The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

Revenge

During Shakespeare’s playwrighting career, revenge drama was one of the most popular theatrical forms. Its origins lay in Roman theater, notably in the plays of Seneca, but Shakespeare brought complexity to the genre. In general, revenge drama centers on a single figure who is inspired by one transgression to pursue a path of destruction that becomes more damaging than the act that provoked it. Because this revenge is fulfilled outside traditional moral order, the ethical code of the day proscribed that the story must conclude with the revenger’s downfall. But Shakespeare also dramatizes revenge outside such formal structure, under circumstances when characters become so possessed by hatred that they lose all control.

In Henry VI, Part 3, for instance, Queen Margaret, wife of the ineffectual King Henry, leads her forces representing the crown and the Lancaster family against the insurgent army of the Duke of York, who seeks to put his own dynastic family on the throne. When Margaret captures York, she subjects him to humiliation, not because of a specific action, but because of his insolence in challenging her husband’s authority. She dips York’s handkerchief into the blood of his recently slain son, the Earl of Rutland, places a paper crown on York’s head, and viciously belittles his ambition:


But how is it that great Plantagenet

Is crown’d so soon, and broke his solemn oath?

And I bethink me, you should not be king

Till our King Henry had shook hands with death.

(I, iv, 99–102)

York responds with characteristic bitterness:

-305-

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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction xi
  • Acting 1
  • Appearance versus Reality 9
  • Clerics 23
  • Commoners 35
  • Cynicism 45
  • Divine Right 53
  • Fate 63
  • Fathers and Daughters 71
  • Fidelity 81
  • Fools 89
  • Forgiveness 99
  • Gender 107
  • Generations 117
  • Honor 127
  • Innocence 135
  • Intoxication 143
  • Justice 151
  • Language 161
  • Love and Romance 171
  • Machiavels 187
  • Madness 199
  • Male Friendship 211
  • Marriage 219
  • Money 229
  • Mortality 237
  • Nationalistic Pride and Prejudice 245
  • Nature 255
  • Order 263
  • Politics 273
  • Power 285
  • Reason versus Passion 295
  • Revenge 305
  • Supernatural Phenomena 315
  • The Tragic Flaw 325
  • War 335
  • Conclusion 345
  • Further Reading 347
  • Index 349
  • About the Author 362
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