'Wild Justice' and the Female Body in The Revenger's Tragedy
KATHRYN R. FININ
STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK COLLEGE AT ONEONTA
- In the opening act of The Revenger's Tragedy, Vindice presents himself as a disempowered, that is, a subordinated and feminized, male. He locates the source of his predicament in the licentious and politically corrupt Duke who poisoned Vindice's betrothed and has denied Vindice his proper social place. This doubled loss catalyzes his desire for revenge. While Vindice initiates his revenge in response to the Duke's behaviour, the more profound issue at work in this text is the potentially overwhelming presence of female power. Vindice's fixation with the skull of his dead beloved raises the spectre of a complicated relation to the female body, something which is lent additional psychic weight by the way in which her name is withheld from the audience until Act III. Indeed, we learn the name of Vindice's dead beloved at the very moment he succeeds in using her skull to wreak his revenge: 'Duke, dost know / Yon dreadful vizard? [. . .] 'tis the skull / Of Gloriana, whom thou poisonedst last' (III.v.147-49).1
- The name 'Gloriana' underscores and provides a cultural dimension to the danger the female body poses to masculine identity throughout this play. This name was closely associated with Queen Elizabeth, the 'glorious-one', celebrated most famously by Spenser in The Faerie Queene. The name 'Gloriana' not only invokes Elizabeth's royal persona, but such an idealized reference to Elizabeth, dead just a few years when The Revenger's Tragedy was written, suggests a nostalgia for this queen who reigned for nearly half a century. In the end, however, The Revenger's Tragedy stages the dread such a powerful female figure evokes, threatening as she does to overwhelm masculine authority. As Stephen Mullaney observes, such an 'apprehensive interplay of [. . .] revisionary desire and aggression' is shaped by myriad cultural forces and operates throughout much of Jacobean revenge drama (Mullaney 1994, 145). Certainly this kind of interplay everywhere informs Vindice's attitude toward Gloriana, as well as his mother, Gratiana, who provides a domesticated version of the queen's power. 2 This maternal body, portrayed as problematic in a specifically sexual way, is, finally, the female body with which Vindice is most concerned. The three brief scenes they share expose an intensely overdetermined relationship which informs Vindice's behaviour throughout the play. Indeed, mastering the problematic maternal figure proves as crucial to this revenger's identity as his plot against the Duke which basically concludes at the end of Act III.
- My primary concern in this essay, then, is to trace how Vindice responds to the overwhelming presence of the female body, particularly the maternal body, by becoming the author of this revenge plot. 3 We see no 'competition for representation', 4 instead Vindice tries to excise the danger of female presence by fully controlling the script. 5 The women in this play, we should note, are continually held captive by the imperatives of Vindice's revenge script, which is primarily concerned with the aesthetics rather than the ethics of revenge. Vindice not only appropriates the female body in his pursuit of revenge, but devises a script which requires an increasing number of erotic offences. As a result, this text provides a stark view of the gendered power relations at work in the Jacobean mode of revenge: what Francis Bacon called 'wild justice'. 6
'I'll hold her by the fore-top fast enough':
Appropriating the Female Body
- Vindice's motivation for revenge against the lecherous Duke is established in the opening lines of this text. Holding the skull of his dead betrothed in his hand, Vindice tells us that 'the old Duke poisoned' Gloriana 'because [her] purer part would not consent / Unto his palsey-lust' (I.i.32-34). Vindice's revenge, however, is complicated from the outset by his ambivalent attitude toward the woman whose death he seeks to avenge. As Freud suggests in his essay 'Mourning and Melancholia', the surfacing of such ambivalence is not unusual when someone experiences the loss of a 'love-object' (Freud 1957 vol.14, 243-58), and yet the particular way in which Vindice manages this ambivalence reveals the profound danger this kind of 'wild justice' poses for women. While the Duke poisons Gloriana for refusing his sexual desire, Vindice harnesses her re-membered body to satisfy his desire for an aesthetically perfect revenge. Thus, despite Vindice's language which appears to draw upon the memento mori tradition he reminds his audience, for example, that 'costly three-piled flesh' will be 'worn off / As bare as this' (I.i.46-47) he does not turn to the skull of his dead beloved in order to encourage a pious contemplation of the next world. 7 Instead, he uses the skull as a prompt, and later a prop, for an excessively violent kind of action which is fully located in the present world. 8 The female body in The Revenger's Tragedy, then, takes up her role in the signifying system as the 'reassuring sign [. . .] a "being for" a masculine subject who seeks to reconfirm his identity' (Butler 1990, 45): in this case the identity of the artistic revenger.
- Vindice's language in the opening soliloquy indicates Gloriana's status as a 'being for' the dispossessed male subject. Addressing the skull, he says:
- Thou sallow picture of 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;
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In those unsightly rings then 'twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman's bought complexion . . . (I.i.14-22, Emphasis added)
Vindice introduces us to Gloriana's remains by way of a grammatical possessive and a decorative figure: this is his study's ornament. Not only does he present their relationship in the conventional terms of woman as 'something employed to adorn' the male sphere (OED), but his reference specifically locates her as a linguistic object: she is the signifier who confirms Vindice's central, dominant, and meaningful position. The Petrarchan conceit, 'two heaven-pointed diamonds', reinforces this construction of women as linguistic objects. Vindice transforms his dead betrothed from 'body to text', and Gloriana, like the Petrarchan lady, is 'dispersed into words, her body fragmented into a series of lifeless objects' (Finke 1984, 362). As a play, The Revenger's Tragedy stages this fragmentation, rendering visible what the lyric narrates.
- While Vindice's description of Gloriana includes idealizing elements, it is most striking for its inability to convey a single, unambivalent picture of her. He proceeds as if he were praising her absolute and unmovable purity, but actually details the way in which she destroys men's inheritance:
- Oh she was able to ha' made a usurer's son
Melt all his patrimony in a kiss,
And what his father fifty years told
To have consumed, and yet his suit been cold. (I.i.26-29)
Vindice, who begins by damning the Duke's 'spendthrift veins' (I.i.8), shifts the source of economic danger to the female body, and thus he seems as concerned with the treacherous potential of the female body as he is with avenging the loss of that body. This kind of ambivalence, as Steven Mullaney demonstrates, is symptomatic of the misogyny which so often accompanies male mourning in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean plays 'when the lost object or ideal being processed is a woman' (Mullaney 1994, 140).
- This text is, of course, dominated by Vindice's misogyny, and we can glimpse the complex way in which it affects this revenger's plot in his fantasy about Occasion, who is figured as female. In a conversation with his brother Hippolito, Vindice proclaims:
- The small'st advantage fattens wrongθd men.
It may point out Occasion; if I meet her
I'll hold her by the fore-top fast enough
Or like the French mole heave up hair and all. (I.i.97-100)
This revenger aligns himself with a specifically sexual disease, the French mole, or syphilis, in an effort to penetrate and infect this feminized emblem. He not only seeks to dominate Occasion both externally and internally, however, but threatens to render her iconoclastically different. That is, far from accepting the conventional representation of Occasion as a fickle woman whose long lock of hair enables men to grab her, Vindice wants to initiate a deadly decomposition from within: one which parallels the Duke's poisoning of Gloriana. In fact, as Gloriana's skull becomes Vindice's 'occasion' to wreak revenge on the Duke, these two feminized emblems merge. The violent nature of Vindice's fantasy makes explicit the violence which underlies his appropriation of Gloriana's remains, as well as his assumption that this (re)feminized body is fully available for him to use in his pursuit of revenge.
- Although Vindice appropriates Gloriana's remains as a way to take up his identity as a revenger, this decision is not without its dangers, particularly since women have traditionally been cast as the dangerous, supplemental, figural term which threatens the stable male subject. Indeed, rather than securing his identity, Vindice's turn to the remains of the dead female body undermines the possibility of such an endeavour. In order to see how his identity is affected by the presence of this absent female, we need to leave the play proper and return to the pre-text: to the list of dramatis personae. These characters, like a list of medieval morality players, are presented as self-identical beings whose names express their essential natures: Lussurioso, for example equals 'lecherous', Vindice 'a revenger of wrongs [. . .] and abuses, one that restoreth and setteth at libertie or out of danger', Castiza 'chaste' and Gratiana 'grace' (Florio, qtd. in Gibbons 1991). These names are nothing if not proper, that is, in the Derridean sense of 'univocal and literal' (Derrida 1974, 271); they are signs which immediately bring 'forth the presence of the signified' and, as such, these names evoke a 'purity of presence' which suggests our capacity to know ourselves, and therefore the world, with certainty. 9
- Vindice's name, we should note, is singled out from the others by virtue of its two defining elements. In order for this revenger to occupy the pure space of the self-identical self, he must embody the union of these elements, and yet this text continually presents them as mutually exclusive subject positions. That is, Vindice's role as revenger requires him to endanger Gloriana, along with Castiza and Gratiana. This kind of contradiction confuses the 'purity of presence' suggested by such intensely proper names and differentiates Vindice from the other characters.
- Gloriana, of course, is missing from this list altogether and her absence is a marked one. Unlike the characters listed in the dramatis personae, whose self-presence is felt as nondifference, Gloriana's remains introduce diffιrance: as an absent presence she cannot 'bring forth the presence of the signified' in any simple or full way (Spivak 1974, xvi). Reading the remains of the dead female body in this way helps us to understand just why Vindice keeps such a firm hold on this skull: while he uses it to authorize his revenge, the skull inserts a visible and problematizing space in the purity of the self-identical self as set forth in the list of dramatis personae. As such, the remains of the female body displace the self's (supposed) originary proper place, suggesting a metaphoric relationship between behaviour and identity.
- That Vindice adopts a disguise in order to achieve his revenge only reinforces the notion of a metaphoric self. Speaking to Hippolito, Vindice says: 'I'll put on that knave for once, / And be a right man then, a man o' the time [. . .] Brother I'll be that strange composed fellow' (I.i.92-95). That Vindice's revenge requires him to place his identity in a state of availability undercuts the stability of the very (masculine) identity his revenge is meant to restore. Indeed, he shifts between multiple identities, saying for example, 'I'll quickly turn into another' (I.i.134), and asking Hippolito, 'What brother, am I far enough from myself?' (I.iii.1). Vindice faces the strange task of having to turn away from his 'original' self in order to take up his self-identical self.10 In the end, Vindice can only take up his proper identity as a revenger by way of a detour: a disguise which, like metaphor, initiates a contaminating chain of displacement.
- Indeed, the contamination generated by Vindice's 'turn' first manifests itself as a rhetorical phenomenon. Upon seeing his mother and sister enter the stage, Vindice says to his brother Hippolito:
- We must coin.
Women are apt you know to take false money,
But I dare stake my soul for these two creatures,
Only excuse excepted, that they'll swallow
Because their sex is easy in belief. (I.i.102-6)
To 'coin' is, according to the OED, 'to feign, dissemble', that is to give a false appearance through words, as well as the process whereby metal is imprinted with an 'official authorized device and turned into money'. Language and money, however, intersect for Vindice around the issue of falsity. That is, false money becomes a trope for the medium in which Vindice primarily works: words. This medium, as Sigurd Burckhardt observes, consists of 'an already current and largely defaced coinage' which radically separates the poet from other artists who are 'uniquely sovereign, minting unminted bullion into currency, stamping their image upon it' (Burckhardt 1968, 23). That Vindice portrays himself as a counterfeiter, then, relates directly to his role as author of this revenge plot. His script relies on the multivalent possibilities of language, particularly the punning which pervades the play and ruptures the bond between a word and its univocal meaning. Such language 'denies the meaningfulness of words and so calls into question the genuineness of the linguistic currency on which the social order depends' (Burckhardt 1968, 25). 11
- Located between Vindice's false words and false money are 'Women' who not only consume but prompt his coining by virtue of their very presence on the stage. In a move typical of stage misogynists, Vindice invokes the stereotypical sentiments of women as 'credulous' and 'incapable of keeping secrets' as a rationale for his linguistic deception (Woodbridge 1984, 125). That is, he reasserts that which supposedly marks women as different from men in order to displace responsibility for his counterfeit stance. The stability of this difference, however, does not hold. On one level, Vindice's allusion to women who 'take false money' conflates his prostitution of language with female promiscuity. As Patricia Parker shows, early modern discussions of rhetoric consistently link this kind of 'deceit and doubleness' to women who are associated with 'cosmetics, clothing, and decoration' (Parker 1987, 110). Moreover, the very strategies Vindice adopts in order to work his revenge duplicity, theatricality, change and inconstancy are marks of the feminine in early modern England. 12 Thus, while the hypermasculine mode of revenge traditionally shores up man's threatened masculinity, Vindice's revenge requires him to adopt a kind of promiscuous fluidity which further emasculates him.
'When shall we lie together?':
- As this text pursues its focus on the revenger's disguised body, we see the perilous potential this kind of 'wild justice' poses for the female body. The disguised Vindice agrees to pander his sister and mother, and while he suffers a momentary pang at swearing to 'foul' them, Vindice soon becomes intrigued with creating a trial of chastity: 'now angry froth is down in me', he admits, 'It would not prove the meanest policy / In this disguise to try the faith of both' (I.iii.175-77). This kind of offence not only demonstrates the way in which revenge transgresses the very boundaries it is meant to restore, but also involves Vindice in a complex series of interactions which have the net effect of furthering his emasculation.
- In Vindice's first scene as Piato, we see the kind of duplicitous and feminizing changeability required by his revenge plot, a changeability felt most forcefully in his language. While Vindice's disguise does not entail cross dressing, linguistically he functions as a female impersonator. Initially, Vindice reworks himself into a kind of Petrarchan object: 'Strike thou my forehead into dauntless marble, / Mine eyes to steady sapphires; turn my visage / And if I must needs glow let me blush inward' (I.iii.8-10). Moreover, he adopts the language of a promiscuous woman, asking, 'How dost sweet musk-cat? When shall we lie together?' (I.iii.34). The word 'lie' not only calls attention to the linguistic violation Vindice's disguise requires, but is an androgynous pun which signifies the two kinds of honours, verbal and bodily, organized along gender lines. 13 Lussurioso, however, ignores the traditional association of male honour with the word: 'words are but great men's blanks', he says, and tells Vindice 'thou should'st swell in money' (I.iii.28, 80). The debased coinage that words are, then, allows Vindice access to legitimate and much needed coins (i.e. money), but this counterfeit exchange only feminizes him further. Lussurioso confirms their relationship in terms of penetration, saying 'and thus I enter thee' (I.iii.88): he swells with masculine tumescence and leaves the impregnated Vindice to swell like a woman. While Vindice initially sees the promiscuous female body as the most effective vehicle for expressing the corrupting quality of his disguise, the introduction of money moves Vindice from promiscuous language to prostituting acts.
- Although Vindice characterizes himself as a promiscuous woman, female chastity remains one of his primary concerns. Unbeknownst to him, Vindice has been hired to seduce his sister Castiza, who has refused all of Lussurioso's advances. Lussurioso's instructions are clear:
- Go thou and with a smooth enchanting tongue
Bewitch her ears and cozen her of all grace;
Enter upon the portion of her soul,
Her honour, which she calls her chastity,
And bring it into expense. (I.iii.113-17)
Moreover, 'If she prove chaste still and immoveable', Lussurioso adds, 'Venture upon the mother, and with gifts / As I will furnish thee, begin with her' (I.iii.148-50). Lussurioso presents a hyperliteral version of the male who operates on the cultural assumption that the female body is an object to be bought and owned. His only fault lies in treating Castiza as rental property, if you will, seeking temporary ownership instead of making a permanent purchase. Given the high value placed on chastity in early modern England, combined with Lussurioso's association of money with masculinity, the ability to procure Castiza would lend Lussurioso a firm assurance of his value and power. 14
- Castiza's name, however, proves to be a proper signifier of her essential identity, and she refuses all intercourse with Lussurioso or his agents. Upon learning that the disguised Vindice comes from the Duke's son, she delivers 'A box o' the ear' and declares, 'Bear to him / That figure of my hate upon thy cheek [. . .] / Tell him my honour shall have a rich name / When several harlots shall share his with shame' (II.i.34-37). That she refuses to accept the letter Vindice carries or listen to the speech he has prepared demonstrates her absolute impenetrability to his contaminating words.
- While Vindice celebrates his discovery that 'it is not in the power of words to taint' Castiza (II.i.48), her impenetrability requires him to turn toward the maternal body with all the oedipal connotations such a turn imposes. Vindice promises to 'lay / Hard siege unto my mother' (II.i.48, 51), who quickly finds herself 'overcome' by Vindice's linguistic prowess (II.i.103). Gratiana admits:
- It is too strong for me. Men know, that know us,
We are so weak their words can overthrow us.
He touched me nearly, made my virtues bate
When his tongue struck upon my poor estate. (II.i.105-8)
Vindice's language not only touches and strikes his mother, but by his own claim, he 'enters' her as well (II.i.111). Given this text's repeated and 'bawdy identification of tongue and phallus' (Simmons 1977, 63), Vindice's linguistic penetration reads as a sexual penetration of his mother's body. Such power generates a profound anxiety within Vindice, as revealed by his comment to the audience, 'I e'en quake to proceed, my spirit turns edge, / I fear me she's unmothered' (II.i.109-10).
- Unlike Castiza, then, who upholds the notion of a self-identical self by refusing all intercourse with Vindice, Gratiana's openness results in a fall from grace, which is to say a fall from the very state-of-being this woman is meant to personify. Her name signifies a 'seemliness, or becomingness' which includes the familiar chaste, silent and obedient code for behaviour, along with a prescription for physical movement; and the 'bestowal of a free and unmerited favour' particularly of God (OED). In short, this notion of giving freely combined as it is with a standard of 'seemliness' defines the dominant ideological expectations for the maternal body as natural and nurturing. Gratiana's unseemly willingness to bestow favours for a price marks her flagrant departure from this assigned identity.
- While this scene is ostensibly aimed at seducing Castiza, there is no mistaking the centrality of the maternal body. This merging of mother and son, which is described in specifically sexual terms, threatens to 'undo' Vindice's world. He asks: 'Why does not heaven turn black or with a frown / Undo the world? Why does not earth start up / And strike the sins that tread upon it?' (II.i.250-52). Overwhelmed by his successful, yet taboo, penetration of Gratiana, Vindice expresses the depth of his psychological devastation in terms of cosmic annihilation. While this overdetermined maternal relationship remains unresolved until Act IV, it establishes the pattern whereby Vindice pursues his revenge by violating the bodies of the women whose honour he is meant to protect. 15
'Have I not fitted the old surfeiter
With a quaint piece of beauty?':
Re-membering the Female Body
- The consummation of Vindice's revenge entails a deadly kiss between his re-membered betrothed and the licentious Duke. Vindice anticipates this encounter with gleeful delight and exclaims: 'Oh sweet, delectable, rare, happy, ravishing!' (III.v.1). The word 'ravishing' calls to mind the dominant event of the scene, Gloriana's 'violation', yet Vindice uses this word to describe the aesthetically delightful nature of his script, which figures the remains of his dead beloved as the agent of his revenge. His ecstatic delight in the poetic justice of this plot overrides all other considerations. Unconcerned with what Bowers called the 'ethics of revenge' (1959, 282), Vindice defiles and prostitutes the corpse of the very woman he is avenging. Thus, this re-membered female body not only functions as the vehicle for, but becomes the focus of, his aesthetically perfect revenge.
- Vindice's need for a female body that cannot interrupt, protest, or complicate his plot in any way his need, that is, for a dead female body becomes apparent in his re-presentation of Gloriana. In a move which removes the skull's visible androgyny, even as it establishes the contrived nature of gender, Vindice enters the stage 'with the skull of his love dressed up in tires' and engages her in a mock conversation (III.v.42 s.d.):
- Madam, His Grace will not be absent long.
Secret? Ne'er doubt us madam. 'Twill be worth
Three velvet gowns to your ladyship. Known?
Few ladies respect that; disgrace? A poor thin shell!
'Tis the best grace you have to do it well;
I'll save your hand that labour, I'll unmask you. (III.v.43-48)
That Vindice both poses the questions and supplies the answers to this 'country lady['s]' imagined objections provides rhetorical evidence of his need to fully control the script (III.v.132). Moreover, Vindice treats Gloriana as if she were the promiscuous woman he forces her to be. He responds to his creation with mocking scorn, asking Hippolito, for example, 'Have I not fitted the old surfeiter / With a quaint piece of beauty?' and points to her 'pretty hanging lip, that has forgot now to dissemble' and 'a cheek that keeps her colour' (III.v.52, 56, 60). This revenger implies that in life his betrothed was a dissembling and painted, which is to say unchaste, woman. 16 As a result, Vindice's statement, 'I'll unmask you' (III.v.48), connotes more than a literal taking off of the face mask. He seems to believe he is revealing Gloriana's true nature: the nature of every (debased) woman who 'beguiles' every (innocent) man (III.v.50). 17
- The notion of unmasking takes us far from the kind of personified states-of-being conveyed by these characters' names. The painted remains of this disguised revenger's betrothed become emblematic for him of the counterfeit nature of all female identity. In what is often considered the most significant speech of the play, Vindice asks a series of questions which detail the effects wrought by such (feminine) falsity:
- Does the silkworm expend her yellow labours
For thee? For thee does she undo herself?
Are lordships sold to maintain ladyships
For the poor benefit of a bewitching minute?
Why does yon fellow falsify highways
And put his life between the judge's lips
To refine such a thing, keeps horse and men
To beat their valours for her?
[. . .]
Does every proud and self-affecting dame
Camphor her face for this,
[. . .]
- see, ladies, with false forms
You deceive men but cannot deceive worms.
- (III.v.71-97, Emphases added)
Critics have long valued these lines for their poetic rendition of death's presence, but while the skull certainly signifies death, the word 'thee' is a particularized reference to Gloriana, and by extension to Queen Elizabeth as well. The material losses with which Vindice begins this speech, then, overlap with the symbolic economies upon which male dominance depends: a dominance disrupted by the female queen whose name Gloriana bears. That Vindice shifts his form of address from 'thee' to 'her' to 'this,' however, returns Elizabeth's idealized persona to her proper subordinate place as the object of male desire, 'fully mastered and fully violated' (Mullaney 1994, 161).
- Vindice's ability to manipulate Gloriana's remains with such mastery accounts for much of the orgiastic glee he exhibits throughout this scene. For example, Vindice says to Hippolito:
- Look you brother,
I have not fashioned this only for show
And useless property, no it shall bear a part
E'en in its own revenge. This very skull,
Whose mistress the Duke poisoned with this drug,
The mortal curse of the earth, shall be revenged
In the like strain and kiss his lips to death. (III.v.98-104)
We too are pleasured by Vindice's artistry and find deep satisfaction in watching the Duke's lust transform itself into a horrified realization that something is amiss(ing): 'Oh! What's this? Oh!' he exclaims after kissing the poisoned skull (III.v.144). 18 We too share the cathartic element of Vindice's revenge as he reveals the lady's identity: 'Duke, dost know / Yon dreadful vizard? View it well; 'tis the skull / Of Gloriana, whom thou poisonedst last' (III.v.147-49). Our sense of primal justice delights in this 'inversion of sexual and social hierarchies' wherein the 'silent mouth of woman transfixes the tongue of [corrupted] masculine authority' (Stallybrass 1991, 215). Nevertheless, our pleasure in this scene is complicated by its voyeuristic quality. One of the best ways to characterize the scene is as a 'multi-level peep-show' (Sanders 1974, 27). Our laughter has an edge, not just because of the macabre subject matter, but because our pleasure, like Vindice's, relies upon the appropriation of the female remains which are subjected to the very kind of sexual violence this woman resisted while alive.
- While the very triumphant nature of the plot itself tends to deflect the gendered violence which pervades Vindice's revenge, Vindice re-members Gloriana's body in order to subject her to the Duke's 'slobbering' tongue (III.v.162). Restoring the female body, then, restores its rapable possibilities which not only serve but are legitimized by his need for revenge. 19 Vindice goes so far as to suggest that he is empowering Gloriana who 'shall bear a part / E'en in [her] own revenge' (III.v.100-1). Critics (mis)led by Vindice have pointed to Gloriana's participation as an example of female agency, yet to call this her revenge further elides the violence enacted upon her mutilated corpse. 20 Despite the rhetorical sleight of hand through which Vindice aligns Gloriana's interests with his own, his description of her 'ravishment' as 'delectable' and 'rare' directs our attention to the self-interested nature of his representation. While this revenger does not commit sexual acts, he arranges them through his linguistic feats in such a way that Gloriana's ravishment, like the 'violent rape' of Lord Antonio's unnamed wife in Act I, 'play[s] a glorious act' (I.iv.3-4).
- As central as Gloriana's violated remains are to this scene, Vindice is never far removed from the medium of language which is his primary artistic mode. His references to the 'bony lady' who is 'a little bashful', with 'a grave look', are intensely literal expressions (III.v.119, 132, 135), but as the laughter they evoke suggests, far from functioning as transparent conveyors of meaning, these expressions emphasize the materiality of words themselves. Thus, Vindice not only corporealizes Gloriana's remains, but 'corporealizes' language as well, 'giving the words body, which simply as signs they lack' (Burckhardt 1968, 26). While such a move attests to Vindice's artistry, his allegiance to the word as word radically separates him from the traditional revenger who is bound to an act through his word. Although characters as diverse as the Duchess and Hippolito voice the cultural link between male honour and performative speech speech, that is, which binds the speaker to an act the text displays a protagonist who is bound to the performance itself. 21
- The interpenetration of language and the female body, the two mediums Vindice harnesses in order to achieve his revenge, is far from a unique phenomenon. As Parker so convincingly demonstrates, 'the hierarchies of gender are central to [the] problematics of ordering rhetoric' which in turn are 'set against the background of the larger problem' of social order (Parker 1987, 98). Words, like women, are potentially wayward and must be prevented from going their own way, especially when they veer away from what is desired or expected of them by the ruling elite. Vindice, of course, is an alienated member of the dominant group who uses the privileges accorded to him in order to subvert, or more accurately to pervert, the social order. Alternately seizing words and female bodies, Vindice provides a hyperliteral version of conventional male behaviour. This raw display of power, which unveils the brutality underlying normal operations of power, is precisely what renders his plot so morbidly compelling.
- In the end, Vindice's revenge, which so fully transgresses the female body, is presented as that which enables his return to a proper identity. Revealing himself to the poisoned Duke, he proclaims, ' 'Tis I, 'tis Vindice, 'tis I!' (III.v.166). The doubled 'I' framing 'Vindice' suggests that this character has achieved the self-identical self his name evokes. Vindice's attempt to occupy that pure space, however, is complicated by the very strategies he employs in order to achieve his revenge. Far from 'restor[ing] and sett[ing] at libertie or out of danger' Florio's annotation of the name Vindice this revenger's plot entails multiple transgressions against the female body. Rather than embodying the kind of full being promised by his name, then, Vindice's revenge reveals that his identity is constituted in the gap between rather than the union of the two defining elements of a 'revenge'. That Vindice responds to this self-alienated condition by returning home in order to 'conjure that base devil out of our mother' (IV.ii.225), which is to say confront his mother with her sexual fault, underscores my contention that mastering the problematic maternal body is as crucial to Vindice as carrying out his revenge.
'Let's marry her to our souls, wherein's no lust':
Mastering the Maternal Body
- Despite Vindice's ability to master so fully the remains of his dead beloved in Act III, the final two Acts of The Revenger's Tragedy suggest that the dangers posed by the specifically maternal female body continue to haunt stable masculine identity. Prompted by his perverse success in Act II, Vindice returns home in order to restore his mother to her proper chaste place or kill her for refusing it. He and Hippolito drag Gratiana onto the stage: 'One by one shoulder, and the other by the other, with daggers in their hands', while Vindice, conveniently avoiding any responsibility for her debased position, calls Gratiana 'wicked', 'unnatural', and a 'bawd' (IV.iv.s.d., 3, 10). This violence displays Vindice's power to destroy his mother, yet the charged exchange in which they subsequently engage reminds us of the mother's primal power to destroy her child. Gratiana responds to Vindice's attack with an emasculating question: 'Are you so barbarous, to set iron nipples / Upon the breast that gave you suck?' (IV.iv.5-6, Emphasis added). Gratiana redefines the phallic thrust of Vindice's dagger with feminine imagery, even as she reminds Vindice of that period when his very survival depended upon her willingness to feed him. Gail Kern Paster points to the 'shamefulness of such dependency on sucking and the breast' during this period, citing, for example, the proverbial 'His mother's milk is not out of his nose'. The derisiveness of such a slur depends entirely upon its gendered thrust, the way in which it signifies a 'dephallicized uncontrol and delayed maturation' of a male child (Paster 1993, 220). Gratiana's allusion, then, evoked to shift the balance of power between her and Vindice, reinforces the maternal body's unique and specific challenge to male dominance.
- Vindice attempts to distance himself from this reminder of his infantile dependence by asserting the noxious, rather than sustaining, quality of his mother's milk. He states, 'That breast / Is turned to quarled poison' (IV.iv.7). Gratiana's violation of her 'office', which is to say her maternal duty, underlies Vindice's construction of her breasts as receptacles of poison (IV.iv.12). Early modern attitudes toward this uniquely feminine fluid provide a context for Vindice's assertion. As Janet Adelman observes in her study of mothers in Shakespeare's plays, breast milk was 'believed to be a derivative of menstrual blood 'nothing else but blood whitened' which was still held by some to be poisonous'; moreover, it was believed that nursing women could 'transmit their own noxious qualities to the child' (Adelman 1992, 7). Given that 'femaleness itself might be one such undesirable characteristic transmitted through the milk' (Adelman 1992,7), a misogynist like Vindice would most certainly view this transmission of 'whitened female blood' as a transmogrifying process.
- We see this alteration work itself out as the quarled poison flowing from Gratiana's breasts converges with the fluidity of language in such a way that erodes Vindice's very sense of self. Seeking to avoid his own compromising position, Vindice focuses on the contaminated nature of the maternal body. He asks:
- Did not the Duke's son direct
A fellow of the world's condition hither
That did corrupt all that was good in thee,
Made thee uncivilly forget thyself
And work our sister to his lust? (IV.iv.16-19)
Having consumed his false words, however, Gratiana now produces her own. She categorically denies this 'monstrous' charge, saying: 'I defy that man / For any such intent [. . .] Good son believe it not' (IV.iv.21-24). The strength of her denial prompts him to exclaim: 'Oh I'm in doubt / Whether I'm myself or no!' (IV.iv.25). Vindice's subsequent question articulates the kind of existential confusion caused by Gratiana's flagrant departure from her named identity: 'Who shall be saved when mothers have no grace?' (IV.iv.27, Emphasis added). Vindice's language suggests that Gratiana's self-interested behaviour and self-preserving dissembling violate the ideologically motivated expectations for maternal behaviour expressed so clearly through the name 'Grace.' While Vindice attempts to return Gratiana to her proper place in order to secure his identity, the recuperative strategy he initiates further compromises them both.
- Gratiana's restoration begins with an inversion of familial roles. Vindice assumes the role of patriarch, revealing his role in her seduction: 'I was the man: Defy me now!' (IV.iv.29), whereas Gratiana averts her physical destruction by submitting to Vindice's authority. In a tearful appeal to her sons' mercy, Gratiana says, 'Forgive me, to myself I'll prove more true; / You that should honour me I kneel to you' (IV.iv.38-39). Gratiana's dramatic submission to her sons is a 'deep and disturbing breach of custom' (Gibbons 1991, 88), but one which returns this mother to her proper role as a 'being for' the masculine subject. Vindice acknowledges the purgative effect of such a radical submission, saying, 'Pour down, thou blessed dew. / Rise mother; troth this shower has made you higher' (IV.iv.49-50). Despite the apparent resolution of this mother-son conflict, however, Vindice has by no means reconciled the problematic aspects of the maternal body.
- In a startling shift away from the threat of phallic penetration with which this scene begins, Vindice pursues an incestuous, yet bodiless, merger with his mother. 'Nay I'll kiss you now; kiss her, brother,' he says, 'Let's marry her to our souls, wherein's no lust, / And honourably love her' (IV.iv.56-58, Emphasis added). What are we to make of Vindice's desire for a bodiless marriage with his mother? Such desire indicates a regressive pursuit of pre-oedipal unity between the self and other. Instead of shoring up Vindice's identity, this taboo relationship dissolves the very boundaries necessary for establishing a stable masculine identity. 22 Moreover, Vindice pursues this bodiless marriage in order to secure a union purified of lust. This equation suggests that his sordid view of sexuality, a view which dominates this text, is located in the always already sexualized maternal body. Ultimately, however, his effort to create such an unmediated union only reinforces just how problematic the maternal body is for Vindice. In fact, he claims the 'disease has left [Gratiana]' (IV.iv.63), but then expounds at length on this disease in a way that registers the depth of his dis-ease with female sexuality. Vindice asserts, for example, that a woman 'first begins with one / Who afterward to thousand proves a whore: / "Break ice in one place it will crack in more" ' (IV.iv.80- 82). He believes all female sexuality is, or is on the verge of becoming, corrupt. What Vindice's attitude portends for the maternal body which is by definition already 'cracked' remains unexplored, but it seems clear that he can neither purify the maternal body nor easily escape her contaminated flesh.
- Despite this juggernaut's late appearance, it complicates the conventional view of familial issues as merely peripheral to the 'central' revenge plot: especially given how fully his script relies upon prostituting Gloriana, Castiza, and Gratiana. In the end, this revenger not only responds to, but engages in transgressive relations with the female body. This is not simply an example of how revenge contaminates those who pursue it, a commonplace of revenge. Rather, this sequence, whereby the very men designated as 'protectors' reassert their manhood by violating again the women whose 'chastity' has been assaulted, demonstrates the profound danger such a hypermasculine mode poses for the female body in this text, along with so many of its tragic counterparts in early modern English drama.
- All citations are from the New Mermaids volume (2nd edition) of The Revenger's Tragedy, edited by Brian Gibbons (1991).
- The Duchess certainly figures in this discussion as well, but falls outside the scope of my focus in this article. For more on her role in this play, see my dissertation chapter on The Revenger's Tragedy (Finin-Farber 1997).
- One cannot allude to Vindice's authorial role within the play without evoking the questions of authorship which have surrounded this text since it entered the Stationers' Register anonymously in 1607. Critics now generally favour Thomas Middleton over Cyril Tourneur, largely as a result of the work done by MacDonald P. Jackson (1979) and David J. Lake (1975).
- The phrase is from Susan Frye, who uses it as an organizing trope throughout her analysis of Queen Elizabeth (1993).
- See also Eileen Allman's discussion of how gender functions in Jacobean revenge tragedy. While she focuses on other plays, much of her analysis is relevant to my argument here. Writing about the tyrant, for example, she says: 'Women are not allowed autonomy; they are passive matter he shapes, like a Baconian scientist, to his will. Adopting the most conservative and misogynistic of his culture's attitudes, he uses the female body as his text' (1999, 42). While Vindice is a victim of the Duke's tyranny, he certainly adopts this tyrannical mode in relation to the female body.
- Many of the so-called 'revenge plays' from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras share particular themes and plot devices: most notably for this article these include some violation of the female body and the unavailability of traditional modes of justice to redress the crime. See for example, Marston's Antonio's Revenge, Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois, Fletcher's Valentinian, or Shakespeare's Hamlet. The latter, as many critics have noted, served as a source for The Revenger's Tragedy. While detailing the parallels falls outside the scope of this article, readers will no doubt see the many similarities between Vindice and Hamlet, especially in their relation to the maternal body.
- See, for example, Irving Ribner (1962, 78) or Robert Ornstein (1960, 117) both of whom view this passage as an example of the memento mori tradition.
- For a related discussion, see Rowland Wymer who suggests that the skull and the peculiar timing of Vindice's revenge are linked to Hamlet where the gravedigger tells the Prince it will take 'eight or nine years' for a body to rot. '[T]he figure of nine years', Wymer writes, 'seems to have lodged in Middleton's mind as signifying the culmination of the process [of decay]' (2000, 551). Unlike in the case of Hamlet, then, the enactment of Vindice's revenge requires him to wait until 'the flesh will unquestionably have rotted away from Gloriana's skull, enabling it to function not just as a traditional memento mori but as a stark emblem of ultimate moral purity' (2000, 551).
- My discussion here is informed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's preface to Of Grammatology (1974), see especially xvi, xix.
- For related discussions, see Michael Neill (1996) and Karin S. Coddon (1994).
- For a discussion of how anti-theatrical tracts written in this period made this very kind of destruction one of their primary targets see Jean E. Howard (1994, 168).
- My discussion here draws from Howard's work on Renaissance antitheatricality in Much Ado About Nothing (Howard and O'Connor 1987, 168).
- On how female honour in early modern England is repeatedly, even obsessively, defined by and limited to the body, whereas male honour frequently depends upon the spoken word, particularly oaths which bind men to ritualized acts, see Finin-Farber 1997.
- My discussion here draws on Shoshana Felman's analysis of how the cultural readings of femininity intersect with the construction of male identity (Felman 1981).
- It seems to me that the gendered implications of Vindice's plot go a long way toward accounting for what Fredson Bowers called the 'curious moral atrophy' in this play (1959, 132). Much of the criticism that follows Bowers' study strains to assert a moral tradition, and while the play 'continually insists on moral implications' (Brooke 1979, 14), the particulars of Vindice's revenge plot complicate any single moral stance within the text.
- On the cultural associations of face-painting see Garner (1989) and Finke (1984).
- On early modern attitudes toward the inevitable contamination of all women, see Robertson (1991, 217) and Woodbridge (1984, 176-81).
- On the vagina dentata aspects of this scene, see Robertson (1991, 224).
- discussion here is informed by Higgins and Silver (1991). See also Jed (1989).
- On this scene as a rape see Sanders (1974, 32-33) and Stull (1983, 45). For more on this scene as an example of female agency, see Robertson (1991, 225) and Sutherland (1983, 57).
- While the conception of revenge as a primitive form of personal justice in a corrupt world authorizes Vindice's notion of revenge in the first part of the play, he soon becomes obsessed with the notion of judging his revenge on its quality as performance. The most flagrant example of Vindice's performative justification comes at the end of a speech where he directs Hippolito to 'Nail down his [the duke's] tongue [. . .] [and] tear up his lids'. 'When the bad bleeds,' Vindice concludes, 'then is the tragedy good' (III.v.193-99). In this text, then, as in those of Marlowe's to which it harkens back, the 'ethical dissolves into the theatrical' (Cunningham 1990, 216.)
- This desire for a kind of unmediated union with the other exemplifies what Lacan describes as the Imaginary order, which Malcolm Bowie describes as 'the dimension of experience in which the individual seeks not simply to placate the Other but to dissolve his otherness by becoming his counterpart' (Bowie 1991, 92). See also Adelman who approaches Shakespeare's plays from the perspective of object-relations theory which 'locates differentiation from the mother as a special site of anxiety for the boy-child, who must form his specifically masculine selfhood against the matrix of her overwhelming femaleness' (Adelman 1992, 7).
List of Works Cited
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Contents © Copyright 2003 Kathryn R. Finin.
Format © Copyright 2003 Renaissance Forum. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 6, Number 2, Winter 2003.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 18 December