The revenge play or revenge tragedy is a form of tragedy which was extremely popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. The best-known of these are Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The genre was first categorised by the scholar Fredson Bowers.
Origins, conventions, and themes
Origins, conventions, and themes
The only clear precedent and influence for the Renaissance genre is the work of the Roman playwright and Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, perhaps most of all his Thyestes. It is still unclear if Seneca’s plays were performed or recited during Roman times; at any rate, Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights staged them, as it were, with a vengeance, in plays full of gruesome and often darkly comic violence. The Senecan model, though never followed slavishly, makes for a clear definition of the type, which almost invariably includes A secret murder, usually of a benign ruler by a bad person.
A ghostly visitation of the murder victim to a younger kinsman, generally a son A period of disguise, intrigue, or plotting, in which the murderer and the avenger scheme against each other, with a slowly rising body count A descent into either real or feigned madness by the avenger or one of the auxiliary characters An eruption of general violence at the end, which (in the Renaissance) is often accomplished by means of a feigned masque or festivity A catastrophe that utterly decimates the dramatis personae, including the avenger Both the stoicism of Seneca and his political career (he was an advisor to Nero) leave their mark on Renaissance practice.
In the English plays, the avenger is either stoic (albeit not very specifically) or struggling to be so; in this respect, the main thematic concern of the English revenge plays is the problem of pain. Politically, the English playwrights used the revenge plot to explore themes of absolute power, corruption in court, and of factional concerns that applied to late Elizabethan and Jacobean politics as they had to Roman politics.
Some early Elizabethan tragedies betray evidence of a Senecan influence; Gorboduc (1561) is notable in this regard. The “hybrid morality” Horestes (1567) also offers an early example of the genre. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, however, is the first major example of the revenge plot in English drama. First performed 1587 and subsequently published in 1592, The Spanish Tragedy was a popular smash so successful that, with Tamburlaine, it practically defined tragic dramaturgy for a number of years.
Refitted with additions by Ben Jonson, it found performance intermittently until 1642. Its most famous scenes were copied, transformed, and—finally—mocked; the play itself was given a sequel that may have been partially written by Kyd. Hamlet is one of the few Shakespeare plays to fit into the revenge category; indeed, it may be read as a figural, literary response to Kyd, who is sometimes credited with the so-called ur-Hamlet with which Shakespeare worked.
As regards revenge tragedy, Hamlet is notable for the way in which it complicates the themes and deepens the psychology of its models. What is, in The Spanish Tragedy, a straightforward duty of revenge, is for Prince Hamlet, both factually and morally ambiguous. Hamlet has been read, with some support, as enacting a thematic conflict between the Roman values of martial valor and blood-right on the one hand, and Christian values of humility and acceptance on the other. Some academics would also argue the Othello could fit into the category of revenge.
A more purely Jacobean example than Hamlet is The Revenger’s Tragedy, apparently produced in 1606 and printed anonymously the following year. The author was long assumed, on somewhat unconvincing external evidence, to be Cyril Tourneur; in recent decades, numerous critics have argued in favour of attributing the play to Thomas Middleton. On stylistic grounds, this argument is convincing.
The Revenger’s Tragedy is marked by the earthy—even obscene—style, irreverent tone, and grotesque subject matter that typifies Middleton’s comedies. The play, though it lacks a ghost, is in other respects a sophisticated updating of The Spanish Tragedy, concerning lust, greed, and corruption in an Italian court. Caroline instances of the genre are largely derivative of earlier models and are little read today, even by specialists.
A number of plays, from 1587 on, are influenced by certain aspects of revenge tragedy, although they do not fit perfectly into this category. Besides Hamlet, other plays of Shakespeare’s with at least some revenge elements are Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. Other revenge tragedies include The White Devil, Hoffman,The Changeling, The Duchess of Malfi, The Atheist’s Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Jew of Malta, The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois, The Malcontent, Antonio’s Revenge, The Duke of Milan, The Maid’s Tragedy, Valentinian, The Bloody Brother, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”, The Maid’s Revenge, and The Cardinal.
Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 contains an extended parody of the Jacobean revenge-play formula, titled The Courier’s Tragedy and written by the fictitious Richard Wharfinger. Most of the action is simply described by the narrator, with occasional snippets of dialogue. In Edward Gorey’s masterpiece, The Unstrung Harp, the protagonist, the novelist Mr Earbrass, sees a performance of Prawne’s The Nephew’s Tragedy, a fictional revenge play performed, “… for the first time since the early seventeenth century, by the West Mortshire Impassioned Amateurs of Melpomene.”