"...This very skull, / Whose mistress the Duke poisoned, with this drug, / The mortal curse of the earth, shall be revenged / In the like strain, and kiss his lips to death." (The Revenger's Tragedy, Act III, Scene i, Line 102-105)
|We were told there would be cake...?!|
('Revenger's Tragedy,' 2003)
Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy was published in 1607 and is now considered one of the core texts of Jacobean tragedy. The Gothic genre is usually understood to have been 'born' in 1764 with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, developing as a response to the rise of the novel and as an attempt to re-interpret ‘Romance’ literature within an Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment ‘realist’ novel form. However, numerous elements of The Revenger’s Tragedy make it Gothic or proto-Gothic. In fact, the Gothic tendency to rely heavily on ‘performance’ and ‘performativity’, the active manipulation of surface and material selves for the purposes of recreating or interrogating identity, is particularly relevant when examining Jacobean revenge plays.
Sheffield Gothic investigated this concept before when we screened Marlow’s Doctor Faustus (click here to see Lauren Nixon's preview blog post), the original ‘deal with the devil’ story, as performed at The Globe in 2011. This work obviously has significant Gothic references, depicting demons, magic, betrayal, and murder, and investigating the moral mechanics of the human soul. It predicts works such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, or The Moor (1806), as well as countless adaptations and references.
The Gothic has been closely connected to Marlow, Shakespeare, and early modern authors in critical theory for a long time. Walpole, Radcliffe, and other early Gothic authors reference Shakespeare frequently in their novels, and moreover texts from Macbeth to Richard III often employ elements which we would consider Gothic. Shakespeare's Gothic identity is often explored in depictions of Hamlet’s ghost in theatrical adaptations, for example, while I would personally consider Hamlet’s graveyard conversations over Yorick’s skull as representative of the other side of the Gothic strategy – the combination of the tragic and the comic in an excessive and chaotic examination of death. However, I’m reminded of that instance in "Shakespeare in Love" (1998) when a young John Webster (future author of The Duchess of Malfi) shrewdly tells the bard: "plenty of blood...that’s the only writing." You can always tell a Jacobean tragedy from any other kind because they offer the most spectacular spectacles of death imaginable. They are the definition of horrific excess: in The Revenger's Tragedy our hero poisons his enemy using his dead lover’s skull before cutting his tongue out and stabbing him. This is, strangely enough, one of the less outrageous deaths in the genre. But is bloody excess and weird death all it takes to make a Gothic text?
The Revenger’s Tragedy is essentially Hamlet on acid, and as such the Gothic elements of both merit comparison. Hamlet is haunted by ghosts, actively discourses on madness and death, and is ultimately defined through an off-stage murder / incestuous trangression which comes back to torment future generations. The generous use of skulls and ghosts certainly add to the Gothic aesthetic. However, Hamlet’s quest ultimately takes on a noble, redemptive quality which follows his reconciliation with fate and his role as a 'revenger.' Spoiler alert - everybody dies - but Hamlet is justified in his actions, redefined as a "sweet prince" whose violence and doubt is actually part of a larger cosmic scheme.
|An average day in Gothic Reading Group...|
(From the 2006 Red Bull Theatre production)
The protagonist of The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice, shows us the flip side of the revenge narrative. Vindice progresses through many of the same moral and mental trials as Hamlet - in the end, however, personal identity remains broken and Vindice is never much more than a self-conscious product of a fallen world. Vindice shares something with Doctor Faustus in that, while he has not literally sold his soul to the devil, he has certainly sold himself to the concept of ‘revenge,’ abandoning his previous moral and social identity in order to seek retribution. He is something of a Proteus, a madman ‘passing’ as a righteous revenger but without a moral anchor to moderate his actions. Tragic nobility is subsumed by Vindice’s vicious overkill, his relative lack of self-doubt and his reactionary willingness to do and say anything to get what he wants. Where Hamlet’s journey is informed by his philosophical musings, Vindice cynically rejects most social and moral constructs and transforms himself ‘a revenger' by echoing the values of those whom he hates.
There is a repeated image of Vindice fetishizing and romancing death - dragging his dead lover's body around, waxing lyrical about decomposition, courting revenge - which is in keeping with the Jacobean vision of a world leaning dangerously towards the corrupt and chaotic. The 2003 movie adaptation and numerous theatrical adaptations play up images of a dystopian nightmare, which is not too distant from the original text – the play begins with a display of a wildly trangressive ruling elite and ends with a masque celebration in which everyone has abandoned order and identity. This is a world gone mad, and the only response is to become something like Batman’s Joker and pursue your own increasingly destructive course. This kind of attitude suggests the anxieties about apocalyptic futures which have increasingly informed contemporary Gothic discourses and Gothic media.
'But is it Gothic?' is a question we'll always be asking ourselves in Sheffield Gothic. Regardless, beyond the basic aesthetic and plot of The Revenger's Tragedy there is a very noteworthy Gothic element - the destabilization of identity. Revenge plays must be tragedies, and not only because they end in death. They are tragedies because the 'revenger' must become the thing he is fighting against - a murderer - in order to right the world. He is the ultimate 'other', but an 'other' with very clear social and moral goals. Society takes advantage of Vindice as he rids them of a corrupt ruling family, only to then turn on him as a murderer. This undermines the effectiveness of socio-moral structures, yet Vindice, on a personal level, acknowledges the consequences of his 'revenger' role: "'Tis time to die, when we are ourselves our foes" (Act V, scene i, line 110). The Gothic at its core is meant to question the structures and notions which confirm our place in the world, and The Revenger's Tragedy both responds to its predecessor Hamlet and lays the groundwork for later Gothic revenge tales.
Kathleen Hudson is a PhD researcher studying Gothic literature at the University of Sheffield. She doesn't get mad... she gets even...