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...
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