Shakespeare's Tribe

Performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Performance

Where words prevail not, violence prevails.

July 20, 2013 § Leave a Comment

Revenge tragedy is a bizarre genre, and these days (Hamlet excepted) it is rarely performed. Although the most popular and exciting genre of Elizabethan and Jacobean times it has now largely slipped from view.

The reason for this is that the genre is built on a view of the justice system as corrupt in favor of the wealthy and powerful. As in Hamlet, the revenger is driven to his desperate course because the government cannot, or will not, do its job. Claudius may be a murderer, but he is also the king and protected by his position as much as by his secret.

Other revenge tragedies of the period have mostly slipped out of the repertoire because their premise is far more firmly grounded in the corruption of justice, which fewer and fewer people feel about their democratic governments. Conventional wisdom says that they had become irrelevant.

I was thinking these thoughts as I sat waiting for a very rare modern performance of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, one of the earliest and (in its time) most successful of all revenge tragedies, to begin. It was Saturday, July 13, 2013. I was making a final check of my smart phone before turning it off when I first heard that George Zimmerman had been found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin.

Watching that performance was very different than what I imagined might be coming. It suddenly had force and pertinence I was not expecting.

Halfway through I heard a line that (having read and taught the play) I should have known was coming, but I had forgotten came from this source: “Where words prevail not, violence prevails.”

I have been thinking a lot about it for many days, not least when I read that – apparently without irony – Zimmerman’s brother complained to the media that Zimmerman feared a vigilante would take justice into his own hands and seek revenge.

Violence becomes cyclical, revenge tragedies remind us, when we no longer trust that justice is blind. I fear that they are relevant again.


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