Better Health Care, Same Drama: Why Modern Readers Continue to Connect with Renaissance Revenge Tragedies

March 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

Renaissance revenge tragedies, like all works of arts, are profoundly influenced by the state of the world around them. Thousands of years later, those state of affairs – wars, love triangles, and power struggles – have evolved, but not truly changed and arts continue to capture the evolution of family dynamics that accompanied them. Although one can argue that the family dysfunctionalities, such as fatal sibling rivalries and incest, presented in revenge tragedies such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy are beyond a modern audience because of the heavy presence of misogyny and murders, but it is not. The modern family still contains enough dysfunctionalities for modern readers to connect with the scenes presented in Renaissance revenge tragedies. The interest in dramatic family quarrels has not diminished over the years as one can witness in the literature accumulated over each passing historical period. During the Renaissance, revenge tragedies like The Spanish Tragedy portrayed the presence of primogeniture and deep patriarchy that caused trouble in the family. In modernism era, plays like Sam Shepard’s Buried Child and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? highlighted the alienation and struggle for authority within the family unit. In both plays, family disputes took center stage and kept the attention of the audience. In our contemporary era, we have movies like Fences and books like The Namesake that capture the belief disparity in the family. Families continue to fight, maybe not always over land and power as it was the case in the Elizabethan literature, but the animation between the members remain as compelling stories for the audience. Thus, since the audience continues to be drawn in by family dramas, the literal reasoning behind the fights in revenge tragedies become irrelevant to establish a connection.

The impairment that is most commonly found in Renaissance revenge tragedies is the discordance in dividing the family’s wealth once the head of the household is dead. Although the concept of primogeniture has been out fashion for quite sometimes, there is still inheritance to pass on. The average family does not have to worry about keeping a title alive and no specific person immediately inherits everything based on the law. So, the disappearance of primogeniture was replaced with the family will. This retained the same drama, though. The main differences are the decreased influence of the patriarchy and the chance for individual control over one’s possession. The wealth is not concentrated under the husband’s power, but becomes more unified in the marriage. This means that both sides of the family can be included in that will and earn part of the inheritance. The obstacle now becomes the individual who creates the will. The owner has the undeniable right to pass everything on to whomever he chooses and may exclude anyone at his own discretion. Therefore, fights in families remain the norm and can become fatal if anyone is excluded or inherit less. It may be viewed as even more chaotic than with the primogeniture law because of the inclusion of natural children or the ones from previous marriages with the recognition of divorce, and anyone that the person may wish to have his possessions.

Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy may have included way more gruesome and cruel fights than the average family go through, but the reasoning behind them remained the same. The main fight was between Lorenzo and Bel-imperia. Their sibling rivalry was focused on trying to outwit each other which hasn’t truly changed. Siblings relations still contain a good amount of competition with each other. Lorenzo and Bel-imperia had limited interactions in the play and every time they conversed, it was strained. It was obvious that Lorenzo was pushing for something and Bel-imperia was determined to keep her power by denying him. Lorenzo and Bel-imperia’s rivalry was not one dimensional, though. It was more than two spoiled kids trying to outdo each other because their fight was influenced by power and wealth. Within the patriarchal society, Lorenzo was above his sister and he could have a say in who she married. He took it as his mission to bring his sister and Balthazar together when he found out that he had an interest in her. Although, his sister’s happiness was not his chief motivation. In the play, Lorenzo excused his treatment of his sister by saying that “Unless, by more discretion than deserv’d, / I sought to save your honour and mine own.” (58). Judging by his actions throughout the entire play, happiness and honor were not his aimed goals. Instead, his actions, like his sudden attachment to Balthazar, prince of Portingale, showed his crave for power. The marriage would not only boost his sister’s status, but his entire family’s. He would have an ally in Portingale and a familial linked that could make it possible to claim Portingale under his rule if he wanted to. In the modern world, brothers do not go around telling their sisters who to marry, but marriage continues to be a big part of someone’s connection. Therefore, families do arrange meetings if not the marriage of their relatives with someone they would like to become part of the family. Often times, someone’s choice of a spouse can make or break their relationship with their family members which makes Lorenzo’s situation simply deranged in the way he approached it but not alien to us.

Another family relation that modern readers can draw on from this play is the parents-children one especially the father-son relationship. The Spanish Tragedy revolved around three main families – the royal family of Spain, the royal family of Portingale, and the Knight Marshal of Spain’s family. They all contained a father figure and zoomed in on the children’s relations with them. The father-son dynamic is a related dynamic that the modern world has not stopped wanting to talk about as we can see when we are presented with characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker or Marlin and Nemo. Fathers’ relationship with their sons are sometimes overbearing or revolve more around physical dynamics than emotional ones. This relationship did not change as the world modernized, it also modernized. The subjects that tied the relationship in the Elizabethan era may have been wars and keeping the family’s wealth and title alive. While in the modern time, the subjects may be sports and the family business. That is why modern readers can enjoy watching the father-son dynamic presented in this play like Viceroy and Balthazar or Hieronimo and Horatio. All the sons had their fathers whom they wanted to make proud and those fathers in return were willing to destroy countries to avenge them at any moment. The relationships presented there are more The Godfather or Taken 2 instead of Finding Nemo, but it is not an alien notion. It is ultimately about human emotions as we can see when Hieronimo was lamenting about his dead son, saying that “Where shall I run to breathe abroad my woes, / My woes, whose weight hath wearied the earth / Or mine exclaims, that have surcharg’d the air / With ceaseless plaints for my deceased son?” (53). There are no foreign notions showed here. It was about a father having to bury his son and now wanted revenge. Modern society would prefer to push toward justice instead of revenge, but there is only a fine line between those two concepts.

Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy provided a different perspective on those familial relationships, but they remained as dysfunctional. There was the sibling rivalry and the protectiveness of a brother to his sister. Unlike in The Spanish Tragedy, the two relations were not blended into one. On one side, there was the royal children fighting for the dukedom. On the other side, there was the Vindici and Hippolito protecting their sister’s honor. The latter came off as the less realistic one in modern times. Today’s audience may feel less sympathetic to Vindici and Hippolito’s cause when it came to their sister because of Castiza’s personality and what she represented. Her saying that “If maidens would, men’s words could have no power. / A virgin honour is a crystal tower, / Which being weak is guarded with good spirits: / Until she basely yields no ill inherits” (402) was not something that everyone wants to root for. She presented herself as a weak woman who believed that women should stay behind locked doors, so they could retain their worth. The type of woman that she was projecting may have been the ideal one for the safety of the patriarchy so having decreased its power makes her projection less ideal. So, having Vindici and Hippolito backing her up and punishing their mother for not agreeing with her was not an element that most modern audience would support. Nonetheless, the fight for the dukedom was the central focus of the play. In the literal sense, most people do not kill for a title anymore but people, specifically family members, do kill over land and money. As argued in The Spanish Tragedy, family fights over wealth and power may be one of the most empathetic aspect of Renaissance revenge tragedies.

The Revenger’s Tragedy included one more familial relation that we did not get to see in The Spanish Tragedy – marital. The Spanish Tragedy did have Hieronimo and Isabella, but we mainly got to see them as the parents not as a married couple. In this play, we got a closer look at the dynamic between the duke and duchess. The focus on the marital life allowed Middleton to broach the subjects of incest and affairs. Those two subjects were deemed immoral and viewed negatively throughout the years and the feeling does not seem to be dissipating. Vindici opened the play with “Duke, royal lecher, go, gray-hair’d adultery; / And thou his son, as impious steep’d as he; / And thou his bastard, true-begot in evil; / And thou his duchess that will do with devil” (327). From the get-go, it was established that the family was the tightest one. There were affairs and jealousy between them. The drama only escalated from there as the duchess started to sleep with the duke’s illegitimate child. However, she excused it as a rebuke against the duke for not freeing her youngest son, Junior, from prison. That went to show how little power she held in the marriage and the level of emotional involvement it contained. She had children from a previous marriage and the duke was not exactly their biggest fans. She had to beg him to “Think him to be your own as I am yours; / Call him not son-in-law” (332) because all the duke’s affections were directed at his son not even at his wife. There was no love in that marriage and the cold relationship between the husband and wife extended to the children. Although a modern audience would not enjoy or relate to their marriage, like an audience during the Renaissance, we do understand that a toxic relationship between the parents will create a toxic environment for their children, making it impossible to have a unified family. That understanding is powerful enough to keep their attention.

Renaissance revenge tragedies do not present many subjects to us. The way they handle said situations are viewed as overdramatic and unsympathetic. However, the main ideas they discuss are human emotions and those do not get cancelled. Human emotions do not disappear over time. In some respects, we differ as we can see on the concept of titles and gender issues. Many times, we continue to experience the same feelings, having the same fights, and undergoing the same dilemmas. Modern audience can find these plays compelling because we can still relate to them and put ourselves in their shoes at times.

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