Obsession and Identity: Revenge Tragedy

  • Joan Lord Hall


‘I’m hir’d to kill myself’, remarks Vindice drily in Act IV of The Revenger’s Tragedy.1 More sharply than other genres, revenge plays define and explore the pressures of the role — whether it is felt to be alien or is willingly assumed — on the dramatic self. The ontological challenge for the main protagonist is how to commit himself to retaliation and still retain his integrity: how to assume the role of revenger without becoming engulfed in savagery. The dramatic convention that develops from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589) to The Revenger’s Tragedy (c. 1606) puts the revenging hero in a no- win situation.2 On one hand is his strong emotional drive to avenge the death of a relative or loved one (what Laertes calls the motive’ of nature’), coupled with a moral imperative to cleanse society from the resulting evil: Hamlet needs to eradicate the ‘something … rotten in the state of Denmark’, Vindice to scourge the Villainous dukedom, vex’d with sin’. Yet the restraints on the other side are equally strong. If the protagonist goes ahead and acts, he is breaking the cosmic law ‘Thou shalt not kill’. In any case, engaging in revenge is bound to submerge what Prospero calls nobler’ impulses (The Tempest, V. i. 26): if not to be merciful (like Prospero), then to wait patiently for legal redress or, when that proves impossible — the case in a society where the murderer or his kinsman is also the ruler — to trust that God’s vengeance will eventually strike down the sinner.3


Traditional Moralist Main Protagonist Temptation Sequence Authentic Expression Dramatic Character 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, R. A. Foakes (ed.), The Revels Plays (London, 1966) Act IV, sc. ii. 204. All line references are taken from this edition. Admitting to much ‘uncertainty’, Foakes nevertheless ascribes the play to Tourneur (p. liii). While I follow David J. Lake, The Canon of Middleton’s Plays (Cambridge, 1975) in thinking that Thomas Middleton is the author of The Revenger’s Tragedy, I treat the play as anonymous here since the question of authorship has not finally been resolved.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Catherine Belsey, ‘The Case of Hamlet’s Conscience’, SP, LXXVI (1979) pp. 127- 48, stresses that ‘What is intolerable in Hamlet’s situation is that it cannot be reduced to the familiar antitheses of right and wrong: conscience both demands and opposes action’ (p. 147). Harold Jenkins (ed.), Hamlet, the Arden Shakespeare (London and New York, 1982), notes that revenge focuses the ‘dual nature’ of man (p. 15), while David Scott Kastan, ‘“His semblable is his mirror”: Hamlet and the Imitation of Revenge’, ShakS XIX (1987), pp. 111–24, emphasises how the revenger is caught ‘between an inescapable psychological obligation to revenge and unavoidable moral abhorrence of it’ (p. 118).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Renaissance condemnations of private justice are best compiled by Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford, Ca., 1967). Arthur McGee, The Elizabethan Hamlet (New Haven and London, 1987), further outlines the theological position against revenge. For an opposing view, arguing that the audience may respond more favourably to the revenger, see Michael Cameron Andrews, ‘Hamlet: Revenge and the Critical Mirror’, ELR, VIII:1 (Winter, 1978) pp. 9–23.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Francis Bacon, Of Revenge, in Essays, op. cit, p. 13.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    For an exploration of madness as the ‘unifying motif’ of the revenge play, see Charles A. and Elaine S. Hallett, The Revenger’s Madness (Lincoln, Nebr. and London, 1980).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ronald Broude, ‘Revenge and Revenge Tragedy in Renaissance England’, RenQ, XXVIII (1975), pp. 38–58, cautions that revenge plays of the period are ‘by no means simple dramatic homilies’; yet he views The Revenger’s Tragedy as one that does didactically condemn ‘all vengeance visited outside official channels’ (pp. 56–7).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    A Study of Cyril Tourneur (Philadelphia, 1966) p. 247. Murray argues that Vindice’s tragic ‘transformation’ is caused by his ‘disillusionment’ with his mother and sister (p. 195) — a savage cynicism that leads him to treat the skull as if Gloriana were a prostitute (p. 219).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Drama (Cambridge, 1935) p. 166. L. G. Salingar, ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy and the Morality Tradition’, Scrutiny, VI (March 1938) pp. 402–24, also argues that ‘no provision is made to render it plausible, realistically, that Vindice would or could have sustained the roles’ (p. 410).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    The Jacobean Drama (London, 1936) p. 154.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    There is a parallel movement — role-playing that releases genuine sensuality — in The Second Maiden’s Tragedy. (The play, dated 1611, is anonymous, but internal evidence points to Middleton as the probable author; see Anne Lancashire (ed.), The Revels Plays [Manchester, 1978], pp. 22–3.) Votarius, acting as tempter to his friend’s wife, is shaken to discover that he is strongly attracted towards her: ‘Heart, I grow fond myself’ (I. ii. 225).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Alan C. Dessen, Elizabethan Drama and the Viewer’s Eye (University of North Carolina Press, 1977), comments on how ‘the visual equation between the duke (the hated enemy) and Piato (a role taken on by the revenger) suggests a growing similarity between villain and supposed hero’ (p. 79).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Scott McMillin, ‘Acting and Violence: The Revenger’s Tragedy and Its Departures from Hamlet’, SEL, XXIV (1984) pp. 275–91, perceives not a cancelling out of identity, but that the revenger ‘proliferates’ through the final masque and ‘becomes many selves who are all one self, a violent self, Vindice and Vindice again’ (p. 290). Whether the ending stresses attenuation or proliferation the effect is the same: a loss of integrity.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    In the Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1969, Helen Mirren injected ‘sensuality’ into the adopted role, as Michael Scott points out in Renaissance Drama and a Modern Audience (London, 1982) p. 45. Nicholas Brooke, Horrid Laughter in Jacobean Tragedy (New York, 1979), also makes this comment on the role-playing here: ‘Castiza is more than pretending: to play that scene, the actress must play the whore indeed, which means that Castiza must discover the whore within herself’ (p. 18).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes (London, 1598) p. 449, quoted in Murray, op. cit., p. 204.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    D. C. Meade, ‘Aspects of Baroque Time and The Revenger’s Tragedy, in Alan Brissenden (ed.), Shakespeare and Some Others: Essays on Shakespeare and Some of his Contemporaries (Adelaide, 1970) pp. 104–22, notes the ‘new awareness of time as discontinuous instants’ in the play (p. 104).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Several critics have stressed the positive energies of Vindice’s quest rather than its negative results. Howard Pearce, ‘Virtù and Poesis in The Revenger’s Tragedy, ELH, XLIII (1976) pp. 19–37, finds the play an ‘affirmation of life and art in the face of death and annihilation’ (p. 36); Richard T. Bruchner, ‘Fantasies of Violence: Hamlet and The Revenger’s Tragedy’, SEL, XXI:2 (Spring, 1981), stresses the play’s ambivalence in that ‘Vindice has the appeal of the comic artist who escapes constraint and beats adversity with his wit’ (p. 262).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    For instance, George C. Herndl, The High Design: English Renaissance Tragedy and the Natural Law (Lexington, Ky., 1970), discusses the play’s ‘Calvinist milieu of invincible carnal depravity’ (pp. 220–1).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Jonathan Dollimore’s argument that ‘the conception of a heavenly, retributive justice is being reduced to a parody of stage effects’ in this play is persuasive (Radical Tragedy, p. 140). But rather than showing how providentialism is obliquely but conclusively discredited’, the author of The Revenger’s Tragedy may be suggesting the presumption and futility of man’s playing the providence shaper (see Chapter 3, below).Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Foakes (ed.), p. 128.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Lawrence J. Ross (ed.), The Revenger’s Tragedy, Regents Renaissance Drama (Nebraska, 1966) p. 119.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1970), cites the 1632 case of Mary Cutford, who ‘did most wickedlie wishe herselfe to be a witch for a tyme that she might be revenged of her adversarie’ (p. 286).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Thomas Dekker, Ernest Rhys (ed.) (London and New York, 1894). The authors of The Witch of Edmonton are given as ‘Rowley, Dekker, Ford, etc.’ (so that one wonders if Middleton had a hand in the play). Mother Sawyer, lured into becoming a real witch, provides a good example of a character succumbing to a role that her community expects her to play, once she fatalistically decides “Tis all one/To be a witch as to be counted one’ (II. i. p. 412). She also categorises true witches as those pandars who (like Piato) tempt a ‘maiden/With golden hooks flung at her chastity/To come and lose her honour’ (IV. i, p. 447).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Peter Ure, ‘Character and Role from Richard III to Hamlet’ (Elizabethan and Jacobean Tragedy, pp. 22–43) considers that ‘This is sincere acting, his imagination has been caught’ (p. 37). Maurice Charney, ‘The “Now Could I Drink Hot Blood” Soliloquy’, Mosaic, X:3 (Spring, 1977) pp. 77–86, also emphasises that this is the point at which Hamlet becomes a revenger, but leaves open the possibility of contrived role-playing: ‘Hamlet is setting out to do doughty deeds, or perhaps he is just steeling himself rhetorically for his new role as revenger (p. 80).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    In a view opposite to the one presented here — that Hamlet is a continuous character rather than a role or series of roles — John Holloway, The Story of the Night (London, 1961), argues that in Hamlet ‘the experience of the protagonist is not the deployment of a determinate character, but the assumption, and then the enactment, of a determinate role’ (p. 26). Deconstructionists also argue against the continuity of Hamlet’s character; Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London, 1985), considers that Hamlet is not a ‘unified subject’ since he cannot ‘be fully present to himself or to the audience in his own speeches’ (p. 50); see also Francis Barker, The Tremulous Body (London, 1984) p. 37, and Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare, p. 72.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    ‘Tragic Mysteries’, in David Bevington and Jay L. Halio (eds.), Shakespeare’s Pattern of Excelling Nature (New Jersey and London, 1978) pp. 89–94, 92.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Frank Kermode (ed.), Hamlet, the Riverside Shakespeare, briefly discusses the point of the hero’s madness in Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest (pp. 1136–7).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    T. McAlindon, Shakespeare and Decorum (London and Basingstoke, 1973), emphasises instead the ‘extreme unfitness’ of Hamlet’s hyperbolic response here (p. 56). Hamlet may be making his point, though, through parody as well as passion, underlining Laertes’ indecorous behaviour by out-Heroding Herod.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Many critics, especially since 1960, have discussed the central images of ‘acting’ and the theatre in the play. In particular, I have found helpful Francis Fergusson, ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: The Analogy of Action’, in The Idea of a Theater (Princeton, NJ, 1949) pp. 98–145; Maynard Mack, ‘The World of Hamlet’, YR, XLI (1952) pp. 502–23; Ann Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, pp. 142–7; Charles R. Forker, ‘Shakespeare’s Theatrical Symbolism and Its Function in Hamlet’, SQ, XIV (1963) pp. 216–29; Maurice Charney, ‘Art, Acting, and the Theater’, in Style in Hamlet’ (Princeton, 1969) pp. 137–53; Harold Fisch, ‘All the World’s a Stage’, in ‘Hamlet’ and the Word (New York, 1971) pp. 153–66; Paul Gottschalk, ‘Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge’, SQ, XXIV:2 (1973) pp. 155–70; Lilian Wilds, Shakespeare’s Character-Dramatists, Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies: Salzburg Studies in English Literature (Salzburg, 1975) pp. 139–87; Thomas Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare, pp. 171–77; Michael Goldman, ‘Hamlet and Our Problems’, in Philip McGuire and David Samuelson (eds), Shakespeare: the Theatrical Dimension (New York, 1979) pp. 239–55; Alvin Keman, ‘Politics and Theater in Hamlet’, in The Playwright as Magician, pp. 85–111; and James L. Calderwood, ‘Theater as Go-Between’, in To Be and Not to Be (New York, 1983) pp. 166–75.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Trans. Ralph Robynson (1551), J. H. Lupton (ed.) (Oxford, 1895) p. 98. The philosophy referred to is stoicism; Gilles D. Monsarrat, Light from the Porch: Stoicism and English Renaissance Literature (Paris, 1984), cites the Manual of Epictetus, which stresses the importance of accepting a part in a play already determined by God the dramatist (p. 250).Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity (Princeton, NJ, 1977) p. 54. William Empson, ‘Hamlet When New’, SR, XLI (1953) pp. 15–42, ingeniously suggests that Shakespeare’s play ‘sticks very closely to discussing theatricality’ to distinguish itself from the staginess of the Ur-Hamlet, since ‘what the first audiences came to see was whether the Globe could re-vamp the old favorite without being absurd’ (p. 22).Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare’s Tragedies, p. 99.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    As in Book 4 of Castiglione’s The Courtier (Hoby’s translation).Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Trans. T. B. (London, 1589) p. 171.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Prosser comments that ‘the savage course on which he embarks is intended to appall us’ (op. cit., p. 252).Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Several critics have developed this view of the last movement of the play. Alvin Kernan suggests how Hamlet is able to ‘recognize that all of life is a play in which man is an actor, not the playwright, playing a part he did not choose in a plot not of his own making’ (op. cit., p. 109). Harold Fisch describes this in terms of a covenantal collaboration: ‘It will be a joint dramatic production; there will be neither constraint on the one hand nor the arrogant assertion of a self-conceived design on the other, but a synthesis of human effort and divine leading’ (op. cit., p. 161); see also Walter N. King, Hamlet’s Search for Meaning (Athens, Ga., 1982). Analysing the play in more metadramatic terms, Calderwood argues that in Act V ‘Hamlet the individual is beginning to take a subordinate place within a larger context — the providential plot that governs human experience in Denmark and the revenge tragedy plot that governs dramatic experience in the Globe theater’ (op. cit., p. 36).Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    The Plays of George Chapman: The Tragedies, vol. I, Thomas Marc Parrott (ed.) (New York, 1961).Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    See Fredson Bowers, ‘Hamlet as Minister and Scourge’, PMLA, LXX (1955) pp. 740–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    ‘Expostulation and Reply’, in Lyrical Ballads (1798), R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (eds) (London, 1963) p. 103.Google Scholar
  39. 39 Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 Dec. 1817, in Letters of John Keats, selected by Frederick Page (London, 1954) p. 53.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Peter Mercer, ‘Hamlet’ and the Acting of Revenge (Iowa City, 1987) p. 246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Along these lines R. A. Foakes, ‘The Art of Cruelty: Hamlet and Vindice’, ShS, XXVI (1973) pp. 21–31, points out that ‘for Vindice, intelligence and artistry replace morality’ (p. 29), whereas Hamlet can ‘involve himself imaginatively in play-acting or dramatising the act of cruelty, but cannot do it’ (p. 26). Howard Felperin also argues that ‘What distinguishes Vindice from Hamlet, his immediate model in the poetics of revenge, is the degree to which he exceeds even Hamlet in his abandonment to the theatricality inherent in the role they share’ (op. cit., p. 167).Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies, defends Hamlet in more detail against the critics (such as G. Wilson Knight) who think that Hamlet is tainted; he argues that Hamlet retains a ‘healthy sensibility’ (p. 67); see also Philip Edwards, ‘Tragic Balance in Hamlet’, ShS, XXXVI (1983) pp. 43–52.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Op. cit., p. 132. G.K. Hunter, ‘The Heroism of Hamlet’, in Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (New York, 1978), also finds the ‘ritual’ combined with the ‘personal’ role by the end of the play (pp. 249–50).Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Lines 163–7 appear in Q2 (which Harold Jenkins, op. cit., p. 39, concludes is based on an ‘autograph’ copy) and not in the Folio text.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Op. cit., pp. 297, 268. In ‘Disguise in Marston and Shakespeare’, HLQ, XXXVIII (1974–5) pp. 105–23, James Edward Siemon points out one origin for this idea in Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea: that ‘a man will tend to repeat any action he has once performed and that each repetition will make yet another more likely’ (p. 108).Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    On verbal parallels between Montaigne and Shakespeare, see John M. Robertson, Shakespeare and Montaigne (1909; rpt. New York, 1969) and George Coffin Taylor, Shakespeare’s Debt to Montaigne (Cambridge, Mass., 1925). Alice Harmon, ‘How Great Was Shakespeare’s Debt to Montaigne?’, PMLA, LVII (December, 1942) pp. 988–1008, astutely warns against trying ‘to build up an elaborate theory of literary “influence” upon the evidence of parallel passages alone’ (p. 1008). Nevertheless, Andrew Gurr, Hamlet and the Distracted Globe (Edinburgh, 1978) pp. 13–16, convingingly argues a connection between Hamlet’s predicament and the examples Montaigne discusses in ‘Of Profit and Honesty’ (Essays, vol. I, ch. i), and it is difficult not to agree with Harold Jenkins that at least a few of the ideas in Hamlet were prompted by Shakespeare’s ‘recent reading in Florio’s Montaigne’ (op. cit., p. 110).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    McAlindon defines the concept of decorum in the Renaissance as a ‘behavioural and… oratorical’ law that combines ‘some of the most fundamental notions in the moral and aesthetic theory of classical antiquity’ (Shakespeare and Decorum, p. 7). Thomas Kranidas, The Fierce Equation: A Study of Milton’s Decorum (London; the Hague; Paris, 1965), also finds the concept not simply a ‘tool of consistency’ but, in the broadest sense, a ‘vision of the highest unity — radiant, coherent and varied’ (p. 48). While ‘decorum’ may, as Derek Attridge argues in ‘Nature, Art and the Supplement in Renaissance Literary Theory: Puttenham’s Poetics of Decorum’, serve as an elitist term, an ‘ideological product’ put forward as ‘naturalness’ (Peculiar Language: Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce (Ithaca, NY, 1988) pp. 34–5), in Montaigne’s discourse it seems less a concession to the status quo than a strategy for channelling (without submerging) the diversity of human nature.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Goldman comments that ‘As with the actor who plays the role, the greatest strain falls on Hamlet’s capacity for expressive coherence, for action that at each moment is true to the delicacy and difficulty of his entire situation’ (’Hamlet and Our Problems’, p. 252.)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Joan Lord Hall 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joan Lord Hall
    • 1
  1. 1.University of ColoradoBoulderUSA

Personalised recommendations