Revenge play  

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The revenge play or revenge tragedy is a form of tragedy extremely popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Because of its use of graphic violence, akin to what might see in a twentieth century splatter film, it is an early example of horror or gore fiction. The best-known of these are Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy and William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Titus Andronicus.


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 one
  • 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
  • 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 generally 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 faction--all 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 is notable in this regard. However, Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy is undoubtedly the originator of the revenge plot in England. Performed and published in 1587, 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. What is beyond dispute is that the play's rich paradoxes continue to hold power for many people both on stage and in text.

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 favor 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 plays indicating such an influence include

Also films: in Mike Hodges Get Carter the title character pursues and violently takes revenge on anyone implicated in the secret murder of his brother.

In Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, a key point in the plot is the performance and altered script of the fictional The Courier's Tragedy, a Jacobean revenge play.


Numerous adaptations have been made of revenge plays. Excluding films based on Hamlet, these include:

See also


Bradbrook, Muriel (1935). Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Doran, Madeline (1954). Endeavors of Art. Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press.

Whitaker, Virgil (1965). The Mirror Up To Nature: the Technique of Shakespeare's Tragedies. San Marino, Ca: Huntington Library Press.

Winstanley, William (1678). The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Revenge play" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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