“When Tongues Replace Swords: Somatic Transgression and Its Shifting Performance in Early Modern Revenge Tragedy” By Ana Maria Fernandez

When Tongues Replace Swords: Somatic Transgression and Its Shifting Performance in Early Modern Revenge Tragedy

Essay by Ana Maria Fernandez

Art by Maya Parker

The early modern tragic stage added to its cast of players the unruly member of the tongue. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy all dramatize the tongue’s power to transgress the boundaries of the body and interfere with bodily integrity. Within these plays, the tongue performs much of the killing action that the Renaissance stage’s dagger, sword, and poniard, already enact. The difference, however, is that the tongue presents a genuine anxiety for the early modern playgoer. While the swords are fake and never lunged at an audience, the Renaissance tongue can spill forth like poison into ears and interfere with volatile entrails within. Kyd, Shakespeare, and Middleton utilize this curious early modern conceptualization of the tongue as a theatrical device that heightens the threat of spectacle. Evoking the audience’s genuine permeability to the tongue places tragic theatre closer to the shockingly real bodily transgressions of the bear garden and scaffold—its cousin and competing entertainments. Furthermore, the figure of the tongue permitted these playwrights to expand the types, or forms, of bodily transgressions that could be enacted onstage, beyond those which the blunted edge or censorship allowed. This essay focuses on three types of somatic transgression: sexual acts, corporeal punishment dictated by legal verdicts, and bodily decay.

Carla Mazzio’s illuminating essay “Sins of the Tongue in Early Modern England” examines the early modern conceptualization and attitudes surrounding the tongue. She includes the following emblem of the “Evill Tongue,” from George Wither’s 1635 Collection of Emblems, which captures the tongue’s uncanny nature and disturbing motion in a single striking image.


A key concept at work here, as Mazzio points out, is the “early modern nervousness” surrounding the tongue’s own agency as an organ that can separate from the body and act of its own accord, particularly to devious ends (97). Sermons and treatises, with titles such as The Taming of the Tongue (1619) and A Bridle for the Tongue (1663), also provide evidence that the tongue’s unruliness was a serious and ongoing concern (Mazzio 98). Even a comedy featuring a tyrannical literal tongue protagonist, Lingua, or, The combat of the tongue was published two years before the first performance of Hamlet (Mazzio 106). J. L. Simmons has also pointed out the biblical and classical origins of the perceived superfluous duplicity and sinful nature of the tongue in his essay “The Tongue and Its Office”. Within the Bible, the tongue is “ful of deadelie poyson” and sermons warn it is “a microcosm of evil” capable of infecting the whole body (James iii.8 qtd. in Simmons 60-1). Classical rhetoricians have also acknowledged the “destructive liabilities of rhetoric” at length, underpinning its potential to wreak havoc upon men (Simons 60).

While the Renaissance is definitely mistrustful of the tongue, its views on this “wilde member” must also be situated within the period’s psycho-physiological ideological system. Gail Paster’s Humouring the Body and David Hillman’s Shakespeare’s Entrails both attest to an early modern humoral, Galenic, microcosmic understanding of the human body in which the passions are a direct phenomenon of internal bodily disturbances. The early modern tongue, being a metonymy for language, is implicated within these humoral motions given that speech can become incorporated into a body. As Paster writes, “Spoken words, while not material entities themselves, were thought to produce material changes in the mind – and hence in the self that receives them” (“The Tragic Subject” 159).  

Given this conception of the force of the tongue, early modern revenge tragedy can be reconfigured as a spectacle of the tongue’s transgression. The texts of Revenger’s, Spanish Tragedy, and Hamlet all demonstrate an acute awareness of this function of the tongue when they remind the audience of their humoral permeability to the tongue. It is not only the characters who can be “scathed, whipped, defiled, and corrupted” by the tongues of actors, but also the playgoers. The audience’s immersion in the humoural sphere of the play is confirmed whenever they blush, laugh, or cry at the words spoken on stage. In Revenger’s, Vindice taunts, “Shall I tell thee? / If every trick were told that’s dealt by night, / There are few here that would not blush outright” (II.ii,153-4). Thus he reminds the audience that his words can also stir their inner passions.

Another signal of words becoming incorporated into the playgoer’s body is when they become palatable. After the Duke tells his secrets to Vindici so that “his heart stands o’th’outside,” the following exchange takes place.

Vindice: Oh, sweet, delectable, rare, happy, ravishing!

Hippolito: Why what’s the matter, brother?

Vindici: Oh ‘tis able

To make a man spring up and knock his forehead

Against yon silver ceiling!

Hippolito: Prithee tell me.

Why may not I partake with you? You vowed once

To give me share to every tragic thought.

Vindice: By th’Mass, I think I did too.

Then I’ll divide it to thee:   (3.5.1-11).

Vindice’s possession of the Duke’s secret is figured in terms of bodily ingestion. The secret’s delectable words are ravished by Vindice and taste sweet. Hipplito’s pun of “the matter” reinforces their material force. Words are indeed “able” and can make the audience’s bodies move like an internal, uncontrolled reflex. Vindice implies the secret will make the audience’s foreheads knock against the “silver ceiling” of the theatre roof. Hippolito then voices the audience’s desire to also get a taste of the secret. Vindice goes on to share a slice of his “tragic thought(s)” with those who are listening, and thus the words of the play are consumed by all in a communal process of bodily ‘ingestion’ or incorporation.

The shared humoral effect of words is also made reference to in the play’s opening subplot when Hippolito remarks, “My lord, since you invite us to your sorrows, / Let’s truly taste ‘em, that with equal comfort / As to ourselves we may relieve your wrongs. / We have grief too, that yet walks without tongue” (1.4.19-22). Addressing both the audience and the lords around him, Hippolito invites all ears to taste the words that literally provide a preamble to the onset of the play’s main plot. He also elucidates the way in which grief “walks” by nature of the tongue. Hence, the text not only constructs this phenomenon of the audience’s aural psycho-physiological permeability within the time-space of the playhouse, it also actively invokes and invites it to happen.

The playgoer’s enhanced awareness of the tongue’s transgressive powers, foregrounded by an already cemented cultural anxiety surrounding the tongue, makes the act of playwatching a more visceral and carnal experience. The illusion of performance fades and the more ‘flesh and blood’ humoral phenomenon of the tongue kicks in. In the same way special effects are used to enhance an audience’s perception that this is a ‘real’ event, so too is the tongue employed by Kyd, Shakespeare, and Middleton to make the threat of transgression feel more palpable, genuine and close—uncomfortably close perhaps. One must now approach the play’s confines at one’s own caution. The very real ‘beast’ of the tongue has been unleashed upon the early modern stage, much like the nearby bears tied to the stake. Thus the tongue functions as a theatrical device to increase excitement, risk, and ultimately the audience’s viewing pleasure.

The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, and Revenger’s are all plays that at times sheath the sword and replace it with the dramatic tongue. In Kyd’s play, the play-within-the-play “The Tragedy of Suleiman” becomes the instrument through which Hieronimo and Bel Imperia perform their revenge (4.4). The scene also explores metatheatrically the idea of dramatic spectacle performing real violence, as opposed to simulated violence. In a Black Swan (2010) moment, Bel Imperia (acting as Perseda) actually kills Balthazar (acting as Suleiman) and kills herself when enacting Perseda’s suicide. The stage directions “(stab him)” and “(stab herself)” loose their parenthetical aspect and become genuine (4.4.66-67). Having written the play, Hieronimo’s “vulgar tongue” is deemed the force behind this spectacle of real somatic transgression (4.4.75). Once the play-within-the-play ends, his authorial declaration is, “I am Hieronimo / […] Whose tongue is tuned to tell his latest tale, / […] See here my show. Look on this spectacle!” (4.4.83). Upon this blood-covered stage, Kyd’s tragedy directs our attention to the tongue’s dramatic capacity to perform, and not merely represent, bodily transgression.

In Hamlet the eponymous protagonist’s hesitation to enact any sort of transgression on the body of Claudius is finally resolved with the theatrical play-within-the-play device as well. Hamlet’s dramatic tongue is his chosen weapon of retaliation, unlike the fencing instrument that is instead thrust into his hand by the customs of a game in the final scene of the play. The two scenes of playing entertainment can be contrasted in terms of their metatheatricality (3.2. vs. 5.2). The text in fact invites a critical juxtaposition. Although Laertes’ choice of weapon is the “rapier and dagger,” Hamlet specifically commands, “Let the foils be brought” (5.2.158,188). And so the figurative foil to the tongue is brought onstage for us to draw comparisons. Both the tongue and the fencing foil are instruments of somatic transgression used in playing entertainments. However, only the tongue proves useful at its intended function during “The Mousetrap”. Claudius’ visible psychological distress is proof that Hamlet’s tongue succeeds in trespassing the boundaries of his body. Ear poison—is not coincidentally also the choice of murder weapon in Hamlet’s “Mousetrap.” As described by the Ghost of Hamlet Sr., its explicitly humoral “effect” upon the body is it “courses through / The natural gates and alleys of the body, / And with a sudden vigor it doth posset / And curd […] The thin and wholesome blood” (1.5.71-6). In contrast, Hamlet’s fencing foil is absolutely useless in regards to penetrating a body. The only time the fencing foil does transgress somatic boundaries is when its tip is poisoned. In other words, the actor’s sword is most theatrically compelling if it can actually kill, which of course would never happen. Hamlet’s scathingly inventive tongue, on the other hand, is just as dangerous as a real sword and can actually be used onstage. There it can flex its musculature and implore actors to “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced / it to you, trippingly on the tongue” (3.2.1-2). The audience can not only attest to which is the better weapon, but also to which scene is the most enthralling. The fencing scene only becomes exciting when the edges, rather than being blunted, become as sharp as the tongue’s. Therefore Hamlet demonstrates a textual shift in the way the somatic transgressions of violence and murder are to be performed onstage; it is a vocal endorsement of the tongue over the blunted sword.

Explorations of this exciting theatrical tool are best exemplified in Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. Evoking the beating wings of Wither’s tongue emblem, Carla Mazzio notes how “the literal and figurative range of the tongue rendered it particularly suitable for the articulation of collapsing distinctions, be they linguistic, socio-political, geographic, or cosmic” (99). Thus the tongue opens up the genre to a brand new set of bodily trespasses that can be enacted by drama.

Sexual intercourse, for example, has always been almost impossible to enact in drama, especially if a text requires it to be graphic. Middleton’s play, however, overcomes this age-old challenge by conflating sexual potency with tongues at the very onset of the play’s frame. The Duchess remarks, “O what it is to have an old-cool duke […] To be as slack in tongue as in performance” (1.2.74-75). Subsequently, the entire courting of Castiza enacts several varieties of somatic transgression through what Simmons calls “the action of verbal intercourse” (62). Lussurioso employs Vindici to this end, directing him to “with a smooth enchanting tongue / Bewitch her ears and cozen her of all grace. / Enter upon the portion of her soul, / Her honor, which she calls her chastity” (I.3.111-4). In this form of tongue-led transgression, bodily integrity is not only literally interfered with, but also figuratively in terms of Castiza’s chastity, morality, and virtue.

Although it is only Lussurioso who explicitly desires to trespass Castiza’s virgin body, all those involved in this lustful verbal pursuit end up being implicated in the sexual act as well. Vindici’s surrogate tongue, in performing the courting, is figured as “a thing of flesh and blood […] that would very desirously mouth to mouth with” his own sister (2.1.10-12). Likewise their mother, Gratiana, comments on how Vindici, “touch’d me nearly, made my virtues bate. / When his tongue struck upon my poor estate” (2.1.111-2). Thus the figure of the tongue allows for the dramatic representation of incestous desires and/or actions, which is a strongly subversive theme for the standards of the censored early modern stage.

Another sexual relation transgressive in itself that is dramatized by the tongue in Revenger’s is the one which Simmons identifies between Vindice and Lussurioso (63). After “impregnating” Vindice with his secret, Lussurioso declares “And thus I enter thee,” and “ravish me in thine answer,” among other innuendos (Simmons 63; Middleton 1.3.85; 2.2.20). The verbal intercourse enacted here crosses significant dramatic boundaries into homoerotic representations of sex, as well as borders between socio-political bodily distinctions, given that one is a prince and the other his malcontent.

Next, it is also possible to enact the somatic transgression performed by the language of the law and the tongues of judicial authorities. In Revenger’s, Junior Brother and Lussurioso have their “life between the judge’s lips” and the pleas of those that sit close to power (3.5.76). Junior Brother’s “token for [his] death” is a letter written by the tongue of the law and capable of condemning a man’s body to death (3.4.43). Hence transgression of bodily integrity via capital or corporeal punishment is figured as a function of the institutionalized and authoritative tongue. This enables the theatre to shift into the spectacles of punishment that traditionally have belonged to the entertainments of the scaffold in Renaissance England. Furthermore, retaliation and silencing of the tyrant’s abusive tongue is also enacted in the image of the Duke’s tongue nailed down to the working-class table (3.4.202). And so, once again, a controversial form of somatic trespassing manages to slither itself into representation in the early modern stage by the figure of the tongue.   

Finally, the last type of uncharted crossings these plays explore is that of the body in the after-life and what remains of its imperious tongue and its proclivities for somatic interference. The Ghost of Hamlet Sr. speaks from the dead, despite his body being lodged in purgatory. The extent to which his “tale” can trespass into Hamlet’s living body and “harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood” raises burning questions about the nature of words beyond the body and life (1.5.20-1). Similarly, Gloriana’s “prison house” of the body does not stop her lips from killing the Duke and ulcering his soul by nature of a poison called a “mortal curse” (Hamlet I.5.19; Revenger’s 3.5.103). Thus words bring back the dead but can also kill the living.

The transgressions of the tongue are shrouded in this ambivalence and mystery during the early modern period. However, it is plays like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy that begin to decipher the tongue’s power and dramaturgical potential through the very same systems of language that encode their plays “trippingly on all our tongues”.

Works Cited

Hillman, David. Shakespeare’s Entrails: Belief, Scepticism and the Interior of the

Body. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Kyd, Thomas. “The Spanish Tragedy.” A Norton Anthology of English Renaissance Drama, edited by David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus and Eric Rasmussen, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp.3-74.

Mazzio, Carla. “Sins of the Tongue in Early Modern England.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 28, no. 3/4, 1998, pp. 95–124. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3195467.

Middleton, Thomas. “The Revenger’s Tragedy.”A Norton Anthology of English Renaissance Drama, edited by David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus and Eric Rasmussen, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp.1297-1370.

Paster, Gail Kern. Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage.

Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004.

—. “The Tragic Subject and Its Passions.” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean

Tragedy, Version 2, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 152–170. Cambridge Companions to Literature, doi:10.1017/CCO9781139095747.010.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library, www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/html/Ham.html. Simmons, J. L. “The Tongue and Its Office in The Revenger’s Tragedy.” PMLA, vol. 92, no. 1, 1977, pp. 56–68. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/461414.