Scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan A revenge tragedy?
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Revenge Tragedies

Ol’ Khan up there knew a thing or two about revenge. Like how to serve it. We all want revenge. After all, someone does us a slight, or injures us, and we ask how that person could do something like that to someone as wonderful as us. Sometimes we get revenge in petty, vicious ways that only we know about, and sometimes we’re able to get revenge through blowing the whistle on someone who’s breaking the law. I’ve been there myself, and I’m sure others have been too.

The Elizabethan’s relished a good bloody play. Their taste in drama was based on Senecan tragedy, a Grand Guignol of blood and spatter, something on the order of Dexter, rather than the imagined horror of Greek tragedy. So Marlowe’s Edward II will get a hot poker up his rump, and there’ll be multiple stabbings, poisonings, and other assorted mayhem in Hamlet. The plays under consideration are The Spanish Tragedy, which may be best known today through it’s association with Eliot’s Wasteland, The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois, and The Atheist’s Tragedy. A fourth play, The Revenger’s Tragedy, we’ve dealt with previously.

If you want plot summaries of the tragedies discussed here, look at the appropriate Wikipedia entries.

In The Spanish Tragedy, while most of it is in blank verse, parts of it, notably the love duets between Horatio and Bel-Imperia are in couplets. Kyd uses verbal patterning, such as this:

My presents are not of sufficient cost,
And being worthless, all my labor's lost.
Yet might she love me for my valiancy:
Aye, but that's slandered by captivity. &hellip 
Yet might she love me to content her sire:
Aye, but her reason masters his desire.
Yet might she love me as her brother's friend:
Aye, but her hopes aim at some other end.
Yet might she love me to up-rear her state:
Aye, but perhaps she hopes some nobler mate.
Yet might she love me as her beauty's thrall:
Aye, but I fear she cannot love at all.

“Yet” is an adversative, a word that negates a preceding sentence or idea, while “Aye” is yes. However that “yes” is qualified by “but,” another adversative. In the context “Yet” is connected with hope. One might go so far as to look upon the “Yet” clauses as thesis statements, and the “Aye” clauses as statements of the antithesis.

Kyd’s tragedy features a number of gruesome murders, which are motivated by honor. Lorenzo, the king’s sone, and Horatio, argue over who captured Balthazar, a defeated Portuguese prince. Lorenzo and Balthazar conspire to murder Horatio, and leave him hanging on a tree. It’s notable for a play within a play that prefigures Hamlet’s play that is “to catch the conscience of the king.” In The Spanish Tragedy, however, it is the means for revenge.

The Revenge of Bussy D’ambois is by George Chapman. Everybody who got through high school English has heard of Chapman in connection with the Keats’ sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, which is a staple of the high school English class. Chapman also wrote plays as well as translating Homer.

I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but some constructions using “of” can be confusing. For example, “the scourge of God,” which for years I thought meant someone who scourges God, is a scourge used by God. The Revenge of Bussy D’ambois is not about Bussy’s attempt to get revenge, but about revenge for Bussy.

There is nothing outstanding to say about Chapman’s prosody or his use of language. What is striking about the play is that rather than being a play in favor of revenge, as a way of setting right what man’s justice is slow to correct, or chooses not to correct, it is an anti-revenge play in which the protagonist, Clermont, is instructed to leave justice/vengeance to God.

The Atheist’s Tragedy is also an anti-revenge play. The titular atheist, D’amville, is Tourneur’s portrait of the man without God. He is moved by a concern for family honor, position, and wealth, and goes through a series of machinations to achieve his goals. The editor of the volume used here points out that D’amville contains the French D’ame, soul, and a suggestion of the English vile, so that D’amville suggests a vile soul. Another possible English-French hybrid is Dam or Damn, and ville, or city, for damn city, or possibly city of the damned. This would suggest that D’Amville represents the city of men without God. However, that may be reading too much into the name.

The finale of the play has D’amville losing his reason, and smashing his head with an axe. Two of his intended victims, Charlemont and Castabella, who only moments before had their heads on the block, are spared, and married. Some cynics might say that’s even more tragic, but not us, we’ve been married too long and are too smart to say anything like that.

Next up will be some Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy of the genre known as city comedy. In the course of my long career through academia I can recall hearing about city comedy, but I don’t think we ever read any, and the drama course for the Elizabethan era generally focuses on Shakespeare to the exclusion of everyone else, and Shakespeare did not do city comedy.