespeare's part.”9 Prosser rightly sees that for Hamlet to lie at this point would be an act of grotesque cowardliness and senses that, on the contrary, he means to be supremely honest. In truth, his admission to Laertes is both a polite acknowledgment that in his distraction he had indeed wronged his friend and a sincere request for forgiveness. It also records the deeper insight into himself which Hamlet has gained during the period of that distraction.

There could be no better example of the difficulties arising from the alteration in the meaning of the word madness over the centuries. Hamlet will always be misunderstood by those who do not associate inordinate passion with madness and who thus fail to realize that he is hardly claiming a clinical lunacy. The conceits of the speech are grounded in the Elizabethan concept that to act in passion is to be divided from reason and thus from oneself. Shakespeare has chosen a moment when it is impossible for the prince to play false to allow Hamlet to reveal an awareness that he has indeed been sorely distracted. Having this authority from Hamlet himself, let us look into the nature of the distraction.

Exactly what does the real alteration in Hamlet's character involve? How does this alteration differ from those which stem from his disguise? First, there is the change that gives Hamlet the dimensions of the tragic hero. Under the impact of the confrontation with evil, Hamlet is thrust off the level of appearances, turned away from the shadows of the cave, so to speak, toward the light. One aspect of his madness involves a descent into the self which is both painful and elevating. There is a potential for illumination in this suffering and, though Hamlet (unfortunately) dies before attaining full knowledge, his desperate attempts to comprehend the nature of the universe which could harbor so much evil raise him, even in his madness, far above the less sensitive creatures who surround him.

Nevertheless, the passion takes the usual toll. His initial efforts to come to terms with his situation are hampered by the disorientation of his psyche. For example, there is a marked narrowing of the vision in the altered Hamlet. Shakespeare follows his predecessors in pointing out this tendency of the disturbed imagination to limit its focus:

                                                                                                    Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandement all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter.


This narrowing of the vision originates, of course, with Hamlet's grief. The shock of his father's death and the subsequent insensitivity of his mother to the loss changes Hamlet's attitude toward the world, which he begins to look upon in disillusion. The ghost, with its revelation that the old king's death was not a natural one but a murder “most foul, strange and unnatural,” gives his son further justification for disgust. Moreover, the betrayal of friendship which Hamlet detects soon afterward in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the seeming betrayal of love which occurs when Polonius makes Ophelia desert Hamlet push him still further into the belief—very real to him but actually only a partial truth—that evil has pervaded every aspect of existence. Hamlet discovers that the values he and the others have lived by constitute nothing more than a communal fantasy and that if he is to find justice he must seek for it within himself.

Being so narrowly focused upon evil, Hamlet's vision of it becomes supersensitive. Not only has he grasped the exact nature of Claudius's guilt. Better than anyone Hamlet analyzes as well the general frailties of mankind—recoiling from the ugliness of particular vices:

                                                  Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!


recoiling also from the innate sinfulness of the species:

Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves. …


But, alas, generalizing from his own experiences, Hamlet unfortunately sees evil even where it is not, making Gertrude's frailty the failing of all women and condemning the honest Ophelia along with the rest. His new outlook makes him reject all that is good in himself and in the world. As a result, Hamlet takes up a position at the opposite pole from the one he held in his days of innocence. His grand vision of the universe and man's exalted place in it is replaced by a feeling that he is surrounded by a “foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” Man is reduced to a “quintessence of dust.” Hamlet sees all of the world in terms of his own problem and is blinded to other areas of life. Remarkable though his insights may be, they generate an excess which is unhealthy. His limited view of existence is a misleading and dangerous one.

Another result of this concentration upon evil is that Hamlet becomes excessively self-righteous. Just as he is extreme in his searching out and labeling evil, so also he is excessive in his demands for perfection. He tends to set himself up as a god (a very stern god), passing judgments not only on Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern but on human frailty in general. Yet he fails to deal equally sternly with his own shortcomings, except to note them in passing. He does recognize that he has faults; he throws that bone to us. But once he has stated them, they are to be dismissed. There is no deep remorse, only the conviction that he himself, as heaven's scourge and minister, must singlehandedly chastise, punish, and reform errant humanity. There is a real heroism in Hamlet in his attempt to carry out the mission which the Ghost has assigned him, yet, ironically, his good qualities and his valid insights into the grubbiness of the world backlash on him into a form of pride, a callousness toward human life that is a further indication of his alteration.

Shakespeare, like Kyd, presents the distraction not as a given state but as a state that one passes into and out of. The critic is most nearly correct if he writes that Hamlet has moments of madness. Of those moments, two stand out as distinctly belonging to the distraction rather than the antic disposition. During and just after the interview with the Ghost Hamlet may definitely be described as mad, and he enters this distracted state again at the end of the play-within-the-play. In this latter moment his madness reaches its greatest intensity. But the degree of madness even at this point falls far short of that found in any other revenger.

Were Hamlet less intelligent than he is, the perception that the time is out of joint, combined with the overwhelming desire to set it right which is a distinguishing characteristic of the Kydian revenger, would drive Hamlet into a lunacy rivaling that of Hieronimo or Titus. Certainly Hamlet never questions the necessity of the act of revenge. When he hesitates to kill Claudius, he does so either because he is not sure that the Ghost's word regarding Claudius's guilt can be trusted or because he believes Claudius's soul stands on better terms with Heaven than he would have it. The question he does ask, however, is “Is it worth it?” Granted that there is a need to act, the very fact that the world is so sordid that the action is required raises the question for Hamlet of whether that action is worthwhile. Rather than rushing headlong into passion, Hamlet is constantly intellectualizing the problem, with the consequence that the madness is greatly attenuated.

A primary point about Hamlet's madness is that Hamlet continually brings it under control. Shakespeare has envisioned a revenger whose comprehension of his situation is far greater than that of his predecessors and who therefore cannot help subjecting his own situation to the scrutiny of reason. Consequently, though in Hamlet there is the usual war for supremacy between the reasonable soul and the sensitive soul, here the scales tilt on the side of reason, with the result that the intensity of the madness is much reduced. This creates a problem for Hamlet, for as long as he insists upon handling on an intellectual level a matter which is best dealt with in a high rage, he is unable to accomplish his end. This is the uniqueness of Shakespeare's revenger: Hamlet's mind is one which is compelled to reason things out, and though he tries hard to work himself into a passion, the very act of thinking so precisely on the event turns his mind back to the intellectual aspects of his situation. Where Hieronimo, Titus, and Antonio push themselves further and further into madness, Hamlet, though his desire is the same as theirs, paradoxically keeps pulling himself out of it.

This tendency to nail down his passion with the hammer of logic is best illustrated by the soliloquy at the end of act 2. Meditating upon the ability of the player to muster up passion “all for nothing, / For Hecuba!” Hamlet condemns himself as a “dull and muddy-mettled rascal” and, deploring his “delay,” works himself up into the passion he has envied. However, when anger overtakes him and he begins to rage at Claudius (“Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!”), Hamlet immediately draws himself up—the conduct that necessarily accompanies the revenge action he rejects as unbecoming. To be in the passion is to behave “like a very drab, a scullion.” The result is a return to logic. The mental processes of the soliloquy are halted and their direction reversed with “About, my brains!” and for the remainder of the speech Hamlet proceeds not through passion but through logic. (Guilty creatures sitting at a play have proclaimed their malefactions. The guilty Claudius will see a play; he will confess his guilt.) The irascible anger of the revenge passion is brought under control.

Still, the attempt to proceed logically toward his end is constantly being frustrated because the end itself is an irrational one. The immediate purpose of the play-within-the-play—to determine whether Claudius is guilty or innocent—seems sane enough, but its ultimate aim is that implied by Hamlet's “If 'a do blench, I know my course.” No matter how salutary it may be in its public effects, as it relates to Hamlet personally this intention involves the prince in an act of murder. Because the mission which the Ghost has thrust upon him commits him to an end directly counter to reason, his efforts to think his way out of this dilemma remain unsuccessful. The commitment itself (as it affects him psychologically) betrays the predilection toward madness.

Certainly Shakespeare's treatment of the madness motif is far more complex than any we have seen so far. The various strands that go into its design are so intricately woven together that it becomes impossible to isolate and meticulously label any one. The antic disposition, technically belonging to the disguise convention, contributes skillfully to the madness motif and therefore creates more than one paradox. It conceals Hamlet's intentions from Claudius but also warns the latter that Hamlet must be watched. It allays our suspicions that the lunacy is anything but feigned, yet subtly arouses in us the feeling that Hamlet is indeed distracted. The sore distraction is also mysterious. Hamlet's flights into passion and his steady commitment to pursue revenge to its inevitable end inform us that Hamlet has embarked upon a course linked with madness in all of the orthodox treatises of the period. Yet his remarkable intelligence, his unquestionable virtue, and his supersensitive insights into the nature of his predicament make us hesitate to doubt his inherent sanity. The result is that while the madness is there, it never intrudes hysterically upon us, diverting our attention from the truly dramatic to the merely theatrical. Shakespeare has seen the essential relationship of the motif to the archetypal experience and has utilized it as it was designed to be used, but his personal vision has deepened and extended its original significance. In the process the “madness” itself is transformed. Ironically, the “mad” Hamlet becomes, in the words of C. S. Lewis, an image of “man—haunted man—with his mind on the frontier of two worlds, man unable either quite to reject or quite to admit the supernatural, man struggling to get something done as man has struggled from the beginning, yet incapable of achievement because of his inability to understand either himself or his fellows or the real quality of the universe which has produced him.”10


Just as Shakespeare's Ghost, depicted as the spirit of a great and noble man, seems at first divorced from its vengeful forebearers and as Hamlet's madness, projecting as an antic disposition, is only gradually perceived to cloak the traditional distraction, so the play-within-the-play in Hamlet appears to have little in common with the conventional fifth-act massacre in which the protagonist takes revenge upon the offender.

In a majority of the revenge tragedies, the play-within-the-play occurs in the concluding moments of the action. Shakespeare has moved the play-within-the-play forward from act 5 to act 3; it no longer belongs to the denouement but becomes, as Righter points out,

the strategic center of the plot, the turning-point of the action [as well as] the centre of the tragedy in a more symbolic sense, the focal point from which a preoccupation with appearance and reality, truth and falsehood, expressed in theatrical terms, radiates both backward and forward in time.11

In other revenge tragedies, the play-within-the-play becomes a trap, designed to isolate the murderer physically in a locked room, thus rendering him vulnerable to attack. Although Hamlet calls his play “The Mousetrap,” his primary intention in planning it is not so much to trap Claudius in body as to trap him in mind. Claudius's conscience is what Hamlet wishes to prick; he means only to make the king reveal his guilt. Hamlet's play-within-the-play seems more a test of the Ghost's honesty than an attempt to maneuver Claudius into a sealed-off world where his power no longer protects him.

In other revenge plays, the protagonist kills his enemies within the mock play—one murder, if not several, gives evidence of the horrors to which the madness of revenge can lead. Hamlet commits no murder in the Gonzago play. Significantly, where Hieronimo, Titus, Antonio, and Vindice made themselves the heroes of their own productions and played the roles of murderers, Hamlet remains outside of his play, as in fact, does his victim.12 This arrangement clearly distinguishes Hamlet from the other revengers. He sits in judgment of the play; he does not participate in it. He is trying to understand the real world, not to create a subjective one. The play-within-the-play motif, too, has been civilized by Shakespeare's pen.

All of these changes are dictated by the requirements of Shakespeare's personal vision as regards the character of his revenger. The revenger is an unusual kind of tragic hero, and Hamlet is unique even among these. In tragedies such as Macbeth or King Lear or Oedipus Rex, the protagonist is a person who sets up a counterground to the ground of being at the very outset of the play. These heroes try immediately to establish a world defined in terms that they find compatible with their own desires, one which denies or ignores reality. The action of the drama concerns their attempt to assert the validity of this counterground and their consequent failure to do so. In revenge tragedy the situation is slightly different. The protagonist starts out in touch with the ground of being and is later called upon to commit an action which requires him to establish that counterground. This is accomplished only at the end of the drama in the play-within-the-play, at which point we see the illusory world established by the hero and find it a world describable in terms of madness. Once the playwright postulates a revenger who exercises a high degree of control over his madness, as Shakespeare does in Hamlet, he is bound to give the play-within-the-play a link with reason that previous revenge plays, with their insistence upon the hero's subjection to the passion, could not have had. Hamlet is unique among revengers in that while he does try to manipulate events in his world, he is at the same time constantly trying to discover how his own thoughts and actions fit into the universe established in the symbolic constructions of his society. Any world that he creates, therefore, must exhibit that innate rationality which is as much a part of him as is the irrational goal that rationality must serve.

The greater objectivity of the world Hamlet creates in The Murder of Gonzago is best appreciated when set against the subjective world put together by Hieronimo in Soliman and Perseda. The contrast makes the specific functions of each playlet clearer. Righter (and subsequent critics) stress that in Soliman and Perseda “everything that seems illusory is in fact real,” meaning that the greater truth is to be found in Hieronimo's version of events.13 The judgment of the event made by his audience, however—that Hieronimo has acted against reason and human law—reflects another valid level of truth. Hieronimo himself, far from being an exponent of reality, is guilty of several kinds of deception. He undertakes actions in the play which violate the very nature of art by usurping its illusion as a cloak for reality: he deliberately deceives the spectators. The actors are also cheated; they are asked to take on roles and find that other actors, who were to murder them in play, are playing in earnest. Moreover, the revenger is deceived about the role he himself is playing. Hieronimo casts himself as God's agent of justice but is in reality a murderer. The illusory nature of Hieronimo's world is further emphasized by the chaos resulting from the old man's decision to instruct each of his players to speak in a different foreign language. Under these conditions the action could only come across to the theater audience as babble, and the resulting confusion serves to underscore the chaos in Hieronimo's mind. This is all set in perspective when the illusion ends and Hieronimo is forced to step back into reality, where his actions are looked upon as heinous. In Soliman and Perseda, art is used to deceive; the revenger has reached that stage of madness which tries to make illusion into reality.

This is not the case in Hamlet. In turning to art for assistance, Hamlet shows himself to be a learned and judicious critic. He clearly understands “the purpose of playing, whose end,” he says, “is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (3.2.20-24). It is significant that Hamlet does not enter the play himself; for him there is no illusory world in which the normal laws of society are inapplicable. He has not set up an antiworld where his own will reigns supreme. In preparing The Murder of Gonzago for its courtly audience, Hamlet creates an objective world, one which reproduces fairly accurately a reality that those outside of it—Claudius, in particular—can recognize and respond to meaningfully. So accurately does this play-world copy nature that Claudius, discerning his own deeds in the vile actions of Luciano, is nearly brought to repentance. Thus, there is a great difference in the degree of objectivity between the world created by Hamlet and that created by Hieronimo. In watching The Murder of Gonzago one never has the feeling that the play was created by a madman. Hamlet's drama seems to do exactly what Hamlet says drama should do—hold a mirror up to nature.14

Obviously the play motif has been adapted to fit the dramatist's personal vision. Still, the changes are all instituted in ways that retain the relationship of the motif to the experience which underlies it. If the script was drawn from the player's repertory, it is nonetheless viewed as a creation of the revenger. Hamlet, like his predecessors, still plans the production, selects the script, and authors key lines in it. In addition, though the world Hamlet creates has a greater degree of objectivity, it remains limited in scope, centering strictly upon the poisoning of a king. It gives us evidence that Hamlet's vision of life has been noticeably narrowed. Again, the play-within-the-play may come earlier in the text, but only because Shakespeare has compressed the whole of the Kydian form into three acts. As rational as Hamlet's stated purpose of catching the conscience of the king may be, the prince is taking this honorable course only because he ultimately has a more sinister goal to which the first is a necessary bridge. Hamlet has told us that if the king “do blench, I know my course.” The irrational purpose which lies latent in Hamlet's heart and comes to the surface after Claudius interrupts the play will bring Hamlet to the point of murder before the third act ends.

The actions characteristic of the revenger's madness which are omitted from the play-within-the-play, instead of being contained within it, follow immediately after. Ultimately we find that the experience previously connected with the play motif is not violated at all, for under the spell of the play Hamlet does meet his victim in a closed room—Gertrude's closet—and he does kill. The connection between Hamlet's play and the murder has gone unnoticed because Polonius dies in the place of the king. This innovation—allowing the hero to stab the wrong man—artistically disguises the strictness with which the configuration is adhered to; nevertheless, the death of Polonius is far more significant in the structure of the play than has generally been noticed.

Most scholars will agree that on his own Hamlet was unable to push his psyche into a madness sufficiently violent to allow him to bring the revenge to its obvious conclusion. The play-within-the-play, however, works Hamlet up into a state of excitement having every symptom of the required madness. Hamlet watches the play, sees the offense reenacted, and obtains certain proof of Claudius's guilt. The spirit of revenge, awakened in him by the experience, kindles an exhilarated anger in Hamlet's psyche. Though he wills to be only “cruel, not unnatural,” yet in truth he loses control. During the remainder of the act his passion increases as his mind becomes more and more absorbed in the emotions aroused by the performance.

Hamlet's motive for presenting the play was logical, but his reaction to it is not. In the scenes growing out of “The Mousetrap,” Shakespeare engages Hamlet in three actions which display his madness. All three take place within the framework of a journey to his mother's chamber, where he has been summoned to answer for the offense given by his play. Shakespeare sets the tone of this section by bringing in thoughts and images that explain at once why the eternal abode of Revenge was figured by poets of his era as adjacent to Hell. Hamlet goes into the scene feeling the same kinship with the irrational elements of the universe that Antonio and Hieronimo had voiced:

'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.


This speech of Hamlet's, better than any other, suggests the state of mind the play-within-the-play has left him in.15

In the first of the three actions displaying the passion of revenge at work within Hamlet's psyche, Shakespeare gives his protagonist the opportunity to complete his revenge: Hamlet comes upon Claudius praying. As the paths of these two antagonists cross, we no longer see any objectivity about Hamlet's attitude toward Claudius. The prince is ready to murder his uncle:

Now might I do it pat, now 'a is a-praying;
And now I'll do 't.


Here again, the old logic which is so characteristic of Hamlet pulls the young man back from his outburst of passion, but this time it is a diseased logic—macabre, sinister, unhealthy. It is the logic of the committed revenger:

                                                                                                              That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father, and for that
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
'A took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May,
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought
'Tis heavy with him. And am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in th' incestious pleasure of his bed,
At game a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't—
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes.


Hamlet, finally, does not kill the king. But his hesitation has no root in pity, piety, or remorse. It is a perverse delay, stemming directly from an excessive passion—a madness—that can never be adequately explained in terms of his “antic disposition.” And that madness was aroused by the play-within-the-play.

In this first episode Hamlet's own thoughts give testimony to the disturbed state of his psyche. In the second, the same extremity in Hamlet's behavior is conveyed to us through Gertrude's fear. So distraught is Hamlet as he rushes in upon his mother hurling charges of guilt that Gertrude is concerned for her life (“What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murther me? Help ho!” [3.4.21-22]). The actor playing Hamlet must take his cue from the queen's response; he must behave with a ferocity that will inspire terror. Once more we see that Hamlet is at last possessed by that passion which the Ghost had wished to stir in him and which he had chided himself for lacking.

The second episode leads into the third. While in this passion, Hamlet lunges with his sword at a voice behind the arras, suspecting that the king is hidden there, and kills old Polonius. His impulsiveness here and the callousness which follows the deed strike us as strange and unnatural. This, too, is something Hamlet would not have done in a saner moment. It, too, testifies to the strong effect the play-within-the-play has had upon him.

These three episodes culminate in the climactic confrontation between Hamlet and the queen. About this scene Hamlet might well lament, “How all occasions do inform against me.” Chance would have it that when Hamlet finally does reach an emotional state that leaves him ready to “drink hot blood,” he happens to be summoned by his mother rather than his uncle and, thus involved, expends all his energies against her. With the time so ripe, Hamlet occupies himself with a matter that is only secondary, much to the chagrin of the Ghost, who reappears to remind him of the more important goal:

                                                  Do not forget! This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.


By the time Hamlet finishes with the queen, his passion is exhausted; the opportunity for action has again slipped away.

Throughout this dialogue with Gertrude, Hamlet remains highly overwrought, and, intriguingly, the action growing out of the play-within-the-play ends with a discussion of whether or not Hamlet is mad:

Look where he goes, even now, out at the portal.
                                                                                                                                                      Exit Ghost
This is the very coinage of your brain,
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.
My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music. It is not madness
That I have utt'red. Bring me to the test,
And I the matter will reword, which madness
Would gambol from. Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass but my madness speaks.


The treatment of insanity in this concluding scene puts before us once again those mysterious questions always being raised in Hamlet: How far can one human mind be entered by another? What can Hamlet know of Gertrude's soul? What can she know of his, or of her own? Which of them is really right about the Ghost? These mysteries are pondered when Gertrude, amazed by the responses of Hamlet to the sudden appearance of the Ghost (which she herself cannot see), calls her son mad. The queen is wrong, first because the Ghost is quite real and second, as Hamlet points out, because she would rather clutch at the notion that Hamlet is demented than admit the accuracy of the pictures he has drawn of her. But her errors do not make her statement untrue. Gertrude is right enough about the emotional turmoil going on in Hamlet's mind. Hamlet, on the other hand, claims perfect sanity. “It is not madness / That I have utt'red,” says he. “My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time, / And makes as healthful music.” Hamlet, too, is wrong, though more nearly correct than Gertrude. He is correct in that no “ecstasy” of his brain had produced the Ghost, as his mother supposes. He is also correct in asserting that his accusations concerning Gertrude's behavior contain much truth. If his mind can still make these logical connections, he is no lunatic. Still, Hamlet is mistaken when he claims absolute sanity. This is a play in which the audience usually knows more than the characters do, more even, than the tragic hero himself knows. The audience, having heard Hamlet's satanic logic in the scene with Claudius, having viewed demeanor so wild upon his entrance into Gertrude's chamber that the queen was moved to scream for help, and having had the dead body of Polonius on the stage before them through the remainder of the scene to testify to the extent to which Hamlet was overwrought and distracted—this audience would hardly acquiesce to the statement that Hamlet was “temperate” or that no hint of madness was evident. The three episodes following Hamlet's “Mousetrap” are deliberately designed to depict the kind of excessive passion that the Elizabethans would have classified as a madness.

The elements that we expect to find associated with the play-within-the-play—a madness and a murder—are present, if not in the play, then directly following it. Hamlet's play, like the other motifs in this tragedy, reflects a harmonious merger of the old form and the new vision. In at once affirming Hamlet's sanity and giving rise to his most extended bout with madness, the play-within displays the complexities of the human mind, which can pursue the most irrational of ends in a seemingly sane and reasonable manner and can appear the most serene when the volcanic passions lurking in its depths are closest to erupting.


Emrys Jones has argued that Shakespeare's plays should be seen in terms of a two-part structure, and this certainly appears to be true of Hamlet.16 The play breaks down into two parts—that leading up to an outbreak of madness during which Polonius is killed and that falling away from it. In the first half, Hamlet is attempting to manipulate events (and, as he laments, finds that nothing he does works out as he intends it to). He wants to organize the world in terms of revenge. In the second half, Hamlet lets the world take its own course, confident that “there's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.10-11). Significantly, though Shakespeare makes no fuss about it, once Hamlet resigns himself to the will of Providence, the Ghost, so potent an influence on Hamlet when he was teetering on the brink of madness, is not heard from again.

Although Hamlet has come in slow stages to see more about the ground of being itself, he never has time to reach a full awareness. Unfortunately, the forces he had already set in motion by entering into commerce with the Ghost cannot be laid to rest. What we find in the denouement of the play is a study of the way the destructive forces initiated by the Ghost work to restore the balance in nature only through tremendous waste and ruined potential. The motifs through which this final aspect of the experience is worked out include the excess (or multiple murders) and the death of the revenger.

Earlier in this chapter we stated that the excess was embodied in the action of the play rather than in the behavior of the Ghost. Let's now examine Shakespeare's adaptation of this excess motif in more detail. Directors often think of the Polonius / Ophelia / Laertes episodes as extraneous to the main action, as one of several subplots included only to provide contrast to the major plot, and thus feel free to cut such scenes drastically. But this accusation of structural superfluity is invalid. Many scenes that may appear tacked on are logically inevitable to the action itself.

The murder of Polonius is the most important act of excess growing out of the catalytic play-within-the-play. Surely this is excess. The follies of Polonius were hardly mammoth enough to merit so terrible a fate. Nor did Hamlet wish to harm him. Yet his death is directly attributable to the revenge desire. In the attempt to restore justice, the revenger inadvertently commits a gross injustice: here is excess.

This event, the climax of Hamlet's sore distraction, is pivotal in the structure of Shakespeare's drama.17 It, in a sense, completes the action in which Hamlet is the revenger, just as it initiates the revenge action of Laertes. Hamlet has committed the deed, ironically missing his target but nevertheless setting in motion the same inevitable consequences as surely as if he had killed the real villain. Shakespeare creates an interesting variation on a theme (but a variation perfectly in line with experience because it even more clearly defines the nature of excess) by having most of the waste in the story of Hamlet's revenge follow from a murder that Hamlet never intended to commit.

Polonius's death has consequences almost immediately in the madness and death of Ophelia, another example of the chaos wrought when passion is let loose. She, too, falls prey to excess. Hamlet speaks of the way the base nature, coming between the “fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites,” is cut down. The innocent nature, suffers a similar fate. Ophelia's death corresponds in significance to the deaths of Marston's Julio and Kyd's Duke of Castile, but the dramaturgy is far superior. In keeping with his general tendency to avoid hysteria, Shakespeare stresses the victim's innocence instead of the revenger's fury and arranges matters so that her death occurs through natural causes rather than intolerable violence. With the motif so manipulated, the audience is able to feel the loss more directly, while being conscious at the same time that the characteristic excess which flows out of the passion of revenge brings that loss about.

Another wasteful death, that of Laertes, also follows from Hamlet's stabbing of Polonius. Much has been made of the contrasts between Laertes and Hamlet, which are well enough known to need no repeating here, but the experiential relationship of the episode to the motif of excess is often ignored. The plot structure suggests a theme that is strangely Aeschylean: one revenge action inevitably begets another. Once Hamlet has killed Polonius, Laertes, his son, is bound to seek the life of Hamlet. It is a remarkable twist (and a precedent Tourneur will follow) that Shakespeare actually concludes Hamlet's revenge action and begins a new one in the middle of the play. Yet the “new” revenge action is a natural—indeed, an inevitable—development from Hamlet's own flubbed attempt to kill the king. It exposes still another aspect of excess.

In Laertes' revenge action, all of the relationships are changed. Hamlet is now the villain. Claudius, stepping out of that role, plays a very dishonest “ghost” to Laertes' avenger, spurring this young man to excesses far less fortuitous than Hamlet's are and revealing in that role why poison is so frequently associated with him. Assisted by Claudius, Laertes traps Hamlet in a kind of play-within-the-play with rapiers, and the excess stemming from Laertes' attempt against Hamlet's life leads to the unplanned deaths of Claudius and Gertrude, as well as to the death of the avenger, Laertes himself. The whole sequence of revenge is played over again in little, and the effect is to reinforce the lessons offered earlier about the uncontrollable nature of revenge.

Through this step-by-step destruction of the Polonius family, excess is embodied in the action of the play. Accidental though this waste may be, Hamlet wreaks as much havoc merely by harboring the desire to kill Claudius as other revengers do in actually committing the deed. Once again we find that Shakespeare, in pressing into service a revenge tragedy convention, disguises it skillfully, refines it aesthetically, and nonetheless uses it perceptively to illuminate the archetypal experience which gave it birth.


It is always a mistake to assume, especially with Shakespeare, that a playwright is doing only one thing at a time. This is particularly true in Hamlet and nowhere more so than in the fourth and fifth acts of the play. On one hand, we can speak of Polonius's death as the murder we normally associate with the end of the play-within-the-play, of its giving rise to the multiple deaths so characteristic of the revenge action, and of its being the direct cause of Hamlet's demise. On the other hand, we can still speak in act 4 of Hamlet's delay, for Claudius is still alive, Hamlet's motive is still to slay him, and the major dramatic action of the plot is still building to that moment when Hamlet will force the poisoned wine down the villain's throat. And we should speak of it, for the primary conflict, the most interesting conflict, is the cat-and-mouse game between Hamlet and his villainous uncle. For the first time, the protagonist and antagonist of the revenge tragedy form no longer merely coexist in lines of action that run parallel, as in Antonio's Revenge, but are mighty opposites, men of indominable energies and piercing minds truly pitted one against the other.

Hamlet is the first revenge play in which the delay lingers on as a theme after the curtain has fallen on the play-within-a-play. It is also the one play in which the full value of the delay motif is realized. On the simplest level, the delay is caused by the need to test the validity of the ghost's message and to determine Claudius's guilt. But the delay continues on beyond that point, and the very causes that extend it had existed even before the test was conceived. There is unquestionably something deep in Hamlet, something on which he himself, for all his self-analysis, cannot put his finger, that is responsible for his procrastination.

Some authorities have argued that there is no delay. Those who take this stand have Hamlet's constant musings to refute them:

                                                                                                              Yet I
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing … it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should 'a' fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal.


                                                                                                              Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th' event …


Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
That, laps'd in time and passion, lets go by
Th' important acting of your dread command?


Since Hamlet can thus chide himself for procrastination, it becomes folly to ignore the motif of delay. One may feel, with Robert Nelson, that “Hamlet upbraids himself too much” or that “these are the reproaches of an impatient man” rather than a slothful one, yet one must admit that Hamlet does make an issue of the delay.18 And well that he does.

In these speeches the prince speaks of a condition in which there is a will to action and a simultaneous inability to act. Many critics therefore locate a flaw in Hamlet. Hamlet himself has spoken of persons whose characters are marred by “some vicious mole of nature,” and such critics assume that Shakespeare means us to apply this circumstance to Hamlet himself. Since Hamlet attributes his procrastination to his “thinking too precisely on th' event,” his intellectualization of the revenge problem is linked to the tragic-flaw theory and taken to be the flaw.

The drawback is that Hamlet is not a tragedy of character in the same sense as is Macbeth or Othello or King Lear: in those plays there would be no tragedy if the protagonist were not ambitious or jealous or rash. Macbeth, Othello, and Lear are each faced with a right choice and a wrong choice and were they constitutionally able to make the right choice the problem which caused their suffering would have solved itself. The tragedy in Hamlet is a tragedy of situation, as in Oedipus Rex or Antigone, one in which the protagonist must make a choice between two right actions, so that either choice will be wrong. Hamlet must kill Claudius; no one but Hamlet can bring him to justice. Yet killing is an unnatural act, repulsive to the human mind. Moreover, in doing the deed Hamlet will doom himself; he no more than Claudius can commit murder and live. The tragedy lies in the situation and Hamlet's awareness of it; therefore, the tragic flaw theory is unnecessary.

What, then, are we to make of Hamlet's excuse for procrastination—of such remarks as Hamlet's “thinking too precisely on th' event,” “conscience does make cowards of us all,” and so on? What is the “craven scruple” that Hamlet suspects exists within him? We submit that in the delay Shakespeare has embodied an instinct which is as deeply seated in the human psyche as the instinct for justice—the innate awareness that it is wrong to kill. Hamlet tries with all his will to suppress it but it keeps coming back to him, not in the form of such moral platitudes as might flow from a George Barnwell but in the form of an irrepressible fear of damnation. The point is nicely made by C. S. Lewis, who would trace Hamlet's hesitation “not to a physical fear of dying, but to a fear of being dead” because, he supposed, “any serious attention to the state of being dead, unless it is limited by some definite religious or anti-religious doctrine, must paralyze the will by introducing infinite uncertainties and rendering all motives inadequate.”19

There is much truth in Lewis's speculation. Because of the mysterious nature of the Ghost and the magnitude of the demand it makes, Hamlet can never be completely confident that his act against Claudius will be a justifiable one. He finds it difficult to align himself wholeheartedly with the forces that the Ghost represents; he goes beyond the Ghost and questions the authority itself. One of his major purposes in introducing The Murder of Gonzago, it will be remembered, is to determine whether the Ghost is an evil spirit sent to play upon his hatred for Claudius and to encourage him to damn himself. The well-being of his soul after death is a question of primary concern to Hamlet throughout the play. Even in act 5 when he asserts the rightness of the deed he has undertaken Hamlet puts the matter in such a way that he could as well be expressing doubt as certainty:

                                                  Is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?


Because he chooses the interrogative rather than the imperative form in addressing Horatio, Hamlet appears almost to be asking for reassurance. Is it a damnable act? Is it not? Horatio gives no answer. Nor can Hamlet. The only thing of which he seems to be certain is that he will have to pay with his own life for killing Claudius (“A man's life's no more than to say ‘one’”; “since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes?”). Thus, it is likely that the fear of the undiscovered country which first made him hesitate over suicide and later holds him back from taking revenge stems from his own sense that the act, necessary as it might be, is a damnable one. No man can take the life of another with impunity.

For most of the play, Hamlet tries to crush his own awareness of this fact. In a way it shames him. He sees the recognition of any authority beyond that of the ghost as cowardice. To be truly brave, to live in accordance with the dictates of honor, is to dare damnation, as Laertes does, to throw conscience and grace to the profoundest pit of hell, and to be willing to cut one's enemy's throat in church. Hamlet is not so reckless. But he views his scruples again and again as “craven.”

Shakespeare's profound treatment of the delay, adapted to serve his personal vision by giving us still another glimpse of the mysteries of the human condition, illuminates the revenge experience in two ways. First, more clearly than any other dramatist, Shakespeare uses the delay to render the full significance of the act of revenge to the revenger. It is a damnable act, and for the first time we are shown how this knowledge affects the psyche of the hero. Just as Hamlet is the only revenger to question the authority of the ghost and to dedicate a good portion of his energies to testing its honesty, so he is the only one to be fully conscious of the possible effects of the deed of revenge upon his eternal life and to specifically articulate his fears. In other revengers—Hieronimo, Titus, Antonio, and Vindice—the intellectual process is so thoroughly anesthetized by the madness that they fail to perceive their continually devolving spiritual state and end blinded by illusion. Hamlet, at least, perceives all the ironies and complexities, the paradoxes and the tragedies of the situation. Second, Shakespeare's handling of the delay throws a fuller light upon the importance of the madness convention as symbolic of a state of mind which is essential to the revenge act. What Shakespeare is saying about the relationship between the delay and the madness confirms what we have been attempting to stress throughout this book—that given Elizabethan patterns of thought, the revenger must go mad in order to commit the deed, for what man in full possession of his reason would willingly choose damnation? Revenge is, in the end, a crime of passion. The “craven scruple,” whether one part wisdom and three parts cowardice or one part cowardice and three parts wisdom, is only overcome by a rage so close to insanity that it has no perception of reality. How Hamlet yearns in his will to be so steeped in passion! Yet because his intellect resists the madness he must remain, in his own eyes at least, a procrastinator.

What is the solution to Hamlet's dilemma? There comes a point in the play when Hamlet overcomes his fear. At this point he undergoes a second transformation, this marked by a change in the direction of his will. Where formerly he had seen himself as a scourge and minister, acting on behalf of Heaven, had in his pride and his impatience with evil developed a stern intolerance of the failings of others, and ironically had found chance and accident consistently frustrating the ends he had willed, he comes, after his journey abroad, to view events in a wider frame of reference. His vision remains limited; it is still a relatively pessimistic one, still very much more aware of the world's evils than of its goods. Yet the self is less at the center of Hamlet's thoughts. His attitude toward death in the graveyard scenes has dimensions that were completely lacking in his first soliloquy, where Hamlet feels death in an immediate and personal way. His perspective seems to have been expanded, and part of that new perspective includes a change in attitude toward the human will. Hamlet moves toward a solution to his dilemma by resigning his own will to that of Providence. He still feels compelled to kill the king, but he has progressed to a point where he can abandon active plotting.

Having discovered through his experiences a higher authority than the Ghost, Hamlet will be guided by that authority. Here again we find Shakespeare altering the conventional motif. This transformation in the hero entails a new cause for delay—Hamlet must wait for Heaven to provide the proper moment for Claudius's death. Other revengers have “waited” for Heaven to act, of course, but they waited complainingly, with impatience and rage and doubt. There is none of this now in Hamlet. In this second part of the play delay has been transformed into “readiness.” Where the delay in attaining the necessary state of madness in the first half of the play had been a reproach which required the Ghost to reappear to “whet thy almost blunted purpose,” the delay, under Providence, brings a sense of quietude and acceptance of the world as it is, in place of the earlier desire to organize and manipulate the world.

This handling of the delay, too, is a reflection of Shakespeare's personal vision. Hamlet's dilemma is the dilemma of man, and the only solution, as Shakespeare poses it, is to accept it as part of the inevitable condition of being human, to admit the fact that man is caught in a situation which allows for heroism and allows for illumination but exacts its return for these glories in suffering. To live life at the level of full awareness is to discover that the human condition is necessarily a tragic one. This alteration does not distort the motif; rather, it relates the delay more solidly and meaningfully to those motifs which surround it—the madness, over which for the first time the delay has won out, and the death of the avenger, which Hamlet is now spiritually prepared to accept with dignity.


There is nothing really unexpected about Shakespeare's use of the death-of-the-avenger motif. That Hamlet die is every bit as morally and aesthetically essential to the play as that Claudius be disposed of. Were Claudius to live, we would have to believe that the world is absurd, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do when they venture onto Tom Stoppard's stage. Were Hamlet to live, the world would seem immoral. As it is, the play tells us that the universe, though incomprehensible, is nonetheless ultimately just. This is the burden that the final motif must carry, and Shakespeare brings it off magnificently.

One of the remarkable things about Shakespeare's handling of the death of Hamlet is the careful way the playwright controls the emotional responses of the audience so that the ending of the play conveys the desired tragic effect. What Marston had failed to do, Shakespeare succeeds at: he retains our sympathies for the hero and makes us believe in his suffering.

As in Antonio's Revenge, there is the suggestion in the last act that events are being watched by an eternal eye. Not that Heaven applauds the revenger's excess—far from it. Shakespeare simply has Hamlet introduce the notion that Providence has been acting in his life all along:

Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will—


And he indicates, in Hamlet's meditations on death, that things are continuing thus:

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. …


More important, Hamlet (as we have seen) has put himself in divine hands. The action in the final scenes—that is, the competition between Hamlet and Laertes—is to be taken as the expression of the will he has chosen to obey. With very skillful dramatic planning, Shakespeare obtains a delicate balance that allows us to see that Providence is at work while at the same time maintaining that the ways of Providence are mysterious. If the effect of this introduction of Providence upon Hamlet is to free him from the pressures that worked upon his psyche under the influence of the Ghost, the effect upon us is to direct our attention to a center of responsibility other than the order of nature, so that we no longer hold Hamlet totally culpable for the ensuing carnage, though, in actual fact, it stems from his earlier commitment to revenge.

To further enable us to sympathize with Hamlet, Shakespeare shifts a great deal of the responsibility for the deaths that follow to Claudius. In the earlier acts Claudius had maintained appearances. He had looked reasonable; in rejecting him Hamlet seemed peevish and ungrateful. So long as Hamlet remained in control of the plot, Claudius was distanced from us. Hamlet's abdication of control put Claudius in command of the action. This dramaturgical strategy has the happy result of letting the king's own intrigues become the means through which he is brought down. But at the same time it draws the usurper-king closer to the footlights, displays his infinite resourcefulness in exploiting others, and at last exposes his wickedness. With Claudius emerging as the villain and Hamlet taking on more and more the aspect of victim, our emotions fall in line with the planned ending. So appalled are we by the actions of Claudius, as he makes both young men his dupes, that we give our sympathies entirely to Hamlet.

The machinery involved in Hamlet's death is skillfully disguised in the rush of events at the close of the drama. It is Laertes who gives Hamlet his death wound, thus providing Hamlet with the distinction of being the first revenger to suffer from this retribution before he has actually taken revenge—the villain, Claudius, is still very much alive. This inverted order of events is rendered feasible by the filial relationship of Laertes to Polonius. Despite the injustice of Laertes' methods, the wound which he gives Hamlet is deserved, for Hamlet must answer for the murder of Laertes' father. With his time on earth now at a premium, Hamlet hastes to finish off Claudius, not in cold blood but in a burst of passion which comes naturally from him when Laertes informs him of the king's vile role in the duel. The wounded Hamlet lives to die after Claudius, and thus also appears to die as a result of killing Claudius, and the demands of the convention are thus at once preserved and refreshed.

In handling the death-of-the-avenger motif Shakespeare avoids the trap that Marston fell into of being too explicit about the relationship between the various orders of justice, of reducing them to coherence and thus making the mysterious into the ridiculous. What Shakespeare does not tell us is whether Hamlet's final passionate stabbing of Claudius is a reversion to the self that was under the control of the Ghost—for it is an act of passion—or whether at this moment Hamlet is being guided by Providence. If the former is true, presumably the act is a damnable one. Is Hamlet damned? No answer is provided. Often as the question has been raised during the course of the play, we are not invited to ask it now. Horatio, in saying may “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” hints at salvation, but he is no seer, has no authority to predict, and so must be understood to mean only that Hamlet is at peace; his words are best taken as a tribute to the greatness that is gone.

A question that can be asked, however, is, what has Hamlet learned? The death of the avenger motif, here, does not include within it tragic knowledge, not in the sense that Oedipus or even Lear attain that knowledge.

The tone of the play, established by the complex blending of the form, the action, and the language, tells us that we are witnessing a tragedy. And tragedy implies a knowledge achieved through suffering. The play raises this expectation of tragic awareness only to dash it. By continually pointing to unrealized potential, particularly through metaphor, the play suggests the level that could be achieved, making the audience painfully aware that there is no transcendance in the killing of Claudius. As the reunion between Lear and Cordelia suggests the possibility of universal reconciliation, a reconciliation never realized, so Hamlet's dazzling flashes of insight suggest a higher order of justice than is ever attained.

The tragedy in the Elizabethan-Jacobean plays is experienced through the tragic form of the play itself and is not identical with the knowledge gained by the hero. Hamlet is an excellent example of a play that knows more than the hero does. Prince Hamlet has unique potential. He could have become an ideal king. He is honorable, sensitive to the needs of others, mindful of his duties, a keen observer of other men. Nor is his intelligence merely witty; there is wisdom in the wit. This depth of intellect, absent in the Marlovian heroes, who were supreme in power but not wise, makes Hamlet seem a fine prospect for gaining the tragic insight that they were denied. Indeed, he has insights that flick at a higher order of justice: witness his “use every man after his own desert, and who shall scape whipping?” At these moments he is at a level which could have led to a tragic insight, had it been sustained. But though Hamlet knows more at the end of the play than he did at the beginning, he is also more deceived both about the world and about himself.

His failure to achieve insight into the universal order is echoed in the order that is finally reasserted. Here, as within Hamlet, there is a gap between the potential level of order and the order actually established. This is not that magnificent order that grows out of the reconciliation of the opposing deities, as in The Oresteia. It is an order much like the order achieved at the end of Shakespeare's other major tragedies. We witness dull, decent, blunt, earnest men initiate a new order. It will be an order superior to the one it must replace in that it will partake of justice. However, as these men never achieved the level of insight implied in Hamlet's “use every man after his own desert, and who shall scape whipping?” it will not be an order that opens to the ground of being. Thus, though the play ends with order reasserted, another higher order is suggested to the audience, with no one on the stage being conscious of it, and the character most likely to have attained knowledge of it having died before acquiring it.

Once again, then, the revenge tragedy motifs fit into the configuration—they are closely interlocked, one with another, dramaturgically inseparable, their positions dictated by the experience of revenge and their meanings enhanced by Shakespeare's personal vision of the human condition. The Ghost initiates the revenge action by demanding that the imbalance created by his death be righted. The demand upon Hamlet works through the passions and therefore pushes the psyche toward madness, a state which is resisted by the rational and intellectual powers of the mind, causing hesitation and delay, and one which requires a disguise for the revenger to continue to operate in the world. Once the passions are engaged, they are not easily subdued; thus, the combined impetus of the ghost and the madness now manifest themselves as excess, that wasteful process through which nature attempts to right the balance and return itself to harmony. Pushed to the extreme, the revenger will slay the villain, committing a deed which restores the balance but creates a new upset, the latter being quieted only by his own death. Individual motifs are radically altered in Hamlet, but their integrity is always maintained.


  1. William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, Hamlet 3.1.78 (all subsequent citations to Hamlet in this chapter are to this edition).

  2. John Addington Symonds, Shakspere's Predecessors in the English Drama, pp. 192-93. Cf. also Percy Simpson, “The Theme of Revenge in Elizabethan Tragedy,” Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 21 (1935), p. 14.

  3. The phrase is F. W. Moorman's. See “Shakespeare's Ghosts,” Modern Language Review 1 (1906):192.

  4. These eschatological details obviously also have a thematic function, in that what we see of the Ghost's attitude toward the afterlife (“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood” [1.5.15-16]) is designed to condition our responses to the thoughts Hamlet expresses when he contemplates suicide. The horrors described by the Ghost give validity to Hamlet's fear of the nightmare-land of life after death. This is not to suggest that Hamlet obtains a glimpse through the Ghost's eyes and is therefore afraid; only that the audience is provided in advance with a picture which sets up a referent and reinforcement for something Hamlet will later be thinking about.

  5. Robert H. West, “King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], 70 (1955): 1115. West is responding to the arguments of Dover Wilson and Roy Battenhouse (see chap. 1, n. 12).

  6. W. W. Greg's argument that the Ghost is “Hamlet's Hallucination” (Modern Language Review 12 [1917]:393-421) is, of course, untenable, for Shakespeare assures us in the reversal sequence in which Bernardo and Marcellus convince the skeptical Horatio of the Ghost's reality that this is no projection of Hamlet's own mind.

  7. Moorman, “Shakespeare's Ghosts,” p. 192; Sister Miriam Joseph, “Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet,PMLA 76 (1961): 192; Lily Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, p. 147 n. 1.

  8. For an important aspect of the antic disposition not discussed here, see Charles R. Forker, “Shakespeare's Theatrical Symbolism and Its Function in Hamlet,” Shakespeare Quarterly 14 (1963): 215-29.

  9. Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, p. 234.

  10. C. S. Lewis, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 28 (1942), p. 16.

  11. Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, p. 160.

  12. The play element is understated in Titus Andronicus, yet there is a ritualistic aspect to the banquet, primarily achieved by Titus's desire to stage and arrange events in preparation for his reception and murder of Tamora. The suggestion of a staged action is increased by the fact that various characters arrive in costume—Tamora appears as Revenge and Titus “plays the cook.”

  13. Righter, Shakespeare and the Play, p. 81.

  14. Note the similar conclusion reached from a comparison of these two playlets by Robert J. Nelson in Play within a Play, pp. 29-30: “Leave it to Hieronimo of Kyd's Spanish Tragedie to merge the real and the unreal and so leave us totally without perspective in a world of chaos. Hamlet is a subtler esthetician and a better metaphysician. He realizes that his action must be more circumscribed. … The free manipulation of reality is the essence of comedy and for it we must not look to the Prince of Denmark.” Hamlet, says Nelson, “cannot create reality, he can work only on the given.”

  15. See the excellent analysis of this speech by Maurice Charney in “The ‘Now Could I Drink Hot Blood’ Soliloquy and the Middle of Hamlet,” Mosaic 10 (1977): 77-86.

  16. Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare, pp. 66-88.

  17. This point is well argued by Fredson Bowers in “Dramatic Structure and Criticism: Plot in Hamlet,” Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 207-18.

  18. Nelson, Play within a Play, p. 27.

  19. Lewis, “The Prince or the Poem?” p. 13.

Works Cited

Battenhouse, Roy W. “The Ghost in Hamlet: A Catholic ‘Linchpin’?” Studies in Philology 48 (1951): 161-92.

Bowers, Fredson. “Dramatic Structure and Criticism: Plot in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 207-18.

Campbell, Lily. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. 1930. Reprint edition. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.

Charney, Maurice. “The ‘Now Could I Drink Hot Blood’ Soliloquy and the Middle of Hamlet.Mosaic 10 (1977): 77-86.

Forker, Charles R. “Shakespeare's Theatrical Symbolism and Its Function in Hamlet.Shakespeare Quarterly 14 (1963): 215-29.

Greg, W. W. “Hamlet's Hallucination.” Modern Language Review 12 (1917): 393-421.

Jones, Emrys. Scenic Form in Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Joseph, Sister Miriam. “Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet.PMLA 76 (1961): 493-502.

Lewis, C. S. “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 28. London: Humphrey Milford, 1942.

Moorman, F. W. “Shakespeare's Ghosts.” Modern Language Review 1 (1906): 192-201.

Nelson, Robert J. Play within a Play: The Dramatist's Conception of His Art, Shakespeare to Anouilh. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958.

Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967.

Righter, Anne. Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play. London: Chatto & Windus, 1962.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.

Simpson, Percy. “The Theme of Revenge in Elizabethan Tragedy.” In Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 21. London: Humphrey Milford, 1935.

Symonds, John Addington. Shakespere's Predecessors in the English Drama. 1884. New edition. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1900.

West, Robert H. “King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost.” PMLA 70 (1955): 1107-17.

Wilson, J. Dover. What Happens in “Hamlet.” 1935. 3rd edition. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1967.

John Kerrigan (essay date 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 retrospection to revenge: ‘I pray that one may appear to avenge you, father, / and that the killers may in justice pay with life for life’.2

Electra's prayer is answered. She finds the hair, and it matches her own; her feet fit into the prints left by her brother; and then Orestes steps forward, persuaded by what she has said of Agamemnon that she will not betray him. In the magnificent sequence which follows, brother, sister and Chorus unite in reminding each other, the dead king and the audience of the bloody deed performed in the first part of the trilogy. Here, even more clearly than in the private prayers, retrospection prompts a desire for revenge: ‘Remember the bath in which you were murdered, father!’ says Orestes; ‘Remember the new sort of covering they devised!’ replies his sister.3 A torrent of stichomythia begins, and it is only contained when the Chorus says:

Indeed, there has been no fault in this your lengthy utterance; making atonement to the tomb for the lament that was denied it; and for the rest, since you are resolved to act, do now the deed and make trial of your fortune.4

At this point it becomes clear that the relationship between past and future has changed. There is more than a suggestion in the Chorus's words that the retrospection which prompts revenge can also postpone it. Though Orestes and Electra are not quite rebuked for delay, they are offered (as the next lines show) barbed praise. The Chorus wants them to use, rather than become obsessed by, the past.

In these first few hundred lines of The Choephoroe, Aeschylus dramatises the psychological ambiguity of vengeful retrospection. He shows the past inciting revenge; but he also suggests that retrospection offers its own grim satisfaction, that the past can draw a revenger back from his task instead of pushing him towards it. The two greatest Elizabethan revenge plays, The Spanish Tragedy (1587-89) and Hamlet (1600), are as preoccupied with the past as is The Choephoroe.5 In the former, Kyd presents a hero inexorably impelled by remembrance towards revenge; in the latter, Shakespeare shows us a hero continually recoiling from revenge into a ‘remembrance of things past’.

Greek retrospection: Elizabethan remembrance. Aeschylus's revengers, like the Orestes and Electra of Sophocles and Euripides, have no private memory of their father; they know about his life and death only because it is public knowledge. They take revenge for equally public reasons: as children of the house of Atreus, they are bound to punish those who have weakened and disgraced their house by shedding the blood of the king. Elizabethan revenge tragedy replaces the vital exteriority of the links between living and dead in the Greek plays by something more private: almost invariably, its revengers cherish vivid, personal memories of their lost friends and kinsmen. These memories are usually, as in The Spanish Tragedy, shared with the audience. In Kyd's play, objects held as mementoes combine with a sweepingly explicit rhetoric to publish Hieronimo's private bond with Horatio. But in Hamlet the memories disclosed by the hero only suggest more, lying deeper, unspoken. Receding into the privacy of memory, Hamlet excludes the audience from knowledge of ‘that within which passes show’; and, in the process, he wins for himself a depth and secrecy of character utterly unlike anything to be found in Greek tragedy.

When Hieronimo finds his son hanging in the arbour, run through with swords, he does not think only of revenge. Dipping Horatio's ‘handkercher’ or ‘napkin’ into his wounds, he declares:

Seest thou this handkercher besmear'd with blood?
It shall not from me till I take revenge:
Seest thou those wounds that yet are bleeding fresh?
I'll not entomb them till I have reveng'd:
Then will I joy amidst my discontent,
Till then my sorrow never shall be spent.


Hieronimo sets out to secure his revenge by equipping himself with objects charged with remembrance: the corpse, a surrogate ghost to whet his purpose should it ever blunt, and the gory napkin, a memento to be carried near his sorrowing heart. Why did Kyd choose to make a handkercher the portable emblem of Hieronimo's remembrance? In the previous act, after describing the death of Andrea, Horatio had announced to Bel-imperia: ‘This scarf I pluck'd from off his liveless arm, / And wear it in remembrance of my friend’ (I.iv.42-43). Now this scarf, as Bel-imperia had explained, was originally given by her to Andrea as a love token—a token which she in turn grants Horatio. So Kyd introduced the handkercher to help build up a chain of remembrances: Andrea takes a scarf from Bel-imperia; Horatio takes it from him, presumably stained by the ‘purple’ battlefield;7 and then Hieronimo takes the bloody napkin from his son. Kyd's play has often been criticised for dividing between two centres of interest: Andrea's revenge and Horatio's. But the scarf and handkercher, complementary emblems of remembrance, feed one plot into the other, uniting the play around the relationship between remembrance and revenge.

In the first scene, Andrea tells us that after his body was buried by Horatio, his spirit crossed ‘the flowing stream of Acheron’, pleased Cerberus ‘with hony'd speech’ and presented itself to the three judges of the underworld. Aeacus deemed that the proper place for Andrea was among lovers on the ‘fields of love’, but Rhadamanth objected that ‘martial fields’ better suited the soldier. It was left to Minos, the third judge, ‘to end the difference’, by sending the spirit further into Hades to consult a higher authority. The dialectical nature of Minos's judgement is echoed in the structure of the underworld: Andrea must take ‘the middle path’ of three if he is to reach Pluto's court. Interestingly, Virgil, Kyd's authority for most of the speech, had insisted in Book VI of the Aeneid that there were two paths, not three. Kyd clearly had some special purpose in establishing the idea that in the underworld the road to justice leads through and beyond alternatives—and that it leads, in the end, to the Revenge which is Proserpine's ‘doom’. I think that he offers the journey as a paradigm for Hieronimo's movement through the play: although the Knight Marshal inhabits sixteenth-century Spain, he explores the same moral landscape as the spirit of Andrea. In one sense indeed he must travel towards Revenge, for the goddess of the play, Proserpine, has granted Andrea a ‘doom’ (meaning ‘destiny’ as well as ‘judgement’), and Hieronimo is the instrument of her will. But in another sense he chooses to make the journey; and he does so because of the constant prompting of remembrance.

The Knight Marshal is considering a hellish pilgrimage as early as his III.ii soliloquy. ‘The ugly fiends do sally forth of hell,’ he says, ‘And frame my steps to unfrequented paths’. Dreams of remembrance (‘direful visions’ in which he sees once more the ‘wounds’ of his son) have made him susceptible to such temptation. But at this stage of the play, memory can provoke nothing but frustration, for Hieronimo does not yet know who murdered Horatio. He is caught between desire for action and an intolerable, tormenting patience, and the strain tells on his sanity. He thinks that everything must be caught up in his anguished dilemma. As Empson says in ‘Let it go’, at the border of madness, ‘The contradictions cover such a range’:

Eyes, life, world, heavens, hell, night, and day,
See, search, shew, send, some man, some mean, that
may—                                                                                                                        A letter falleth.

Seeking a ‘mean’ (both ‘opportunity’ and ‘middle path’), Hieronimo hunts the kind of path along which Minos sent Andrea to Revenge. He finds it when Bel-imperia's letter falls from the balcony, telling him how to break the deadlock and advance into action: ‘Me hath my hapless brother hid from thee’, it says, ‘Revenge thyself on Balthazar and him, / For these were they that murdered thy son’. ‘Red ink’ reads the practical note in the Quarto margin, and the letter tells Hieronimo that it has been written in blood for want of ink. So the paper flutters to the stage looking very like Hieronimo's bloody handkercher. It is another link in the chain, another memento inciting revenge.

By the end of the act, his desire for retribution still unsatisfied, ignored by God and kept from the King by the cunning of Lorenzo, Hieronimo has once more become desperate, and he turns back to ‘unfrequented paths’. Standing between the traditional tools of suicide, ‘a poniard in one hand, and a rope in the other’, he tries to decide which offers the better path to justice:

Hieronimo, 'tis time for thee to trudge:
Down by the dale that flows with purple gore,
Standeth a fiery tower: there sits a judge
Upon a seat of steel …
Away, Hieronimo, to him be gone:
He'll do thee justice for Horatio's death.

(III.xii.6-9, 12-13)

Dagger and halter become parts of the landscape: ‘Turn down this path, thou shalt be with him straight, / Or this, and then thou need'st not take thy breath: / This way, or that way?’ (14-16). Again, it is the remembrance of his loss that breaks the deadlock: ‘if I hang or kill myself, let's know / Who will revenge Horatio's murder then?’ The weapons are thrown down, both paths rejected, and what stands between, the man remembering, goes forward to revenge—along ‘the middle path’ of three.

The same dialectic operates at the third and most formidable point of deadlocked uncertainty, represented by the soliloquy ‘Vindicta mihi!’ (III.xiii.1-44). The first five lines of this, in which Hieronimo considers the possibility of leaving God to revenge his son, are made the more moving by his choice of Romans xii-xiii as text. The biblical passage forbids private revenge, but it allows the ‘minister of God to take vengeance on him that doeth evil’.8 As a ‘civil magistrate’, Hieronimo would be regarded by the Elizabethan audience as just such a ‘minister’. Cut off from higher authority by the cunning of Lorenzo, and unable to try his son's killers himself (because he could not be an impartial ‘magistrate’ in such a trial, only a father), Hieronimo has been stripped of precisely that power of ‘vengeance’ which, for the original audience, was the most essential adjunct of his public office. It's hardly surprising then that the Knight Marshal goes on from Romans to consider contrary advice, taken from Seneca's Agamemnon: ‘Per scelus semper tutum est sceleribus iter.’9 Although it's not clear whether Hieronimo applies this paraphrase of Clytemnestra's decision to kill her husband to himself (who, like her, has a child to revenge) or to Lorenzo (who has a better claim to ‘scelus’), either way the line dictates action: vengeance or a pre-emptive strike. If he dithers, he reflects, he will simply lose his life: ‘For he that thinks with patience to contend / To quiet life, his life shall easily end’. But here the argument starts to recoil, for the ambiguity of ‘easily’ allows ‘patience’ and ‘quiet life’ to register as attractive positives even while they are being rejected as cowardly and dangerous. The patient man lives and dies in ease.10 Hieronimo's will is puzzled, and he consoles himself with classical commonplaces. If destiny allows one to be happy, one will be; and if not, then one has the comfort of a tomb. Moreover (thinking now of a famous line from Pharsalia), if destiny denies even that, ‘Heaven covereth him that hath no burial’. Suddenly his memory sparks into life: Horatio lies unburied because of his father's delay. ‘And to conclude,’ he says (though logically it's no conclusion), ‘I will revenge his death!’ The complicated tangle of impulse and argument is broken through; and nothing more is heard of patience.

With Horatio's memory uppermost in his mind, the magistrate is then offered ‘“The humble supplication / Of Don Bazulto for his murder'd son”’. At first he denies that anyone could claim such loss but himself (‘No sir, it was my murder'd son’); but he then recognises in Bazulto his ‘portrait’, his uncanny double, and he offers to wipe the old man's tearful cheeks. As he draws out the handkercher, however, he is once more overwhelmed by remembrance, and, through that, by desire for revenge:

O no, not this: Horatio, this was thine,
And when I dy'd it in thy dearest blood,
This was a token 'twixt thy soul and me
That of thy death revenged I should be.

(III.xiii 86-89)

He begins to rave about the journey he must make, down to ‘the dismal gates of Pluto's court’, within the walls of which, ‘Proserpine may grant / Revenge on them that murdered my son’. Why does he end this account (so reminiscent of Andrea's in the first scene) by tearing up the legal papers of Bazulto and his fellow petitioners? Because of his obsession with remembrance and revenge. Claiming that he has not damaged the documents, the revenger says: ‘Shew me one drop of blood fall from the same’. The papers are no concern of his: they are not the corpses of ‘Don Lorenzo and the rest’; he cannot therefore have touched them. Moreover, the sheets of paper written with ink, unlike Bel-imperia's letter inscribed with blood, offer no consolation to the memory: yielding no blood, they cannot resemble the handkercher; Hieronimo cannot therefore have consulted them. Not until the performance of ‘Soliman and Perseda’ in the following and final act are the two impulses so crazily at work here fully resolved.

Towards the end of The Choephoroe, Orestes displays before the Chorus both the bodies of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and the robe or net in which Agamemnon was murdered. He summons up the past to justify his revenge: ‘Did she do the deed or not?’, he asks, ‘This robe / is my witness, as to how Aegisthus’ sword dyed it. / And the blood that gushed forth was time's partner / in spoiling the many dyes applied to the embroidery'.11 The most striking Elizabethan parallel to this is Antony's speech to the mob in Julius Caesar (1599), where Caesar's mangled and bloodstained robe is used to justify the revenge which the orator is provoking in the minds of the people:

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle. I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
’Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii.
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through;
See what a rent the envious Casca made;
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd,
And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it.


Yet the rich interplay between public and private here, between ‘You all do know this mantle’ and ‘I remember’ (that shift which, for the Elizabethan audience, authenticates Antony, makes him a revenger rather than a mere murderer), is utterly different from the forceful publicity of the Aeschylean tableau. And when Hieronimo stands among the corpses of his enemies, producing the bloody ‘napkin’ to justify his action to the stage audience, the object of remembrance is even more private in its associations than the ‘mantle’. How can the Spanish court make sense of it? How can they share the Knight Marshal's remembrance?

Oddly enough, in chapter iii of Le Temps Retrouvé, Marcel's memory is prompted by the texture of a ‘napkin’: ‘la serviette que j'avais prise pour m'essuyer la bouche avait précisément le genre de raideur et d'empesé de celle avec laquelle j'avais eu tant de peine à me sécher devant la fenêtre, le premier jour de mon arrivée à Balbec, et, maintenant, devant cette bibliothèque de l'hôtel de Guermantes, elle déployait, réparti dans ses pans et dans ses cassures, le plumage d'un océan vert et bleu comme la queue d'un paon.12 Again, an enormous shift in sensibility: for Hieronimo the past is sustained by the continuity of an object; it survives within Marcel as sensation, the feel of a feel. But the connection with Kyd (and even, though distantly, with Aeschylus) is there in the thought which the reverie evokes in Marcel: ‘je remarquais qu'il y aurait là, dans l'oeuvre d'art que je me sentais prêt déjà … de grandes difficultés.’ Through the work of art which he, by undertaking, becomes, Proust's narrator can make his audience live through the experiences which are so liable, being past, to invade the present. Art can publish the past, even when it is private. Orestes creates a self-justificatory tableau out of the robe-net and the bodies, Antony performs a little play of passion over Caesar's corpse and mantle, and art similarly communicates the significance of the handkercher which Hieronimo shows the court after ‘Soliman and Perseda’.

On reading Pedringano's letter, Hieronimo had said: ‘Holp he to murder mine Horatio? / And actors in th'accursed tragedy / Wast thou, Lorenzo, Balthazar and thou?’ (III.vii.40-42). That drama returns when the ‘tragedy’ supposedly written by Hieronimo in his student days is performed before the court, the equivalent of Orestes' Chorus and Antony's mob. Once more a gentle knight is murdered so that his faithful mistress can be won by a royal lover. Balthazar plays his own part, that of Soliman, and Belimperia hers, the ‘Italian dame, / Whose beauty ravish'd all that her beheld’ (IV.i.111-12). Horatio, however, cannot play the part of the knight Erasto, so Lorenzo does that, leaving Hieronimo to ‘play the murderer’, the bashaw, the character who in the playlet is the equivalent of Lorenzo in ‘th’ accursed tragedy’. When Soliman agrees to Erasto's death, reluctantly, as Balthazar did to Horatio's, Hieronimo stabs Lorenzo, the arbour scene returns, the court is invited by the redemption of the past effected through art to comprehend those private memories which cluster around the handkercher that Hieronimo is about to produce, and, in the death of Lorenzo in Horatio's role, revenge is finally clinched in remembrance.

When the ghost exhorts Hamlet to ‘Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther’, the Prince's response is only superficially ‘apt’: ‘Haste me to know't, that I with wings as swift / As meditation, or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge’ (I.v.25, 29-31). ‘May’ is not ‘will’, and the overtones of ‘meditation’ and ‘thoughts of love’ are distinctly at odds with their apparent sense. But when the ghost leaves his son with the injunction ‘Adieu, adieu, adieu: remember me!’, Hamlet takes his task to heart with all the passion he can muster:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell? O fie, hold, hold, my heart,
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter …
                                                                                                              … Now to my word:
It is ‘Adieu, adieu: remember me!’
I have sworn't.


The contrast with Hieronimo is striking: Hamlet never promises to revenge, only to remember.13

The whole play is steeped in remembrance. Hardly has it begun than it pauses for Horatio to celebrate Old Hamlet as a representative of that lost and epic age in which political issues were decided by fierce, single combat, an age in sorry contrast to that in which kings take power by poison and in which combat is no more than a courtly exercise played with bated foils. Again, after the nunnery scene, Ophelia recalls a Hamlet we have never really known:

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword,
Th'expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th'observed of all observers, quite, quite, down!


In her touchingly Polonian way, Ophelia is celebrating the Prince as Horatio had eulogised Old Hamlet. She recalls her own father, in turn, in the ballads sung during her madness: ‘He is dead and gone, lady, / He is dead and gone, / At his head a grass-green turf, / At his heels a stone’ and ‘His beard was as white as snow, / All flaxen was his poll, / He is gone, he is gone, / And we cast away moan’ (IV.v.29-32, 195-98). It is this persistent sense of engagement with the past which creates the play's distinctive music: plangent and pathetic in the case of Ophelia's ballads, wistful but touched with melancholy humour in Hamlet's reverie over Yorick, or tormented with loss, as in his first soliloquy. And it determines the movement of the tragedy: slow, eddying, as though reluctant to leave the past behind, a movement which can admit an elegiac set speech, like Gertrude's description of Ophelia's death, not reluctantly, as a beautiful irrelevance, but as a necessary question of the play.

In the context of these memories, generously celebrating something lost, others seem very selfish. Claudius admits that ‘the memory’ of his brother is but ‘green’, but he nevertheless insists on ‘remembrance of ourselves’ (I.ii.1-2, 7). The Prince remembers one king, his uncle another. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mark their betrayal of Hamlet by linking themselves with Claudius's selfish memory: their hire and salary, they are told, will be ‘such thanks / As fits a king's remembrance’ (II.ii.25-26). And Fortinbras, winding things up in his peremptory way, cynically invokes a sense of the past to justify his actions: ‘I have some rights of memory in this kingdom, / Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me’ (V.ii.389-90).14

Such true and false remembrances all reflect on the play's most important link with bygone things: Hamlet's memory of his father. Even before he sees the ghost, the Prince remembers. When he first meets Horatio, for example, he almost sees the apparition which his friend has come to announce:



My father—methinks I see my father.
Where, my lord?
In my mind's eye, Horatio.
I saw him once; 'a was a goodly king.
'A was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.


Hamlet fends off Horatio's recollection of the public man—the shared, ‘goodly king’. His words advertise a privacy which remains his throughout the play. We can show that remembrance haunts him, even to the point of madness. We can call this the heart of his mystery. But that heart can never, as he assures Guildenstern, be plucked out; for it is too secret. Remembering, Hamlet eludes us.

The kind of experience which the Prince has in his first exchange with Horatio is not to be endured without pain. He may be rapt into the past and find comfort there, but that only makes the present seem more desolate, ‘an unweeded garden / That grows to seed’ (I.ii.135-36). In the words of the psychologist John Bowlby: ‘because of the persistent and insatiable nature of the yearning for the lost figure, pain is inevitable’.15 Hamlet's compulsion to remember must of necessity cause him anguish:

So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth,
Must I remember?


Claudius calls this state of mind ‘unmanly’, accusing the Prince of ‘obstinate condolement’ (ib.93-94). But he is not two months bereaved of a good and noble father. In any case, we know that Hamlet, healthily, is trying to shake off at least part of the burden of his father's memory.

In Twelfth Night (usually dated to the same year as Hamlet) Olivia clearly does indulge in ‘obstinate condolement’, imposing seven years of isolation on herself to keep her dead brother ‘fresh / And lasting in her sad remembrance’ (I.i.30-31). But we learn very early on that Hamlet is actively seeking the escape which Comedy forces on Olivia in the form of Orsino's handsome page: the ‘tenders’ of ‘affection’ made to Ophelia ‘of late’ (I.iii.99-100)—which can only mean since his return from Wittenberg for the funeral of his father—prove that the Prince is trying hard to replace his dead love-object with a living one. Hamlet's inky cloak is an ambiguous thing: a mark of respect for his lost father, it also indicates his desire eventually to detach himself from him. As Freud put it: ‘Mourning has a precise psychical task to perform: its function is to detach the survivor's memories and hopes from the dead.’16

A combination of things prevents Hamlet from effecting this severance. Ophelia's apparent rejection of him is one: by returning his letters and refusing him access she throws his love back onto the father who has never emotionally betrayed him. Another is Claudius's refusal to let him return to school in Wittenberg: this leaves Hamlet surrounded by the people and objects which most remorselessly remind him of the dead king. But most important, of course, is the ghost's injunction: ‘Remember me!’. When the apparition commands Hamlet to remember, he condemns him to an endless, fruitless ‘yearning for the lost figure’. In the nunnery and closet scenes, we see the effect of this sentence on the Prince's sanity.

‘My lord,’ says Ophelia, ‘I have remembrances of yours / That I have longed long to redeliver. / I pray you now receive them’ (III.i.92-94). This confirms for Hamlet a suspicion bred of his mother's ‘o'er-hasty marriage’ (II.ii.57), that woman's love is a brief, unworthy thing. It seems that Ophelia, not content with simply ignoring the man who loves her, wants to divest herself of every shred of attachment, even to the extent of forgetting those days when their affair was happier. She wants to shed her remembrances. In this she is no better than Gertrude, glad to forget her first husband in another's bed. This is bad enough, but the girl's gesture, ‘There, my lord’ (III.i.101), recalls an earlier scene: Old Hamlet, like Ophelia, had pressed on the Prince remembrances that were, in any case, too much his already. Through the loss of Ophelia, Hamlet feels that of his father—which is why the hysteria which follows is so much in excess of the apparent object. The sexuality which the Prince denounces is that of his mother as well as Ophelia; Claudius, as well as he, is an ‘arrant knave’ (the echo of the speech to the guard makes the point; 128, cf I.v.124); and there is indeed a sad resonance in the question, ‘Where's your father?’ ‘Hysterics’, wrote Freud, ‘suffer mainly from reminiscences.’17

The queen triggers off Hamlet's raving in her bedchamber by calling Claudius ‘your father’ (III.iv.9). Forced by this to compare one king with another, Hamlet insists that his mother do the same. As he shows her the counterfeit presentments, the tormented, idealising remembrance which had filled his first soliloquy once more overwhelms him:

See what a grace was seated on this brow:
Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill,
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.


‘'A was a man, take him for all in all’: we are back with that almost hallucinatory moment when Old Hamlet drifted into the ‘mind's eye’. And this time the ghost, fancied even more vividly, appears, suspended mysteriously between spiritual and imaginative existence. ‘In melancholy men’, writes Burton of the phantasy, ‘this faculty is most powerful and strong, and often hurts, producing many monstrous and prodigious things, especially if it be stirred up by some terrible object, presented to it from … memory.’18 Hamlet sees a prodigy, but Gertrude, who has forgotten, does not.

It may seem rash to define Hamlet's madness in terms of remembrance when we have Polonius's warning that ‘to define true madness, / What is't but to be nothing else but mad?’ (II.ii.93-94). Yet this should encourage us rather than otherwise, for by its queer logic there is one character in the play admirably qualified to offer a definition. Not even R. D. Laing could dispute that Ophelia goes mad; and when, in a sequence which is in obvious parallel to the nunnery scene, she gives her brother, like Hamlet before him, remembrances, she says: ‘There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts.’ ‘A document in madness,’ translates Laertes, ‘thoughts and remembrance fitted’ (IV.v.175-79).

What about revenge? In the body of the play, as in the first exchange with the ghost, it is far less important to Hamlet than remembrance. This imbalance is dramatised with particular clarity in the use which he makes of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’. ‘Soliman and Perseda’ was staged to effect Hieronimo's revenge, but there is never any question of Claudius being killed in or at ‘The Mousetrap’. Perhaps Hamlet does stage it to test the ghost. Presumably he is not simply rationalising when he says that it will ‘catch the conscience of the King’ (II.ii.605). But the crucial motive is revealed in his speech to Ophelia just before the performance: ‘O heavens, die two months ago, and not forgotten yet? Then there's hope a great man's memory may outlive his life half a year, but by'r lady, 'a must build churches then, or else shall 'a suffer not thinking on, with the hobby-horse, whose epitaph is, “For O, for O, the hobby-horse is forgot”’ (III.ii.130-35). Hamlet recovers the orchard as Hieromimo the arbour, but the Prince does so because he wants to see his father alive again and to help the ‘great man's memory’ survive. Revenge is stifled by remembrance. As the Player King says: ‘Purpose is but the slave to memory’. Only the transformation of the stage-murderer from brother to nephew—Claudius to Hamlet—reveals the Prince's guilty sense that if he could but abandon himself, become as crude and cruel as ‘Lucianus, nephew to the king’, he could satisfy the ghost.

But Hamlet cannot change his nature and so does not revenge his father. The weapons finally used to kill Claudius (the venomous rapier and poisoned drink) mark Hamlet's attack as spontaneous retaliation, not long-delayed retribution: the King dies for the murder of Gertrude and the Prince, not for the murder in the orchard. Old Hamlet is not even mentioned by his son in the last, violent minutes of the play—an omission which seems the more striking when Laertes, who is being hurried off by the fell sergeant death with yet more despatch than the prince, finds time to refer to Polonius. Hamlet knows that revenge would please the stern, militaristic father whom he loves, and he wants to please him; but he cannot overcome his radical sense of the pointlessness of revenge. Claudius has killed Old Hamlet and whored the Queen. Neither evil can be undone. Revenge cannot bring back what has been lost. Only memory, with all its limitations, can do that.

Nowhere is this lesson brought home more forcefully than in the graveyard scene (V.1). As they delve in the clay, the gravediggers turn up the past as it really is: earth indistinguishable from earth, skulls, loggat bones. This might be a politician's pate, or a courtier's, says the Prince. And might not this be the skull of a lawyer? ‘It might, my lord’; but, equally, it might not: none of Hamlet's speculations can give life to this refuse. The skulls remain, despite his earnest efforts, terrifying, vacant emblems of death, mouthing the slogan of the memento mori tradition: ‘Fui non sum, es non eris.19 Only one of them can mean more: when the Prince learns that he holds the skull of Yorick, he is able to give it form and feature: ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times …’. How frail is Yorick's link with life. Only his small fame, lingering in the minds of gravedigger and Prince, demonstrates what a piece of work he was. The rest of him, like every other bone in the cemetery, signifies death: ‘Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come’.

Alexander came to it, and so did ‘imperious Caesar’. Even now one might be stopping a bung-hole and the other patching a wall. Why does Hamlet consider the fate of these great men so curiously? Certainly because ‘Fui non sum’ has struck home: he recognises the inevitability of his own death, as his great speech on the fall of the sparrow shows (V.ii.219-24). But he is also interested in them because they are famous men, men remembered. It does not matter that their mortal remains have come to base ends: they linger in men's minds nonetheless. If the graveyard focuses Hamlet's imagination on his approaching end, it also reminds him of the possibility of survival through memory. As he has cherished his father, so he hopes to be cherished. That is why Horatio is so important to him at the end of the play:

You that look pale, and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time—as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest—O, I could tell you—
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead,
Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.


But can Horatio report either Hamlet or his cause aright? His brief account to Fortinbras, with its ‘carnal, bloody and unnatural acts … accidental judgements, casual slaughters’, suggests that he cannot, for everything that seems most essential to Hamlet's tragedy is left out. Honest, compassionate and intelligent though he is, Horatio is simply not equipped by circumstance to inform the yet unknowing world about the nunnery scene, Claudius's words to heaven, ‘To be or not to be’ or, indeed, any of those decisive soliloquies. Only the play can report such things, which is why the dramatic imagery of Hamlet's speech is so interesting.

When John Pickeryng turned to Lydgate's Troy Book to find material for the first Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Horestes (1567), he found a distinctly gloomy view of fame and memory: ‘O vnsur trust of al worldly glorie, / With sodeyn chaunge put oute of memorie!’, laments Lydgate at the death of Agamemnon, ‘O ydel fame, blowe up to the skye, / Ouer-whelmyd with twyncling of an eye!’20 Pickeryng's attitude could not be more different. For him it is only Agamemnon's fame which makes him worth revenging. Moreover, it is fame which in his version of the story offers the strongest suasion both for and against the murder of Clytemnestra: think what evil Oedipus did in killing his parent, urges Nature, ‘And eke remember now, what fame of him abrode doth go’; to which Idumeus counters, having encouraged his ward to persist in revenge: ‘remembar well the same; / In doing thus you shall pourchas to the immortaull fame, / The which I hope you wyll assaye for to atchife in dede’.21 Obviously, Lydgate wrote in the late middle ages and Pickeryng in the renaissance when men became (like the King in Love's Labour's Lost) fascinated by the idea that the great could live a life beyond life in their fame. But Pickeryng was also dramatising a story which was merely told in his source. He therefore found himself considering the springs of Horestes' action, his link with the dead man, and, in consequence, Agamemnon's survival in the public memory.

In the event, fame, the subject of a few lines in the Troy Book, seemed so important to Pickeryng that he made it into a distinct dramatic character. After the murder of Clytemnestra, Fame comes on stage clutching the gold and iron trumps through which she announces good and bad deeds to eternity:

Aboue eache thinge kepe well thy fame, what euer y(t) thou lose;
For fame once gone, they memory with fame a way it gose;
And it once lost thou shalt, in south, accomptyd lyke to be
A drope of rayne that faulyth in the bosom of the see.


Or, to put it in Hamlet's terms: unless a man is remembered, he is no more after his death than a ‘pate full of fine dirt’ (V.i.107-08). But the most striking link between Horestes and Hamlet lies in Fame's function as the presenter of Pickeryng's play. She tells us what is happening both in and just outside the action. So the play which Fame presents, dramatises the fame which she personifies. This is one reason why Horestes, though it does not link its revenger with the lost object through the private channel of remembrance, could never be taken as a Greek tragedy: Pickeryng is careful to remind us, through the medium of Fame, that what we are seeing is not action but the performance of an action. Aeschylus's actors are Aristotle's prattontes, which John Jones has translated well as ‘the doers of what is done’;22 Pickeryng's actors imitate rather than do. We are made aware that Horestes was, and that he is being played; indeed, there is a sense in which the fact that he is being played in itself proves him worth playing. In short, any performance of Pickeryng's drama constitutes an act of remembrance.

It should now be clear why the tragedians of the city are so prominent in Hamlet. Clearly, the Prince is interested in them because of his obsession with ‘seeming’ and ‘being’, and because they can act while divorcing themselves from their actions—which is what Hamlet would have to do if he were to revenge his father. But they fascinate him above all because they make remembrance their profession. The Prince must struggle to keep his promise to the ghost, to preserve his memory for only a few months, but the first player can reach back effortlessly to the crash of ‘senseless Ilium’ and the murder of Priam (II.ii.434-522). So vividly does he make the dead King of Troy live, that Hamlet has the players do the same for the other dead king—his father—in ‘The Murder of Gonzago’. The most extended and deliberate act of remembrance within Hamlet, ‘The Mousetrap’ moves on from Troy to dramatise the more immediate past of Vienna and, through that, Denmark, before melting into the present of the larger play of which it is a part, the murder in the orchard being effected and unpunished, the murderer being happily in possession of both crown and queen.

Throughout Hamlet, the Prince's obsession with actors and acting, his allusions to revenge tragedy and his dramatic imagery work to divorce the character which he is from the actor who represents him. The first striking effect of this divorce is, obviously, that it protects Hamlet's privacy. When Burbage, Olivier or Jonathan Pryce calls on those who are ‘audience to this act’ we are drawn within the scope of the hero's attention as surely as the pale and trembling Danes, but we are also made aware that, just as the squeaking boy is not Cleopatra, so the actor is not the Hamlet which in another sense he is. The character seems to protest through the imagery that he is too bafflingly himself to be inhabited by another. Nothing could more clearly mark the difference between the ancient Greek and Elizabethan conceptions of dramatic identity than the absence of such imagery from Greek tragedy.23

The second important effect which stems from a perceived discrepancy between a character and the actor representing him has already been touched on in the analysis of Horestes—again with a defining contrast against ancient Greek practice. When we are addressed as ‘audience to this act’ we are made aware that we are witnessing in the theatre both the death of a ‘great man’ and a performance which celebrates that man's memory. The duplicity is similar to that created by Cassius, when, having prepared ‘imperious Caesar’ to patch a wall, he asks: ‘How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!’ (III.i.111-13). And the dramatic imagery which Hieronimo exploits when he, like Hamlet, faces death, might also be compared: ‘gentles, thus I end my play: / Urge no more words, I have no more to say. He runs to hang himself’ (IV.iv.151-52). But if the mechanism at work in Horestes, Julius Caesar and The Spanish Tragedy is similar to that used in Hamlet, its felt effect is infinitely more poignant in the later play. In Horestes, the case for remembrance is put by an abstraction, Fame; in Julius Caesar, it is sought for the sake of a dead, rather than by a dying, man; and Hieronimo's dramatic imagery—as we would expect from a protagonist who has constantly subordinated remembrance to the revenge which it incites—has a memorial implication which is scarcely more than latent. But in Hamlet the appeal for remembrance has the full weight of the play behind it. It comes from a dying hero who, having devoted himself to the generosity of memory, now longs to be remembered. The appeal is enacted. It is satisfied in its performance.


  1. Quoting from Hugh Lloyd-Jones's translation of The Oresteia (2nd ed., 1979), 11. 18-19.

  2. 11. 143-44.

  3. 11. 491-92. Lloyd-Jones rightly accepts the emendation ekainisan.

  4. 11. 510-13.

  5. Throughout this essay I assume that the Elizabethan popular drama was not directly influenced by Greek tragedy. For an interesting attack on this (the consensus) view, see John Harvey's ‘A Note on Shakespeare and Sophocles’ (E in C XXVII, 1977, pp. 254-70.

  6. Kyd quotations are taken from Philip Edwards's edition of The Spanish Tragedy (1959).

  7. The field is described as ‘purple’ with gore at I.ii.62. Whether the scarf is bloodstained or not depends, of course, on the director.

  8. Quoting from the Geneva Version of Romans xiii.4. ‘Civil magistrate’ is the Geneva marginal gloss on ‘the minister of God’.

  9. ‘The safe way for crime is always through crimes’. The original reads: ‘per scelera semper sceleribus tutum est iter’.

  10. This sense registers the more strongly because it represents the kind of Senecanism which the King of Portingale indulges in elsewhere in the play—at I.iii.5-42 and III.xiv.31-34, for example.

  11. 11. 1010-13.

  12. À la recherche du temps perdu, Vol. III, p. 869 (Pléiade ed., 1954). Andreas Mayor's translation (1970) reads: ‘the napkin which I had used to wipe my mouth had precisely the same degree of stiffness and starchedness as the towel with which I had found it so awkward to dry my face as I stood in front of the window on the first day of my arrival at Balbec, and this napkin now, in the library of the Prince de Geurmantes's house, unfolded for me—concealed within its smooth surfaces and its folds—the plumage of an ocean green and blue like the tail of a peacock.’ The quotation which follows, in which Marcel contemplates the great difficulties which he must overcome in executing the work of art which he feels within him, is from pp. 870-71 of the Gallimard text.

  13. The importance of remembrance is emphasised here by a parallel with an earlier scene: another father, Polonius, bids adieu to another son, Laertes, saying, ‘my blessing with thee! / And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character’ (I.iii.57-59). Laertes, in turn, bidding adieu to his sister, asks her to ‘remember’ (84).

  14. The word ‘memory’ occurs more than twice as often in Hamlet than in any other play by Shakespeare, ‘remember’ is more plentiful than in the other plays, and in ‘remembrance(s)’ only All's Well outnumbers the tragedy.

  15. Loss: Sadness and Depression, Vol. III of Attachment and Loss (1980), p. 26.

  16. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIII (1953), p. 65. The German die trauer, like ‘mourning’, covers both the affect and the garb of bereavement.

  17. Op. cit., Vol. II, p. 7.

  18. The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (1972), Pt. 1, Sec. 1, Mem. 2, Subs. 7 (p. 159).

  19. ‘I am not as I was, you will not be as you are.’ For a general account of this tradition see A. Tenenti's Il senso della morte e l'amore della vita nel Rinascimento (Turin, 1957).

  20. Ed. H. Bergson (for E.E.T.S.), Bk. V. ll, 1011-12 and 1015-16.

  21. Ed. A. Brandl, in Quellen des Weltlichen Dramas (Strassburg, 1898); ll. 441 and 492-94.

  22. On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy (1962), p. 59.

  23. Oliver Taplin confirms this omission on pp. 132-33 of The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (1977). The closest approach made to dramatic self-consciousness in the ancient tragedies can be found in Euripides's Electra, where the heroine refuses to accept the lock of hair and the footprints which had satisfied her Aeschylean precursor (11. 487-595). She is defined against the earlier Electra as more centred, less subject to the directing flow of the mythos; she is less of, and more in, her play. But because the sense of dramatic artifice here lies outside the circumference of the heroine's intelligence, there is no suggestion of a divorce between character and actor: Euripides's roles, as surely as those of Sophocles and Aeschylus, live in the externality of the mask.

Michael Neill (essay date 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 tradition—about the importance it had for Renaissance Englishmen and for Shakespeare in particular. Prospero's renunciation of ‘vengeance’ in the name of ‘virtue’ marks the conclusion not just of his own moral pilgrimage, but of his creator's long meditation on man's relation with his past, on the significance of remembrance and revenge.

The ostensible concern of revenge tragedy, as Fredson Bowers has taught us to understand it, is with the problematic conflicts between the code of honour and the code of law.2 These it exposes by imagining some crisis in which the justice of the state proves unable or unwilling to satisfy an individual's demand for retribution. The action of the play then seeks to define the limits which secular and spiritual orders must put upon the ‘wild justice’ of blood-revenge if society is to survive. There can be little question that such problems were real enough for Shakespeare's audience—exacerbated (as Bowers argued) by the rising fashion of duelling. But I doubt if this is enough to explain the hold which revenge plays exercised upon the English imagination. It is significant that the duello, for instance, played a much more important part in the coterie theatre of Fletcher and his successors than in revenge drama proper. I would suggest that if we turn our attention away from this surface preoccupation with the ethics of revenge towards the underlying structural conventions of the genre, we may find it embodying much deeper forms of social anxiety.

Typically, it seems to me, revenge tragedy involves a struggle to control and dispose of time: the opponents in this struggle are the politician (tyrant or usurper) and the revenger. The first is a new man whose drive to possess the future requires that he annihilate or rewrite the past: the second is a representative of the old order, whose duty is to recuperate history from the infective oblivion into which his antagonist has cast it. He is a ‘remembrancer’ in a double sense—both an agent of memory and one whose task it is to exact payment for the debts of the past. The emblem of his double function is the memento that he treasures—corpse, cadaver or skull—at once a warning to his enemies (a ‘terror to fat folks’) and a physical proof of the past which they deny. Clois Hoffman keeps ‘the dead remembrance of my living father’, its skull burnt from a red-hot crown, hanging in his grove:3 soon there will be another, identically scarred, beside it. The paradox displayed here—that the revenger's obsession with the past leads him to imitate the new man he detests—is central to the genre. The usurper is an aggressive individualist who assaults ‘the great work of time’4 in order to recast society in his own mould; the revenger is a traditionalist whose attempt to restore the values of community ironically renders him the most painfully isolated of individuals. By virtue of his isolation the revenger is driven to employ the very methods of his antagonist: he too must ‘smile and smile and be a villain’. The justifying act of revenge epitomises the appalling contradiction of his being—it is an act which symbolically revives the violated past by re-enacting the crime of violation. Again and again the revenger (Hieronimo, Titus, Antonio, Hoffman, Vindice) comes to resemble what he seeks to destroy.5

Seen as dramatising a struggle between the representatives of radically opposed social ideologies, revenge tragedy can be understood as one response to the traumatising upheavals of sixteenth-century history. The figure of the tyrant—usurper joins a whole gallery of fierce individualists—politicians, usurpers and entrepreneurial Tamburlaines, from Barabas and Shylock to Volpone and Overreach—who represent the nightmares of a feudal society in uncomfortable transition. The revenger on the other hand bears a strong generic resemblance to those ‘social bandits’ whom Eric Hobsbawm identifies as a perennial expression of resistance to such painful social transformations. Like Hobsbawm's bandit the revenger frequently adopts a distinctive form of dress as a sign of his alienation:6 stripped of his veneer of courtly sophistication, he is revealed as a bandit made conformable to the aristocratic decorum of tragedy. The type is most nakedly presented in Chettle's Hoffmann, whose protagonist has been driven from the ‘civil’ world to become an outlaw, leading a ‘savadge life … amongst beasts’7—a living picture of Bacon's ‘wild justice’. Hoffman sees himself as the scourge, not only of his father's enemies, but of all those ‘That wring the poore, and eate the people up … such as have rob'd souldiers of / Reward, and punish true desert with scorned death’:8 the claim highlights the social dimension of the revenger's mission. Like the social bandit, he is bound to ‘right wrongs [and] avenge cases of injustice’: more than that, he too is a ‘revolutionary traditionalist’, committed to ‘the defence or restoration of the traditional order of things “as it should be” (which … means as it is believed to have been in some real or mythical past)’.9 Something of this largeness of scope seems to be implied in Florio's glossing of ‘Vendice’: ‘a revenger of wrongs, a redresser of abuses, a defender, one that restoreth unto liberty and freeth from dangers, a punisher’.10 In the apocalyptic violence which infects the revenger's fantasies of punishment, we can even find an echo of the millenarian desperation which frequently accompanies social banditry.11 Because he is trapped, like the bandit, ‘within a framework of accepted wealth, power and social superiority’ controlled by his antagonist, his frustration characteristically issues in ‘excessive violence or cruelty’,12 which frequently acquires (as in Hieronimo's ‘Fall of Babylon’) the devastating force of a private apocalypse. From any rational perspective, the revenger's emotion is always (as Eliot might have realised) ‘in excess of the facts as they appear’:13 Claudius, a supremely rational man, makes precisely that complaint. But the revenger stands for all those elements in society whose powerlessness puts their cause beyond the solutions of reason.14

At the same time one might suggest that the revenger's preoccupation with a suppressed and violated past answered to a more specific psychological need—that the genre provided a way of imaginatively confronting the repressed guilts and anxieties created by the crises of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and even by the questionable legitimacy of the usurping Tudor dynasty itself. Such anxieties may be reflected in a pervasive Fall mythology which makes of the initial murder a kind of primal sin which has polluted an entire society. As a result the individual passion for retribution is complicated and intensified by a profound nostalgia for a vanished pre-lapsarian order. The Spanish Tragedy, in so many ways the model for later revenge drama, is dominated by the image of a violated garden, Hieronimo's ‘sacred bower’ where Horatio is hanged, and which the bereaved Isabella reduces to a Babylonic wasteland;15 the same emblematic structure appears in the play-scene of Hamlet, where it figures forth the ‘unweeded garden’ of Hamlet's imagination—an Edenic state which the ‘serpent’ Claudius has turned to wilderness, possessed by ‘things rank and gross in nature’.16 Claudius himself identifies his crime with the Genesis myth: ‘It hath the primal eldest curse upon't—/ A brother's murder’ (III. iii. 37-8). The speculative connection between this pattern and the guilts of Reformation England is suggestively supported by the ironic nemesis of Arden of Feversham, where the new man, Arden, ends butchered on those sequestrated Abbey lands from which his wealth and status have derived.

By all this I do not mean to imply any conscious reaction against the public enthusiasms of the Tudor and Stuart state—only that such cataclysms are bound to exact their unconscious toll even on those who most unambiguously support the new order. The claustrophobic need to speak of what cannot be spoken is one reason why madness, real or feigned, is important to the action of so many revenge plays (‘Break my heart, for I must hold my tongue’)—madness imagined as linguistic breakdown which simultaneously embodies a disintegrating inner tension, and allows a kind of inarticulate expression to the unspeakable.17 Of the many examples (Kyd's Hieronimo, Marston's Antonio and Malevole, Webster's Ferdinand, Ford's Meleander and Penthea, and of course Hamlet himself) it is perhaps Ophelia who most clearly reveals the connection between madness and the repressed past. Her breakdown follows the obscure death and interment of Polonius, both kept ‘hugger-mugger’ for the politic convenience of the king. In her mad scenes, as she distributes her emblems of memory and repentance, she gives a paradoxical substance to the annihilated past, providing what Laertes calls a ‘nothing … more than matter’, ‘A document in madness thoughts and remembrance fitted’ (IV. v. 171, 175). Characteristically, what he interprets as persuasions to revenge are expressed as desperate yearning for a violated and irrecoverable past: ‘He will never come again.’18

Revenge drama, then, covertly expresses certain ways of feeling about the past which its audience could no more allow themselves to articulate than the revenger could publicise his intolerable memories. The only release it offers to such pent-up emotion is through the fantasy of apocalyptic destruction of the ruthless world which has replaced the lost paradise. But in this destruction the revenger, infected with the taint of his opponent, is almost invariably destroyed. He is the agent of that remembrance on which society is felt to depend: but he has ceased to be a social man—like Hamlet he ‘forgets himself’.

Of the three plays I am concerned with, Hamlet and Macbeth explore the mirror predicaments of the revenger and his antagonist, while The Tempest seeks in the act of remembrance itself an alternative to the revenger's apocalypse. The focus of Hamlet is upon the agony of the revenger condemned to sweat under the ‘fardels’ of memory in a world of ‘bestial oblivion’. This indeed provides the burden of his first soliloquy (‘Must I remember?’—I. ii. 143): the torturing disparity between the version of the past known by the mind, and the version declared by the outer world. Even before the Ghost saddles him with its terribly repeated injunction, ‘Remember me’ (I. v. 91-111), Hamlet ‘sees’ his father (I. ii. 184). Yet from the perspective of those around him the vision is as much a ‘fantasy’ as Horatio once supposed the Ghost. To the King and Queen what Hamlet insists on seeing makes him seem deranged even before he adopts his crafty madness; to Hamlet their denial of what he sees makes them blind. The contradiction becomes open confrontation in Act III, scene iv, where sight is both a metaphor for memory and its literal agent (‘Have you eyes?’—65). The Ghost appears as though conjured up by Hamlet's evocation of his father's heroic form—an incarnation of the past, decorously attired ‘in his nightgown’ for a visit to his wife's closet. ‘Do not forget!’ the Ghost urges; but the Queen is oblivious:

Do you see nothing there?
Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.

(III. iv. 131-2)

Not for Hamlet the comfortable certainties of a world defined by the ruthless pragmatism of that present tense (‘all that is’); for him the ‘is’ must include the ‘was’—the ‘bodiless creation’ of memory.

Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are all, from Hamlet's point of view, conspirators in a plot to violate the sanctity of a common past.19 Claudius is the principal agent of oblivion: his first speech, even as it pays lip-service to ‘the memory’ of his brother's death, characteristically perverts the very meaning of ‘remembrance’ by attaching it resolutely to present interest—‘remembrance of ourselves’ (I. ii. 1-7).20 The bland obliquity of this speech, denying incest by erecting a barrier of magniloquent syntax between past and present fact (‘sometime sister. … Taken to wife’), perfectly epitomises the surreptitious violence which Claudius has done to time, rendering it radically ‘out of joint’. His usurpation simultaneously dislocates the political law of ‘fair sequence and succession’,21 and the moral law of ‘consequence’ (‘thinking too precisely on th'event’—IV. iv. 41); for what Claudius dismisses as ‘obsequious sorrow’ (I. ii. 92) commits Hamlet to brood obsessively on temporal chains of cause and effect. In so far as he is his father's son, he represents the future of a past that Claudius has ‘cut off’. Thus his repeated determination to ‘follow’22 the Ghost in Act I, scene iv is an enactment of his commitment to the claims of past on present and future—to memory, consequence and succession.

Yet the Ghost is also a usurper of a sort—that is what Horatio first calls it (I. i. 46-9); and the tale it pours in Hamlet's ear usurps his ‘wholesome life’ as surely as the poisons of Lucianus and Claudius.23 Hamlet's formal rite of memory after his first encounter with the Ghost is also an act of oblivion, expunging ‘all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there’ (I. v. 100-1)—an act which casts a harshly ironic light on his denunciation of Ophelia.24 For Hamlet, her decision to re-deliver his ‘remembrances’ is a repudiation of the past which exposes her as another bafflingly changeful Gertrude; for Ophelia, in her turn, Hamlet's own denials (‘I did love you once. … You should not have believ'd me’—III. i. 115-17) render him equally unrecognisable. ‘That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth’ which she recalls (III. i. 159) is precisely the self which we have seen sacrificed to the usurpation of the Ghost. Hamlet's obsession with the past, though maintained in the name of integrity (asserting the permanence of what ‘is’ against the transience of what merely ‘seems’) becomes an agent of disintegration, disjointing. It is in this sense that he can speak of having ‘forgot himself’ to Laertes, can attribute the murder of Polonius to a time when he was ‘not himself’ (V. ii. 76, 227).25 Gertrude and Ophelia are right to call his condition ‘ecstasy’ (ecstasis) (III. i. 160; III. iv. 139), for he is incapable of resting in any securely imagined self; and it is consciousness of this inner disjointing which seems to render coherent action impossible:

                    I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing's to do’,
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,
To do't.

(IV. iv. 43-6)

The violent insistence on logical sequence (‘cause … will … strength … means … do’) is undercut by the illogical dissipation of self in those conflicting pronouns (the ‘I’ which lives, the ‘I’ which acts, the ‘I’ which contemplates itself). It is not only the boy players who seem to ‘exclaim against their own succession’: in a world of ‘innovation’ nothing ‘follows’ any more. So the ‘chameleon’, the shape-changer who lives on nothing:

These words are not mine.
No, nor mine now.

(III. ii. 94-5)

As Hamlet's mentor, Montaigne, put it: ‘there is as much difference found betweene us and our selves, as there is betweene our selves and other. … Man is a thing of nothing’.26

Yet if the revenger's obsession with memory contains its own nemesis, so too does his antagonist's greed for the future. Not even Claudius can free himself forever of the ‘heavy burden’ of remembrance (III. i. 54); and the prayer scene forces him to acknowledge an inexorable moral logic—his fault is ‘past’ and yet, by virtue of its ‘effects’, unremittingly present (III. iii. 51-6). This paradox, underscoring the futility of the usurper's coup, is the heart of Macbeth's agony.

In Macbeth, even more clearly than in Hamlet, usurpation is imagined as an attack on the order of time itself. News of the witches' prophecies ‘transports’ Lady Macbeth ‘beyond / This ignorant present’: ‘I feel now / The future in the instant’ (I. v. 53-5). Macbeth's crime is conceived as an attempt to ‘o'er-leap’ the present (I. iv. 49), as though by outpacing temporal sequence he might outreach the ‘deepest consequence’ of which Banquo speaks (I. iii. 126), and make of instant ‘success’ a substitute for due ‘succession’:

                    If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success …
We'd jump the life to come.

(I. vii. 2-7)

The leap projects him into a world of nightmarish ecstasy where ‘nothing is but what is not’ (I. iii. 141), a world of air-drawn daggers, seen but never possessed. Ambition in the end overleaps only itself, and so in effect ‘exclaims against its own succession’. The usurper ‘With Tarquin's ravishing strides’ (II. i. 55) attempts through murder of the past a kind of rape upon the future, but succeeds only in rendering himself (like the revenger) an impotent slave to the past: while possession of the future eludes him in the perpetual recession of ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’.

By killing Duncan, Macbeth has not consigned the past to oblivion, but ‘murdered sleep’, destroyed the very possibility of oblivion. The murder is fittingly prefaced by the drugging of Duncan's grooms:

That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbec only. When in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform …

(I. vii. 65-9)

The symbolic meaning of the act (indicated by the subliminal connection between grooms and ‘warder’, drunken sleep and the sleep of security) is confirmed when its image returns to haunt Macbeth in Act V:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

(V. iii. 40-5)

Just as Claudius's anguish is registered in his sense of the mocking ambivalence of ‘past’, so the Macbeths' disintegration can be traced in their vain struggle to fix the pastness of a particle:

If it were done when 'tis done …

(I. vii. 1)

I go, and it is done …

(II. i. 62)

I am afraid to think what I have done …

(II. ii. 51)

What's done is done.

(III. ii. 12)

What's done cannot be undone.

(V. i. 65)

The irreducible doubleness of the word corresponds to the doubleness of a self shaken from its ‘single state of man’ (I. iii. 139):

Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

(I. vi. 51-3)

To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself.

(II. ii. 73)

The eye which Macbeth's imagination obsessively ‘scarfs up’ to render ‘sightless’ is that of memory: it is incarnated in the glaring ghost of Banquo whose ‘speculation’ Macbeth must deny (III. iv. 93-6), since it is the speculation of conscience upon a past that will not be buried (III. iv. 71-3). Banquo is Macbeth's true ‘remembrancer’ as surely as Lady Macbeth (to whom he gives the title, III. iv. 37) is the agent of oblivion. The metaphoric substance of the memory he brings is blood:27 and the scene ends with an image of the terrible immobility to which Macbeth's leap has brought him—a man about to be drowned in the bloody tide of his own past:

                    I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

(III. iv. 136-8)

The protagonists of these two plays, then, present distorted mirror-images of one another. Both are disjointed beings: in terms of Augustine's tripartite division of the soul (Memory, Understanding, Will), one tries to live through Memory alone, the other through Will.28 Without Understanding, each succeeds in rendering the present uninhabitable and the future unattainable; each in his way becomes a prisoner to a past whose unalterable pastness and unavoidable presence seem to epitomise the absurdity of his fate. Together their vain ecstasies reveal the poor condition of mankind as Montaigne had described it: ‘We are never in our selves, but beyond’; either ‘Our Affections Are Transported Beyond Our Selves’ to an unreal future or we become denizens of an equally unreal past—‘Death possessing what ever is before and behind this moment, and also a good part of this moment’.29

The revenger devises a characteristic escape from this impasse, seeking to vivify the past in a witty memorial—the play, an apparent fiction which he converts to an image of the truth. His play is an articulate substitute for the anarchic language of madness, subduing its metaphoric allusiveness to the intelligible form of art. More than that, it is a kind of enacted pun which works ‘tropically’ to redefine the present in a representation of the past. In it (whether we think of Hieronimo's ingeniously cast ‘Soliman and Perseda’, or Vindice's fiendishly equivocal puppet-play with the painted skull) the revenger, ‘plotting’ for himself the course of time, contrives a brilliant contraction of that very process of ‘consequence’ which his antagonist has denied. As his recreation of the past possesses the creatures of the present, his play acquires a double function as both memorial and memento mori. The revenger-dramatist, then, moves between those antitypes of the Hamlet world, the Gravediggers and the Players, those who inter the dead and those who resurrect them.30 Hamlet's own play-memorials are at once more ingenious and more ambiguous than others of their kind. The first of them, ‘Aeneas' tale to Dido’, is an elaborate memorial oration which ‘lives’ in Hamlet's memory partly because it contains in Priam an avatar of his murdered father, in Hecuba an idealised image of his bereaved mother, and in the avenging Pyrrhus a model for himself. But its equivocal representation of ‘the hellish Pyrrhus’ is telling—when combined with the contradictory function of Priam as Old Hamlet/Claudius, it reminds us of the way in which the revenger is likely to become his antagonist's double. Precisely the same doubling confuses ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ whose poisoner is both Claudius and Hamlet himself. As a result, while Hamlet is confident with the memorial function of his play, to which he refers in his prologue-meditation of great men's monuments (‘a' must build churches then; or else shall a' suffer not thinking on’—III. ii. 127-8), he is less easy with its threatening memento mori aspect which is reduced to mere fantasy: the magical conjunction of past and present is avoided. Significantly the centrepiece of his play is a speech (arguably of Hamlet's own composition) on ‘memory’, ‘purpose’, ‘enacture’ and the melancholy disjunction between ‘thoughts’ and ‘ends’.

Hamlet's play remains a mere ‘fiction’ or ‘a dream of passion’ (II. ii. 545), ultimately ineffectual because he confines himself to the purely passive role of ‘chorus’—just as in the Hecuba speech his true surrogate was not Pyrrhus, but Aeneas, the mere nuntius or chronicler. Because its points of reference remain solely past and future, it leaves its inventor without a holdfast on the present, a prey (like his antitype, Macbeth) to ‘restless ecstasy’—that state in which the individual is literally beside himself, displaced, out of stasis. If the reluctant hero finally quells his ecstasy and puts to rest the perturbed spirit of the past, it will only be through abandonment of the revenger-dramatist's claim to ‘plot’. Claudius is allowed to become the equivocating plotter of the final ‘play’, while Hamlet is content to leave the managing of consequence to the inscrutable dramaturgy of ‘providence’: ‘If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come’ (V. ii. 213-15). The paradoxes of the restless search for rest can be resolved, Montaigne had suggested, only by rolling ourselves into ourselves, by learning to sit ‘upon our own taile’.31 Hamlet's ‘A man's life's no more than to say “one”’ (V. ii. 74) paraphrases Montaigne's philosophy of the instant; and, in its echo of that stroke of ‘one’ which heralds the first appearance of the Ghost, collapses the action of the play into a single moment of time—making of a whole life that ‘instant’ which Montaigne had described: ‘but a twinckling in the infinit course of an eternall night’.32 Hamlet's ataraxia speaks of a rejointed self in which Memory, Understanding and Will, past, present and future, can become ‘one’.

For Macbeth, the annihilator of memory, the stage stands for the ephemeral futility of experience, its meaningless ‘sound and fury’. For Hamlet, possessed to the end by that sense of ‘audience’ which dominates even the most private moments of this play, its memorials constitute a bulwark against oblivion and a guarantee of personal integrity: at the last he consigns his ‘name’ to the ‘story’ which Horatio, prologue-like, announces. Yet even in Hamlet the status of theatre remains equivocal; and the same is true of memory itself. The revenger ‘must remember’ if the past is to be rescued from oblivion; but if he is the agent of memory—the hectic in the usurper's blood—memory is also the poison poured in his own ear, the poison which destroys him. Time is rejointed only in the instant of extinction; Hamlet can be at one only in the atonement of death. The play ends where it began, in darkness and ‘silence’; the hero's longed-for ‘rest’ accomplished only in the arbitrary ‘arrest’ of death. All that remains is the play itself: a ‘story’ and an ‘audience’, mute.

In The Tempest, a revenge tragedy turned to the benevolent ends of tragicomic romance, Shakespeare re-interprets the functions of both memory and theatre. The whole play might be read as a gloss on Donne's luminous aphorism ‘the art of salvation, is but the art of memory’.33 Its protagonist is a reformed revenger who finds ‘the rarer action … / In virtue than in vengeance’ (V. i. 27-8), a remembrancer whose very name suggests hope for the future (Pro-spero) rather than obsession with the past. In place of corpse or skull, the memento he treasures is a living daughter. Like his predecessors, he must make use of the politic arts of his antagonist, and his ‘plots’ lead him naturally into the familiar role of Machiavellian dramatist:34 but his most accomplished work is the Masque of Ceres, a spell for future prosperity introduced by the figure of Hope (Iris) and presided over by the Goddess of Memory (Juno)—a wedding masque which turns its back on the past to evoke the brave new world of a restored garden-state;35 and his final ‘show’, the tableau of young lovers which he discovers to his antagonist in Act V, is a deliberate inversion of the bloody ‘spectacles’ contrived by revengers like Hieronimo and Hoffman.36 Prospero remains in the fullest sense a ‘minister’ of remembrance, and his mission is to those, like Antonio and Alonso, who have ‘made sinner[s] of [their] memory’ (I. ii. 101). But, though he too seeks a re-formation of the violated social order, a re-jointing of time, he has learnt that this must be contingent on the self-renewal of individuals—the rediscovery of lost selves that Gonzalo celebrates.37 Where the ‘mighty opposites’ of revenge tragedy were divided by their almost exclusive concentration on Memory and Will, in The Tempest they are brought together by the mediation of the missing third term, Understanding:

                    Their understanding
Begins to swell, and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore. …

(V. i. 79-81)

The Tempest, notoriously, is a play most of whose action belongs to the past—to the memories in which Prospero soberly instructs his household in scene ii.38 The result is that, in terms of revenge convention, the plotting is effectively confined to that part of the action in which the usurper confronts the past that has returned to punish him. The last movement of Hamlet begins with the Avenger's return from the sea which should have carried him to oblivion; The Tempest begins with Tyrant and Usurper cast ashore to encounter a past which the sea is supposed to have destroyed. In a sense, of course, their rescue re-enacts Prospero's own providential delivery; and the parallel initiates an elaborate motif of repetition which reflects the designs of Prospero as memorial-dramatist. A series of usurping conspiracies, of possessions and dispossessions, of bereavements and restorations, of shipwrecks and rescues, combines to suggest a kind of time in which the past is not merely re-enacted, but actually re-directed, made new. The Tempest is a play which makes use of the potent imagery of New World discovery to talk about miraculous rediscovery of an old world, a play about men's present responsibility to the past on which their future prosperity must depend.39

At the centre of the play is the typological figure upon which its notion of redeemed time is founded—the Communion service. In its Anglican form the Eucharist may be said to have a triple function: it is a memorial ceremony (‘a perpetual memory of that his precious death’, as the Prayer of Consecration has it)—a function emphasised by the incantatory ‘Do this in remembrance … eat this, in remembrance … ‘drink this in remembrance’; it is a ritual of repentance and forgiveness, an exemplification of Donne's holy ‘art of memory’, which through ‘remembrance’ of sins leads to forgiveness of ‘all that is past’, refreshment and ‘newness of life’; finally, as the name ‘Communion’ suggests, it is a celebration and re-affirmation of Christian community, assuring its participants that they are ‘very members incorporate in thy mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and be also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom’.40 In Hamlet revenge is finally accomplished in the monstrous anti-sacrament of the poisoned chalice;41 in Macbeth the Eucharist is glimpsed again in the motif of the interrupted banquet, signifying the tyrant's alienation from human community. Here, in The Tempest, the analogies are at once more elaborate and more profound: they centre upon Ariel's banquet in Act III. The feast is offered and then withdrawn from the ‘men of sin’ in a manner which immediately recalls the Prayer Book's prohibition of any ‘open and notorious evel liver’ from the Communion Table ‘until he have openly declared himself to have truly repented and amended his former naughty life’.42 Ariel, who identifies himself as a ‘minister of Fate’ (III. iii. 61), enjoins repentance in a speech made rich with echoes of the liturgy.43 Calling on them to ‘remember’ their past crimes, he warns against the vengeance of ‘the pow'rs … whose wraths to guard you from … is nothing but heart's sorrow, / And a clear life ensuing’ (III. iii. 68-82). The motif is carried through into the low plot by the ritual of ‘King Stephano's’ inauguration; Stephano's bottle, drawn from the butt of sack which has been his literal salvation in the shipwreck (II. ii. 112-13), is administered to Caliban in a coarse parody of the Eucharist: ‘Come on your ways; open your mouth; here is that which will give language to you, eat: open your mouth. … Come—Amen!’ (II. ii. 77-88). Like the wine of Communion, the ‘celestial liquor’ which Caliban tastes (109) is presented as a gift of the Word;44 it promises, however, not ‘inheritance through hope of [an] everlasting kingdom’, but rather that ‘we will inherit here’ (165); and where the true Communion service is a ritual of remembrance, Stephano's is a debauch of oblivion. Caliban's ‘newness of life’ depends on his once again making a sinner of his memory, and turning his back on the master who has sought to educate it:

                    'Ban, 'Ban, Ca-Caliban
                    Has a new master—Get a new man.
Freedom, high-day!

(II. ii. 173-5)

At this point Caliban traditionally discards his burden of remembrance—the emblematic ‘burthen of logs’ which he shares with the play's other bereaved and disinherited son, Ferdinand.45

Their two unburdenings are carefully paralleled: just as Act II, scene ii opened with the entry of ‘Caliban, with a burden of wood’, so Act III, scene i opens with ‘Ferdinand, bearing a log’. The past which weighs on Ferdinand includes the burden of his father's crime and the memory of his death, upon which Ariel played in Act I (‘This ditty does remember my drown'd father’—I. ii. 407); it is relieved not by supernatural intervention, but through the medium of human love. The ‘wonder’ of Miranda's presence ‘quickens what's dead’ (III. i. 6) and brings Ferdinand to a blessed kind of forgetfulness (13) which contrasts with the brutish oblivion produced in Caliban by the ‘wondrous’ Stephano (II. ii. 154). Caliban's ‘freedom’ brings him to a worse slavery than ever, his new life mimicking the old; Ferdinand's servitude, interpreted as ‘service’ to his mistress, becomes, through ‘a heart as willing / As bondage e'er of freedom’ (III. i. 88-9), the enactment of a familiar Christian paradox.

The Prince's gift of new life46 prefigures the restorations of Act V, the penance of the son atoning for the sins of the father, and his patience (contrasted with the vindictive rage of Caliban) breaking the vicious cycle of crime and revenge. Patience is the virtue exemplified by Gonzalo, who guides Alonso through the wilderness of despair towards penitence, forgiveness and grace; and it is to ‘patience’ that Prospero appeals when Alonso is once more tormented by the sharp point of ‘remembrance’ (V. i. 138-44). But Prospero's justification of the appeal by his own ‘like loss’ corresponds to a crucial redefinition of the traditional virtue. If the figure of Prospero on his island at first suggests the well-known icon of the patient wise man alone on his rock amid the tempests of life,47 the play deliberately removes the solipsistic suggestions of that emblem. Patience here, as a counter to the lonely fury of revenge, is conspicuously an expression of social man. Patior transforms to compatior, patience to compassion (suffering with); and patience becomes possible only through remembrance—not just of who you have been, but of what you are: properly understood ‘remembrance of ourselves’ implies participation in the common suffering of mankind. In this lies the importance of Gonzalo's innocent fantasy of a ‘commonwealth’ where ‘All things in common nature should produce’ (II. i. 153). In the storm, it is Gonzalo who finds time to remember the plight of others—‘For our case is as theirs’ (I. i. 51); it is Gonzalo who reminds his master, isolated in despair, that ‘Our hint of woe / Is common’ (II. i. 3-4); and it is ‘holy’ Gonzalo whose ‘sociable’ tears, by evoking ‘fellowly drops’ from the avenging Prospero, finally ‘dissolve’ his punitive charm (V. i. 63-4). The imaginative sympathy which is the basis of the old man's patience is a foundation of the play's meaning, and closely relates to Shakespeare's new understanding of the memorial function of theatre. Greatest of the miracles which the castaways experience in their brave new world is the rediscovery of their own lost selves—a discovery which is shown as contingent on the discovery of others, the recognition that ‘our case is as theirs’. Such a recognition is fostered by—and in the last analysis depends upon—the kind of theatrical empathy expressed in Miranda's response to the spectacle of the wreck: ‘I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer’ (I. ii. 5-6). This, in Prospero's words, is ‘The very virtue of compassion’: it is the simple wisdom towards which Hamlet was moving (‘by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his’—V. ii. 77-8); and it suggests a way by which ‘remembrance’ can free us from the burden of the past into a blessed kind of oblivion (‘Let us not burden our remembrance with / A heaviness that's gone’—V. i. 199-200).48 In The Tempest memory becomes re-membering, rejointing the divided self, reincorporating it in the membership of community; and the theatre, for its part, becomes Communion: Prospero's final words, echoing the Priest's invitation to the Table, summon us all, audience as well as actors, to participate in the celebration of human community restored: ‘Draw near’.49


  1. Connections between the plays have, however, been suggested before. See, for example, Maynard Mack Jr, Killing the King: Three Studies in Shakespeare's Tragic Structure (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1973) p. 149 (‘Macbeth it has been sometimes said, is Hamlet told from Claudius's point of view’); Nigel Alexander, Poison, Play and Duel: A Study in Hamlet (London, 1971) p. 38 (‘It is possible … to describe both Hamlet and The Tempest as revenge plays’); G. Wilson Knight, The Shakespearean Tempest (London, 1971) p. 255 (‘The drama of temptation, treason, and murder of kingly sleep—the Macbeth vision repeated’).

  2. Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642 (Princeton, N. J., 1940; reprinted Gloucester, Mass., 1959).

  3. Henry Chettle, The Tragedy of Hoffman, the Malone Society (Oxford, 1950/1) I. i. 8. In Antonio's Revenge, Pandulpho (like Hieronimo before him) hoards up the body of his son: the more civilised Hamlet keeps a picture, but later exchanges it for a skull.

  4. The phrase is from Marvell's celebration of Cromwell's innovation in the ‘Horatian Ode’: Cromwell is one of those who understands, like Machiavelli, that ‘In a City or Province which he has seized, a New Prince should make Everything New’ (Discourses, i. 26). Compare the world of innovation created by Laertes's followers in Hamlet:

    And, as the world were now but to begin,
    Antiquity forgot, custom not known,
    The ratifiers and props of every word,
    They cry ‘Choose we; Laertes shall be king’.

    (IV. v. 100-3)

  5. Predictably, the ironic symmetry is most perfectly developed in Fletcher's tragedy, Valentinian, where the revenger, Maximus, is transformed to a complete mirror-image of the Emperor he kills. Cf. also Alexander, Poison, Play and Duel, p. 116: ‘in order to achieve the revenge that he most deeply desires Hamlet must become like Claudius, the man he most detests and loathes’.

  6. Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London, 1972) pp. 35-6.

  7. Hoffman, I. i. 143-4.

  8. Hoffman, V. iii. 2615-19; in this context it is significant that Hamlet should (like Laertes) enjoy ‘the great love [of] the general gender’ (IV. vii. 18). Antonio is significantly seen as a Hercules ‘ridding huge pollution from our state’ (Antonio's Revenge, V. vi. 13).

  9. Hobsbawm, Bandits, pp. 26-7.

  10. John Florio, Queen Anna's New World of Words (London, 1611).

  11. Hobsbawm, Bandits, p. 29.

  12. Ibid., pp. 63ff.

  13. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (London, 1961) p. 145.

  14. The social banditry common in many parts of Europe was not, except on the Celtic fringe, a serious problem in Tudor or Stuart England. But it could be argued that the government's ability to curb such expressions of social dislocation would only have made the vicarious satisfactions of revenge drama more compelling. Hobsbawm (Bandits, pp. 37ff.) identifies a similar mythic surrogate for true banditry in the highwayman of popular legend. A good Elizabethan example of the type was Gamaliel Ratsey, gentleman, ex-soldier and highwayman, whom folk-tales invested with an aura of glamour: fittingly, he seems to have nourished a peculiar passion for Hamlet. See Arthur Freeman, Elizabeth's Misfits (New York and London, 1978) pp. 112-13.

  15. The Spanish Tragedy, II. iv and III. viii. There is good reason to suppose that the arbour appears again in IV. iv as part of Hieronimo's concluding ‘spectacle’: he will draw the curtain (like Hoffman after him) to show his son once again ‘hanging on a tree’ in his ‘garden plot’ (IV. iv. 88-113). The motif is repeated in Antonio's Revenge, I. iii. For a detailed discussion of the garden pageantry in The Spanish Tragedy see S. F. Johnson, ‘The Spanish Tragedy, or Babylon Revisited’, Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honour of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (London, 1963) pp. 23-36. In The Revenger's Tragedy the violated garden is secularised in Vindice's picture of a countryside looted to feed the corrupted appetites of a court where women ‘Walk with a hundred acres on their backs, / Fair meadows cut into green fore-parts’ (II. i. 316-17); while Vindice's skull is given the name Gloriana, another nostalgic invocation of a lost Golden Age.

  16. The Bad Quarto (1603) specifies that the Player King ‘sits downe in an Arbor’ in the Dumb Show. The image of the violated garden is one that clearly links Hamlet with Shakespeare's histories, notably Richard II. For discussion of this, see Mack, Killing the King, pp. 83-4, and John Wilders, The Lost Garden (London, 1978) pp. 137-8. In Macbeth a comparable nostalgia for a lost garden-world is created by the brief lyricism of Duncan's arrival at Macbeth's castle and Macbeth's helpless yearning for the style of kingship embodied in ‘the gracious Duncan’.

  17. The connection between madness, linguistic breakdown and social disintegration is most forcefully displayed in The Spanish Tragedy, culminating in the bizarre emblem of Hieronimo's biting out his own tongue. See the essay by Johnson, cited above, note 15; and cf. Scott McMillin, ‘The Figure of Silence in The Spanish Tragedy’, ELH, A Journal of English Literary History, vol. xxxix (1972) pp. 27-48, and Jonas A. Barish, ‘The Spanish Tragedy, or the Pleasures and Perils of Rhetoric’, in Elizabethan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, gen. eds John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London, 1966) vol. ix, pp. 58-85. Cf. also the mutilated tongues of Titus Andronicus, Antonio's Revenge and The Revenger's Tragedy.

  18. In Ford's The Broken Heart Penthea's nostalgic invocation of a garden world (‘Remember, / When we last gathered roses in the garden, / I found my wits; but truly you lost yours’—IV. ii. 119-21) is similarly interpreted by Orgilus as an oracular ‘inspiration’ to revenge (124-33).

  19. In the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, ‘of so young days brought up with him’ (II. ii. 11), their gross betrayal of past intimacy is given strong dramatic emphasis by the ease with which Hamlet slips into a common idiom with them in II. ii.

  20. Compare his final degradation of the word in II. ii. 26, where ‘a king's remembrance’ amounts to a cash bribe. Cf. also Piero's attempt to corrupt Maria, Gertrude's counterpart in Antonio's Revenge: ‘… remember to forget’ (II, iv. 28).

  21. The phrase is York's in Richard II, II. i. 199.

  22. I. iv. 63, 68, 79, 86. ‘Follow’ is among the key-words in this play, where it occurs more frequently than in any other play in the canon, except King Lear. We may think of Gertrude ‘following’ Old Hamlet's coffin, only to desert his memory (I. ii. 148); of the marriage that ‘followed hard upon’ that funeral (I. ii. 179); of Horatio and Marcellus ‘following’ Hamlet (I. iv. 88, 91); of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ‘following’ Hamlet to his execution (IV. iii. 54); of those who ‘follow’ the mad Ophelia (IV. v. 72); of the woes that ‘follow’ woes (IV. viii. 165); of Claudius and Gertrude ‘following’ the enraged Laertes (IV. vii. 192, 193); of the procession ‘following’ Ophelia's funeral (V. i. 212, 214). In the final scene Hamlet's purposes ambiguously ‘follow the king's pleasure’ (V. ii. 194): he dispatches Claudies to ‘follow’ his mother into death (319) and himself ‘follows’ Laertes (324). These last followings in effect knit up the various sequences ruptured at the beginning of the play: for Hamlet, Denmark is a world where ‘thrift may follow fawning’ (III. ii. 60), but where nothing else properly ‘follows’: his mad logic-chopping with Polonius enforces this point (‘Nay, that follows not’—II. ii. 408). Polonius inhabits a world where things complacently ‘follow, as the night the day’ (I. iii. 79): but the Denmark described in the opening scene which makes ‘the night joint-labourer with the day’ (I. i. 78) will scarcely accommodate his proverb. In The Revenger's Tragedy the unjointing of time is suggested by a similar confusion of day and night (I. iv. 26-7; II. iii. 46-7; III. v. 18-19).

  23. My colleague, Dr Kenneth Larsen, suggests a connection between the motif of poison through the ear and the notion that the Holy Ghost (the Word) entered Mary through the ear. In so far as the Ghost here is memory incarnate, it may be worth recalling that the tripartite Augustinian division of the human soul links memory with the Holy Ghost: see The Sermons of John Donne, ed. G. R. Potter and E. M. Simpson, 10 vols (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1953-62) vol. ix, p. 84.

  24. Ophelia's own spontaneous self has been equally usurped by the memories which her father and brother impose on her (I. iii. 84-5, 104-5).

  25. Compare the state described by Gonzalo in The Tempest, ‘When no man was his own’ (V. i. 213). Donne (Sermons, vol. ii, pp. 74-5) speaks of the necessity for Christian self-remembrance: ‘There may be enough in remembring our selves; but sometimes, that's the hardest of all; many times we are farthest off from our selves; most forgetfull of our selves … [thou] wondrest why the Lord should be angry with thee? Remember thy self well, and thou wilt see, it is because of thy sins.’ A different view of Hamlet's memory is taken by James P. Hammersmith, ‘Hamlet and the Myth of Memory’, ELH, A Journal of English Literary History, vol. xlv (1978) pp. 597-605: ‘for Hamlet the very act of remembering keeps time unified’ (p. 598).

  26. Montaigne's Essays, tr. John Florio, 3 vols (London, 1965) vol. ii, pp. 14, 199.

  27. Cf. I. vii. 8-10: ‘we but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague th' inventor’.

  28. Aquinas's parallel division of Prudence into Memoria, Intelligentia and Providentia is also pertinent here—see Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (London, 1969) p. 81. Macbeth's will, like that of many a Jacobean Machiavel, expresses itself as a false providence. In a virtuous Machiavel like Prospero the providence of human will becomes an expression of the providence of Divine Will.

  29. Florio's Montaigne, vol. i, p. 25; vol. ii, p. 232.

  30. To an age which habitually thought of poetry in monumental terms, tragedy naturally presented itself as a memorial genre. Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra are transcendent versions of those gilded monuments in which the action of each concludes; The Tempest incorporates those ‘lasting pillars’ emblazoned with letters of gold, imagined by Gonzalo (V. i. 207-8); in Julius Caesar the conspirators commit their fame to the ‘lofty scene’ of tragedy; and the high ‘stage’ to which the tragic corpses of Hamlet are carried is ultimately that of our own theatre. But just as the most splendid monuments of honour could be read (like the prominent tomb in Antonio's Revenge, II-III) as souvenirs of mortality, so tragedy might combine its memorial function with the morbid didacticism of morality drama. Richard Helgerson in ‘What Hamlet Remembers’, Shakespeare Studies, vol. x (1977) pp. 67-97, has argued that Hamlet as ‘antic’ fulfils the role of Death in medieval ‘summoning plays’ like Everyman (pp. 85-93). Cf. also Hammersmith, ‘Hamlet and the Myth of Memory’, pp. 599-602 for a discussion of memory and the graveyard.

  31. Florio's Montaigne, vol. iii, p. 386.

  32. Ibid., vol. ii, p. 232.

  33. Donne's Sermons, vol. ii, p. 73. In this sermon Donne explicitly links the two kinds of remembrance required by the Communion Service: remembrance of Christ's sacrifice and remembrance of our own sins. Memory here, as in The Tempest, is presented as a means to freedom: ‘Being lock'd up in a close prison, of multiplied calamities, this turns the key, this opens the door, this restores him to liberty, if he can remember’ (p. 74).

  34. Cf. Richard Abrams, ‘The Tempest and the Concept of the Machiavellian Playwright’, English Literary Renaissance, vol. viii (1978) pp. 43-66.

  35. The Masque, however, retains elements of the revenger's memento mori play in Prospero's moralising ‘epilogue’ (IV. i. 148-58). There is, of course, an old iconographic connection between island and enclosed garden which Gaunt's speech in Richard II trades upon.

  36. Prospero, like Hoffman and Hieronimo, will draw a curtain to reveal his ‘show’, placed in a ‘cell’ which may well have borne some formal resemblance to the arbour.

  37. Cf. above, note 25. Compare the kingdom created by Macbeth, a ‘poor country, / Almost afraid to know itself’ (IV. iii. 164-5). Typologically Prospero's is the opposite of another enchanter's realm, Circe's island, where bestial oblivion results in utter self-loss.

  38. For discussion of memory in The Tempest, see Douglas L. Peterson, Time, Tide, and Tempest: A Study of Shakespeare's Romances (San Marino, 1973) pp. 222ff.

  39. Cf. Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York and London, 1965) pp. 130-3. The play's concern with a new kind of time and consequence is mirrored in its carefully balanced iteration of words referring to redemption of the past (remembrance, remorse, relief, requit, restore, refresh, rejoice, resolve, release) and to prosperous construction of the future (providence, provision, prescience, promise, prologue, foretell, foresee).

  40. Citations from the Prayer Book are to The Book of Common Prayer 1559, ed. John E. Booty (Charlottesville, Va., 1976).

  41. Hamlet's sarcasm ‘Is thy union here?’ (V. ii. 318) may look back to Claudius's coronation (his union with Denmark) and marriage (his union with Gertrude)—both ceremonies would normally have included the celebration of Communion.

  42. See R. G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York and London, 1965) pp. 233-4. Hunter convincingly rebuts those critics who have treated this episode as a Banquet of Sense.

  43. Compare the Prayer Book's ‘You that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and be in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life. … Draw near. … We do earnestly repent, and be heartily sorry for these our misdoings. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable’ (italics added).

  44. Stephano has Trinculo and Caliban swear ‘by this bottle’ (111), adjuring them to ‘kiss the book’ (132) as though it were scripture; as they kiss his Bible they imbibe its Word—considerately he promises to ‘furnish it anon with new contents’ (133).

  45. As bereaved and dispossessed sons Caliban and Ferdinand are competitors for the Hamlet-role in the play, potential revengers. Caliban appeals for Stephano's assistance in revenge with a ludicrous burlesque of chivalric romance:

    I thank my noble lord. Wilt thou be pleas'd to hearken once again to the suit I made to thee. … I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer, that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island.

    (III. ii. 36-42)

    It is the voice of the suppliant, summoning the Knight to his heroic imitation of Christ. We should also notice that the expulsion of Sycorax, pregnant with Caliban, from Argier, parallels the expulsion of Prospero and Miranda from Milan.

  46. At V. i. 195 Ferdinand speaks of having ‘Receiv'd a second life’ from Prospero—the obvious contrast is with the ‘new creation’ of the usurping Antonio by which Prospero's subjects were ‘new form'd’ (I. ii. 81-3) and with the ‘new’ world celebrated in Caliban's drunken catch.

  47. For versions of this emblem see Justus Lipsius, Two Bookes of Constancie, tr. Sir John Stradling (London, 1595) p. 14, and the frontispiece to Richard Brathwaite, The English Gentleman (London, 1641). Lipsius's version is worth quoting: ‘steere thy ship unto this porte, where is fecunditie and quietnesse, a refuge and a sanctuarie against all turmoyles and troubles: where if thou has once moored thy ship … let showers, thunders, lighteninges and tempestes fall around thee, thou shalt crie boldly and with a loude voyce, I lie at rest amid the waves’.

  48. Compare the condition of Marston's revengers in Antonio's Revenge. Seeing themselves as ‘The downcast ruins of calamity’ they remain the prisoners of their past, committed to a life of meditation ‘on misery, / To sad our thought with contemplation / Of past calamities’ (V. vi. 46-53; quoted from the Revels edition, ed. Reavley Gair, Manchester, 1978).

  49. Booty emphasises the socio-political importance of the Anglican Communion Service: ‘Communion and commonwealth go together; they are contiguous ideas. And it is possible to regard the Book of Common Prayer as a vital instrument for the creation of a Christian commonwealth in England’ (The Book of Common Prayer 1559, p. 372). The epilogue, with its echo of the Lord's Prayer, continues the Communion motif: it is a plea for absolution.

James Black (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 certain minor analogues and conjectural sources have been found or suggested. Shakespeare clearly saw and in part used the Bermudan pamphlets with their accounts of the miraculous escape of the Sea-Adventure in 1609. These documents are Sylvester Jourdain's Discovery of the Bermudas (1610), the Council of Virginia's True Declaration of the State of the Colonie in Virginia (1610) and William Strachey's letter, the True Reportory of the Wrack, dated 15 July, 1610 though not published until 1625. Shakespeare's use of atmosphere and incidents from these accounts being relatively minor and having little to do with plot beyond the shipwreck and miraculous preservation of those on board, other analogous European works have been canvassed as sources. Among these are [Jacob] Ayrer's (d. 1605) Die Schone Sidea and the two Spanish works: Antonio de Eslava's Noches de invierno (1609) and Diego Ortunez de Calahorra's Espejo de Príncipes y Caballeros (1562, translated into English 1578, 1601). At least, it appears there are elements in these works analogous with plot incidents in The Tempest, and some scholars have argued with especial enthusiasm that Eslava's story is a source, but the Arden editor of Shakespeare's play considers the structure of source possibilities (which include Bulgarian, Byzantine, Latin and Italian as well as Spanish and German analogues) to be “a mare's nest.”4The Tempest also has certain parallels with Commedia dell'arte scenarii, and these parallels are discussed by K. M. Lea in her Italian Popular Comedy. I shall be returning to Commedia possibilities, but it should be emphasised that aside from the clear borrowings from the Bermudan pamphlets all “sources” of the play are suggested or reputed only. One possibility which I think has not been canvassed adequately—and the oversight may have something to do with the enthusiasm with which source-hunters have searched outside Shakespeare—is Shakespeare's own work. Though it has no full sources, The Tempest has precursors in the revenge tragedies of the time, and is especially influenced by Hamlet.

As Ashley H. Throndike defined it, revenge tragedy is “a tragedy whose leading motive is revenge and whose main action deals with the progress of this revenge, leading to the death of the murderer and often the death of the avenger himself.”5 Thorndike notes that the revenge motive appears in the anonymous Alphonsus of Germany (c. 1590) and in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (also c. 1590), but after examining precursors of Shakespeare's Hamlet (including the earlier or Q. 1 version) he suggests that Kyd's Spanish Tragedy and the Q. 1 Hamlet are the main sources of later developments in the genre.6 “From 1599 to 1604 … [revenge] plays were popular on the stage and … Marston, Chettle, Tourneur and Jonson, as well as Shakespeare, were employed in supplying the stage demand.”7 But although Shakespeare's Hamlet owed its existence primarily to a marked stage fashion for revenge tragedies, Shakespeare's hero leaves “the old stage type and [rises] into that ideal sphere where imagination and reflection dwell alone.”8 As Bowers explains, the dramatists' imaginations were helped along by their reading of Italian novelle in translations and imitations by William Painter, George Pettie and George Turberville. In these works the Italianate revenger is a leading and impressive figure. He also flourished in Italian histories such as Guicciardini's account of The Warres of Italie, translated by Geoffrey Fenton in 1579. Guicciardini's is typical of the kind of “history” of continental practices which fascinated the English. He notes “the readinesse of [Italy] to … broiles and innovations, with the present divisions and factions of the Italians”;9 and sets out to describe how Italian princes turn “to the damage of others, the power which is given them for the common good.”10 “From the novelle and the non-fictional accounts of Italian life the Elizabethans took almost every dramatic device that was to be found in Seneca, and more besides,” says Bowers.11 By the 1590's stereotype Italians, Spaniards and other continentals dominated the English tragic stage with their vendettas and blood-lust. Hamlet is the supreme achievement of the revenge genre because Shakespeare made the issue turn on the character of the revenger; only in Hamlet, as Eleanor Prosser has it, do we “find the tragic issue of [revenge] to be rooted in an ethical dilemma that is universal.”12

As the epitome of revenge tragedies, Hamlet has all the apparatus of the type: (1) Revenge is the fundamental motive for the action. (2) The revenge is supervised by a ghost—usually the ghost of someone who has endured a blood wrong. (3) There is justifiable hesitation on the part of the revenger, who is weaker than his adversary and who, on the failure of legal justice, supposedly lacks a suitable opportunity for straightforward action. (4) Madness is an important dramatic device. (5) Intrigue used against and by the revenger is an important element. (6) The action is bloody and deaths are scattered through the play. (7) The contrast and enforcement of the main situation are achieved by parallels. (8) The villain is an almost complete Machiavellian. (9) The revenge is accomplished terribly, fittingly, with irony and deceit.13 As will be seen, all of these elements, with one exception, appear in one way or another in The Tempest. The exception is that of bloody action: there are no actual deaths in The Tempest, though deaths are surmised and threatened.

Among the features of revenge tragedy just listed, the most interesting characteristic is the weakness and hesitation of the revenger. It is mainly in this aspect that the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet differs from its predecessors and successors, in that the hero has serious ethical considerations about what he is to do. In the standard revenge tragedy the revenger bides his time to collect proof and watch for his opportunity. This is the method of Titus Andronicus, who is at his weakest in III, i when, desolate and maimed, left with his violated daughter Lavinia and well-meaning but helpless brother, he begins to move against the Roman Emperor and Empress and the Empress' evil sons and henchman. By a sequence of accidents and planning Titus achieves a ghastly revenge on Saturninus and Tamora, making the latter eat a meal whose ingredients are her sons' heads, bones and flesh, and killing her before the Emperor kills him.

Now, there is a side to the business in Titus Andronicus which, in the frantic destructive energies—and the indestructibility—of some of the characters is almost comic. When the arch-villain Aaron the Moor is planning the rape and mutilation of Titus' daughter he gives a perfect exhibition of what Hamlet will call (in bad acting) “damnable faces” (Hamlet III, ii, 246):

What signifies my deadly-standing eye,
My silence and my cloudy melancholy,
My fleece of wooly hair that now uncurls
Even as an adder when she doth unroll
To do some fatal execution?
No, madam, these are no venereal signs:
Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.

(II, iii, 32-9)

There is critical controversy over just how seriously certain parts of Titus Andronicus are to be taken. The New Cambridge editor requests the reader to note the florid images which Shakespeare employs in various places to convey the plight of Titus' daughter, and to “ask himself whether he can conceive Shakespeare writing this stuff in earnest.”14 He writes about another conceit (again on Lavinia's plight) which, he feels, “shows us the author pulling our leg”; and he concludes that Titus Andronicus is in parts “burlesque and melodramatic travesty … a huge joke which, we may guess, Shakespeare enjoyed twice over, once in the penning of it, and again in performance.”15 The New Arden editor of Titus argues against this conviction of a burlesque intention on Shakespeare's part, though he admits that “it would be rash to say that a uniform attitude of deadly seriousness is presupposed.”16

Is Titus Andronicus in places a kind of revenge farce, then? Without attempting here to answer this question, I would nonetheless point out that, although the Italian histories, which lent their flavour or atmosphere to the Elizabethan revenge tragedies, have been read with great seriousness by Bowers and others, these histories are not necessarily always uniformly serious. Some of their characters, dreadfully violated on one page, miraculously are up and about their own depredations on another, displaying the resilience and energy—and the comic possibilities—of morality-play Vices. Consider for instance Guicciardini's account of the Cardinal D'Este and his brother Julio, rival lovers of the same young woman:

The Cardinall Hippoloto d‘Este, loving fervently a young maide his kinswoman, who for her part was no lesse amorous of Don Iulio the bastard brother of the Cardinall, and confessing her selfe to the Cardinall, that that which above all other things made her affection so vehement to his brother, was, the sweete aspect and beautie of his eyes: the Cardinall being full of wrath, having spied a time when he should go out of the towne on hunting, set upon him in the field, and plucking him from his horse, caused some of his pages to plucke his eyes out of his head, for that they were the companions of his love, and he had the heart to behold the doing of so wicked an act; which afterwards was the cause of very great scandals among many of the brethren. Such was the end of the yeare a thousand five hundred and foure.17

Then, a few pages further on from this example of Italianate villainy, we find that

Ferdinand brother to Duke Alphonso and Iulio, whose eyes the Cardinall had violently caused to be plucked out (but by the readie helpe of Physitions were restored without losse of his sight), conspired together with the said Iulio the death of the Duke.18

As I have suggested, in the serious contemplation of the blood and thunder with which continental texts apparently filled the imaginations of Renaissance English audiences, critics overlook the comic possibilities of some of these endlessly-energetic and apparently indestructible depredators. The mind which neatly parallels the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (a tragedy turning on vengeful acts) with the robust knockabout of “The most lamentable comedy … of Pyramus and Thisbe” is a mind that could have noticed the comic possibilities in Italian stories and histories, which often are written in King Cambyses' vein.

One comic possibility exploited by Shakespeare is the matter of a solemnly-enrolled but thoroughly reluctant and frustrated revenger—Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. At the climactic moment in Much Ado (IV, i), when Hero has been rejected at the altar by Claudio, Beatrice turns into a Clytemnestra and, when Benedick protests that he will do anything to show his love for her, demands that he “Kill Claudio.” At this moment and for the remainder of the scene, the action and comic development of Much Ado hang in the balance and, as R. A. Foakes puts it, “we the audience, are exposed to the idea of a growth and spread of evil.”19 Loving Beatrice as he does and convinced at last of her deadly seriousness, Benedick can only accept the revenge mission—“Enough, I am engaged; I will challenge him” (IV, i, 331-2) and goes off to find his victim. Two scenes later, white-faced (V, i, 129) and uncharacteristically laconic, he issues what he intends to be a deadly challenge. But just as it has taken Beatrice some time to convince Benedick of her seriousness about wanting Claudio killed, Benedick can't get across to Claudio the idea that he seriously wants to duel with him. He goes off the stage without receiving any answer to his challenge. And just as the gravity of the situation comes home to Claudio and Don Pedro who have been laughing Benedick's words off, Dogberry and his watch enter with Borachio and the revelation of Don John's villainy toward Hero. The duel becomes unnecessary, the happy ending is secured, and the dramatist has had a brief fling at introducing revenge into a comedy. In doing so he has, as Alexander Leggatt puts it, moved “temporarily outside the shelter of the normal world of comedy into a world of deeper and more painful feelings. … In the scene of Benedick's challenge, the license of comedy is temporarily suspended.”20 The comic resolution of Benedick's temporary dilemma—he must visit revenge on his friend to prove his love—is all the more striking in being accomplished by the clowns, who are unwitting dei ex machina. Nonetheless, for that space while Beatrice's vengeful imperative, “Kill Claudio,” is Benedick's law the play has turned toward revenge tragedy and its possibilities.

In the complex of motivations which drive Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice, first to make and then to enforce his bond, vengeful anger at the loss of Jessica is an important element: “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (III, i, 66-7. See also 11. 68-73). And although comic resolutions, here and in Much Ado, head off the tragic potentiality, vengeful energies clearly are at work among the characters in Shakespearean comedy. Such energies threaten the comic reconciliation in Twelfth Night when Feste's claim to have accomplished his revenge is answered by Malvolio's parting malediction:

… Do you remember, ‘Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? And you smile not, he's gagg'd.’ And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you.

(V, 1, 374-77)

Revenge threatened, then, can be part of the complication in a Shakespearean comedy; revenge prevented gives comic satisfaction, though in Twelfth Night a sense of unease seems deliberately to be left as revenge, however comically achieved, is seen to tend to set off further reaction. Where comic reconciliation is achieved in spite of an impulse to revenge it usually is because the revenger is foiled, like Shylock, or has a redundant cause, like Claudio. Malvolio appears to have the will (and the name) to retaliate, but given his social place he has no power. The prerequisites for carrying out a revenge mission are neatly summed up by Hamlet as “Cause, and will, and strength, and means” (Hamlet, IV, iv, 45). Ironically, though he claims to have “Cause, and will, and strength, and means” to carry out the task of avenging his father, Hamlet is at the time he speaks very far from having strength and means to fulfill this mission. In revenge tragedy the horrors come from the interchange and uses of power, and revenge may be accomplished as bloody instructions return to plague the inventor. The suspense in the genre comes from the relative weakness of the revenger. This is why, in Hamlet, one of the most startling moments—startling because it comes so early in the play, III, iii—is that scene where the prince surprises Claudius at prayer and for a long and indecisive time stands with drawn sword over his kneeling unwary adversary—exactly as Pyrrhus in the Player's recitation of II, ii stood over King Priam before hacking him to pieces. There is a long tradition of critical argument over Hamlet's renunciation of opportunity here, and over the reason he gives for that renunciation. From the ‘Mouse-Trap’ play he has evidence of Claudius' guilt, and the recreation of his father's murder performed twice over in that play has excited him. Now he has cause, and strength, and means—and what Shakespeare calls in Sonnet 94 the power to hurt:

They that have pow'r to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flow'r is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flow'r with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
          For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
          Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

In pulling back from doing hurt Hamlet does not “inherit heaven's graces.” He goes directly from this renounced opportunity to the killing of Polonius, thus becoming “the villain in [Laertes'] cause which images his”19 and tying himself irrevocably to his “double-sided nature and double-sided task.”21 Finding Claudius apparently at prayer, Hamlet shows he has not the will to revenge in cold blood; his tragedy is that he will do no hurt, but does it.

Prospero, on the other hand, with cause, and strength, and means turns potential revenge tragedy into revenge comedy, acting out the sonnet's theme. The fundamental motive for the action of The Tempest is Prospero's revenge. As Milan was taken from Prospero, so Caliban fancies that Prospero has taken the island from him—“This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak'st from me” (I, ii, 333-34)—and therefore Prospero's intrigue against his usurping enemies is imaged in an intrigue against him by Caliban. Although Frank Kermode, the New Arden editor of The Tempest, maintains that the chief opposition in the play is between the worlds of Prospero's Art and Caliban's Nature,22 the action turns as well on the struggle within Prospero's own all-too-human nature. For Prospero has a justified resentment and a deeply-entrenched recollection of the wrongs which have been committed upon him and his daughter Miranda. The resentment is kept fresh by the recollection.

Aids to memory are standard props of the sensationalist revenge tragedies. In Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy the revenger Hieronimo carries a handkerchief stained (and apparently always freshly so) with his son's blood: “It shall not from me, till I take revenge” (II, v, 51-2). He also appears with a book, reading and expounding a lesson of revenge (III, xii, 1f). In Hamlet, memory needs no aids: it is a theme of the play. The revenger is urged by the Ghost of his father to “Remember me,” and responds:

                                                            Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all along shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter.

(I, v)

“Heaven and earth, Must I remember?” (I, ii, 142-43) Hamlet rhetorically asks in his first soliloquy. He cannot choose but remember as he sees the wrong done to his father imaged in life—Claudius as his mother's husband and as king—and in art—in the speech the Player once spoke to him from a never-acted play; in ‘The Murder of Gonzago;’ in the cameo pictures of the new king which the Danes wear. Memory is another Ghost which haunts Hamlet and prompts his revenge.

Memory also haunts Prospero. The long expository second scene of The Tempest is an extended illustration of how “the dark backward and abysm of time” (The Tempest I, ii, 50) is preserved in his mind. Probably no other Shakespearean character besides Hamlet has such a gift or curse of total and passionate recall as Prospero has: the length and near-monologue quality of his first scene attest to this. Frank Kermode attempts to ascribe Prospero's irascibility in this scene to his descent from a bad-tempered giant-magician of folk tale.23 Such an explanation takes no account of the simple and all important fact that the one day in which the play's action takes place concentrates all Prospero's feelings about the former day of his and Miranda's victimization and about all the days and years since then. “Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since” (II, ii, 53), he emphatically begins his story: and as the story unfolds he repeatedly admonishes his daughter and the audience, “I pray thee, mark me” (1. 67), “Dost thou attend me?” (1. 78), “Thou attend'st not?” (1. 87), “I pray thee, mark me” (1. 89), “Dost thou hear?” (1. 106). In its urgent imperiousness, Prospero's tone is reminiscent of the Ghost's charge to Hamlet: “Mark me. … My hour is almost come …” (Hamlet, I, v, 2), “Lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold” (11. 5-6), “List, list, O, List!” (1. 22) In each of these scenes in Hamlet and The Tempest the voice of the past speaks urgently to the present, proclaiming a wrong and announcing that the time has come to deal with the wrongdoers. As the Ghost of Hamlet's father is obsessed with the wrongs done him, so too is Prospero; as the Ghost recalls his victimization in intimate detail, so too does Prospero, who blames his brother not only for his venality but also for the fact that he “made such a sinner of his memory To credit his own lie” (11. 101-02). Prospero's memory is not confused or edited. Sharp, detailed and fierce, it gives this long expository scene its energy. Remembrance is the ghost which haunts The Tempest: it is a ghost from a revenge play.

Reinforcing Prospero's angry remembering is the fact that Caliban also is an aggrieved rememberer. He has a selective recall of how Prospero first befriended him and then usurped him. Ariel, on the other hand, is free of memories of former terrors and of what he owes Prospero. It is of course an expository device that Prospero should remind Ariel of his debt, but Prospero's forcefulness in doing so illustrates once again his own all-too-circumstantial recall:

Dost thou forget
From what a torment I did free thee?

(11. 250-51)

Hast thou forgot
The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy
Was grown into a hoop? Hast thou forgot her?
No, sir.
Thou hast. … I must
Once in a month recount what thou hast been,
Which thou forget'st.

(11. 257-64)

Even allowing for Prospero's excitement at the arrival of this long-studied-for day, Prospero's language is strikingly belligerent. The belligerence seems justified, for as Hamlet's father was the victim of “foul play” (Hamlet I, ii, 255), Prospero and Miranda were “By foul play … heaved hence” (Tempest I, ii, 62). Beginning with reassurances to Miranda, who is terrified for the ship in the tempest, his story builds through the account of what was done twelve years before into stronger and stronger recrimination toward their wrongers: “that a brother should Be so perfidious!” (11. 67-68); “Thy false uncle” (1. 77); “in my false brother Awak'd an evil nature” (11. 92-3); “mine enemies” (1. 179). Soon the story is “beating in [Miranda's] mind” (1. 176) just as it beats in her father's (IV, i, 163). This strong working in the mind is potentially dangerous, as Prospero tells Alonso when at the end of the day Alonso tries to comprehend all the things that have been happening: “Do not infest your mind with beating on The strangeness of this business” (V, i, 246-47).

This “beating in the mind” is paralleled in the play with the force of the sea, and it is clear from the exchange with Ariel that the force and terror of the shipwrecking storm were in every detail specified by Prospero: “Perform'd to point … To every article” (11. 194-95). When he is angered by Caliban's truculence and invective, Prospero responds with equal violence of language, calling down (like King Lear when he is raging) a barrage of natural afflictions:

As wicked dew as e'er my mother brush'd
With raven's feather from unwholesome fen
Drop on you both! a south-west blow on ye
And blister you all o'er!
For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins
Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,
All exercise on thee; thou shalt be pinch'd
As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made 'em.

(I, ii, 323-32)


If thou neglect'st, or dost unwillingly
What I command, I'll rack thee with old cramps,
Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar,
That beasts shall tremble at thy din.

(11. 370-73)

With Ariel he already has threatened that

If thou more murmur'st, I'll rend an oak,
And peg thee in his knotty entrails, till
Thou hast howled away twelve winters

(11. 294-96)

And for Ferdinand, in the same scene, it is, “Come,”

I'll manacle thy neck and feet together:
Sea-water shalt thou drink; thy food shall be
The fresh-brook mussels, wither'd roots and husks
Wherein the acorn cradled.

(11. 463-67)

Frank Kermode says that Prospero exercises “the supernatural powers of the holy adept” and achieves “an intellect pure and conjoined with the powers of the gods.”24 This is a retrospective view, and eventually a reasonable one, but it is not easy to credit on the evidence of Prospero's first long scene, where he dominates by force, memory and invective. The violence in the exchanges just quoted is re-echoed through the play in the plans of murder and ravishment which Caliban hatches with Trinculo and Stephano. Their plot, as R. G. Hunter points out, is a comic analogue both to Alonso's original crime and to Antonio's and Sebastian's frustrated attempt to repeat it.25 Generally in discussions of this aspect of the play Prospero is seen as far above the conspirators, but the Prospero who rages at Caliban in Caliban's terms is not this remote mage. His grievance is Caliban's grievance—a sense of having been misled, usurped and exiled. Caliban is a revenger—however ridiculous and fumbling his plotting may be, he has a sense of “cause and will” inspiring him to do hurt, and he has terribly violent intentions. And Prospero is associated with Caliban's darkness, as he admits; “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (V, i, 275-76). The audience is kept in suspense in the first act as this man with “power to hurt” keeps his own counsel:

                              Know thus far forth.
By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune,
(Now my dear lady) hath mine enemies
Brought to this shore; and by my prescience
I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop. Here cease more questions.

(I, ii, 177-84)

Now, the senexes of classical comedy and the Pantalones of Commedia dell'arte often froth with ridiculous belligerence over suitors whom they perceive to be unworthy of their daughters. In Commedia dell'arte pastorals the Magician who broods apart is averse to wooing and marriage on his island or sea-coast.25 Clearly, Prospero is not far removed from these traditions in his first encounter with Ferdinand, who sees him as “compos'd of harshness” (III, i, 9). In Shakespearean comedy, revengers are rather given to splutters of frustration—Benedick trying to convince Claudio that his challenge is serious—or storms of recrimination—Shylock raging in the street over his lost turquoise and a wilderness of monkeys (Merchant of Venice III, i, 113-23). But although Prospero ultimately will engineer a comic outcome at the cost of swallowing his resentment, his recall of grievance and his reactions to Ariel, Caliban and Ferdinand show him on the play's terms to be a haunted and potentially dangerous man of (as we ofter forget) Italianate nature, with a cause for revenge. With this cause, he has what the conventional revengers of drama lack—power to hurt.

This power may be exercised at will in the play's setting, a remote island which could be an ethical wilderness. The wicked Antonio recognizes such a possibility almost as soon as he finds his feet on dry land. When King Alonso of Naples, the idealistic old courtier Gonzalo and their other companions are charmed asleep, leaving only Antonio and Alonso's brother Sebastian awake, Antonio promptly sees an opportunity for Sebastian:

My strong imagination sees a crown
Dropping upon thy head.

(II, i, 203-04)

Believing that Ferdinand, the heir of Naples, is drowned, recognizing that his sister Claribel is married in Tunis, “Ten leagues beyond man's life” (II, i, 241), and that they on the island are “sea-swallow'd,” as distanced from Tunis and Naples as those places are from one another by “A space whose every cubit Seems to cry out” that no record or suspicion of their deeds will ever surface (II, i, 252-55), Antonio persuades Sebastian to let him murder Alonso while Sebastian simultaneously kills Gonzalo. Convinced, Sebastian says, “As thou got'st Milan [by disposing of Prospero] I'll come by Naples” (II, i, 286-87).

The ethical bare stage or wilderness which the villains so keenly identify is the equivalent of the unweeded garden which is Hamlet's Denmark: “Things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely” (Hamlet I, ii, 136-37). Titus Andronicus recognizes the state of moral emptiness even more clearly: “Dost thou not perceive,” he asks his brother,

That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey
But me and mine.

(Titus Andronicus iii, i, 53-6)

The “tigers” of Prospero's island, Antonio and Sebastian, think themselves able, as Antonio puts it

                              To perform an act
Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come,
In yours and my discharge.

(Tempest II, i, 247-49)

“What's past is prologue” and Sebastian's “As thou gotst Milan, I'll come by Naples” (II, i, 286-87) clearly indicate that the villains are not so much acting a new crime as re-enacting a form of the original blood wrong—a brother's attempted murder—while the avenger watches through his art (II, i, 292). This is a form of the revenge tragedy's play-within-a-play. The villains' sterile repetition of the past is brilliantly contrasted by the other play-within-the-play, Prospero's Act IV masque, which is all about fertility and the future. Antonio, who thus in his re-enactment has confessed and confirmed his guilt, as Claudius does in Hamlet III, is the complete Machiavel. Ruthless and unrepentant, he goes back in Shakespeare beyond Claudius to Aaron. Only when it suits him will Aaron remember having heard of “a thing within [religious individuals] called conscience” (Titus Andronicus V, i, 75). When Antonio proposes to serve Sebastian's brother much as he served Prospero, Sebastian wavers at first:

But for your conscience.
Ay sir; where lies that? If'twere a kibe,
'Twould put me to my slipper: but I feel not
This deity in my bosom: twenty consciences,
That stand 'twixt me and Milan, candied be they,
And melt, ere they molest!

(Tempest II, i, 270-75)

“Then tell me,” Prospero already has asked Miranda, “if this might be a brother?” Her reasonable reply is that Antonio and Prospero need not be alike, for “Good wombs have borne bad sons” (I, ii, 117-18, 120). But Prospero's excited wrath and Antonio's remembered and presently-confirmed evil dominate the first two acts of the play. By the beginning of Act Three we have a drama of Italian brothers, with parallel enforcements of an evil strain and an examination of the use and misuse of power and opportunity—three of the brothers already being guilty of actual or contemplated usurping villainy. The dramatic energy of the play to this point appears or threatens to be revenge and, were Prospero to show the same tigerish disposition as his adversaries, he could be ready to emulate them in destructiveness when he is sure that

                    My high charms work
And these mine enemies are all knit up
In their distractions: they are now in my power.

(III, iii, 88-90)

Ironically, the traditional hesitation of the Renaissance stage revenger would bring about the destruction of Prospero's foes. As we have seen, left to themselves with no apparent law they quickly propose to murder one another. Prospero does not need to kill them, he merely needs not to strive officiously to keep them alive. In II, i he prevents the murder of Alonso and Gonzalo: dramatically this could be to draw out Alonso's, Antonio's and Sebastian's punishment. It is only in the third act, when we see him observe the courtship of Miranda and Ferdinand and hear his language soften, that there appears the likelihood of grace rather than revengeful destruction:

                              Fair encounter
Of two most rare affections! Heavens rain grace
On that which breeds between 'em!

(III, i, 74-6)

But Ferdinand has been carefully isolated from the older generation, and at the end of this act Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian still are Prospero's “enemies” and as already mentioned, fully in his power. Even after the betrothal-masque for the young couple there is a resurgence of Prospero's fierce indignation at Caliban for his conspiracy and for his nature, on which “Nurture can never stick: on whom my pains, Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost” (IV, i, 188-90). This description (in which, incidentally, a cry from the storm in the first scene is echoed: see I, i, 51) also applies to Antonio. With renewed indignation comes a reminiscence of the earlier violent language:

Go charge my goblins that they grind their joints
With dry convulsions; shorten up their sinews
With aged cramps: and more pinch-spotted make them
Than pard or cat o'mountain.

(IV, i, 258-61)

This violence is directed at Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, but it does not bode well for the aristocratic villains, as Prospero immediately turns to contemplate with menacing satisfaction the situation whereby

                              At this hour
Lies at my mercy all my enemies:
Shortly shall all my labours end.

(IV, i, 262-64)

On this foreboding, or at any rate ambiguous, note the fourth act ends. Prospero seems to be, as the play's own phrase for moral indecision has it, in standing water. (Tempted by Antonio, Sebastian non-committally replies, “Well, I am standing water”: Antonio's response is “I'll teach thee how to flow,” and he does, II, i, 216-17). Will Prospero “flow” toward preserving Ferdinand and Gonzalo but take his satisfaction on the others? At this point he can be compared to Hamlet, standing over the helpless Claudius with “power to hurt.” But Prospero, like Hamlet and like the type of man apotheosized in Sonnet 94, will not take advantage. The moment of sea-change from potential tragedy to comic resolution is at hand, and when Prospero agrees with Ariel that he should and will forgive his enemies the violence which in the play's language has been associated with the sea, ebbs: “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful” (V, i, 178). The turn into comedy is accompanied—perhaps consciously marked—by references to a turning tide:

… Ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back.

(V, i, 35-37)

Most strikingly, it is a tide of reason and of cleansing power:

                                        Their understanding
Begins to swell; and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
That now lies foul and muddy.

(V, i, 79-82)

The process of sea-change is fully accomplished in Alonso (this metamorphosis was announced, as a sea-change, in Ariel's dirge in I, ii). As Prospero recognizes, it does not take effect in Antonio (V, i, 78-79, 130-34). Having forgiven the villains, Prospero shows that he has thrown off not only revenge but also the memory of injury, telling Alonso not only to beware of infesting his mind with beating on the strangness of this business, but also saying,

Let us not burthen our remembrance with
A heaviness that's gone.

(V, i, 199-200)

This weight of memory is the last burden which Prospero puts off. With this renunciation the ghost of the past is exorcised (save of course for the important but irreparable matter of Antonio and Sebastian still being “themselves,” V, i, 32), and Gonzalo's benediction is proclaimed in the very next lines. The benediction sums up only the reconciliations issuing from the adventure, underlining Prospero's determination to “think of each thing well” (V, i, 251).

Reading The Tempest for its associations with and possible origins in Commedia dell'arte, K. M. Lea shows many striking parallels with the Commedia, but has difficulty accounting for what she calls the awkwardness of construction which allows the flow of stage movement in the Italian tradition to be interrupted at a crucial moment by a revenge plot (she has in mind Caliban's revenge intrigue):

At the moment when we might expect [comic scenes of mishandled magic] in The Tempest the Masque of Juno and Ceres is summoned, and then just as they reach their height the revels are rudely interrupted by Prospero, who dismisses the dancers and prepares to defend himself against a conspiracy. … If it were not that every time we read the play we are spellbound by the loveliness of his apology we might resent the intrusion of a revenge which now seems beneath his dignity.26

Lea suspects a faulty interpolation of the masque here. Like many other commentators on The Tempest she overlooks the possibility that the revenge intrigue and counter-intrigue are part of the main—if not the main—business of the play. As a comedy of revenge The Tempest embodies nearly all the conventions of its tragic counterparts, especially Hamlet: revenge as a fundamental motive; a “ghost”; intrigue by and against the revenger, and dramatic parallelling; a Machiavellian villain and, as in Hamlet, a hero on whose character the issue of revenge turns—in this case to forgiveness. The Tempest might even be said to have the revenge tragedy device of play within a play, or rather to be a play within a play, for as a drama of potential revenge its one-day's (or between-tides) events are framed on one side by a story from the dark backward and abysm of time and on the other by that dark forward: the possibility that Prospero will act by the revenger's code. He does not do so, and consequently can project his hopes for his daughter into the future, embodying them in the masque. The brave new world may be new and brave only to Miranda (V, i, 183-84), but Prospero has turned away as well as he can from the bad old one.

As early as Titus Andronicus Shakespeare had begun to bring tragedy and comedy close together. In doing so he was carrying on a form of literary experimentation which had been conducted in Italy during the sixteenth century. Louise George Clubb has described these experiments in the combining of generic elements:

The practice of conflating individual units of action, character, and language from different sources had, even in the early commedie, sanctioned fusions of Roman comedy and pieces of the Decameron and Petrarchan imagery. In time, the principle of contaminatio levied parts from more numerous and disparate sources and eventually led to combining generic elements and aims chosen challengingly for their seeming incompatability within the limits of regular comedy and of regular tragedy.27

There emerged from these experiments a commedia grave, which “included matters thought by Renaissance theorists to be fit for tragedy: characters of noble rank, threats of serious danger, of death or spiritual peril, occasions for heroism and pathos.”28

Clubb suggests that there is some reason for believing Shakespeare was aware of Continental theatrical trends, and she discusses his “testing of generic possibilities” in Romeo and Juliet and Othello.29 In my view, The Tempest combines “generic elements and aims chosen challengingly for their seeming incompatibility within the limits of regular comedy. …” Shakespeare has taken the elements of revenge tragedy and reconstructed them as tragedy's binary opposite.

It is rather appropriate that The Tempest seems to have no major sources and few analogues of substance, for in its ethical dimension it is unique. Only the playwright who had carried the revenge tragedy as far as it apparently could go would carry it farther still, by taking its conventions and, with The Tempest, sea-changing tragedy into revenge comedy.


  1. Fredson Thayer Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642 (Gloucester, Mass., 1959), 278.

  2. Bowers, 278.

  3. See Stanley Wells, “Shakespeare Without Sources,” in M. Bradbury and D. Palmer, eds., Shakespearian Comedy. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 14 (London, 1972), 58-74.

  4. Frank Kermode, Introduction to the New Arden The Tempest (London, 1968), 58-74.

  5. Ashley H. Thorndike, “The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association] XVII, 2 New Series X, 2, 125.

  6. Thorndike, 126.

  7. Thorndike, 127.

  8. Thorndike, 217.

  9. Geoffrey Fenton, trans., The Historie of Guicciardin: Containing the Warres of Italie. Reduced into English by Geoffrey Fenton. Third Edition (London, 1618), 16.

  10. Fenton, 1.

  11. Bowers, 266.

  12. Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford and London, 1967), 252.

  13. In its essentials this list is borrowed from Bowers, 71, 268.

  14. John Dover Wilson, Introduction to the New Cambridge Titus Andronicus (Cambridge, 1948), liii.

  15. Wilson, lvi.

  16. J. C. Maxwell, Introduction to the New Arden Titus Andronicus (London, 1968), xxxiv.

  17. Fenton, 257.

  18. Fenton, 266.

  19. R.A. Foakes, Introduction to the New Penguin Shakespeare Much Ado About Nothing (Harmondsworth, 1968), 19.

  20. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1974), 179.

  21. Both quotations in this sentence are from Harold Jenkins' Introduction and Longer Notes to the New Arden Hamlet (Methuen, 1982), 156, 515.

  22. Kermode, xxiv.

  23. Kermode, lxiii.

  24. Kermode, xlvii.

  25. Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York, 1965), 231.

  26. K. M. Lea, Italian Popular Comedy: A Study in the Commedia Dell'Arte 1560-1620. 2v. (New York, 1962), I, 201.

  27. Louise George Clubb, “Shakespeare's Comedy and Late Cinquecento Mixed Genres.” In Shakespearean Comedy, ed. Maurice Charney (New York, 1980), 130.

  28. Clubb, 130-31.

  29. Clubb, 135.

David Scott Kastan (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

—Oscar Wilde

What replication should be made by the son of a king?

Hamlet, IV.ii.11-12


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 inscribed in the name each takes from its forebear.

Hamlet worries about the “wounded name” he will “leave behind” (V.ii.346-47), but it is a name previously left to him, already “wounded,” except perhaps in Hamlet's idealizing imagination. “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane” (V.i.257-58), he claims in his most determined assertion of self, but in naming himself he must echo his earlier act of naming as he stood before the ghost: “I'll call thee Hamlet, / King, father, royal Dane” (I.iv.44-45). He cannot name himself without simultaneously naming his father, and the shared name asserts his inescapable filiation. He is his father's son and namesake, and thus is he “bound to hear” and finally bound “to revenge” (I.v.7, 8), bound to his father and his father's cause.

For Hamlet, however, to accept the filial obligation sounded in his name is to disregard and dismiss all other relations he has established. His filiation becomes a diminution. He would be only the son, sworn to remember and revenge his father.

Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter.


The complex intertextuality of the “book” of Hamlet's brain is denied as he subordinates himself to the authority of his father. What has been diligently “copied there” would be quickly erased. He hopes “with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love” to “sweep to his revenge” (I.v.30-32), though “meditation” and “love” would both suggest a less bloody course. Hamlet, however, commits himself to a “commandment” that other commandments, now readily forgotten, would supplant, to a text that more humane texts would censure if not suppress. He commits himself to his father, to being a son, to represent, that is, old Hamlet in both senses of the word—as the child who re-presents the father and as the agent who represents the father's interests—and his representation is confirmed as, for the first time, the ghost addresses him by name immediately following Hamlet's eager acceptance of his charge. “I find thee apt,” the ghost says:

And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots on Lethe wharf
Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear.


The ghost does not speak their shared name until he is confident of their shared purpose. He demands the radical identification of son with father that their undifferentiated name suggests.

To be Hamlet, to deserve the name, at least as far as the ghost is concerned, is to be a revenger. The ghost would turn Shakespeare's play into the old play Lodge remembered, echoing the earlier ghost's command, “Hamlet, revenge”; yet what differentiates Hamlet from the Ur-Hamlet, as well as what differentiates Hamlet from old Hamlet, is that Shakespeare's prince can never fully credit the impulse to revenge.2

He is never quite as “apt” a revenger as either he or the ghost would like, puzzling both of them, as well as generations of critics, with his inability to act. Revenge, however, makes action problematic, for, though it would insist upon the singularity of the villainy it would punish, inevitably it duplicates the crime, dissolving all difference that could effectively motivate action in its inescapable imitative nature.3 John Bereblock understood exactly this watching Progne, which was played before the Queen in 1566: “It is wonderful how she longed to seek vengeance for the blood of her sister. She goes about therefore to avenge wrongs with wrongs and injuries with injuries; nor is it at all reverent to add crimes to crimes already committed.”4 Revenge is, as Hamlet reluctantly discovers, a desperate mode of imitation, avenging wrongs with wrongs. The revenger is prevented from originating an action. He is allowed only to re-act to—and to re-enact—the original crime; Hamlet's delay may be understood as his resistance to accept his imitative relation either to the ghostly simulacrum of his father who urges him to revenge, or to the smiling villain of an uncle who would be its object.

Only when he can persuade himself that revenge is a mode of restoration rather than reprisal can Hamlet move toward its execution, but always he is reminded of the inescapable relatedness of victim/villain/avenger. Examples, both gross and fine, exhort him to the uncomfortable knowledge of the repetitions and resemblances that revenge effects. Like the defensive literary theorists of the English Renaissance, Hamlet values literature for its mimetic and didactic functions, its abilities to generate moral exempla that will “show virtue her feature, scorn her own image” (III.ii.22-23), and guided by his idealist mimetic principles, he recalls “the rugged Pyrrhus” (II.ii.450), a son who readily avenges his father's death, as an example that might animate his own revenge. Pyrrhus, however, serves only to confirm the disturbing resemblances Hamlet needs to deny.5 As the example of Pyrrhus forecasts the future, it represents, of course, Hamlet himself pausing momentarily before he revenges his father's death; as the example recalls the past it represents Claudius killing the true king. Pyrrhus, then, becomes a figure both of the avenging son and of the father's murderer, subverting any moral distinction in the single example which shows at once “virtue her feature” and “scorn her own image.”

Hamlet turns to a classical model hoping to clarify his obligation and confirm his resolve, but instead he discovers in the disturbing alignments of the example of Pyrrhus further inhibition of his ability to act upon his “motive and cue for passion” (II.ii.561). In his faulty recollection of the first line of the remembered speech, he unconsciously reveals his knowledge that Pyrrhus, as object of imitation, cannot stimulate and direct his energy:

The rugged Pyrrhus, like th'Hyrcanian beast—
'Tis not so. It begins with Pyrrhus—
The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms. …


Hamlet's misremembered line, of course, “begins with Pyrrhus” exactly as the corrected line does; the error comes in the second half. Hamlet anxiously misreads his text. In projecting Pyrrhus as “th'Hyrcanian beast,” Hamlet betrays his unwanted awareness that revenge is an inhuman and pointless activity. The tigers of Hyrcania were proverbial for their ferocity, and they are apt images not only for the fury of revenge but also for its self-destructive nature. Barnabe Riche's Friar Sebastian laments how “beastly” soldiers are, preferring the far more sensible behavior of actual beasts:

the bruite beast by naturall instinct doe daily eschew the inconvenience that folowe them: and have an eye to that whiche may profite them. Contrariewise, these Souldiers like to Hircan Tigers, revenge themselves on their owne bowelles, some Parricides, some Fratricides, all Homicides.6

Pyrrhus is, then, “like th'Hyrcanian beast,” even if Vergil does not himself provide the simile. Pyrrhus is a parricide no less than Paris. He kills Priam as Priam's son killed Pyrrhus' father, and the symmetry and reciprocity mock the moral authority the revenger would claim. In a world where a son can only revenge (rather than prevent) his father's murder, and revenge him only by becoming the murderer of another father whose son will in turn seek his revenge, it is clear that revengers do “revenge themselves on their own bowelles,” accomplishing nothing but a concatenation of hatred and death.

Hamlet, however, has not invented the figure he mistakenly if appropriately applies to Pyrrhus. His language recalls Vergil's, or rather Dido's, identification of Aeneas with the Hyrcanian beast as he prepares to leave Carthage.

No goddess was your mother, false Aeneas,
and Dardanus no author of your race;
the bristling Caucasus was father to you
on his harsh crags; Hyrcanian tigresses
gave you their teats.

(IV.497-501; trans. Mandelbaum)

These are not thoughtless insults spat out in fury, but are carefully calculated to deny the pietas Aeneas claims, and which she—and even he—feels as bitter loss.

Aeneas is identified with the Hyrcanian beast when he rouses himself to fulfill the destiny the gods have chosen for him, not, as one might expect, when he rouses himself to vengeance after witnessing Priam's slaughter. There, confronted with the “hated” Helen, he reveals his own passion for revenge: “it will be a joy to fill my soul with vengeful fire, / to satisfy the ashes of my people” (II.791-92). But his mother, Venus, quickly extinguishes the flames of his vengeance, resigning him to the will of the gods who would have fallen Troy not revenged but refounded at Rome.7

My son, what bitterness has kindled thy
fanatic anger? Why this madness? What
of all your care for me. …
.....                                                  you must not fear
the orders of your mother; do not doubt,
but carry out what she commands

(ll. 802-04, 820-22)

Hamlet in seeing Pyrrhus “like th'Hyrcanian beast” thus at once registers the beastliness of revenge and represses an alternative course suggested by the example of Aeneas. To revenge, he fears, is to be a beast; but his need to revenge, determined (even over-determined) by the identification with his father, denies him full consideration of any alternative, so that not to revenge is also to be a beast.

                                                            What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.


To be or not to be a beast? Perhaps that is the question, but not for Hamlet, whose imitative poetics have denied him the choice.

Hamlet's consideration of “Aeneas' tale of Dido” (II.ii.446) leads him neither to accept nor to reject the ghost's charge. The example of Pyrrhus neither confirms Hamlet's commitments to revenge nor dissuades him from it. Indeed, Pyrrhus is soon passed over for Hecuba's grief. “Say on, come to Hecuba” (II.ii.501), Hamlet urges, eager for a correlative of his own self-pity. He resists any identification with Pyrrhus, even in Pyrrhus's frozen moment facing Priam when he “stood, / And like a neutral to his will and matter, / Did nothing” (II.ii.480-82); but, quickly, faced with the player's skillful imitation of Hecuba's passionate suffering, Hamlet stands self-convicted of failure.

                                        What would he do
Had he the motive and cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing—


Oddly, Hamlet wishes to imitate the player rather than Pyrrhus. He envies the player's dramatic technique, his ability to

                    force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit.


Hamlet is angry that he, unlike the player, is incapable of acting expressively, rather than angry that, unlike Pyrrhus, he is incapable of acting effectively; the problem he admits is not that he can do nothing but that he can say “nothing.”

It is hardly a charge anyone else would dare bring against Hamlet, who speaks over 1,400 lines, or three hundred more than even the most defiantly vocal of Shakespeare's other characters.8 But Hamlet here believes he has at the very least said nothing memorable, nothing, that is, that an actor, in the Senecan revenge play in which the ghost would cast Hamlet, can wrap his tongue around. Admittedly he gives it a try:

I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remoreseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!


Here he struts and bellows with the impassioned theatricality of the stage revenger, but he cannot sustain his belief in the conventional role:

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore, unpack my heart with words. …


No longer is he concerned that he “can say nothing.” In fewer than twenty lines he has reversed himself completely, deciding now that to say anything is to say too much, is to allow speech to substitute for the revenge he has been charged to enact. No longer would he be a player “in a fiction” (II.ii.552), prompted by some stage manager; now he would be an actor in truth “prompted to [his] revenge by heaven and hell.”

Even this resolve, however, fails finally to motivate his action, for again Hamlet's moral imagination generates a disabling symmetry. Hamlet is “the son of a dear father murder'd,” and prompted by heaven alone, he would be God's avenging minister. “Avenge not yourselves,” St. Paul, of course, had warned the Romans, “for it is written, vengeance is mine: I will repaye” (Romans 12:19, Geneva Bible); but in the next chapter Paul writes that the prince “is the minister of God to take vengeance on him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:4). As an agent of God's vengeance Hamlet, then, could act, and his revenge would have the authority and finality of God's judgment; but prompted by “heaven and hell,” revenge cannot sustain the moral differentiation that would make it justice. The copulative does not effect an addition but enforces a substraction. Coupling heaven and hell does not double the authorizing pressure; it cancels the essential difference between moral alternatives necessary to permit his revenge.

Thus it is that Hamlet returns to his fictions. “The play's the thing” (II.ii.605) with which he will search for the singularity his revenge requires. “The Murder of Gonzago” is a simple mimetic plot. It is “the image of a murder done in Vienna” (III.ii.236) which Hamlet, through the addition of “a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines” (II.ii.541), transforms into the image of a murder done in Denmark. Hamlet's play is designed to imitate Claudius' crime in order to “catch the conscience of the king” (II.ii.607), but Hamlet's imitative practice, conflating his moral desire and his psychological need, denies the play the clarity he presumes. He wants to see Claudius and himself as “mighty opposites” (V.ii.62), but the play reveals their disturbing similarity. If Lucianus serves as an image of Claudius, murderer of the king, he serves more openly as an image of Hamlet, “nephew to the king” (III.ii.242). In holding the mirror up to degenerate nature Hamlet unwittingly establishes the symmetry that revenge must deny.

Claudius, of course, does rise, “frighted with false fire” (III.ii.264), but Hamlet and the audience of his play cannot know, unlike the audience of Shakespeare's, if Claudius rises maddened by the moving image of his crime or appalled by the audacity of his nephew. In unnecessarily identifying Lucianus as “nephew to the king,” Hamlet allows his play to imitate both Claudius' guilty secret and his own: his desperate desire to kill the king. The play becomes at least in part, then, a murderous threat which establishes how thoroughly the revenger becomes “soil'd i'th working” (II.i.40), obscuring the differences Hamlet desires between the villain and the agent who would avenge the prior crime.

If, throughout, Hamlet is prevented from enacting his revenge by the discomforting ratios that his literary imitations generate, he is equally prevented from repudiating his revenge by his inability to emancipate himself from his father, to be other than an imitation of what has generated him. Caught in this double bind,9 between an inescapable psychological obligation to revenge and unavoidable moral abhorrence of it, between a certainty that he must revenge and a certainty that he cannot, when he finally kills Claudius, appropriately he does so to avenge not his father's murder but his own. “The King—the King's to blame,” Laertes confesses; and Hamlet turns on Claudius in fury: “The point envenom'd too! Then, venom, to thy work” (V.ii.324). Laertes dies, relating his and his father's death, but Hamlet dies with no word of the father he has sworn to “remember.” The act he finally commits is more reflex than revenge.

In his reflexive killing of Claudius, Hamlet acts for himself not for his father, but it is still a reaction rather than an original and originating act. Mortally wounded, he retaliates against his murderer, but even in his death he cannot escape the imitative relation to his father that is figured in their shared name. Like old Hamlet, Hamlet too dies poisoned by Claudius' treacherous hand, and, also like old Hamlet, he dies urgently demanding to be remembered.10 “Absent thee from felicity awhile,” he begs Horatio, “And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story” (V.ii.349-51). What is different, however, is that old Hamlet demands to be remembered in (violent) action: “Revenge [my] foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.26); Hamlet demands to be remembered in (violent) language: “Tell my story.” Remembering old Hamlet leads to death; remembering Hamlet leads to drama.

Imitation is effective for Hamlet neither as a mode of action nor as a mode of knowing. “Imitari is nothing,” Holofernes asserts in Love's Labor's Lost: “so doth the hound his master, the ape his keeper, the tired horse his rider” (IV.ii.125-26). The familiar metaphors of imitative theory reveal that Imitari is, as Hamlet discovers, to be a beast, to be less than fully human. However, for “the soul of great article,” Hamlet understands that

his semblable is his mirror and who else would trace him, his umbrage, nothing more.


Hamlet's parody here of Osric's affected praise of Laertes is an aggressive appropriation of Osric's imitative courtly discourse, and is itself an attack on the value of imitation. More significantly, however, Hamlet reveals his knowledge that “the soul of great article” will not be forged imitatively. It will be an original; and “who else would trace him,” that is, imitate him, can be no more than his “umbrage,” merely his shadow.

Hamlet, once “the glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th'observed of all observers” (III.i.156-57), the object of other's anxious imitation, becomes in his commitment to revenge an imitator rather than the imitated. He becomes the “umbrage,” or rather the umbrage of an umbrage, “a shadow's shadow” (II.ii.263), in Rosencrantz' phrase, reduced to tracing patterns rather than providing them. Hamlet, on the other hand, is not content to trace its models. Shakespeare is not “bound” as his hero is to the imitation of revenge. Shakespeare's Hamlet refuses servilely to imitate the revenge play—not least in its hero's refusal to take revenge—and in that refusal it creates the imaginative space for tragedy.11


In his commendatory poem to the 1640 edition of Shakespeare's Poems, Leonard Digges enthusiastically if improbably asserts:

Thou shalt find he doth not borrow
One phrase from Greekes, nor Latines imitate,
Nor once from vulgar Languages Translate,
Nor Plagiari-like from others gleane,
Nor begges he from each witty friend a Scene,
To peece his Acts with, all that he doth write,
Is pure his owne. …

(II. 12-18)

Obviously nothing that Shakespeare writes is “pure his owne.” The sedimentation of language and of writing itself would deny the radical originality that Digges claims for Shakespeare, and, of course, scholarly activity, beginning with Langbaine's Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691), has doggedly tracked Shakespeare's reading as it is inscribed in his writing. Even with the Ur-Hamlet unavailable for comparison, Hamlet reveals itself as a text in its etymological sense, as a web of indebtedness to prior texts.

Perhaps predictably in an age that defined itself in the language of recovery and rebirth, Renaissance literary theory gave prominence to imitation in its understanding of literary creativity.12 Castiglione advises: “take diligent heede to following [Thomas Hoby's translation of imitazioni], without the wiche I judge no man can write well”;13 and the thought is often echoed in England. Thomas Wilson, for example, writes: “All men of any understanding seeke to follow someone unto whom they desire to be lyke, or if it may be, to passe him.”14 Poets are to seek, embrace, and, in Wilson's remarkably unanxious phrase, “if it may be,” surpass the literary model “they desire to be lyke.” The past is a repository of literary authority and cultural value to which imitation grants success. Certainly, as Jonson writes, the poet is “not, to imitate servilely, as Horace saith, and catch at vices, for vertue: but, to draw forth out of the best, and choisest flowers, with the Bee, and turne all into Honey.”15

If the prominence of imitation in Renaissance literary theory is unsurprising, so too is the resistance to it that surfaces. However much the authority of the model is sought and welcomed, inevitably it generates significant anxieties. Jonson uncomfortably acknowledges his fear that imitation will always leave the writer subordinate to the model: “never no Imitator ever, grew up to his Author” (8, 590); but Jonson recognizes an even more disturbing danger: not that imitation might fail but that it might succeed, for successful imitation threatens the independence and integrity of the writing self. “I have considered,” writes Jonson, “our whole life is like a Play”:

wherein every man forgetfull of himselfe, is in travaile with expression of another. Nay, we so insist in imitating others, as we cannot (when it is necessary) returne to our selves: like Children, that imitate the vices of Stammerers so long, till at last they become such; and make the habit to another nature, as it is never forgotten.

(8, 597)

The imitator runs the risk of being overwhelmed by his model, trapped in and by the excellence he admires. Though Jonson usually emphasizes the transformative aspect of poetic imitation, occasionally the threat is unmistakably voiced. The poet, he says, is

To make choise of one excellent man above the rest, and so to follow him, till he grow a very Hee: or so like him, as the Copie may be mistaken for the Principall.

(8, 638)

Imitation writes the tensions of Renaissance England small. The ambivalence that Jonson betrays is the ambivalence of a culture that socially and politically attempts to contain, if not resolve, the conflicts between the duty of submission and the desire for autonomy.16 Just as the aggressively self-assertive political voice could not always successfully be silenced, so too the aggressively self-assertive literary voice is heard. In spite of its central position in the Humanist educational and literary program, imitation by some is felt as limitation; thus, Thomas Nashe “will proudly boast,”

that the vaine which I have (be it a median vaine or a madde man) is of my owne begetting, and cals no man father in England but my selfe. …17

Somewhat like Milton's Satan, Nashe asserts his autogenesis, accepting, or at least acknowledging, no literary patrimony. Nashe's self-assertion is only in part defensively motivated by Harvey's accusation of his borrowings; at least as important as the personal quarrel is a literary environment in which the precepts and practice of imitation have become not an invitation to creativity but an evasion of it:

It is a common practise now a daies amongst a sort of shifting companions, that runne through every arte and thrive by none, to leave the trade of Noverint, whereto they were borne, and busie themselves with the indevors of Art, that could scarcelie latinize their neck-verse if they should have neede; yet English Seneca read by candle light yeeldes manie good sentences, as Bloud is a begger, and so foorth; and, if you intreate him faire in a frostie morning, hee will affoord you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speaches.18

The Ur-Hamlet serves Nashe here as a convenient sign for both the theatrical excess of the conventional revenge play and the “servile imitation” that produces it; nonetheless, Shakespeare, in naming his play Hamlet, pointedly calls attention to its relation to the imitations of “English Seneca” that Nashe derides. Even in an age where plots, characters, and even “handfuls of tragical speaches” were readily borrowed, it seems strange that with the infinite number of available names for a play and an eponymous hero Shakespeare would choose one already claimed, and one so familiar that Nashe can use it for an easy joke about defective literary practice.

If Shakespeare's purpose were to exploit the popularity of the revenge play, any name other than “Hamlet” would better serve his needs. One does not climb aboard a bandwagon by announcing a new contribution as a mere replica of what has already been done. Marlowe's Tamburlaine spawned numerous imitators of the conqueror drama, but not one thought to exploit the popularity of that form by calling a new play Tamburlaine. (The anonymous Tamer Cham comes close, but the example, in fact, confirms my point, as does Marlowe's own sequel, Tamburlaine, Part II.) For Shakespeare, then, to call his play Hamlet is not to follow in the tracks of his precursor but to obliterate those footsteps. It is not a gesture of respect toward a worthy model but a revisionary proclamation ostentatiously announcing its own originality.

Shakespeare, who is called by his first editors as “happie imitator of Nature,” is revealed to be a no less happy imitator of his literary precursors,19 free of the ambivalence that marks the theory and practice of his contemporaries. Harold Bloom exempts him entirely from any anxiety of influence; what we see in his relations with prior texts, Bloom writes, is “the absolute absorption of the precursor.”20 Certainly Hamlet reveals exactly this full and confident appropriation (and even more literally than Bloom intends, as the text of the Ur-Hamlet no longer exists). Shakespeare borrows, parodies, quotes, echoes—imitates, in its various senses—but always to make something that meaningfully can be said to be “pure his owne.” In shaping a play that interrogates rather than merely enacts the rhythms of revenge, Shakespeare creates something that is more than a revenge play—a play finally that is neither an imitation nor one that is imitatable, something whose semblable, as Hamlet might say, is its mirror.

Hamlet originates in a revision of the revenge tradition, but a revision, unlike Hamlet's own, that demonstrates, indeed advertises, the difficulty but also the possibility of escaping the reduction of belatedness. Hamlet does not repeat the Ur-Hamlet but re-imagines and revises it, performing a humane, if not humanist, act of imitation. Hamlet does not become “a very Hee” in spite of taking the name of its precursor. Like his hero, Shakespeare responds to the words of a ghost demanding to be remembered, but Shakespeare's revisionary act of remembrance recognizes and transcends (what is for Hamlet, anyway, literally) the deadening effects of imitation.21


  1. Thomas Lodge, Wits Miserie (1596), in The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge (n.p.: Hunterian Club, 1883), 4, 56.

  2. James L. Calderwood has a suggestive account of these relations in his To Be and Not to Be (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1983), esp. pp. 27-28.

  3. See Rene Girard, “To Entrap the Wisest: A Reading of The Merchant of Venice,” in Literature and Society: Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. Edward W. Said (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), esp. pp. 104-07; and his recent extension of the argument in “Hamlet's Dull Revenge,” Stanford Literary Review 1 (1984), 159-200.

  4. Quoted in Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642 (1940; rpt. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), p. 81.

  5. Clifford Leech speculatively discusses these relations in his “The Hesitation of Pyrrhus,” in The Mortality of Art, ed. D. W. Jefferson (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), pp. 41-49.

  6. The Second Tome of the Travailes and Adventures of Don Simonides (London, 1584), Sig. C. See also 3 Henry VI, I.iv.154-55.

  7. Gregory des Jardins, “The Hyrcanian Beast,” Notes and Queries, 228 (1983), 124-25, also notes the transposition of the simile from Aeneas to Pyrrhus, though he focuses his attention on Hamlet's responsibility for “the care of the city.”

  8. According to the analysis on p. 31 of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), Hamlet speaks 1,422 lines. Richard III has the next longest role: 1,124 lines. Iago speaks 1,097; Henry V, 1,025, and no other character more than 820.

  9. Anna K. Nardo, in “Hamlet, ‘A Man to Double Business Bound,’” Shakespeare Quarterly, 34 (1983), 181-200, suggestively explores the application of recent psychological theories of the double bind to the play.

  10. See James P. Hammersmith, “Hamlet and the Myth of Memory,” ELH 45 (1978), 597-605, though Hammersmith equates the efforts of Hamlet and the ghost each to be kept alive through memory.

  11. See Howard Felperin's chapter, “O'erdoing Termagant: Hamlet” in Shakespearean Representation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 44-67.

  12. For a masterful account of imitative theories and practice in the Renaissance, see Thomas Greene's The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1982). See also the important studies of Renaissance imitation by Margaret W. Ferguson, Trials of Desire (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1983), esp. pp. 18-53; G. W. Pigman, III, “Versions of Imitation in the Renaissance,” Renaissance Quarterly, 33 (1980), 1-32; and Marion Trousdale, “Recurrence and Renaissance: Rhetorical Imitation in Ascham and Sturm,” English Literary Renaissance, 6 (1976), 156-79.

  13. The Book of the Courtier, trans. Thomas Hoby (1561), ed. J. H. Whitfeld (London: Dent, 1974), pp. 52-53.

  14. The Three Orations of Demosthenes (London: 1570), Sig. *4.

  15. “Discoveries,” in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1947), 8, 638-39. Additional citations from this volume will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  16. See Richard C. McCoy's discussion of these cultural tensions in his Sir Philip Sidney: Rebellion in Arcadia (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1979), esp. pp. 1-68.

  17. “Strange News of the Intercepting of Certaine Letters” (1592), in Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1910), 1, 319.

  18. Thomas Nashe, preface to Greene's Menaphon (1582), in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (1904; rpt. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), 1, 311-12.

  19. The distinction between imitatio and mimesis that some modern critics would make to differentiate imitations of literary models from imitations of nature was not regularly observed in the Renaissance. Indeed Scaliger, in Stephen Orgel's paraphrase, observes that “we can best imitate nature by imitating Virgil.” Orgel's essay “The Renaissance Artist as Plagiarist,” ELH 48 (1981), 476-95, is another of the extremely important contributions to our understanding of Renaissance theories and practices of imitation.

  20. The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), p. 11.

  21. I would like to record my thanks to the friends and colleagues whose comments helped in the preparation of this paper, especially Richard Corum, Margaret Ferguson, Peter Travis, Nancy Vickers, and Marguerite Waller; and thank Donna Hamilton and the seminar of The Shakespeare Association for whom an early version of this essay was prepared.

Douglas E. Green (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

In Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus the parallels to other popular plays of the period are evident: bits of Marlowe and Kyd, for instance, abound. Shakespeare introduces Titus (1.1.70-295) as a Roman Tamburlaine, with trumpets, triumphs, chariots, and domestic murders, but places this martial heroism in the context of a revenge tragedy.3 The analogies with plays like The Jew of Malta and The Spanish Tragedy are too many and too obvious to ignore. Shakespeare employs and comments on theatrical conventions, recreates them, re-produces them with a difference.4 With Shakespeare the motives for so doing are undoubtedly various: crime may not pay, but it does pay off.

Still, as Jonson's singling out of The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus suggests, Shakespeare's first experiment in the revenge mode is, however old-fashioned, both exemplary and memorable.5 As is so often the case, Shakespeare touches the limits of the genre and exposes its limitations. In trying to come to terms with Titus as revenge play, critics are debating even today the relative influence of Ovid and Seneca. Titus' culinary preparations and the banquet scene recall both Seneca's Thyestes and the Ovidian story of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne.6 Because of the play's Ovidian rhetoric and its use of the Metamorphoses as a stage prop, recent interest has focused on Ovid. Thus, for Leonard Barkan, “in a very real sense, the presence of the book of Ovid generates the events of Titus”; he notes that the characters seem to have read the work even before the book appears on stage. John Velz sees a general “interest on Shakespeare's part in Ovidian disjunctions of all kinds” and in this case “the juxtaposition of elaborated descriptive rhetoric with violent and bloody action.”7 But the play is also indebted to the native dramatic tradition and to the medieval and early Renaissance narrative tragedies, as well as to Ovid and Seneca. In this Polonian pastiche, heroic, pastoral, elegiac, revenge, and tragic fragments combine, like the combatants of a morality psychomachia, to illustrate the progress of Titus' soul.8 Like emblems, visible mutilations signify hidden violations, both physical and spiritual.

In Titus Andronicus almost every spectacle, deed, and character is absorbed into the titanic presence of the protagonist. Certainly Lavinia and Tamora, as utter victim and as consummate avenger, threaten to usurp Titus' centrality. But just as Elizabeth's gender was submerged, in interludes and entertainments, “in the complex iconography of her paradigmatic virtue,” always in accord with patriarchal notions of her power as prince,9 so Shakespeare's notable and notorious female characters are here made to serve the construction of Titus—patriarch, tragic hero, and, from our vantage point, central consciousness. But contradictions beset this enterprise. I maintain that the pressures of Shakespeare's characterization of Titus, of creating this tragic protagonist, are evident in the Others—notably Aaron, Tamora, and Lavinia—who surround the revenge play's central Self.10 In the case of Tamora and Lavinia, on whom I will focus, gender both marks and is marked by Shakespeare's first experiment in revenge tragedy. It is largely through and on the female characters that Titus is constructed and his tragedy inscribed.


This closing with him fits his lunacy.


We can assume that any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the “masculine.”11

Stereotypes define what the social body endorses and what it wants to exclude.12

Tamora is one pole on the female scale by which we measure Titus—but as one might expect of this “lascivious Goth” (2.3.110) and monstrous woman, hers is a double measure. On the one hand, she stands as Titus' direct opposite, marking his strength by her own status as victim, as well as his goodness by her own evil. Her desperate plea to save her son Alarbus acknowledges that her captivity is the sign of Titus' power: “Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome / To beautify thy triumphs, and return / Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke … ?” (1.1.109-11). Titus' coolly formal reply to Tamora's emotional appeal ratifies that acknowledged authority: “Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me” (1.1.121). Her evil, too, manifests itself early, before she takes any action or admits malign intent, in that Saturninus' lust-at-first-sight represents Tamora as the very occasion of sin: “A goodly lady, trust me, of the hue / That I would choose were I to choose anew” (1.1.261-62).13 Tamora's aside to Saturninus exposes the dangers of this woman's subtle power—“My lord, be rul'd by me, be won at last, / Dissemble all your griefs and discontents” (1.1.442-43)—and exposes as well her intention to “find a day to massacre them all [the Andronici], / And rase their faction and their family” (1.1.450-51). We know Titus by his opposite; if he has erred in killing Alarbus, at least the motive, we are to believe, is “piety”—albeit, from the perspective of the queen of the Goths, a “cruel, irreligious piety” (1.1.130).

On the other hand, Tamora also illustrates and demarcates the extremes of Titus' character, measures the evil to which this patriarchal avenger has resorted and must resort. Her comment on the barbarity, the “cruel, irreligious piety,” of Roman religion suggests as much: it inadvertently excuses Titus' error as a product of benighted pagan belief but also implicates Titus in a whole range of human blindness, imperfection, and crime. The murder of Mutius gives weight to her view of Titus' Roman moral code—his strict adherence to the oppressive laws of his fathers and his own claim to absolute paternal authority. We know Titus, and sometimes Titus even knows himself, by his mirror image in Tamora.

Near the end of the play, for example, when Titus receives Tamora and her sons disguised as Revenge, Murder, and Rapine, he obviously sees through the charade but also plays along, feigning a lunatic blindness to the facts. His words and actions are instructive:

Good Lord, how like the Empress' sons they are!
And you, the Empress! but we worldly men
Have miserable, mad, mistaking eyes.
O sweet Revenge, now do I come to thee,
And if one arm's embracement will content thee,
I will embrace thee in it by and by.


Titus' lines and actions here, though localized in a grotesque, specific moment, bespeak the ambiguity surrounding Tamora and Titus' relation to her throughout the play. Titus certainly sees her as she is, comprehends her motives in a way she does not intend. He also acknowledges his own “embracement” of Revenge, of the vengeance she is merely counterfeiting in this scene, albeit as part of her own plans for revenge. In Titus' one-armed union with Tamora-Revenge, Shakespeare gives us the emblem of the avenger's tragedy: the avenger mirrors the enemy, commits the very evils for which retribution is sought.14

And perhaps there is a further implication linked to those “miserable, mad, mistaking eyes” of Titus: if his “mistakings” in the first act are any indication, “worldly men” like Titus are indeed questionable wielders of the absolute power to which they aspire. In a sense the words and the scene remind us that Titus' judgment and one-armed justice against his own son Mutius are little more than willful vengeance and, like his support of Saturninus over Bassianus (for emperor and for son-in-law), examples of faulty reason and blindness. The rule of “worldly men,” despite the play's ending, is shown as problematic so long as men are fallible. Perhaps our recognition of this fact contributes to an initially uncertain response to Tamora, in that her maternal plea for mercy is understandable, moving, and just. Moreover, when Tamora reappears as Revenge, she reminds us not only that her own unforgiving will, so cruel in the scene with Lavinia, has made her the very essence of evil, but also that she has had as much cause for vengeance as has Titus—a fact from which the play keeps trying to deflect our own “miserable, mad, mistaking”—and complicit—eyes. In one sense, then, Tamora embodies dangers already inherent in the rule of men like Saturninus, Titus, and even Marcus.

Tamora is all the more effective at this double duty because of her gender. Every desire she voices threatens Titus, Rome, and the patriarchal assumptions of the audience. Here her link with Aaron is crucial. In Act 1 the Moor is a silent, disturbing presence in the queen's party; at the beginning of Act 2, however, he declares that he will “wanton with this queen, / This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph, / This siren that will charm Rome's Saturnine, / And see his shipwrack and his commonweal's” (2.1.21-24). This declaration not only confirms the threats Tamora has voiced in her aside to the emperor but also shifts the audience's attention away from Tamora's original motive. By having Aaron voice Tamora's designs at this point, Shakespeare forces a judgment against Tamora; thus, when Lavinia pleads for mercy (2.3), Tamora's reminder that she herself once “pour'd forth tears in vain” (2.3.163) cuts both ways: it establishes Titus' error as the source of Lavinia's plight, but it also transfers Titus' inhumanity to Tamora's unwomanly, “beastly” nature in the present circumstance (2.3.182).

Titus' reflection in—and of—Tamora reveals that, as Catherine Belsey puts it, all “revenge exists in the margin between justice and crime”; Belsey's statement that, as “an act of injustice on behalf of justice, [revenge] deconstructs the antithesis which fixes the meanings of good and evil, right and wrong”15 applies even to Titus. But the “justice” of Tamora is theatrically embodied in the villainous Moor, with the result that, to Elizabethan eyes, she seems as if in league with a devil; Titus, though mirrored in and sometimes mirroring her, is kept at one remove from her apparent complicity with the devil. The evil of Titus is displaced onto Tamora: thus his death is made to seem, though deserved, nonetheless tragic; hers, merely the rewarding of just deserts.




But the construction of stereotypes cannot ensure permanent stability, not only because the world always exceeds the stereotypical, but also in so far as the stereotypes themselves are inevitably subject to internal contradictions and so are perpetually precarious.16

If woman has always functioned “within” the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to dislocate this “within,” to explode it, to turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of.17

Lavinia is the other pole of the scale—and the more telling. Her mutilated body “articulates” Titus' own suffering and victimization. When he sums up all his losses and pains, Titus ends with “that which gives my soul the greatest spurn / … dear Lavinia, dearer than my soul” (3.1.101-2): “Had I but seen thy picture in this plight, / It would have madded me; what shall I do / Now I behold thy lively body so?” (3.1.103-5). Like Marcus' much-decried and much-excused “conduit” speech (2.4.11-57),18 Titus' speech re-presents Lavinia as both the occasion and the expression of his madness, his inner state. Their “sympathy of woe …, / As far from help as limbo is from bliss” (3.1.148-49), transforms her irremediable condition into the emblem of his.

But there is in Lavinia a greater, though less conspicuous, threat than in Tamora: she mirrors Titus not only humbled but also superbus, though without Tamora's obvious taint. Initially the silent pawn in the struggle between her father, on the one hand, and her brothers and fiancé, on the other, she later reveals a proud, baiting wit as she rebukes Tamora for her “raven-colored love” (2.3.83):

Under your patience, gentle Emperess,
'Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning,
And to be doubted that your Moor and you
Are singled forth to try thy experiments.
Jove shield your husband from his hounds to-day!
'Tis pity they should take him for a stag.


Lavinia's speech here caps a series of dialogue references to the Diana-Actaeon story: Bassianus ironically compares Tamora to Diana the Huntress; Tamora retorts, wishing Actaeon's fate on Bassianus; Lavinia's speech outdoes the queen by turning her own witty remark against her. Certainly there is no parity between such verbal besting and Lavinia's fate, nor is there justification for the rape or for Tamora's goading on her sons to brutality or for her sanctioning the rape even when Lavinia pleads for death instead (2.3.168 ff.). But the blind pride with which Lavinia speaks, as if assuming her own moral rectitude and consequent power, mirrors Titus' mistaken assumption about his own omnipotence: “I will restore to [Saturninus] / The people's hearts, and wean them from themselves” (1.1.210-11). What follows on Titus' claim exposes his hubristic will to power, most notoriously in the murdering of his son Mutius. Similarly, concurrence in Bassianus' decision to tell Saturninus of Tamora's infidelity—“Good king, to be so mightily abused” (2.3.87)—mirrors Titus' (and her husband's) self-righteousness; at the same time, it also reveals her as the victim of a false sense of security, of a belief that virtue (or at least good intentions) are their own defense. As Lavinia finds out, there is no impermeable self; raped and mutilated, she embodies the very lesson the proud conqueror Titus is forced to learn.

Lavinia's muteness, too, is complex. It, of course, signifies powerlessness.19 But oddly, in this case, it also belies any simple evocation of pathos in an audience. Because of what Lavinia knows, her voice must be silenced. Just as her tongue might speak of the premeditated violence of the rapists, so an autonomous Lavinia might tell of the thoughtless cruelty of her father, which had undone her betrothal and united her temporarily with an unworthy man. Indeed, Lavinia's speech—or any uncurtailed mode of signification on her part—could expose to the public (and to the audience) her subjection to the arbitrary wills of men, to the contradictory desires of father, husband, rival fiancé, brothers, and rapists. Her voice might not only bring down Chiron, Demetrius, Aaron, and Tamora but might also accuse Titus as well. For Lavinia to speak now would undermine the play's design—the reconstitution of patriarchy under Lucius. But the play makes us aware of the price that this reconstitution, this order, exacts from women (and younger sons, and those without power, or those who are otherwise peripheral): they, their pain, and all their experiences are consigned to silence and illegibility.

Nonetheless, as I have already suggested, Shakespeare's recollection of the Ovidian myth brings into the play more than Lavinia's victimization. On the one hand, as noted above, the text thoroughly circumscribes Lavinia's “speech” because it might threaten the reestablishment of order; on the other hand, it suggests that Lavinia, like Philomela, can and should overcome the severest of restrictions on communication, restrictions the perpetrators are the first to mock (2.4). Since her “signs and tokens” (2.4.5) are incomprehensible to most of the other characters, Marcus begins the process of articulating Lavinia's meaning: “Shall I speak for thee? shall I say 'tis so?” (2.4.33). He is the one who lights upon the Ovidian myth as an explanation, a reading to which she assents by averting her face “for shame” (2.4.28). But I would like to suggest that the process of articulation begun by Marcus is never entirely certain.20 To be sure, his explanation fits the facts, the plot; nevertheless, the play is always trying to exclude the possibility of “polysemic” signs:21 “Perchance she weeps because they [her brothers] kill'd her husband, / Perchance because she knows them innocent” (3.1.114-15). Titus dispels such ambiguities by establishing a “sympathy of woe” between himself and his daughter; we are to believe that his pain comprehends hers in every sense: “I understand her signs. / Had she a tongue to speak, now would she say / That to her brother which I said to thee” (3.1.143-45). Lavinia mirrors Titus—his present loss and pain—but Titus' words determine what her image, her “signs and tokens,” mean: “But I, of these, will wrest an alphabet, / And by still practice learn to know thy meaning” (3.2.44-45).22 At one and the same time, Titus acknowledges the integrity and otherness of Lavinia's experience and intentions and yet claims the power to determine their meaning—along with her whole system of signs.

The young Lucius' fearful flight from his maimed aunt, however, suggests something beyond her appropriation to her father's or even the playwright's ends. There is some excess beyond the Ovidian pages that she “quotes” with her stumps and that Titus identifies as the “tragic tale of Philomel” (4.1.50, 47).23 When Marcus must teach her to write in the “sandy plot” by guiding the staff with her mouth and feet, the significance of the revelation—“Stuprum—Chiron—Demetrius” (4.1.78)—lies not only in what is written but in how. The scene ostensibly confirms the centrality of Titus, of the father, in that, though Lavinia names crime and criminals, only Titus and the other male family members can decide on revenge;24 as is suggested by the scene in which Lavinia carries off his hand between her teeth, Titus is the center of the—in this case, of her—revenge plot. The fragmentary writing that others must read to us, that must fast disappear from the “sandy plot,” is all the language allowed the victim. Yet despite the interpretive distractions that surround the attempt to express herself, for one moment Lavinia recreates and embodies the act of violation, signals the painful point these men keep missing, expresses what can only be hinted at through Ovidian myths and named in Latin.

As Clark Hulse has noted, “Lavinia took a staff in her mouth when she named the rapists, enacting fellatio, or, if we take seriously the pun that Act 2 made on hell-mouth [i.e., ‘this fell devouring receptacle, / As hateful as Cocytus' misty mouth’ (2.3.235-36)], re-enacting her own violation.”25 Our attention is at least partially displaced from this subtle enactment of Lavinia's suffering, produced by her attempt to express it, to the written words interpreted by Titus, Marcus, and the family's heir, young Lucius. Nevertheless, as sign, Lavinia is polysemic and disruptive: a sign of the passive suffering attributed to women (like Philomela) by authorities (like Ovid), a sign of impotence roused to active vengeance (a metamorphosis attributed to women by the same authority in the story of Procne), and a sign beyond complete containment by the patriarchal assumptions of Shakespeare's time—and in some ways our own.

Lavinia's “alphabet” may provoke morose laughter in modern-day performances, but such macabre mirth arises, I would argue, as much from patriarchal dis-ease as from a sense of aesthetic failure. In spite or perhaps because of Shakespeare's circumscription of Lavinia's voice, Titus confronts its audience with the devastating portrait of a woman's attempt to articulate her experience in a society that ignores and prohibits her self-expression: as Irigaray says in a more general context, “‘she’ comes to be unable to say what her body is suffering. Stripped even of the words that are expected of her upon that stage invented to listen to her.”26 Indeed, Elizabethan laughter at Lavinia's suffering,27 as well as modern refuge in aesthetic superiority, may in fact signify the extent to which both English Renaissance and modern audiences, with their particular patriarchal assumptions, find Lavinia's attempt to speak, to write, uncalled for.


Ah, why should wrath be mute and fury dumb?


Aaron, the racial Other, is still speaking at the end of the play, even after the women, good and bad, have been killed—silenced and finally fixed. The unrepentant words of Aaron, though they cannot prevent his punishment, undercut Lucius' pronouncements. The restoration of patriarchal power cannot undo all that has been done, cannot contain it absolutely, however much such power aims to do so. Lavinia may ultimately be absorbed by and into that restoration, but the live burial of the still-railing Aaron and the casting forth of Tamora's body signify what this patriarchy cannot digest. The unassimilable elements—racial as well as sexual otherness, and all that issues from such difference—crystallize in the sign of other life: at the end, whether dead or alive, whether an absence or a silent presence, the child of Aaron and Tamora, the infant for whom the Moor gave himself up, cannot be contained by Lucius' new order or by Shakespeare's play.


  1. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 20. This quotation may seem incompatible with the deconstructive passage from Goldberg that follows and inconsistent with much that the new historicism has taught us, but I include this statement because its feminist stance counters the ostensibly apolitical approach of much deconstruction and some historicism.

  2. Jonathan Goldberg, “Shakespearean inscriptions: the voicing of power” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, eds. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 116-37, esp. p. 130.

  3. All quotations from Titus Andronicus are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). From his entrance through the murder of Mutius, Titus' appearance and actions resemble, in miniature, both the magnificent Tamburlaine of Part I and the tyrannical Tamburlaine of Part II, who kills his slothful, cowardly son, Calyphas. See Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I and II, in Drama of the English Renaissance, eds. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1976), Vol. I, 205-61, especially Tamburlaine, Part II, 4.1. Though Titus' son Mutius is no ignoble Calyphas, Titus believes him a traitor and therefore kills him. Obviously, the name of this laconic offspring—who says a few lines, does what he must, and is then silenced—resonates throughout the play.

  4. For instance, in “Early Shakespearian Tragedy and Its Contemporary Context: Cause and Emotion in Titus Andronicus, Richard III and The Rape of Lucrece,Shakespearian Tragedy, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 20 (London: Edward Arnold, 1984), A. R. Braunmuller discusses how “Shakespeare includes as dramatic characters the structural, framing elements that his contemporaries, even Marlowe, often made allegorical and/or extra-dramatic” (p. 112).

  5. In 1614, about twenty years after the composition of Titus, Jonson wrote that “He that will swear Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays yet, shall pass unexcepted at, here, as a man whose judgment shows it is constant, and hath stood still, these five and twenty, or thirty, years” (Induction to Bartholomew Fair, ed. Edward B. Partridge [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1964], p. 10).

  6. Though Titus has been variously accused of Senecan horrors and undramatic Ovidian verse, most critics argue for the primacy of either Seneca or Ovid as its inspiration. The play obviously recalls in many details Ovid's famous story of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne (see 6.424-674 in Vol. I of Ovid's Metamorphoses, trans. F. J. Miller, 3rd ed., rev. G. P. Goold, 2 vols. [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984], 316-35). But Book VI of the Metamorphoses also alludes obliquely to the cannibalism of the house of Tantalus, who fed his son Pelops to the gods (6.172-73, 403-11). Such references and parallels might very well have sent Shakespeare to another well-known precedent for the banquet scene, this one also a revenge tragedy in dramatic form—Seneca's Thyestes, which begins with the ghost of Tantalus and details Atreus' gastronomic revenge on Thyestes (see Volume II of Seneca's Tragedies, trans. F. J. Miller, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. [New York: Putnam, 1917], pp. 89-181). Indeed, since Seneca's Thyestes alludes to the tale of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus (pp. 96-97, 114-15), settling on either Ovid or Seneca as the source of this Shakespearean tragedy's staged banquet seems rather arbitrary (see Douglas E. Green, “Seneca's Tragedies: The Elizabethan Translations” [Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1984], pp. 1-12, especially pp. 4-8). The most sophisticated assessment of Seneca's contribution to English Renaissance drama is Gordon Braden's recent Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 153-223, 247-54.

  7. See Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1986), p. 244. In a fascinating argument, Barkan treats Titus as Shakespeare's response to an Ovidian “myth of competitive mutilation,” which is simultaneously “a myth about communication”—“a myth about the competition amongst media of communication as Philomela becomes a walking representative of them” (pp. 244-45). See also John Velz, “The Ovidian Soliloquy in Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Studies, 18 (1986), 1-24, esp. p. 3. Though his discussion of the influence of the Ovidian soliloquy, especially Medea's, on “Shakespeare's meditative soliloquies” (p. 1) does not apply to Titus, which lacks this kind of deliberative monologue, Velz notes the distancing effect of Ovidian description on the violence in Titus—“the outrages in Titus Andronicus are to be seen through a rhetorical screen” (p. 9). Both Barkan (p. 347) and Velz (p. 3) acknowledge Eugene Waith's article, “The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Survey, 10 (1957), 39-49, for focusing on Ovidian elements as central to the play. For Waith Titus is an aesthetic failure: “In taking over certain Ovidian forms Shakespeare takes over part of an Ovidian conception which cannot be fully realized by the techniques of drama” (p. 48). Recently Waith has tempered this view by examining “The Ceremonies of Titus Andronicus” in Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, ed. J. C. Gray (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1984), pp. 159-70: “The double vision provided by this elaborate picture [in Marcus' famous speech to Lavinia (2.4.11-57)] is neither rationalization nor wishful thinking but may be a desperate effort to come to terms with unbearable pain” (p. 165). In the same collection of essays, G. K. Hunter's “Sources and Meanings in Titus Andronicus” questions the hypothetical ancestor of an eighteenth-century chapbook as the narrative source for Shakespeare's version of Roman history in this play (pp. 171-88).

  8. In Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London: Methuen, 1968), pp. 13-47, Nicholas Brooke's analysis of Titus suggests a generic, poetic, and tonal hybrid. S. Clark Hulse summarizes the play's debt to the native medieval roots of Elizabethan drama, especially in the handling of space and characterization (“Wresting the Alphabet: Oratory and Action in ‘Titus Andronicus,’” Criticism, 21 [1979], 106-18, esp. p. 113). Frank Kermode's introduction to Titus in The Riverside Shakespeare provides a sensible view of the background material (pp. 1019-22).

  9. See Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex: Harvester Press; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983), p. 177; see also p. 195.

  10. On the terms “Other” and “Self,” see Linda Bamber's Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 27-28.

  11. Luce Irigaray, “Any Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the ‘Masculine,’” Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 133-46, esp. p. 133.

  12. Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and difference in Renaissance drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 165.

  13. These lines are usually marked “aside,” but there is no reason why the lines cannot be spoken aloud as courtly compliment to the captive queen of the Goths, even in front of Lavinia, Saturninus' betrothed (Brooke, p. 25). In fact, if they are spoken aloud, they underscore the ironic import of Saturninus' subsequent question: “Lavinia, you are not displeas'd with this?” (1.1.270).

  14. In discussing Ovidian metamorphosis, Leonard Barkan suggests that “it follows from the metaphor of transformations that human experience is a series of contagions. If things turn into other things, then so do individuals, concepts, rules, emotions. … If objects and persons contain secret histories, then they have secret relations to each other” (p. 91). Titus' embracing Tamora as Revenge reproduces the physical and metaphysical correspondence between Tamora and Revenge or, to borrow Barkan's metaphor, spreads the contagion. The “secret intimacies of different things” that Barkan finds in Ovid (p. 91) may also operate in the world of Titus—for instance, in the corresponding methods, motives, and aims of righteous avenger and hardened villain.

  15. p. 115.

  16. Belsey, p. 165.

  17. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa” in New French Feminisms, eds. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen (1980; New York: Schocken, 1981), pp. 245-64, esp. p. 257.

  18. In “The Ceremonies of Titus Andronicus” Eugene Waith has recently revised his estimate of the scene: “Another way of interpreting the scene is to take the discrepancy between what we see on the stage and what Marcus says as a kind of double vision, analogous to those ritual gestures in the first act which make piety of human sacrifice or honour of the murder of a son. The strange images that Marcus substitutes for the mangled body of his niece provide a way of holding the experience off rather than expressing the emotion it arouses” (p. 165).

  19. John Velz notes that “the fugitives from rape in the early books of the Metamorphoses are languageless sufferers” and compares Lavinia to Philomela, “another Ovidian languageless victim” (p. 4).

  20. In a paper delivered at the 1988 MLA Annual Meeting and entitled “Performance versus Text: Emblematic Tragedy in Titus Andronicus,” Maurice Charney reminds us that this play is in many ways more engaging on the stage than on the page; he also discusses how Marcus' words imply certain actions and gestures by Lavinia. Textually, then, Marcus' words intimate the way an Elizabethan boy or a modern woman should interpret the part; moreover, without Lavinia's theatrical presence, these words virtually determine a reader's conception of Lavinia. But the presence of a skilled actor like Sonia Ritter in Deborah Warner's 1987 production (Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon) can complicate the effect. Though her actions matched Marcus' words, one could never be quite sure whether Lavinia's turning away “for shame” (in which sense of the word?) ratified Marcus' lighting upon the apt Ovidian analogy or sought to avoid this painful contact altogether or indicated rejection. Here indeed was a powerful instance of the ways in which women's playing parts originally meant for boys has historically altered readings of the text. At times this production, rather than cutting the offensive rhetoric as other productions have done (see Waith, “Ceremonies,” p. 165), dramatized the disjunction between Marcus' Ovidian rhetoric, however well-intentioned or ceremonial, and Ritter's physical responses as rape victim and perhaps familial chattel. For a somewhat different view, see Alan C. Dessen's excellent review and analysis of Warner's production in Shakespeare Quarterly, 39 (1988), 222-25.

  21. See Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 158.

  22. Barkan sees a Shakespeare fascinated with the “language-denying metamorphosis” that compels Ovidian victims like Philomela “to create a new medium, a composite of words and pictures.” Furthermore, the “alphabet” that Titus is wresting from Lavinia “represents the beginnings of a definition of Shakespeare's medium and his art: part picture, part word, part sound; part ancient book, part modern dumb show; part mute actor, part vocal interpreter” (p. 247). But though this scene thus suggests a parallel between Shakespeare and Titus as writers (and readers), the vehemence of the search for Lavinia's meaning recalls the wrath, if not the destructive motives, of Tereus.

  23. See Barkan's discussion of quoting, deciphering, and reading in the play (p. 246). The Riverside edition (4.1.50) uses the word “cotes” (their variant of Q1's “coats”) instead of F's “quotes.”

  24. In this respect Lavinia resembles Bel-Imperia in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. The strong-minded Bel-Imperia is subject to her brother's will, to the will of an unwanted suitor, to wars and rivalries (among men) that kill first one lover and then another, and to the whims of a sluggish avenger. In order to spur the latter on, she writes Hieronimo a letter in blood, which, like Lavinia's writing, initiates the revenge (see especially 3.2.24-52 of The Spanish Tragedy in Fraser and Rabkin, Vol. I, 167-203). In this case, as with Ovid and Seneca, Titus attempts to outdo its model—whether in the mode of vengeance or in the difficulty the victims have in making themselves heard and understood, particularly the women. Needless to say, in Shakespeare's play Lavinia herself becomes the “bloody writ” (The Spanish Tragedy, 3.2.26).

  25. Hulse, p. 116. See Velz, p. 4, on the Ovidian source of this scene in the story of Io (Metamorphoses, 1.647-50).

  26. p. 140.

  27. Clark Hulse argues that laughter “has been an appropriate and necessary response to the play since 1600” (p. 107, n. 5). See also pp. 117-18.

Marty Roth (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 under the pale and secular name of rehabilitation. The true function of the courts is reclothing and renaming—the transformation of social hatred into social health. Two golden maidens, “the golden daughter of Zeus” and Portia, have magical roles to enact within their respective courts.

The Eumenides begins with a slow and measured account by the priestess of Apollo of the successive deities who have presided over her sanctuary at Delphi. She enters the temple and is convulsed by what she sees; she crawls out, dragging herself by her hands. Within are things as terrible to tell about as they are for eyes to see:

… they are black and utterly repulsive, and they snore with breath that drives one back. From their eyes drips the foul ooze, and their dress is such as is not right to wear in the presence of the gods' statues.1

They are the Erinyes, the Furies, encircling an exhausted Orestes. They are the material (and maternal) embodiment of revenge, called by the shade of Clytemnestra to punish her murderer. The Erinyes are revenge; they have been the image and instrument of justice from the beginning of time, and their ancient authority is indisputible—

… my place has been ordained, granted and given by destiny and god, absolute. Privilege primeval yet is mine.


The Eumenides dramatizes the conflict between this authority and that of a new rule, the dispensation of the Olympians whose clean sweep of heaven had been praised by Hesiod as the final ordering of the universe.2

The authority of the Erinyes is absolute also because it is “natural.” Among other things, they represent the sudden onrush of hatred that is unleashed by the sight of a person who has done us injury. Their role cannot be a matter of argument in the play, to be overcome rhetorically and then relegated to the dustbin of obsolete ideas. That second miracle of order, the city-state, may demand a gentler creature for its survival, but impulses cannot be repressed by civilization any more easily for Aeschylus than for Freud.

Vengeance is not an idea in the Eumenides. It is not even retributive justice which depends upon some notion of measure. In this text vengeance is primal and, in the most absolute sense, concrete. It is unfair to submit such beings as the Erinyes to a process conducted in language. They know a language of cries, moans, and curses; and they repeat these furiously when they are baffled by a language intended to be understood. They cannot explain themselves—“we have our duty. It was to do what we have done” (142). But when the spoken word does reach them, it registers itself with tremendous force. Here is the impact of the words of Clytemnestra that roused them from their sleep:

The accusation came upon me from my dreams, and hit me, as with a goad in the mid-grip of his fist the charioteer strikes, but deep, beneath lobe and heart. The executioner's cutting whip is mine to feel and the weight of pain is big, heavy to bear.


Blood is the controlling symbol in the Eumenides; the conception of revenge that is brought into the light of definition by Zeus is implicit for the Erinyes in the drama of blood. Crime is the shedding of kindred blood. The criminal is one who is stained with, still smells of, blood:3

Our man has gone to cover somewhere in this place.
The welcome smell of human blood has told me so.


Blood calls up revenge as simply as in Genesis “the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.” The man with “stained hidden hands” shall find the Erinyes behind him. And justice is just as simply the sucking dry of blood until not a trace remains to infuriate eye or nose:

… His mother's blood spilled on the ground can not come back again.
It is all soaked and drained into the ground and gone.
You must give back for her blood from the living man red blood of your body to suck. …


… your heart, blood drained, chewed dry by the powers of death, a wraith, a shell.


Filled with civilized disgust, Apollo vows to make them “spew out the black and foaming / blood of man, vomit the clots sucked from their veins” (141).

In the Eumenides, the new dispensation of Zeus has recently triumphed but has not yet been completely tested. Aeschylus gives the universe a tentative and transitional quality. The universe still contains elements of aboriginal power with which the Olympians must negotiate. On the other hand, while the Erinyes still possess their former power, they have been alienated from their place in the world—“they with whom no mortal man, / no god, nor even any beast, will have to do”; “Zeus has ruled our dripping company outcast, nor will deal with us” (137, 147).

The Erinyes are given a chant of self-description in the play, which could have been spoken by Shylock:

… we are strong and skilled; we have authority; we hold memory of evil; we are stern nor can men's pleadings bend us. We drive through our duties, spurned, outcast from gods, driven apart to stand in light not of the sun.


Because the Erinyes are controlled by the fact of blood, they cannot even understand the differences (much less the legitimacy) of the Olympian order. They only see “the younger gods” holding “by unconditional force, beyond all right, a throne / that runs reeking blood, / blood at the feet, blood at the head” (140). They are unable to see the difference between the deposition of Uranus and that of Cronos, why one is claimed to be a despotic act and the other an act of justice.

Shylock is similarly convinced of the hypocrisy of Christians: whatever he has done, he has had their frequent example, and yet they babble to him of mercy. Unfortunately, when Shylock expresses this conviction, the appeal of his presumptive arguments—that all men are human; that men should not own other men, etc.—may cause us to overlook the brute premises upon which Shakespeare has hinged his logic. Shylock tells Salarino that Christian and Jew alike bleed, laugh, die, and seek revenge, but every one of his examples, except the last, his conclusion, is taken from the realm of involuntary effects.4 Shylock is made to believe that revenge follows a wrong as inevitably as the other three effects follow their causes. And in the following exchange with Bassanio, he treats the whole range of offense, insult, and injury as if it were comparable to the poisonous sting of a serpent:

Do all men kill the things they do not love?
Hates any man the thing he would not kill?
Every offense is not a hate at first!
What! wouldst thou have a serpent sting thee twice?


The same sense of the world lies behind Shylock's argument on Christian slavery. He tells the Duke that his own claim to his “purchased” slaves is no different than Shylock's claim to his pound of flesh. A satirist might deliberately reduce human beings to their physical weight to force us to feel afresh the dehumanizing effects of slavery, but Shylock has no such intention.

Shakespeare has given tremendous force and definition to Shylock's character, but what is being characterized is not a man but a radical impulse. And this impulse is absolute; it proceeds from no set of causes or circumstances that can be located in the temporal fiction or reconstructed past of the play. Of course Shylock is literally embedded in a texture of circumstances that fixes him in relationships. Within this system, he distinguishes among his several motives or values: his money, his people, his daughter, and the sanctity of his home. The frustration of any of these forms of gratification by Antonio could possibly provoke his hatred and his desire for revenge. And Antonio, as we are often told, “lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice” (1.3.36-37). Shylock also says that he holds Antonio responsible for Jessica's desertion, apostasy, and affective death.6 Jessica, however, while she still lived with him, overheard him telling Tubal and Chus, “That he would rather have Antonio's flesh / Than twenty times the value of the sum” (3.2.285-86). The tangle of possible motives can be probed and balanced against one another, but the forfeit that Shylock claims, the energy with which he pursues it, and his intractibility cannot be related to or qualified by circumstances, no more than Iago's hatred can be emotionally equated with a suspicion that Othello slept with his wife.

The sheer energy of Shylock's hatred is only one of the liberating devices used to characterize him in terms of his desire. The animosity between Jew and Christian, for example, is never attached to its testamentary context, although the practice of usury is. It has been so internalized that it exists only as an “ancient grudge,” a “lodged hate, and a certain loathing” (4.1.60).

The only defining characteristic given to Shylock's desire for revenge is that it is tribal, that it belongs to him as a Jew. He reminds us three times that he has reinforced his fury by an oath upon his Sabbath, and he lays a curse upon his tribe to further bind him to revenge. To say that Shylock's revenge is tribal, however, is to say that it is also defined by blood.

In the Eumenides, revenge operates along tribal lines, and, when a frustrated Apollo declares that Clytemnestra was herself a murderess, guilty of shedding Agamemnon's blood, the Erinyes insist that “such murder would not be the shedding of kindred blood. … The man she killed was not of blood congenital” (156).

One of the images that Aeschylus gives to pure revenge is that of hounds pursuing a fawn:

So. Here the man has left a clear trail behind; keep on, keep on, as the unspeaking accuser tells us, by whose sense, like hounds after a bleeding fawn, we trail our quarry by the splash and drip of blood.


Shylock is, as a matter of common abuse, “the dog Jew,” “inexorable dog,” “stranger cur,” and “cut-throat dog.” Shylock reminds Antonio that the abuse so casually uttered may well inform their relationship: “Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause, / But since I am a dog, beware my fangs” (3.3.6-7). Antonio accepts this threat, substituting an even stronger image: “You may as well use question with the wolf / Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb” (4.1.73-74). And Gratiano extends this to a vision of primordial fury:

Thy currish spirit
Governed a wolf, who—hanged for human slaughter—
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
… for thy desires
Are wolfish, bloody, starved and ravenous.

(4.1.133-35, 137-38)

A number of Shakespearean studies have emphasized the archetypal quality of the plays, particularly the comedies. Adapting a current story, Shakespeare was able to articulate its deep form, and, through a series of inevitable structures and images, create meanings that have a ritual authority. If Shylock wants revenge, then his object in the play is not the flesh of Antonio, but his blood.

The structure of the Merchant of Venice offers some support for this possibility. The turning point of the play, the first of Shylock's three defeats at Portia's hands, occurs when she tells him that he may not have “one drop of Christian blood.” Such an interpretation would also give this scene the dramatic support that is often lacking in performance: Portia drains Shylock of his energy by naming his crime, the implicit object of the contract.

The end of revenge in the Eumenides is contained in images that associate the Erinyes and their victims through the medium of a sacred feast: “You are consecrate to me and fattened for my feast” (145), they promise Orestes. Shylock was not literally intending to eat Antonio or drink his blood. The most cursory reading of the Old Testament impresses upon us (despite a history of rumors to the contrary) the repudiation by the Jews of blood sacrifice, much more cannibalism: the story of Abraham and Isaac, the exclusion of the Benjamites in Judges, the punishment of the sons of Eli. But metaphors have a literal authority of their own, and Portia is a second Daniel: she first defeats Shylock by reminding him that his own tribal law stipulates that he may not eat bloody meat.

Shylock's Jewishness is a formal characteristic. As the more primitive of the dispensations, it takes to itself absolutely primitive attributes. Shylock certainly considers the cannibalistic feast to be an appropriate metaphor for his revenge. He persuades Bassanio that his bond is purely gratuitous by pointing out that the only thing he could do with a pound of flesh is eat it: “A pound of man's flesh, taken from a man, / Is not so estimable, profitable neither, / As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats” (1.3.158-160). But this is an echo of those savage and quite serious lines with which the scene opened: “If I can catch him once upon the hip, / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him” (1.3.38-39). Salarino raises the question of what human flesh is good for yet again, and Shylock expands upon his earlier remark in quite another mode—“if it will feed nothing else” [I told the truth when I said that it was neither estimable nor profitable] “it will feed my revenge” (3.1.42-43). In support of this suggestion, Shakespeare provides us with an actual feast given by the bankrupt Bassanio—a feast which has little function in the play. Shylock had at first refused to attend and then, for some unknown reason, changed his mind. There is ambiguity in his announcement of what is to be eaten there:

I am not bid for love, they flatter me;
But yet I'll go in hate, to feed upon
The prodigal Christian.


Shakespeare knew that mythic Jews pursued mythic Christians for tribal reasons; he knew when and why they did it. And if he was not willing to dramatize this explicitly on the level of plot and motive, he nonetheless allowed it an adequate range of suggestive meaning. Many commentators on this play have mentioned the “superstition” that Jews ate Christian flesh. Unlike many ancient relics, however, this was a belief of singular strength and persistence. In his notes to the ballad “Sir Hugh and the Jew's Daughter” Child collected a great many records of Jews accused of ritual murder:

Murders like that of Hugh of Lincoln have been imputed to the Jews for at least seven hundred and fifty years. … The process of these murders has often been described as a parody of the crucifixion of Jesus. The motive most commonly alleged, in addition to the expression of contempt for Christianity, has been the obtaining of blood for use in the Paschal rites,—a most unhappily devised slander, in stark contradiction with Jewish precept and practice.8

In contradiction perhaps, but Child cites instances from the literature of every European nation from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century: “It would be tedious and useless to attempt to make a collection of the great number of similar instances which have been mentioned by chroniclers and ecclesiastical writers; enough come readily to hand without much research.”

The persistence of these legends is understandable once we recognize their paradigmatic relationship to the crucifixion of Christ. Paschal Day is Good Friday, and as Jesus suffered on the cross, “one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side and forthwith came there out blood and water.” Joseph of Arimathaea bore the body away, and this Joseph is intimately connected with the talismanic grail of Arthurian romance, which miraculously preserves the blood that flowed from the wound of the dying savior. The plot of Easter is a story of Christian salvation or of Jewish hatred and revenge, depending on whether it is set on Sunday or Friday. Saturday is Shylock's day. The black passion is repeated in history because it is present in the shape of the Christian year.9

Of all the Christians in the Merchant of Venice, Antonio is certainly the prime candidate for the annual Christ. Kindly, passive, melancholy, he acts only once in the play—he contracts with the Jew to give all he has to Bassanio; the money stands for his love, his friendship, and his life—and for the rest he suffers. After the contract scene, he is unbelievably passive and remains so even after his release. Christ was sacrificed as man and as animal; Antonio is also the Paschal lamb. He sees Shylock as one who pursues revenge as inexplicably as the wolf the lamb; and he offers himself to the knife as the “tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death” (4.1.114-15).

The Eumenides dramatizes the institution of a new justice in Athens. Apollo predicts the nature of this moment when he advises Orestes to

… Never fail until you come at last to Pallas' citadel. Kneel there, and clasp the ancient idol in your arms, and there we shall find those who will judge this case, and words to say that will have magic in their figures. Thus you will be rid of your afflictions, once for all.


The Atridae are, after all, kings, as well as the bloodiest family in Greek legend. The determination of guilt is a relatively simple matter; it is its termination that radically concerns the state. What is needed is magic, a magic that will make guilt less enduring than blood, and thus allow individuals to put their blood into the city but not the taint of their individual fragility. The magic needed is similar to that of so many of Shakespeare's comedies, magic which transforms a state of fragmented and disintegrative energy into a new social harmony. But the means of cleansing blood cannot be worked out of the images that define the older justice; the physical logic there is irrefutable.

The words which have magic in their figures are, very simply, affective language. Aeschylus and Shakespeare have identified justice with language itself, which is capable of separating object and sign; and the blood that cannot be washed away, the insult that cannot be borne in fact, can be transformed through the affective power of art. This is the mythic gift of Greece to mankind—of Orpheus who gentled the brutish natures of beasts and trees, and of Amphion who fashioned a city by charming the rocks into place through the power of his music.

Aeschylus has done something in his play which might appear to undermine its dramatic power and make it the melodrama on justice that the Merchant of Venice is so often felt to be. For he has made it clear that Orestes is already innocent when the trial takes place; he has absolved his guilt through expiation and sacrifice. By eliminating all question of guilt, he forces us to see that the object of justice is not the accuser or the accused but the health of the state. Justice is intimately connected with the angry desires of the Erinyes and Shylock, not with the crimes of Orestes and Antonio.

The words with magic in their figures are certainly not the words of Apollo who defends Orestes and gains him an acquittal by invoking the power of the father. He avoids the issue; he quibbles just as Portia does in her first two arguments against Shylock's claim.10 He argues that the true parent is he who mounts; the mother is a stranger who preserves the parent's seed. In proof of this he points to Athena herself—an offspring of the father alone.

Zeus has given the Athenians the Aereopagus; henceforth men and women will argue about crime and decide guilt and innocence by ballot. But this process of judgment is an expedient. Things must be done this way if the state is to survive. After the decision has been reached, however, the operation of justice begins: the accused will plead for mercy and it will be granted, the accuser will plead for satisfaction and it also will be granted.

Apollo outwits the Erinyes and gains a victory, but their outraged cry of retaliation against the state and its natural roots suggests how barren such a victory is:

Gods of the younger generation, you have ridden down the laws of the elder time, torn them out of my hands. I, disinherited, suffering, heavy with anger shall let loose on the land the vindictive poison dripping deadly out of my heart upon the ground; this from itself shall breed cancer, the leafless, the barren to strike, for the right, their low lands and drag its smear of mortal infection on the ground.


The Erinyes have threatened to curse Athens. For justice to be done their curse must be turned into a blessing, otherwise nothing but sterility and death has been effected by the mechanism of the law.11 Justice will have nothing less as its object than the sanctification of crime itself. If Shylock is defeated by two quibbles (one of which names his act and defeats him as a Jew who is defined through dietary laws; the other of which defeats him as a capitalist, to whom the principle of weights and measures must be held sacred), justice must clear the very air of guilt by the magical act of renaming it.

The words with magic in their figures are spoken by Athena after Orestes is acquitted. She pleads with them—“But if you hold Persuasion has her sacred place / of worship, in the sweet beguilement of my voice, / then you might stay with us” (166). The Erinyes ultimately are renamed: they will no longer be the Furies, but the Eumenides, the Friendly Ones.

But the Erinyes are proof against persuasion. To Athena's plea they merely repeat their threat to Athens.12 And then magic does occur in the play: the Erinyes are moved by words they have been hitherto unable to feel—they relent. Aeschylus offers no explanation of this conversion; it remains, as promised, a mystery.13 As “friendly ones,” they will occupy a place deep under the city, honored by the citizens as presiding deities, and the effect of their presence will be the opposite of that threatened by them:

Let there blow no wind that wrecks the trees.
I pronounce words of grace
Nor blaze of heat blind the blossoms of grown plants, nor
cross the circle of its right
place. Let no barren deadly sickness creep and kill.
Flocks fatten. Earth be kind
to them, with double fold of fruit
in time appointed for its yielding. Secret child
of earth, her hidden wealth, bestow
blessing and surprise of gods.


The Erinyes have not changed their natures; they have changed their names because they have changed their relationship to the state. Where once they were alien and excluded they are now integral, incorporated into the social life: “I establish in power / spirits who are large, difficult to soften. / To them is given the handling entire / of men's lives. That man / who has not felt the weight of their hands takes the strokes of life” (168). The social form of fury is that sense of fear which prevents the knife from falling too easily into its victim's heart.

The conversion of Shylock, so hastily dealt with in the fourth act as if the playwright were ashamed of such an easy solution, is usually understood as either a stock device for getting Shylock out of the play or as a mirror for the theme of Christian hypocrisy. I would insist that it is the center of the play, and a direct response to Portia's plea for mercy. How else can we understand the rapid and apparently incoherent sequence that includes Portia's plea, a triple defeat (when any one would have been adequate), and the destruction of the Jew? The “key question,” C. L. Barber writes, is “whether the baffling of Shylock is meaningful or simply melodramatic” (208).14

In the Merchant of Venice, Christ as mercy and grace has long sat beside the throne in heaven, and the mitigating principle of persuasion in human affairs has long been accepted. Yet Shylock, as one of the unconverted, stands outside this dispensation, testifying to its incompleteness. The justice of Christianity is in effect being defined for the first time—art, after all, is a recurrently definitive gesture, a perpetually renewed “in the beginning.”

We will not be convinced of one of the most important meanings of this play until it is articulated in production, and that is that Shylock possesses in the form of hatred an abundance of the emotional energy that an atrophied Venice desperately needs. Venice's relationship to the Jew, however, has been one of continual exclusion, and this is mirrored in the rejection of the energies of Morocco and Aragon at Belmont.

These considerations have the virtue of at least suggesting answers to two persistent problems in the trial scene. Portia did not invoke the law against aliens who seek to take the life of citizens until after Shylock was defeated. On the face of it this is absurd; without this law there can be no society, and yet Portia either deliberately withheld using it or was somehow unable to find it on the books. She could not use it until after Shylock's defeat, however, because it did not effectively exist in Venice until that society's will to live again began to assert itself—until the energy for it was available. Portia also plays a grotesque part toward Antonio and Bassanio, assuring them that there can be no death, and trifling with Bassanio's honest pledge to “lose all, ay sacrifice … all.” But this is the nether point of death and dying in the play. Portia does not plead so eloquently with the Jew for a particular act of kindness; she is pleading on behalf of her world for a vitality that it must have to survive. Mercy, in her famous speech, is not a spiritual force that touches the hearts of individuals; it is a rain that regenerates the earth itself.

Shylock, like the Erinyes, is beyond the power of persuasion. When he says, “There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me” (4.1.237-38), he means quite literally what he says. That language is meaningful which has the power to hurt or physically alter. Gratiano abuses Shylock with the most angry comparisons he can find, and Shylock literally replies: “Till thou canst rail the seal from off my bond, / Thou but offend'st thy lungs to speak so loud” (4.1.139-40). Shylock never denies the existence of mercy; he is aware that it belongs to Christians, and he is, I believe, afraid of its potential strength. Portia says that the Jew must be merciful, and Shylock's reply—“on what compulsion must I? tell me that” (4.1.179)—is nervous and wary.

At the opening of act three, scene three, before the jailor has a chance to speak, Shylock barks at him, “tell me not of mercy.” He has apparently run the gamut of too many who have talked to him of this singular quantity. Antonio tries to speak to him twice, but Shylock cuts him off. Then Shylock tell us what mercy is, but he defines it in terms of the physical signs that mark one who has been “altered” by it: “I'll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool, / To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield / To Christian intercessors” (3.3.14-16).

When Shylock is defeated, the Duke announces that he will now see the difference between the spirit of Christian and Jew, and Venice proceeds to dismember him financially. Antonio insists that the Jew convert, and Shylock murmurs that he is content to do so. The resolution is hasty, and yet we can imagine that Shylock has suddenly become a pale shadow of himself, the words “I am content” breathed so listlessly that they can hardly be heard. That Shylock who burst with the energy of rage and savage delight has been drained in his defeat. He himself identifies the forfeits taken with his life.

The conversion scene is hasty, a vanishing, because the real conversion in the play has already taken place. Jessica is the friendly one to Shylock's fury, and the conversion scene is also that point in the play where Jessica receives her inheritance.

We need not believe with Lorenzo that Jessica is wise, fair, and true, but may we not accept the opinion of almost every Christian that she is gentile? “Gentle” is the Christian word in the play, and it stands possessed of all the rich ambiguity the word contains.15 It is continually applied to Jessica, and it is announced by Antonio to be the special quality of conversion: “Hie thee, gentle Jew. / The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind” (1.3.170-71). And the Duke, like Portia, pleads for Venice when he concludes his appeal by saying, “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” (4.1.34).

Jessica's action in the play is to bring to Christian society all the treasures of the Jew. If that is merely wealth and jewels, that is because those are the only forms a blessing can take at that time. But, like all the other properties and qualities in the play, they will soon be converted into something far more rich and fair.

Shylock vanishes from the play after his defeat, and he is replaced by Jessica, who is now installed at Belmont in Portia's place. The entire universe is singing, calling for human music as the only fit response. Lorenzo speaks of the intimate relationship between music and conversion, a truth which poets understand:

… therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods;
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath not music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treason, strategems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections are as dark as Erebus.


Earlier in the play, Shylock had shut his ears and those of his house against the power of music. But now, the universe itself is renewed by his conversion.

The similarity between these two fictions—one from an early moment in the great age of Greek tragedy, the other from the high Christian Renaissance—need testify to nothing more specific in culture than a constant pressure to exclude the fearsome other—and then express the price of that exclusion in painful or celebratory ways. What is excluded in Athens is the female, in London the racial other, the Jew: this has too often been the face of patriarchal justice in history. C. L. Barber's “key question,” “whether the baffling of Shylock is meaningful or simply melodramatic,” may not really express an opposition, for melodrama is simply meaningful when it sets up the other as a compendium of ugly qualities and repulsive desires, makes an unbreakable case for the justice of their/his case, and then slowly (and sweetly) reverses the power balance crushing the opponent in the grip, if not of social justice, then at least in the grip of that other justice, poetic justice, that mediates more intimately to our imaginary fears and desires.

Justice and the law is one pertinent fiction, marriage is another, and the shape of marriage in Shakespeare testifies in a cunning way to the centrality of this paradigm. That outsider who shows up one day to claim the daughter in marriage grows more intolerably other throughout his career: in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is simply an ordinary young Athenian but one whom the father, for no given reason, has forbidden. In The Merchant of Venice, he is a gentile, in Othello, he is a black African, and in the Tempest he is a depraved monster. Against his will, Prospero does what he must and puts an ordinary young Neapolitan in the place of that depraved monster, sets him to doing the monster's tasks, and slowly comes to accept the fact that the intruding other that stands between him and his sense of the fitness of things is at least a human being.


  1. Aeschylus, “The Eumenides,” in The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (The U of Chicago P, 1969) 136. Further page number citations will be made following each quotation.

  2. John Herington, Aeschylus (New Haven: Yale UP, 1986) 136-37; and Hesiod, Theogony, ed. Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983) 54.

  3. James C. Hogan, A Commentary on The Complete Greek Tragedies (U of Chicago P, 1984) 147.

  4. See C. L. Barber, “The Merchants and the Jew of Venice: Wealth's Communion and an Intruder,” in Modern Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970) 219-20; and Ludwig Kahn, “The Changing Image of the Jew,” in Identity and Ethos, ed. Mark H. Gelber (New York: Peter Lang, 1986) 246.

  5. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. M. M. Mahood (Cambridge U, 1987).

  6. Marc Shell, “The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice,The Kenyon Review, N.S. 1 (1979): 76.

  7. David Lucking adds one more such reference: “to the merchant himself, who appears on the scene while the Jew is discussing him with Bassanio, he remarks with a certain sly humor that ‘your worship was the last man in our mouths’ (I.iii.55)”; “The Merchant of Venice,The University of Toronto Quarterly 58 (1989): 357. See also Dennis R. Klinck, “Shylock and ‘Neschech,’” ELN 17 (1979); and Leslie Fiedler, “‘These Be the Christian Husbands,’” in The Merchant of Venice, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986) 73.

    For Theodor Reik, it is precisely the Jews' traditional excessive fear of blood that leads to the allegations of cannibalism; The Unknown Murderer (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945) 212-13.

  8. The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis James Child (New York: Dover Publications, 1965) 3: 240.

  9. David Bevington, “Introduction,” The Merchant of Venice (New York, Bantam Books, 1980) xxv.

  10. “Portia resorts to a legalism more literal-minded than Shylock's”; Harry Levin, “A Garden in Belmont,” in Shakespeare and Dramatic Tradition, ed. W. R. Elton and William B. Long (Newark, U of Delaware P, 1989) 16.

  11. Hogan 172.

  12. Walter Otto, The Homeric Gods (Boston: Beacon P, 1954) 20: the Erinyes “know only deeds, and if the fact of commission is established, words are useless”; “according to the law of blood the answer can only be No, and the Erinyes must maintain the law.”

  13. Herington 141 and 152.

  14. The two quibbles can also to be found in Shakespeare's source, Ser Giovanni's Il Pecorone; see Mahood 3 and Shell.

  15. Levin 20.

Karen Robertson (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of a revenge device, in particular, one that alludes to a classical narrative, the rape of Lucrece.

Revenge was a popular subject for tragedy between 1600 and 1602, with the revival of The Spanish Tragedy, and first performances of John Marston's Antonio's Revenge, Hamlet, and Henry Chettle's Hoffman. These plays explore the problems of the execution of justice in a fallen world and dramatize the difficulties facing the male avenger of blood. “Revenge” in tragedy evokes connotations of retribution, redress for wrongs, and execution of justice in the world.2 Curiously, Twelfth Night, written by Shakespeare around the same time as Hamlet, contains echoes that delicately and comically evoke the materials of revenge tragedy: a disrupted household, a ruler called a “tyrant,” and a malcontent pretender.3 Images of revenge cluster in particular around Malvolio, whose attempts to impose rule on the household precipitate a retributive imposition of order on him.

Analysis of the festive conflict between rule and misrule has deflected a consideration of the word “revenge” in the gulling plot, though Malvolio's final threat “I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you!” has received some critical discussion. Paul Siegel, who examines Malvolio at length as a Puritan, emphasizes the proud attempt at superiority in the line.4 Barbara Everett sees it as an indication that Malvolio is still bound to the court world that has engaged his imagination, though now in vengeance rather than ambition.5 Most recently Stephen Dickey considers the implication of the word “pack” to describe Malvolio as a harried bear, baited by a pack of English mastiffs.6 The threat, which momentarily darkens the festive scene, tightens a link made persistently between Malvolio and revenge, a term that resurfaces during the revelation of the gulling plot. Fabian, recognizing the provocation to retaliation implicit in the story, urges Malvolio to join in communal laughter rather than pursue redress: “May rather pluck on laughter than revenge” (5.1.365). Feste scotches Fabian's attempts at mitigation by triumphantly pointing out that any laughter is at Malvolio's expense: “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges” (5.1.375-76). The image places revenge within the inevitable, cyclical processes of time. Though time may be a “whirligig,” a child's toy, its revolutions are as inexorable as the wheel of fortune and even the fine, slow revolutions of the proverbial mills of God. Malvolio repudiates the interpretative positions offered to him, threatening redress, a threat that dissolves in Feste's song. His revenge stands poised, forever incomplete. Though revenge is turned to laughter in the comedy, the word carries both social and theological associations of the imposition of civil order and retributive justice.

Significantly, the feminine engine of vengeance which plucks on laughter is not a dagger, but a pen. The woman who writes exposes and challenges the gender hierarchies embedded in systems of literacy. In early modern England, reading and writing were distinctly separate skills allocated not only by class but also by gender. David Cressy's study of literacy in England demonstrates the restriction of writing to an elite population of educated males, while a vast group of male agricultural workers could not even sign their names. The illiteracy of the rural male agricultural population is matched only by that of women, between eighty and ninety percent of whom, Cressy calculates, were unable to sign their names.7 Cressy infers that the inability to write also implies the inability to read, an assumption that has been disputed by Margaret Spufford, among others.8 Writing may not have been a skill required or practiced in the performance of rural agricultural and domestic tasks, but the dissemination of reading skills can be extrapolated from other sources. The growth in numbers of books published for women by the end of the sixteenth century suggests a growing literate population of women prepared to buy and read conduct books, devotional works, cookbooks, and manuals of household advice.9 However much reading might have been considered an appropriate activity for women, particularly when direct access to the Bible was encouraged by the Reformation, women's literacy was still considered a danger that needed to be controlled.

Early Tudor educational reformers insisted on the maintenance of gender hierarchies within the literate population. A writer like the humanist Juan Luis Vives, though he argued for the value of education for women, was exceedingly concerned to control their reading. He objects to wide varieties of reading material for women, barring romances and urging the virtue of Cicero, Seneca, and Jerome.10 When it comes to writing, he enforces even greater restrictions for women. Vives argues that they should be set sentences to copy, disallowing composition in favor of the repetition of virtuous sayings.11 Such gender hierarchies are maintained in manuals that depict reading and writing; the man reads, while the woman listens. Authority is vested in male instructors, who interpret the law, while women submit. Jonathan Goldberg, in Writing Matter, reproduces the title pages of two Italian writing manuals that encapsulate the gender hierarchy embedded in writing lessons. The female pupils receive the letters written by the male writing masters. One even touches her breast in a gesture of submission remarkably similar to the gesture of the Virgin in depictions of the Annunciation. As Goldberg rightly observes “these title pages construct female sexuality as the work of male inscription.”12 Despite the achievements of a small group of highly educated women in early modern England, it is important to recognize the restrictions on feminine access to literacy.13

Later Elizabethan handwriting manuals do not seen conceptualized for female pupils, further suggesting the unimportance of penmanship for women. The earliest writing manual published in England, by De Beauchesne (1570), consisting of a series of copy texts in different hands, is directed at young people. It opens with a sequence of verses offering mnemonics for the mechanics of preparation of ink, choice of quills, posture of the body, and production of letters. Though the children to whom it is directed may include girls, the verses imagine a specifically gendered male “solven” who blots his paper: “What that his Paper dooth blurre or elles blott, / Yealdes me a sloven it falles hymn by lotte.”14 Twenty years later, in 1590, Peter Bales directs The Writing Schoolmaster specifically to those professional men who will find useful his system of “brachygraphie,” a speedwriting technique, to “all young students, either in Divinite, Phyisicke, or the Law.” He further recommends his technique “for Ambassadors, Messengers, Travailers into farre countries, for the speedie & readie description of the place, maners, customes, policie, and government of each Nation.”15 Bales, publishing twenty years after De Beauchesne's first handwriting text in England, signals the burgeoning of professional institutions that required handwriting skills; religion, medicine, law, and diplomacy were all gendered arenas closed to women. De Beauchesne did dedicate a later writing manual (c. 1595) to the three daughters of Gilbert Talbot, a dedication that admits feminine pupils to skills but reinforces class distinctions around literacy.16

The manuals form part of the technology of literacy that will naturalize skills around particular bodies. Paying close attention to the disposition of the body, the manuals participate in the class and gender transformations of the natural body.17 De Beauchesne and Bales offer careful instructions on body posture and the manipulation of the pen. Bales cautions “Place not your elbowe too close to your bodie, nor too farre of from it, but in a comely and easie manner lay both your armes before you, as it shall best be seeme you, and as it shall be most easie for you, the better to endure to.” Further attention is paid to the posture of the body at the desk. De Beauchesne offers a particularly stringent discipline for the deployment of the hand in four diagrams of the hand and forearm called “How you ought to hold your Penne.” Two diagrams of the properly held pen labelled “good” are set next to two diagrams of the mishandled pen, significantly labelled “Naught.” The hand in the illustration is cut off from the body, seemingly neutral in gender. While Goldberg discusses this dismemberment of the hand from the body and does see “feminization even as it founds the privileged male subject,” he does not extend the possible gender connotations embedded in the word “naught.”18 Overtly a label for the hand faulty in method, “naught” readily conjures associations to sexual license, particularly if the writing hand is the instrument of a feminine body. Such restrictions make Maria's ease in composition intriguing.

Maria is not the only household servant to demonstrate remarkable literacy. Cesario criticizes as well as delivers his master's love orations, commenting that they are “well penned” (1.5.175). Feste catechizes his mistress and ably disguises himself as the curate, Sir Topas. Malvolio uses “pen, ink, and paper” (4.2.84) to write his way out of imprisonment. The ease of the servants in composition, reading, and critical commentary is set against the limitations of the gentry, as embodied in the knight, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who has extraordinary difficulty in even forming letters. While Maria mimics the hand of her mistress with ease, Sir Toby comments on Sir Andrew's challenge to Cesario, “Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou write with a goose-pen, no matter” (3.2.47-48). Maria's construction of the revenge device wins the reward of status mobility and marriage into the gentry, infusing that class with her energetic skill. Malvolio's exposure through the manipulation of a pen by a female servant marks a shift from status mobility achieved through the traditional masculine activity of dueling to the newer skills of reading and writing.

Even apart from her ability in penmanship, Maria, the skillful forger, is a curious figure in Olivia's household, her status and authority unclearly defined. She is first described as Olivia's “handmaid” (1.1.25), a suggestion that significantly links her hand with that of her mistress. She is later called my niece's “chambermaid,” as well as, “gull catcher,” “device,” “wren,” “little villain,” and “Penthesilea.” This fluidity of names marks the flexibility of her place in the household. As a lady in waiting, she would sleep beside Olivia, the place desired by many, and she carries the keys to the buttery, thus controlling domestic access to food and drink. Although she is without the titular authority of Malvolio's position as steward, she does exercise some admonitory power over the revellers, reprimanding them for noisiness and attempting to contain their behavior.19

John Caird's production in 1985 for the Royal Shakespeare Company underscored the structural parallels between Maria and Malvolio by dressing her like him in an unadorned black costume, Puritan in its simplicity. In a deliberate subversion of the conventional representation of a boisterous and merry chambermaid, Gemma Jones played Maria as a fussy and somewhat bitter figure. The oddity of the characterization underscored Caird's deliberate emphasis on the play's melancholy. Yet the visual doubling of Malvolio and Maria through their black clothing forced a rather too simple parallel between the two servants. Though both servants hold an uneasy status in the household, and both are class aspirants who desire to rise through marriage, Maria understands her world better than Malvolio and speaks easily to gentry and fools.20 As Maria Lugones, E. V. Spelman, and bell hooks have noted, the subordinated or marginalized woman must understand and read the codes of the dominant culture, for her survival depends on such reading. “We have to participate in it [your world], make a living in it, live in it, be mistreated in it, be ignored in it, and rarely, be appreciated in it.”21 Too overt a doubling of Maria and Malvolio can mask the parallels that need to be recognized between Maria and Viola.22 Within the two households of the play, Maria and Viola float without kin to support them. Each is entirely dependent on the master or mistress of the house. Though Maria moves freely about the house and actually first enters with Sir Toby, she clearly derives her authority from her connection to Olivia. Her first words are of “my lady.” Viola only dreams of joining herself to the Lady Olivia—“O that I served that lady” (1.2.41)—Maria has done so.

Viola's agency is expended in her offstage assumption of male disguise and convincing mimicry of a gentleman's speech; she then cedes the resolution of the plot to time. Maria engages in a deliberate and energetic construction of the revenge plot against Malvolio. Maria not only drops a deliberately forged letter in the garden for Malvolio to find, but she arranges Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian as witnesses to Malvolio's reception of the letter, purporting to be a love letter from Olivia full of encouragement to Malvolio's desire.

Maria engineers Malvolio's self-exposure through a full understanding of her opponent's flaws: “The devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly, but a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass, that cons state without book, and utters it by great swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so crammed (as he thinks) with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him: and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work” (2.3.146-53). The movement in this speech from Puritan, to self-satisfaction, to revenge produces a condensed set of associations. While “Puritan” may simply be a term of abuse, as in a contemporary insult noted by Patrick Collinson,23 Malvolio's self-approval seems to signal a more direct attack on the self-appraisal implicit in Calvinist searches for evidence of election. The final movement to “revenge” hints at Puritan valorization of the Old Testament that led them to be called Hebrews or Jews.24 Maria is critical of Malvolio's exercises in self-fashioning and self-improvement, “that cons state without book.” She mocks and exposes his attempts at class advancement through the recitation of phrases memorized from books of government while choosing as her mechanism of revenge the skill in handwriting that marks her as a potentially successful class aspirant: “On a forgotten matter we can hardly make distinction of our hands” (2.3.160-62). Unlike Margaret in Much Ado About Nothing, the servant who unwittingly stands in the place of her mistress, Maria deliberately disguises herself, or at least her own handwriting, to expose a reading practice that is gendered male.

This comic revenger, like the revengers of tragedy, cunningly constructs a revenge device suited exactly to the exposure of her antagonist. Malvolio's revelation of his sexual and marital fantasies precedes his opening of the letter and underscores the canniness of Maria's revenge trap. (Her awareness of his desires may be that she herself reflects them in her fantasies of marriage with Toby.) She knows her reader well and has provided him with a riddle that he will misread readily. Malvolio makes a number of interpretive errors. First he mistakes the letters C, U, and T as signals of Olivia's hand. He assumes because the seal is Olivia's, the letter is from her hand, and then he twists from the letters, M, O, A, and I, his own name. Absolute assurance of his own interpretive skill—“Why, this is evident to any formal capacity” (2.5.117-18)—leads him to follow the instructions of the letter exactly, so that the worlds of the text are expressed on his body, cross-gartered, in yellow stockings and smiling.

Malvolio has no hesitation about opening an unclearly addressed letter. He confidently breaks the wax of the seal: “By your leave, wax. Soft! and the impressure her Lucrece, with which she uses to seal” (2.5.94-95). Olivia's Lucrece seal is a teasing device, one that seems at first to admonish only the illegitimate reader. The contents inside must remain concealed from all but the legitimate recipient of the letter, as Lucrece's body must be preserved for the legitimate embraces of her husband. Yet the seal in wax must be broken even by the rightful reader, shifting reading from legitimate intercourse to suggestions of rape. Malvolio's willingness to break the seal places him in a version of the rape of Lucrece. He forces meaning from the words both to legitimize his initial assumption that he is the addressee of the letter and to find further proof for his conviction of self-worth. He acknowledges that his interpretive techniques require the use of force, though he finds little problem in interpreting “I may command where I adore.” “There is no obstruction in this” (2.5.118-19). Later he inadvertently admits that his interpretation requires a violation. Though the letters do not quite match those of his name, he can force them to fit: “This simulation is not as the former: and yet, to crush this a little, it would bow to me” (2.5.139-40). The particular lines from which Malvolio crushes meaning enclose a second admonitory reference to Lucrece, “silence, like a Lucrece knife,” though it fails to make Malvolio hesitate (2.5.107). Tarquin's rape of Lucrece, a story already told directly by Shakespeare in narrative verse and then partially embodied in the figure of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, is a story in which a tyrant is overthrown, after he forces his desire on the body of a woman. This fleeting reminder and recapitulation of a tragic revenge narrative has a teasing comic suggestiveness. In this play, Malvolio becomes a reader willing to force meaning from the body of the text, an act which provokes laughter not death, though his tyrannical will to force his own desire onto the text enrages his on-stage observers. The audience in the theater watches as a self-satisfied reader interprets a letter exactly as predicted to find in his reading the replica of his own desires. The audience is satisfied by Malvolio's complete exposure in fulfillment of Maria's project. Secure in their laughter and comfortably amused at witnessing Malvolio's torture of meaning from letters, those who watch are allowed to conceptualize themselves as free from such brutal interpretive tendencies.

As the audience laughs in delight at Malvolio's self-exposure, they also are brought to laugh at a bad reader who has dangerously simple notions of gender. Malvolio is a reader devoted to a narrow conceptualization of women, for he believes that feminine hands are necessarily bound to produce the truth of their minds. For Malvolio, it is unconceivable that a feminine hand could disguise itself or deceive the masculine interpreter, an assumption that contrasts with Viola's alertness to the possibility of disguise when she warily asks before she begins her wooing speech “I pray you tell me if this be the lady of the house, for I never saw her” (1.5.172). Malvolio lacks even the awareness of Vives who, fearful of the dangers of literacy for women, binds them to a training through the copying out of “some sad sentences” so that hand and mind will produce those texts suitable and constraining of women's dangerous lability.

These narrative reminders of Lucrece and the tyrant transform Malvolio's reading practices into an overtly gendered activity. The feminine text lies defenseless and chaste, to be broken and assaulted by the masculine reader. Lee Patterson, in considering the “Wife of Bath's Tale” observes that:

The language of poetry, as enacted by the poet and received by the reader, was often conceived in the Middle Ages in sexual, and specifically in feminine terms. … The Wife's analogy between her “joly body” and the corpus of her text invokes a powerful medieval connection between sexuality and reading. The locus classicus for this connection is Augustine's misreading of the Aeneid, when he was seduced into weeping for the death of Dido while remaining unmoved by the dying of his own soul.”25

Malvolio engages in a violently gendered reading activity, where he forces the meaning of the letters and twists the words to suit his projection of his own desire. Like Tarquin, the violator of Lucrece, he forces his desires on the text, and is recklessly unaware of the possibility of alternative meanings. What Malvolio takes to be a love letter is actually a trap to expose his own self-satisfactions. Malvolio cannot read the plot against him, because he can see only his own desire.

In the Lucrece story, the silencing of the feminine voice is a crucial aspect of the rape.

The wolf hath seiz'd his prey, the poor lamb cries,
Till with her own white fleece her voice controll'd
Entombs her outcry in her lips' sweet fold.

(Lucrece 677-79)

Coppélia Kahn has noted the displacement upward in this passage from the female genitalia or the ‘sweet fold’ below.26 Like the silenced lips of Lucrece, the meaning of the letter is smothered in the folds of the paper, while Malvolio proceeds to enact his desires on the text. Such reading practice is exposed as dangerous to the reader who engages in it. Malvolio's activities of false logic and inadequate analogies are held up for audience derision and pleasure, while exposing Malvolio's tendencies toward force as well as his class ambitions. The revenging hand of a female character constructs a tempting morsel of paper that exposes the domestic tyrant hidden in the guise of the steward. Significantly, Maria removes herself from the scene, forcing the substitution of Fabian as third witness to Malvolio's self-exposure. Maria's absence from the scene—presumably so that the audience's delighted laughter at Malvolio's exposure is not inhibited by the presence of a feminine witness—becomes a little replay of the silence of Lucrece. On her silent or absent body the revenge is sworn.27 Maria becomes a witty revenger, a feminine writer who constructs a device of Lucrece that enables her Brutus and Collatine to swear revenge. Toby and Sir Andrew become the instruments of her revenge, the male witnesses to the tyrant's actions who join in a comic band of revengers to swear vengeance. Yet her silence is deliberately chosen, unlike the silence of the rape victim. Although Maria withdraws from the scene, in a deliberate removal from participation in the on-stage judgment of Malvolio's behavior that suggests Lucrece's silence, yet in this comic vengeance, the virgin is allowed to rise and triumph. The silence invoked in this letter is not the bloody silence of feminine suicide, but a silence deliberately chosen to entrap and expose the masculine pretender. “Silence, like a Lucrece knife, / With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore” (2.5.105-106). Maria's text will be embodied in Malvolio's costume of cross-garters and his blinkered confidence that he knows his lady's meaning, a silence that will provoke laughter in Maria and Olivia, as well as the audience. The letter celebrates the interpretive resistance of the text, and the happy survival of the feminine revenger.

A further chastisement through laughter is directed at Malvolio for his reductive interpretation of the letters. Malvolio sees in the feminine hand those body parts he most desires: “these be her very C's, her U's, and her T's.” For him the feminine hand promises the cut (or according to Lothian and Craik in their Arden edition a ‘water gap’), a reductive reading of femininity that finds sexual difference necessarily and essentially rooted in female genitalia. This reductive collapse of the feminine into body parts produces laughter at the bawdy joke, a laughter given edge by masculine anxieties around sexual difference. Any disturbing anxiety over the absent phallus, embodied in the figure of the “cut” a reminder of the myth of feminine castration, is veiled by Malvolio's decision that the lady's pen writes the narrative he desires. His rise in class will be guaranteed by his access to these organs of sexual difference. For Malvolio all female hands promise the same body parts. Like Viola, Olivia is aware of differences between women and is immediately able to distinguish her hand from that of her servant. “Alas, Malvolio, this is not my writing, / Though I confess much like the character” (5.1.345-46).

Malvolio is exposed as a bad reader who forces from texts the meanings he desires, plucking from Maria's letter a projection of his own desire, a satisfaction of his self-love. His interest in Olivia, depicted in his fantasy of leaving her “in my branched velvet gown, having come from a day-bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping” (2.5.47-49) has been exposed as a fantasy of self-love and lust unlike Viola's, for example, whose love for Orsino engages her in sacrifice of self desires.28 Malvolio's is a love that uses others instrumentally, imagining Olivia's sleeping body as one that exists to provide him with class advancement as well as sexual satisfaction. Such ambition, ripe for correction, leads to his misreading of the letter and his projection of his own desire into his reading of the text.

The comic observation scene binds audience and observers into a community of interpreters. Malvolio is the isolated misreader whose projection of himself into the text is encouraged both by the on-stage observers, though their outrage threatens to mar the jest, and the audience whose mirth is guaranteed by Malvolio's self-exposure. The values enforced through the laughter insist on the closure of the aristocratic female body from the depredations of the ambitious middle class male while opening the possibility of the entrance of the middling female into the ranks of the aristocracy: “Excellent wench, say I” (2.5.111). The comic echo of the rape of Lucrece guarantees also that this household tyrant will be overthrown—though not for the formation of a republic but for a series of new, oddly gendered marriages.

Maria's construction of the revenge device places her in an oddly masculine position, while Malvolio, the reader of a love letter, is feminized in his exposure. Maria picks up Toby's notion of the writing of a challenge and writes revenge, without torture or difficulty.29 She is entirely successful, with a pen far more skillful than Toby's sword. His acknowledgement of her superior use of weapons is hinted at in his tribute to her as his Penthesilea (2.3.177). Toby, after celebrating Maria as a beagle, then invites Sir Andrew that, should his marriage to Olivia fail, “call me cut” (2.3.187). Here Toby places himself in disturbing proximity to a docked horse or a gelding. A marriage consummated between a cut and an Amazon (and one whose pen is mightier than his sword) plays out a further version of gender confusion, in which the fallible gentry is infused with the literate energies of an energetic revenging hand.30 Maria seems in part to suggest the success of the hand of the middling writer whose ease in the construction of revenge plots and ability to clothe his hand and body in multiple disguises wins him superior class status and approval, while Malvolio's energetic torturing of letters for hidden meanings that he desires to see could suggest the censor eager to ferret out in letters signals of treachery or the Puritan searching for signs of election.31 Yet I am reluctant to cede all possibilities of textual production to masculine hands, by collapsing the figure of Maria simply into a disguised reminder of a successful middling male writer opposed to the government censor or Puritan antagonists to the stage. Let me suggest a further association for the successful feminine hand disguising itself in letters. Maria's wit and energy could also remind one of the energetic pen of Isabella Whitney whose failure to achieve economic support through marriage and her subsequent withdrawal from London is hinted at in her Wyll and Testament. Note Whitney's sharp observation about the economic constraints on the marriage of apprentices in London: “And handsome men, that must not wed / except they leave their trade. / They oft shal seeke for proper Gyrles, / and some perhaps shall fynde: / That neede compels, or lucre lures / to satisfye their mind” (ll. 165-70).32 Could Maria be a version of Isabella Whitney—fresh, insightful, witty—one who can construct with her pen the traps that will expose the ambitions of those around her? Whitney's Wyll (1573) wittily mourns her departure from London for economic reasons and also marks her silencing as a published writer. Whitney was a woman writer necessarily dependent on some alternative form of income, not yet able to exist solely as a professional writer, not yet freed from the household, dependent on marriage or a place in service for the economic support necessary for her survival.

The letter scene, one of the finest in English comedy, encapsulates a warning to all interpreters. When Malvolio coerces the meanings he desires from a text deliberately constructed to deceive him, he is exposed as an unwary reader who bases his interpretations on false presumptions of his own superiority as well as assumptions about the stability of gender categories. However much he may believe that feminine hands must be bound to produce access to the body parts he desires, the witty revenger who removes herself from the stage to write the forgery that traps him is actually a cross-dressed boy actor. In constructing a counterfeit that traps the domestic tyrant, the forger wins the marital prize of status elevation that had been the aim of the male reader of the letter. Awareness of the instability of identity and texts is rewarded. Malvolio, who wants to bind a stable and singular interpretation to the text of the letter, instead binds himself in cross-garters. While the letter scene may give point to those humanist educators anxious about the possibilities of feminine textual production, the device celebrates the disruptions and possibilities of a “radically unstable” textuality.33


  1. William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London: Methuen, The Arden Shakespeare, 1975), 5.1.377. All quotations from Twelfth Night are from this edition. All other Shakespearean quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, eds. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. Ronald Broude in “Four Forms of Vengeance in Titus AndronicusJEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology] 78 (1980): 494-507, lists human sacrifice, the vendetta, “state justice which upholds civil order,” and divine vengeance (495).

  3. In the final scene, Orsino names Olivia a “marble-breasted tyrant still” (5.1.122).

  4. Paul N. Siegel, “Malvolio: Comic Puritan Automaton,” New York Literary Forum 5-6 (1980): 228.

  5. Barbara Everett, “Or What You Will,” Essays in Criticism 35 (1985): 309.

  6. Stephen Dickey, “Shakespeare's Mastiff Comedy,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 255-75. Jonathan Bate in Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) senses Actaeon in the word ‘pack’, 147.

  7. See Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980). Women are buried in the statistical tables, but loom as a large illiterate group.

  8. See in particular, Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1981), 32-33, and Note 11, 38. Two hundred years later, Frederick Douglass's description of his acquisition of writing by copying the letters carved on ships' timbers and challenging literate boys to writing competitions suggests the means by which determined members of deliberately excluded and subordinated groups could acquire writing skills outside of the approved institutional contexts, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, ed. Benjamin Quarles (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1960), 57-58.

  9. Suzanne W. Hull, Chaste Silent and Obedient: English Books for Women 1475-1640 (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1982).

  10. See his chapter, “What bokes to be redde and what nat,” The Instruction of a Christian Woman, trans. Richard Hyrde (London, 1529), Eiiir-Eivv.

  11. See Valerie Wayne “Some Sad Sentence: Vives' Instruction of a Christian Woman” in Silent But for the Word, ed. Margaret Hannay (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985), 15-29, in particular 22-23.

  12. Jonathan Goldberg, Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 145. See pp. 142-45 for illustration and discussion of two early sixteenth century manuals by Giovanbaptista Verini, La Ultissima Opera da Imparare a Scrivere (Milan:?1530's) and the revision, La Ultissima Opera (1538) which illustrate women receiving lessons in handwriting. The disruptive consequences of handwriting lessons are treated comically in Thomas Dekker's Westward Ho (1604), when the jealous husband disguises himself as a writing teacher.

  13. For discussion of women's education, see Margaret King, Women of the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 164-72 and Jonathan Goldberg, 137-155. For general comments on education in the household, see Kate Mertes, The English Noble Household 1250-1600 (London: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 170-76.

  14. De Beauchesne, A Booke Containing divers sortes of hands (1570), STC 6445.5.

  15. Peter Bales, The Writing Schoolmaster, (1590), STC 1312, C1r.

  16. The book is dedicated to the Ladies Mary, Elizabeth and Althea Talbot, daughters of Gilbert, Earl of Shrewsbury and grandaughters of Bess of Hardwick. (The unique copy is in the Newberry Library, Chicago.) For discussion of De Beauchesne see Berthold Wolpe's account in A. S. Osley, Scribes and Sources (London: Faber, 1980), 227-40.

  17. See Peter Stallybrass on the gender implications of the Bakhtinian distinctions between the grotesque and classical body in “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, eds. Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 123-42.

  18. Goldberg, Writing Matter, 93, 99.

  19. For a discussion of household servants, see Ann Kussmaul, Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) and Kate Mertes, 52-74. For a discussion of the status of a single woman in the household, see Vivien Brodsky Elliott, “Single Women in the London Marriage Market: Age, Status and Mobility, 1598-1619,” Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage, ed. R. B. Outhwaite (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982), 81-100. See Cristina Malcolmson, “‘What You Will’: Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night” in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 29-57, for careful consideration of the class issues of the play.

  20. See Peter Stallybrass (134) and Frank Whigham, Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) for insight into the figure of the male class aspirant.

  21. Maria Lugones and Elizabeth V. Spelman, “Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for ‘The Woman's Voice,’” in Women and Values 2nd ed., Marilyn Pearsall (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1993), 18-29, particularly 22. See also bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End, 1984), 60.

  22. Cristina Malcolmson makes a similar observation, though her work concentrates, for the most part, on connections between Malvolio and Viola. In the Caird production, Maria seemed older than Olivia and certainly older than Viola, a variation on the marriage norms suggested by Elliott: “City and country dwellers alike, therefore, tended in the main to marry for the first time between the ages 26 and 30” (82).

  23. Patrick Collinson notes a detail from the autobiography of Richard Baxter, a seventeenth century divine, “who remembered that his father, a yeoman farmer in rural Shropshire, was slandered by his neighbours as a puritan, chiefly because on Sundays he read Scripture with his family instead of joining the rest of the village in piping and dancing under the great tree which grew outside his door” from The Autobiography of Richard Baxter, abridged J. M. Lloyd Thomas (London: N. H. Keeble, 1974), 6, quoted by Collinson in English Puritanism General Series 106 (London: The Historical Association, 1983), 9. For further discussion of the term Puritan see also Collinson's The Puritan Character: Polemics and Polarities in Early Seventeenth-Century English Culture (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, 1989) and The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), 23-28.

  24. Cf. the epithet “rabbi,” for Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in Ben Jonson's Bartholmew Fair, ed. G. R. Hibbard (New York: Norton, New Mermaids, 1977), 1.4.112.

  25. Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 289. See also Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989) for discussion of this issue.

  26. Coppélia Kahn, “Lucrece: The Sexual Politics of Subjectivity,” Rape and Representation, eds. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 149.

  27. For the placement of the figure of Lucrece in representations see Ian Donaldson, Rapes of Lucretia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). Two works lie behind my understanding of the meaning of the figure of Lucrece, Patricia Klindienst Joplin, “The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours” in Rape and Representation, ed. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 35-64, and Stephanie Jed, Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

  28. See Malcolmson for a similar observation.

  29. Her ease contrasts with the struggles of women who write in revenge tragedies. Compare Lavinia in Titus Andronicus or Bel-Imperia in The Spanish Tragedy, who writes a letter in her own blood.

  30. For a Lacanian analysis of the confusions of the play of the signifier and signified, see Laurie Osborne's essay “Letters, Lovers, Lacan: Or Malvolio's Not-So-Purloined Letter” Assays 5 (1989): 63-89, which, like mine, concentrates on the particularities of Maria's hand. See also Jonathan Goldberg's richly suggestive paragraph on the letter scene in “Textual Properties,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 213-17.

  31. See Annabel Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), particularly chapter 2, on questions of censorship and writing.

  32. “‘The Wyll and Testament’ of Isabella Whitney,” ed. Betty Travitsky, ELR [English Literary Renaissance] 10 (1980): 76-95.

  33. Jonathan Goldberg, “Textual Properties”: “These scenes, I would argue, do not allegorize a notion of the text itself. Rather, they point to a textuality that is radically unstable, upon which plots move, characters are (de)formed, language and observation is (improperly) staged. They point, that is, to historical and cultural demarcations, to what passes for essences, desires, knowledge, and the like” (217).

Richard Madelaine (essay date 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Almodovar end). The colloquial sense of ‘snuffing’ as the extinguishing of life was as familiar in Renaissance England as ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light’ or ‘Out, out, brief candle’ suggest. But the idea of a scene in which an intense sexual encounter culminates in the literal death of one or more participants was also familiar, and, though it was not named in the same way, the themes and conventions of the ‘snuff’ scene were understood by audiences, and used, varied or alluded to in conscious fashion by dramatists. The best-known allusion to the idea of ‘snuffing’ is Hamlet's contemplating doing it to Claudius in ‘th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed’.2 Arden's imagination is more murderously rife in Arden of Faversham,3 when he sees himself dismembering his cuckolder in the defiled bed and leaving him ‘smeared in the charnel of his lustful blood’. In Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy an intended ‘snuff’ scene goes badly wrong for Lussurioso when he tries to kill Spurio in bed with the Duchess but finds that she is, untypically, in bed with her husband instead.

Meditating on the disposal of Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII, Wolsey says:

This candle burns not clear, 'tis I must snuff it,
Then out it goes.(4)

He seems to have found the righteous indignation of a justicer or revenger who considers that ‘to put the light out of such base offenders’ (as Evadne calls it in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy)5 is an enlightened rather than a darkling intention. Wolsey is using the verb ‘snuff’ primarily in the figurative sense of ‘purge’, derived from the practice of trimming candles to make them burn more brightly; such, of course, was the practice at the Blackfriars between acts. A burning candle is a common Renaissance emblem of human life; an English, if late, example of a snuffing emblem is Time contending with Death over the snuffing of a candle in Quarles's Hieroglyphickes.6 In the same emblematic mode, Tourneur gives the Puritan Languebeau Snuffe his satirical surname in The Atheist's Tragedy, since that former candlemaker extinguishes the light rather than revealing it by example or purifying it when he finds it. In his hypocrisy, Snuffe is sootily and insubstantially commonplace, a ‘slender snuffe’7 of trivial pursuits and comic action: Robert Armin used the name Snuffe as a nom de plume.

In ‘snuff’ scenes of this period, unlike those of today's cinema, there is a Wolsey-like sense, among some of the characters at least, of the purging of infected blood: in King Lear,8 Gloucester speaks of his ‘snuff and loathed part of nature’ ‘burn[ing] itself out’; in tragedy this normally results in the extinguishing of the ‘loose flame’ (Evadne again).9 Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline dramatists used such scenes for the simultaneous titillation and edification of their audiences, exploiting the perennial fascination with sex and violence. At this point I should perhaps say that I am using the term ‘audience’ as received shorthand, to indicate collections of individuals who ‘read’ by using their eyes as much as their ears. Andrew Gurr's discussion of Elizabethan distinctions between auditors and spectators10 is salutary, but I do not believe that the average Jacobean audience member made such a distinction; indeed the oratorical and emblematic traditions militated against it. To some extent, so did the notion of witnessing, as an interplay of hearing and seeing, in significant rituals such as marriages or executions, and in his famous poem Raleigh uses the theatre audience as a metaphor for God's role as witness and judge of human actions:

Heauen the Iudicious sharpe spectator is,
That sits and markes still who doth act amisse.(11)

In crucial scenes of Othello the interplay of hearing and seeing is an important issue for characters as witnesses, as it is for the audience as witnesses.

The importance of the element of spectacle for Shakespeare's early audiences is clearly indicated by the well-known comments of Henry Jackson on the King's Men's performance of Othello in Oxford in 1610. In such tragedies, he says:

not only through speaking but also through acting certain things, they moved (the audience) to tears. But truly the celebrated Desdemona, slain in our presence by her husband, although she pleaded her case very effectively throughout, yet moved (us) more after she was dead, when, lying on her bed, she entreated the pity of the spectators by her very countenance.12

We have some evidence that actors of the period were able to arouse audiences in other ways, too. The Puritan I.H. denounced actors

who by their wantonizing stage-gestures can ingle and seduce men to heave up their hearts and affections … by how much more exact these are in their venerean action, by so much more highly are they seated in the monster-headed multitude's estimation.13

What I. H. does not recognize is that much ‘venerean action’ integrates the sensational with the symbolic. Spurio the Bastard comments explicitly on the nature of sensual participation in The Revenger's Tragedy. ‘One incestuous kiss picks open hell’, he says appreciatively, and ‘Best side to us is the worst side to heaven’.14 What titillates the characters and the audience makes the all-seeing eye of heaven glare; short-term pleasures produce long-term pains. Such moments are godsends to dramatists, because they enable them to give their audiences vicarious pleasures, in seeing that violently excitable ends have violent delights, and to show them that violent delights have violent ends. The violence of these ends is also sensational, but less ambiguously didactic; it is the means by which the dramatists shape chaotic sensationalism into a didacticism that reorders the universe by snuffing those flames that give more heat than light. An I.H. may be inclined to label such scenes pornographic, but ‘snuff’ dramatists assumed a greater range of response in their audiences, including the ability to see that erotic violence may be a means to a moral and aesthetic end. Audiences witness the revenger's snuff justice, but almost invariably they also witness the revenger's destruction: God's revenge exacted on the human instrument.

A ‘snuff’ scene of the period ‘requires’ a sensational situation that involves intimate contact between lovers whose relationship is regarded as illicit (or, as in the case of Othello, is more subtly associated with lust) and emphasizes the connections between dying in jest and in earnest.15 It also ‘needs’, in that situation, an apparent sexual intention on the part of at least one participant, and the death, as climax of the scene, of at least one. It is sometimes difficult to define sexual intention, and there is room for some ambiguity, as in Middleton's The Changeling, Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore—or Othello. Desdemona's ‘Will you come to bed, my lord?’ (5.2.24), after her husband has woken her with a kiss, establishes well enough her assumption, and though the audience is aware of Othello's murderous bent, it may not assume that one intention entirely excludes the possibility of the other. Many modern critics would agree with Roger Stilling's assessment that ‘love and death fight in Othello's heart even on the point of the murder’16 and with the conclusion of Walter C. Foreman Jr that ‘both of these passions, the urge to love and the urge to kill, are sexual’.17 It may well be that Shirley is building upon his response to contemporary performances of Desdemona's murder when he makes his Cardinal at least as amorous as vengeful after kissing the Duchess in The Cardinal.18 But in Shakespeare's scene, the likelihood of murder is plain and the erotic element is understated, though Desdemona's expectations are a vital element, too. She has had the nuptial sheets put on the bed, but in a moment of foreboding she contemplates one of them serving as her shroud (4.3.23-4). Certainly, in more censorious times ‘Will you come to bed, my lord?’ was accounted offensive and deleted in performance.19

There is a good deal of suspenseful ambivalence at the beginning of the scene in relation to kissing and killing, and it has psychological validity in terms of Othello's divided responses and his action of waking Desdemona with a kiss (in the context of his associating kissing with killing; when Olivier played the role in 1964, he strangled her on a kiss).20 The kissing and killing notion is ironically and erotically related to the idea of the ‘restorative’ power of kissing (as in Juliet's kissing the dead Romeo, Cleopatra's embracing the dying Antony, or the old Duke's trying to enliven the ‘bony lady’, in fact a skull, in The Revenger's Tragedy), and more generally to the thematic relationship between love and death that Shakespeare had explored fairly extensively in Romeo and Juliet: C. R. Forker writes of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet as ‘a mutual suicide that … re-enacts their sexual consummation’.21 Sexual passion is by its nature violent and short-lived, forbidden love courts death, death is the ultimate climax: thus, if Death is to be personified, he may be imagined as keeping a paramour, or indeed as liable to commit rape (as D'Amville suggests in Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy).22 To die upon a kiss is a fitting and desirable prospect for a star-crossed lover, because an eternal reunion is in sight;23 but when Tourneur makes the notion more literal by poisoning the kiss itself24 in the skull-in-tires ‘snuff’ scene in The Revenger's Tragedy, he presents the prospect from a different perspective that looks at the sinfulness of lust and, beyond that, to an eternity of violent pain. In Othello the protagonist wants to kiss and kill, and as thwarted lover he has a foreboding sense of eternal pain. Desdemona's waking, and the awakening of her eloquence of word and gesture under threat, create further uncertainty in themselves: earlier Othello had said, ‘I'll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again’ (4.1.192-3). Of course, Othello makes it plain very early in the scene (and earlier in the play; he has been speaking of killing her since the end of 3.3) that his purpose is murder, but the scene's eroticism does not die with the victim. In both the murder of Desdemona and the scene partly modelled on it in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, the respondent has wilfully made a corpse of the woman he desires, only to find that desire does not cease when the other's breath is stopped. In both plays the momentary return to life of the victim complicates the audience's response to the relationship between body and corpse.

But the murder of Desdemona is not merely to be numbered among the many ‘snuff’ scenes that conform to a pattern displaying the erotically violent end of lustful men or women. First, it was written early in the ‘development’ of ‘snuff’ themes and conventions and is consequently comparatively original and comparatively mild. We can surely assume Shakespeare's interest in the themes and conventions of violently erotic scenes; after all, he had used sensational elements associating lust with violence in Titus Andronicus25 and sexual love with violence in Romeo and Juliet. Of memorable scenes written early enough to have influenced Shakespeare's writing of Desdemona's murder, two—the apparent killing of Ferneze in Marston's The Malcontent26 and the murder of the King in Marlowe's Edward II27—are not true ‘snuff’ scenes, but may have heightened Shakespeare's awareness of the dramatic potential of such. What I believe to have been the major influence in this respect was the ‘bower’ scene in Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, that most popular of plays, and one revived shortly before Shakespeare wrote Othello. He presumably wrote it in 1603, and it seems to have been first produced in 1604.28 The Admiral's Men revived The Spanish Tragedy in 1601-02 and the King's Men played Jeronimo, which I take to be the same play, in 1602-03.29 Of all Elizabethan and Jacobean ‘snuff’ scenes, the bower scene is perhaps the most erotic and, in terms of macabre dramatization of the familiar ‘dying’ jest, the most graphic. There is possibly a verbal echo of Hieronimo's famous rhetorical reaction to the loss of his son in Othello's ‘I have no wife’ (98), but of course Shakespeare's line also builds on the protagonist's renunciation of the ‘cunning whore of Venice’ (4.2.88-9).

The murder of Desdemona is not a run-of-the-mill ‘snuff’ scene for the other good reason that it was written by the mature Shakespeare. In the murder of Desdemona, he plays with audience expectations in a manipulative way (or, in literary terms, an ironic way). This manipulation relies on his knowledge, as a sharer in the King's Men, of audiences and repertoire (what we may perhaps call the repertoire of audiences' expectations), as well as on the desire of a dramatist of genius (whose first revenge tragedy, with his first Moor, was Titus Andronicus) to explore situations and their implications to the limit. The ‘snuff’ themes and conventions provide a milieu for Othello the revenger to act in; but Shakespeare's variants ironize Othello's conception and actions for the audience. Othello, unlike the killers in early ‘snuff’ scenes, but like those in later ones, is not literally an outsider who intrudes on lustful twines; yet he is, in a psychological sense, an outsider in the societies of Venice and Cyprus, and his ‘possession’ by Iago makes him an alien in Desdemona's bedroom. More importantly, Shakespeare reverses the usual ‘snuff’ situation by making the victim innocent of lust, though believed guilty by her lover-killer. Other women murdered in ‘snuff’ scenes of the period are lustfully active in notably subversive ways,30 even if their involvement is initially fearful, like Beatrice-Joanna's, or ultimately repented, like Annabella's. But Desdemona is innocent enough in her loyalty to her husband to claim to have killed herself when she revives. R. S. White has pointed out31 that not only is our sense of justice outraged at her murder as an innocent victim, but her innocence itself is at the centre of the play's moral vision. As Henry Jackson recognized in 1610, her post-mortem presence is the most moving part of the play; and that presence is enhanced by her continuing erotic appeal.

As well as conceiving of his scene in terms of reversal of the victim's moral status, Shakespeare employs within the scene itself a series of reversals of audience expectation. These reversals have considerable bearing on the audience's response to Othello as ‘snuffer’. Desdemona, though essentially the innocent victim, is not entirely passive: she resists verbally and pleads for her life. When Othello acts, his violence is witnessed by the audience, but when Emilia calls out to be let in, Othello guiltily tries to conceal the ‘corpse’ with the bed curtains and fears Desdemona is not properly dead. Emilia and the audience are auditors of Desdemona's first ‘cry’, which causes Emilia to draw back the curtains: Desdemona does revive temporarily, still protesting, but accepts responsibility for her own murder. Her revival adds considerable poignancy to the audience's and Othello's renewed viewing of Desdemona's body, with ‘that whiter skin of hers than snow’ (5.2.4) unscarred; such a countenance can make the viewers' eyes dazzle, as Webster indicated in relation to his Duchess and as Jackson's account of Othello also suggests. Othello himself is unmanned, and in his own eyes does not behave valiantly when the others enter. In the audience's response, the element of surprise is significant. In Shakespeare's previous uses32 of the ‘revival’ device (in Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing), there is a much greater proportion of dramatic irony than in Othello, where the audience knows more than Emilia but is as surprised as she is by Desdemona's speaking.

The manner of the murder itself is important: its means and effects are in keeping with the erotic tenor of the scene (as in the case of Cleopatra's suicide), and have emblematic implications. Othello's pondering of murder methods in 4.1 is informative. Poisoning is rejected on Iago's advice (4.1.192-6), presumably because it does not look morally appropriate; Iago the mind-poisoner may be instinctively inhibited about poison. Othello's anger, like Arden's, has initially suggested dismemberment: ‘I'll tear her all to pieces!’ (3.3.432), ‘I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me!’ (4.1.188). In this there is a hint of quartering, as a traitor's punishment. Tancred has his daughter's lover quartered in order to pluck out the heart of his treachery in Wilmot et al.'s Tancred and Gismund; but Othello's ‘messes’ may allude to the eating of one who has formerly eaten (to use Vindice's terms in The Revenger's Tragedy): in T.D.'s The Bloody Banquet, the Tyrant tries to force his apparently lustful wife to eat the dismembered body of a supposed lover: ‘Sweete was your lust, what can be bitter there?’.33 In 4.1, Othello appears to accept Iago's recommendation, to ‘strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated’ because ‘the justice of it pleases’ (4.1.196-7).34 Even so, he cannot dismiss altogether the idea of bloodshed, because of its emblematic significance: ‘Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust's blood be spotted’ (5.1.36). In the murder scene he finally decides ‘Yet I'll not shed her blood’ (5.2.3) and settles on strangling, which will not deface her beauty, if neatly done, but will put a stop to the rages of her blood. The ambiguity of the use of the terms ‘smother’ and ‘strangle’ in the period makes it impossible to be certain whether the Folio stage direction ‘He smothers her’ (‘stifles’ in the quarto) means pillow-work or not. The death of Webster's Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, imitative of Desdemona's in her revival, may suggest that Webster saw Desdemona strangled rather than smothered. Certainly, Othello's language suggests the more direct approach: ‘remove nor choke the strong conception / That I do groan withal’ (5.2.55-6; my emphases) and (after the ‘So, so’, where he clearly does place his hands round her throat)35 ‘Whose breath indeed these hands have newly stopped’ (5.2.201).

If sexual desire is potentially socially subversive, it is itself subverted by its own fulfilment—or by ‘real’ death, which, as Stephen Greenblatt reminds us, is the ‘final release from desire’.36 Heaven's mysterious ways allow the lustful to shed their own blood in due course, but there are always impatient men (and sometimes women, like Evadne) who are willing to take justice into their own hands. Those who have authority will usually wish to make the murder look like an official execution: they will choose official forms like hanging (as does Lorenzo in The Spanish Tragedy) or strangulation. Audiences might see the more sympathetic obsessive tyrant Othello as desperately asserting his authority as husband and ruler of Cyprus by using a mode of execution for private revenge. Such forms of snuffing as Lorenzo's or Othello's clearly close up, put a stop to, the flow of that lifeblood whose surge has been perceived as subversive. Choking may be seen as a particularly appropriate method for the possessive or jealous authoritarian to use; though some tyrants who seek to assert their authority in a more spectacular form will wish, as Othello did initially, to display their power over the body by dismembering. All ‘snuff’ scenes have to do with tyranny, in so far as they concern lust's dominion.37 Othello's suspicion that his wife is lustful makes him a tyrant; in the tyranny of his jealous passion, he lusts for ‘ocular proof’ of cuckoldry, which, as Katharine E. Maus suggests,38 yields in itself a form of psychosexual satisfaction. In the bower scene, Horatio's impolitic display of desire proves fatal when it provides ‘ocular proof’ for Bel-imperia's tyrannical brother. Othello wants the very thing that the ‘snuff’ dramatists gave their audiences: the satisfaction of ‘ocular proof’, the intimate knowledge of all the details of the ‘crime’ and of the subsequent and poetically just execution of justice.

Leonard Tennenhouse, in his Foucaultian reading of the play, says that Othello assumes authority over Desdemona's body, and ‘true to the poetics of punishment … subordinates the material body of the subject in a vital testimony to the power of blood’.39 Certainly, this is what Othello thinks he is doing, but it is not a standard ‘snuff’ scene, and the typical emblematic display of the corpse has atypical meaning. Shakespeare paradoxically empowers Desdemona's body at the point where it becomes a corpse. In his manner of murdering her, Othello recognizes her body's integrity as a beautiful thing, just as he has responded to the erotic power of her living body; but her innocence means that the audience recognizes her body's integrity in the moral sense. In taking responsibility for her own death, Desdemona claims it as illustrative of the nexus between sexual love and death, rather than that between lust and bloodshed.

The reversals of expectation and ‘snuff’ convention in the scene of Desdemona's murder interrogate the relationship between erotic feelings, violence and notions of justice, and between the private and the public spheres. Othello sees himself, in speaking of a ‘sacrifice’ (5.2.65), as enacting publicly his role as lover-turned-reluctant-justicer, forced to contemplate spotting with ‘lust's blood’ his wife's ‘lust-stained’ bed (5.1.36). What the audience sees is the emblematization of Desdemona's strangled corpse, figuratively ‘shrouded’ (as she had wished) in her wedding sheets, as the innocent and faithful wife murdered. The audience thus witnesses the enactment of Desdemona's innocence and of Othello's misreading of it in the name of a pleasing justice, and the discomfiting of the audience in this respect is vital, since witnesses were as important in private acts of revenge as they were in their public counterpart, executions.40 The act of witnessing reminds the witnesses themselves of Heaven, the judicious sharp spectator, and of the diabolical onlookers in the other place who like to participate as well as watch.


  1. Othello, ed. Norman Sanders (Cambridge, 1984), 5.2. All references are from this edition and appear hereafter in the text.

  2. Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1982), 3.3.90.

  3. Arden of Faversham, ed. W. L. Wine (London, 1973), 1.36-43.

  4. Henry VIII, ed. R. A. Foakes (London, 1957), 3.2.96-7.

  5. Francis Beaumont & John Fletcher, The Maid's Tragedy, ed. T. W. Craik (Manchester, 1988), 4.1.103.

  6. Francis Quarles, Hieroglyphickes (London, 1638), 22-5.

  7. ibid., 23.

  8. King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir (London, 1957), 4.6.40-1.

  9. Beaumont & Fletcher, The Maid's Tragedy, 4.1.143.

  10. Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge, 1987).

  11. The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh, ed. Agnes Latham (London, 1929), 48.

  12. Excerpts in the Fulman Papers (Library of Corpus Christi College), 10, 83v, 84r, translated in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974).

  13. I.H., This World's Folly (London, 1615); quoted in D. Wiles, Shakespeare's Clown (Cambridge, 1987), 50.

  14. Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger's Tragedy, ed. R. A. Foakes (London, 1966), 1.2.175, 3.5.210.

  15. See the last line of Raleigh's previously quoted poem, ‘What Is Our Life?’.

  16. Roger Stilling, Love and Death in Renaissance Tragedy (Baton Rouge, 1976), 164.

  17. Walter C. Foreman Jr, The Music of the Close (Lexington, Kentucky, 1978), 166.

  18. James Shirley, The Cardinal, ed. E. M. Yearling (Manchester, 1986), 5.3.149-54.

  19. cf. Julie Hankey's Plays in Performance edition of Othello (Bristol, 1987), 313.

  20. ibid., 317.

  21. C. R. Forker, Skull Beneath the Skin (Carbondale, 1986), 247.

  22. Cyril Tourneur, The Atheist's Tragedy, ed. I. Ribner (London, 1964), 5.2.267.

  23. Stilling, op. cit., 74, says that Juliet's final kiss ‘takes the compression of love, death, and joy as far as it will go. It is a baroque metaphor made flesh.’ Rowland Wymer, in Suicide and Despair in the Jacobean Drama (Brighton, 1986), 112, writes of suicide as ‘the most direct expression’ of the wish for complete union.

  24. Wymer, ibid., 53, calls the deadly kiss ‘a powerful and frequently used dramatic convention with a wide range of meaning’; it was certainly used with some frequency after Soliman and Perseda to demonstrate the connection between lust and death, but nowhere outside Tourneur with such immediacy of emphasis on the deadliness of an act of lust.

  25. Chiron and Demetrius use the corpse of the husband they have murdered as the ‘pillow to [their] lust’ (Titus Andronicus, ed. J. C. Maxwell, 3rd edn (London, 1961), 2.3.130) when they rape Lavinia, but this is done offstage, and for vengeance's sake they let their chief victim live, in shame and pain. Shakespeare is chiefly interested here in victimization, and the play's spectacle emphasizes the violent rather than the sexual, though the connections are plain enough, as in the infamous appearance of Lavinia with ‘her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd’ (

  26. John Marston, The Malcontent, ed. G. K. Hunter (London, 1975), 2.5. The ‘snuffing’ is merely apparent (for 125 lines the audience believes he is dead; he is, in a sense, revived, in tragicomic fashion). The scene is not particularly erotic, since the sexual encounter takes place offstage, but the song that opens it is presumably suggestive and Ferneze is dressed ‘in his shirt’.

  27. The ‘sex revenge’ motive for the King's murder is graphically demonstrated with a red-hot spit that brings home the phallic thrust with a vengeance as literal as the sense of outrage behind it. Lightborn's manner in urging Edward to lie down could be described as flirtatious (and was certainly staged in that manner in the 1990 Swan production in Stratford), but the encounter lacks the sexual intention of the true ‘snuff’ scene.

  28. There was a performance at Whitehall on 1 November 1604; it was performed at both the Globe and the Blackfriars, according to the titlepage of the 1622 quarto. It was revived in 1609-10 and 1612-13.

  29. See Roslyn Lander Knutson, The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company 1594-1613 (Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1991).

  30. Leonard Tennenhouse, in Power on Display (New York, 1986), 116, writes of such women that they are ‘tortured, hung, smothered, strangled, stabbed, poisoned or dismembered for one of two reasons: either they are the subject of clandestine desire or else they have become an object of desire which threatens the aristocratic community's self-enclosure’.

  31. R. S. White, Innocent Victims (London, 1986), ch. 7.

  32. Presumably, contemporary audiences liked such ‘revivals’, because Shakespeare later used a variant with the corpse of Cordelia, as did Webster with his Duchess.

  33. T[homas] D[rue], The Bloody Banquet, ed. S. Schoenbaum (Oxford, 1961), 1.1721.

  34. Beatrice-Joanna in Thomas Middleton's The Changeling, ed. N. W. Bawcutt (London, 1970), 4.1.14-15, fears her husband's hands and a similar sense of justice: ‘He cannot but in justice strangle me / As I lie by him, as a cheater use me’.

  35. The stage use of a dagger at this point is an eighteenth-century innovation.

  36. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago, 1980), 243.

  37. The tyranny of the senses is emphasized in The Atheist's Tragedy, The Changeling and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, which are domestic dramas of the tyranny of lust. So to a large extent is Othello's jealousy, but that also involves issues of social and political authority.

  38. Katharine E. Maus, ‘Horns of dilemma: Jealousy, gender, and spectatorship in English Renaissance drama’, English Literary History, 54 (1987), 561-83.

  39. Tennenhouse, Power on Display, 127.

  40. Hieronimo retains Horatio's body so that it can be present at his revenge; Titus keeps Lavinia alive so that she can hold the basin for the throat-cutting; note Giovanni's notion of himself as an executioner, turning to display to the witnesses. On the notions of execution and witnessing, see my essay ‘“Sensationalism” and “melodrama” in Ford's plays’, in M. Neill, ed., John Ford: Critical Re-Visions (Cambridge, 1988), 32-9.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Rethinking Gender and Genre in the History Play


Ritual and Ceremony in Shakespeare's Plays