- Women and Revenge in Shakespeare: Gender, Genre, and Ethics
Perhaps it is inevitable that in women's struggle for equality, at least where literary characters are concerned, some readers perceive women as equally beset by the often violent pursuit of revenge. Women and Revenge in Shakespeare, by Marguerite A. Tassi, is clearly aware of the problematic moral nature of vengeance and vindication, hence the "Ethics" in her subtitle and the return to the defense of many vengeful speeches and acts by women in Shakespeare's plays. Yet the conclusion voices the same queries with which the study begins: "Can there be a virtue in vengeance? Can revenge do ethical work? Can revenge be the obligation of women?" (282).
Although these questions are never definitively answered, the book forcefully advocates for the notion of women achieving agency in Shakespeare's plays through culturally based exhibitions of the need for "just" vengeance. In the preface, introduction, first two chapters, final chapter, and conclusion, the book rehearses this argument, often appealing to specific moments in Shakespeare. In the middle of the volume, Tassi works six closely argued and often brilliantly innovative chapters on notable instances of revenging women in Shakespeare's plays. She uses the motif to produce intricate readings despite the controversial tenet that revenge can be in itself a good, and thus women seeking it can be seen as laudable.
The introduction asserts the intention to rectify the vilification of female avengers in tragedies, comedies, and romances and initiates the ethical dimension of justified vengeance. Chapter 1 traces the predominance of revenge in the myths and early texts of Western culture, pinpointing female contributions, such as in ancient Greek drama: "Women's words and songs function as speech acts, operating in the theater as counterparts to physical acts of retaliatory violence" (36). The collection of stories is impressive, with Revenge often personified as female, either literally or figuratively. Tassi argues that the "fierce will and actions of a female avenger appeared more subversive, daring, outrageous, and unbelievable than those of a male because of the historical unorthodoxy of feminine violence [End Page 97] in society and women's expected submission to patriarchal authority" (44). This is exciting and useful thinking. The chapter ends with a section on law and the relationship between revenge and justice for women.
Chapter 2 provides a vivid picture of the roles of the lamenting woman, the cursing woman, and the female "inciter" we so often encounter in the plays. Tassi parses the effect of the "liminal state of lamentation" (84) and carefully works the discourse of these women as integral to the action of plays such as Macbeth. The next chapter settles into more thorough investigation of women and revenge in Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, and Much Ado About Nothing. Tassi's close reading of Ophelia's mad scene is a tour de force of focused interpretation. She sees lamentation as a "performative 'genre' and social practice that gives women incalculable powers—authority over the dead, a prominent place in funeral rites, and the ability to incite revenge" (85), with this last power, as one could see it, as perhaps its dark side. Hecuba (in the First Player's speech) and Gertrude, the often unremarked women of this play, are intriguingly explored. In this way, Hamlet, an adapted revenge tragedy, encompasses the book's thesis very well. Similarly, and perhaps too easily, Titus responds to this kind of methodology, but Much Ado genuinely opens up with Tassi's treatment of Beatrice's need for revenge: "Kill Claudio."
Chapter 4, on the first tetralogy of history plays and once again on Titus (now on Tamora instead of Lavinia), follows active agents, not just female inciters. And as she does throughout the book, Tassi effectively intersperses performance history to substantiate her readings. Both Margaret and Tamora clearly reinforce the revenging woman motif, which helps us see them in a slightly different and more sympathetic light; the same, however, is not true for Goneril and Regan. The next chapter, on King Lear...