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Derek Dunne, Vindictive Justice: Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy and Early Modern Law (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Derek Dunne, Vindictive Justice: Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy and Early Modern Law (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). ISBN 978-1-137-57286-8, 229 pp., £58.

Reviewed by Doyeeta Majumder

[1] The critical heritage surrounding early modern revenge drama has been inevitably dominated by Hamlet studies, with polite nods to Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy which inaugurated the genre, and Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus which preceded his more philosophical reflections on the idea of vengeance. Derek Dunne’s 9781137572868survey of the genre juxtaposes these canon-making texts with less prominent members of the tribe such as John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, or the even obscurer Tragedy of Hoffman (Henry Chettle), deftly sketching the developmental arc of the genre by drawing out structural, thematic, and rhetorical connections between the bigwigs and smaller fry. What stands out in this work is not merely the impressive range of texts it considers, but its methodological approach towards that strand of early modern drama which has attracted the greatest amount of analytical attention in the last century. Eschewing completely the ethical economics of vengeance or vengeance as remembrance in Elizabethan drama (comprehensively evaluated by John Kerrigan in his now classic work) or psychoanalytical/philosophical/moral discussions of retributive violence, Dunne uses the interface between early modern law and literature as his point of entry, focusing on the representations of law within plays which supposedly showcase lawless action.

[2] The work begins with a succinct overview of the recent developments within the discipline of early modern law and literature, and astutely locates a gap in its engagement with the genre of revenge tragedy. Identifying Lorna Hutson’s pioneering Invention of Suspicion, as its starting point, the introduction declares that this work will build on Hutson’s analysis of forensic rhetoric in early modern plays but focus exclusively on revenge drama and ‘make new and concrete connections between specific plays and legal crises of their day’(p.11). The introduction also crisply outlines the overarching conceptual aims of the work and the critical commonplaces it wishes to modify: first, the work challenges the widely accepted oppositional relationship between legal justice administered by the state and private revenge, by highlighting the vindictive nature of structures of Elizabethan law itself. The first chapter analyses various jurisprudential histories and early modern legal treatises, to reveal that both the law and the avenger had a shared desire for retributive justice. Secondly, the work also aims to dismantle the myth of the ‘lone revenger’ or the revenger as a solitary vigilante, and to show that in many early modern revenge tragedies revenge is collective action, triggered by the failure of the judicial system, and manifesting itself in the form of communal action against a corrupt juridic-political order. This claim is borne out by Dunne’s analysis of individual plays in some of the subsequent chapters. While keeping the broader aims outlined at the beginning of the monograph in sight, each chapter focuses on one play in conjunction with a cluster of contemporary socio-legal issues refracted through the prism of dramatic representation.

[3] Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy established the archetype of the avenger figure in the character of Hieronimo, the Knight Marshall of the Spanish Court, who seeks justice for his dead son Horatio, murdered by Lorenzo, the King’s nephew. Within the person of knight marshall/ avenger Hieronimo, private revenge and public justice combine. Dunne suggests the play, through a number of mirroring trial scenes, presents to us the failings of a the judicial system caused by the misuse of royal prerogative, and this is why, for the morally upright legal officer Hieronimo, the distinction between justice and revenge collapses. This chapter also introduces the inter-relation between revenge and social reform. Hieronimo is denied justice partly because he belongs to the ‘middling sort’—he stands outside the charmed royal circle which provides Lorenzo and Balthazar with judicial immunity. Revenge tragedy thus offers a critique of the corrupt nexus between the judiciary and the political executive, and also a way of redressing the damage done by this entente.

[4] The next chapter analyses Titus Andronicus to reveal the ‘caveats and pitfalls of the English legal procedure’ (p.59) particularly the inadequacies of the evidential practices of English jury trial. This chapter opens with a reference to Holger Schott Syme’s influential work on jury trials and early modern theatre, and Hutson’s analysis of Titus as a displaced jury trial in which the absence of a participatory judicial system forces the avenger to don the mantle of the jury and become an evaluator of evidence. Drawing upon early modern legal treatises (Lambarde, Fortescue) and Cockburn and Green’s history of jury trials in England, Dunne posits that in the 1590’s the system of trial by jury was ‘under threat’, and not only does Titus’s displaced trial in fact refer to this crisis, but the play as a whole adumbrates the ‘dangers inherent’ (p. 69) in misinterpreting matters of ‘probability’ and ‘fact’ when human lives hang in the balance. In doing so Dunne significantly deviates from Hutson, who in fact questions the very premise of this ‘jury under threat’ scenario and forces us to re-evaluate the validity of Cockburn’s depiction of the system of trial by jury ‘as an institution in decline’ (Hutson, ‘Rethinking the “Spectacle of the Scaffold”’, p.36).

[5] This is followed by a discussion of John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge which turns its gaze back onto the discussion of the corrupt alliance of judicial malpractice and abuse of royal prerogative, and sees revenge as an embodiment of the ‘spectre’ of socio-political unrest. In this play we have Piero who is both the tyrannical ruler and the corrupt judge, and who is ultimately brought down by a syndicate of avengers. Revenge takes the form of communal political action and Dunne suggests that there ‘is a strong sense that they (the avengers) are acting on the mandate of a wider social group’ (p.88).

[6] The next chapter sees Hamlet as an anti-thesis to this idea of revenge as communal justice, as the avenger is shown to be isolated at a number of levels ranging from social to psychological. Hamlet is seen as not the archetypal but the exceptional revenge play, because of its conspicuous eliding of socio-legal issues. This chapter seems to be the least persuasive section of the monograph, and it is never quite clear how it fits into the larger pattern the book tries to establish. Besides a pithy summary of the extant scholarship surrounding Hamlet and the Hales vs Petit case recorded by Plowden, there is very little by way of legal issues. The figures of Fortinbras and Laertes are offered up in lieu of Hamlet, as characters who embody the socio-legal energies of the play. The analysis of Fortinbras’s role is too brief. We can see why Hamlet as the heir to the throne stands above the law, but why Laertes is seen as a figure whose ‘lower social standing places him outside the law’ (p.111) is never quite explained.

[7] The most canonical play of the genre is followed by the most obscure one: Henry Chettle’s Tragedy of Hoffman. The analysis of early modern piracy laws and the uneasy, amorphous boundaries between legal privateering and extra-legal piracy is used to foreground the vexed question of who can legitimately mete out justice to the wrong-doer, or, where can one draw the line between legal justice and extra-legal revenge. The repeated motif of the burning crown as the instrument by which the murderer Otho kills his victim, and is himself punished by the victim’s son, highlight the problematic nature of the sovereign prerogative of legal violence.

[8] The final chapter is on Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy, which is seen by Dunne as play of ‘post-participatory’ vengeance. The play—arguably one of the most reflexive plays of early modern theatre—is written after the characteristics of the genre have been ossified, and as such its primary commitment is to the aesthetics of the genre of revenge drama. It no longer looks beyond the theatre to engage in a dialogue with the socio-legal issues of its time, presents to us an intensely stylised iteration of the poetics of revenge. Dunne’s reading suggests the play cursorily hints towards King James’s altercations with Sir Edward Coke, but ultimately acknowledges that with the abatement of the specific legal crises which had plagued the English legal systems at the end of Elizabeth’s rule and at the beginning of James’s, vengeful violence on the early modern stage moved from the socio-legal realm to the aesthetic.

[9] Overall, the monograph is a concise but valuable study of early modern revenge drama from a unique socio-legal perspective. The writing is so lucid and engaging that even non-specialists and students can use this as an entry point into the nitty-gritty of English legal history. The book as a whole presents to us a persuasive narrative about the rise and apotheosis of the genre of revenge tragedy in conjunction with specific developments in the history of various strands of English law. For readers who are researching particular plays, it is also entirely possible to read the chapters individually, though, inevitably, the book as a whole offers a richer insight into the intermeshing of law and theatre in early modern England.

The University of Edinburgh, April 2016

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