Harry Keyishian. The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities P International Inc., 1995. ISBN 0 391 03828 1 Cloth. US $39.95.
Bryan N.S. Gooch
University of Victoria

Gooch, Bryan N.S. "Review of The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 5.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/rev_goo6.html>.

  1. Harry Keyishian rightly recognises that distinction between various manifestations of revenge is crucial in coming to terms not only with many of Shakespeare’s characters -- and some were notable and clearly nasty avengers of perceived yet unsubstantiated wrong -- but also with his social and moral milieu. The Shapes of Revenge is a well organised, economically argued, historically grounded text which looks systematically at types of vengeance and the nature of a good number of avengers and victims. The reader is left in no doubt that the label "revenge play" is as undiscriminating as it is unhelpful; equally clear is the necessity to assess the concept of retribution in Shakespearean drama through Elizabethan or Jacobean eyes rather than through a twentieth-century moralistic glass. Here the Introduction and first chapter are central to an understanding of Keyishian’s approach. He differentiates early, for example, between the motivation and actions of a Macduff and the cruelty of, say, an Iago who drives on for imagined reasons, or pure vindictiveness, or perceived diminution (perhaps justified) of public image. Moreover, the author clearly presents in Chapter I, "Victimization and Revenge: Renaissance Voices," a useful survey of the problem, drawing from books on the passions and moving on to consider not only the power of the revenger but the powerlessness of victims, e.g., the Duchess of Gloucester, Ophelia, Desdemona and Hermione, and the notion that revenge, though bloody, can be restorative (as in Macbeth).

  2. In the second chapter, "Redemptive Revenge in Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece," Keyishian’s understanding of Titus’ famous laugh (III.i.264) as revealing the character’s appreciation of his real situation illustrates a challenging critical sensitivity as well as a solid grounding, apparent throughout the volume, in significant criticism. This chapter leads nicely to the third, "Problematic Revenge in Hamlet and King Lear." Certainly, not all readers will necessarily agree with every conclusion -- an earlier comment (26) about Hamlet having fallen into a "suicidal depression" (until yanked back to sense by the Ghost) will have put some a little on guard -- but the approach is useful and focused: Keyishian deals with his topic, not with the whole of Hamlet or the whole, even, of the young prince, and therefore it is unfair to expect the kind of broader, more discursive commentary which would really subvert the direction of the argument. (Nevertheless, with respect to the Ghost and the moral quandary of Hamlet, the reader would find it relevant and appropriate to look at Chapter 6 of Norman Austin’s splendid Meaning and Being in Myth [University Park and London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990], which would have been a helpful addition to Keyishian’s bibliography.) The discussion of Lear is excellent, though perhaps the point that Lear fails to live up to his responsibilities as King even before the stage action commences (having decided on his country’s division) and hence allows his state and family to unravel needs explicit consideration. While Lear does take some revenge, e.g., on Cordelia’s murderer, Edgar is rightly seen as the real avenger, and the issue of concealment for the preservation of safety is important, as is the parallel to the guise of madness (with its various results) adopted by Hamlet. (This, of course, will prompt related ponderings on the morality of deception in Shakespeare’s plays: like revenge, it proceeds from a variety of motives and produces a wide range of outcomes.) Keyishian argues that Shakespeare attempts -- not wholly successfully -- to simplify the revenge of Hamlet and Edgar by casting them as agents of divine authority, though this position itself does not seem, at first blush, completely satisfying.

  3. The next stage in the process is outlined in Chapter 4, "Destructive Revenge in Julius Caesar and Othello." In Caesar there are, it is asserted, three centres or "lines" (81) of revenge, viz., Mark Antony, the Romans, and Caesar, and Keyishian sees that of the murdered Julius as unfruitful in the light of Brutus’ adherence to his principles and his nobility (which even Antony acknowledges) at the end of the play. Each "line" is examined in turn in a clear-headed way, though note could also be taken of the macabre pragmatism (revenge) of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus at the beginning of IV.i. Parallels between plays abound, and the correspondence between Antony’s chillingly ironic, rhetorical toying with the crowd during the funeral oration and Iago’s handling of Othello is properly instructive. The view offered is that, though destructive, the vengeance here (excluding Iago) is on the edge of vindictiveness; in this chapter, as elsewhere, quotations from the texts of the play illustrate the discussion and are themselves, rightly, the subject of critical comment. Indeed, one cannot consider Othello without touching on vindictiveness, and that is precisely the topic of Chapter 5, which, after relevant consideration, again, of sources on the passions, moves on to deal with its manifestations in the Sonnets (here the overly-praised Youth, whose dullness and egotism Northrop Frye maligned so wittily, as Keyishian notes (105), is the victim of the poet), in Merchant (Shylock), in Twelfth Night (Malvolio), in Othello (Iago), and in Coriolanus.

  4. Chapter 7, "Varieties of Revenge in the First Tetralogy," takes into account "factional revenges" (124-128), focusing on York and Old Clifford, and then proceeds to consider Queen Margaret and Richard III, suggesting that this set of plays was, in a way, a kind of test-bed for Shakespeare in his exploration of the nature of revenge. Chapter 8 -- "False Investments: Leontes and Timon" -- brings one to two central characters who become victims of themselves and their own pride and vindictiveness. Leontes is, bluntly, what the modern age, with its curious vocabulary, would call a "control freak;" Keyishian suggests that ultimately Apollo is the central revenger: one cannot oppose the gods unpunished, and though forgiveness dominates at the end, losses of significant dimension (e.g., the deaths of Mamilius and Antigonus, the absence of 16 years of Hermione’s company and Perdita’s youth, and the devastation of Sicilian court life) are paid in tribute: rightly, as many critics (e.g., J.H.P. Pafford in his remarkably astute introduction to the Arden edition) have argued, enough time must pass to allow for some healing to take place (pace those more cynical who say, merely, that poor, abandoned Perdita has to have time to grow up). Sophoclean hints are in evidence in this play, though not addressed. Ultimately, I suggest, the notion of redemption dominates the romances, and this chapter offers an intriguing if slightly uneasy coupling of plays, for Timon moves from generosity to hatred: he is finally the butt of his own deadly shafts.

  5. In Chapter 8, "Solving the Problem," one is presented with the revenger as victim. Here is a summation, with Keyishian pointing clearly to the dangers of revenge and noting the beliefs of Christians (vengeance is the right of God), the links to Platonic theory, and utilitarian arguments against vengeance. Even not taking revenge can hurt an enemy, and here one finds, logically, Alcibiades as Timon’s foil, and, in the end, Prospero. Curiously, several key lines (cited in another recent review) are absent from the quoted passages, notably: "Though with their high wrongs I am shook to th’ quick, / Yet, with my nobler reason, ’gainst my fury / Do I take part" (V.i.25-27). These words provide a key to an understanding of Winter’s Tale as well. Prospero learns what many of the characters in earlier plays could never grasp; certainly, Prospero achieves most of his goals, e.g., restoration of his dukedom (which he lost, after all, through negligence and misjudgment of priorities -- cf. Lear), peace with Alonso, a union of Milan and Naples through the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, and so on, but there is nothing to tell one in the play that -- abandonment of magic trappings and internal forgiveness not withstanding -- Antonio will ever become repentant and better than he is (and Shakespeare offers one a number of remarkably wicked brothers/uncles) or that Caliban will not simply sink back into the mire of his own depravity. "Contrition" is understood neither by opportunistic courtier or bestial savage. A point which Keyishian might also want to ponder is that beyond redress, that is, a restoration of what the modern age infelicitously calls "normalcy," Prospero wants redemption for all, if that can be achieved. One might also ask, in this consideration of The Tempest, just where Ariel fits in; though he is within Prospero’s control, he is not without sympathy to certain agendas, and he clearly has debts to be repaid and freedom to be regained (as he reminds his magus-rescuer more than once). The book’s "Conclusion" is markedly brief -- a gathering of main threads, statements as to the importance of the importance of revenge in Shakespeare (one can hardly disagree), and comments as to the significance of his character portrayals. Perhaps, by way of overview, one could also be left with a picture of how the treatment of revenge develops in terms of the society which the playwright and the modern reader share through the canon, from early plays to late ones.

  6. The appended notes and the bibliography (works cited) are a testament to Keyishian’s well-read approach, and the index (which follows) is short yet sufficient. The volume is, on the whole, more than successful, and the prose is unmistakably clear (though one might wish for the exclusion of the occasional use of [trendy?] terms like "valorize"). As noted above, this is a rather focused volume, and its theme is both its virtue and, perhaps for some readers, its limitation. It is inevitable that there will be reservations of the "But what about . . ." and "If you were to consider . . ." variety, and this review raises a few of these. But that is the stuff of Shakespeare criticism. Keyishian has done well -- thoughtfully and lucidly -- what he set out to do, and students of Shakespeare ought consider his work seriously.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, BG, RGS, 9 March 1998)