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Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy

One of the great influences on the early modern revenge play genre was the translation of the works of the Roman playwright Seneca into English in the last half of the sixteenth century. Seneca’s tragedies concerned the heroic figures of classical legend, and borrowed from such playwrights as Aeschylus, Euripedes and Sophocles. The tragedies were filled with horrifying events such as cannibalism, incest, rape, and violent death. Revenge is also a theme in many of Seneca’s plays: in Hippolytus, Theseus takes revenge on his son for the supposed rape of Phaedra, while in Agamemnon, the ghost of Thyestes urges Aegisthus towards revenge. Revenge and violence are associated with ghosts in several other Senecan plays. [1]

Another strong influence came from Italian literature, reinforced by a stereotype that was held in contemporary England of Italians as vengeful, cunning and bloodthirsty. [2] Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote The Prince, a treatise on power, in the early years of the sixteenth century. The perceived amorality of the work led ‘Machiavel’ to be synonymous with villainy in the contemporary imagination. Innocent Gentillet wrote that in Machiavelli’s country, ‘vengeances, and enmities are perpetuall and irreconcilable’, and revenge gave ‘delectation, pleasure and contentment’; revengers will torment a victim, and may even ‘force him with hope of his life to give himselfe to the diuell; and so they seeke in slaying the bodie to damne the soule, if they could’. [3] This detail recalls Hamlet’s refusal to murder Claudius during prayer, lest the King’s soul go to heaven, [4] and to his emphasis on Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s deaths being carried out immediately, with no ‘shriving time’. [5] Other Italian works, like The historie of Guicciardin containing the warres of Italie, translated by Geoffrey Fenton (1579), and novels such as those translated by Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques (1559-70) and into English by William Painter in his Palace of Pleasure (1567-8) contained gruesome tales of revenge and violence. [6]

Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587-9) is one of the earliest plays built around blood-revenge to be performed on the English stage. [7] It not only contains a ghost, but also a personified spirit of Revenge, giving the play a framework that involves supernatural forces and the workings of fate. [8] This is set against the protagonists’ struggles to achieve justice through their own actions. Hieronimo’s desire for vengeance ‘is in a very real sense a passion for justice’. [9] The existence of evil and undeserved misfortune in the world drives him to exclaim ‘O world! no world, but mass of public wrongs,/ Confus’d and fill’d with murder and misdeeds’. [10] Here we find echoes of ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ in Hamlet, (1.4.90) and Lear’s mad ravings about the evils of society in King Lear. In The Spanish Tragedy, as in Hamlet, an attempt is made to procure justice by means of a play-within-a-play, but in The Spanish Tragedy the revenger takes part in the play and stabs the villain in the middle of the performance.

Revenge plays in the style of Kyd include Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, perhaps the most grotesque and least likeable of Shakespeare’s plays, and Hamlet. Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (1599) includes elements found in Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy: the ghost, the play-within-a-play, delayed revenge, rape or threats to female honour, and a bloody denouement, as well as the pretended foolishness of Antonio, which matches Hamlet’s feigned madness. The Revenger’s Tragedy (attributed to Tourneur, c. 1606-7), is another play in this genre. [11] A central element is the skull of a woman who has been poisoned. Carried about by the revenger, the skull prompts meditations on the transience of life and the inevitability of death and corruption, which recall both medieval morality drama and the philosophical musings of Hamlet. The revenger, Vindice, goes about disguised, which ‘enables him to act as a detached, satirical and didactic commentator in the folly and evil of the other characters’, [12] again recalling Hamlet’s similar ironic commentary under the disguise of madness.

In these plays, the revenger is a kind of hero, avenging cruel and undeserved death, yet is a killer in his turn. The extent to which contemporary audiences would have sympathised with the avenger is debated by literary critics. [13] In some plays, the revenger is not heroic at all, but utterly villainous: in The Duchess of Malfi,  Ferdinand comes to believe he has turned into a wolf, symbolising his savagery. Yet revenge could be a way to settle a ‘legitimate grievance’. [14] Francis Bacon wrote that ‘revenge triumphs over death’, [15] a sentiment expressed by Vindice in The Revenger’s Tragedy when he proclaims ‘When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good’, [16] suggesting that the justice of revenge outweighs the horror of tragedy. However, Bacon also wrote that ‘in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon’. [17] In revenge plays, the option of forgiveness is not taken, and even if justice is done and the revenger dies to expiate his deeds, revenge plays close with a sense of futility, waste and loss.

Karen Kay


1. Fredson Thayer Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642 (Gloucester, MA: Smith, 1959). Return to text

2. Bowers, pp. 48-52. Return to text

3. Bowers, p. 52, citing Innocent Gentillet, Discours sur les moyens de bien governer [...] contre Nicolas Machiavel (1576), translated as A Discourse Upon the Meanes of Well Governing [...] by Simon Patericke (1577), Part III, max. 6. Return to text

4. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Thomson Learning, 2006), 3.3.73-98, pp. 331-3. Return to text

5. Hamlet, 5.2.46-7, p. 436. Return to text

6. Bowers, pp. 53-61. Return to text

7. A Hamlet play written before Shakespeare’s version, possibly by Kyd, now lost, would have been another early example of the genre. Return to text

8. Cf. Charles A. Hallett and Elaine S. Hallet, The Revenger’s Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), p. 8. Return to text

9. Hallet and Hallet, p. 145. Return to text

10. Hallet and Hallet, p. 147, citing Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959), 3.3.3-4. Return to text

11. On plays in the style of Kyd, cf. Bowers, pp. 101-53. Return to text

12. Tourneur, Cyril, The Revenger’s Tragedy, ed. by Brian Gibbons, New Mermaids (London: Benn, 1967; Black, 1988), p. xv. Return to text

13. Cf. Bowers, pp. 3-40.Return to text

14. Cf. Hallett and Hallett, p. 6. Return to text

15.From ‘Of Death,’ Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral, ed. by Charles W. Eliot, The Harvard Classics (New York: Collier, 1901-14), III, Part 1, online at Return to text

16. The Revenger’s Tragedy, 3.5.198, p. 64. Return to text

17. From ‘Of Revenge,’ Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral, ed. by Charles W. Eliot, The Harvard Classics (New York: Collier, 1901-14), III, Part 1, online at Return to text



General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
The Wife as Property in Othello