Are revengers compromised irredeemably by entangling themselves in the machinations of a vile and corrupt world?

Wednesday 3 December, 1997

Marcus Wischik

In Elizabethan drama, it was accepted that the villains of the piece would, because of their evil methods and aims, be revealed and punished - in other words, justice would be served. The problem, however, arises when the "heroes" of the piece use the same methods as the villains. I use the term hero warily, as the traditional hero of a revenge tragedy is one who would at first seem completely unsuited to a revenging role; Heironimo is portrayed as being too old, while Hamlet is seen as being too young. It can be generalised that the revenger starts off as being dissatisfied with the events have happened prior to the play, and it is an event within the play that catalyses his transformation from being merely a malcontent into a revenger. In Hamlet, it is the appearance of old Hamlet that convinces the young Hamlet that his suspicions about his uncle are correct:

Ghost … but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
Ham. O my prophetic soul! My uncle!
Hamlet 1 v 37-40

In The Spanish Tragedy, it is the letter from Bel Imperia that galvanises Heironimo into action:

Me hath my hapless brother hid from thee:
Revenge thyself on Balthazar and him,
For these were they that murderéd thy son.
Heironimo, revenge Horatio's death,
And better fare than Bel Imperia doth.
What means this unexpected miracle?
The Spanish Tragedy 3 II 27-32

The difference between the two revengers is their willingness; Hamlet realised that there was "something rotten in the state of Denmark", and even had his suspicions about who it might be, however he could not act as he lacked evidence. The evidence he required; the stimulus to start him down the revenging path, comes in the form of his encounter with his dead father. Heironimo, on the other hand, is almost completely unwilling to start once he receives the first sign of who to be revenged upon, indeed he thinks it to be a trap laid for him by Lorenzo. It is only after his wife kills herself; when he is left with nothing to live for, that he starts to activly seek revenge. It I this transformation from passive victim to active revenger that marks the beginning of the compromisation of the revenger. He or she turns away from the idea that God is the ultimate revenger, and takes the law into their own hands. This decision is the compromising one, rather than the act itself.

The techniques that each character uses are remarkably similar not only to each others, but to the villains of the play. Both rely upon machiavellian tactics; they both feign madness to seem unthreatening, then proceed to strike when least expected:

I will revenge his death!
But how? Not as the vulgar wits of men,
With open, but inevitable ills,
As by secret, yet certain mean,
Which under kindship will be cloaked best.
The Spanish Tragedy III xiii 20-24

This behaviour is echoed by Hamlet following his meeting with his father's ghost. This insanity, this posturing and preparation for revenge, though for a good reason, is undoubtedly machiavellian. It is arguably the case that the insanity that both characters experience is not entirely faked, as both undergo extreme mental stress. This very real insanity is reflected by the disjointed and metrically irregular verse both Hamlet and Heironimo use when delivering soliloquies:

O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!
My tables. Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain -
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word.
It is "adieu, adieu, remember me."
I have sworn't
Hamlet I v 105-112

The idea of striking when ones opponent is most vulnerable is a common ploy of the renaissance machiavel - Claudius kills Hamlet when he is sleeping in his orchard, while Lorenzo and Balthazar kill Horatio when they catch him about to make love to Bel Imperia. In both cases, neither victim can defend themselves, as they are both in situations in which they would not expect to be attacked, the pastoral ideal of a shaded copse, and are therefore unprepared to defend themselves. This is the tactic used not only by Hamlet and Heironimo, but also by Bel Imperia. She is not the main revenger in The Spanish Tragedy, but is clearly an ally to Heironimo: it is Bel-Imperia that provides the stimulus (the letter that falls from the sky, written in red ink) that transforms Heironimo from being just a malcontent into an avenger. This is not the only example of machiavellianism on her part; she takes advantage of Balthazar's and Lorenzo's preoccupation with their own intelligence and cunning to fool them into believing she is harmless - as Heironimo pretends to be mad, she pretends to be stupid:

Brother, you are become an orator -
I know not, I, by what experience -
Too politic for me, past all compare,
Since last I saw you; but content yourself,
The prince is meditating higher things.
The Spanish Tragedy III x 82-86

In essence, she convinces them both that she, being a woman, and women traditionally being rather passive members of the revenge tragedy, is in no need of further imprisonment. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that she is too stupid to understand what they are trying to do to her:

To love and fear, and both at once, my lord,
In my conceit, are things of more import
Than women's wits are to busied with.
The Spanish Tragedy III x 93-95

The stupidity she effects (Unlike Heironimo and Hamlet, her disability is completely feigned) brilliantly exploits her supposedly subordinate role, which allows her to get into a position from which she can kill Balthazar. Indeed, her relationship with don Horatio started out as being a vehicle for her desire to avenge don Andrea's death. It is arguably the case that she is the most devious, intelligent and manipulative (Therefore machiavellian) character in The Spanish Tragedy.

It is actions like the ones mentioned above that would irredeemably compromise the revenger. I think that the compromisation of interacting with the so-called vile and corrupt world is a necessary part of the revenge tragedy. Without it, there could be no dilemma about the legality and morality of revenge. The dilemma is that it is wrong to kill someone, but it is also wrong to go on living when the criminal remains alive and unpunished. This desire not to kill someone else leads on to the desire to kill oneself, to escape from the previous dilemma. This, however, creates another problem: people who kill themselves do not get proper funerals, and therefore do not go to heaven. These two dilemmas can be combined and reduced: to live and kill and be damned, or to die and be damned. The outcome is the same in both cases, so the more satisfying choice is to take the first option, to kill and be damned. This dilemma is illustrated by Heironimo:

This way or that way? Soft and fair, not so:
For if I hang myself, let's know
Who will revenge Horatio's murder then?
The Spanish Tragedy XII 16-19

It is the fall from grace that is associated with the decision to take up the methods of the villain that distinguishes the villain from the hero. The villain decides to act in a machiavellian way to gain personal benefit, but the hero turns to this as a last resort to fulfil a promise that he or she has made to revenge someone. The difference therefore is a matter of honour. The hero becomes compromised, though is simultaneously redeemed by the decision to interact with a corrupt and vile society. The hero is confronted with the choice to act and be damned or to remain idle and be damned. The more difficult, and therefore more heroic option is to take revenge, as suicide is very much seen as taking the "soft" way out.

1,384 words.
Copyright © Marcus Wischik 1997