God's messenger ?

What is particularly confusing about Pickeryng's Revenge character is that he manages to pass for the messenger of gods. The gods- argues Vyce alias Revenge- are impatient for Horestes to act and revenge his father. Horestes accordingly constructs his role as that of an instrument of divine power although the audience knows that this is all Vyce's frame-up.

All the characters in the play share the conviction that it is the gods who bid Horestes to revenge his father. It is because he is believed to have acted at the behest of the gods that Horestes is forgiven in the end of the play. The audience alone know that it wasn't God or the gods but Vyce that all along prompted the hero to action. Though Vyce is defeated in the end of the play, the action he has engendered goes unchallenged. The play does not question the presumed divine sanction of the act of revenge. As far as the valorisation of revenge is concerned, the play deconstructs it into positions of God and Vyce, with the effect that these positions, dichotomous as they may be look interchangeable.

Strong political arguments are supplied to justify the supposedly divine demand for revenge : Council (who can also stand for the king's ministers) fully endorses Horestes' revenge on the ground that it teaches obedience and discourages further acts of rebellion. If Horestes fails to take revenge "a thousand evylles would insu their of" (525). In the Council's arguments revenge is completely conflated with justice. Council makes reference to Baldwin's Treatise of Moral Philosophy which insists on the courage needed to do justice and on the consequences of the failure to do so: "Be not ashamed to doo justice: for all that is done without it is tyranny" (Axton, 214). The avenger is thereby projected as both a champion of justice and as a liberator from tyranny. Both images will be very attractive in the later revenge tragedies.

At the same time Council rehearses the arguments listed by Luther and Calvin. God's justice is his revenge— the reformers reinforced the message from the Old Testament to justify the violence inflicted by rulers and magistrates. Luther was convinced that the use of the Sword, i.e. of punitive violence, was not to be read as repaying evil with evil, and consequently "it is not prohibited by the Gospel, the Gospel commands it" (Luther , On Secular Authority, 13). Calvin assured the secular authorities that when wielding the Sword they do nothing but "execute God's wrath and wreak his vengeance" (Calvin, 61). "When punishing-specifies Calvin- nothing is done by human presumptuousness but by God's command and authority" (61).

Calvin insists that they are not "to sheathe their swords and an act of injustice; they are to carry out "public vengeance".(62) Cruelty and savagery is justified and legitimate according to Calvin, since, as in the case of Moses' violence against his own brothers, "it was the vengeance which God committed".

We are not totally amiss to identify echoes of these views in Council's conclusion that:

Therefore the gods have wylled thus, Horestes for to take

His journey, and to recompense for fathers death to make. (534-350)

Though Vyce as the embodiment of Revenge is defeated in the end of the play, the action he has engendered is granted full religious and political endorsement. Divine sanction and political rationale seem to legitimise revenge and override arguments pointing to the "unaturalness" of Horestes' matricide. The play seems both to condemn and to vindicate revenge.

As Mary Axton points out, Pyckering's play is not singular in this ambiguous treatment of revenge (Axton, 26-28). The conflation of justice and revenge in conceiving divine retribution was widespread in the late medieval and Reformation period. The " heavy hand of justice in heaven" inflicting punishment of the an-eye-for-an-eye sort was basic to popular piety (Watts,125). The phrase "Feare God" was practically ubiquitous and was glued on to the walls of buildings as different as churches and alehouses. A godly "table", of the time [15] included a section of quotations from the Bible called "A Mirror of Gods justice" and ran as follows:

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God

As his mercy is great so is his punishment

He is a great God mighty and terrible

He is a God of revenge (Watt, 243)

which men were duly punished or rewarded on the basis of their deeds, in the early Protestant plays derived from the notion of divine justice, actually of divine vengeance as developed in the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 26-28, 37, 63, 73, 76) (Parente 65). Psalm 58 provides important clues as to the righteous' yearning for divine violence as a punishment of the wicked. What may seem to us as sadistic pleasure at the suffering of one's enemy, was experienced as the comforting certitude of the existence of " a God who judges on earth":

God break the teeth in their mouths;

Tear out the fangs of the young lions, O lord!

Let them vanish like water that runs away

Like grass let them be trodden down and wither.

Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime,

Like the untimely birth that never sees the sun…

The righteous will rejoice

When he sees the vengeance;

He will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked

Men will say, "Surely there is reward for the righteous;

Surely there is a God who judges on earth." (58.6-9.10-12)

The Ghost's call for revenge may therefore be considered as a development of other traditions than the Senecan ones. As a "spirit of health" he may be the carrier of a devine message, casting Hamlet in the role of avenger and of God's scourge. Hamlet is fully aware of the ethical and political justification of the act of revenge, and implicitly of his father's injunction:

Does it not think thee, stand me now upon -

He that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my mother, Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,

Thrown out his angle for my proper life And with such coz'nage -is't not perfect conscience

To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damn'd

To let this canker of our nature come

In further evil? (5.2.63-70) (my emphasis)

What is at stake is not merely personal revenge, individual integrity or even the lawful accession to the throne, it concerns public safety endangered by triumphant tyranny and spreading corruption, it affects "our nature" which faces the possibility of evil still to come. (Belsey 1999, 164) Not to take action is to be damned. Revenge can be a way of renovating the world by a single act, thereby bringing earth nearer to heaven. (Edwards, 46) The role of a divine avenger that the Ghost thus casts Hamlet in does suit his Puritanical temper quite well; it validates his disgust at the frailty of flesh and the decay of the world; it bolsters his confidence in waging a war that exceeds the narrow limitations of personal interest and that pursues no lesser a goal than to set time right.

Redefined this way the questionable Ghost - and he/it remains questionable and ambiguous to the end - can be assimilated to a divine force that masterminds the actions in the play ("There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow") and nemesis-like purges the world of heinous crimes and sins.


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