Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.64 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.64

Lesel Dawson, Fiona McHardy (ed.), Revenge and Gender in Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Literature.   Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 2018.  Pp. 339.  ISBN 9781474414098.  £85.00​.  ISBN 9781474414111.  ebook.  


Reviewed by Melissa Ridley Elmes, Lindenwood University (MElmes@lindenwood.edu)

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This absorbing collection of essays originated at the “Female Fury and the Masculine Spirit of Vengeance” conference held at Bristol University in 2012 and has been ably and thoughtfully shepherded into print by the editors. Featuring chapters by an international roster of scholars working across the Classical, Medieval, and Early Modern/ Renaissance periods, this volume offers a sustained cross-period examination of the subject of revenge and gender. As Dawson notes in her introduction, the collection “prob[es] revenge’s gendering, its role in consolidating and contesting gender norms, and its relation to friendship, family roles, and kinship structures” (2). Focusing on the Western tradition (Greco-Roman, Norse, and English) the various essays work together to illuminate how medieval and early modern writers “respond to and reimagine inherited plots and characters [from the Classical world]” and to explore “continuities between historical periods as well as the ways in which the texts and traditions diverge” (2). Readers interested in the representation of women in Classical literature, in the history of emotion, in Classical reception in medieval and early modern / Renaissance literature, and in gender and premodern drama studies, will find much in this collection worth consideration.

Dawson’s introduction features a concise review of the relationship of revenge to masculinity, its role in family concerns, particularly regarding questions of inheritance, the figure of the female avenger, women’s weapons (focusing specifically on words—goading, inciting, cursing, and gossiping) and the role of lamentation in women’s participation in vengeance, setting up the overall volume’s contents. Each subsequent part of the book is anchored by an essay with a Classical Greek or Roman focus, paired with one or more studies on later works. In part 1, Edith Hall proposes that the Erinyes in the Classical literary tradition were far more gender-ambivalent than their dramatic constructions and later cultural transmission suggest, and Alison Findlay extends her discussion of the affective power of performance in shaping cultural views of women and vengeance through the early modern dramatic tradition.

Part 2 brings the overarching subject of revenge and gender to bear in terms of its effect on, and how it is affected by, questions of kinship and friendship. Ian Folce examines vengeance and the homosocial bonds of men in medieval Old Norse/ Icelandic sagas. Kathrin Winter pulls us back into an examination of the origins of revenge in Seneca’s Medea, arguing that the play emphasizes the process of reconfiguration of Medea’s femininity from the quintessentially feminine mother figure into the vengeful female. Marguerite Tassi reads Shakespeare’s King Lear as an unidentified instance of a daughter’s revenge tragedy, placing Cordelia in the position usually occupied by an avenging son to heighten the dramatic intensity of her failure to reinstate her family’s position by turning it into an instance of failed vengeance. Sara Eaton concludes this section of the book with a discussion of “the logic of sexual revenge cast in a courtly love scenario” in the incestuous relationship between brother and sister in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore 122).

In part 3, Lydia Matthews and Irene Salvo examine women’s curses as an explicitly female vehicle for vengeance in Ancient Greece, and Fiona McHardy discusses the efficacy of gossip for the same purpose. Chloe Kathleen Preedy follows up with an interesting examination of how “Jacobean revengers invite audiences to reflect on the relationship between humanist learning, with an emphasis on proper governance and moral education, and the violent retribution that they enact upon corrupt rulers and unjust societies” (181). Where typically women are not centered in the revenge action of early modern plays, as many of the essays in this collection point out, Preedy argues that when women’s education is featured in the plot, “women’s literacy and classical knowledge play a crucial role in scripting vengeance, enabling educated women to participate actively in the process of revenge rather than being banished to the margins” (182).

Part 4 considers how vengeful women are transformed in Greek literature and its afterlives. Focusing on the woman-as-lioness metaphor prevalent in works from Homer’s Odyssey to the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides and beyond, Alessandra Abbattista offers a posthumanist analysis of the dramatic significance of lioness imagery in ancient Greek texts. Abbattista follows Rosi Braidotti’s idea that an empathic turn in critical study of the non-human permits us to identify not reason, but emotion, as the central expression of humanity, and to view violence as an evolutionary tool, demonstrating how being figured as a lioness permits the blurring of masculine and feminine attributes within these women avengers, and pushing for a “non-dualistic understanding of human dichotomies” (215). Janet Clare examines the figure of Hecuba in early modern plays, arguing that the dichotomous roles she plays in Greek tragedy—those of lamenting mother and of ferocious revenger—bifurcate on the early modern stage, serving as evidence that positive female avenging figures did not have a place in early modern drama. She attributes this to “a culture that condemned revenge and saw it as a last resort to which only a male should have recourse” (227) concluding that “To stage a Hecuba [ as she was staged in Classical tragedy] would be to stage rebellion” (234).

The volume concludes with a series of five essays dealing with the intersections of lamentation, grief, gender, and vengeance. Andreas Michalopoulos reclassifies Oenone’s letter to Jason mourning his betrayal of her (the fifth letter of Ovid’s Heroides) as a letter not of grief but of revenge. Anne Baden-Daintree examines how individual and private grief serves in certain key points as the impetus and driving force for military action in the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure. Tanya Pollard revisits the figure of Hecuba on the early modern stage, describing Hamlet’s response to her in the eponymous play by Shakespeare as a way of understanding how he ultimately comes to replace Hecuba as “the icon of tragedy” (264). Rebecca Yearling reads John Marston’s 1600—01 Antonio’s Revenge as evidence that masculinity is performative, rather than inherent, arguing that in its intentional dismissal of “feminine” grief and its emphasis on “masculine” violent revenge, the play raises questions concerning the moral limitations of revenge tragedies as a genre. Lesel Dawson closes this section and the volume as a whole with a discussion of heroic dying as a means of countering the narrative control of the revenger in early modern drama, describing how gender inflects this “heroics of endurance” (320) as either essential masochistic self-sacrifice, in the case of a woman-figure, or problematic to one’s characterization, in the case of a man.

One weakness in this collection is its emphasis on viewing gender as a binary, male/female and masculine/feminine construct, which (however inadvertently) perpetuates a sexist view of the Classical world and its medieval and early modern afterlives, despite much recent work on nonbinary gender in Classical studies (for example, several of the essays in the 2014 collection Sex in Antiquity) as well as in Medieval and Early Modern studies. In future work on this subject of revenge and gender, a number of the texts and figures examined in this volume could be re-visited through a non-binary lens with, I think, stunning results. As an initial foray in that direction by way of a feminist reconsideration of the subject, this collection provides a useful and important foundation to work from. Finally, while BMCR readers and subscribers in general might prefer volumes that focus specifically on the Classical world, this book is an important, and powerful, example of how interdisciplinary and cross-period studies can illuminate otherwise-overlooked points that lead to essential reconsiderations of subjects—like that of “gender and revenge”—that we have (clearly erroneously, as this volume shows) historically believed we understood well.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Female Fury and the Masculine Spirit of Vengeance, Lesel Dawson
Part I: The Gendering of Revenge
1. Why are the Erinyes Female? or, What is so Feminine about Revenge?, Edith Hall
2. Re-marking Revenge in Early Modern Drama, Alison Findlay

Part II: Friends and Family: ‘Revenging Home’
3. Vengeance and Male Devotion in Laxdæla saga and Njáls saga, Ian Felce
4. 'Now I am Medea': Gender, Identity and the Birth of Revenge in Seneca’s Medea, Kathrin Winter
5. The Avenging Daughter in King Lear, Marguerite Tassi
6. ‘Brother Unkind’: Annabella’s Heart in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Sara Eaton

Part III: Women’s Weapons
7. Cursing-Prayers and Female Vengeance in the Ancient Greek World, Lydia Matthews and Irene Salvo
8. ‘The Power of our Mouths’: Gossip as a Female Mode of Revenge, Fiona McHardy
9. ‘Women’s Weapons’: Education and Female Revenge on the Early Modern Stage, Chloe Preedy

Part IV: Women Transmogrified
10. The Vengeful Lioness in Greek Tragedy: A Posthumanist Perspective, Alessandra Abbattista
11. ‘She’s Turned Fury’: Women Transmogrified in Revenge Plays, Janet Clare

Part V: Lamentation, Gender Roles and Vengeance
12. A Phrygian Tale of Love and Revenge: Oenone Paridi (Ovid Heroides 5), Andreas N. Michalopoulos
13. Lament and Vengeance in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, Annie Baden-Danetree
14. What’s Hecuba to Shakespeare?, Tanya Pollard
15. ‘Nursed in Blood’: Masculinity and Grief in Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, Rebecca Yearling
16. Outfacing Vengeance: Heroic Dying in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Ford’s The Broken Heart, Lesel Dawson
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