The Duality of Revenge

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

You have probably heard this expression at least once in your life. The meaning behind it being that the best kind of revenge is that which comes a long time after the initial harm. Revenge that is served when the target of the revenge has grown complacent and no longer believes he will be punished for the prior act committed. The person getting the revenge wants to see the shock and fear in the wrongdoer’s eyes after letting his guard down. It is a morbid idea, but it resonates. Revenge seems simple, yet it can be a powerful theme utilized in all mediums of storytelling. There is also an interesting dichotomy when it comes to revenge. On one hand, the idea of getting revenge against someone who has done harm can be intoxicating and all-consuming, but also, throughout the ages, people have warned against seeking revenge because it ultimately causes more harm, especially to the person getting the revenge.

The theme of revenge has been utilized since the advent of storytelling. In the Book of Exodus, G-d seeks vengeance against Pharaoh of Egypt for refusing to let G-d’s chosen people go. In Shakespeare’s timeless classic, Hamlet, Hamlet seeks revenge against the man who murdered his father. This story from several hundred years ago is still being told today and morphed into newer versions, such as The Lion King. The recent movie series, John Wick, utilizes the same revenge theme as its central pillar. In the first film, John Wick kills countless people to get revenge against a man who killed his dog, and the audience loves every minute of it. Recent television shows continue to utilize our fascination with revenge. For example, in HBO’s Game of Thrones, the fandom was ecstatic watching Theon Greyjoy being reduced to the character of Reek; to the point of being joyful over his literal emasculation. Just a few years ago, one of the most successful shows on network television was ABC’s Revenge. From the bible, to classic literature, to action movies, to fantasy, to soap operas, the theme of revenge is everywhere.

We love reading and watching these stories about revenge, yet great minds throughout time have warned us about seeking revenge. A few examples being:

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy” – Marcus Aurelius

“The old law about eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“He who plots to hurt others often hurts himself.” – Aesop

“The best revenge is to live well.” – Oscar Wilde

Despite these warnings, why are we constantly drawn to stories about revenge? I believe it is because on an intellectual level we understand the warnings against revenge. I also believe that for most of us, in our own lives, we understand that seeking revenge will only hurt us in the long run. However, we are still human and still have that burning desire to seek revenge against those who have harmed us or our loved ones, and stories allow an outlet for that desire. While we may not actively seek revenge against others, we can satisfy the desire for revenge by reading or watching stories about it. We can fantasize that we are the person in the story plotting, planning, and executing a plan for revenge. We get to experience all the positive feelings of seeking revenge without feeling the negative consequences.

I also believe the desire to read and watch others seek revenge in our stories provides an insight into human nature. We cannot simply ignore our desires for revenge. We may try to rise above or put aside vengeful feelings, but those feelings do not just disappear. They require an outlet. No matter how virtuous you may think yourself, you still are human, and therefore, you still have desires for revenge. Since stories about revenge have been around for thousands of years, I think mankind figured out early on in its history that stories could be used as outlets for releasing the need for vengeance. Nevertheless, we do not have to look far to see examples of people who do seek vengeance in the real world. We live in a world of terrorism, mass shootings, and gang wars. These are just some examples of what can happen when the need for vengeance is not filtered through a safe outlet.

So what do I mean by the duality for revenge? The desire for revenge cannot be ignored because it is natural in all humans, but revenge should not be pursued because it only causes further harm. What are we to do with a natural feeling upon which we should not act? The answer is to keep creating new stories about revenge, new outlets to satisfy the desire without causing harm in the real world. The next time you feel the need for vengeance, try reading or watching a story about revenge, or perhaps, you could be the one to create the next big revenge story yourself.

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