Shakespeare September- Day 28: Revenge in Shakespeare

It’s my last few posts for #ShakespeareSeptember!

I would say, ‘My that’s gone quickly’, but really it hasn’t. At all! September seems to have gone on and on this time round. And I’m not sure if that’s 1) because I came back from holiday on the 2nd and was counting down until my next holiday, or 2) because I’ve been blogging about Shakespeare almost every day! That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed #ShakespeareSeptember. It’s just it’s a lot of Shakespeare to write about. And find something different each day to write about!

1

The next two blogs will be the criticism/analysis I’ve been meaning to post. Studying BA English and MA Shakespeare means I’ve written a lot about Shakespeare, everything from prison cells, to doors, to those ‘queen[s] in jest, only to fill the scene’, aka Richard III himself. And those were all essays from one year!

What I thought what might be quite nice would be to post the first essay I ever wrote on Shakespeare. Obviously, please no copying/plagiarizing. Although quite why you’d want to copy this one is beyond me and here it is, in all its first-year-undergrad-not-knowing-how-to-footnote-or-use-critics-so-I’ll-just-use-my-own-ideas’ glory.

“The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” (The Merchant of Venice, III.i.60-1) How does Shakespeare dramatize revenge?

Iago describes love as “a lust of the blood” (I.iii.329), however it is arguable that it is not love but another form of “lust” which better fits this description: a desire for revenge. This is particularly appropriate in relation to Othello; when faced with the fear of cuckoldry he rejects his former “fond love” (III.iii.450) of Desdemona, and instead embraces a new, vengeful “lust of the blood”, as he exclaims:

All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven- ’tis gone.
Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell.

(III.iii.450-1)

The juxtaposition of the conflicting states of emotion Othello has felt (from “fond love” to its very antithesis “tyrannous hate” (III.iii.453) and “black vengeance”) marks a change in the character; as Othello declares his “love…[is] gone”, so too is the “valiant Othello”(I.iii.48) the audience once knew. The description of vengeance as “black” has negative connotations, and the alliterative “hollow hell” creates an image of almost indeterminable depth, as the repeated “h” sound gives the “hell” a haunting resonance. These descriptions also have supernatural connotations; while the image of “hell” could be metaphoric for Othello’s heart (which is now “hollow” in the absence of “love”) it is also plausible this “black vengeance” originates from hell itself. Considering this interpretation, Othello could be seen to engage with the supernatural as he summons revenge to “arise” from its “hollow hell”. Other characters also identify Othello’s vengeful, supernatural power; Emilia even calls Othello “the blacker devil” (V.ii.140). It could therefore be proposed that Shakespeare dramatizes revenge as a desire which is supernatural, inhuman, and something which can only be attained by removing a part of a character’s humanity, in Othello case his “fond love”.

Iago’s desire for revenge is dramatized as something necessary for the character, mentally and spiritually. Iago states nothing can “content [his] soul/Till [he is] evened with [Othello], wife for wife” (II.i.285-6), suggesting an incompleteness to his being. Whereas revenge removed a part of Othello’s existence, revenge gives Iago peace; vengeance for Iago is positive and he calls it a “sport” (I.iii.358). It has little effect on his mental state, as Iago seems to remain in control, illustrated by the considered soliloquies he delivers. His inner turmoil at the thought of cuckoldry (which “gnaw[ed] [his] inwards” (II.i.284)) is soothed; for Iago vengeance is like a cure. In contrast, revenge for Othello resembles something more akin to an illness or sickness. Whereas Iago is in control of his vengeance, revenge controls Othello:

…my bloody thoughts with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back…
Till that a capable and wide revenge                                                           Swallow them up

(III.iii.460-463)

This highlights the anguish Othello feels as a result of his inhuman desire for revenge; the “bloody thoughts” imply morbidity within the mind of Othello, and the “violent pace” with which they occur suggests a sense of mental self-harm, as the violence is towards himself. Shakespeare personifies vengeance (furthering its supernatural power), giving it the ability to “swallow” Othello’s “bloody thoughts”. His speech also deteriorates as he descends into vengeance and, in turn, madness; revenge is the only thought controlling Othello’s mind, illustrated as he repeatedly cries “O, blood, blood, blood!” (III.iii.454) From the ways in which Shakespeare dramatizes vengeance in Othello, it is therefore arguable that revenge can have the capacity to both heal and destroy.

Revenge in The Merchant of Venice is dramatized through Shylock, who seeks vengeance due to other characters’ racism towards him; Antonio calls him “[a] misbeliever, cut-throat, dog” (I.iii.107). Being called derogatory terms such as “dog” dehumanises him, and vengeance gives Shylock a remedy for his maltreatment. This view of revenge as positive is evident in his language:

If I can catch [Antonio] once upon the hip                                                                I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him

(I.iii.41-2)

This quotation suggests that much like Iago, Shylock is in control; he is active in seeking revenge with the emphasis very much on “I”. The language also contrasts to the personification of revenge “swallow[ing]” Othello’s thoughts, with the use of the similar verbs “swallow” and “feed”; the image of Shylock “feed[ing]” his revenge makes him seem in control of it, whereas vengeance almost “swallow[s]” Othello himself. Shakespeare continues to relate the idea of vengeance and food; when Shylock is asked why he seeks such an inhumane vengeance (that being “a pound of flesh” (IV.i.302)), he replies “if it will feed nothing else it will feed [his] revenge” (III.i.45-6). This reinforces the reading of revenge being comforting, but also introduces a cannibalistic element, with the idea of Shylock’s revenge consuming Antonio’s “flesh”. Much like revenge was a necessity to “content” Iago, vengeance is literally the bread of life for Shylock.

While Iago’s revenge was successful in a sense (with Desdemona’s murder, he is “evened with [Othello], wife for wife”), Shylock’s vengeance is never truly achieved; this is a result of other vengeances in the play acting against Shylock. One structural point which the play addresses is the capacity for revenge to be multidimensional. Interestingly The Merchant of Venice (a comedy) seems to have an equal number of revenge plots as Othello, a tragedy, as Shylock’s revenge against Antonio prompts others to seek vengeance against him. This creates a cyclical form to the play and symmetry; it brings closure to the revenge plot, and the character seeking vengeance has ironically been brought down by his own cruel act. In Hamlet, Laertes is “justly killed with [his] own treachery” (V.ii.250), an appropriate comparison to Shylock; Shylock’s desired revenge is murderous, and (forced to relinquish his possessions) he states “you take my life/When you do take the means whereby [he] lives” (IV.i.371-2), suggesting he is almost “killed” by his own vengeance. While a cyclical structure can create closure, it could also be argued it creates a vicious circle of vengeance; the behaviour which some characters “teach” will be repeated and “better[ed]”, an idea summed up in the quote “if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” (III.i.56)

While some dramatizations of revenge create distance between the victims and perpetrators, Shakespeare dramatizes vengeance in a way which blurs these roles. The vicious circle in The Merchant of Venice leads to a confusion of identities between Shylock and Antonio, as one character questions “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” (IV.i.169) Similarly, the characters of Iago and Othello and their respective morals become blurred, leaving the audience questioning which is the “blacker devil” here, Iago (V.ii.293) or Othello?

Bibliography:

William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford edition, ed. by Stephen Greenbalt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katharine Eisaman Maus, 2nd edn (US, Norton, 2008)

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare September- Day 28: Revenge in Shakespeare

    1. No, I haven’t yet. I’m going this week though, and am somewhat nervous about the additions/changes to the original text. Aka the child version of one of the witches, from the look of the trailer, and Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth.
      Have you seen it yet?

      Like

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