The revenge tragedy genre of English literature generally refers to a body of dramatic works written from the mid-1580s to the early 1640s, from the Elizabethan to the Caroline period. Typically, these works feature such themes and devices as a wronged revenge-seeker, ghosts, madness, delay, sinister intrigue, a play-within-the-play, torture, multiple murders, and the realistic depiction of bloody violence onstage. Nearly all of the major playwrights of the time contributed to this class of drama, including Thomas Kyd, William Shakespeare, John Marston, George Chapman, Cyril Tourneur, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, James Shirley, and John Ford. Most literary scholars have credited Kyd with initiating the dramatic archetype w ith his The Spanish Tragedy (1585-90?) and the so-called Ur-Hamlet—a drama no longer extant but which is believed to have been written before 1589, and upon which Shakespeare likely based his great tragedy—and have credited Shakespeare with bringing the genre to its artistic maturity with Hamlet (c. 1600-01). Critics have maintained that revenge tragedy was a markedly dynamic genre, observing that while Kyd invented the basic formula, his successors added ingenious new layers of dramatic suspense, characterization, symbolism, and ideological representation to the theatrical form.
Many literary scholars have argued that the principal theatrical influence on Elizabethan revenge tragedy came from Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman statesman, philosopher, orator, and dramatist who flourished in the first century a.d. Seneca's works were first translated into the English language in 1559, and by 1581 Senecan tragedies had circulated widely among the English literate. While Seneca wrote several kinds of tragedy, the Elizabethan playwrights were particularly attracted to his Thyestes, Medea, and Agamemnon, all of which dramatize murder and betrayal and the subsequent quest to exact blood revenge on the villain or villains. These theatrical spectacles display all of the passions in excess, such as hate, jealousy, and love; they also contain sensational elements, such as supernatural phenomena, cruel torture, and bloody violence. Other critics have argued that in addition to Seneca's influence, the Italian nouvelle provided another literary source for the revenge tragedy. Many of these Italian tales feature a sinister Machiavellian villains, sexual betrayals that culminate in private revenge, and bloody vendettas between rival families. Still other scholars have asserted that revenge tragedy was influenced by the medieval contemptus mundi tradition. According to these critics, Elizabethan dramatists manipulated such cultural motifs as the deathshead—or human skull—the severed hand, the dance of death, and the reenactment of the seven deadly sins as a means of connecting with an audience that was preoccupied with mutability and religious devotion.
While critics have generally agreed that Kyd was the lead innovator of the revenge tragedy, they have also pointed out that his plays are coarse and unrefined in their exploration of the revenge theme. Commentators have observed that other early revenge tragedies such as George Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (c. 1590) and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1594) tend to reflect this undisciplined model as well. Nevertheless, these tragedies were crowd-pleasers and became staples of the London theater repertories. As the Elizabethan dramatists grew more competent with the revenge tragedy form, they became more sophisticated in their treatment of the characters, themes, and motifs. Literary scholars have contended that Marston's Antonio's Revenge (1600) is an example of a drama that masterfully fuses all of the elements of the revenge tragedy tradition; in fact, so skillful is the use of revenge conventions that some have argued that Marston intentionally and audaciously parodied the popular genre. Around this same time the genre reached the apex of its artistic maturity with Shakespeare's Hamlet, a drama that has been celebrated for its a brilliant synthesis of plot, characterization, and intellectual introspection on the subject of revenge. Other tragedies of this period also demonstrate a keen insight into the moral and spiritual consequences of revenge, including Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (c. 1606) and The Atheist's Tragedy (c. 1610-11) and Chapman's Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (1610-11). Many critics have characterized the revenge tragedies of the genre's late period as grim, cynical statements on the moral and spiritual chaos that results from a society in decay and moral disintegration. Works from this period include Webster's The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (c. 1630-33) and The Broken Heart (c. 1630-33), and Shirley's The Cardinal (1641).
Revenge tragedy was not in fact identified as a specific literary genre until the early twentieth century, and since that time, there has been no consensus of opinion about the validity of the designation. While most scholars have agreed that the plays exhibit similar themes and theatrical devices, they have also pointed out that revenge does not always figure as the central theme of the individual plays. Further, dramatists utilized different literary sources and wrote at different skill levels to achieve strikingly different kinds of revenge tragedy. What is more, according to these critics, the broad chronological period assigned to English revenge tragedies covers several markedly different cultural, social, and political periods. Perhaps the most frequently discussed topic is on the morality of revenge. In an effort to understand the overarching fascination with revenge as tragic material, commentators have closely examined Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes toward revenge, focusing on such issues as the Christian requirement to be patient and leave revenge to God; the ethical dilemma in seeking private revenge when denied public justice; and the moral significance of such social institutions as vendettas and dueling. In recent years critics have sought to understand the popularity of revenge tragedies from a cultural and historical standpoint. These commentators have observed that the revenge tragedy form appeared at a conspicuous time in English history, when people were beginning to question the fundamental relationship between religion and the universe, when the English nation was imperiled by the threat of the Spanish Armada, and when English society endured the uncertainty of succession between the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. According to these critics, Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights employed the revenge tragedy as the ideal vehicle by which to project their concerns about such provocative issues as a repressive religious tradition, political corruption, and social malaise.
Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (play) 1610-11
The Tragedy of Hoffman (play) 1603
The Maid's Tragedy [with Francis Beaumont] (play) c. 1611
Valentinian (play) c. 1612
The Broken Heart (play) c. 1630-33
'Tis Pity She's a Whore (play) c. 1630-33
The Spanish Tragedy (play) 1585-90?
Ur-Hamlet (play) before 1589
Antonio's Revenge (play) 1600
Women Beware Women (play) c. 1621
The Changeling (play) 1622
The Battle of Alcazar (play) c. 1590
Titus Andronicus (play) 1594
Hamlet (play) c. 1600-01
The Maid's Revenge (play) 1626
The Cardinal (play) 1641
The Revenger's Tragedy (play) c. 1606
The Atheist's Tragedy (play) c. 1610-11
The White Devil (play) 1612
The Duchess of Malfi (play) 1614
SOURCE: Bowers, Fredson Thayer. “The Spanish Tragedy and the Ur-Hamlet.” In Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642, pp. 62-100. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959.
[In the following essay, which was first published in 1940, Bowers examines The Spanish Tragedy and the Ur-Hamlet as examples of the prototypical revenge tragedy, outlining the basic Kydian formula for creating a revenge tragedy, discussing probable sources and influences, and remarking on how the form was widely imitated by other Elizabethan dramatists.]
The tragedy of revenge has been classified as a definite, small subdivision of the Elizabethan...
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SOURCE: Doran, Madeleine. “History and Tragedy: Italianate Tragedy of Intrigue.” In Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama, pp. 128-42. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1954.
[In the excerpt below, Doran discusses revenge in Elizabethan drama as an overarching “motive” rather than a “class” of tragedy.]
Besides tyranny, Seneca has another repeated theme in his tragedies, revenge incited by jealousy, and this is a theme which leads us into the second great class of English renaissance tragedy, the Italianate tragedies of intrigue centered about crimes of passion. The revenge theme furnished invaluable dramatic motivation to English...
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SOURCE: Prosser, Eleanor. “Revenge on the English Stage, 1562-1607.” In Hamlet and Revenge, pp. 36-73. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967.
[In the following essay, Prosser examines a vast array of revenge tragedies in an effort to elucidate “the moral response of the Elizabethan audience to revenge itself.”]
Although a study of the Elizabethan revenge play normally restricts itself to plays related to the “Kydian formula” as defined by Fredson Bowers, our concern in this chapter is with the moral response of the Elizabethan audience to revenge itself. If we can determine the audience's reaction to specific revenge motifs in any type of play...
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SOURCE: Foakes, R. A. “John Marston's Fantastical Plays: Antonio and Mellida and Antonio's Revenge.” Philological Quarterly 41, No. 1 (January 1962): 229-39.
[In the essay below, Foakes asserts that because Marston wrote plays for a child acting company, his revenge tragedies—Antonio and Mellida and Antonio's Revenge—are deliberate and overt parodies of the genre, in which child actors grotesquely mimic the performances of their adult peers.]
It is immediately apparent from the Induction to Antonio and Mellida that Marston was very consciously writing for children. The actors appear, parts in hand, to discuss the rôles they...
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SOURCE: Broude, Ronald. “George Chapman's Stoic-Christian Revenger.” Studies in Philology 70 (1973): 51-61.
[In the following essay, Broude maintains that Chapman's characterization of Clermont as a “Stoic-Christian” in Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois enabled the dramatist to create a tragic hero entirely different from other revenge tragedy figures of the period.]
Critics who have recognized in George Chapman's Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois the highly personal synthesis of Roman Stoicism and Renaissance Christianity which preoccupied Chapman for much of his career have nevertheless had difficulty in reconciling this philosophy with the revenge which,...
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SOURCE: Broude, Ronald. “Revenge and Revenge Tragedy in Renaissance England.” Renaissance Quarterly 28, No. 1 (Spring 1975): 38-58.
[In the essay below, Broude attempts to recover the sixteenth-century understanding and usage of the term “revenge,” arguing that the modern-day interpretation of the term may unduly influence one's perception of the revenge tragedies.]
When we speak of ‘revenge tragedy,’ we are often unaware of the extent to which our approach to these important Renaissance plays has been conditioned by the name we have given them. Elizabethans themselves recognized no distinct dramatic type called revenge play. The term is a modern one, made...
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SOURCE: Hallett, Charles A. and Elaine S. Hallett. “The Revenge Experience as Tragedy.” In The Revenger's Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs, pp. 101-27. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
[In the following essay, the Halletts maintain that the Elizabethan dramatists—led by Thomas Kyd—employed the revenge tragedy motif in their plays to symbolize late sixteenth-century England as a civilization in crisis.]
And know ye all (though far from all your aims, Yet worth them all, and all men's endless studies) That in this one thing, all the discipline Of manners and of manhood is contain'd; A man to join himself with th'Universe In his main sway, and...
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SOURCE: Grantley, Darryll. “Masques and Murderers: Dramatic Method and Ideology in Revenge Tragedy and the Court Masque.” In Jacobean Poetry and Prose: Rhetoric, Representation and the Popular Imagination, edited by Clive Bloom, pp. 194-212. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
[In the essay below, Grantley discusses how Jacobean playwrights subtly projected their own ideological principles onto both aristocratic and popular audiences through the dramatic media of the court masque and the revenge tragedy, or a combination of the two theatrical forms.]
Jacobean revenge tragedy, with its turbulent, bloody and uncertain topos, might be thought to have little...
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SOURCE: Mulryne, J. R. “The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi.” In Jacobean Theatre, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. 201-25. London: Edward Arnold, 1960.
[In the essay below, Mulryne maintains that Webster mockingly repudiates the revenge tragedy form in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, asserting that in these plays Webster intentionally creates a world of “moral and emotional anarchy.”]
After Shakespeare's plays, Webster's tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, are more often produced today than the work of any other Jacobean dramatist. In some ways this continued popularity is difficult to...
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SOURCE: Bergson, Allen. “The Worldly Stoicism of George Chapman's The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois and The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France.” Philological Quarterly 55, No. 1 (Winter 1976): 43-64.
[In the following essay, Bergson discusses the dramatic irony inherent in the “rendezvous of the spiritual man and the political world” in Chapman's Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois and The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France.]
In two of his tragedies, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois and The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France,1 George Chapman seems to depict a Stoic hero who can endure the...
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SOURCE: Baines, Barbara J. “Antonio's Revenge: Marston's Play on Revenge Plays.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 23, No. 2 (Spring 1983): 277-94.
[In the following essay, Baines contends that Marston utilized an unconventional dramatic structure in Antonio's Revenge in an effort to parody the predictable revenge tragedy form.]
Perhaps no play of the Renaissance is more derivative and at the same time more original than Marston's Antonio's Revenge. G. K. Hunter notes that the similarities between Marston's play and Hamlet “are greater than those between either play and any other surviving Elizabethan drama.”1 It is...
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SOURCE: Hallett, Charles A. “Andrea, Andrugio, and King Hamlet: The Ghost as Spirit of Revenge.” Philological Quarterly 56, No. 1 (Winter 1977): 43-64.
[In the essay below, Hallett examines the significance of the ghosts in The Spanish Tragedy, Antonio's Revenge, and Hamlet, arguing that, more than just a stage device, the apparition represents “the embodiment of the impulse for revenge, [and] its demands are unambiguous, immoderate, and recognize no authority but its own.”]
The dramatists who wrote revenge tragedy recognized what others of their contemporaries understood, that the passion of revenge had a definite course and a predictable end....
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SOURCE: Jacobs, Henry E. “Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy, and the Ideology of the Memento Mori. Shakespeare Studies 21 (1993): 98-108.
[In the following essay, Jacobs argues that, unlike his contemporaries who codified their skepticism of religious orthodoxy in the memento mori tradition in their plays, Shakespeare actually remained true to the medieval tradition and to orthodoxy in his revenge plays.]
The severed hand, the skull beneath the skin, the blood-soaked handkerchief, and other such gruesome relics of human carnage show up repeatedly on the English stage between 1585 and 1640 in Renaissance revenge tragedy.1 The memento mori of...
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SOURCE: Kerrigan, John. “‘Remember Me!’: Horestes, Hieronimo, and Hamlet.” In Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon, pp. 170-192. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
[In the essay below, Kerrigan discusses the ambiguous role that remembrance plays in Elizabethan revenge tragedies—especially The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet—tracing this motif to the classical Greek dramatic theme of introspection.]
At the start of The Libation Bearers, Orestes stands beside his father's tomb, thinking about the past. Apparently sunk in passive grief, he offers Agamemnon a lock of hair and laments that he was not in Argos to mourn at his funeral. Then,...
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Aggeler, Geoffrey D. “Stoicism and Revenge in Marston.” English Studies 51, No. 6 (December 1970): 507-17.
Argues that Marston's Antonio's Revenge and The Malcontent “can be seen as complementary treatments of the ethical problems of revenge from the classical Stoic point of view.”
Allman, Eileen. Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999, 212 p.
Discusses Jacobean revenge tragedies as plays which represent misogyny but do not necessarily endorse it, maintaining that “[disrespect] for women as autonomous agents of action is...
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