Revenge and Forgiveness/War and Peace

By Bob White, The University of Western Australia

Title page of 1615 edition of The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd. Courtesy of the British Library.
Title page of 1615 edition of The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd. Courtesy of the British Library.

At first glance the Elizabethan penchant for revenge tragedy (a term coined by modern critics) or ‘tragedy of blood’ seems intriguing. Reviving classical Senecan drama, which had been translated in the 1560s by Jasper Heywood, the genre held audiences spellbound with some of the most popular plays of the period including Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Hamlet (possibly building on a mysterious lost ancestor, the so-called Ur-Hamlet),[1] Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and others. A person is wronged, usually by the murder of a close relative, and having no recourse to public justice, takes the law into his own hands by embarking on a murderous vendetta. He often goes mad, and ends up violently slaughtered himself along with most of the other protagonists.

It seems like gory grand guignol in its extreme sensationalism, against both Christian teaching (‘vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord’ [Romans 12, 19–20]) and the rule of law which proscribed such lawless courses of action. By often placing the action in the past and always outside England, in countries like Spain and Italy, Protestant English dramatists could avoid attracting official displeasure or accusations of inciting duels and public violence by implying that such events happened only in uncivilised and usually popish environments. The playing out of primitive emotional drives for revenge could be enjoyed, but at a safe distance and with a free conscience. That is all well and good for benighted playgoers 400 years ago, we might conclude, but surely past its use-by date for more civilised modern societies?

But a few considerations give us pause from accepting this easy explanation. First, there is evidence in the plays themselves and in other sources that revenge motives even at the time were ambivalently regarded, and that this was a part of the fascination and dynamic of the genre. Francis Bacon famously wrote that ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice’, which encapsulates some of these moral ambiguities. On the one hand it is a form of distributive justice, resting on the Old Testament ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ maxim which in turn drew from the Roman law of talion. When we consider that the dramatic personae are driven by a burning passion for right to be done over wrong it has some conceptual validity, especially if the lawmaker himself (such as King Claudius in Hamlet)who has committed the first wrong, thus rendering official justice untrustworthy. And the Lord might take His time to ‘repay’. The revenger is then a victim and could reasonably ask: what other mechanism for justice is available?[2]Avenging a wrong could satisfy an overwhelming and justified passion of outrage. ‘Anger hath a privilege’, said Kent in King Lear. The Elizabethan theorist of emotions, Thomas Wright, affirmed that irascible passions need not always be extinguished (as the Stoics insisted), but could be ‘moved & stirred up for the service of vertue’[3]: the classic example being Christ’s scourging of the money changers. On the other hand, revenge is at best ‘wild’ justice outside the law, since it often involves murder, and invariably the revenger is or becomes a wrongdoer himself in the eyes of the family of the initial perpetrator, in turn inviting further retaliation.

Only Hamlet, to give him credit, ponders the vicious moral circle he faces, recognising that two wrongs can never make a right and more usually lead to third and fourth wrongs until nobody is left. Surprisingly, Hamlet’s moral scruples were castigated by generations of critics and actors who said he ‘delayed’ too long, and Laurence Olivier intoned in his movie that the philosophy student of Wittenberg was a man ‘who could not make up his mind’. Presumably they would far more readily take the word of a ghost claiming to be from purgatory and demanding retribution, and would leap to instant murder.[4]It would be terrifying to contemplate a President of the United States(completely fictional, of course) – in bed at 11am munching on a cheeseburger, drinking Coke from a can, watching Fox News and planning an afternoon round of golf – suddenly feeling a ghostly presence in the room claiming to be Ronald Reagan and commanding, ‘There is evil and you must retaliate, son, bomb a country now … adieu, adieu, adieu’. Doesn’t bear thinking about the consequences since it couldn’t happen, could it?

However, this improbable fantasy brings me to challenge the view that revenge tragedy as a written or cultural mode is out of date and irrelevant. Judging from television ratings, many viewers are glued to watching drama that enacts gangland murders in Melbourne, just as a few decades ago the mafia ethic of alternating revenge killings fuelled The Godfather and its two sequels, along with a host of other movies along the same lines. The conventions underlying these examples, and the moral ambivalence of sensing that remedies for injustice are relative to circumstances and not absolute, mirror the Elizabethan examples and perhaps derive from them.

More worrying still, it seems inescapable to conclude that foreign policies of every nation in the world, casually ignoring international laws and treaties and the United Nations, routinely threaten and carry out instant retaliation for perceived wrongdoing by enemy nations. At the more harmless end of the spectrum, we see the tit-for-tat expelling of diplomats, while at the alarming, pointy end, how else can we describe the ‘logic’ behind the threat of nuclear weapons, than as being based on revenge? And the endgame is the same as in Elizabethan plays – corpses mount on stage or in cities, in a spiral of violence without end until all are eliminated: Mutual Assured Destruction indeed.

It is also a demonstrable fact that at the conclusion of every war (except those that exterminate a whole population), the terms laid down by the victors do not bring lasting peace but simply plant the motivations in the humiliated and angry victims for the next war to be waged in revenge. With this kind of role modelling on a public, international stage fashioning our attitudes, it is not surprising that we hear of terrorist acts being committed by very righteous-feeling people on behalf of their beliefs, and school massacres by disgruntled alumni driven by resentment at some past grievance and feeling of injustice.

What, then, is the answer to the inevitable, self-annihilating pattern of revenge that underpins war? Again, Shakespeare, as well as demonstrating in tragedies the self-destructive pattern to show its futility, can help us, perhaps incongruously in his use of the genre of comedy.[5] His plays focus on love as one potential route to peacemaking, but more fundamentally they demonstrate that the only way to break the circuit of revenge once and for all is by activating another powerful, and in some ways psychologically more difficult, emotional state: forgiveness. Shakespeare has been credited with creating a type of drama in its own right, sometimes called comedy of forgiveness, as an alternative to tragedy of blood.[6] In the end his characters in comedies choose forgiveness as a way to cope with emotions of justified anger, and the sense of injustice felt by jilted, betrayed, slandered or thwarted lovers. Hannah Arendt stressed the equal need for being forgiven as for forgiving in order for the process to work.[7]In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon must forgive Titania and Titania must forgive Oberon if true peace is to prevail without further retaliations; and it is an initial sign that we are in a forgiving world to hear that Hippolyta, having been ‘won’ by Theseus ‘doing [her] injuries’, has forgiven him. The final word from Oberon, ‘sweet peace’, describes the final amity of the play’s ending.

There are figures who are left understandably angry and vengeful, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The former’s final riposte, ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’, is the ominous note sounded by the vanquished at the end of a war, predicting the next. These figures are not included in the final, mutual reconciliations because just as neither is forgiven for their earlier, anti-comic attitudes, so they cannot forgive the ways in which they have been humiliated. Revenge will fuel their extra-dramatic future as it has their past, but at least for the time being, they are marginalised, and neutralised in the love-focused genre of romantic comedy achieved by the prevailing spirit of forgiveness. And if it seems anomalous to read comedies as models of war and peace, Shakespeare’s words themselves frequently draw the analogy: ‘this civil war of wits’ spoken inLove’s Labour’s Lostis but one example of many where love is said at times to resemble a battlefield. Not for nothing does Cupid carry a bow.

This drive towards mutual forgiveness as a permanent solution to violence becomes more insistent and conscious than ever in Shakespeare’s last four plays, as if it is his final and most explicit plea for genuine reconciliation and the kind of peace which is more lasting than just the temporary cessation of conflict. Leontes, in The Winter’s Tale,must be forgiven by his wronged wife in order to have a ‘second chance’; Imogen in Cymbeline must forgive Posthumus for his reprehensible behaviour; Pericles chooses to escape a court where he is victimised and incriminated, instead of staying to fight; and Prospero struggles consciously, in The Tempest, to overcome his sense of entitlement for revenge, and instead forgives his enemies. He is prompted into human feelings paradoxically by Ariel the spirit, who has no feelings but does have a clear sense of the right path to peace:

ARIEL   Your charm so strongly works ‘em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

PROSPERO Dost thou think so, spirit?

ARIEL  Mine would, sir, were I human.

PROSPERO  And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
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.

There is one non-sequitur in Prospero’s meditation, since it is not, or not primarily, his ‘nobler reason’ that overturns his vengeful ‘fury’, but an appeal to empathy, ‘a touch, a feeling / of their afflictions’ which invokes a sympathetic ‘Passion’ causing him to be ‘kindlier moved’ into forgiveness. A strong emotionof desire for revenge in a form of war can be changed only by substituting a stronger, heartfelt feeling-state based on mutual tolerance and forgiveness, if reconciliation and peace are to be attained.

Bob White is Winthrop Professor in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia, and a Chief Investigator with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. His research focuses on early modern literature, especially Shakespeare, and Romantic literature. His publications include John Keats: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010; revised and corrected, paperback 2012); Pacifism in English Literature: Minstrels of Peace (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Natural Rights and the Birth of Romanticism in the 1790s( Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); and Natural Law in English Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1996), as well as a number of articles on peace and literature. Most recently, he has published Avant-Garde Hamlet (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015) and Shakespeare’s Cinema of Love (Manchester University Press, 2016).


[1]Lost Plays Database, edited by Roslyn L. Knutson, David McInnis and Matthew Steggle: (accessed 14 April 2018).

[2]Harry Keyishian, The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare (New Jersey: Humanity Books, 1995).

[3]Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Mind in General (London, 1604).

[4]Rene Girard, ‘Hamlet’s Dull Revenge’, in Literary Theory /Renaissance Texts, edited by Patricia Parker and David Quint(Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 280–302.

[5]Linda Anderson, A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare’s Comedies (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987).

[6]Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965).

[7]See Sarah Beckwith, Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).


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