English - A bloody good show

Think Pulp Fiction is violent? The Jacobeans got there first

Jerome Monahan

Watching fresh-faced students and their teachers emerge from a carnivalesque production of John Ford's 17th-century tragedy 'Tis Pity She's A Whore recently, it was hard not to reflect on changing tastes and styles in British education. That a tale of sibling incest, set against a background of prevailing immorality and scenes of quite frightful violence, is considered suitable fare for class trips is, in some ways, pretty astonishing.

Thanks to their sadistic horrors, twisted sexual relationships and doom-laden narratives, early 17th-century revenge tragedies spent a lot of time in the wilderness during the 18th and 19th centuries, but now enjoy renewed respectability. They are rarely off A-level literature syllabuses and appear to be enjoying a renaissance in London theatre: the latest production of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's The Changeling (1622) ran to healthy houses earlier this year and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi(c.1614) recently opened at the Old Vic.

Thomas Middleton has been likened to a Jacobean Quentin Tarantino, whose iconic brand of violent anti-heroes, with their extraordinary yet somehow comic viciousness, are almost perfectly matched by the choreographed violence of Middleton's character Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy (1605-06).

Just as someone being accidentally shot in the head is the source of dark humour in Pulp Fiction, so there is a strong sense of brutal playfulness in Jacobean and Caroline revenge drama. Perhaps the main attraction for us in a modern expedient age, however, is that these plays depict central characters driven by the desire for justice while battling the corruption of a ruling elite. Eventually, taking matters into their own hands, they are driven to revenge and violence.

"'Twas we two murdered him," Vindice says in The Revenger's Tragedy, eager for public recognition of his deed, despite the fact that the admission sees him led away to a speedy execution.

And it is entirely in line with modern anxieties that those who are still standing at the end of the narrative - and are in a position to demand such summary justice - are often themselves deeply flawed. The cynicism of these plays fits perfectly with Tarantino and his disturbing view of our modern times.

Jerome Monahan is a freelance teacher and journalist. He provides inset and pupil enrichment workshops both nationally and internationally.


The Duchess of Malfiis being performed at the Old Vic in South London until 9 June. www.oldvictheatre.com

Introduce students to the style, people and architecture of Jacobean England with anna_wex's photo slideshow.

For a change from Shakespeare, explore another Jacobean literary great, Christopher Marlowe, with a resource from Miss_s_k.

Further reading:

- Gibson, R. Shakespearean and Jacobean Tragedy (Cambridge Contexts in Literature), 2001. Cambridge University Press

- Blakemore Evans, G. ed. Elizabethan-Jacobean Drama, 1987. AC Black

- McEvoy, S. Coult, T. and Sandford, C. Tragedy: a student handbook, 2009. English and Media Centre


Can you add to the list of suitable Jacobean tragedies for GCSE studies?

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources030.

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Jerome Monahan

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