Visual and Ideological Revolt: The Divided Carnivalesque in The Revenger’s Tragedy
1> Court society, as portrayed in The Revenger’s Tragedy, has descended into a state of moral decay ruled by the unchecked appetites and illicit desires of its royal inhabitants. Aristocracy lives beyond legal consequence, able to bend the structure of society to meet its physical and material cravings. From the judicial court’s first appearance during Junior Brother’s rape trial, the legal health of the dukedom is in question; the judge must point out that through royal abuses of the system, “judgment itself / [is] condemned and suffer[s]” (1.1.58-59). Vindice, the play’s primary revenger, is the product of the corrupt state of law and justice. He resorts to private revenge against the Duke, who poisoned his fiancée “because [her] purer part would not consent / Unto his palsy lust” (1.1.34-35). In his vengeance, Vindice not only operates outside the ordinary social framework of Renaissance society, but also adopts a subversive aesthetic, producing grotesque images of death and violence to mock and denounce the appetites of the powerful. He, however, falls victim to his aesthetic production of revenge by allowing it to become an all-consuming appetite like the lust filling “the spendthrift veins of [the] dry duke,” and although he succeeds in destroying the members of the court whom he perceives to have so severely wronged him, his own life is undone as well (1.1.7). In Vindice’s self-destructive retribution, the play’s author is able to critique both the corrupt ruling society and the practice of revenge. In contrast to Vindice’s destructiveness, the author uses the play’s living women to suggest a more humane system in which, through grace and mercy, renewal and regeneration are possible.
2> Critics have characterized Vindice as “a heroic revenger who uses the body of a woman in the execution of justice to uphold … ideas of chastity,” a defender of “the bodies of chaste women” in an attempt to justify his brutality (Robertson, 215, 216). Perceived in this simplistic manner as a chivalrous defender of chastity and virtue, Vindice’s revenge can be seen as deriving from adherence to “a righteous, native, anti-humanistic, Christian conservatism” (Tricomi, 103). Such analyses, however, overlook the unstoppable violent inertia of his aesthetic. Vindice’s obsessive wrath transforms Gloriana from “the bright face of [his] betrothed lady” to an “ornament, [a] shell of death” (1.1 16, 15). She is no more than the fetishized object of Vindice’s disgust at courtly opulence. Both her skull and his lingering attachment to it are the “sallow picture of [his] poisoned love,” destructive, rotted forces he intends to use to direct society “to serve God” (1.1.14, 3.5.55). The scope of his action expands beyond his control, turning from private revenge of a personal wrong to the emergence of a public vigilante figure attempting to impose Justice on the entire court as Vindice responds to Antonio’s rash sentencing of an unfortunate noble:
“FOURTH NOBLE: Heart, ‘tis a lie!
ANTONIO: Let him have bitter execution….
VINDICE: New marrow!” (5.3.86-88)
3> As a moralistic figure, Vindice is also disturbingly adept at deception. His willing adoption of the role as “the play’s principle ‘coiner,’” of false identity and use of these roles to further abuse Castiza and Gloriana, the defenseless and honorable women he champions, conflicts with any possible endorsement of religious morality (Neill, 150). Vindice dons the mask of woman’s revenger in order to promote the ideological agendas of the state, supporting the belief that women need male protectors. In disguise and out he publicly reinforces women’s status as physical property, “but made to go to bed and feed” echoing officially approved court attitudes as seen in Antonio’s response to his wife’s suicide (1.1.132). Woman’s destruction through male sexual violence is opportunity for elevation of personal male honor, a belief system which allows “Violent rape/ [to play] a glorious act,” for Antonio, “a miracle at last:/ That being an old man, I’d a wife so chaste” (1.4.3-4, 76-77).
4> Mikhail Bakhtin described medieval Carnival feasting as a space in which common and oppressed classes of society could create “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order…hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” through celebrations alternative to those officially ordained by church and government (Bakhtin, 45). Vindice’s exultation, “the violence of [his] joy,” at the excessive brutality surrounding his actions and the persistent lingering upon images of bodily death and material consumption serves to create a Carnivalesque spectacle for the benefit of the author’s audiences as he massacres the ruling class body. The playwright, through his use of grotesque bodily imagery, does not create a simple religious or moral message, rather his “nameless Duke’s nameless realm is really Bakhtin’s lower bodily stratum: a world ruled by carnal appetite and carnal aggression” (3.5.27, Lindley, 45).
5> Carnival is a time of feasting, a celebration of bodily life in which the people constructed their own world and hierarchical order through grotesque manifestations “not [of] the isolated biological individual…but [of] the collective ancestral body of all people” (Bakhtin, 47). Similarly, Vindice uses Gloriana’s skull to create a symbol of the moral decline of the Duke’s realm, visually condemning all the court in their moments of physical sin and directing them to a morality of the past, when Gloriana was a beautiful, chaste and living woman in contrast to the horror of her present decay:
“It were fine, methinks,
To have thee seen at revels, forgetful feasts,
And unclean brothels; sure ‘twould fright the sinner
And make him a good coward, put a reveler
Out of his antic amble,
And cloy an epicure with empty dishes.” (3.5.89-94)
6> Her body illuminates, through its grotesque shock, the moral corruption of the court brought about not simply by “too much public indulgence” but through “changes in society [which] have made sin fashionable” (Mehl, 118). Vindice uses the senselessness of Gloriana’s death to comment on the transformation of the ancestral land of the people into tokens of courtly pandering as “Fair meadows [are] cut into green foreparts” and “Lands that were mete by the rod, that labor’s spared;/ ….Are cut to maintain head-tires” (2.1.220, 225, 228). The people dismember their inheritance, their productive land, to clothe the skeletal bodies of greed and lust. State, or courtly celebrations, in opposition to the radical freedom of Carnival, “sanctioned the existing pattern of things and reinforced” their validity (Bakhtin, 45). Vindice vilifies this established order for allowing the privileged to indulge in “sinful baths of milk, when many an infant starves” (3.5.85). Despite this harsh criticism, as Vindice focuses his actions on destroying the bodies participating in the acts, he engages in many of the Court’s destructive appetites, consuming its “noble poison” (1.3.179). His revenge aesthetic kills the public body, further removing it from the generative forces displayed in the grotesque realism of Carnival.
7> Vindice is socially alien to the court yet through his acting becomes intimately tied to its daily life, accepted not only by Lussurioso, but by the Duke, the nobles and his own family. As an illegitimate child, Spurio occupies a similar space within court society, only capable of definition “as his mother’s son…a challenge to the patriarchal order” (Neill, 150). Spurio, like Vindice, feels wronged by “the sin of feasts, drunken adultery” and plots single-mindedly towards the fulfillment of his wish that “all the court were turned into a corse” (1.2.190, 36). The two want only to see the death of present aristocratic rule without a vision of what will succeed their destruction. Vindice’s cause perhaps appears more righteous than Spurio’s in that he ostentatiously aligns himself with the weak and oppressed. However, as Vindice “quickly turn[s] into another,” dominated by his lust for violence, he reveals his own selfish appetite (1.2.135). He is unable to control his attraction to the possibility of imposing his own code of morality and justice upon the public. While more obviously morally reprehensible, Spurio executes his revenge entirely within the scope of offending courtly life. His revenge contaminates only his own family; the community at large remains inviolate.
8> The similarity between Vindice’s and Spurio’s revenges against the established hierarchy demonstrates a common motive along with their shared target. Spurio desires to eliminate the Duke and his sons in order to validate his ability to rule and reclaim a birthright stolen by “[t]he sin of feasts, drunken adultery…Impudent wine and lust” (1.2.190, 192). The murder of his father and family would create for Spurio a legitimate place within society. Vindice loses his original identity when he “murders” the body of the Duke disguised as his alter-ego. This murder destroys the identity he originally possessed along with any pretense to separation from the values of his creation, Piato; he enters “so far into deceit that he is the man he pretends to be. To put on the role of Vindice again is to put on a new disguise” (Coddon, 130). Jonathan Dollimore notes that as with other “malcontented rebels,” the sense of dispossession, …injustice…or thwarted ambition…adds up to the same thing: a desperate bid for reintegration” (Dollimore, 116). Vindice is not only enraged by his fiancée’s murder, the Duke also slighted his father’s aspirations as Hippolito, servant to the court, reminds him at his death: “our lord and father/ Fell sick upon the infection of thy frowns, / And died in sadness” (3.5.171-173). He died pining for the petty attentions of the ruling class. Following the massacre of the entire male court, Vindice makes a final attempt at reintegration to court society by pandering to Antonio, the new ruler of the land. The brothers abandon Gloriana’s and Castiza’s causes to explain their actions as “all done for the best , my lord./ All for Your Grace’s good,” (5.3.114-115). Vindice’s dramatic shift in allegiance unmasks his inner character; he only differs from the court aesthetically. He is able to abuse Gloriana’s body and deceive his mother and sister because his primary concern is “with the aesthetics rather than the ethics of revenge” (Finin, par. 3). The various masks Vindice creates mirror Bakhtin’s emphasis on Carnival’s reversal of identity without leading “people out of the existing world” (Bakhtin, 45). The ideological expectations of court society so thoroughly mold Vindice’s thoughts and actions that he is only able to lead in a new and identical reign, ensuring the continuation of the unjust system for another generation. He has only destructive potential as Antonio notes, “My good?...You that would murder him would murder me” (5.3.123-125).
9> Vindice’s total investment in the dukedom’s official male power and misogynistic discourse undermines any chance of his creation of a manifestation of Carnivalesque revolution. His revolution is limited to the creation of no more than a mask to cover the ugly truth. Vindice’s “bony lady” cannot conjure the regenerative essence of Carnival for the simple reason that she is dead and rotten, as the playwright suggests patriarchal authority to be (3.5.120). Castiza and Gratiana’s interactions are less dependent upon the grotesque imagery that fills the scenes involving the court and conform to a more traditional aesthetic. This stands in contrast to Carnival’s typical obsession with images of the material body and its functions. The actual imagery employed is not as essential to the essence of Carnival as is the subversive resistance to dominant discourse. In this regard, Castiza’s turn from the sexually violent grotesque court idiom to a more religious or everyday idiom constitutes this act of resistance. Castiza, although in frequent contact with court society, resists seduction to extravagance and promiscuity. She responds to what she sees as a degraded society with an oath to “put anger in [her] hand,/ And pass the virgin limits of [her]self/ To him that next appeared in that base office,” whereas Vindice became “his sin’s attorney” in order to maintain the honor of his word (2.1.32-34, 35). Castiza is willing to move beyond the limits society places upon her identity, taking responsibility to protect her “virgin honor” rather than become another “precedent for wives,” the only masculine endorsed means for her to secure her honor (4.4.153).
10> Castiza’s name, like those of the other characters of the play, provides her identity: chastity and purity. Gratiana’s attempted pandering deeply offends the core of her daughter’s being. According to the standards of the court, were the two men, Castiza would pursue violent revenge against her mother for the offence. Instead, she becomes in appearance exactly what her mother had foolishly advised, a daughter she “shall not wish…to be more lascivious” (4.4.110). Through the production of the desecration of her sacred chastity, Castiza creates an alternative judiciary and symbolic discourse in which she is able to uncrown her mother, previously crowned vile panderer by her brother. The discourse of disguised submission to motherly advice and male sexual appetite symbolically destroys the “crystal tower” of Castiza’s purity without damaging her essence; she need not assume a false name. Through this symbolic death and resurrection of purity, Castiza puts the real body and real relationship to trial finding them worthy of redemption and inscribing upon Gratiana her namesake, grace (4.4.153).
11> Castiza and Gratiana’s reconciliation occurs in isolation from all other characters as it promotes a morality in conflict with the patriarchal honor code of the court tied to physical retribution. In the feminine discourse the two women establish, words provide sufficient means to resolve disputes and make reparations. Lamenting her errors, Gratiana tells Castiza, “I spoke the words, and now they poison me. / What will the deed do, then?” (4.4.137-138). Physical punishment and revenge can only add to “the rape of [the play’s] good lad[ies]” the added injury of “death on death” (5.3.107-108). Gratiana’s words serve as her own poison, one whose effects she can wash away with a change of heart and actions. Castiza fulfills Vindice’s wish, “Sister, you’ve sentenced most direct and true; / The law’s a woman, and would she were you,” reinventing the execution of justice with feminine discourse (1.1.114-115). In addition to her embodiment of purity, she offers the promise of new social life, “a rare phoenix” (1.3.98). Through purity, mercy and grace, the two are able to escape the demise of all involved with the Duke’s family and rise from the phoenix ashes to suggest a way of life resistant to currently permissible cruelties.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Rabelais and his World.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. First Edition. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. 45-51.
Coddon, Karen. “’For Show or Useless Property’: Necrophilia and The Revenger’s Tragedy.” Revenge Tragedy. Ed. Stevie Simkin. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2001. 121-139.
Dollimore, Jonathan. “The Revenger’s Tragedy: Providence, Parody and Black Camp.” Revenge Tragedy. Ed. Stevie Simkin. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2001. 107-120.
Finin, Kathryn. “Re-Membering Gloriana: ‘Wild Justice’ and the Female Body in The Revenger’s Tragedy.” Renaissance Forum: An Electronic Journal of Early Modern Literary and Historical Studies 6.2 (2003) : 34 pars. 28 February, 2007 <http://www.hull.ac.uk/renforum/v6no2/finin.htm>.
Lindley, Arthur. “Abattoir and Costello: Carnival, The Revenger’s Tragedy and the Mental Landscape of Revenge.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association, 2002 Nov; 98: 45-54.
Mehl, Dieter. “Corruption, Retribution and Justice in Measure for Measure and The Revenger’s Tragedy.” Shakespeare and his Contemporaries: Essays in Comparison. Ed. E.A.J. Honigmann. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986. 114-128.
Middleton, Thomas. 2002. “The Revenger’s Tragedy.” English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Ed. David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus & Eric Rasmussen. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. 1297-1370.
Neill, Michael. “Bastardy, Counterfeiting, and Misogyny in The Revenger’s Tragedy.” Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 149-165.
Robertson, Karen. “Chastity and Justice in The Revenger’s Tragedy.” Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama. Eds. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1991. 215-236.
Tricomi, Albert. “Economic and Social Alienation in The Revenger’s Tragedy.” Anticourt Drama in England: 1603-1642. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. 102-109.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures