Spring School Historical Performance Studies

Caroline Baetens wrote a report on the Spring School on medieval and early modern performance studies in Groningen (Van Swinderen Huys), which was organised by Ghent University (GEMS, Thalia, Doctoral School AHL), University of Groningen, University of Göttingen, the Huizinga Institute and the Dutch Research School for Medieval Studies.

Report workshop ‘Revisiting Revenge. New Perspectives for the Study of Revenge Tragedies (late 16th–early 18th century)’, 16-17 Sept 2021, Ghent University

by Caroline Baetens

The conference workshop ‘Revisiting Revenge’ was initiated by the research groups THALIA and GEMS and organized by their members Tom Laureys, Kornee van der Haven and Jürgen Pietersin the context of a BOF-funded research project Radical Revenge? Revenge tragedy and providential thinking in the Dutch Republic 1638-1678. The workshop was furthermore related to a project about violence and the spectacular in the Netherlands between 1630 and 1690 (ITEMP). The workshop took place on the 16th and 17th of September 2021 at Ghent University’s Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. Although most speakers gave their presentation in the auditorium, considering the current pandemic participants were also able to give and follow lectures online, making it a hybrid conference.

As revenge plays traditionally have been assigned a secondary role in literary and early modern studies, this conference aimed to demonstrate the genre’s broader cultural relevance. Scholars came together to discuss how early modern European revenge plays participated in contemporary political, religious, philosophical, legal, economic and gender discourses. Questions ranged from ‘how does the genre of revenge tragedies position itself against the biblical tenet against personal revenge?’ to ‘what is the relationship between revenge and gender?’. Sixteen lectures were therefore divided into five sessions based on the speakers’ focus on gender, politics, the passions, the history of ideas or religion. Two keynote presentations by Prof. Russ Leo and Prof. Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly completed the program and brought together the different aspects of revenge tragedy. 

Judith beheading Holofernes (ca. 1598-1599) by Caravaggio

  1. Revenge tragedy and gender

During the first session, lecturers focused on the role of gender in revenge displayed on the scene. The function and impact of the avenging characters’ gender in the planning and the execution of revenge was further analyzed. Female and male avenging characters were compared to create a deeper understanding of the masculine and feminine gender roles in revenge tragedies and, by extension, in the early modern society.

Not only the two dominant gender identities were discussed; Karoline Baumann also noticed hybrid, ambiguous and fluent gender performances in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Coriolanus. Among other characters, the ‘wayward sisters’ were named to illustrate this gender-bending. The complex gender expression of the avenging characters of these plays simultaneously demonstrates Shakespeare’s belief in a fixed gender role and an awareness that not all people fit those predetermined classifications.

One of the recurring topics and ideas during the lectures and discussions of this session was women’s agency and power, and its ambiguous depiction in revenge tragedies. In analyzing the effect of the rape and mutilation of Lavinia in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Mohammadreza Hassanzadeh Javanian observed a renewed authority in the silent presence of the violated Lavinia on stage. Nonetheless the dominant gaze of the male characters and the public on the victim creates a complex dynamic of power and authority in the patriarchal world on and off stage. Adam Hansen further analyzed how female characters appropriate this male power of gazing in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling to create their own authority. He related the 17th century’s scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of the eye and vision to the way in which vision and vengeance are related in this play.

Merel Waeyaert closed the session with a paper about the mythological references in the speech and characterization of Juliane in Geeraardt Brandt’s De veinzende Torquatus. Just as in the earlier presentation of Mohammadreza Hassanzadeh Javanian, the literary trope of a vengeance over a rape victim was the topic of Merel Waeyaerts lecture. During the play, Juliane is associated with the mythological figures of Lucretia, Media, the Furies and Nemesis creating a threefold evolution in her characterization which creates new meaning to her vengeance.

2. Revenge tragedy and politics

The second session examined the way in which revenge tragedies the interaction between revenge tragedies and the contemporary. Central questions were ‘in what way does revenge tragedies reflect on national traumas?’ and ‘how does the genre adopt a position in the political debates such as the one about sovereignty of the national leader?’. The discrepancy between not only private and public, but also irrational and rational revenge were already introduced during the first session but got further investigation within the following two lectures by Marco Prandoni and Isabel von Holt.

Both scholars discussed revenge in genres that were not traditionally considered to be revenge plays: Dutch historical plays and German Baroque Trauerspiel or mourning plays. Marco focused on the Floris V-plays and Vondel’s Gysbrecht van Aemstel, while Isabel talked about the first and second version of Gryphius’s Carolus Stuardus and Von Lohenstein’s Agrippina. In his presentation, Marco revealed the different conceptualizations and functions of revenge, vengeance, and divine providence in four plays about the conspiracy against and death of count Floris V. Isabel illustrated the ambiguity in the self-description of the allegorical personification of Revenge. Revenge is seen as both a rational, righteous, even divine, punishment, and as an irrational, vicious desire or thirst for violence.

3. Revenge tragedy and the passions

The following lectures by Vanessa Lim and Kornee van der Haven investigated the relation between revenge and the passions. This session questioned how internal thoughts, desires and passions relate to revenge and how they help shape the revenge portrayed in the tragedies. Furthermore, relations between internal contemplations on and external acts of revenge, and between rational thought and irrational desire, were examined.

Vanessa Lim discussed the rhetorical strategies of deliberation in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to demonstrate its central role in deciding on revenge.Hamlet’s doubt and contemplation both demonstrate how he verbally attempts to turn himself into an avenger and encourage the spectators to ask themselves the same questions about retribution. The play gives early modern public and modern scholars an example of the Renaissance’s ideal of rhetorical deliberation.

These internal thoughts and desires were further analyzed in Kornee van der Havens paper about revenge in the neoclassical poetics and practice. By analyzing the tragedies of Claas Bruin, he demonstrated how the neoclassical decorum does not result in a complete lack of revenge on scene, but in an internalization of the revenge and a concentration on the underlying passions and desires.

4. Revenge tragedy and the history of ideas

During the fourth session David Manning, Yağmur Tatar, Caitlín Rankin-McCabe and Anne-Valérie Dulac discussed revenge in its relation to the history of ideas. Early modern revenge tragedy was used as a tool to reconstruct contemporary intellectual thought and imagery, such as fashion and afterlife. The central question of this session could be summarized as ‘how was revenge given shape in philosophical and religious thought and discourse, and how did literature and theatre reflect or divert from these conceptions?’.

In his presentation about Behn’s Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge, historian David Manning emphasised the importance of historical contextualization of early modern texts. He approached the play from a historian’s standpoint to reconstruct the tragedy’s meaning of the past, opposing modern literary interpretations and what he considered as anachronistic classifications of the play as a ‘slave narrative’. By doing this, he sparked a discussion about the importance of modern interpretation and historical contextualization in literary studies.

Yağmur Tatar used Bakhtin’s definition of the carnivalesque to describe revenge in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. She examined how the carnivalesque and saturnalian imagery, such as food, disease, and animals, are related to the revenge of the plebeians on Coriolanus, and, conversely, of Coriolanus on the people of Rome. By examining this carnivalesque in not only Shakespeare’s, but also his contemporaries’, works, we could obtain a better understanding of the carnivalesque in the Renaissance.

Caitlín Rankin-McCabe analysed the ambiguous nature of figures that stand between life and death in four different plays: ghosts and spirits in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Julius Caesar, the character Revenge in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and Andrugio in John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge. The protagonists’ doubt about their either holy or infernal nature makes the public question their belief in and image of the supernatural and afterlife. The session about the history of ideas was closed with a paper by Anne-Valérie Dulac about fabrics, textiles, and fashions in Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. The characters’ costumes and verbal references to their clothes could tell us something more about the Jacobean concern with changing fashions.

5. Revenge tragedy and religion

The last four lectures of the workshop revolved around revenge and religion. Scholars explored early modern revenge tragedies’ reflection on and response to Christian discourse and debate on revenge. The reflections on and representations of divine providence and the biblical message of divine retribution were sought in early modern revenge tragedy.

Tragedies related to the different branches of Christianity were furthermore compared to create a better understanding of the conceptualizations and moral connotations of revenge. Aiming for such an understanding of the variation of Christian revenge, Anne G. Graham compared a French protestant and Catholic biblical play: Robert Garnier’s Les Juifves and Théodore de Bèze’s Abraham sacrifiant. The plays illustrate trust in the divine providence, but also demonstrate God’s capacity of violence while taking vengeance.

The relation between justice and revenge in a Christian setting was discussed by Sarah Fengler during her presentation about Racine’s Christian school play Athalie. By analyzing the different narratives of revenge in the play and examining the religious and political justifications for revenge made by the character Joad, she showed how conflicting Christian morals and ideas on revenge are represented in revenge tragedies.

The Christian morals were furthermore discussed by Dinah Wouters. In her study of Joseph plays she noticed a sudden presence of revenge in the Jesuit school plays after 1600. While Joseph plays mostly focus on justice and forgiveness, in Latin school plays revenge is interwoven in both the main and sub-plot: Joseph considers revenge instead of immediately choosing forgiveness.

Tom Laureys’s chosen subject for his closing lecture was the representation of seventeenth-century theological discussions and debates in revenge. He discussed how excessive violence on stage confronts the theatre audiences with the discussions surrounding the existence of evil and God’s responsibility for this evil.

6. Revenge tragedy in all its aspects

The keynote lectures by Russ Leo and Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly brought together the different themes and topics surrounding revenge tragedy discussed by the other scholars. Russ Leo’s discussion of Oudaen’s Servetus, a play about an executed heretic,did not only tap into religious discourses of collegian and anti-trinitarian movements, but was also closely related to contemporary political issues. As a reproduction of historical events, the analyzed play feels like a documentary drama.

Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly noticed the variation in the Christian concept of revenge by observing and comparing three Protestant and one Catholic revenge play. Her lecture revealed different concepts and motivations of revenge, depending on the Christian confession involved.  but also drew a comparison between private and public revenge. The operatic firework drama in Italian, performed in Munich for the baptism of the son of Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria and Henriette Adelaïde of Savoy, depicted a Senecan Medea at war with the gods and with the cosmos which ended with a tableau of Christian salvation as embodied by the Elector of Bavaria and his son. She contrasted this work with three Protestant plays in which God intervenes to punish human sin and error. These plays exemplify the biblical statement: ‘Revenge is mine saith the Lord’.

Both keynote speakers paid close attention to performativity, theatricality, and the practical side of staging revenge tragedies. Russ Leo shed light on the risk, the effect and reaction of unbelievable and unrealistic spectacle in the Senecan plays. Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly furthermore discussed costumes, staging and decor to illustrate the spectacularism of the Munich firework drama.  She, moreover, related early modern visualisations of the allegorical figure of Revenge to such sources as emblem books and iconology.

Frontispiece of Jan Vos’s revenge play Aran en Titus (1641)

Although presentations were divided into five sessions, topics and discussions overstepped the boundaries of the different thematic groups: literary tropes like vengeance for a chaste rape victim, allusions to the nation and sovereignty, mythological references, the ambiguity of revenge and the oppositions between private and public, irrational and rational, human and divine, unjust and just revenge, were interwoven in all the sessions and discussions. During the question rounds scholars were furthermore challenged to approach their primary texts with other frameworks related to the other sessions.

The choice to discuss early modern revenge tragedy from a pan-European perspective led to a broad variation in approaches, topics, and texts. Firstly, a historian’s perspective on and approach to literature complemented the literary scholars’ presentations. Furthermore, national differences in the literary conventions surrounding revenge tragedy were noticed and the causes for the dissimilarities were sought; for example, the harshness of the German theatre in comparison to the English or Dutch tradition may be related to their educational and moral function or lack thereof. Moreover, not only plays traditionally conceived as revenge tragedies were topics of discussion, but different genres and theatrical aspects were presented. Lastly, during most presentations there was attention for visual and material sources, such as the image of Revenge as a personification and the costumery.

In the picture: ‘Racine et les trois publics de l’amour’ by Delphine Calle

GEMS researchers are frequently publishing new articles, books, book chapters, edited volumes and blogs. In ‘in the picture’ we put a spotlight on a recent publication of one of our members.

Delphine Calle, Racine et les trois publics de l’amour, Leiden, Brill, “Faux Titre”, 2021.

In Racine et les trois publics de l’amour Delphine Calle unravels the seductive power of Racinian tragedy by situating it within the philosophical, theological, and theatrical debates on love that pervaded 17th-century France. Whether it is staged as concupiscence or pure love, as self-love or the desire to please, love is at the heart of Racinian theatre: it sparks tragic action and moves its spectators.

So, who are these ‘three audiences of love’? The tragic lover in Racine’s theatre is not only scrutinized by the real audience, who is passionate about passion, he also feels the gaze of his loved one and of his own conscience, that questions the value of his love. These complex interactions between the self and the other on stage are given a passionate response off stage. This monograph thus aligns amorous and theatrical experiences, in order to reveal Racine’s dramaturgy of love.

GEMS in portraits: dr. Christopher Chan

William Hogarth’s painting The Distrest Poet (c. 1736), source: Wikimedia Commons. Poets were often satirically portrayed as struggling impoverished hack writers. In his project, Chris thinks in part about the similarities and differences between such satirical portrayals and how actual labouring poets thought about their craft.

GEMS in Portraits: Dr. Christopher Chan

I recently had the chance to talk to new GEMS member Dr. Chris Chan for our GEMS in Portraits series. Chris completed his PhD in English at the University of Pennsylvania in 2020 with a dissertation called Communal Lyricisms and the Lyricization of English Poetry, 1650–1790. In his project he aims to construct a new literary, social and political history of eighteenth-century British lyrical poetry by turning to how more uncommon genres (such as labouring class poetry, political exile poetry and anti-slavery poetry) engaged with the lyric form. He recently moved to Belgium to start a BOF postdoctoral fellowship at the Department of Literary Studies at UGent where he is expanding his dissertation project into a monograph. While he’s busy settling in in Ghent, Chris still found the time to chat about his current research interests and first impressions of teaching and working at UGent.

How did your interest in your research arise?

When I was a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, for the first three years I had no idea what I wanted to study and which burning questions I wanted to address. I felt like I knew a lot about eighteenth-century poetry, but I didn’t know how to put that to scholarly use. Then, for a mandatory graduate seminar, we were required to write a single, 25-word sentence explaining what our projects were, and in a moment of panic I wrote: “my project rereads lyric across the eighteenth century, not as private or interiorized expression, but rather as the enabling condition for a British public national consciousness.” Looking back, it was the first time that I asked myself a question which had nagged me throughout my exam reading: why were so many theorists of lyric poetry so interested primarily in private and interiorized poetry and poets rather than more explicitly public and national ones? Why was lyric poetry so often theorized in these abstract and apolitical terms? The more I thought about it, the more I realized it probably has to do with the historiography of lyric poetry: the idea that critics presume that somehow the eighteenth century just didn’t have much lyric poetry worth writing about until poets learned to tap into the emotions or imagination. That’s how my idea arose to trace a new history of eighteenth-century lyric poetry and theory, to show that poets and their interlocutors understood lyric to be a really flexible medium for political and social expression.

Do you consider your research to be interdisciplinary?

I often personally feel that my research to date on eighteenth-century poetry has been primarily literary. I feel as though I have spent most of my time and energy interrogating the making of a poetic mode, the ways we have read that poetic mode and how that making shaped later discourses and methods of reading poetry. That’s why I think of this as a very literary project. At the same time, I’m extremely interested in putting poems and theories of poetry in contact with events, subjects and themes that have long been ignored in lyric theory, such as political exile, urban poverty and manual labour. I’m not sure if this ethos counts as interdisciplinary, but I do see it as a much-needed extension of literary theories of poetry into realms and genres that are so often classified as non-lyrical or non-poetic, precisely because these defy expectations of what poets do or should write about. I’m certainly very interested in the intersections of poems and their environments and how poems circulate in their material and political environments.

Have you ever experienced a eureka moment in your research?

It’s probably the moment I described earlier, when I discovered my dissertation topic. Second to that is the moment when I figured out what I wanted to say about anti-slavery poetry and eighteenth-century review culture. It took me a long time to figure out how I wanted to read anti-slavery poetry just because there is already so much excellent scholarly criticism on that genre. It was only after a spontaneous moment in my reading, that I realized that there has been comparatively less said about the reception of this poetry. In particular, I noticed two general trends in reviews of anti-slavery poetry. On the one hand, poems which denounced the slave trade would be praised for their political message, but the reviews would offer few excerpts or commentary on their formal and aesthetic features. On the other hand, there were also poems that received much more criticism for their misuse of poetic language and imagination than they did for their antislavery sentiments. This got me thinking: why were these reviewers not thinking of these two ideas—the politics and the poetry—together? Once I started thinking a lot about the matter of reception, I realized that this was a sort of litmus test for how I wanted to read all the genres I wanted to cover in my project: how were these poems, which we now tend to think of as non-lyrical or marginalized, received in their time? What can that reception tell us about how we think of lyric today?

What is the most inspiring study you have read?

One of the most inspiring studies I have read is one by my doctoral advisor, Suvir Kaul’s Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire (2000). I consider his study to be foundational to a lot of my research. Any scholar of eighteenth-century poetry widely recognizes just how influential Kaul’s study is in terms of attending to British poets’ engagements and implications in the project of empire building, as well as the technical features and formal innovations of their poetry. For me, this book has always modelled the best kind of criticism that one can practice on poetry of this period. It’s judicious in its close readings, forthright in its methodological claims and capacious in its willingness to put eighteenth-century poetry in dialogue with its historical context. On a more personal note, Poems of Nation is so important to me because it displays the same qualities of scholarly precision, professional clarity and readerly generosity that Suvir showed me as an advisor at the University of Pennsylvania.

And the most recent one?

I have been really fascinated by Dorothy Wang’s Thinking its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary American Poetry (2014). While she works with a completely different literary archive than I do, Wang makes a vital and compelling case for rethinking the methodology of poetics through the legacies of racialization, ethnicization and minoritarian identity in the United States. I find her willingness to read aesthetic and literary forms as social, political and institutional forms to be so admirable. Speaking as a Chinese American myself, I’m especially grateful for the ways in which her close readings of Asian American poets don’t merely hold them up as exceptional figures, but rather as experimental ones, as poets whose practices should get us to rethink everything we think we know about poetry.

Interview by: Fauve Vandenberghe

In the picture: Brandt’s De Veinzende Torquatus (1645), Providentially Assigned Stadtholders and the Politics of Rational Deception by Tom Laureys

GEMS researchers are frequently publishing new articles, books, book chapters, edited volumes and blogs. In ‘in the picture’ we put a spotlight on a recent publication of one of our members.

Tom Laureys, “‘I, Who Used to Serve as Jupiter’s Lightning on Earth’: Geeraerdt Brandt’s De Veinzende Torquatus (1645), Providentially Assigned Stadtholders and the Politics of Rational Deception” in Dutch Crossing. Journal of Low Countries Studies (2019).

In this article, I show that Geeraerdt Brandt’s popular Dutch revenge tragedy De veinzende Torquatus (‘The feigning Torquatus’, 1645) engages with the political debates concerning the rightful succession of monarchs based on primogeniture, and – be it in a grotesque, even parodic way – the Calvinistic belief that the Dutch stadtholders were God’s providential instruments, assigned to guide His chosen people. Moreover, I show that the play offers a confrontation between two conflicting conceptions of power. The play’s eponymous protagonist holds what I call an intellectual (idealistic) conception of power, in which man’s rational faculty, including his capacity for rational deception, is all-decisive. This vision, though, clashes with the more physical (materialistic) conceptualization of power which Torquatus’s antagonist Noron upholds. I’m pretty proud about this publication, since it is my first A1 article and the manuscript was accepted by the reviewers without further remarks. The review process took about five months, but I was astonished by the speed with which the actual production took place. Within a couple of days, the article was available online. Soon it will be allocated to a specific issue in print.

In the picture: “Enhancing the Research on Sophistry in the Renaissance” by Teodoro Katinis

GEMS researchers are frequently publishing new articles, books, book chapters, edited volumes and blogs. In ‘in the picture’ we put a spotlight on a recent publication of one of our members.

Teodoro Katinis, “Enhancing the Research on Sophistry in the Renaissance” in T. Katinis (ed.), The Sophistic Renaissance: Authors, Texts, Interpretations, in Philosophical Readings XI.2 (2019), special issue, 58-62.

“My contribution introduces the first collection of essays ever published on the legacy of ancient sophists in the Latin and vernacular Renaissance, and considers possible research developments in the field over the next years. This collection is the final result of a conference held at Ca’ Foscari University (Venice 2016) that I organized at the end of my Marie Curie fellowship to gather international experts to discuss a very understudied subject: the rebirth of sophistry in early modern Europe. This Philosophical Readings special issue, which is an open-access online publication, can interest scholars and students from several fields, including intellectual history, classical reception studies, neo-Latin and romance languages literature, and history of philosophy, among others. I hope this work  will encourage young researches and colleagues to further the investigation of the fascinating way in which the ‘villains’ of the ancient culture (according to Plato and Aristotle) became a subject of debate and fundamental reference from 15th to 17th-century to discuss skepticism, relativism and the power of rhetoric.”