If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? – William Shakespeare
Revenge is a constant, ubiquitous theme in literature and film probably only behind love and war in volume. It’s been around as long as storytelling itself, from the divine retribution of the Greek god Nemesis to Ben Hur to Hamlet to The Count of Monte Cristo to A Time to Kill. Oscar winners for best picture routinely include revenge themed films: The Godfather, Gladiator, and Braveheart, to name a few. Revenge may come in different flavors, but it has one underlying feature: the desire to inflict punishment on someone for committing a wrong. And when done well, few stories are more appealing or engaging than those involving themes of revenge.
Everyone, at some point in their life, has been wronged by someone else. Sometimes it’s a business partner, other times a lover, even a complete stranger. The degree of the transgression may vary, but we’ve all experienced the feelings of anger, sadness and even the desire for accountability that results. That universal emotion is what makes stories or revenge appealing to almost every demographic.
Commercial stories, most recognizable in films, heavily focus on violent revenge. Good examples of that are Clint Eastwood’s classic western The Outlaw Josey Wales, Taken, Desperado or pretty much any Quentin Tarantino film. Violence is not the only revenge flavor though. Non-violent vengeance is as powerful and probably even more compelling and satisfactory. This is best represented by the classic The Count of Monte Cristo, where a man betrayed by a close friend and sent to prison to die escapes and systematically ruins the lives of his enemies. Or even the Eighties comedy Trading Places. To some, there’s more satisfaction in damaging the livelihood of your enemies than causing them physical harm or death. Occasionally, these flavors are blended, which is well represented by The Crow, where perpetrators are killed in manners that reflect their personalities.