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.