Transgression in Cyril Tourneur's "A revenger's tragedy" - an analysis according to George Bataille

Seminararbeit, 2004

19 Seiten, Note: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Analysis
2.1 An outline of George Bataille’s theory of transgression
2.1.1 The taboo and its social significance
2.1.2 Measuring a thin line: Michel Foucault’s A Preface to Transgression
2.1.3 Transgression in Christian tradition
2.2 Discussion of A Revenger’s Tragedy
2.2.1 Vindice as a revenger – a virtuous villain?
2.2.2 Vindice, Piato and the 'entirely other'

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Vindice, the protagonist of A Revenger’s Tragedy, is not easy to judge. When it comes to the question whether to condemn, applaud or pity him, we are caught within conflicting emotions. Undoubtedly, he and his brother commit acts of horrible violence – they nail down the dukes tongue with a dagger, force him to see his wife commit adultery with his own ‘bastard son’ and finally kill him. But nevertheless, and not without an uncanny after-taste, Vindice also inspires our sympathy.

The surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille has, within the frame of his integral work on life itself, worked out a theory of the social function of taboos and the necessity of their very definition by transgression. It is a concept of temporary permeability of inviolable borders which could provide an interesting and helpful framework for a closer examination of Vindice’s behaviour and its results.

After getting familiar with some of Bataille’s most basic concepts and particular features of his thought, we will try to determine the role Bataille attributes to the concept of taboo and transgression within society. A brief look at Michel Foucault’s discussion of this concept will complement to this. After having considered some complications concerning the Christian tradition, we should be able to concern ourselves with an according analysis of the play. A few introductory observations about plot, protagonist and underlying ideas will be necessary until we can finally try to employ the concept of transgression as our guide through the labyrinth of revenge.

2. Analysis

2.1 An outline of George Bataille’s theory of transgression

If there is a centre of gravity around which George Bataille’s work revolves, it is certainly the paradox. All of his observations seem to somehow stem from and end in paradoxical propositions that are necessarily never fully graspable by reason. Life as such, for Bataille, grounds on a principle of paradox; on the irreconcilable, but still interconnected and interdependent fields of life and its proliferation and the discontinuity of individual death – the line of intersection being in the violence of eroticism. “For Bataille, human experience is an experience of limits and these limits are defined by the fact that the condition of life for human beings is the recognition of death”[1]. We always have to bear in mind that his theories are not meant to be completely ‘understood’ in a traditional sense. Knowledge itself, in his frame, is a highly elusive and paradoxical thing: the more we know, he argues, the more knowledge tends to slip through our fingers, creating slippage itself in its accumulation. ”[…] [Bataille] believed that a genuine knowledge needed to recognise its own essential incompleteness and the fact that it had to be completed through the embrace of a complementary ‘non-knowledge’ […]”[2] – “truth”, for him, therefore, “lay not so much in knowledge itself, but in the margin between knowledge and non-knowledge”[3][4]. Pairs like this “knowledge and non-knowledge”, which would at first glance seem binary, can be found everywhere in his works. But we have to be careful – neither is a mechanism of Hegelian dialectics at work here nor do we have simple dualisms (or binarities, or complementarities, or antagonisms)[5]. A concept similar to, but not the same as dialectics – a relationship between a positive and element of some 'entirely other', which is still in some miraculous contact with this positive, though not in the sense of an antithesis and without a following “Aufhebung” - will be crucial for our observations.

When it comes to the relationship of the individual to the collective, to what we may call society, Bataille’s attitude is quite radical: the individual as such, separated from all social relations, is non-existent.

It is impossible to conceive of individuals other than as social beings and thus as being separable from the society of which they are an integral part. […] At the heart of the social lies the convergence of work and sexuality and this convergence is intimately linked to our understanding of death.[6]

While for him “[…] social relations are the fundamental element of human existence […]”[7], Bataille also examines what he calls the ‘inner experience. Pursuing his claim for integrity, he thought that it made “[…] no sense to analyse social relations independently of the inner subjectivity of the individuals comprised within a given social network” and thus wanted to cover “[…] both the internal and external aspects of social being.”[8]

2.1.1 The taboo and its social significance

To give an idea of the nature of the taboo Bataille reminds us of the fifth commandment, “thou shalt not kill”, the recitation of which usually accompanies the blessings of the armies before going to war. Quite an odd practice, it would seem: more or less immediately afterwards the soldiers are of course allowed and expected to kill and, accordingly, to transgress. The ceremony nonetheless carries all thinkable features of earnestness and the air of solemnity, but obviously it does not in any way hinder any soldier from doing his bloody duties. The clue Bataille provides to solve this riddle focuses on the specific nature of the common killing taboo (which is underlying for the fifth commandment and, for Bataille, the distinctive feature of every human society): were the interdict of killing under the command of reason, as we would assume, the soldiers would, logically concluding, have two possibilities: To take the interdict as absolute and obey by not killing anyone – or to fight and take the taboo as deceitful. Both rational alternatives would, serving as basis for a decision, mark a concerned person as at least unsuitable for being a soldier. But, Bataille explains, although the reasonable world is built on taboos, the taboos themselves are not necessarily reasonable[9]. According to his argumentation, the origin of the killing taboo probably falls in one with the origin of war[10]: in a (somewhat hypothetical) primeval effort to tame violence – “um die beiden Welten zu scheiden”[11] - it would not have sufficed to pose a calm and reasonable opposition against it: the ‘opposition’ had to exert violence itself, at the same time employing the exertion with an intense negative emotional charge and thus marking violence as false. Reason alone wouldn’t have had enough authority to overcome it, to define the point of transition[12], only the elementary emotions of fright and deterrence could resist in the aspect of excessive rage.

This is characteristic of the nature of the taboo: while it enables a world of relative stability, of reason and peace, it is in itself something like a shiver, striking not reason, but the heart, the emotional in us”[13].

Thus, the social significance of the taboo could be described as following: For society, interdicts or taboos – the manifestations of authority - have the function of marking off threatening occurrences, persons or things and inhibit violent acts. They enable us to maintain our reasonable everyday-life world – by granting a crucial condition which we can technically term “homogeneity”. Only on the basis of an artificial, hypothetical (and in fact somewhat treacherous) homogeneity we are able to compare things that would be otherwise incomparable; we can connect, for instance, one tree to another only by virtue of counting both to the same category ‘tree’. But at a closer look, the two ‘trees’ have things in common only with respect to other certain categories – they won’t, speaking in absolute terms, be in any way identical[14]. We make up a more or less precise definition of what may still be called a tree and what not. To be able to trace the differences between two elements of a category, we always have to stay on some safe ground by ignoring other differences – taking them all into account would reveal nothing than chaos. It is this artificial construct of homogeneity that transmutates the outer world from a cold, odd and incomprehensible place into our supposedly predictable and secure inner home, and it does so by denying and excluding everything that looks odd and incomprehensible. “Homogeneity signifies commensurability of elements and consciousness of this commensurability”[15]. With due brevity, homogeneity enables us to categorize the world around us – the best symbol for it being money, which allows us to compare elements and even services by assigning them a value. Thus it becomes the basis of the world of work. For Bataille, taboos are the pillars of this homogeneity and at the same time something like a watershed within our world – constituting the borderline to something “entirely other”, something driven to - and yet coming from - the outside. This outside is the realm of the heterogeneous. It is constituted by all that had to be denied in order to establish homogeneity. But, as it seems, we can neither live with nor without this heterogeneous: by its incessant intrusion into the homogeneous world from outside, it constitutes a ‘static equilibrium’. Such push-ins of the heterogeneous, for example, occur through mediation by the executive powers that are in touch with its sphere, our kings or leaders;[16] that particular instance is termed “imperial heterogeneity”[17] by Gasché. He argues that the field[18] of the heterogeneous is in fact polarized and divided between “high” and “low”.

The heterogeneous realm is deeply polarized by the distinction between high and low. […] [T]o the low is attributed all that arises from excrement, from the miserable, from night; to the high everything aligned with the serene, the pure, the sun, etc. If the homogenous part of society requires an opening towards heterogeneous elements, this means that it addresses itself to the high, to the sublime, to find its orient and its orientation there.[19]


[1] Richardson, Michael. Georges Bataille p. 98

[2] Richardson, Michael. Georges Bataille p. 40

[3] Richardson, Michael. Georges Bataille p. viii

[4] the way Richardson puts it somewhat poetically – “[...] knowledge needs to be recognised as what it is: a momentary gleam in the night that fades in the moment it is born“ – reveals striking resemblance to Arthur Koestler’s concept of ‘bisociation’ (‘dual association’; two mental ‘operative fields’ momentarily intersecting;) which seems to be of a similar nature and is, according to Koestler, the “characteristic feature of any original creative process, whether in art or in discovery”;

[5] cp. Gasché, Rodolphe. The Heterological Almanac p. 159

[6] Richardson, Michael. Georges Bataille p. 98

[7] Richardson, Michael. Georges Bataille p. 97

[8] Richardson, Michael. Georges Bataille p. 97

[9] cp. Bataille, Georges. Der heilige Eros p. 59

[10] cp. Bataille, Georges. Der heilige Eros p. 60

[11] Bataille, Georges. Der heilige Eros p. 59

[12] cp. Bataille, Georges. Der heilige Eros p. 59

[13] cp. Bataille, Georges. Der heilige Eros p. 59

[14] we just have to think of how many instances of entirely different ‘trees’ may cross our paths – the giant redwoods in a national park, the figures drawn by linguists to explore sentence structure (‘tree-diagrams’), all the cables in a car taken together (‘Kabel baum ’ in German) – they all legitimately bear the name ‘tree’ by virtue of a loose connection to some generally agreed concept;

[15] cited after Gasché, Rodolphe. The Heterological Almanac p. 159

[16] cf. Gasché, Rodolphe. The Heterological Almanac p. 166

[17] accordingly, primitive cultures commonly attributed divine powers to their chieftains;

[18] the struggle for fitting terms already points to the ultimate hopelessness of the attempt of grasping by reason what is by nature everything that reason excludes – it is of course neither a field, nor a sphere, nor has it any similarity to any geometrical body – perhaps in some sense it is „what is not ‚kosmos’“ - ‚chaos’ then;

[19] Gasché, Rodolphe. The Heterological Almanac p. 165

Ende der Leseprobe aus 19 Seiten


Transgression in Cyril Tourneur's "A revenger's tragedy" - an analysis according to George Bataille
Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen  (Neuphilologie)
PS II: The Ethics of Reading
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
446 KB
Untersuchung der Jakobinischen Rachetragödie auf den Umgang mit scheinbar subversiven (devianten) Elementen - aus Sicht der Theorien von George Bataille.
Transgression, Cyril, Tourneur, George, Bataille, Ethics, Reading
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Andreas Glombitza (Autor), 2004, Transgression in Cyril Tourneur's "A revenger's tragedy" - an analysis according to George Bataille, München, GRIN Verlag,


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