V is for Vengeance

| April 28, 2014
Revenge is something that I feel we are told time and time again, through works of art or stories, that is a natural, human instinct. I think that many would agree not a very attractive aspect of humanity, and I think it’s one we’d more often than not prefer to only acknowledge as something to be better than or above However, it’s interesting to see how we approach it aesthetically, through different works.
Certainly, it is often one that is often reserved for the “villains” of our stories. We think of Iago, getting back at Othello for—can anyone even remember why? The experience of revenge seems to be an act beyond whatever it was the original “wrong” was. At any rate, SO many characters who demonstrate the trait of vengeance are ones that many people easily write off as being “bad” or “wrong.”
“My cause is hearted: thine hath no reason./ Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him.” – Iago, Act III, Scene 3 of Othello
What becomes interesting, then, is when the heroes of our works are the ones carrying out vengeance. The black/ white moralizing on revenge gets a lot trickier when we find ourselves rooting for the ones seeking the revenge. There’s Hamlet, who is personally my absolute favorite Shakespearean character. He’s a character who doesn’t take the high road, and yet he knows that getting revenge by killing his father’s murderer is wrong. He spends the entire play regretting and mulling over the promise he made. However, many people (myself include) are drawn to his character and plight. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that at the end of the play, we get Shakespeare’s clear message that the path to revenge can only lead to tragedy. For EVERYONE. (At least in this case, but its furthers the revenge = wrong dynamic.)

“The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!” – Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5 of Hamlet
Or, to even further extremes, let’s use the case of Frank Underwood from the popular Netflix web series, House of Cards. I won’t give away any major spoilers (I’ve got a whole other post just about them), but the premise is that, after being “betrayed” and not named Secretary of State by a President he helped, Underwood, a Senator, engages in INCREDIBLY dark and twisted road to get what he feels he deserves. He’s not even doing it for reasons or to set a time-of-joint right. If anything, Underwood IS the villain and is the one making the times disjointed in the first place. He becomes an anti-hero, and even though it hardly seems possible, many viewers (myself included) end up rooting him and his vindictive actions even when we don’t particularly want to. Unlike Hamlet, thought, Underwood seems to be pretty darn evasive when it comes to the supposed consequences we associate with vengeance.
At any rate, interesting questions can arise. In what cases is revenge celebrated? When is it reviled? Who gets to decide? Why do they decide in the ways they do? How can our experiences with literature, film, or drama relate to how we approach (or don’t approach) the concept of vengeance in the real world?