Revenge in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Henry IV (Part One) and Titus Andronicus - A Multi-Perspective Study On Its Various Manifestations Within the Plays
“[T]he action of hurting or harming someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands“, as the Oxford Dictionary defines ”revenge”, which is a central motif in many of William Shakespeare’s works. Be it the classical avenging form of revenge, or more subtle ones, it is key to a proper understanding of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. We need to focus especially on Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus, but might also be able to see certain depictions of revenge in Henry IV (Part One). Generally speaking, “revenge in its cruelest forms is an element in every category of [Shakespeare’s] plays except the ’happy’ comedies” (Kimpel 120). We haven't (yet) dealt with them in class, but Othello and Hamlet are also considered to be specifically good and classical examples for representations of revenge in his work. The concept of revenge is further a central aspect, even an integral part of human nature, which makes this topic become so interesting and appealing to many since everybody in their life has to deal with it, sooner or later. Therefore, such a play about revenge is quite easily to equate with contemporary society, no matter which year we are in. It is a current topic every day in the news. Moreover, revenge is such a powerful force and many people might succumb to it. It is tempting to just forget one’s sense of justice and instead let the urge of revenge take over. Every day, crimes are committed worldwide in the name of revenge. This is true not only about today, but throughout all time as well, as mentioned above. Not only because of this examination of the human condition Shakespeare has remained popular until today. Can revenge be considered to be a decent means of avoiding more severe damage to someone (or -thing)? Is it a valid means to serve the “greater good“ of a society? These are big questions and to my mind Shakespeare would clearly claim that it was not. But we will examine these questions later on and might be able to find suitable examples within the plays. In the course of this essay, we will try to not only examine how the theme of revenge is depicted within the three plays mentioned above, but we might also aim to reconnect its depiction to the complex of themes dealt with in the essays by Kahn and Leggatt. Further, it might be interesting to examine where Shakespeare’s depictions of revenge are generally rooted in. As e.g. Leggatt notes, “Titus’s revenge […] has its roots in the myth of Philomela” (245). Thus we already get a hint on the fact that Shakespeare was eminently into mythology and used it frequently in his works. Interestingly, classical Greek mythology generally appears often in works of famous authors of the Renaissance period.
In Titus, generally considered to be Shakespeare’s most violent (and weakest, or at least most frowned upon play by critics; even though it was a huge commercial success) play and thus even questioned of his authorship, revenge appears to be the most obvious theme throughout the plot. As I have mentioned before, the story of Philomela and Procne occurs several times. Similar to them, the characters in Titus are driven by the desire for revenge. The whole plot is written around the topic of revenge and the depictions of violence are incredibly numerous. Yoshino calls it “Shakespeare’s ultimate exploration of violence - religious violence, domestic violence, political violence, sexual violence, punitive violence” (203). Indeed, there are many bloody occurrences happening. Over the play’s course, Alarbus is sacrificed to the gods, Mutius is stabbed to death, Bassianus is murdered, Lavinia is raped and mutilated, Quintus and Martius are beheaded, Demetrius and Chiron are murdered and their heads are baked into a pie which is served to their mother Tamora before being killed. Further, Lavinia is eventually killed, as is Titus, also Saturninus is killed, and Aaron is buried alive. This sounds like a horror show and reading the play, it literally is such a one. As we learn in the opening scene (I.i. 70-95), Titus’s sons have been killed during the war with the Goths and thus Titus seeks revenge by requesting to sacrifice Tamora’s son Alarbus. At this point, Titus’s revenge on Tamora has a religious background, he claims, “Religiously they ask a sacrifice” (I.i.124). In return however, Demetrius asks Tamora to take revenge on Titus as well. She then orders Demetrius and Chiron to rape Lavinia, for what Titus as revenge kills both Tamora’s sons and lets her eat them. Further, Titus then kills Tamora and Lavinia, his own daughter because he is ashamed of her being raped. Titus is immediately killed then by Saturninus, who afterwards gets killed by Lucius, avenging the killing of his father. The plot kind of moves towards its violent escalations and the many occurrences of revenge. This is symbolized by Titus’s transformation to an insane seeker of revenge, which ends in a spiral of violence (or Leggatt: “a cycle of atrocities”, 246; Yoshino: “a full-fledged blood feud”, 206) depicting an eye for an eye ancient mentality (Kimpel 124). In addition, Leggatt suggests that the revenge for Lavinia’s rape resembles the rape imaginatively and thus is not only part of its justice, but also of its horror (246). On a societal level though, Titus depicts ”an Elizabethan anxiety about how quickly private vengeance can spin out of control if the law does not contain it” (Yoshino 206). Yoshino further argues that the reader’s vengeful part might actually identify with Titus. But when he is killed, Yoshino concludes, it is a form of catharsis for the reader and ”that vengeful part of us that has identified with him has been purged, and we can gather up our belongings and return home” (220-21).
Not only is Titus key to understand Shakespeare’s recurring motif of revenge, but so is Caesar. By far, it does not consist of Titus ’ s many atrocities, but explores the subject matter in a more subtle way. Most obviously, what comes to our mind is of course Marc Antony’s quest for the revenge of Caesar’s death:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men groaning for burial.
In order to understand Antony’s utterances, we might want to go back and look at his character and personality first. Antony can be regarded in many respects as the opposite to Brutus. He is quite impulsive and can improvise well, he is further really clever and has a sharp mind. All that allows him first to persuade the conspirators of his loyalty to them claiming he was on their side in order to be allowed to speak at Caesar’s public funeral. First though, Brutus addresses the crowd and endeavors to explain his killing of Caesar. Insisting his deed was a matter of honor, he depicts the murder as a means to protect Rome from Caesar becoming a tyrant and enslaving the people:
…not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all
- Quote paper
- Simon Brandl (Author), 2014, Revenge in Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar", "Henry IV (Part One)" and "Titus Andronicus", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/342261