Revenge has been central feature of many a drama, right from the earliest times to now, encompassing everything between the highest of brows and the lowest – from the Orestia of Aeschylus to the Death Wish films of Michael Winner; from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; from westerns and gangster films of varying quality to the blood-drenched “video nasties” that so exercised our moral sensibilities some thirty or so years ago.
The reason for its appeal across so vast a range is not difficult to discern. At the basest end, it provides violence that titillates us, but which we can nonetheless enjoy in good conscience because some of the violence we know will be punished, while the rest of it we know is perpetrated in a just cause (both Titus Andronicus and Death Weekend occupy this end of the spectrum). Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the theme allows us to ponder such important matters as justice and morality. It encourages us to consider the ultimate futility of meting out injury for injury, and, simultaneously, the moral decadence of not meting out injury for injury. The dilemma is with us still: those who fight dragons become dragons themselves, Nietzsche had warned us; and yet, those who don’t fight dragons allow the dragons to become stronger. It is a horrible moral bind to be in, and it is hardly surprising that those writers who think long and hard about the human condition find themselves fascinated by this seemingly insoluble moral impasse. And neither is it surprising that those who don’t think so long or so hard relish the opportunity of the violent titillation this theme affords. Either way, it makes – if not necessarily for good drama, then, at least, for drama that holds the attention of its intended audience.
The “revenge tragedy” was an important genre of its own in Shakespeare’s days, and one of the seminal works of that genre is Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written in the 1580s when Shakespeare was still a young man, and popular enough to be revived in 1602 (with additional scenes possibly by Ben Jonson, no less) when Shakespeare was at his height of his career. It is not, to be honest (and to anticipate somewhat the conclusion of this post), a particularly major work of literature. But then again, one shouldn’t spend all one’s reading time exploring the great peaks: one should know also something of the plains from which the peaks rise. Masterpiece this isn’t, but it’s a diverting enough work. Kyd isn’t interested in the psychology of revenge; neither is he interested in the morality. What he is interested in is pacing the story in such a way as to keep the audience interested in what happens next, in creating tension, and in providing shocks and sensational stage effects. We have a sensational stage effect in the very first scene, as the ghost of the recently deceased Don Andrea enters with the Spirit of Revenge. And together, they sit and watch the events unfold, much as we, the audience, do. In the course of the action, we have villainy, treachery, murder, false imprisonment, attempted forced marriage, suicide, and, of course, madness. Hieronimo goes mad after his son is brutally murdered: there are some splendid scenes of his mad ranting. And if one person going mad makes for good theatre, two people going mad makes for theatre twice as good: Hieronimo’s wife is introduced for no other purpose than for her to go mad also. And then there’s the splendid finale – a play-within-a-play (an idea Shakespeare was more than happy to recycle), but here, the stage-within-the-stage violence is real. Which, of course, can take us into Borgesian labyrinths should we be that way minded (if the violence within the play-within-the-play is real, then might not… etc.) but I doubt any of that was in Kyd’s mind: he saw it for what it was –a sensationally good stage effect. And should we be tempted to think that all this excessive violence is a bit tongue-in-cheek, Hieronimo caps it all by biting his tongue off and spitting it out of his cheek, to ensure that torture doesn’t make him talk. Splendid stuff.
Presumably, this was the sort of thing the audiences of the time wanted, but I must confess myself a bit puzzled by this: these were cruel times, when torture was commonplace, floggings, beheadings, and hanging, drawing and quartering were all public spectacles. Why were audiences so keen to see simulated violence when the real thing was happening just outside the theatre? In all the accounts I have read of Tudor and Jacobean theatre, I have never seen this question addressed. But whatever the reason behind this, simulated stage violence was undoubtedly popular, and the genre of the revenge tragedy seemed a perfect vehicle for giving the audience what it craved.
In the introduction to my Oxford edition, editor Katharine Eisaman Maus spends much time discussing the social distinctions underpinning the drama. The victim of the crime, Horatio, and his avenging father Hieronimo, are, she points out, effectively top ranking civil servants in the court, and are thus somewhat below the aristocratic villains in terms of social ranking. Interesting though this is, I am not convinced that Kyd had any interest in social hierarchies of the court other than as a means to enable the plot. For, obviously, there can be no need for revenge at all if the law may be relied upon to redress the wrong; thus, in any tale of revenge, there must be a good reason why the law cannot be relied upon – either because the law is inefficient, or corrupt, or because, as in the earlier parts of The Oresteia, such a law doesn’t even exist. At the end of The Oresteia the drama is resolved with the establishment of a legal institution capable of redressing wrongs, thus making redundant individual acts of vengeance. But The Oresteia was set in mythical times: The Spanish Tragedy on the other hand, is set in roughly the same time in which the play was written, so some explanation must be provided on this score to make the revenge plot intelligible. And the explanation here seems to be that the villains, occupying a higher social rank than Hieronimo, can block his access to the king. The element of social ranking thus seems to me a plot device more than anything else: certainly, Kyd shows no particular interest in exploring this theme for its own end, and to focus on this element is perhaps to give the play a greater significance than it possesses.
Kyd went on to write a play based on the Hamlet story. This play has not survived, so it is impossible to judge how much Shakespeare took from it; but if Shakespeare did indeed take anything significant from this play, one can only surmise that it was, artistically, a far greater achievement than The Spanish Tragedy. For, in trying to discern what influence if any The Spanish Tragedy may have had on the works of Shakespeare, the answer seems to be – apart from the plot device of the play-within-the-play – “very little”. Amongst other things, Shakespeare doesn’t even seem very interested in the theme of revenge. Apart from the early play Titus Andronicus – in which I cannot see any glimmerings at all of artistic ambition – Hamlet is the only play in the Shakespearean canon in which revenge plays a major role. After that, despite the immense potential of this theme in tragic drama, it appears in Shakespeare’s tragedies only on the periphery of the action rather than at the centre: it is, for instance, Macduff who is motivated by revenge, not Macbeth. Even in Hamlet, Shakespeare seems uninterested in some of the major aspects of the theme, such as, say, the morality of revenge: once Hamlet is satisfied that the ghost is really the spirit of his father, and that Claudius really is his father’s murderer, this most persistent of questioners never even questions whether or not revenge is morally justified. This issue that so exercised the imaginations of the great Athenian tragedians appears not to have concerned Shsakespeare at all. If Shakespeare’s audiences really did crave revenge tragedy – and the existence of so many plays by his contemporaries in this genre indicates that they did – then Shakespeare seems on the whole to have been swimming against the popular tide in refusing to satisfy them. And if The Spanish Tragedy is indeed representative of the plain from which the peak of Hamlet rises, then, for all the undoubted entertainment value of Kyd’s work, it must be conceded that the height of the peak from the level of the plain is immeasurably great.