Discussion about Dishonored tends to focus on the game’s morality. Should Corvo kill his opponents, or neutralize them by nonlethal means? Is it right to assist a suitor in abducting Lady Boyle? Should we poison the elixir still for our own gain? While a lot of writers have addressed these questions, not many have considered the question of whether Corvo’s actions are honorable in the context of 18th and 19th century thought – which is odd, considering the game’s title. Perhaps this is because we read Dishonored as a modern revenge tale, when its roots lay in a class system and social structure that’s antiquated and unfamiliar to a modern audience. In the eyes of British honor culture, Corvo is a villain. His conduct is not that of a gentleman: he allows himself to be subjugated, he takes unfair advantage, and his vicious methods speak to his foreign origins. Interestingly, when we look at Dishonored from this perspective of honor culture, its themes appear very different.
Before we continue, I need to speak briefly about methodology. In writing this column I’m transposing a values system on Dishonored that, while broadly analogous to a British-inspired aristocratic society that practices dueling, is an imperfect fit. While they share many similarities, Dunwall is not London, and Corvo’s time cannot be directly compared to the 18th and 19th centuries without straining both the game and the historical record, and this may lead to a reading of the game that was not intended by the developers or hold up to extended scrutiny. Therefore, I urge you not to consider this a definitive or complete reading of Dishonored, but rather a reinterpretation of its themes in light of historical thoughts and attitudes.
In order to put Dishonored‘s themes in the proper context, I contacted Dr. Stephen Banks, an associate professor at the School of Law of the University of Reading. Dr. Banks is a specialist in British honor culture and has written numerous books and articles about the practice of dueling in English society, including Duels and Duelling and A Polite Exchange of Bullets: The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750-1850. According to Dr. Banks, to understand British honor culture, we have to jettison our normal conceptions of right and wrong, since dueling was less about morality and more about displays of social power. We also have to leave behind our modern understanding that what separated the British upper classes from “commoners” was their wealth, social power, and political clout. Gentlemen – as the ruling class called themselves – believed that they were different from the working class not because they had these advantages, but because they had a store of internal honor that most of humanity lacked, which made them unwilling to be subjugated. “When a gentleman viewed a whipped slave,” says Dr. Banks, “he didn’t view a man who had been a victim of power relations and social structure, he saw a man who had allowed himself to be whipped. Better to rebel, to deny he has a master and to be killed than be so subjugated . This is what a gentleman (in theory) would do.”
To drive home the point that they were not only socially but physically different, the small group of gentlemen controlling society structured every aspect of English culture to reinforce the message that they were above the common masses. “The way this was done,” explains Dr. Banks, “was through the repetition of acts that constantly emphasized that a gentleman was distinctly and qualitatively different.” Gentlemen, for instance, always served as officers in the military and were granted certain privileges, such as the ability to take quarters outside of camp and an exemption from physical punishments like flogging. Gentlemen had titles and forms of address, so that literally talking to them was different than conversing with a member of the working classes. This special treatment under the laws of society was present in civilian life as well, and gentlemen accused of crimes often found themselves dining as guests of public officials the night before their trials, since jails were dirty places unfit for a man of breeding. “In other words, there was a legal, physical, psychological boundary between a gentleman and other members of society.” These privileges also came with obligations – namely that a gentleman must keep his honor intact by holding himself separate from the common people (an officer could lose his commission for sitting down at a table with enlisted men), preserving his image as something different and nobler, and above all else, make sure no one challenged his honor or tried to subjugate him. Failing to uphold this system would mean being cast out of the elite class entirely.
Challenges to honor most often came from inside the gentlemanly order. The world of the upper classes was a competitive world, where men jockeyed for position and recognition from authority, leading to strange power relationships. At all times, men tried to uphold their honor and show that they deserved a position amongst society’s elite, meaning that disrespect could not be tolerated socially or else they would be seen as lacking the manly strength to resist subjugation, and therefore lose their social capital. In this culture, a disrespectful gesture in itself was cause for a gentleman to defend his honor via pistols – since no one, the logic went, disrespects a man who is considered respectable. As an example, Dr. Banks gives the following scenario: “I am taking my wife to the theatre. Whilst taking our seats my wife is barged aside by someone else rushing to take theirs. Who is at fault? I am. Why? Because someone about me has suggested that I am unable, unwilling to protect my interests … this gentleman has presumed that I have no honor.” The only way to defend his honor in this situation would be to show that the man’s presumption was wrong by challenging him to a duel. However, Dr. Banks stresses, this is where people usually misunderstand honor culture: in this scenario the offended party does not defend his honor by killing his opponent in the subsequent duel, but by risking the danger of being killed himself. Essentially, he proves his honor is intact by showing a willingness to stand up for his character at the risk of his own death. At times, this led to bizarre incidents. During a duel in 1828 between Sir Jacob Astley and Captain Garth, the Captain – who had slept with Astley’s wife – refused to fire at Astley. As a result, Astley made Captain Garth promise that he would return fire on the next round, since otherwise the duel couldn’t vindicate Astley’s character – in other words, Astley literally had to urge the man who had bedded his wife to try and kill him. Honor wasn’t restored by avenging disrespectful behavior, but by showing that the disrespect was never warranted in the first place.
By this point, you will no doubt wonder how these rules apply to the duel between Corvo and Lord Shaw. In two words: they don’t. When Corvo delivers Lord Pendleton’s letter to Shaw, he is unaware that the letter challenges Shaw to a duel. Furthermore, Shaw agrees to duel Corvo in Pendleton’s stead, growling that “Pendleton is a gutless, lying sack of shit. I hope he’s paying you well for this.” After the combatants choose their pistols and take their places, Corvo dutifully kills Shaw, or alternately spares him with a hasty sleep dart. (Particularly inventive players might even Stop Time after Shaw fires, then use Possession to walk him in front of his own bullet.) However, the point remains that the whole affair is highly irregular, especially since Corvo essentially approaches Shaw as an envoy, serving in the role of second (an impartial referee who would oversee the duel and attempt to get the parties to reconcile beforehand) rather than that of a challenger. “[Seconds are] natural referees of honor, not potential protagonists,” notes Dr. Banks. “I have never come across a second used in this manner.” In other words, Lord Pendleton breaks the rules of honor – and the spirit of the duel – by both failing to face his opponent personally and manipulating Corvo into killing his rival. This doesn’t reflect well on Pendleton and it’s not supposed to – Dishonored regularly portrays Pendleton as a cowardly figure who would rather get other people to fight his battles for him. But in a larger context, this scene is essentially a microcosm of Corvo’s treatment by the Loyalists as a whole.
Throughout the course of Dishonored, the leaders of the Loyalist Conspiracy regard Corvo with a formal friendliness – but they don’t treat him with respect. Despite his centrality to the Loyalist plans, Corvo’s attic room in the Hound Pits is the worst in the building, both dirtier and in poorer repair than the servant’s quarters. Even though he was formally Lord Protector and the Loyalists know the title was unfairly stripped from him, he is the only noble in the conspiracy that everyone – even the servants – refers to by first name. Worse still, they order him around like a servant, sending him out on dangerous missions to do the conspiracy’s dirtiest wetwork, that is, when he’s not delivering messages or filling whale oil tanks. None of these examples are acceptable treatment of an aristocrat of Corvo’s stature, especially one who is part of the Empress’s inner circle. But of course, there’s the rub: the Empress is dead, and her assassination occurred on Corvo’s watch. Though he is entirely innocent of her murder, Corvo is still publicly disgraced by his failure to protect Jessamine, and due to that failure his social status appears to have been downgraded. Under the code of honor he is no longer a gentleman, since he allowed himself to be subjugated and disgraced first by his arrest and imprisonment like a common criminal, as well as accepting his subsequent domination by the Loyalists.
The type of fighting that the Loyalists order Corvo to perform precludes him from regaining his status as a gentleman, since his missions force him to further stain his character. According to Dr. Banks, in the 18th and 19th century mind, “Honorable combat is about equal combat.” In fact, a general sense of fairness is what made English duelists replace the sword with the pistol, since fencing required a specialized education and gave the young an unfair advantage against the old. Regardless of how the player approaches missions in Dishonored, Corvo never fights fair. He stabs people from behind. He snipes guards long-distance. He uses booby traps and magic. Shockingly to an 18th century mind, he rifles through people’s private correspondence. In short, the already-disgraced Corvo does all the tasks the blue bloods of the Loyalist Conspiracy are unable to perform because it might sully their reputations.
Some of Corvo’s conduct would be excused during wartime. During the Napoleonic wars, for example, gaining intelligence from enemy documents was considered a perfectly honorable military objective, and Spanish guerillas employed many of the same ambush tactics Corvo uses without earning the disdain of their English allies. Also, by the time of the Peninsular war against Napoleon, the British Army was beginning to abandon its love affair with formalized warfare in favor of the total war model, which included the use of sharpshooters to kill enemy officers. In 1809, a British rifleman named Tom Plunket managed to kill a French general with a long-range shot. Far from being ashamed of the achievement, Plunket’s commander promoted him to Corporal, gave him a purse of money and lauded him in front of the entire 95th Rifles. Therefore, in some circumstances eliminating a high value target would be considered perfectly legitimate. However, Corvo is not a soldier and he is not on a battlefield, meaning he cannot claim such exemptions and his actions look more like murder.
Furthermore, even Corvo’s merciful actions are anything but – it’s true, for instance, that Corvo spares Overseer Campbell’s life by marking him with the heretic’s brand. Yet as a result of that action, Campbell gets thrown out into the streets of the Flooded District where he’s ravaged by the rat plague, a death far crueler than any Corvo’s weapons could inflict. Much the same could be said for the fate of the Pendleton twins who end their lives as slaves in their family silver mine, Lady Boyle who’s sold off to an obsessive suitor, and Hiram Burroughs, who presumably faces execution for his crimes. In fact, the irony of these actions is that Corvo is dishonoring these aristocrats the same way he himself was dishonored – by stripping away their social status and downgrading them to live powerless, subjugated lives. While it’s certainly a poetic reversal, it has nothing to do with how a gentleman is supposed to treat his enemies. During wartime, captured officers were often given the right of parole and allowed to live relatively normal lives, and even Napoleon – a dictator who murdered thousands – was allowed an honorable if restrictive exile. Corvo isn’t interested in respecting his opponents. He’s not a gentleman, but a killer crawling through the sewers. “Corvo,” says Dr. Banks, “seems to be the exemplar of everything an English man of honor would despise.”
And that’s the interesting part, of course, because Corvo isn’t English. Or rather, he’s not from Gristol like the other members of the conspiracy. Corvo hails from Serkonos, a southern island filled with grapes and dates, with sunny beaches and trade links to the East. Due to the island’s description and place names, as well as the name “Corvo” itself – which means “crow” in Italian, and can mean either “crow” or “raven” in Portuguese – Serkonos seems to be Mediterranean in nature, which opens up an exciting line of inquiry in our discussion of honorable combat. See, Corvo’s actions don’t seem to line up with English honor culture but they do resemble the Italian vendetta, which is a fundamentally different from of honor combat. Duels are a display of courage in a structured environment, while the vendetta is retaliatory murder. The vendetta is different from the duel, says Dr. Banks, because it involves social groups and is focused on doing harm: “The vendetta is a familial phenomenon in which the obligation to perform it is imposed upon groups. The sentiment expressed is perhaps something like, I cannot live as a man in this world knowing this man has harmed my family and I have done nothing.” In the vendetta, you do not have to respect your opponent. You can stab someone in the back. You can deceive and trap them, or destroy their lives. You do everything possible to avenge the people you love. That sounds a great deal like Corvo and his actions in Dishonored. After all, we are talking about a game that carries the tagline Revenge Solves Everything, and frequently hints that Empress Jessamine and Lady Emily may figuratively or literally be Corvo’s family. Therefore, in addition to Corvo’s decreased social status causing friction with the Loyalists, we might add culture clash to the mix, and it’s a historically-based culture clash too. According to Dr. Banks, a great deal of English dueling literature from the late 18th and early 19th centuries stated that the English were “superior to the Southern Europeans because in England men of honor dueled with manly courage and then made up their differences, whereas in Southern Europe cowards stab each other in vicious and interminable vendettas.” Given this vast cultural gulf, as well as their desire to clean up after the dark deeds that would inevitably stain their characters, it’s unsurprising that the top tier of the Loyalist leadership ultimately tries to distance themselves from Corvo and all associations with him.
While it’s an imperfect reading of the game, examining Dishonored through the lens of English honor culture highlights an aspect of the game’s narrative that might otherwise not come to light. A straight interpretation of Dishonored reveals a game about redemption and mitigating the damage to society, but filter it through honor culture and you’ll find a narrative fraught with power relationships: that Corvo’s dishonor made him a useful tool to the Loyalists, that his work for them debased his reputation further, and that ultimately, the Loyalist leaders found out – to their eventual ruin – that Corvo didn’t play by their elegant rules.