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Title: Revenge  
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Subject: Wiki Ed/University of South Florida/Intro to Literature (Fall 2015), Punishment, Revenge, Aponjon, Titus Andronicus
Collection: Action, Revenge
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Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, c. 1805-8.

Revenge is a harmful action against a person or group in response to a grievance, be it real or perceived. It is also called payback, retribution, retaliation or vengeance; it may be characterized as a form of justice (not to be confused with retributive justice), an altruistic action which enforces societal or moral justice aside from the legal system. Francis Bacon described it as a kind of "wild justice" that "does... offend the law [and] putteth the law out of office".[2]


  • Function in society 1
    • Revenge dynamics 1.1
  • History 2
  • Proverbs 3
  • In the arts 4
  • In Literature 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7

Function in society

Engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating the Erinyes, chthonic deities of vengeance and death
Shakespeare's Hamlet tells a history in which a man avenged the murder of his father by killing his uncle[3] (Artist: Gustave Moreau)

Detractors argue that revenge is simply wrong, of the same design as "two wrongs make a right".

Social psychologist Ian Mckee says the desire for the sustenance of power motivates vengeful behavior as a means of impression management: "People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status. They don't want to lose face."[4][5]

Revenge dynamics

Some societies encourage the revengeful behavior which is called blood feud. These societies usually attribute the honour of individuals and groups a central role. Thus, while protecting of his reputation an avenger feels as if he restores the previous state of dignity and justice. According to Michael Ignatieff, "revenge is a profound moral desire to keep faith with the dead, to honour their memory by taking up their cause where they left off".[6] Thus, honour may become a heritage that passes from generation to generation. Whenever it is compromised, the affected family or community members might feel compelled to retaliate against an offender to restore the initial "balance of honour" that preceded the perceived injury. This cycle of honour might expand by bringing the family members and then the entire community of the new victim into the brand-new cycle of revenge that may pervade generations.[7]


German announcement of killing 2300 civilians in Kragujevac massacre as retaliation for 10 killed German soldiers. Nazi-occupied Serbia, 1941

Feuds are cycles of provocation and retaliation, fuelled by a burning desire for revenge and carried out over long periods of time by familial or tribal groups; they were an important part of many pre-industrial societies, especially in the Mediterranean region. They still persist in some areas, notably in Albania with its tradition of gjakmarrja or "blood feuds".[8] During the Middle Ages, most would not regard an insult or injury as settled until it was avenged, or, at the least, paid for — hence, the extensive Anglo-Saxon system of wergild (literally, "man-price") payments, which placed a certain monetary value upon certain acts of violence in an attempt to limit the spiral of revenge by codifying the responsibility of a malefactor.

Blood feuds are still practised in many parts of the world, including Kurdish regions of Turkey and in Papua New Guinea.[9][10]

In Japan's feudal past, the Samurai class upheld the honour of their family, clan, or lord through the practice of revenge killings (敵討ち katakiuchi). These killings could also involve the relatives of an offender. Today, katakiuchi is most often pursued by peaceful means, but revenge remains an important part of Japanese culture.

The motto of Scotland is Nemo me impune lacessit, Latin for "Nobody shall provoke/injure me with impunity". The origin of the motto reflects the feudal clan system of ancient Scotland, particularly the Highlands.

The goal of some legal systems is limited to "just" revenge — in the fashion of the contrapasso punishments awaiting those consigned to Dante's Inferno, some have attempted to turn the crime against the criminal, in clever and often gruesome ways.

Modern Western legal systems usually state as their goal the reform or re-education of a convicted criminal. Even in these systems, however, society is considered the victim of a criminal's actions, and the notion of vengeance for such acts is an important part of the concept of justice — a criminal "pays his debt to society".

Psychologists have found that the thwarted psychological expectation of revenge may lead to issues of victimhood.


The popular expression "revenge is a dish best served cold" suggests that revenge is more satisfying if enacted when unexpected or long feared, inverting traditional civilized revulsion toward "cold-blooded" violence.[11]

The idea's origin is obscure. The French diplomat Talleyrand (1754–1838) has been credited with the saying La vengeance est un met que l'on doit manger froid [Revenge is a dish that must be eaten cold], albeit without supporting detail.[12] It has been in the English language at least since the 1846 translation of the 1845 French novel Mathilde by Joseph Marie Eugène Sue: la vengeance se mange très bien froide,[13] there italicized as if quoting a proverbial saying, and translated revenge is very good eaten cold.[14] It has been wrongly credited[15] to the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782).

Its path to modern popularity may begin with the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets which had revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold. The familiar wording appears in the film Death Rides a Horse (1967), in the novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969), as if from an "old Klingon Proverb" in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and again in the title sequence of the Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) wherein it was jestfully cited as a Klingon proverb.

Another proverb states: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." It goes 复仇者必自绝. Yet another version, 子不复仇,非子也, proposes that a gentleman who does not take revenge is not a gentleman. Confucius's take on revenge advocates an immediacy of action: 寝苫枕干,不仕,弗与共天下也。遇诸市朝,不反兵而斗. Essentially, Sleep rough and stay vigilant. Do not coexist on this earth with your adversary. Whether you encounter him in the streets or at the Court, kill him at once.

The phrase has also been credited to the Pashto people of Afghanistan.[16]

In the arts

Igagoe buyuden. This is an episode from a popular story of revenge--how the son of a murdered samurai tracked the killer over all Japan.

Revenge is a popular subject across many forms of art. Some examples include the painting Herodias' Revenge by Juan de Flandes and the opera Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In Japanese art, revenge is a theme in various woodblock prints depicting the Revenge of the Forty-Seven Ronin by many well-known and influential artists, including Kuniyoshi. The Chinese playwright Ji Junxiang used revenge as the central theme in his theatrical work The Orphan of Zhao;[17] it depicts more specifically familial revenge, which is placed in the context of Confucian morality and social hierarchical structure.[18]

Some modern societies use tales of revenge to provide catharsis, or to condition their members against acting out of desire for retribution. In many of these works, tragedy is compounded when the person seeking revenge realizes they have become what they wished to destroy. However, in others, the consummation is depicted as satisfying and cathartic.

In Literature

Revenge is a popular theme found in literature through out history and continues to be found in modern and contemporary works of today. Notable examples of literature that feature revenge as a theme include the plays Hamlet and Othello by William Shakespeare, the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and the short story "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe. More modern examples include the novels Carrie by Steven King and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Other examples are the Greek myths of Medea, and the novel The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

See also


  1. ^ ~~~~caitlynwhite123 "Alas, poor man! grief has so wrought on him, He takes false shadows for true substances." (3.2.6)
  2. ^
  3. ^ The Killing Scene: Hamlet 5.2.303–309.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Ian McKee, PhD. 2008. Social Justice Research (Vol. 138, No. 2)
  6. ^ Brandon Hamber and Richard A. Wilson, Symbolic Closure through Memory, Reparation and Revenge in Post-conflict Societies (Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 1999)
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Peacemaker breaks the ancient grip of Albania's blood feuds". CSM June 24, 2008
  9. ^ "Blood feuds and gun violence plague Turkey's southeast". Reuters. May 5, 2009
  10. ^ "Deadly twist to PNG's tribal feuds". BBC News. August 25, 2005
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
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