Revenge is sweet: the music, TV and theatre about getting your own back

From Shakespeare’s dithering Dane to Desperate Housewives’ steely-eyed Bree, our critics serve up the coldest revenge dishes


In Desperate Housewives, when her gay son, Andrew, sleeps with her boyfriend, Bree Van de Kamp – everyone’s favourite Republican-voting Stepford wife (played by Marcia Cross, above left) – abandons him on the side of the road. It might be classified more as punishment than revenge but it’s petty as hell. In turn, Andrew goes on TV for a segment about homeless teenagers and tells them about his “alcoholic mother”. Whether it’s burning down your neighbour’s house for sleeping with your fiance, or strangling the woman who blackmailed your dead wife, Desperate Housewives is the ultimate tribute to getting your own back. They don’t make high-camp television like this any more. Jason Okundaye


Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi in the Nightingale.
Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi in the Nightingale. Photograph: Bron Studios/Allstar

At the movies, brutal revenge tends to be a manly pursuit, especially when the man is Liam Neeson. But it gets a female – if hardly traditionally “feminine” – twist in Jennifer Kent’s bruising tale The Nightingale, set in 1825 Tasmania. Sweet of voice, slight of frame but steely of will, indentured convict Clare (breakout star Aisling Franciosi) tracks down the murderers of her husband and baby, on a bleak, brambly quest, clotted with blood and mud and colonial cruelty. But her thawing relationship with her Indigenous guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), provides a spark of warmth, like the song of a lone bird that sounds all the sweeter in the vast chill of unfriendly forests. Jessica Kiang


Ian McKellen in Hamlet at Theatre Royal Windsor.
Ian McKellen in Hamlet at Theatre Royal Windsor. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Shakespeare does exceedingly good revenge. To name but a few, there’s the one with the human-flavoured pie (Titus Andronicus); the green-eyed officer (Othello); and the bitter outcast (Richard III). Then, of course, there’s Hamlet – a young man so intent on avenging his father’s death that he’s prepared to lay his sanity, love and life on the line. He isn’t exactly efficient. He kills a fair few others along the way and takes one heck of a detour (on a ship bound for England). But I’ll say one thing for the Dane, the man is thorough. Stabbing. And poisoning. That’ll do it. Miriam Gillinson


The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Revenge is served up with horrible precision and a terrifying lack of discrimination in Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, The Woman in Black. Raging at her own loss, the black-clothed woman snuffs out the lives of children – seemingly needing no more motivation than that someone close to them has been unlucky enough to see her. Beneath the surface is a real primal fury, and Hill skilfully dresses up her narrative with the familiar trappings of an Edwardian ghost story. There are plenty of cosy fires as well as the requisite chills and sea mists. Sam Jordison


Ireee Theorin (left) and Eva-Maria Westbroek.
Ireee Theorin (left) and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

In Richard Strauss’s brutal single-act opera, Elektra, the titular lead is furiously obsessed with avenging the death of her father, Agamemnon, and seeks to kill his murderers: Klytaemnestra (Elektra’s mother), and her lover Aegisth. She hopes her siblings might feel equally bloodthirsty, yet she can’t be sure about her brother Orest (who lives far away), and struggles to persuade her sister, whose outlook is more tolerant. Orest, feared dead, later arrives and slays both killers, but, after a fit of berserk dancing, Elektra drops dead, robbed of the personal retribution she sought so fanatically. Hugh Morris


Jason Okundaye, Jessica Kiang, Miriam Gillinson, Hugh Morris and Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Darling buds: books, music, theatre and more with spring in their hearts
From Chaucer’s elemental epic to Gnarls Barkley’s alternative take on gospel, our critics suggest popular culture inspired by the return of sunnier skies

Miriam Gillinson, Jonathan Jones, Sam Jordison, Jessica Kiang and Christine Ochefu

28, Mar, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Where the heart is: the music, film and more about feeling homesick
From vintage Spielberg to some affecting Adele, there’s no place like those evoked by our critics’ recommendations

Miriam Gillinson, Sam Jordison, Danny Leigh, Jason Okundaye and Jenessa Williams

13, Jun, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Something for the weekend: film, music and more for May Day bank holiday
From a spot of Quadrophenia to a good innings with The English Game, our critics suggest art to inspire the best use of your extra day of free time

Sasha Mistlin, Kadish Morris, Steve Rose, Jason Okundaye and Jenessa Williams

30, Apr, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
The friend zone: art, music, films and more about platonic love
From Michelangelo’s male muse to Sex Education’s best pals, we pick five passionate but ultimately chaste partnerships

Jonathan Jones, Rebecca Liu, Sam Jordison, Jason Okundaye and Jenessa Williams

03, Oct, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Get off the sofa: music, art and more to summon motivation
From noisy young punks to a tiny word on a ceiling, our critics recommend popular culture to light a fire underneath you

Jessica Kiang, Jenessa Williams, Alexi Duggins, Skye Sherwin and Sam Jordison

19, Mar, 2022 @12:00 AM

Article image
Astral peaks: music, books, art and more about the majesty of space
From beautiful celestial metaphors to a virtual simulacrum of an entire galaxy, our critics suggest popular culture inspired by the wonders of astronomy

Jonathan Jones, Jenessa Williams, Sam Jordison, Luke Holland and Jessica Kiang

14, Mar, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Enjoy your trip: books, music, films and more for an out-of-body experience
From Gaspar Noé’s death-dream to Elgar’s emotionally charged choral composition, our critics recommend culture to take you into another dimension

Miriam Gillinson, Sam Jordison, Jessica Kiang, Hugh Morris and Jason Okundaye

30, May, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Pitch perfect: books, music, art and more about football
With the Qatar World Cup imminent, our critics offer up cultural highlights – from a damning tale of homophobia to David Peace’s Damned Utd – about the ‘beautiful game’

Jonathan Jones , Sam Jordison, Jessica Kiang, Jason Okundaye and Jenessa Williams

14, Nov, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Getting over a breakup? Critics pick music, books, games and more to help
Heartbreak is the ailment, could culture be the cure? Our critics’ suggestions to help ease your pain – or channel your angst

Jenessa Williams, Justine Jordan, Keza MacDonald, Peter Bradshaw and Jonathan Jones

11, Oct, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Kindred spirits: books, music, art and more about seeing family
From an unconventional depiction of maternal holiness to weird, festive murder-thrillers, our critics select culture for coping with the clan

12, Dec, 2022 @10:00 AM