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 color of the silkworm’s labors, we endorse the bewilderingness of the bewitching minute, and are faintly dismayed or disoriented by “falsify,” “refine,” and “valors.”

At least some aspects of the aesthetic of revenge are exposed in such a play. We may want to congratulate the audience of 1606 on its ability to listen to such verse with understanding and delight, without losing pleasure in the lust and corruption of the story. It was evidently possible to challenge that audience by opening up so wide a space between the language and the tale. And there are other sophistications that count equally on the experience of the audience. If only from Hamlet they know that in the theater the revenger is aware of himself as an actor, performing what he is meant to be doing, acting the act. At one point Vindice expresses his glee when a patron, not recognizing him without his disguise, hires him to kill himself. At another he wonders why heaven has not already taken vengeance on one of his intended victims, and asks, “Is there no thunder left?”—whereupon there is an instant thunderclap, less, one feels, to signify divine approval or confirm his appointment as a minister of heavenly justice (a commission claimed by Hamlet) than to make mock of the very idea that heaven would embroil itself in such affairs. In the final scene Vindice brings on his own comeuppance by misunderstanding the situation and admitting a murder; he is at once sent off to execution: “‘Tis time to die, when we ourselves are our foes,” he remarks. He has no remorse, is recognizably as corrupt as the offenders he has killed, and is condemned by the prudent man whose ascent to power he has made possible.

Not all revengers are manifestly wicked. Clermont d’Ambois in George Chapman’s Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois is a virtuous Stoic, and like Seneca speaks against revenge, though in the end he does as his brother’s ghost has charged him. Seneca, in his philosophical capacity, wrote against revenge, though there is plenty of it in his plays, so Chapman has him both ways. These Jacobean preoccupations are of interest to Mr. Kerrigan, but, as his subtitle suggests, his book has an enormously broader range. He treats, among much else, of such topics as these: the relation between victim and avenger, and the transfer of guilt and corruption between them; the theatricality of revenge; the position of the revenger when, as must often be the case, he is acting not as the directly injured party but on behalf of somebody else; the relation between revenge (“a kind of wild justice,” as Bacon called it) and the law, including the law of God.


Since tragedy and revenge are closely allied, Kerrigan considers aesthetic as well as ethical implications (they interact, as Tourneur demonstrates) and his ambition is to extend the discussion so that it treats not only of early modern revenge drama, but of Greek tragedy, modern tragedy whether dramatic or not, and any other manifestation of revenge that comes under his eye, for he wishes to illustrate the workings of vengeance in human relations generally. He regards this as a study of immediate relevance to modern cultures, yet one that must establish important ethical and anthropological continuities throughout history. He does all this with exemplary learning, and only occasionally wanders too far from his stated sub-ject in search of something that has inspired his exceptional scholarly curiosity. The breadth of his interests is certainly impressive, and so is the acuteness of his judgment in particular cases; the only worry one is left with is that even after a second reading it is not easy to grasp his book as a whole. The abundance and minuteness of the material and his engrossed discussions of it weaken the central ideas, and occasionally one senses the effort that is necessary to drag the argument back to its base.

There have been recent examples of men and women asking to be allowed to attend an execution, in one case parents seeking satisfaction from their child’s murderer. I suppose it is possible that they would have preferred to kill him themselves, but in the present state of society they had to settle for witnessing the act performed by a surrogate. The emotions of such people are likely to be complicated, but one guesses that revenge is the chief of them, and that they calculated that watching the man die would satisfy them more than merely hearing, along with everybody else, of his death. What they cannot achieve is an equality of suffering; for his suffering, even though it is a death agony, will be different in kind, and perhaps lesser in degree, than their own. They simply want the best that can be had by way of retribution. And one may wonder whether observing the delegated act of revenge did in fact make them feel any better; whether the inadequacy of merely being present made them feel more keenly than ever that they could never get even with him, or with life itself; or whether their attendance may have caused them to sense a corruption in themselves at having taken over, in the greatest measure possible, the crime of their opponent.

Examples of this kind (though not this particular instance) are of great interest to Kerrigan, though he finds them at their most schematic in tragedy, where “the structure of vengeance” is clearest. The basic aim of the avenger is symmetry—an eye for an eye—but the representation of a desire for symmetrical revenge will show that it cannot be had. “For when B, injured by A, does to A what A did to him, he makes himself resemble the opponent he has blamed, while he transforms his enemy into the kind of victim he once was.” And since in most drama the revenger is endowed with some measure of moral sensibility, he is himself aware of the ethical loss here entailed. He is also a theatrical figure, given to soliloquy, in which the complexity of his situation can be made evident to an audience. Moreover, it may be that custom or character requires him to exact not an eye for an eye but as many eyes as possible for an eye (a “disproportionate” revenge), which will increase his measure of self-conscious corruption, and perhaps provoke a counter-revenge when the opponent is in turn put under the necessity of getting even. The revenger’s wager, Kerrigan argues, is therefore always lost. This is true whether he is acting in his own behalf or somebody else’s, in the latter case creating what Kerrigan chooses to call “a structure of displaced agency.” His corrupt act can infect the commonwealth, for example when he takes his revenge not on the culprit but on one of his kinsmen, thereby starting a feud.


Revenge animates many plots, and not only those known as revenge tragedies. In and out of the theater, it is, in Kerrigan’s view, ubiquitous, affecting all times and all societies, not only those of Athens and Jacobean London, but ours and, as far as can be told, everyone else’s. This belief is what makes Kerrigan’s material so impossibly abundant. He is interested in psychoanalysis, and brings in Melanie Klein, who was herself interested not only in infantile vengeance sought from what she called the paranoid-schizoid position but also in Aeschylus. He digs out of the London Sun a report concerning a man who bit off a police dog’s ear (with photograph) and from Elle Jackie Collins’s confession that she uses her books to revenge herself on hostile journalists. He observes that, of late, criminology and legal studies have witnessed a “retributivist revival,” with a consequent reduction of interest in deterrence and prevention. The point will hardly be contested: our society has grown conscientiously vindictive, studiously opposed to altruism; hence the claim that this encyclopedic study of revenge is very timely.

Still, the weight of the book is in the investigation of literature. After a good look around, Kerrigan remarks that it seems to be universally agreed that vengeance and creativity are closely related. This is obvious in tragedies of revenge, where the avenger is the image of the author, and manipulates “a fluid and contingent world with a dramatist’s inventiveness and authority,” while the presence of an audience establishes a resemblance to courts of law. For litigation is also vengeful, and also involves character, rhetorical skill, and some play-acting. “Retributive attitudes are ingrained,” and if we can see this in modern law courts we can equally see it in mystery stories, popular movies, and television soaps. The rhetoric may have faltered since Tourneur’s time, but not the interest in narrative and character—in what B does to A and what he feels like when he does it, and what follows from his act.

So only the accidental details change; the substance of revenge prevails. Kerrigan’s confidence that this is so leads him to trace the fortunes of certain archetypal Greek heroes and heroines from their own time to our time. Archaic practices of ritual slaughter and blood-drinking, reflected in Aeschylus and Euripides, survive in modern vampirism; it is the vengefulness of the dead (or the “undead”) that is being celebrated. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, his bite associated with HIV infection, is clearly in the tradition, expressing a resentful desire for revenge on the part of the dead. Other movies can be seen as Aeschylean, including Carrie. What is impressive is the reach of Kerrigan’s examples—from The Libation Bearers to Bram Stoker, from Sophocles to Sherlock Holmes, from Euripides’ Medea to Pasolini’s, with excursions on Cherubini, Delacroix, and Maria Callas; from Orestes (virtually the hero of Kerrigan’s book) to medieval French and English narratives and Hamlet.

The heroine of the book is Medea, and there is a long chapter called “Medea Variations: Feminism and Revenge.” Though respectful, even when dealing with vengeful feminist rage, Kerrigan makes some considerately critical remarks about the intimations of justifiable revenge in the work of Julia Kristeva, Adrienne Rich, Catharine MacKinnon, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and others. He cites with approval a remark of Kate Saunders—“for women, revenge is an art form”—but demurs when she goes on to say that “the feminine combination of intense imagination and unlimited patience can transform the whole concept of returning injury for injury into a thing of beauty and a joy forever.” For although Medea may seem an interesting “role model,” most female revengers don’t resemble her very closely. They may be battered wives who have certainly been patient and waited a long time; but having struck they find that in the opinion of male law they are murderers, whereas if they’d behaved as men are said to do, and acted at the moment of provocation, they might have got away with it.

With characteristic equanimity Kerrigan, while deploring this imbalance in vengeful opportunity and legal retribution, declines to believe that Ms. MacKinnon formulated it exactly when she stated that the structure of social reality is grounded in the principle, “man fucks woman: subject verb object.” Certain “vagaries of desire,” we are told, are not covered by this formula, although its implicit call for revenge aligns it with the aesthetic of revenge tragedy. It is Kerrigan’s way to find room for anything that interests him, and so to include a critique of feminist attitudes in a book about revenge, disregarding the risk that this may be an unduly restrictive context. In this sense his argument, in some ways so delightfully expansive, can also be bewildering; he makes it so difficult for the reader to hold the whole thing together in a single thought.

Typically, he reflects that revengers are usually angry and his devotion to the idea of continuity requires at least a brief account of what has been thought about anger over the ages. According to Aristotle anger is “a longing, accompanied by pain, for a real or apparent revenge for a real or apparent slight…when such a slight is undeserved.” But Seneca argued that rage cannot be useful, and indeed degrades the individual who suffers it. He also opposed retributive punishments. But the Christian tradition rejected Seneca and accepted retribution and just anger. Kerrigan conjectures that we are still suffering from a conflict between these traditions.

More probably our sense of conflict arises from the clash between the natural desire for retribution and a notion, secular humanist rather than Senecan, that we ought to repress it. In the time of Shakespeare or Tourneur the conflict certainly was between an urge to seek revenge that seemed entirely natural and the Christian teaching, regularly heard from the pulpit when churchgoing was mandatory, that vengeance belonged to God, who had expressly stated that it was his alone, though it was possible to be chosen as his agent or “minister.” Although the contrary has been argued, it seems pretty obvious that the audience, whether or not persuaded by what they heard in church, did not carry that lesson into the theater. They must have enjoyed the highly colored, witty ingenuities of stage revenge without moralizing it unduly, as Kerrigan recognizes when he speaks of Timon of Athens (“the mighty engines of Shakespearean imprecation roar into life”) or the curses in King Lear. The audience enjoyed the rhetoric of anger, just as they enjoyed the knowledge that the angry revenger was conscious of himself as an actor—Kerrigan even suggests that Hamlet comes across as a performer who finds himself in a play unworthy of his talents, a used-up old revenge piece dragged into a more modern world. His anger may therefore be of a rather complicated kind, caused not merely by his father’s death, or the nuisance that he has to load his memory with the circumstances of that death in order, however unwillingly, to avenge it, but by a sort of disgust at being so wretchedly miscast.

Yet Kerrigan, who cheerfully includes Paradise Lost in the category of revenge drama, also maintains that although we are no longer given to formal cursing of our enemies, we should, “to understand our rages,…read Shakespeare and Milton.” Of course there are plenty of modern instances of stage rage (he cites Look Back in Anger) and they do not strike us as untrue to the conditions of real life; we may know all the disadvantages of envy, jealousy, and desire for revenge, but we feel those emotions in our own way. Whether Shakespeare is a help to us is doubtful; the sad case of Othello probably never pacified a jealous husband, and if, like B, we want badly to get even, we are probably not deterred by the consideration that to do so will make us as wicked as A.

This, of course, is Kerrigan’s point, that despite cultural change there is a continuity in human revenge, and that the result is, or can be, tragic. One of the reasons why his book is hard to grasp as a whole is precisely that if its basic thesis is correct, and revenge as universal as he claims, the material to be considered is simply too abundant; the topic verges on being just life itself.

This doesn’t mean that there are not a vast number of interesting observations to be made about the vast number of aspects of revenge the author chooses to consider: for example, the archetypal force of Orestes and Medea, the boldness of Nietzsche and the questionings of Kierkegaard concerning Don Giovanni, the relevance of Freud and Dostoevsky, of Moby-Dick, Jack London and Wallace Stevens, Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum. There is in Revenge Tragedy a kind of smooth bombardment of information: for instance in a chapter on war we learn about the technological similarity between movie cameras and machine guns, cinemas and torture chambers; about vindictive killing in the Trojan and Vietnam wars, about The Mahabharata, David Jones, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut. Eventually we arrive at Armageddon and what has so far prevented it, which some call deterrence, though to this author deterrence is but “the fig-leaf of revenge.” The side that suffered a nuclear attack would have no good reason to respond in kind, unless revenge is a good reason.

The information provided is far more various, curious, and thorough than I’ve been able to suggest; it includes brilliant pages on Greek tragedy and Shakespearean comedy, with an unfashionable tribute to Bergson, arising from the recognition that revenge can be funny, with the author, as ever, needing to find out why this is so. It is all rather dazzling, and seemingly could go on forever, but since it has to end somewhere it ends with Jean-François Lyotard’s essay on dialogue in its relation to power, the necessary asymmetry between the participants when A, the instigator of the dialogue, sets the terms and conditions B has to accept; which brings us back almost to Kerrigan’s original model of revenge. Of course he argues with Lyotard, but—after some pages on Othello, Oedipus at Colonus, Hecuba, and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—accepts that “he shows how definition itself, through name-attribution, sign-reading, and dialogue, is inextricable from violence and abuse.” In the end the violence in the relationship between A and B is the result of “the communicative inequalities of life.” And so revenge tragedy facilitates “an understanding of forces which drive behaviour across many levels—always including the linguistic; forces which, for better or worse, are unlikely to be ‘purged’ from the human sphere.”

Some such conclusion was inevitable from the outset, but it was worth the journey and even merited some of the detours. But it is one of the communicative inequalities of life that while wanting fewer of these detours the reviewer B is compelled by the author A to undertake and even to admire them. It is sometimes said that any book can be summarized in a single sentence, e.g., for Proust’s long novel, “Marcel becomes a writer.” It would not be difficult to provide such a sentence for this book, but here again whatever makes it worth reading would be lost. And that missing content is what one equally admires and resents. At once brilliant and bewildering, refreshing and exhausting, this is a book to disturb anybody’s intellectual peace.

This Issue

November 28, 1996