Recent commentary on the question of revenge in Shakespeare's plays frequently alludes to the dramatic genre known as revenge tragedy, a form that achieved widespread popularity in the late Elizabethan and Jacobean period. The most notable English example of this form is Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587), a play which helped formulate the conventions of this genre and to which Shakespeare's adaptations are frequently compared. Critics do not agree on the extent to which Shakespeare's treatment of revenge adheres to or diverges from the standards established by Kyd and others. Eleanor Prosser (1971) asserts that Shakespeare scrutinized the moral and ethical quandaries facing the revenger much more closely than did any of his predecessors or contemporaries. She argues that his depiction of revenge generally reflects normative religious and ethical precepts that condemn personal retaliation for a wrong; indeed, she contends, Shakespeare endorsed the idea that revenge is the prerogative of heaven. By contrast, Michael Cameron Andrews (1978) claims that regardless of moral or religious injunctions against personal vengeance, Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences shared a universal, instinctive desire to see violence repaid with violence—and that Shakespeare understood and even, on occasion, sympathized with this impulse. Despite disagreements over what his works may reveal about the dramatist's attitude toward revenge, scholars uniformly regard Hamlet and Titus Andronicus as the plays that come closest to the revenge tragedy model.
Like many other critics, Charles and Elaine Hallett (1980) maintain that Hamlet broke new ground; they argue that although Shakespeare incorporated the central elements of revenge tragedy in the play, he freely adapted them to facilitate an exploration of Hamlet's attempt to reconcile his actions with the evil implicit in the pursuit of revenge. In their judgment, the principal distinction between Hamlet and its predecessors is Shakespeare's complex characterization of the revenger. In his discussion of Hamlet, Mark Rose (1971) also considers the stock role of the revenger, proposing that while Hamlet is not averse to the idea of bloody vengeance, he finds the traditional form of revenge philosophically and aesthetically contrary to his image of himself. For John Kerrigan (1981), too, revenge is unsuitable to the prince's nature. Moreover, he contends that Hamlet is convinced that revenge is pointless, for, unlike remembrance, it cannot restore that which has been lost. David Scott Kastan (1987) asserts that Hamlet tries to persuade himself that revenge is a means of restoring the past, but ultimately he rejects vengeance, both because it is futile and because it entails replicating the crime that incited it. Evaluating Hamlet as a version of revenge tragedy, Michael Neill (1983) similarly points out that the revenger's pursuit of retribution for past wrongs traditionally—and paradoxically—leads him to imitate the actions of the object of his vengeance.
The reciprocal relationship between victims, villains, and revengers is an important feature of commentary on Shakespeare's other revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. Douglas E. Green (1989), for example, remarks that the avenger in this play becomes a mirror image of his enemies, for Titus's acts of retribution are as shockingly evil as the deeds that led to them. Eleanor Prosser contends that Titus is a good man who has been genuinely wronged, but his extravagant grief leads to madness, and he forfeits our sympathy with the form of his vengeance on Tamora and her sons. In sharp contrast, Michael Andrews thinks it probable that Shakespeare's original audience applauded the “grisly propriety” of Titus's strategy and regarded it not as a heinous crime but a justified act of revenge. Comparing Titus to other revenge dramas, particularly The Spanish Tragedy, Lawrence N. Danson (1974) describes it as an anomaly, especially with respect to its rhetoric. In Shakespeare's play, he suggests, language becomes so elaborate, and rhetorical exhibitions so overwrought, that there is no longer any connection between words and emotions, or between language and objective reality. Also addressing the issue of language and signification in Titus, Douglas Green argues that the play is replete with instances of men, especially Titus, suppressing attempts by women to articulate their suffering, determine its meaning, and exact their own revenge.
Though the majority of commentary on Shakespeare and revenge focuses on Hamlet and Titus, critics have identified the theme as an important component of other Shakespearean works, including comedies and romances as well as tragedies. Michael Neill, for example, discusses the question of the revenge motif in Macbeth, characterizing the play's protagonist as a revenger who becomes increasingly isolated and whose incremental violence masks a feeling of powerlessness. Richard Madelaine (1998) links the final scene in Othello with culminating episodes in English revenge tragedies, and he considers the climactic scene in The Spanish Tragedy a “major influence” on Shakespeare's depiction of the murder of Desdemona. Harry Keyishian (see Further Reading) examines the destructive power of revenge in Julius Caesar, noting that its various manifestations share a common idea: “blood is eloquent and demands vengeance.” In another essay, also from 1995 (see Further Reading), Keyishian focuses on the revenge motif in 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, and Richard III. He maintains that these plays usually sanction vengeance when it promotes the cause of justice—and always endorse it when it is carried out against the French—but condemn it when it is executed for the purpose of enhancing personal reputation or position.
Both Michael Neill and James Black (1986) address the question of revenge in The Tempest. Neill describes Prospero as “a reformed revenger,” a man for whom patient optimism has replaced retaliation as the surest means of securing the future. Black links the play with contemporary revenge tragedies and compares it, in particular, with Hamlet. As with revenge tragedies, he points out, The Tempest keeps the audience in suspense with respect to whether Prospero will exact vengeance on the conspirators—his decision to forgive them is not revealed until the final scene. Finally, Karen Robertson discerns elements of revenge tragedy in Twelfth Night, especially with regard to Maria's scheme to deceive Malvolio with the forged letter. She notes that through its depiction of a female character who devises a revenge strategy ingeniously suited to her intention—the exposure of Malvolio—Twelfth Night inverts a dramatic convention and challenges male domination of the social hierarchy.