Vengeance Theme Shakespeare
“Sweet is revenge-especially to women” (Barlett, 1980, pg 460). Vengeance is not just a theme created by authors; it is seen throughout the world everyday. Vengeance is repeated endlessly throughout human history and most people encounter vengeance at some point in their life. Vengeance is also a natural part of the human character. Furthermore, women seem to be more prone to jealousy than men, which then results in vengeance.
Therefore, vengeance is a universal theme which many authors introduce in their works. Sometimes, even when their works are translated to different languages; their theme can also be communicated to the audience or readers around the world effectively. Vengeance also makes a great change in human life. It may bring sadness or conflicts, sometimes even injury or death. For that reason, vengeance is an imperfection in the human character and it may cause serious destruction.
The theme of two tragic plays, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and King Lear by William Shakespeare, has a strong emphasis on vengeance. Even though Arthur Miller and William Shakespeare were born in different periods of time, their works portray the theme of vengeance in a similar way. By comparing these two dramas through an examination of the causes of vengeance, the consequences of vengeance and the irony of vengeance, it becomes evident the plays share a universal theme which will transcend all time.
To begin with, the universal theme of vengeance in The Crucible and King Lear can be closely compared through a thorough examination of the causes of vengeance in both dramas. In The Crucible, many of the villagers show the ugliest part of humanity. Although the Puritans are well- known for their strict religious morality, various neighbours falsely accuse others because of long held resentments . In Act II, Miller writes, “Long-held hatred of neighbours could now be openly expressed, and vengeance taken, despite the Bible’s charitable injunctions… one could cry witch against one’s neighbour and feel perfectly justified in the bargain” (Miller, 1953, pg 7-8).
For example, Mr. and Mrs. Putnam blame Rebecca Nurse for the death of their seven babies. The Putnams are people who like to force others to suffer along with them because of their own unhappiness. Mrs. Putnam has given birth to seven babies and all of them died very soon after they were born (Miller, 1953, pg15). Mrs. Putnam and her husband feel angry because of the suffering they have endured. Therefore, they want others to suffer with them and they blame Rebecca Nurse for the death for their seven babies.
They eventually accuse Rebecca of witchcraft and she is condemned to death. Mr. Giles Corey also accuses Mr. Putnam of making accusations against his neighbours in order to steal their land (Miller, 1953, pg 96). When a person is accused of witchcraft, their land will be confiscated and auctioned off. Besides, Mr. Putnam is an embittered and greedy man. He is jealous of his neighbours because of all of their land and he wants to own it. Hence, he makes up a false accusation of witchcraft against his enemies.
Abigail Williams is the antagonist in The Crucible who brings about the main themes in the play. She is a whore who wants to destroy John and Elizabeth Proctor’s happy family. She has an affair with Proctor and she wants to take Elizabeth’s place in Proctor’s life. She tries to use “witchcraft” to get rid of Elizabeth, so she can be with Proctor (Miller, 1953, pg 19). All of the vengeful ideas that come from Abigail’s mind come about as a result of her painful childhood.
The weightiness of the extramarital relationship with Proctor and Abigail is the source of the tragedy in the play (Belk, 2002, pg 2). Abigail regards the immoral love with Proctor as the most important part of her life. She has never experienced the joy of love, even from her parents or any other family members. Her parents were killed in front of her and Reverend Parris, her uncle, does not care a lot about her (Woolway, 1998, pg 2). Proctor is the first person she truly loves. Thus, she will pay any price to strive for Proctor to be with her.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, people also use vengeance for gaining power and position. Edmund is the unlawful son of Gloucester. Throughout his life, he is treated unfairly because of his status as a bastard. He feels he does not have the same quality of life as his father and brother. As a result, he plans to take revenge and take back what he thinks should belong to him (I, ii, 16). He thinks he should not abase himself as a bastard and should not suffer because of the guilt of his father.
In a soliloquy in Act I, Scene 2, Edmund is lamenting his status as a bastard when he shouts out, “Now, gods, stand up for bastards” (I, ii, 20)! This quotation shows his determination to take revenge on his father and brother. However, in reality, Edmund really cares and feels shame in the bottom of his heart about being a bastard. Usually the one who says he does not care will be the one who cares the most. The shame and sense of inferiority bring up the idea of vengeance in Edmund’s mind.
Regan and Goneril are Lear’s daughters; however Lear favours his youngest daughter, Cordelia the most. Regan and Goneril are very greedy and desire power, money and land. The love from the family is not that important for them. For this reason, these two princesses seek revenge against their father and sister. At the same time, Lear banishes Cordelia from his kingdom because he thinks she does not love him as much as the other daughters do (Gluilfoyle,1990,pg.9).
Hence, it gives the gluttonous sisters a good chance to take up retaliation upon the muddled Lear and innocent Cordelia. At the beginning, Regan and Goneril both help each other, yet they are at odds with each other in their hearts because there is conflict caused by a desire for power and nothing is more important than power and land for them. As they are closely cooperating, they both know each other well and their distrust towards each other causes the vengeance and odds between the two sisters. Also, both sisters compete with each other for Edmund’s love.
Furthermore, the theme of vengeance can be compared in these two classic dramas by looking at the consequences of vengeance. Even if it is an unreasonable settlement in the end of The Crucible; the innocent people are still willing to sacrifice themselves for the truth. Rebecca Nurse is a respectful Christian in Salem and she still keeps her virtuous Christian beliefs and personality when she is falsely accused and put to death. Although a false confession could rescue her life, she will not forsake the word of God. Proctor also has his goodness back in his soul at the end of the play and he knows that he can not surrender to Abigail and her vengeance toward his wife (Miller, 1953, pg 145). For innocent people to sacrifice for the revenge of Abigail it is a tragedy.
Even though the judges know that Proctor is innocent of witchcraft, they still have to hang him if he refuses to give a false confession. On the other hand, the result at the end is incredibly different than what Abigail planned and she has to vanish at the end. Abigail expects Elizabeth will be hanged and she can be with Proctor (Miller, 1953, pg 19). However, the outcome crosses the purpose of the revengeful girl. Not only is she not with Proctor, she has to vanish from her home town to an unfamiliar place to start her new life. After she vanishes, she has to live incognito to keep away from the trial. She is also an indirect murderer of her lover, John Proctor. She has to carry the guilt of killing her lover and the other innocent people throughout her entire lifetime. All of these seem to be retributions for her vengeance.
There are similarities between the consequences of vengeance in The Crucible and King Lear. The kind and innocent people in King Lear also die because of the theme of vengeance. Cordelia does not carry any vengeance and wants to rescue her father. However, she is captured with Lear and both of them die in prison (Guilfoyle, 1990, pg 8). Cordelia is the one who truly loves Lear the most. She presents her true love to her father by defying the power of her sisters and comes back to rescue Lear. At the end she also sacrifices for the love of her father and the vengeance originated by her two sisters.
Moreover, Gloucester is a loyal nobleman who also plans to rescue Lear. However, his plan fails and he is wickedly blinded by Regan and Cornwall and is turned out to wander the countryside (III, vii, 4-5). He suffers because of his loyalty to Lear. Regan not only resists his action, she cruelly blinds him and leaves him alones to suffer out in the countryside. His fate is tragic and one he does not deserve. Vengeance is the main cause that the kind, innocent and loyal people die for. Both of the plays also bring out a message that people who carry vengeance will come out with a bad ending. Regan and Goneril both die for the relationship with Edmund and the desire for power. For sure, their plan fails at the same time. Edmund wants to take revenge on Gloucester and Edgar, his brother, but he is killed by Edgar. The reality is totally opposite from what Edmund expects.
Finally, the irony of vengeance can also be contrasted in these two plays. In The Crucible, the innocent and moral people die for vengeance and the play ends in catastrophe (Hayes, 1953, pg 498). Even when Reverend Hale tries to save the lives of the innocent people, the public pressure makes his rescue attempt fail. Although the judges are respectful and powerful in the town, they are also helpless in front of the public. As the hysteria grows out of control, the judges cannot admit that they have made a mistake (Miller, 1953, pg 127). This is the biggest irony in the theme of the play.
Some of the condemned people sacrifice themselves to tell the truth while others falsely confess to save their lives. Some of the victims do not know the truth even until the last minutes. They are buried with false accusations and their virtuous spirits. Also, Abigail indirectly murdering her lover is an impressive irony in the play. It is so sad that a girl who would give up anything for her lover, murders her lover circuitously. Everything she does is to gain Proctor’s love. She thinks she will be successful and will be with Proctor forever. However her dream will never come true. Nevertheless, this is a wretched irony to her and this wicked, selfish, mad woman gains a bit of sympathy from the audience.
In addition, the lies used to cover up the vengeance in King Lear are also ironic and serve to foreshadow the coming tragedy. Lear must bear part of the responsibility for Cordelia’s death when he asks his daughters to say how much they love him. This request provides a good chance for his other two daughters to take revenge on him and Cordelia. Moreover, the more he favours Cordelia, the more Regan and Goneril hate him and Cordelia. This leads Cordelia to be the target of the greedy sisters’ criticism. On the other hand, it is surprising that Lear believes Regan and Goneril love him more than Cordelia does (IV, iv, 27-28).
Also, the fraud of Regan and Goneril is a great irony in the play. They do not love their father that much, yet they hate him as he just favours their younger sister. Mistrusting the people who carry vengeance is also an effective irony portrayed to the audience. Gloucester trusts his illegitimate, deceitful son, Edmund, believing that Edgar does not love him and is planning to kill him. Nonetheless, the truth is Edmund wants to take revenge on him and the innocent Edgar.
This fraud by Edmund is part of his plot. It is unexpected that Gloucester is as muddled as Lear and is blind to the truth. He also has to take part of the responsibility for the cause of Edmund’s vengeance (Guilfoyle, 1990, pg 3). What's more, both Lear and Gloucester are blind to the truth and make a gross mistake when they trust their disloyal children over their kind and loving children.
Through contrasting the causes, consequences and irony of vengeance, the similarities and differences of the way that Miller and Shakespeare express the theme of vengeance is clearly shown. Both writers portray vengeance as an immense destruction in human life. Vengeance is never positive to humans.
Vengeance in both The Crucible and King Lear cause death and sadness. Most of the protagonists have to carry a regretful heart and suffer this pain for the rest of their lives. People should hold their virtuous beliefs and always remember God’s words in their mind in order to overcome the temptations and the trials in their daily lives. People should fight for what they want in a just and honourable way. Then their conscience will be clear when they enjoy success. Vengeance for sure never results in a happy ending and it is the world’s most destructive weapon. Even though everyone knows the disadvantages of vengeance, why do they still look for vengeance?
1. Miller, A.(1953). The Crucible. New York: Viking Penguin Group
2. Shakespeare, W.(1990). King Lear. Toronto: Harcourt Canada
3. Woolway, J.(1998). Drama for Students. New York: Gale
4. Guilfoyle,C.(1990). Shakespeare’s Play within Play. Michigan: Western Michigan University Medieval Institude Publications
5. Hayes, R.(1953 February). Commonwealth 57: Hysteria and Ideology in The Crucible.498
6. Barlett, J.(1980). Barlett’s Familiar Quotations. Boston: Little, Brown and Company