Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Setting the Stage for Revenge: Space, Performance, and Power in Early Modern Revenge Tragedy

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Setting the Stage for Revenge: Space, Performance, and Power in Early Modern Revenge Tragedy

Article excerpt

WHEN the revenger Antonio, dripping in gore, walks on stage late in the third act of John Marston's Antonio's Revenge carrying a torch in one hand and a poniard in the other, the grisly tableau conspicuously evokes the opening moments of the play when the villainous duke Piero enters similarly bloodied and equipped, fresh from a double homicide that will propel the plot forward. The braggart noble, however, speaks too soon in those opening lines when he boasts, "I am great in blood, / Unequalled in revenge" (I.i.17-18), for his adversary Antonio, "reeking the steam / Of foaming vengeance" (III.v.17-18), (1) ultimately murders the duke's young son Julio, leads a masque of revengers who rip out Piero's tongue, and finally serves the boy's remains to his enemy before running him through. Replete with the overwrought violence for which the genre is famous, Antonio's Revenge reminds its audiences that no matter how brutal his enemy, the revenger will ultimately do worse.

Striking as the dramaturgy may be in this instance, Marston is foregrounding here a convention typical of many early modern revenge plays: the protagonist's gradual and increasingly problematic resemblance to the villain whom he stalks. John Kerrigan rightly identifies this reversal as an inherent irony of retribution itself, for as the revenger "makes himself resemble the opponent he has blamed ... he transforms his enemy into the kind of victim he was once. Indeed, the more scrupulous he is in pursuit of retribution, the more exact in exacting vengeance, the more he effects this interchange." (2) Kerrigan's point regarding the revenger's gradual appropriation of his enemy's qualities is an important one, but one that should not be reduced--despite what Antonio's bloodthirsty retribution may suggest--to a facile matter of the non-violent becoming violent. (3) Rather, the revenger learns to utilize various facets of political power through permutations of those modes considered exclusively the prerogative of royalty. The most conspicuous of these is the state's right to judge and sentence its enemies, to punish criminals through torture and execution, but by no means is this the sole tool at the sovereign's disposal, and thus we must look beyond the violent spectacles for which the genre is famous to recognize the subtler avenues of power that the revenger appropriates and redeploys as his own.

Perhaps the most important tactic to have been overlooked is the monarch's sociopolitically sanctioned control of space, a topic that has gone largely unremarked in scholarly consideration of the English revenge tragedy. (4) Despite this oversight, however, nearly every revenge play makes conspicuous within its opening acts matters of spatial contest and control. Often this is established through a context of international strife. Horatio and Lorenzo return with Balthazar prisoner from Spain's martial conflict with Portugal in The Spanish Tragedy, Titus leads Tamora and her sons in chains after Rome's victorious war with the Goths in Titus Andronicus, and Claudius reaffirms Denmark's right to the lands taken from Norway by the old King Hamlet: time and again, the stage is first set for revenge amid the assertion of political power via control of territorial space. When this explicitly martial backdrop is absent, the genre instead supplies the localized alternatives of exile and imprisonment. (5) Duke Piero imprisons his daughter Mellida and banishes the Stoic Pandulpho in Antonio's Revenge, while the Duke of Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy grants his stepson Junior Brother a reprieve from execution by imprisoning him, and even goes so far as to mercurially order his heir Lussurioso's confinement and subsequent liberation within the course of a single scene. Nor is the foregrounded importance of space exclusively characteristic of the central plays of the Kydian tradition, (6) but rather precedes and follows them as well: the central conflict of Norton and Sackville's Gorboduc (1561) stems from King Gorboduc's partitioning of his territory between his sons Ferrex and Porrex and the hostility this division engenders, while Shirley's The Cardinal (1641) is set against the backdrop of a war between Navarre and Arragon. …

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