Monday, June 20, 2011

Winning or Whining

In his review of Linda Woodbridge’s English Revenge Drama in the TLS, David Hawkes asserts, “[The] denigration of defeat is the source of the moral opprobrium the modern world heaps on revenge” (“Equal Payback,” TLS, 5/27/11). Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge drama, on the other hand, apotheosized revenge. “Early modern audiences and playwrights enjoyed and celebrated revenge, associating it with social and economic fairness,” Hawkes notes, summarizing one of Woodbridge’s central points. Though revenge was deemed to be the province of divinity, “revenge satisfied an increasingly widespread fantasy of social equality.” And the punishment had to fit the crime. Theatergoers liked “appropriate or ‘condign’ revenge.” Ultimately, this desire for justice and equality derived from mercantilism. “Commodity exchange involves the imposition of an imaginary equality on objects that are essentially different,” writes Hawkes. Of course, there is another kind of revenge that neither Hawkes nor Woodbridge account for, and that is silent scorn. Sophocles’s Philoctetes was unable to forget his ostracism and was prepared to deprive the Greeks of victory, and himself of glory, in order to make a point. In Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, the protagonist scorns the very people whose attention he seeks. The market economy may have produced a certain equanimity at one point in history, but it’s developed into a procrustean, amoral force that has little tolerance for loss. Though Hawkes ends his review by looking beyond Woodbridge’s concern with the Renaissance, pointing to “the tenacious popularity of the revenge theme,” he also quotes Donald Trump, who once said “it’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!”

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