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“Black Deeds Must Be Cur’d with Death”:
Justice & Revenge in Renaissance Drama

Promotional image from the UK’s Almeida Theatre production of The Duchess of Malfi (performed from November 30, 2019 through January 25, 2020)

5,736 words

I. Classical Western Thought on Justice and Revenge

One of the most fascinating discussions to emerge from our collective Western inheritance concerns the definition of justice and the double-sided nature of justice or vengeance (personified memorably in pop culture through the literal “two-faced” character of Harvey Dent and his Janus-faced coin). Aristotle (384-322 BC) determined that “justice” had at least two different meanings: the first pertained to conduct or a “moral disposition” that followed an “established, authoritative rule of human behavior,” or “lawful justice”; the second pertained to “justice as equality,” or fairness in right proportions. Aristotle viewed “justice as equality” and “lawful justice” not as two discrete concepts, but ones in a synechodocal relationship. [1] [1] Only through collective adherence to moral standards could fairness for individuals and the common welfare of society be justly secured. Aristotle was no egalitarian in the modern sense, and his use of “equality” meant giving men their due, or just deserts, as defined by their positions. He believed that there existed natural inequalities between the sexes and between “natural slaves” and “freemen,” and he regarded democracy as a political perversion. [2] [2]

The idea that all should be equal before the court of state justice (isonomy) has featured in European thought since at least the time of Thucydides (ca. 460-400 BC), when in his History of the Peloponnesian War, he imagined the Athenian ruler Pericles declaring: “Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few . . . If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences . . . [3] [3] Despite these high-minded words, Thucydides’s political philosophy itself tended toward what we would now call realpolitik, or the practical acknowledgment that justice was meted out by the powerful; in other words, universal ideas of virtue did not determine the policy of rulers, nor did they figure, in the final analysis, in the prosecution of wars.

The most notable depiction of one such war and illustrative of Classical views on vengeance was Homer’s Iliad and the “wrath” of Achilles, its principal protagonist, whose anger “brought countless ills upon the Achaeans [Greeks].” [4] [4] Though Achilles’ pursuit of glory and revenge caused mass death and destruction in Homer’s epic tale, he was still a worthy hero to the Greeks, for whom the virtues of honor and excellence far outranked those of mercy and sacrifice. What would appear to most modern Westerners as pathological narcissism appeared to Homer’s contemporaries as the stuff of heroic legend. Only when Achilles dishonored the body of Hector in unchecked retribution for his cousin’s death did Achilles unambiguously cross over the line separating worthy from unworthy behavior in the eyes of Greeks. Homer’s society sanctioned revenge as far as honor allowed, but ethics frowned on acts that were unnecessarily vindictive or those that resulted in the disrespect of an opponent; as a culture obsessed with masculine valor and physical courage, killing while in the grip of rage militaire was accepted — even celebrated — while Greek society viewed the refusal to properly care for the noble dead, thus barring their souls from crossing the River Acheron and toward the afterlife, as a deep injustice.

II. Christian Western Thought on Justice and Revenge

Apart from Classical philosophy, Christianity has had the most powerful influence on Western conceptions of justice and vengeance. For Christians, God was the supreme essence of perfect justice, perfect righteousness. Proverbs proclaimed that “a just balance and scales are the Lord’s; all the weights in the bag are His work.” [5] [5] In order to strive for His favor, God admonished, “do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. . . . You shall have just balances, just weights. . .” [6] [6] While certain Biblical passages stressed the importance of recognizing the humanity in each individual, every one of them made in the Divine image, Christian teachings also preached humility. As descendants of the first fallen couple from the Garden, those who erred after Adam and Eve paid alike the wages of their sins. This involved the proper feelings of shame and remorse, the confession of sin, and the actions taken by the sinner to correct his misdeed. Thus Christianity introduced European moral philosophy to the concept of justice as a transaction, as well as a Manichean dichotomy of good and evil.

God dispensed justice and vengeance almost interchangeably in the Old Testament. In one of the first stories of Genesis, Cain slew his brother Abel because of envy. God then vowed to avenge Abel’s murder — a personal assault on the Almighty and on His favorite. In a voice filled with anger and sorrow, He condemned Cain and declared: “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground. And now you are cursed.” [7] [7] Both the image of the Father weighing the souls of His children with a firm hand and that of the God of wrath and righteous fury raining down pitiless punishment on sinful mortals from above informed the rich and complex thoughts on the nature of God and man in pre-modern eras. In affairs with other men, the Biblical message was clear: “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” [8] [8] When asked about paying the government of Rome its due and whether or not such obedience contradicted paying God His, Christ memorably responded that all should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” for the laws of man and the laws of the Divine did not necessarily conflict. [9] [9] He thus discouraged using the excuse of God’s name when rebelling against the state and its laws, even as He subtly argued for God’s primacy. Like Greek philosophy, Christianity took for granted that there would always exist inequalities between people on earth, e.g. between masters and slaves. There was no injustice in hierarchy per se. Injustice arose when people did not uphold God’s law (lawful justice) or when they treated one another indecently (justice as fairness). This misbehavior merited God’s vengeance, for none on earth were considered above His judgment.

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III. Medieval and Later Western Thought on Justice and Revenge

This ideal premise that none should be above the law — not even kings — that emerged from the Classical and Christian periods persisted. The Magna Carta (1215) famously proclaimed that the English king could not arbitrarily imprison his (gentle) subjects indefinitely; neither could he take their property without lawful justification. In the Middle Ages, different codes of law operated coterminously and competed with one another at times for dominance. In medieval England, the ecclesiastical (or canon) law of the Catholic Church, the state / monarchical law of the king and his ministers, and the common law of the people had weights and measures that often conflicted (the most dramatic conflict erupting between Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket and Henry II in 1170).

Eventually, the power of the Church to adjudicate criminality waned as nation-states centralized and monarchs, then parliaments, began to horde power for themselves. However, the precedents set by common law remained and still remain important aspects of Anglo legal culture. In today’s more secular societies, the majority of Westerners view justice as an arm of the state (lawful justice) as egalitarian activism (a kind of perversion of Aristotelian and biblical fairness that often veers into retributive vengeance), or as regional custom — not as an area of theology. Despite how concepts and systems of justice have changed over time and across the space of Western history, we may ask what has remained fundamental to its meaning. And what has differentiated justice from its darker twin, vengeance? Have we still the echoes in our ears of Achilles’s war cry, or have the thirty centuries since his death rendered him all but mute?

In the modern West, when an individual has done something unjust, we recognize that he has created an imbalance in his community — whether we call his action a sin, a crime, or simply a wrongdoing. We use transactional, equational language to describe this phenomenon: he must be called to account; he must pay the wages of his sins; he must make up for what he has done. This suggests that we collectively feel a need to restore an equilibrium lost after the offense. The figure of Justice, with her weights and measures, exemplifies this need. Indeed, the blindfolded Justice is an ideal: impartial, detached, maintaining all persons as equal before the laws that apply to them, and dispensing third-party judgment, rather than prejudgment. True justice means that the punishment matches the crime, thus it restores the balance lost and satisfies an equation. Though perhaps based on concrete laws and actual courts, Justice is a high-minded goddess. She stands above all men, for no man is considered above the law. This description of Justice marries the two Aristotelian meanings, “lawful righteousness” and “fairness,” while appealing also to the image of the Christian God with His perfect “balances and weights.”

But what of vengeance? For someone who has directly suffered, the rulings of Justice, though they may restore harmony to society, do nothing to satisfy the aggrieved heart. Justice is hard to achieve in this world (perhaps impossible in cases of the most serious crimes). Rarely does it satisfy, for justice is impersonal. Satisfaction requires vengeance, because vengeance is by its nature deeply personal. Instead of pronouncing from on high a moral judgment, it demands suffering in primitive, passionate terms. Vengeance removes the “lawful righteousness” from justice and focuses solely on a version of “equality,” or proportionate fairness — of getting even in a visceral way. Vengeance does not pretend idealism, and it certainly is not blind, but it too seeks payment in order to reestablish a balance of some kind — the settling of scores. The focus is not on the contract or law broken, nor on the public trust betrayed, but on the hurt done, the blood spilled, and the human suffering caused. It is the difference between the two declarations: “You need to pay your debt to society” and “You will pay for what you did to me!” By the high Middle Ages, both Church teachings and state law generally condemned and continue today to condemn vengeance, the former stigmatizing it as somehow connected to black magic and paganism, while the latter has outlawed its practice as illegitimate vigilantism. The practices of lynching and dueling — behaviors common in honor cultures and lawless areas — are met with official disapproval in Western countries today. Still, the “strong gods” of honor and righteous “wrath” pull at the European psyche. [10] [11]

IV. Justice and Revenge in Renaissance Drama

This need for a balanced social order on the one hand and individual satisfaction on the other has haunted the West for far longer than has the dream of Rome reborn, and it would take more than an article to examine the subject fully. My more modest aim here is to explore the dynamics of justice / vengeance during the English Renaissance — a transitional period that borrowed its moral imagination from Classical, Christian, and modern meditations on vengeance — through an analysis of three of its greatest revenge dramas: Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1581); John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1614); and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607). I am purposely excluding any Shakespearean plays from discussion, because they are already widely-read (if the reader wants a few examples of revenge dramas of the Shakespearean variety, I recommend Hamlet, Coriolanus, and Titus Andronicus). Blood tragedies and revenge dramas echoed earlier Greek theater, such as Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (ca. 429 BC) and Antigone (ca. 441 BC) and became one of the most sensational genres in Renaissance Europe. The formula for almost all such works involved royal or elite malfeasance, murder, complex revenge plots, young love frustrated, and climactic scenes ending in a bloodbath.

The early modern period was a fascinating time, an era neither medieval nor modern, but something of both. Like today’s readers and Homer’s ancient audiences, early moderns relished entertainment and watching human drama unfold in story form. It would be easy (and facile) to compare the bloody television programs of the twenty-first century with the blood tragedies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however mottled the reflection our modern world appears in the worlds of Webster, Middleton, and Kyd. While the plays’ language seems strange on our tongues, its meaning rings true. Its protagonists were particularly affronted by the corruption of elites in their societies — those who ignored all laws and senses of the public good in order to maintain their personal wealth and influence. Truth can be found in history and in the study of how our ancestors tried to find and express it. We are no wiser than they, no better than they. What follows is an attempt to grasp at the truth of justice / vengeance and how Renaissance people conceived of and reconciled balance and satisfaction; society and the individual. More importantly, a comparative analysis of these bloody tales may tell us how we in the Dissident Right should approach the pursuit of justice and the meting out of vengeance in our own societies, no less toxic and dissolute than those of Renaissance Europe, for all the mouthing about “social contracts” and democratic “self-determination.” If our thought-leaders and politicians meant a sweet-sounding word of it, they would not denounce populism so.

V. The Spanish Tragedy

The oldest and most archetypal of the three revenge dramas here reviewed was Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, written during the reign of Elizabeth I. English dramatists loved to set their plays in Catholic southern Europe, its countries viewed as somewhat more exotic, colorful, and corrupt than those of northern Europe. Of course, this distance allowed writers to critique their own societies from a safe place of plausible deniability. The action began with Don Andrea, a recently killed knight whose ghost appeared in “Pluto’s court.” [11] [12] Andrea related to the audience his love affair with Spanish Princess, Bel-imperia, and his demise at the hands of the Portuguese Viceroy’s son, Prince Balthazar, during a recent battle between the Iberian powers. His soliloquy borrowed from the tropes of the chivalric romances common to the period, themselves a melding of Classical and Christian celebrations of honor, bravery, and goodness. The rest of the play moved away from Andrea and the Underworld and focused on the living: Andrea’s friend, Don Horatio; Horatio’s father and knight-marshall of Spain, Don Hieronimo; and Andrea’s lost love, Princess Bel-imperia.

Picking up the narrative thread, a Spanish general recounted the battle for his king, describing how Balthazar, “Portingale’s” young prince, slew Andrea. Yet,

While the prince, insulting over him, / Breath’d out proud vaunts, sounding to our reproach, / Friendship and hardy valour join’d in one / Prick’d forth Horatio, our knight-marshall’s son, / To challenge forth that prince in single fight. / Not long between these twain the fight endur’d, / But straight the prince was beaten from his horse / And forc’d to yield him prisoner to his foe. [12] [13]

At that point, the “beaten” prince walked onstage between conquering hero Horatio and the king’s nephew, Lorenzo. Already, a rivalry had developed among the victorious Spaniards. Horatio, the warrior who bested Balthazar in combat, claimed the right of capture, while Lorenzo, Horatio’s social superior, contended that the honor of the prince’s surrender belonged to him. Taking his son’s side, Don Hieronimo began to remonstrate with the king, asking him to hear his “tongue. . . plead for young Horatio’s right. / He hunted well that was a lion’s death, / Not he that in a garment wore his skin; / So hares may pull dead lions by the beard.” [13] [14] Heironomo expressed his faith in “the establishment’s” ability to make wise and just decisions, ones based not on wealth and power, but on impartial truth. His lines were also a critique against the political elite’s tendency to take credit for the great deeds of warriors and those of less rarified descent, a complaint Achilles would have seconded. While valiant hunters faced and fought lions, it was often layabout royals who enjoyed the spoils of the hunt and wore its trophies. Still, by appealing to the king’s judgment on the matter, Hieronimo showed his confidence in the monarch’s justice.

This confidence did not last. Horatio soon sought out Bel-imperia to inform her of her beloved’s death. Stunned, she nevertheless transferred her affections onto Horatio, seeing a way to salvage her love for Andrea by marrying his friend and defender. The leaders of Portugal and Spain had other ideas, and they moved to engage Bel-imperia to Prince Balthazar in order to broker a peace treaty. Appalled that she should be forced into marrying Andrea’s killer, Bel-imperia flatly refused. When her brother Lorenzo discovered her secret engagement to his rival, he and Balthazar plotted to kill Horatio and hung him from a tree in old Hieronimo’s garden. Afterward, they imprisoned Bel-imperia in order to “change her mind” about the union with Portugal. Upon the discovery of his murdered son, Hieronimo seemed to go insane with grief, asking of Horatio: who “left thy bloody corpse dishonour’d here, / For me amidst these dark and dreadful shades / To drown thee with an ocean of my tears?” [14] [15] More learned members of Kyd’s audience would have recognized Horatio’s “dishonour’d” corpse as an allusion to Prince Hector’s broken body from the Iliad. Hieronimo quickly learned that his son’s killers were none other than the royals whom he had dutifully served for decades. The rest of the drama focused on his crusade for political justice and personal vengeance with the aid of Bel-imperia. Though locked away, she managed to communicate missives to him by using her own blood in place of ink (a common plot device in Renaissance drama).

In the climactic scene, Hieronimo enacted his revenge by killing the “authors” of his son’s death, refusing to betray his “confederates” to the king by biting out his own tongue. His vengeance complete, Hieronimo ended his life in what could be considered the ultimate protest by speaking silent truth to power. Watching the entire bloody episode approvingly from the Underworld, Andrea asked of Pluto’s servant Vengeance that he punish the guilty with torture in the afterlife. First, “Place Don Lorenzo on Ixion’s wheel, / . . . Hang Balthazar about Chimera’s neck, / And let him there bewail his bloody love, / Repining at our joys that are above.” [15] [16] Because Hieronimo proceeded from truth and righteous outrage of both a personal and political nature, the Underworld deemed his acts of vengeance just. His focus was not solely one of private satisfaction. It arose also from a desire to restore balance to a wicked system that advantaged a depraved elite who believed themselves above the laws they had sworn to uphold. In short, Hieronimo took the “red pill” when he awoke to his society’s bankruptcy and vowed to undermine it from within.

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VI. The Duchess of Malfi

I now turn to John Webster’s dark play The Duchess of Malfi. One of the most jarring features of this particular drama was the initial sense Webster gave the audience that the story would be a comedy (in theater, comedy did not necessarily mean that the play was “funny,” but that “all’s well that ends well,” every major conflict, especially romantic conflicts, resolving themselves more or less happily by the end). Webster’s most enduring and psychologically engaging plays were not comedies but tragedies. Indeed, T. S. Eliot once famously remarked that Webster saw “the skull beneath the skin.” His Malfi took place in Italy, its title alluding to the Amalfi Coast in that country’s southwestern Province of Salerno.

The play began with Webster introducing the Duchess (never named) as a recently-widowed heiress. She reassured her two brothers — twin Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal — that she would not remarry without their consent. Predictably, she broke her promise and married the steward of her estate, Antonio, a man she had long loved but had never approached out of respect for her first husband. Though she kept her union secret for some years, her brothers eventually found out. Outraged at her disobedience and her new husband’s decidedly inferior birth, they plotted her murder. Webster implied that Ferdinand’s fury was due, at least in part, to his incestuous feelings for his twin sister, while the Cardinal’s motives seemed purely driven by his desire for his sister’s wealth. The brothers hired a jaded mercenary, Daniel de Bosola, to carry out their scheme. Bosola, an unlikely hero, was himself a creature of Italy’s political rot and corruption. Though he was a “court-gall” who criticized the government, Bosola’s “railing / [was] not for simple love of piety: / Indeed, he rail[ed] at those things which he want[ed]; / Would [have been] as lecherous, covetous, or proud, / Bloody, or envious, as any man, / If he had means to be so.” [16] [18] After traveling to his victim’s estate and ingratiating himself into her household, Bosola grew to admire the Duchess and began having second thoughts about his mission. Nevertheless, he carried out his task and delivered the Duchess to Ferdinand.

Ferdinand cruelly tortured his sister, hoping she would go mad. He produced fraudulent evidence that both Antonio and her children were dead. The Duchess refused the bait and maintained her dignity throughout her ordeal, further winning the respect of Bosola. Welcoming despair and the prospect of her death, she resigned herself to suicide if her brother did not kill her first. “Remember you are a Christian. . . Leave this vain sorrow. Things being at their worst begin to mend,” admonished Bosola, who was working up his resolve to save her. Dryly, she answered him back: “The church enjoins fasting: I’ll starve myself to death. . . Let heaven a little while cease crowning martyrs, to punish them!” [17] [19]

After her executioners arrived at last and strangled her with cords, Bosola presented her body disgustedly to Ferdinand and in a reference to God’s vengeful speech to Cain after the first fratricide, so Bosola addressed the murdered Duchess’s sibling: “Fix your eye here. . . Do you not weep? / Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out. / The element of water moistens the earth, / But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens.” [18] [20] Unable to bear looking at the lovely woman who inspired his poisoned love, Ferdinand demanded that Bosola, in the most famous lines of the play, “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young.” [19] [21] Compounding his dishonor, Ferdinand went on to blame Bosola for killing her, and instead of paying him his bounty for a job completed, promised only a “pardon for this murder.” Enraged at Ferdinand’s breathtaking gall and the double injustice committed against the Duchess and against himself, Bosola decided to plot his own vengeance, ironically observing that “the office of justice is perverted quite / When one thief hangs another.” [20] [22] It was perhaps Webster’s intent to make it unclear whether Bosola referred to himself or to Ferdinand as the “one thief,” both having sold their integrity for silver.

Though Bosola had his revenge against Ferdinand and the Cardinal by the play’s end, it was a black victory for the ex-assassin, for he recognized that there could be neither salvation for his broken society, nor redemption for himself, so implicated was he in its sordidness. He planned his own demise along with others guilty of the Duchess’s murder, convinced that one ill turn deserved another, and “[There’s] the consequence of murder. / We value not desert nor Christian breath, / When we know black deeds must be cur’d with death.” [21] [23] While Hieronimo’s suicide was an act of defiance protesting a corrupt court, Bosola’s planned suicide was an act of acceptance, owning as he did his culpability within a wider court of treachery. Bosola’s pill was black. Even though Antonio and his son by the Duchess survived the play’s horrors, Webster left audiences in doubt about whether Antonio’s prayer that their “[flight from] the courts of princes” would protect them, or whether corruption would continue to plague the Duchess’s line through her young son, the heir of a vast estate in Italy’s unchanged land of wolves. [22] [24] Of the three dramatic selections chosen, Webster’s Malfi was both the most Christian and the most un-Christian story. Martyrdom and sacrifice; the punishment of villainy; all made the play appear to be a morality tale in the tradition of other Christian fables. But the dark desires of its characters, Webster’s focus on madness, and the rejection of redemption for its “hero” made Malfi something of an uncomfortable anomaly in the genre of revenge tragedies.

VII. The Revenger’s Tragedy

And the final play subjected to analysis: Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, also set somewhere in a nameless Italian court. Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy had been performed for thirty years by the time of Middleton’s writing, and the genre of revenge had become something of a joke: its formulaic plots, its overwrought characters, and its laughably gory denouements were ripe fodder for a wit. Revenger was a parody of all these tropes, and its hero’s name, Vindice, Latin for “champion” or “revenger,” was itself a clue that Middleton intended his protagonist to be a caricature rather than a serious challenger to societal order and its injustices. The only order Middleton challenged was the literary order and perhaps its celebration of revenge. The play began with Vindice excoriating the “royal lecher,” the Duke, who Vindice claimed murdered his fiancée, Gloriana, when she spurned the “gray-haired. . . devil” for love of himself. [23] [25] Speaking to the “sallow” remains of his beloved, whose corpse he appeared to have kept rather than buried (!), he wailed for her,

My poisoned love, / My study’s ornament, thou shell of Death, / Once the bright face of my betrothed Lady, / When life and beauty naturally filled out / These ragged imperfections . . . twas a face / So far beyond the artificial shine / Of any woman’s bought complexion / That the uprightest man, (if such there be / That sin but seven times a day) broke custom / And made up eight with looking after her, / Oh she was able to ha’ made a Usurer’s son / Melt all his patrimony in a kiss. [24] [26] 

Putting Andrea’s opening soliloquy to shame, Vindice’s wild flatteries of a skeleton verged on the obscene. Even the most avaricious of Jews would supposedly have flung away their treasures for the dead woman’s once-live embrace. Nothing, he declared, would stop him from having his revenge on the old, “adulterous” Duke and his henchmen. [25] [27]

Vindice conceived a plot that would end in the Duke kissing the poisoned lips of Gloriana’s skull, “dressed up in tires” so as to appear alive — the perfect poetic justice in Vindice’s jaundiced eyes. [26] [28] Instead of seeming mad with grief or self-reproach, Vindice was consumed with revenge for its own sake. Middleton’s audience may have seen the principal actor maniacally whirling Vindice’s “tired-dressed” skeleton of a fiancée about the stage in a grotesque dance of narcissism in which she was both literally and figuratively a prop to satisfy his elaborate plot. Responding to his brother’s appalled shock when confronted with Vindice’s designs, Vindice shrugged him off, proceeding to deny his madness by implicating everyone he knew in a great, mad world, for “surely we’re all mad people, and they / Whom we think are, are not.” Unable to stop drowning in the whirlpool of his twisted logic, Vindice took aim at his own fiancée, pointing at her dead, made-up face:

Does every proud and self affecting Dame / Camphire her face for this? and grieve her Maker / In sinful baths of milk, — when many an infant starves, / For her superfluous outside, all for this? . . . Here might a scornful and ambitious woman, / Look through and through herself, — see Ladies, with false forms, / You deceive men, but cannot deceive worms. [27] [29]

What an about-face from his previous exaltations dedicated to his lover’s feminine beauty! Self-righteousness had rarely met such ironic lack of self-awareness as it did in Middleton’s Vindice.

When the Duke arrived, Vindice introduced the “bony lady” as “a Country” girl in want of a kiss to cure her “bashfulness.” After the Duke fell for the ruse, Vindice and his brother revealed her as “Gloriana,” his poisoned love who, through death’s kiss, had poisoned her murderer in turn. [28] [30] The dying Duke tried to cry out for help, but Vindice “invented a silence” and had his brother “nail down [the Duke’s] tongue” with a dagger. [29] [31] The entire scene was an inversion of Hieronimo’s show of virtuous spite when the knight-marshall bit off of his own tongue and stopped his speech in front of the Spanish royal audience. The difference between Hieronimo’s and Vindice’s “invented silences” spoke volumes. Middleton saved one last joke before the final curtain ended the action, Vindice looking all around him at the death and misery his vengeance had wrought, as if he were a confused and twisted version of Achilles, surrounded by bloodied warriors lying at his feet. He finally asked, “are we not revenged? / Is there one enemy left alive amongst those? / ’Tis time to die, when we are ourselves our foes. . . adieu.” [30] [32] Tragedy had become farce. Vindice took the “Joker pill,” when he devoted himself to no cause but that of manic destruction. For sheer entertainment value, Middleton earned his trophy.

VIII. Conclusion

Are there any overarching lessons we in the Dissident Right can learn from the theme of revenge running through Elizabethan and Jacobean drama? Was Hieronimo just in his revenge? Was Bosola’s revenge, laced with more bitterness than it was earnestness, meaningful at all? Did Vindice’s revenge make such a mockery of justice that he discredited revenge altogether? I suspect many of us, myself included, have had fantasies about exacting comeuppance against enemies who are so clearly motivated by a warped vengeance of their own. We too live in a sick society in which elites flout both law and the public good in order to diminish us and enrich themselves. Like Bosola and Ferdinand, they have traded their honesty for bags of silver. They are therefore irredeemable traitors to our people and nations.

Our grievances are of a personal and political nature — the most important dual thematic common to nearly all early modern blood tragedies. A carefully designed “rite of spring” may thus be both just and necessary if we want to build anew; but a bloodbath resembling those in Renaissance theater’s outlandish final scenes or resembling more modern raptures in a Revelation-like “day of the rope” should repel us. [31] [33] According to people like Guillaume Faye and Enoch Powell, the realities of our late-stage civilizational decay may make our decision for us. Most of us do not wish for a winner-take-all ethnic apocalypse, but if Western civil war breaks out despite our wishes, we will have to be as deadly earnest as a Hieronimo; as resourceful as a Bosola; as energetic as a Vindice; as hungry, too, as an Achilles. We should find no pleasure in cruelty, nor bring dishonor to our cause. In the words of one of Eliot’s favorite playwrights, “Nature doth nothing so great for great men / As when she’s pleas’d to make them lords of truth: / Integrity of life is fame’s best friend, / Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.” [32] [34]

May we be standing at the end.

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[1] [37] Anton-Hermann Chroust and David L. Osborn, “Aristotle’s Conception of Justice,” Notre Dame Law Review 17, no. 2 (1942), pp. 129-43.

[2] [38] For a fuller sense of Aristotle’s views on ethics and politics see his Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, both written ca. 350 BC.

[3] [39] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1950), p. 125. Historians are generally agreed that Thucydides, Athenian historian and general, began writing his History in 431 BC and continued chronicling the ongoing conflict until his death, but they are unsure whether he died before the War ended in 404 BC or sometime soon afterward. Disease was rampant in Greece (especially Athens) during the period, and it’s assumed that he died suddenly from illness, though others have speculated that he might have been killed. The quote comes from the alleged lines of Pericles’s famous Funeral Oration spoken to commemorate the dead in Athens at the end of the War’s first year.

[4] [40] Homer, Iliad & Odyssey, trans. Samuel Butler (San Diego: Baker & Taylor, 2011), p. 15. There is even less agreement about when Homer lived (if he did at all), but it was sometime between the twelfth and eighth centuries BC. The historic Siege of Troy, the subject of his Iliad, ended when the city fell during the Bronze Age, ca. 1180 BC.

[5] [41] Proverbs 16:11, KJV.

[6] [42] Leviticus 19:35-37, KJV.

[7] [43] Genesis 4:10, KJV.

[8] [44] Colossians 4:1, KJV.

[9] [45] Matthew 22:21, KJV.

[10] [46] I borrow the idea of “strong gods” from R. R. Reno’s The Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West (New York: Regnery Gateway, 2019). While he does argue that justice is a “strong god,” he does not focus on revenge as being the alternate face of this “strong god,” but I’ve always thought Nemesis was powerful, indeed. Few things bind a group together quite so well as a shared avenging spirit.

[11] [47] Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, printed by W. White (London: I. White and T. Langley, 1615) 1.1, 55. The play was also known by an alternate title in the Jacobean era: Hieronimo Is Mad Againe.

[12] [48] Kyd, 1.2, 73-80.

[13] [49] Kyd, 1.2, 169-72.

[14] [50] Kyd, 2.5, 19, 21-23.

[15] [51] Kyd, 4.5, 33, 36-37.

[16] [52] John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, transcribed by Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle, Renascence Editions Online, 1.1, 23-28.

[17] [53] Webster, 4.1, 50, 53-55, 51.

[18] [54] Webster, 4.2, 60, 62-63.

[19] [55] Webster, 4.2, 64.

[20] [56] Webster, 4.2, 80-81, 55-56.

[21] [57] Webster, 5.4, 31-33.

[22] [58] Webster, 5.4, 52.

[23] [59] Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Meaghan Brown, Michael Poston, and Elizabeth Williamson, eds., Folger Shakespeare Library Online, 1.1, 6, 9. This online edition does not begin the line numbers over after the ending of each scene, hence the higher line counts.

[24] [60] Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy, 1.1, 19-32.

[25] [61] Middleton, 3.1, 1476.

[26] [62] Middleton, 3.1, 1513-14. 1518-20.

[27] [63] Middleton, 3.1, 1530-31.

[28] [64] Middleton, 3.2, 1566-67.

[29] [65] Middleton, 3.2, 1627, 1629-30.

[30] [66] Middleton, 5.2, 2640-41, 2656.

[31] [67] Latvian historian and writer Modris Eksteins (non-Jewish) makes a compelling argument that twentieth-century wars and political movements, such as fascism, mirrored the Modernist cultural theme of renewal from death à la Igor Stravinsky’s controversial ballet Rite of Spring. See Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (New York: Mariner Books, 2000).

[32] [68] Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, 5.5, 89.