The following is a little ditty I wrote many a year ago when I was doing my FIRST graduate degree in literature…which was the prelude of all manner of satisfaction and grief that came later. It was originally a spontaneous email to my Renaissance English professor, completely unsolicited, which I wrote after having seen Quentin Tarantino’s first Kill Bill movie, starring Uma Thurman. The piece proves how much of a literature nerd I was/am and anticipates what I would dedicate my life. But, perhaps not very surprisingly, the writing below is at the heart of what this blog is about…or, rather, what I want it to be about: making connections between high and low culture, obliquely analyzing the media soup we’re in. Oh yeah, and to show how it is that I unearth these connections.
A couple of explanatory notes: a revenge tragedy is a dramatic piece in which a character feels the need to avenge a great wrong, usually a death or an attack on his or her honor. There are many structural, predictable features of a Jacobean revenge tragedy, which is when this genre hits its apotheosis (1600-1640 or thereabouts), though of course the (English iteration of the) genre begins in late Elizabethan England. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is usually considered the progenitor, while Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes all the elements in plays by many other writers and establishes a paradigmatic form. There are many important elements of a revenge tragedy, but here are a few key ones (as evidenced by Hamlet): there is a supernatural element, usually a ghost, that lets the revenger know that something has gone horribly wrong, if the revenger is not aware of the event. The revenger cannot appeal to an appropriate authority to attempt to address the crime (no criminal justice system), often because the person whose responsibility it is to administer justice is also the criminal, so the revenger must take matters into his own hands. The revenger then goes through a process of trying to figure out what to do, though in some plays, the decision is reached quite quickly (Hamlet is an “aberration” in this point). Because of the confusion and moral quandary, the revenger often seems to be or is–one can never truly tell–mad. Then a plan is set in motion usually to truly ascertain whether the ghost’s story is true (who’s really going to trust the word of a soul stuck in purgatory without getting more evidence?), and then a plan is set in motion to exact the revenge. Oftentimes the plot to determine the truth takes the form of a masque or a play, adding a metatheatrical aspect to the performance. In essence, like the audience, the revenger watches how the alleged murderer responds to watching a performance of exactly the crime they have committed. The plan to exact revenge is traditionally directed at the wrongdoer (Claudius), but the revenge often wipes out those who helped the wrongdoer, even if unwittingly (Gertrude). The act of revenge usually results in the death of the revenger himself; the revenger has done what the wrongdoer has done–or worse–so he too “deserves” death, according to the Early Modern English view of the world. In the end, the order of the world is restored, though in Shakespeare we often see that while order is restored, things are not quite restored to what they used to be (in Hamlet the royal family of Denmark is wiped out and Young Fortinbras ends up taking the throne–this is a good thing, but now we have if not exactly an illegitimate monarch, certainly a foreign one who has no or very little historical claim to that throne–this is a huge deal especially the crises of succession that plagued the English crown for centuries). After Shakespeare, many playwrights continued to write revenge tragedies, and theater companies were eager to produce them. Why? Well, the story is compelling, the elements are tantalizing, and there’s tons of action and blood and guts on stage. For people who had the choice of going to go see a good, old fashioned bear baiting, the violence was a definite draw.
So here’s the piece:
Revenge Tragedy Redux
Just when we (I) thought revenge tragedy was no longer produced, film manages to repackage the genre and serve it up to us as if it were a completely new phenomenon. Last weekend, I went to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Kill Bill. The film exhibits many, if not all, of the features that have classically defined revenge tragedy.
In the film, the revenger is a woman (Uma Thurman), and though she is not haunted by a ghost, she is constantly haunted by the memory of having been wronged – and the belief that her daughter is dead. Like Vindice in The Revenger’s Tragedy (Thomas Middleton, 1606, formerly attributed to Cyril Tourneur), she is dead set on cleaning house, wiping out all her enemies until she gets her hands on “Bill.” Throughout the film, it is easy to ask the question if this character is mad or not, if she is altogether there. Moreover all of the people she is going after are either insane or live lives held together by the fissures in their life histories.
Because the characters are all part of a vast criminal underworld, there is no avenue of redress for the revenger, and even if there were, Bill, the revenger’s object, would be the only avenue to any redress. Furthermore, the revenger is completely on her own; she cannot depend on either an earthly justice or a divine one. The code of the criminal gang she used to run with completely lets her down, and so she must act as agent of her own brand of justice. If 17th century revenge tragedy hints at the problems of an atomized, lone individual, the revenger in Kill Bill presents this problem quite bluntly.
The film is marked by excessive violence, violence that runs away from the revenger insofar as she has to kill so many people in order to reach her goals. In one scene, which I might add functions much like the masque scene in The Revenger’s Tragedy, she dismembers about 80 assassins. Each cut produces projectile bleeding…as ridiculous as it may sound, the scene
can be read as darkly humorous as the repeated killings at the masque at the end of The Revenger’s Tragedy. In an interesting touch, the audience never learns the revenger’s name (in the first movie), which in many ways renders her the human vessel for revenge. I think the similarities between her and Vindice are really quite stark.
Another point in which Kill Bill is like revenge tragedy, and The Revenger’s Tragedy in particular, is that it pays homage to and mocks the genre from which it arises. Kill Bill is directly inspired by Kung Fu movies of the 70s and 80s, so much so that the
revenger is dressed throughout much of the film in an outfit which is the modern iteration of one of Bruce Lee’s outfits in one of his most famous films.
Finally, if revenge tragedies tend toward the theatrical and the metatheatrical (in my reading, they almost always do), Kill Bill is decidedly so. Its intertextuality to the Kung Fu films presents theatricality and certainly hints at metatheatricality. But I believe that it is so consciously an artwork that it is definitively metatheater (metafilm?). The usage of projectile bleeding, so obviously artificial, is an indicator that the film is aware of itself as both copy (of an older genre) and original. Whereas in the older film
projectile bleeding has to do with bad technology and low budgets, Kill Bill purposefully chooses to “go back” to a more primitive technology, ridicule it, praise it, aestheticize it, and convey that these choices were decidedly conscious.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film, not yet in evidence in the first film but clear by the end of the second film, is that the revenger, Beatrix (Black Mamba), does not die. In fact, she pretty much gets a happy ending. This is perhaps the most salient difference between revenge tragedy in the 17th century versus the 21st century: we apparently now think and celebrate the unbridled murder (retribution) is an appropriate response to being wronged by another. Whereas Jacobean tragedy would not have permitted the revenger to be rewarded, Tarantino’s film seems to be just fine with it–and so do most audience members. Given how incredibly out of proportion the extent of the revenge in the film is, it should give us pause. No, you might think that it is out of proportion to convey the revenger’s pain, but this reading in which the individual takes precedence over everything and everyone…that’s an alarming reading. Then again, there doesn’t seem much mechanism for redress these days, and certainly after 9/11, the film cathected for audiences a desire–a need–for the world to bleed in response to a deep trauma.