Conclusion: Participation and Vindication on the Early Modern Stage

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


Laertes’ question to Claudius — why he has not had Hamlet charged with the slaying of Polonius? — is at once the most reasonable response to violent crime, and at the same time strangely out of place within the context of Shakespeare’s play. In effect, he is asking why revenge tragedy is necessary when there exists a fully-functioning legal system. The simple answer is that we are dealing with a world where law may be operative, but where that law is also severely flawed. The pages of this book have endeavoured to offer a more comprehensive answer, by elucidating early modern revenge tragedy’s precise engagements with the legal system of its time. That these plays are filled with scenes of judgement, unreliable witness testimony, and evidence both genuine and false, should alert us to the fact that the genre of revenge tragedy is testing the law as much as it is condemning revenge. What is more, early modern revenge tragedy seems intent on reminding its audience of the absent presence of the law at its core: ‘Terras Astraea reliquit: be you remembered, Marcus,/ She’s gone, she’s fled’ (Titus Andronicus, 4.3.4–5).1 The revengers that populate these tragedies no doubt have their personal grievances against their enemies, yet time and again we see those same enemies make a mockery of the law and trample over their citizens’ rights in the course of the action.


Legal System Comprehensive Answer Absent Presence Food Riot Modern Legal System 


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  1. 2.
    Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy; Thomas Rist, Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England, Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama (Surrey: Ashgate, 2008); Tricomi, ‘The Aesthetics of Mutilation in Titus Andronicus’, pp. 11–19.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Barbara Shapiro, ‘The Beyond a Reasonable Doubt doctrine: “Moral Comfort” or Standard of Proof?’, Law and Humanities, 2 (2008), 149–73 (pp. 156–7).Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Francis Beaumont, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, ed. Michael Hattaway, New Mermaids Series (London: A. & C. Black, 1991) (first printed 1613, STC no. 1674).Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    Eileen Allman’s Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue (London: Associated University Presses, 1999) makes some headway in this direction. See also Linda Woodbridge’s chapter on ‘Revenge and Regicide: The Civil War Era’, in English Revenge Drama: Money, Resistance, Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 189–222.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Derek Dunne 2016

Authors and Affiliations

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

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