Elizabethan Revenge: Spanish and Californian Style
Some literary genres are timeless and continue to resonate with audiences regardless of the times. Revenge is one of these timeless topics. The elements that comprise Elizabethan revenge tragedies are still seen in many contemporary stories. To illustrate the lasting power of Renaissance revenge tropes, one needs to only look at prime time television over the last decade to see how prevalent these stories continue to be. One such example can be seen in Rob Thomas’ modern revenge tragedy, Veronica Mars, and its comparison to Thomas Kyd’s play, The Spanish Tragedy.
The Spanish Tragedy begins with the common revenge trope of the ghost of the murdered victim. In this case, it is Don Andrea who is the ghost who needs to be avenged. Don Andrea’s ghost returns to the scene of his death and then he continues to be a presence throughout the play. Bel-Imperia is the protagonist who swears to take revenge against Don Andrea’s murderer, and, later, against Don Horatio’s murderers. Don Hieronomo joins Bel-Imperia in her vengeance when his son, Don Horatio, is violently murdered. Although, unlike Don Andrea, Don Horatio’s ghost does not appear; nonetheless, Don Horatio still remains a solid presence in the story after his death and he is a driving force behind much of the vengeance sought.
This element of having a ghost to drive the central focus of the story is also employed by the television series, Veronica Mars. In Veronica Mars, the vengeful ghost is that of a murdered young woman, Lily Cane. Not only does Lily’s murder act as a catalyst for the entire first season of the show, but her ghost often appears to the protagonist, Veronica Mars, thus goading her into avenging her death by discovering who murdered her so that she can then publicly expose the killer. Lily Cane’s ghost also appears to another character, her brother, Duncan, thereby providing clues for the two to follow in order to help them find her murderer.
Corruption runs rampant in both The Spanish Tragedy and Veronica Mars. This corruption necessitates revenge as being the only necessary way to correct the injustice that has occurred because of the unpunished murders. In The Spanish Tragedy, we see the corruption in the cover-up of both Don Andrea’s and Don Horatio’s deaths. Don Lorenzo and Don Balthazar both abuse their positions of power in order to mask their horrific deeds. The injustice that ensues from this deceit is what propagates the need for revenge; if justice had been served in the first place, then there would be no need to ‘right a wrong’.
Neptune City, California, the setting for Veronica Mars, is possibly even more corrupt than the world of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Crooked police officers, sheriffs, mayors, and so on, infiltrate every nook and cranny of Neptune, which necessitates the lead character, Veronica, to take matters into her own hands. When Lily Cane is murdered, which happens before the story begins in much the same manner as the murder of Don Andrea in Spanish Tragedy, her killer is not caught. The wrong person was arrested for the crime of Lily Cane’s death in a mass cover-up of the truth. Like Don Lorenzo and Don Balthazar, who both use their high status to fabricate the identity of the true killers of Don Andrea and Don Horatio, the Cane family, who serve as Neptune’s own form of aristocracy, wield their high status in order to mask the identity of who they believe to be the murderer of their own daughter.
Another element of Elizabethan revenge tragedies is that of a suffering heroine and both The Spanish Tragedy and Veronica Mars use this trope. In The Spanish Tragedy, Bel-Imperia is the heroine who is forced to suffer not only one, but two, murders of her loved ones. She is understandably distraught after the death of Don Andrea, but she passes the point of no return after her second lover, Don Horatio, is killed. She suffers from this mental and emotional anguish, but she also suffers from evils done directly to her by her own brother, Don Lorenzo, when he locks her away in order to secure her silence. Bel-Imperia suffers from acute emotional and psychological turmoil, forced physical confinement after she is kidnapped, and then, finally, intense pain when she stabs herself to end her own suffering.
Isabella, who does not seek revenge in the way that Bel-Imperia and Don Hieronomo do, is another suffering, innocent heroine. In fact, it may be argued that Isabella is the most innocent character of the play. She is forced to witness the hanging body of her murdered son, and she still does not physically seek revenge upon others. Instead, being unable, and possibly unwilling, to seek revenge and corrupt herself, she kills herself. Both of Spanish Tragedy‘s heroines take their own lives in the end, which suggests the detachment women often felt in life because of their lack of agency. However, it is not only the two women who commit suicide; Don Hieronomo also takes his own life at the end of the play, after enacting his vengeance. Perhaps, by having the inactive Isabella also commit suicide, rather than merely having the two vengeance seekers do so, Kyd suggests that women may suffer from emotional trauma more keenly than men.
Veronica, from Veronica Mars, is the suffering heroine of Neptune who undergoes a seemingly nonstop chain of horrendous events as the story continues to unfold. First, she is under immense psychological and emotional trauma when she finds the bloody body of her close friend, Lily Cane. Although, it is not her lover that is murdered, it is not only her best friend, but it is the one person, other than her parents, who has had the most profound impact on her life. After the murder of Lily, she endures violent social ostracization because her father, the former Sheriff, who is later booted out of office for his refusal to join the ranks of the crooked officials, refuses to believe the obviously false arrest of the supposed murderer of Lily Cane.
Veronica’s father, Keith Mars, turns private investigator and mounts his own investigation into Lily Cane’s murder. He keeps much of the murder investigation hidden from Veronica, which prompts Veronica to begin her own investigation of her friend’s murder. Veronica suffers from further trauma when she is drugged and raped at a party. She awakes after the rape, not knowing who raped her, and reports the vicious crime to the new Sheriff, who proceeds to laugh at her. He tells her she will never find the rapist because it happened at a party frequented by all of the richest families, the sons of whom are the darlings of Neptune; meaning, even if the rapist was identified, he would never be convicted in the seedy town of Neptune. She begins to utterly transform her life into a life spent primarily seeking revenge for Lily Cane, for herself, and for various others she meets either through her social life or through her father’s private investigation work. “I will make them pay,” becomes her mantra (Veronica Mars).
“Mars Investigation”, the company owned and run by Keith and Veronica Mars, often provides an alternative to the play-within-a-play convention often found in Elizabethan dramas. Each episode of Veronica Mars has a mini-mystery, often another murder, that fits in with the overall arc of Veronica’s revenge against Lily Cane’s murderer and the pursuit to find Veronica’s rapist. The mini-mystery either contains a piece of the puzzle that eventually leads to Veronica’s discovery of the real killer or it bridges a gap in the search for the identity of her rapist. However, there is not actually a meta-play in Veronica Mars like there is in The Spanish Tragedy.
The Spanish Tragedy not only features the play-within-a-play convention, but it utilizes this technique as the climax of the overall play. The revengers, Bel-Imperia and Don Hieronomo, stage the play in order to provide a guise for the fruition of their vengeance. They convince the murderers, Don Lorenzo and Don Balthazar, to act in the play with them. Little do the murderers know that they are being set up and that the theatrical swords are real. The first murders of Don Andrea and Don Horatio are avenged when, during the play, Bel-Imperia and Don Hieronomo kill Don Lorenzo and Don Balthazar. The two revengers, Bel-Imperia and Don Hieronomo, have now become what they hate most; killers themselves.
Both The Spanish Tragedy and Veronica Mars also feature murders on stage. In The Spanish Tragedy, there are a number of murders on stage: Don Horatio, Serberine, Pedringano, Don Lorenzo, Don Balthazar, and the Duke; Don Andrea, of course, is not counted since he is dead before the play begins. There are also a number of other deaths, by suicide, that happen on stage as well. In Veronica Mars, there are multiple murders “on stage”. The murder of Lily Cane is revealed and shown through a flashback, and there are multiple murders that occur on screen, particularly the eventual vengeance murder of Lily Cane’s killer.
Madness is another Elizabethan revenge tragedy convention that is found in both The Spanish Tragedy and Veronica Mars. In Veronica, several characters suffer from bouts of madness. It is often unclear whether the ghost of Lily Cane is, in fact, a reality, or if it is simply the manifestation of Veronica’s, and later, Duncan’s, grief inducing madness. Duncan Cane, in particular, seems to think he is going mad after his sister’s death. Part of this madness is induced after his parents suggest that Duncan inadvertently killed Lily during one of his “episodes”; semi-psychotic episodes that cause him to “black out” or have no memory of the event afterward. Duncan is put on heavy medication to stifle his psychotic episodes, but this medication puts him into an apathetic stupor, which prompts him to stop taking the pills. His abrupt cessation causes him to see the ghost of his sister, who gruesomely has blood matted to her hair from the injury that killed her. Duncan has a conversation with her ghost, but he never reveals the conversation to anyone, for fear that he has lost his mind.
Veronica also sees Lily Cane’s ghost intermittently throughout the season. Often, Lily’s ghost helps her to find a clue regarding her killer. Once, the ghost prompts Veronica to leave the parking lot of a convenient store, causing Veronica to miss her bus. This proves highly fortunate for Veronica since the bus later careens over a cliff, killing all passengers. Again, it is unclear if the ghost is “real” or if Veronica sees a figment of her imagination. Either way, Veronica begins to fear that she is going mad. It can also be argued that the madness which results from the traumas of Lily’s death and Veronica’s rape is what drives Veronica to transform her life into one devoted to vengeance.
In The Spanish Tragedy, Isabella, Don Hieronomo, and Bel-Imperia, to a lesser extent, all suffer from madness. In Act III, Scene IIX, Isabella is speaking incoherently to her maid, because she is so struck with grief. Her son’s murder, and her witnessing of the hanged and stabbed body, has turned her mad. She is so stricken, that she soon takes her own life by stabbing herself in the garden where Don Horatio was murdered. Isabella says, “I will revenge myself upon this place” (The Spanish Tragedy VI. II). Hieronomo also suffers from madness, or at the very least, he exhibits madness for others. It questionable whether he has actually gone crazy or if he is simply playing a role; this is very similar to question of madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Regardless of his actual mental state, others perceive him to have gone quite mad. This madness does not, however, stop him from enacting his vengeance with little, or no, hesitation.
A similar lack of hesitation is also seen in Veronica Mars. Veronica does not hesitate in enacting revenge, once she takes that initial leap. Through flashbacks, the audience sees Veronica’s transformation from who she was before Lily was murdered and who she is after the murder. In the past, Veronica constantly hesitated in nearly everything she did. She was certainly not a “go-getter” in the past. Her time spent with Lily, while Lily was alive, slowly began to make Veronica more assertive, but she was still rather timid in most situations. After Lily’s death, and particularly after Veronica was raped, Veronica shed the hesitation of her past and adopted a fierce and assertive attitude. Throughout all of the cases she solves as a private investigator, she never backs down. When she eventually unmasks Lily Cane’s killer, Aaron Echolls, she does not hesitate for even a fraction of a second. She finds the murderer and she takes him down. She takes justice into her own hands; mostly.
Veronica does not kill Lily Cane’s murderer. She does not become what she hates most, in the way that Bel-Imperia and Don Hieronomo do. Rather, Veronica corrects the injustice of the wrong killer being put behind bars by finding the real murderer and bringing him to the police; or, more accurately, she brings the police to the murderer, Aaron Echolls. Of course, in a town as corrupt as Neptune, Echolls is released shortly after his arrest and his subsequent trial sees him acquitted. Veronica does hesitate to enact further revenge, however, and she is forced to do nothing after the law, once more, disappoints justice. Lily Cane’s brother, Duncan, does not suffer from the same hesitation about going beyond the law. Duncan hires a professional assassin to kill Aaron Echolls, thus enacting the full circle of revenge.
Both Veronica Mars and The Spanish Tragedy have Machiavellian characters, though it can be argued whether they are villains or not. In Spanish Tragedy, both Don Hieronomo and Bel-Imperia act Machiavellian in the way they ensnare Don Lorenzo and Don Balthazar into their trap. Bel-Imperia shames Don Hieronomo into actively enacting revenge, which prompts Don Hieronomo into setting his plan in action. Together, Bel-Imperia and Don Hieronomo methodically convince the two that they have made amends with each other in order to persuade them to participate in the play.
In Veronica Mars, Veronica is the penultimate Machiavellian in the way she adopts a myriad of different personas, each one fitted to the particular situation she finds herself in. She assesses each situation and acts in a manner that will be the most productive to what she is trying to achieve. Sometimes, it is the way she speaks to a person, commanding or demure; at other times, she falsifies her identity completely in order to gain information. She plays people against each other if it will help her to solve a case. Veronica is cunning and she often forgoes ethics in favour of end results.
In both The Spanish Tragedy and Veronica Mars, there are two characters who avenge a foul murder. Both stories are full of Elizabethan tragedy tropes: ghosts overseeing the the vengeance, the suffering heroines, corruption of the justice system, murders on stage, plays-within-a-play, madness, hesitations or lack thereof, and the Machiavellian characters. More importantly, however, are the morals that both stories leave the readers with. In The Spanish Tragedy, Kyd seems to suggest that vengeance only leads to further destruction. Although, Don Andrea’s ghost is pleased that his murderer and the murderer of his good friend, Don Horatio, have been killed, the price for such vengeance is high. Not only do Don Hieronomo and Bel-Imperia both die at their own hands because of their deeds, but they also become the very things they wish to destroy; murderers. The cost of vengeance is steep and results in death in the world of The Spanish Tragedy.
In Veronica Mars, the audience is left with a different moral,one that is not so easily drawn. Veronica seems to suffer more before she begins to avenge Lily Cane’s murder. She is raped after Lily’s murder but it occurs before she decides to actively avenge the murder. She suffers this horrendous physical trauma during her inaction. It is only after her friend’s death and her rape that she begins to take action and empowers herself to right injustice for not only herself, but others as well. However, Veronica does pay a large price for her vengeance. She becomes jaded and distrustful of others, which is a complete departure of her former self. She distances herself from allowing anyone to become close to her again. Duncan Cane, who ordered the assassination of Lily’s killer, pays an even heftier price of vengeance because he is forced to leave the country and be forever be on the run from the FBI.
Unlike Thomas Kyd, Rob Thomas seems to be suggesting that vengeance in a world full of corruption is not always completely destructive; however, it does always come with a cost. The cost may not result in the loss of life for the avenger, but it will result in a complete change of life. Both The Spanish Tragedy and Veronica Mars question Don Hieromo’s claim that,“To know the author were some ease of grief/ For, in revenge, my heart would find relief” (Spanish Tragedy II. IV). Relief does not seem to encompass what vengeance brings; satisfaction, perhaps, would be a more suitable term.
Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. Project Gutenberg. Release date: 4 June, 2009. Web. 14 April 2013.
Veronica Mars. Wri. Rob Thomas. Warner Bros. 2004. Television.
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