January 29, 2010

Hamlet, revenge!

Several years ago, my judo teacher died. He was a great guy who volunteered his talents for years after hectic days as a public school administrator.

Although his mobility was impaired toward the end by old injuries, his chokes were sublime. When he sunk one on you, it didn't hurt at all. It felt like you were taking a nice long nap.

I attended his funeral with several of his other students. The thought occurred to us at the time that if this was a Chinese movie, we'd be plotting revenge right now. For the uninitiated, a standard plot in many martial arts movies is avenging the death of a teacher.

Revenge has been the theme of a great deal of literature, not to mention history, but the Elizabethans were really bonkers about it. Revenge plays became a major genre of the the theater during the Golden Age of English theater in the late 1500s and early 1600s (i.e. before the Puritans ruined everything).

The genre of revenge plays was influenced by the Roman writer and philosopher Seneca. In a typical revenge play, someone--often a legitimate ruler or powerful person--is murdered and replaced by another powerful figure. Sometimes the ghost of the slain person will appear to a protagonist and urge them to take vengeance. Then follows a period of intrigue and subterfuge leading up to the final crisis. The protagonists and his accomplices may die before its over.

Sound familiar? Shakespeare hit all these notes in Hamlet but whacked the whole genre in the process. Harold Bloom calls it "Shakespeare's revenge upon revenge tragedy..."

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