Literary Criticism (1400-1800): Revenge Tragedy | Criticism (1400-1800): Revenge Tragedy ... in a rash move anticipating King Lear, resigns his crown and divides the kingdom equally

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  • Revenge Tragedy | Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1967)

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    Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1967)

    SOURCE: Prosser, Eleanor. Revenge on the English Stage, 1562-1607. In Hamlet and Revenge, pp. 36-73.Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967.

    [In the following essay, Prosser examines a vast array of revenge tragedies in an effort to elucidate themoral response of the Elizabethan audience to revenge itself.]

    Although a study of the Elizabethan revenge play normally restricts itself to plays related to the Kydianformula as defined by Fredson Bowers, our concern in this chapter is with the moral response of theElizabethan audience to revenge itself. If we can determine the audience's reaction to specific revenge motifsin any type of play (in a Biblical drama such as David and Bethsabe, a chronicle history such as Edward II, ora comedy such as The Dumb Knight, as well as in a revenge play proper such as The Spanish Tragedy), weshould be better prepared to recognize established conventions. For an audience, a given convention evokes agiven response: a bastard son who chafes at his inferior position is a dangerous fellow, whether he appears inMuch Ado About Nothing or King Lear. We shall, accordingly, examine all plays produced between 1562 and1607 in which revenge is a clearly defined motive.1

    To understand the full impact of the revenge motif on the Elizabethan audience, we should probably start withthe medieval drama. Both Satan and his offspring, the Vice, are prototypes of the demonic revenger. In themysteries and moralities, both characters resort to crafty dissimulation, delight in ironic wordplay, and revelwith confidence in villainy.2 Although many such traits of the Vice were to become useful in establishingconventions and will be noted, Satan and the Vice were revenging themselves on good, and there is no doubtabout the audience's moral response. Let us, then, eliminate from extended consideration their directsuccessors on the Elizabethan stage: villains who would have pursued an evil course even if they had neverhad occasion to revenge. Some, like the Vice, take revenge on the virtuous simply because virtue is a threat.Piero relentlessly pursues Andrugio and his son, Antonio, throughout Antonio and Mellida (1599-1600) for noother discernible reason. Some pursue revenge for completely invalid reasons. In Antonio's Revenge (c. 1600),Piero becomes a vengeful maniac ostensibly because years ago Antonio's father had married a woman hehimself had coveted. Similarly, Monsieur in Bussy D'Ambois (c. 1604) is an avowed revenger even though hisonly motives are his hatred of Bussy's virtue and resulting rise in royal favor and his anger at Tamyra'syielding to a better man. None of these revengers-for-assumed-injury causes a problem. All are loathed.

    Another group of revengers are equally damnable even though they have suffered genuine injury. BothMontsurry in Bussy D'Ambois and Pietro in The Malcontent (1604) have been cuckolded, but they are toocorrupt and vicious to arouse any sympathy. The same may be true of Barabas in The Jew of Malta (1589-90)and Alexander in Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany (c. 1594-97). Barabas arouses some sympathy at firstbecause of the outrageous confiscation of his estate and the hypocritical scorn of the Christians, but once heembarks on his campaign of Machiavellian villainy, all sympathy vanishes. A modern audience might see himas a man of some stature and courage who is driven to revenge, but the Elizabethan audience probably took itscue from the prologue spoken by Machiavelli, from Barabas's gloating over his wealth (a sure sign of vice,harking back to an old morality tradition), and from the mere fact that he is a Jew venting his anger onChristians. It is more difficult to decide how Alexander was portrayed in the opening scenes of Alphonsus.

    Literary Criticism (1400-1800): Revenge Tragedy | Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1967)

    Revenge Tragedy | Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1967) 1

  • Unless the actor relied on a stereotype, the audience may have first seen a grief-stricken youth, mourning thedeath of his murdered father. His pain is aggravated when, surrounded in a foreign country by those who hatehim, he is taunted by the Electors, who revile his father, openly applaud his murder, and ridicule the youngpage as boy. Alexander is helpless, aching for the day when he can become a man and take revenge.Sympathy for him might well be great. But Alphonsus, who is in fact the unknown murderer, plays on theboy's grief and rage, tricking him into taking revenge on all of Alphonsus's own enemies. ImmediatelyAlexander turns into the most grotesque of Spanish villains, raping, poisoning, and stabbing. When he hasfinally narrowed the field to his true enemy, he forces Alphonsus to forswear God before killing him, and thustriumphantly destroys the soul along with the body. One might consider him a virtuous young man corruptedby his desire for revenge, but the play's sensationalism, together with the well-known Elizabethan loathing ofall things Spanish, suggests that the actor portrayed him as a villain from the start.

    One other group of villains require brief attention: those whose revenge motives are totally unimportant to theplot. Periodically they vow revenge, but their real motivation is ambition or general viciousness. Two pairs ofMachiavellian monsters are typical. Acomat and Selimus, the rival brothers of Selimus (1594), are reallyinvolved in a power struggle, as are Borgias and his tool, Mulleasses, in The Turk (1607-8). In each caserevenge is a fitfully alleged motive for villainous acts that would have taken place even without theprovocation of some real or assumed injury. The same is true of many characters who set out on a course ofrevenge but once under way forget their original motive. Mendoza in The Malcontent, furious at the Duchessfor jilting him and at her husband for having, quite rightly, suspected the affair, roars My hart cries perishall and sets out to take revenge (II.i). 3 But after killing the hapless lover, he forgets all thought of revenge tobecome an ambitious schemer. In The Dumb Knight (1607-8), Epire is immediately established as a villainwhen he vows revenge on a young hero who has fairly defeated him in chivalric combat, but a jumble ofmotives shortly develops until the revenge is forgotten in his intrigue to depose the King. He professes thatRevenge now rules as sovereign of my blood only because the playwright uses every device to emphasizehis viciousness.4 In the tangle of perhaps thirteen different revenge actions launched in The Revenger'sTragedy (1606-7), several are immediately forgotten and at least five have no motivation whatsoever. Thenonsense of much of the plot is epitomized by the furious vow of Ambitioso and Supervacuo to revenge theexecution of their brother, even though it is they themselves who have accidentally caused his death. Thesecharacters for whom revenge is merely a device imposed by the playwright are significant because theyindicate how useful the motive could be in arousing revulsion. They seek vengeance solely because they arevillains. According to ethics, revengers are evil; according to theatrical tradition, evil men are ipso factorevengers.

    In attempting to determine the audience's attitude toward such hero-revengers as Hieronimo, Antonio,Vindici, and Hamlet, we find that all these villain-revengers are also significant for another reason.Conventions of diction and action became associated with such characters as Barabas, Piero, and Mendoza.Since we are certain of the audience's attitude toward these villains, we have a useful guide to its attitudetoward the dramatic conventions associated with them. If, for example, we found that only villains dip theirhands in the blood of their victims (a statement I cannot yet make with assurance), we would do well to pausebefore pronouncing Brutus's actions after Caesar's death to be evidence of his virtue. Of course a skillfulplaywright can transform a convention, but if he uses an established device, he inevitably awakens a certainresponse. He may capitalize on the audience's associations; he may consciously modify them. But he cannotignore them.

    Several of these conventions are fairly rigid by the time of Lust's Dominion in 1600. Eleazar, the Moor, setsout to destroy the entire Spanish aristocracy, apparently to revenge his own capture and his father's slaying.Typically, his vows of revenge serve merely to heighten his demonic nature, for his true motive isTamburlainian ambition. Many familiar conventions are used to establish him as the epitome of evil; of these,three deserve special note. Appropriately, other characters are reminded of Hell when they but look atEleazar's face.5 As black in spirit as in complexion, he not only dares damnation, he embraces it. He swears

    Literary Criticism (1400-1800): Revenge Tragedy | Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1967)

    Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1967) 2

  • that Revenge and I will sail in blood to hell (II.iii.192)and they do.6 The second convention is closelyrelated. As a creature of blackness, Eleazar invokes the aid of night as he begins his campaign of murder(II.ii.163-65). The conventional night speech became extremely popular to indicate the villain's affinity toevil. He may actually invoke the powers of night to aid him in his dark deed, like Eleazar, or he may welcomenight as congenial to his evil spirit and intentions, like Piero (Antonio's Revenge, I.i) and Mendoza (TheMalcontent, II.v). Speeches became so stereotyped that they could be interchanged: night is the time of owls,ravens, mandrakes, ghosts, and open graves; night will hide my evil with its gloomy shades, and sleep will bemy ally by closing the eyes of witnesses. Macbeth's invoc