Vindictive Justice in Early Modern England

  • Derek Dunne
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


In approaching early modern English law, Girard’s formulation is a useful one, reminding us as it does of the compatibility of justice and vengeance. Early modern England may not have been a well-policed society, but it did have a thriving legal system, which openly acknowledged the role of revenge in its operation.3 Public vengeance at that time could mean two very different things. On the one hand the legal system as a civic institution made punishments increasingly public affairs, for example at the infamous ‘Tyburn Tree’. Understood in another way, public vengeance was being made available in the playhouses of London and beyond for the price of admission. Yet how different were these versions of ‘public’ vengeance, and in what ways did the popularity of one come to be reflected in the other? This chapter outlines the reasons why legal history provides such a crucial context for our understanding of early modern drama in general, and revenge tragedy in particular. It gives an account of the participatory nature of early modern law, as well as gesturing towards some of the changes and stresses that system was undergoing at the time that the plays were being written. By dismantling the stale binaries of Law/Revenge, Public/Private that have dominated discussion of revenge tragedy, I seek to realign these discourses as a necessary precursor to a more sophisticated account of how they relate to each other on the early modern stage.


Legal System Social Drama Early Modern Period Legal Remedy Grand Jury 
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© Derek Dunne 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Derek Dunne
    • 1
  1. 1.University of FribourgSwitzerland

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