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Dara Miller
ENG 428
Dr. Royster
9 April 2012
Bettering Revenge: Surpassing Justice in Senecas Thyestes
In Act Two of Sencas Thyestes, Atreus asserts, You cannot say you have
avenged a crime unless you better it, as he plots against his brother. In Linda
Woodbridges article, Getting what one deserves, she examines the popularity of the
revenge play during the English Renaissance, and claims the revenge theme reveal[s]
widespread resentment of systemic unfairness (7) towards multiple levels of society. Her
argument revolves around the concept of fair payment, and she divides the societal
reactions that feed revenge plays into four primary violations: unrewarded merit,
unmerited reward, unpunished guilt, and undeserved punishment (7), and then further
organizes her analysis according to issues of economical, political, and social unfairness.
By dividing her argument into these similar but yet markedly different components,
Woodbridge creates a convincing case for the popularity and sustainability of revenge
plays during this era. Her analysis does illuminate much of the motivation behind the
actions in Thyestes; however, it does not fully account for the sheer excess of violence
and over-retribution commonly found in revenge plays. Although she does recognize that
revenges typically exceed the original offense in quantity or intensity, her examination
of the causes of this imbalance is overly brief, and does not serve to fully explain the
reasoning behind Atreus brutal actions towards Thyestes in Senecas play.
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Woodbridge, in shaping her argument, frames her thesis with a description of the
modern tendency to gloss over the gory and sensational aspects of revenge plays as
somehow worthy of less merit, but then aptly points to the equally revenge-focused
themes running throughout some of the Renaissances most respected dramas. In an
intriguing overview of the scope revenge plays popularity in context, she succinctly lists
highlights of a wide variety of characters extreme measures to win revenge, and then
convincingly claims that the sheer number of revenge plots attests to themes
popularity, (7) no matter how much modern audiences may wince at the thought. In
establishing her argument, Woodbridge then poses a series of questions that stress the
paradoxical nature of the fact that this Christian, monarchical, and hierarchical culture
would place so much value on plays that seemed to flaunt all they purportedly valued.
This seeming contradiction, she claims, stems from the common peoples
frustration with the social structures of their culture; thus, Dramatic revenge mimics
Tudor law, where condign penalties suited crimes thieves hands were cut off, scolds
tongues bridled, (6) and the majority of the people felt the pressure of various forms of
social or economic oppression. Although her subsequent division of the varying levels of
unfairness is neatly supported by her extensive references to different plays, her section
on Unpunished Guilt is perhaps slightly oversimplified, especially in relation to plays
such as Thyestes. In Senecas work, the threat of unpunished guilt extends far beyond
playing the judicial systems evil twin; (9) on the contrary, Atreus need to eradicate
any trace of unpunished guilt surpasses the judicious cautions of his minister. Also, her
discussion of this concept implies that revenge plays provided a cathartic solution to the
real reflections of unpunished guilt people observed or experienced in their daily lives,
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therefore additionally suggesting that one purpose of the revenge play structure is to
bring the unpunished criminal to justice, at least in metaphor. This implication, however,
fails to take into consideration the morally ambiguous endings of plays such as Thyestes;
according to the narrative, the character of Thyestes had already been justly punished by
being stripped of his rank and power.