There are some themes in the visual and performing arts that stand the test of time. Despite thousands of years, hundreds of wars, and political upheaval spanning from one end of the globe to the other, there are topics that artists address again and again. One of the most enduring themes in the history of dramatic literature is that of Revenge. The concept of Revenge is present in Euripides’ Medea, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the musical Chicago, written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. While the theme of Revenge is present in the literature of each era, the playwrights’ treatment of the theme evolves through the centuries.
Euripides wrote Medea in the fifth century BC, during the height of creativity in ancient Greece. The tragedy is based on the Greek myth of Jason, and tells the story of his life after his adventures with the Golden Fleece. Medea is the primary character, and she is distraught because her husband, Jason, has abandoned her to marry a princess. They argue, and Jason suggests that he will continue to support her, even keep her as his mistress. Medea reminds him that she left her family to marry him, and that he would be dead if it weren’t for her. Ultimately, Jason leaves, and Medea begins to plot against him. By the end of the play, she has poisoned Glauce (the princess), and Glauce’s father (King Creon). In the final scenes, she even murders her own children in an effort to exact her revenge upon her husband, Jason (Packard 378).
Early in the play, Euripides suggests that Medea is justified in feeling betrayed by her husband. The Chorus is sympathetic to Medea’s situation. Later, however, the treatment of Medea as a character becomes less sympathetic. While the murder of Glauce and King Creon is unforgivable, Medea’s murder of her own children is absolutely horrifying. It is so disturbing that it distances the audiences and makes it impossible to feel any sympathy for her. So although Medea is justified in her feelings of betrayal, her vengeance is so horrifying that the tables are turned, and Jason is ultimately the character with whom we sympathize. Perhaps it is the worldview of Greek society, particularly their less than equal views regarding women, which influenced this treatment of the Medea myth.
While Medea wasted no time in exacting her revenge on Jason, another character’s indecision has been analyzed for hundreds of years. William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600 in Elizabethan England. The play revolves around Hamlet’s desire for revenge after his uncle kills his father, the King of Denmark, and marries his mother, the Queen. Early in the play, the ghost of Hamlet’s late father urges Hamlet to seek vengeance. Hamlet concocts a plan to prove his uncle’s guilt, and even feigns madness to further his goals. Along the way, Hamlet kills Polonius by mistake, and is at least indirectly responsible for the suicide of the innocent Ophelia. Despite all of this, Shakespeare never sways in his depiction of Hamlet as justified in his efforts to avenge his father. Ultimately, Hamlet does reveal Claudius as his father’s murderer, and kills him. He dies a sympathetic hero, quite different from Euripides’ treatment of Medea. The society of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era held virtues such as loyalty and honor in high regard. It is no surprise that those virtues are upheld in Shakespeare’s treatment of Revenge themes in Hamlet.
The play, Chicago, was originally written by Maurine Dallas Watkins in 1926, and adapted into the well-known musical version by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb in 1975 (Elliot). In the opening scenes of the musical, the character of Roxie Hart shoots and kills her boyfriend, Fred, when she discovers he’s been lying to her about her potential career as a jazz singer. The audience is also introduced to the character of Velma Kelly, who killed both her sister and her own husband after discovering they were having an affair. Both Roxie and Velma knowingly murder their unarmed betrayers. The treatment of revenge in Chicago is quite different from that of Medea and Hamlet. In Chicago, revenge isn’t even the primary story line. It is the set-up in what becomes an entertaining musical comedy. Despite knowing these two women are guilty of murder, the audience is inclined to root for their success. They are both murderers and liars, and yet Watkins allows the audience to be charmed by these two women, despite the fact that there are other characters in the play more deserving of our sympathy. The 1920s in Chicago were a time of sensationalized news coverage, bootlegging, jazz music, and a newfound social freedom for women (Whitley). This cavalier attitude towards murder and revenge, which is quite different from the attitudes depicted in Medea and Hamlet, is a direct result of the 1920s era Chicago in which the play was written.
Despite being written hundreds, even thousands, of years apart, Medea, Hamlet, and Chicago share the common theme of Revenge. The treatment of this theme by each playwright is a result of the attitudes of the era in which they lived. Medea is ultimately billed as the villain. Hamlet is praised as a hero, albeit a slow, meticulous one. Velma and Roxie are excused of their crimes, and even celebrated for them. These characters are not only tied to the playwright that conceived them, but also to the era in which the playwrights lived.
Elliot, John. “Maurine Dallas Watkins WebsiteChicago.” Productions: Chicago (1926 to Present) (maurinewatkins.com). N.p., 17 Dec. 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.
Packard, William, David Pickering, and Charlotte Savidge. The Facts on File Dictionary of the Theatre. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Print.
Whitley, Peggy. “Lone Star College – Kingwood.” American Cultural History: 1920-1929. N.p., May 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.