Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon
by John Kerrigan
Oxford University Press, 404 pp., $70.00
The first part of the title of John Kerrigan’s book makes one think of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, of Hamlet, naturally, but also of such works as The Revenger’s Tragedy, perhaps by Cyril Tourneur, perhaps by Thomas Middleton; let us favor Tourneur. His hero is actually called Vindice, and most of the other characters have allegorical names like Spurio, a bastard, Lussurioso, a lecher, Ambitioso, and Castiza. These names indicate types rather than characters, and Vindice exists almost exclusively to wreak revenge. The crimes that call for vengeance, whether by Vindice or others, are predominantly sexual; nearly everybody is engaged in rape, adultery, or incest.
The play had something of a vogue at the end of the last century, largely because it was so gloomy and so disgustingly interested in sex, and it later became a favorite of T.S. Eliot, who spoke of its “intense and…horrible vision of life,” with “characters which seem merely to be spectres projected from the poet’s inner world of nightmare, some horror beyond words.” But Eliot’s most influential remarks on the play concerned some lines which, once he had pointed to them, became celebrated. Vindice is contemplating the skull of his murdered mistress:
And now methinks I could e’en chide myself
For doting on her beauty, tho’ her death
Shall be reveng’d after no common action.
Does the silkworm expend her yellow labors
For thee? for thee does she undo herself?
Are lordships sold to maintain ladyships
For the poor benefit of a bewitching minute?
Why does yon fellow falsify highways
And put his life between the judge’s lips,
To refine such a thing, keeps horse and men
To beat their valors for her?
These lines explain why the play isn’t merely disgusting, merely an expression of “the horror of life.” Their extraordinary refinement contrasts bewilderingly with the quasi-pornographic story, and with the basic banality of the sentiment expressed: even beautiful women die, there are skulls beneath their skins, to desire them above everything is, when you have a skull in your hand, clearly seen to be pathetic; nevertheless they must, on proper occasion, be avenged. The lines distract one from this message, and themselves offer a “bewitching” or “bewildering” minute (Eliot preferred the reading “bewildering,” an interesting but inauthentic nineteenth-century variant); they mimic those moments of ecstatic or orgasmic dismay which, in Roland Barthes’s scheme, are not to be called plaisir but jouissance. For Eliot they exhibited
that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations, meaning perpetually eingeschachtelt into meanings, which evidences a very high development …of the English language which we have perhaps never equalled.
He underlines the words expend, yellow labors, falsify highways, refine, and beat their valors, leaving one to consider the diversity of interest, even the farfetchedness of reference, that distinguishes this way of expressing disgust at the woman’s skull; when we have paused to wonder at the attention paid to the …