April 12, 2013

The Revenge Tragedy is a type of play in which the tragedy is achieved through pursuit and attainment of revenge. This genre was essentially popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. The Revenge Tragedy had its root in antiquity. It stemmed from the works of the Roman dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC– 65 AD). But the genre ushered in English tragedy by the writings of Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) with The Spanish Tragedy (1589?). Although he was the chief representative of the trend of Revenge Tragedy, the genre was reshaped through the writings of other dramatists such as, William Shakespeare (1564–1616) in Titus Andronicus (c. 1594) and Hamlet (c. 1601); Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) in The Jew of Malta (c. 1592); Cyril Tourneur (1575–1626) in The Revenger's Tragedy (1607); John Marston (1576–1634) in Antonio and Mellida (1600) and Antonio’s Revenge (1601); John Webster (1580–1634) in The White Devil (1612) andThe Duchess of Malfi (1614).

The Spanish Tragedy

Major Characteristics

All Revenge Tragedies typically comprise or hinge round the following tenets:

• A secret murder is committed and the ghost of the murdered person appears before the friend or relative of the avenger asking him to take revenge.
• Revenge is considered as a sacred duty rather than a pursuit engendered by rage or personal injury.
• The characters, usually the central one, fall into either feigned or real madness.
• The avenger’s hesitation delays the revenge.
• The revenge-seeker usually seeks revenge on the verge of insanity.
• Awe arising events/environment: graveyard, torture, suicide, mutilation and gruesome bloodshed.
• Immortality: incest, adultery, rape, etc.
• Rivalry between families.
• A period of disguise, intrigue, or plotting, in which the murderer and the avenger scheme against each other.
• The major role is played by a malevolent servant, usually known as malcontent, who is a Machiavellian villain.
• The protagonist often kills innocent persons.
• A play-within-the-play as a means of exposing or killing the avenger’s target.
• The play usually ends with the success of the revenge but the revenge-seeker dies shortly after that.
• The reader feels sympathy for the avenger.
• Long soliloquies giving insight into the characters' mentality and moral uncertainty.
• The play ends with multiple of deaths.
• Usually the plays are written in five acts, which are roughly as follows:
a. Act I: a ghost appeals for revenge.
b. Act II: the avenger plots for revenge.
c. Act III: the confrontation of the avenger and the victim.
d. Act IV: the vengeance is prevented.
e. Act V: the revenge is completed.

Did You Know?

Although Thomas Kyd was the chief initiator of the Revenge Tragedy, his plays have been criticised as coarse and unrefined in their manifestation of the revenge theme.

The Revenge Tragedy wasn’t even considered a separate literary genre until the early 20th century.

Shakespeare is believed to have modelled his eminent play Hamlet after Thomas Kyd’s now extant play Ur-Hamlet.

Hamlet is considered by many critics as the apex paradigm of the Revenge Tragedy in English literature.

Almost all playwrights of the Elizabethan and the Jacobean era contributed to the development of the Revenge Tragedy.

The Elizabethan playwrights opted to follow Seneca’s Thyestes, Medea, and Agamemnon as models for their Revenge Tragedy.

In the backdrop of the revenge theme, the Elizabethan and the Jacobean playwrights tended to explore the moral, religious, political, and social maladies of the times.

Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:


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