Revenge tragedy and detective fiction

The latest issue of Representations contains a fascinating article by Lorna Hutson, in which she compares the genre of the early modern revenge tragedy to that of detective fiction. Since many revenge plays are propelled by a plot in which the revenger first seeks to establish who is guilty of the murder in order to execute a fittingly bloody revenge in the final act of the tragedy, this comparison between, say, Hamlet and Sherlock Holmes had been drawn by other critics before Hutson.

But what Hutson adds to this mix, is a critique of current Foucauldian readings of justice in the genre of revenge tragedy. In these readings, the bloody executions in the genre are seen as spectacles that either affirm or subvert the notion of the Tudor monarch’s power to find out truth. Foucault’s reading of the secret torture and spectacular executions, however, is based on the French Roman canon law. Hutson argues that in the English legal system, the responsibility for truth-finding does not lie with the monarch only, but is much more a communal responsibility that depends on lay participation in juries. It is this epistemology of justice, rather than the notion of the “spectacle of the scaffold” that functions in the plot of revenge tragedies, she writes. In Titus Andronicus, for example, the Andronicii, faced with the failure of the imperial system of justice, painstakingly construct the evidence on the rape and murder of their family members in order to execute their revenge. At the close of the play, it is the audience who is asked to judge their detective work: “Now judge what cause Titus had to revenge | These wrongs unspeakable” Marcus says to the jury both on and off-stage.

According to her website, Lorna Hutson is writing a book-length study on forensic realism in renaissance drama – I will certainly keep an eye out for it.

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