Earlier this year, I wrote about the overlooked importance of plot complication (Act 2 in a 3 or 5 act structure, whether play or novel.) In Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, the protagonist receives his mission from the ghost of his dead father: “Revenge [my] foul and most unnatural murder.” Sounds straightforward enough. So much so that young Hamlet immediately vows to do it swiftly, and without distraction. However, the youth (and many readers) overlook the Ghost’s further, vital instruction: that no matter how his son pursues the act, “Taint not thy mind.” Now, invest the time to spin out the implications of “taint.” To paraphrase, Get justice for my murder, with extreme prejudice, yet do not in the process become that which you hate the most.
Most, though not all, of my university students, when this paradoxical pair of charges is brought to their attention, agree: this isn’t Mission Difficult, it’s Mission Impossible. Take revenge, but remain pure.
One of the more challenging tasks for intermediate writers (which includes pretty much everyone who’s ever published anything–no ever masters writing,) because it takes so much self-discipline, is to communicate thematic meaning through plot, dialogue, symbolism, and other literary elements like motif, without either moralizing through the narrator or using a character as a mouthpiece. And I think this temptation stems from the very real possibility that readers routinely mistake the intentions of writers.
The idea that Revenge simply isn’t a viable way to obtain justice, while endorsed by most of the literary classics we treasure, remains controversial. Popular film and television continues to treat the subject on a rolling basis, sometimes with much more depth than manipulative stuff like the masochistic Death Wish franchise. And the more complex the writer and audience, the more ambiguous revenge gets. Just catch some Sopranos reruns. Because, as human beings, most of us have either done it, or wanted badly to do it.
Television, unlike film, can be dangerous in the messages it sends, because of the continued need to preserve characters for next week and next year. Tony Soprano does seem to get away with it. But examine his quality of life. And. . .watch that final episode carefully, and experience the absolute sense of dread.
Let’s say you got away with it. So you feel great, right? The world seems sweeter, your life is cleaner, food tastes great. Hmm. No–what you did was exchange a cheap sense of justice served for a subtly degraded life. Because someone hurt you, you hurt back–and now the world is just a bit worse: the trust has eroded like ice caps melting over the course of years. It’s like the price thieves pay: they must always lock their own doors. And liars can never trust what people tell them.
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Cask of Amontillado,” a deeper work than the much-anthologized “Tell-Tale Heart,” fools untrained readers into thinking that bad deeds can go unpunished, but a close reading demonstrates that the narrator is uttering a deathbed confession in dire fear for his eternal soul.
The coat-of-arms of the Montresor family is that of a serpent bruising the heel of man, which in turn is crushed under that heel. The common biblical allusion to Genesis signals what, in modern terms, we might call an endless circle of violence, which can be abstractly represented by the common recycling sign below.
As I teach works that use revenge plots, a minority of students usually don’t agree with the textual evidence–we call this “reading against the grain”–or find that evidence ambiguous. In other words, a theme that does not seem to accord with basic human truths–such as “Revenge DOES work” always resonates with a few readers. People who believe that may value personal satisfaction above all else. This is probably why most fictional revenge plots raise the stakes to life-and-death–so that there’s no mistaking the moral implications of punishing another human being, in pursuit of personal justice. Even so, ambiguities do persist. Hamlet may be dead, at the end of Shakespeare’s play, along with his girlfriend, her father and brother, and various members of the royal family and a few friends, BUT the “something rotten in the state” of Denmark has been purged. We have some reason to believe that Fortinbras will make a better king than any of the Danes, and so the greater good has arguably been served by Hamlet’s quest, if only unwittingly.
On a personal level, however–spiritual remorse of the Poe variety aside–all revenge does is make the world that much more fallen and perverse, which is why the Arthurian mythology stands as antithetical to the medieval “might makes right” ethic–an outmoded code of a vanished epoch.
So, as always, resist the urge to tell, and SHOW revenge not working, if that’s what you believe. Let your characters suffer for it. Twist the plot. Embed the symbology. Freight the dialogue with irony.
Or, if you believe differently, let them prosper. And don’t forget to lock your door.