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Revenge and Tragedy

A Drama and Theatre Studies Essay

[version with footnotes/bibliography available on request]


‘When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.’ It’s just a silly joke that my father used to tell me, but it seems that it also sums up something. This question and answer contain the essence of theatre – a play on meaning, how one thing can become another in our minds… It is telling that for us in the West our first theatre was tragedy. In the era when democracy was born, tragic drama had its prime. It is equally telling that in times without democracy, tragedy has given way to morality play: be it Everyman or Triumph of the Will. Tragedy lives questions, morality plays answer them. That’s not to say that tragedy is without morals; on the contrary, what constitutes a tragedy depends entirely on one’s moral viewpoint. To use Geoffrey Brereton’s real-world example – we would not think of the death of Hitler as tragic, ‘though for a Nazi sympathiser it must be supremely so’. Individual tragic dramas may have specific moral points of view (or may have specific moral points of view imposed upon them by modern directors and adaptors): Sophocles’s Antigone as anti-totalitarian, Euripides’s Trojan Women as antiwar; however, tragedy is synonymous with struggle, and so the genre accommodates multiple viewpoints, truths, and ‘right’s. Tragedy has two levels: the level of power and the level of wanting power. Jason has the power to divorce Medea, and Medea seeks power over Jason by killing his children; every way O’Neill’s Hairy Ape turns, he is confronted with a world of power he cannot enter. The point where power meets the want of power is the point of tragedy. The gods have the power to launch Agamemnon’s ships, he wants them to exercise this power so badly that he is prepared to kill his own daughter; Antigone’s wanting the power to bury her brother clashes with Creon’s powers as ruler. In tragic drama, the clash of power and wanting power is also the point of violence. Tragic drama depends on violence – whether it is the violence of war, the violence of murder, or the quiet violence of Hamm’s controlling Clov in Beckett’s Endgame. There are, as I see it, three kinds of tragic violence: sacrifice, the violence of waste, and revenge. The three can be linked, of course. Medea gets revenge on Jason by sacrificing her children, and we are likely to view the children’s lives as wasted. ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘revenge’ belong on either side of ‘the violence of waste’ because both acts of sacrifice and acts of revenge can be viewed as acts of waste. In the real world, ‘waste’ is probably the thing we most associate with the tragic. Brereton describes a typical real-life tragedy – an experienced climber being killed by an easy climb. ‘The predominant impression is one of waste’, Brereton writes. This ‘waste’ has occurred without an act of revenge or of sacrifice. But in theatre, for the purposes of drama, sacrifice and revenge necessarily feed into tragedy more than in real life. Of these two impulses toward violence, it seems to me that ‘revenge’ is the more problematic for tragedy, for notions of the tragic. We speak of ‘revenge tragedy’ – but is this term not an oxymoron, given that the pursuers of revenge almost invariably equate it with justice? Justice, by definition, should not be tragic. This essay investigates tragedy’s link with revenge by looking at plays from three eras: Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Seneca’s Thyestes, and Webster’s The White Devil. My discussion of the plays will be informed in particular by the first two chapters of René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred.

            Revenge doesn’t stop. It is a baton passed endlessly from killer to future killer. Aeschylus knew this. The OresteiaAgamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides – is the only extant Greek tragic trilogy. This cycle of plays dramatises the breaking of the cycle of revenge, through the creation of a judicial system. It moves from a world where sacrifice is required to appease the gods, to a world of trials – where ‘justice’ is performed with the approval of the gods. It essentially dramatises the shift from ‘primitive’ society to Western democracy. The catalyst for this shift is revenge. In Violence and the Sacred, René Girard writes of sacrifice as an act of violence without risk of reprisal. The revenge cycle of the Oresteia begins with a sacrifice that breaks this rule – King Agamemnon’s killing of his daughter to appease Artemis, so that the winds will change and his ships may sail to Troy:


…What can I say?

Disaster follows if I disobey;

Yet surely worse disaster if I yield

And slaughter my own child, my home’s delight…

…But disband the fleet, sail home, and earn

A deserter’s name?…

…No, the wind must turn,

There must be sacrifice, the girl must bleed!


And so Agamemnon kills his daughter, Iphigenia, and this sews thoughts of vengeance into the mind of his wife, Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra. Upon his return from Troy, Agamemnon is murdered by Clytemnestra, and the Queen cites the death of her daughter as her reason. She chastises the Chorus of Argive Elders:


Why, once before, did you not dare oppose this man,

Who with no more compunction than men butcher sheep,

When his own fields were white with flocks, sacrificed

His child – my own daughter, whom my pains brought forth?

He killed her for a charm to stop the Thracian wind!

He was the one you should have driven from Argos; he,

Marked with his daughter’s blood, was ripe for punishment.


For Clytemnestra, the ‘simple truth’ is that Agamemnon was ‘evil’. Her act of revenge is an act of justice:


This is my husband, Agamemnon, now stone dead;

His death the work of my right hand, whose craftsmanship

Justice acknowledges.


As Clytemnestra felt it her duty to avenge her daughter’s death, so it is the duty of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, to avenge his father’s murder, even if it means killing his mother. As Orestes prepares to murder Clytemnestra, the Chorus of The Libation Bearers says:


Justice exacts her debt;

The voice of Justice cries:

Let word pay word, let hatred get

Hatred in turn, let murderous blow

Meet blow that murdered…


As Girard writes, with revenge, the crime and the punishment are the same.

            Both Clytemnestra and Orestes equate the revenge-murders they commit with justice. For whom, then, is the Oresteia a tragedy? Agamemnon’s own words, as he prepares to sacrifice his daughter, indicate that he knows what the consequences of his action will be – he knows that ‘ruin’ lies ahead. Actions undertaken of one’s own free will and with full knowledge of their consequences are decidedly untragic. They possess neither of the points important to tragedy which Brereton mentions in his attempt at a universal definition – an ‘unforeseen or unrealised failure’ and an ‘ironical change of fortune’. Sophocles’s Oedipus, sometimes seen as the ‘perfect’ tragedy, demonstrates the validity of these points. Oedipus’s tragedy is that he does not know who his real parents are; because he doesn’t have this knowledge, he unwittingly commits patricide and incest; in the end, his search for the source of pollution in Thebes ironically leads him to himself. If the Oresteia is not a tragedy for Agamemnon, then it can hardly be a tragedy for Clytemnestra or Orestes either. Both mother and son achieve their goals of getting justice. In fact, there are only two characters in the Oresteia who are ‘tragic’, in the sense that they suffer from either a lack of free will or a lack of knowledge: Iphigenia, and Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess turned slave of Agamemnon. Iphigenia isn’t even a ‘character’, as such – her story is simply told by the Chorus, during one of their odes. And Cassandra, though she dies alongside Agamemnon, is barely even a ‘bonus prize’ for Clytemnestra – the Queen merely mentions in passing the prophetess’s murder, though she gloats at length about the death of her husband. The play does not foreground Cassandra’s death, it foregrounds Clytemnestra’s revenge. Therefore, it is not tragedy that is foregrounded, but the Queen’s justice.

            The only problem with this justice is that it doesn’t end – the responsibility for it just passes from one person to another. Ultimately, it moves out of the oikos and begins to affect the polis. As Girard puts it, with vengeance, the ‘multiplication of reprisals… puts the very existence of a society in jeopardy…’ And so the polis must find its own solution. Enter: trials and the judicial system, as seen in The Eumenides. In the final chapter of the Oresteia, Orestes is hounded by the Furies – the creatures who take revenge on behalf of those murdered by blood relatives, if there are no next of kin left to do it themselves. Agamemnon’s son goes to Athens, where he faces a trial presided over by Athene. Apollo leads Orestes’s defence; the Furies are the ‘prosecution’. After the arguments have been heard, twelve Athenian citizens vote on the defendant’s guilt. Then, Orestes is allowed to go free – not because he didn’t kill his mother, but because it’s the only way the cycle of revenge can cease. A tale that began with an act of sacrifice (the killing of Iphigenia), now ends with one – the Furies must give up their hold on Orestes; they must sacrifice no less than themselves, as they are transformed into the Eumenides, the ‘Kindly Ones’. In Girardian terms, this act of sacrifice does stem the flow of violence. A permanent cycle of acts of justice – revenge – has been replaced by a single act of justice aiming at a permanent solution – the trial. The trial may provide ‘better’ justice from the community’s point of view, in that it stops the threat to the polis. But this does not take away from the fact that, for Clytemnestra, as her daughter’s mother, and for Orestes, as his father’s son, their justice was found in the deaths they caused.

            The saga of the violence committed by Agamemnon’s family against itself, however, while it may end with the trial of Orestes, did not begin with the killing of Iphigenia. Her sacrifice prompted Clytemnestra’s revenge, and in that sense was the beginning of the Oresteia. But members of Agamemnon’s family had been murdering other family members since long before. An ‘unofficial prequel’ to the Oresteia is the tale of Thyestes, as related by Seneca. Agamemnon was the son of Atreus, who had a brother, Thyestes. Atreus and Thyestes could never reach agreement over sharing their kingdom, and they vied with one another constantly. Eventually, Atreus became king and Thyestes went into exile. But Atreus plots to end the feud once and for all under the pretence of reconciliation… In the second chapter of Violence and the Sacred, Girard describes how tragedy results from an inability to assert differences: ‘The sheer impossibility of asserting their differences fuels the rage of [brothers] Eteocles and Polyneices.’ The same could be said of Atreus and Thyestes. Their lack of difference as brothers results in rivalry, in efforts to claim their individuality, which results in conflict. The only way they can declare their distinctness is by committing increasingly despicable acts against one another, each trying to outdo his brother: Thyestes sleeps with Atreus’s wife, so Atreus murders Thyestes’s children and serves their flesh to him for dinner. This latter crime is the subject of Seneca’s play. As Act Two of Thyestes opens, Atreus is wondering how he can get his revenge, or, as he sees it, justice:


Am I a coward, sluggard, impotent,

And – what I count the worst of weaknesses

In a successful king – still unavenged?

After so many crimes, so many sleights

Committed on me by that miscreant brother

In violation of all sacred law,

Is there no more to do but make vain protests?

Whatever might be sin

Against a brother, can only be justice

In this man’s case…

He took my wife…


Even an act as vile as the murder of children and the feeding of their bodies to their father, is seen as justice, when set in the context of revenge. Do Atreus’s actions compose a tragedy? They are criminal; horrific; distressing to the extreme, certainly. But tragic? Atreus’s plan is meticulously carried out. He kills the children knowing full well what he is doing – preparing them like a sacrifice. But this sacrifice is not to appease any deity, only Atreus’s thirst for vengeance:


Incense was used, and consecrated wine,

The salt and meal dropped from the butcher’s knife

Upon the victims’ heads, all solemn rites



Girard writes that, ‘In many rituals the sacrificial act assumes two opposing aspects, appearing at times as a sacred obligation to be neglected at grave peril, at other times as a sort of criminal activity entailing perils of equal gravity.’ Atreus’s sacrifice of the children does result in peril, but not for Atreus – for Thyestes. Indeed, as Atreus makes the sacrifice to himself, to his own revenge-lust, he is elevated to god-like status – securing at once his revenge, his kingdom, and the last defeat of his brother. He is able to look on gleefully, as Thyestes is bent to his will:


            I walk among the stars! Above the world

            My proud head reaches up to heaven’s height!


            I have attained the summit of my wishes.


            In the Oresteia we saw how, to modify terms from Girard, private justice (revenge) gave way to public justice (the judicial system). In Thyestes we saw how even the most extreme acts of violence can be called justice. In each case we were considering paradigms of the tragic genre – Aeschylus is one of the three great Greek tragedians, the man who laid the foundations for Sophocles and Euripides (to either build upon or rip up – as they saw fit!), and Seneca is synonymous with Roman tragedy. Similarly, John Webster is ‘the typical Jacobean dramatist…’ What we see when we turn to The White Devil, however, is a confusing of the issue this essay is based on: that acts of revenge are not tragic because pursuers of revenge are interested in justice. Like the Oresteia, Webster’s play presents us with cycles of revenge, where deaths are caused and then must be avenged by relatives of the deceased. But, unlike in the Oresteia, public justice does not swoop down to stop the excesses of private justice. At the end of The White Devil, there is no establishment of a judicial system, the latest killers are simply taken off to be tortured: there is no democratic hope, no sense that the wheel of revenge will stop turning. Indeed, during the course of the play, the very idea of revenge as justice is destabilised, when one character declares that the fact that the revenge-murders he is about to commit will become famous is enough to justify them:


            Tush for justice.


            …the fame

            Shall crown the enterprise and quit the shame. 


            Where does this leave us in terms of our view of tragedy? The first time I read The White Devil, I did not think it was tragic. It was a tale of court corruption, involving the deaths of various undesirable characters. None of the people commanded ‘respect or sympathy’, and so their deaths did not particularly inspire sorrow in me. Roland Wymer, in his book Webster and Ford, suggests that The White Devil investigates the idea of the moment of death as the moment of greatest life. And indeed, it is only as they are about to die that several of the characters show their most admirable sides. Flamineo is brave and defiant. Vittoria gains a conscience:


O my greatest sin lay in my blood.

Now my blood pays for’t.


Yet, there are also characters who die pathetically, ironically, ridiculously, or for seemingly pointless reasons. Isabella, spurned by her husband when she asked for a kiss, then dies as she kisses a poisoned portrait of him. Camillo is murdered in a bizarre scenario where he is drunk and about to jump off a vaulting horse. Marcello is stabbed in the back while looking at the cross around his mother’s neck. So, while some characters have their finest moments as they prepare to die, for others, death surprises them, and they are killed without realising anything about the world or themselves, without ‘tragic recognition’, in Aristotelian terms. The conflicting presentations of death in The White Devil match the destabilisation of revenge-as-justice, and both feed into the wider sense of ‘ambivalence’ in the play. The Oresteia gave us hope. Thyestes gave us immense evil. And even though that evil was allowed to take place, the play-world was still a moral one – the Chorus deplored and condemned the actions of Atreus, describing them as an ‘Inhuman outrage’. If there’s evil, and we can see that evil, then we have something. The overriding impression one gets from The White Devil is of ‘uselessness’. Corruption pervades the world like a permanent cancer. People cannot recognise themselves until they are about to die, and even then they may not.

            In his article ‘Tragedy, Pure and Simple’, George Steiner attempts a definition of tragic drama in its ‘absolute mode’:


“Tragedy” is a dramatic representation, enactment, or generation of a highly specific world-view. This world-view is summarized in the adage… “It is best not to be born, next best to die young.” This dictum is transparent shorthand for a larger conception. It entails the view that human life per se, both ontologically and existentially, is an affliction.


The problem, of course, as Steiner acknowledges, is that, if life is this bad, why would you write about it? If tragedy urges an end to life, then the very fact that one has written a tragedy is a defiance of tragedy. Hence, there are ‘very few “absolute” tragedies’. Of one of our great writers of ‘tragedies’, Steiner says:


The Shakespearean sense of reality, of man’s works and days, is conceptually and pragmatically tragicomic. Shakespeare knows, in every fibre of his compendious being, that a child is being born next door, a birthday celebrated below stairs, in the very instant of the murder of Agamemnon or the blinding of Oedipus. He knows, overwhelmingly, that the facts of the world are hybrid, that desolation and joy, destruction and generation, are simultaneous. 


Steiner describes the world’s simultaneously joyful and sorrowful nature as ‘tragicomic’. But, for me, the fact that the world is at once full of joy and full of sorrow is tragedy. A baby’s being born in the same moment that someone is murdered is not separate from the tragedy, it is part of it. In short, tragedy is not a worldview which denies life; it is life. Life is the tragic condition. Hence, there is no such thing as ‘absolute’ tragedy. Life is many things and so is tragedy.

            How does all this affect the thesis that revenge is not tragic? By a deus ex machina, my thesis seems to implode! In a way, however, this leaves us back where my essay began: with the idea that the tragic genre accommodates multiple viewpoints and truths. The notion that the point of tragedy is the point where ‘the want of power’ meets ‘power’, applies as equally to day-to-day life as it does to avengers and their targets; we are all looking for the power to realise our wishes in a world where others have the power to grant them. As mentioned already, when I first read The White Devil, I did not consider it tragedy. But I also did not consider Thyestes to be tragic – until, that is, I heard Thyestes speak, after he realises what he has unwittingly done to himself:



This was the sight you could not bear to see!

This was the sin that drove the daylight back

To where it came from. O what words can tell,

What grieving can assuage my agony?

There are not words enough to speak of it.

Here are their severed heads, I see, their hands

Chopped off, the feet left from their broken legs,

The leavings of their father’s gluttony.

I press my sons to death – they press their father.


Atreus’s revenge was not tragic for him because he equated it with justice, but the fruits of that revenge were very much tragedy for Thyestes. We may want to think of ‘justice’ as a pure concept, divorced from tragedy, but it is not. It depends as much upon perspective as anything else. Solutions, even if they are for the good of the ‘whole’, tend to be at somebody’s expense. Some have power and some are left seeking it. Tragedy.

            The last ‘act’ of the Oresteia provides hope. But The Eumenides is not that much more than an elaborated version of the conclusions to many other Greek tragedies, which also posit the possibility that the future will be better. One thinks of Antigone – by the end, Creon has learned from the pain he caused himself through his actions, and there is a sense that he will govern more wisely from now on. Even the end of Oedipus gives hope – though the cost has been colossal, the city has been purged of its pollution, and there is a chance to begin anew. Oedipus himself manages a certain apotheosis through his suffering, as we see in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus. The world of The White Devil may be permanently corrupt, but the fact that some people can become alive as they die still offers us something: a lesson to live well before it’s too late, or to fall down well when the time to fall arrives – so that maybe we can leave a mark of ourselves on those we leave behind. Tragedy is the state of the world, of humanity: it sees all the horrors painfully clearly, but it sees the good as well, and it offers the possibility that through the horrors or beyond the horrors we may be better people. And it is here that we return once again to sacrifice. Tragedy demands sacrifices of its characters because life demands sacrifices of everyone. And, to draw on Girard, the more critical the situation, the more difficult the sacrifice will be. Tragedy does away with illusion. It never promises things will be easy. But neither does hope. The door is ajar. 



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