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Revenge tragedy (sometimes referred to as revenge drama, revenge play, or tragedy of blood) is a theoretical genre in which the principal theme is revenge and revenge's fatal consequences. Formally established by American educator Ashley H. Thorndike in his 1902 article "The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays," a revenge tragedy documents the progress of the protagonist's revenge plot and often leads to the demise of both the murderers and the avenger himself.
The genre first appeared in early modern Britain with the publication of Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy during the latter half of the 16th century. Earlier works, such as Jasper Heywood's translations of Seneca (1560's) and Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville's play Gorbuduc (1561), are also considered revenge tragedies. Other well-known revenge tragedies include William Shakespeare's Hamlet (c.1599-1602), Titus Andronicus (c.1588-1593), and Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (c.1606).
Revenge tragedy as a genre
The genre of revenge tragedy is a modern invention, developed as a means of explaining early modern tragedies that maintain a theme or motif of revenge in varying degrees. Classification of the revenge tragedy is at times contentious, as with other early modern theatrical genres.
Lawrence Danson suggested that Shakespeare and his contemporaries had a "healthy ability to live comfortably with the unruliness of a theatre where the genre was not static but moving and mixing, always producing new possibilities." On the contrary, Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio's famously depicts the printer-imposed (William Jaggard and Edward Blount) three genres of comedy, history, and tragedy, leading readers to falsely believe that plays are easily categorized and contained. While these three genres have remained staples in discussions of genre, other genres are often either invoked or created to accommodate the generic slipperiness of early modern drama. These include not only revenge tragedy, but also city comedy, romance, pastoral, and problem play, among others.
It is common to consider any tragedy containing an element of revenge a revenge tragedy. Lily Campbell argues that revenge is the great thematic uniter of all early modern tragedy, and "all Elizabethan tragedy must appear as fundamentally a tragedy of revenge if the extent of the idea of revenge be but grasped." Fredson Bowers's work (1959) on the genre not only widened and complicated what revenge tragedy is, but also increased its function as a productive lens in the work of dramatic interpretation. For example, Titus Andronicus was originally marketed in the First Folio as The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. Hamlet was similarly titled in the First Folio as The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in the Second Quarto edition (1604). It's not unusual to find present-day editors classifying these plays as tragedies; however, it is becoming increasingly common to also read and interpret early modern drama with other genres in mind, such as revenge tragedy.
While these conventions don't apply to all plays that can be considered revenge tragedies, the events listed are common within the genre:
- The avenger is killed
- Spectacle for the sake of spectacle
- Villains and accomplices that assist the avenger are killed
- The supernatural (often in the form of a ghost who urges the protagonist to seek vengeance)
- A play within a play, or dumb show
- Madness or feigned madness
- Violent murders, including decapitation and dismemberment
- A Machiavellian figure
- Cannibalism (Thyestean banquets)
- A fifth and final act where many characters are killed (multiple corpses on the stage)
- Degeneration of a once-noble protagonist
- In later Jacobean and Caroline revenge tragedies, the protagonist is more often a villain than a hero (though this is subjective)
- In later revenge tragedies, there is often more than one character who seeks revenge
Significant revenge tragedy playwrights
Lucius Seneca was a prominent playwright of the first century, famous for helping shape the genre of revenge tragedy with his ten plays: Hercules Furens, Troades, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules Oetaeus, and Octavia. The importance of his plays lies in the difficulty of the period. While the Elizabethan tragedy was considered more acceptable, revenge tragedy sought to unleash the carnal side of human nature on stage in a much more grotesque way. It was a transitional time in the literary world that would eventually lead to grueling pieces like these. Infamous scenes like the cannibalistic feast in Thyestes introduce the audience to another dimension of the human experience, challenging them to reflect on extreme emotions and dig deeper into the conventions of the genre.
Seneca’s Thyestes, a tale of revenge and horror with prominent cannibalism, can be identified as one of the first "revenge pieces". In the power struggle between two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, there is a clear theme of revenge. The underlying plot is Thyestes's affair with Atreus' wife. He stole his treasured golden fleece, and sneakily took the throne of Mycenae from him. After a long period of exile, Thyestes is allowed to return to Mycenae. However, the conflict escalates when Atreus executes his revenge by tricking Thyestes into eating his children. Although overtly grotesque, this piece of literature follows the conventions of the revenge tragedy genre. Ultimately, everyone ends up dead and revenge has been taken to a level that was not anticipated in the beginning.
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright from the 16th century. Through plays like Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare portrayed the basic characteristics of a revenge tragedy. He presented elements that are quite similar to those from Seneca's tragedies, establishing tragedy as a more well-known genre.
Titus Andronicus depicts the madness of Titus, who wanted to take revenge on Tamora and her sons for what they did to Lavinia and Bassianus. This leads him to kill everybody that he faced in his search to satisfy himself and avenge them. The main plot focuses on Titus's revenge against Tamora and her sons, but also there are other people to whom he seeks vengeance. This is an element that can define a revenge tragedy. The appearance of cannibalism in the last scene at the banquet and grotesque elements during the play relate Titus Andronicus to Seneca's earlier revenge tragedies.
- Thorndike, A. H. "The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays." Modern Language Association. 17.2 (1902): 125-220. Print.
- Danson, Lawrence. Shakespeare's Dramatic Genres. Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2000. Print. p. 11.
- The First Folio, printed after his death, was also prepared by Shakespeare's colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell.
- Campbell, Lily. "Theories of Revenge in Renaissance England." Modern Philology. 28.3 (1931) 281-296. Print.
- Engle, Lars. Introduction to The Duchess of Malfi. The Duchess of Malfi. By John Webster. English Renaissance Drama. Eds. David Bevington, et al. Norton, New York: 2002. 1749-1754. Print. p. 1749.
- Weis, Rene. Introduction. John Webster: The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays. By John Webster. Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1996. ix-xxviii. Print. p. xxiii
- Alkhaleefah, Tarek A. "The Senecan Tragedy and its Adaptation for the Elizabethan Stage: A Study of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy." International Journal of English and Literature 6.9 (Sept. 2015): 163-167. Print.
- Alchin, Linda K. "William Shakespeare". William Shakespeare. Retrieved 24 October 2015.
- "Titus Andronicus" Titus Andronicus. shakespeare.mit.edu. Retrieved February 13, 2017.