Magazine article The Spectator

When Revenge Is Sweet

Magazine article The Spectator

When Revenge Is Sweet

Article excerpt

The Elizabethans must have had a completely different attitude to physical violence. For a start, it was an inherent part of their system of justice. Even when we had the death penalty, killing someone in the name of justice was expected to be as quick and painless as possible. The hangman's craft was to assess his subject's body in a way that would ensure a clean quick twist of the neck, not slow and painful strangulation; that would be a bad hanging.

But the Elizabethan hangman's art was different. In the case of traitors, for instance, prolonging the pain, extending the humiliation, was a part of the punishment, part of the justice. A hanging was a public piece of theatre; the scaffold, a stage on which the state took revenge. Macbeth, after he murdered Duncan, stares at his bloodstained hands and calls them his 'hangman's hands'.

Why should a hangman's hands be bloody? Because his art was to partially hang his victim and then disembowel him while he was still alive, cut out his heart and show it to him, wanting him to be conscious enough to take this in before cutting his body into pieces.

Although we have plenty of access to violence today, whether real or pretend, it neither has the same relationship to the judicial system, to its state-sponsored theatre, nor the same intimacy - heads on Tower Bridge, or the roar of the bear-pit.

Shakespeare's Titus Andmnicus is about Revenge and Justice. At one point, Titus shouts 'Justice has fled the earth', and the play explores the dilemmas we face when the state itself is responsible for crimes against us. The play begins with Titus, Rome's foremost general, returning to Rome from wars against the Goths. His prize prisoners are Tamora (Queen of the Goths) and her three sons.

Titus has lost many sons of his own in war and is bringing two more back for burial in his ancestral home. His eldest son, Lucius, asks his father for permission to sacrifice Tamora's eldest son to appease the spirits of his dead brothers. Titus agrees, and despite Tamora's pleading will not relent. This is the play's key event, the ignition-point for the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge.

When, by an amazing turn of events, Tamora finds herself Empress of Rome she is in a strong enough position to avenge the human sacrifice of her first-born son, whose body had been cut into many pieces and burnt on a ceremonial fire. Her aim is quite simply to massacre the whole of Titus's family.

The first part of her violent revenge is to orchestrate the murder of Titus's son-in-law, the husband of his only daughter and youngest child, Lavinia. He is stabbed in the forest outside Rome during a hunting party by Tamora's two remaining sons. After dumping the body in a deep pit, they go on to rape Lavinia. Tamora has demanded that afterwards they should kill Lavinia: 'When you have the honey you desire, let not this wasp outlive us both to sting.'

But their cruelty is more imaginative than this. Inspired by Ovid's story of the rape of Philomela, they cut out Lavinia's tongue. Remembering that Philomela was able to sew a tapestry naming her rapist, they also cut off her hands.

When Titus is confronted with the appalling violence suffered by his daughter, he goes beyond grief and tears and vows to find 'Revenge's Cave'. In an extraordinary scene, Titus and his brother, Marcus, discover the names of Lavinia's abusers when she writes their names in the sand, using a stick as a pen, controlled by her mouth and feet. …

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