This annotated bibliography was written for Professor Hill’s Early English Masterworks class at Sam Houston State University on November 23, 2013.
The Evolution of Vengeance and its Morality in Literature
Morality, whether delineated in terms of pagan or Christian culture, can be viewed as an ethical reflection of one’s actions (i.e.: the difference between right and wrong or good and bad). The seven Christian virtues and the seven deadly sins help to further define this principle. The virtues are as follows: chastity, self-control, charity, humility, diligence, patience, and kindness. The deadly sins are wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. These two lists define (at least in a Biblical sense) the essence of morality: the characteristics of good people and those of bad people. However, as one may notice, vengeance is not among the virtues or the sins – so where does it lie on the spectrum? The evolution of the concept of revenge begins with pagan law (at least in written terms) and evolves into a Greek and Roman interpretation (pieces such as The Odyssey and Medea), eventually being tackled by Christianity in the Bible. Shakespeare’s revenge plays (Hamlet, for example) came to define the idea more clearly in later years, along with other early English writers such as Kyd and Marston. Its evolution (resulting ultimately in its reception as a primitive and brutal sin) into the aforementioned time period leads one to conclude that the morality of revenge is based on a mixture of developing law and religious practices. The articles in this collection use examples in ancient literature and early British literature (ranging from the 8th-18th century) in order to display authorial attitudes towards revenge and its morality, while also discussing the history of the concept.
Kerr, Charles. “The Law of Avenge.” Virginia Law Review 14.4 (1928): 265-79. JSTOR. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
The history of revenge delves deep into pagan culture. The Code of Hammurabi, the code of law from the sixth king of Babylon, demonstrated this principle starting around 1772 BC. Hammurabi implemented a system that employed what would later be referred to as a Biblical concept – an eye for an eye, otherwise known in legal terms as lex talionis. In his 286 edicts, Hammurabi’s code demonstrated the finding that “in all ages amongst all peoples man’s first desire has been to punish his enemies through the infliction of retaliatory measures” (268). The punishments for crimes described within this code lead one to conclude that their purpose was far more than punishment; it was retribution. Clearly seen in this passage of the code is this concept of justice in revenge: “If a son strike his father his hand shall be hewn off; if a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out; if he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken; if a man knocks out the teeth of his equal his teeth shall be knocked out” (269).
Kerr goes on to discuss the attribution of this idea, prior to the discovery of the Code of Hammurabi, to Mosaic Law, stating that the two have many similarities. He suggests perhaps the Bible’s borrowing of legal concepts from the aforementioned pagan times, stressing the fact that revenge is not something confined to simply one time period or the other; it has endured and was even recognized by statute in England during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377 AD). The primitive brutality of vengeance is quite present in the Bible as it was in pagan law, with an “avenger of blood” being seen as the arbiter of justice and reason. The idea has even bled into modern day practices (i.e. the death penalty), making the state the “avenger of blood” instead of the victim of the crime (270). This can be seen in the Bible: “The revenger of blood shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him he shall slay him” (Numbers 35:19). The idea, then, had not evolved much from paganism to Christianity. Kerr also discusses the Teutons and early Saxon law using the concept of revenge as a punishment. He says that the concept of wehrgeld (a valuable consideration for the death of a relative, much like Beowulf’s blood money) originated with this group. However, if the payment was deemed to be too little or was unable to be made, the decision to enact revenge lied upon the shoulders of the affected family members.
The continuance of this practice has evolved some over time, leaving the only true legal vengeance as the death penalty. The ironic part of this reasoning is that it is has basis in religion, specifically in the Bible: “At the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of a man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Genesis 9:5-6). Another irony is that many Christians do not support the death penalty – the very punishment supported by Mosiac law. The reason for this is the implementation of the New Testament, which denounces many of the primitive ideas discussed in the Old Testament. Jesus Christ himself says “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38). Paul, an apostle of the Gentiles, also discussed the morality of revenge in the book of Romans, saying “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Wrath, being defined as one of the seven deadly sins, then, can be attributed to the religious attitude towards revenge. Not only is it a sin, but it is an action that should only be enacted by God. In other words, judgment is God’s domain, not humanity’s. Kerr continues discussing the instance of Jesus and asking him without sin to cast the first stone.
In addition to a religious connotation, revenge as a simple legal term is tackled in this article. Kerr looks at the bloodthirsty nature of history’s English kings (such as Henry VIII) and the times of high amounts of death penalties for criminals. He looks at revenge as a strict legal principle and states that it was not successful in preventing further criminal activity. Hence, as a legal concept, it had failed. Kerr references Catherine II and Benjamin Franklin as support for his argument.
Kerr supports his argument with a compelling passage: “Truth is the mind’s only liberator; justice is a law’s only defense. If the taking of human life as a penal infliction be not a divine command, applicable alike to all races of people, and its continued infliction, upon the sole ground that it is a protection to society, has no support other than a legislative fiat, do not reason and logic demand that the basis of its infliction be indisputably established” (278). Over time, law has changed to discover a higher need for prevention of crime rather than punishment of criminals. Just as doctors search for preventative measures regarding diseases, so do lawmakers for crime. The concept of revenge, then, is much too primitive to be utilized in modern day society and has evolved through literature in this manner to reach the modern day perspective. Kerr does a fantastic job of proving his point and showing the evolution of revenge through law and literature (specifically the Bible). Revenge is found to be barbaric and primitive and law and literature has evolved with that in mind, making it Biblically (at least in terms of contemporary Christianity) and morally wrong.
BYRON, JOHN. “Abel’s Blood And The Ongoing Cry For Vengeance.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73.4 (2011): 743-756. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
Though seen as a small character in the book of Genesis, according to Byron, Abel still plays a significant role in terms of the big picture. The story of Cain and Abel is well-known in many circles, whether they are religious or not. It is a classic story of revenge. Byron discusses Cain’s murder of his brother after being shamed by God’s rejection of his offering. When Cain murders Abel, he is not only guilty of killing his brother, but also of mass murder (744). He has killed the potential bloodline of Abel, whose children would also have the possibility to be righteous like their father. The blood becomes a plural rather than a singular representation of Cain’s sin. Not only has he committed fratricide, but he has prevented future good. Hence, his revenge is motivated by greed, envy, and wrath. These motivations classify the act as, in tandem, a sin.
Abel’s continuous crying of blood suggests it to be a cry seeking vengeance from God, which alludes to the later discussion of judgment being God’s job rather than humanity’s. Since Abel’s blood cry represents the suffering of the innocent (and also because God would be the supposed avenger) it is morally just for God to enact such a punishment. Abel, due to this event, “becomes a paradigmatic figure for all who suffer at the hands of the wicked” (747). These cries for vengeance remain an enduring theme in Jewish and Christian literature, often paired with a prayer to God for the destruction of the guilty. This cry can only be answered by God, making it again, morally wrong for humanity to take up the quest of retribution for every lost soul. Abel’s cry, however, is true retribution – just as Cain destroyed Abel’s bloodline, Abel asks God to wipe out Cain’s bloodline as well. The punishment, here, fits the crime. Thus Abel becomes a figurehead for all martyrs – a reason for revenge. His murder became a way for people to understand and reckon with the murder of innocents. It became a representation and inquiry regarding the definition of justice. One may find it tricky that Abel is not specifically referred to as righteous when crying out. The only time he is referred to as such in the New Testament is in Matthew 23:34-35, when Jesus likens him to Zechariah. This could also allude to Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (the righteous must die so that the guilty will live). Abel’s cry is one for final justice for the world as a whole. However, the difference between Abel’s death and Christ’s death is that while Abel demands justice, Christ’s sacrifice is one of reconciliation. “There was an expectation that the righteous would judge their persecutors” according to Byron (753), making Abel a judge, in some sense. Through his murder and cry for vengeance, the innocent victim is turned into “the dispenser of justice” (756).
Abel is the personification of vengeance within the Bible. However, it is still to God that he makes his cry. God remains the ultimate judge, continuing the belief that humanity should not be involved in the process. The motivations behind God’s vengeance stem from his righteousness, while Abel’s cry stems from wrath. This is what separates God’s moral revenge from humanity’s immoral one.
Jones, F. W. “The Formulation of the Revenge Motif in the Odyssey.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 72 (1941): 195-202.JSTOR. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
One of the themes of The Odyssey, though to be written around 800 BC, is revenge. The entire consummation of the work rests upon this theme. The crime of the suitors during the tale is brought to an end by Odysseus’s return. Telemachus even warns the suitors of their impending doom and they choose to ignore it and continue in their ways. Jones discusses the triad of vengeance: its agent (the absent Odysseus), its object (the suitors and their hubris), and its instrument (Telemachus and Athene). The first of the three expresses hope for vengeance. The second foreshadows its implementation. The third drives the point home. Zeus’s approval of the matter stresses the pagan belief that one must recover his own honor. This is what Odysseus eventually does. This act of brutal retribution by Odysseus, then, is considered to be moral and just, not only due to Zeus’s approval of the deed, but also because of the accepted legal terms regarding the concept of revenge. Hence, the pagan view of revenge (at least in terms of the Greeks) was one of high morality. Defending one’s honor and combating hubris were seen to be good deeds. Enacting vengeance to achieve these ends was considered to be just and morally sound. This idea of retribution is also tackled in Medea and the Greek tragedy of Oedipus.
Wilson, Eric. “The Blood Wrought Peace: A Girardian Reading Of Beowulf.” English Language Notes 34.1 (1996): 7. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
The retribution of violence in the world of Beowulf is discussed in this essay by Eric Wilson. Wilson begins by stating the fact that no act of violence in the work is self-contained; they are all responses to previous acts of violence and their reasoning lies within the concept of vengeance. There is a heavy correlation between violence and ritual in Beowulf, and it is seen time and time again in the events that occur within the pages of the poem. Wilson references another critic named Girard who states that violence is born out of revenge. This revenge creates a chain reaction that, in theory, becomes unending. This mimetic violence can also be witnessed in Oedipus Rex and other Greek tragedies. Reciprocal violence, he says, does not discriminate; it leaves all involved with a consequential lust for blood. Girard stresses that a culture’s existence depends on firmly drawn lines of distinction. Hence, revenge levels these lines and threatens the existence of such a civilization. Human culture is born from the collective murder of a scapegoat in an attempt to prevent future murders.
The presence of the “monstrous” is also something integral to reciprocal violence. Take Grendel and his mother, for example. They represent the worst parts of the culture of the world of Beowulf. These traits are personified in the monsters (as well as the dragon, in addition) in order to show the hero’s triumph over evil (aka humanity’s triumph over primitive blood lust). In Beowulf, peace is always a temporary thing, never a permanent state of being. The principle of blood lust is present within the poem, as well. The hero, however, is not above this retribution, which suggests that triumph lies not in putting a stop to the cycle, but rather ending the lives of those who oppose him. Thus the hero takes on a monstrous quality as well. Though the cycle of violence threatened society, it was also a staple. Girard’s aforementioned necessary distinctions are quite real in the world of the poem. In Wulfstan’s 1014 sermon to the English, the failure of kinsman to protect one another “with their swords” is a sign of society’s disintegration and eventual apocalypse (12).
The author continues to discuss symbolism with Beowulf while drawing in his thesis repeatedly to support his claims. The distinctions between human and non-human within both the king and the monsters are tackled. These distinctions are extremely important in determining the morality of the characters’ actions. The revenge concept is linked to the tradition of Cain’s violence from the Bible. What seems to be the morality of revenge (specifically in terms of violence) within Beowulf can be discovered in the motivation for it: while Grendel and his mother operate on strict blood lust, Beowulf and his followers are attempting to promote peace.
Camargo, Martin. “The Finn Episode and The Tragedy Of Revenge In Beowulf.” Studies In Philology 78.5 (1981): 120. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
In this article, Camargo discusses the unknown author’s longest diversion from the true storyline – the Finn episode. According to Camargo, the song plays a crucial role in reinforcing the main theme of Beowulf. Camargo links the Finn episode to the events that happen at Heorot, suggesting that it foreshadows the future of the tale. It is meant to stress Beowulf’s “adherence to the revenge ethic” which is apparently a heroic virtue “not strongly to be brought out in the known events of Beowulf’s life” (122). Camargo makes a parallel between Hengest and Beowulf, saying that it foreshadows Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother. It also sets up a contrast in that Hengest was torn between his duty to avenge Hnaef and his oath of loyalty to Finn. Beowulf himself even says the following regarding revenge:
“Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.”
This statement on the morality of revenge characterizes Beowulf. Another parallel between the two lies in Unferth’s giving of the sword to Beowulf, just as Hunlafing does to Hengest prior to his vengeance upon Finn. Beowulf is called upon by duty to avenge Grendel’s murders. It is more of a ritual than it is a good deed, or the “right” thing to do. Furthermore, the use of such a tragic, vengeful, bloody story “coming at the very peak of the festivities” in the poem suggests that the cycle of violent revenge goes on. The chain of retributory violence remains unbroken and so the cycle continues; more violence is imminent. Camargo states that the poet makes remarks regarding the injustice of revenge and suffering, saying that women in the poem are seen as “peace bringers” (127). When women act like men, they become monstrous, he says, noting that pride (one of the seven deadly sins) is reason for their downfall. The morality of these blood feuds seems to be tackled with the use of pathos and an emphasis on loyalty and a familial bond. Beowulf is seen as the Germanic hero who protects his people through enacting vengeance on Grendel, his mother, and the dragon. Camargo points out a defect in the poet’s argument. Though he states that all strife began with Cain’s murder of Abel, the Christian influence in the poem should negate the need for revenge, considering God is the one with whom all judgmental duties should rest. “From the poet’s Christian perspective, all strife involves kinsmen because all men are brothers. Any code which has for its central tenet the duty of revenge is therefore, from that same perspective, fundamentally defective” (130). Consequently, the Beowulf poet, according to Camargo, shows the reader that revenge is an endless cycle that blurs the lines of morality. Everyone loses when they play this game, thus making the duty of revenge a pretty pointless endeavor, no matter the morality of it.
Greenfield, Thelma N. “”The Spanish Tragedy”: Revenge’s and Andrea’s Kindred.” Pacific Coast Philology 16.2 (1981): 33-43. JSTOR. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
The concept of revenge is personified in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, published in 1592. As a character, Revenge holds a lot of power throughout the piece. He eventually deems himself a judge, saying “let me be judge, and doom them” (35). He is indifferent to the suffering of others and remains a mysterious character throughout the play. Greenfield continues to discuss the nature of Revenge. Though it is said that it needs to be doled out by God, and is officially sanctioned by Persephone, the fact still remains that no matter what, revenge is still a necessity. The link between revenge and justice is questioned throughout the play and eventually ends up showing the limits and freedoms of the genre of revenge tragedy. Greenfield makes the assertion that revenge must be enacted, but I disagree. Revenge, to me, in terms of this characterization, is not human but a ghost. Reminiscent of humanity, he has lost his true sense of morality. Revenge’s decisions are rooted in pride and wrath, thus making any act of vengeance a true sin. No references to duty or pathos are really stressed strongly like they are in Beowulf. It is more of a piece that dramatizes the struggle of mankind overall than suggesting the true morality of an act of vengeance.
Bell, Millicent. “Hamlet, Revenge!” The Hudson Review 51.2 (1998): 310-28. JSTOR. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most well-known revenge tragedy plays. Bell discusses its adherence to the characteristics of the genre as well as its depiction of the concept of revenge. Bell also refers to Hamlet as a type of metatheatre – theatre about theatre. Certainly, the melodrama present within the play suggests a characteristic of metatheatre, but I do not entirely agree that it would completely fall under that definition. However, Bell stresses that actors are often audiences themselves and theatrical language is used so often within the play that it further reinforces metatheatricality. Hamlet’s desire to evade tradition and audience expectations seem relevant during his course of action – especially in terms of his “madness.” Perhaps this is why he takes so long to enact his revenge – it is not a simple ritual like it is in Beowulf. The idea of potentiality is discussed as well, with Bell stating that Hamlet is full of potential – there is no limit to the offenses of which he might be capable. Bell finds that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is left unclassifiable; he is unable to become anything but the revenger that the play eventually makes him into. Bell also discusses the paradox in Hamlet’s views on the contradictions of human nature. This also evokes a theme of appearance versus reality, Hamlet battling with his innermost desires and thoughts. Ophelia’s utterance of “Lord, we know what we are, but we know not what we may be” suggests, again, Hamlet’s potentiality. Hamlet’s transformation into an avenger, according to Bell, requires him to relinquish his title as lover (322). Hamlet considers acting effectively and if one ever truly can do so in a rational manner (which relates to the Great Conversation in terms of a man of action versus a man of thought), but generally prefers to act violently and impulsively. Hamlet questions if anything can be truly known in terms of certainty. Thus, revenge is not a true and swift punishment. It is not an effective act of rationality. In fact, Laertes’s revenge is turned against him and causes his own death by the poisoned rapier. Revenge, then, is not a just action and moreso, in Hamlet’s opinion, is not effective unless it is thought through prior to taking action. This is why Laertes and Fortinbras fail in their revenge acts. Hamlet, in thinking it through, defines the morality of his actions in order to proceed. Hence, I disagree with Bell’s assertion that Hamlet’s decision took too long. He needed that time in order to decide the morality of his revenge and whether it should or should not be enacted. A man of action is nothing without reasons and careful thought behind those actions.
Ayres, Philip J. “Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge: The Morality of the Revenging Hero.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 12.2 (1972): 359-74. JSTOR. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
Ayres discusses the morality of Antonio’s revenge and compares it to that of Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy, and Titus Andronicus. It is said that it is meant more as a parody of the genre of revenge tragedy rather than an accurate depiction of it. The story begins with pathos, a sympathy for the main character, and a statement regarding the savage nature of the world of the play. As the plot continues to thicken, the audience becomes enraptured in Antonio’s world and seem to be in agreement regarding revenging his father’s death. It seems to be a “justifiable answer to the evil forces at large in the world of the play” according to the audience (361). Ayres discusses the direction Marston takes in terms of the myth of the heroic revenger, stating that the understanding of the “real nature of the revenger” is necessary (362). It should be noted that Antonio views himself as innocent and religious. Antonio’s initial urge to enact revenge is followed by a period of deep thought, much like Hamlet’s hesitation. Also like Hamlet, Antonio must give up his religious innocence in order to adopt the traditional persona of the revenger. Another important factor of this transformation is the lack of consent from God; Antonio does not ask God for vengeance, but instead assumes His consent. This transformation allows Marston to tell the audience that he has become “in every respect except in deed a murderer” and also “more than a devil” (364). Marston proposes that his main character has gone through moral degradation and, though formerly reacted towards in a sympathetic nature, he is now past such reception. The lack of mercy in the following scenes denotes, also, a lack of morality in Antonio’s actions. He has no concern regarding the morality of his actions as the play progresses. This thoughtlessness defines his revenge as simple bloodlust – something that would not qualify it as moral by any means. In the end, Antonio is viewed as a true villain, a project of his blood lust and desire for vengeance.