Revenge tragedy

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Revenge tragedy

Revenge tragedy: A type of tragedy, particularly popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages, modeled loosely on the plays of first-century A.D. Roman playwright Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca) and centered on the pursuit of vengeance. Revenge tragedies (the most extreme of which are sometimes referred to as tragedies of blood) generally deal with a son’s quest to avenge his father’s murder or vice versa. English dramatist Thomas Kyd is usually credited with establishing the genre in his play The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1586).

A typical revenge tragedy is characterized by intrigue and bloodshed and includes the following elements: (1) the ghost of the murdered man who seeks revenge and implores or orders the protagonist to act; (2) hesitation by the protagonist in seeking revenge; (3) other issues that delay the act of revenge; (4) dissimulation, such as feigned insanity to deceive the murderer; (5) dramatic scenes of gore and horror, especially during the showdown between the protagonist and the villain; (6) the use of devices such as plays-within-a-play and soliloquies; and (7) a catastrophic end for all involved.

Although fashioned in the Senecan tragic tradition, particularly insofar as they involve considerable violence and an occasional ghost, revenge tragedies diverge from Seneca’s plays in bringing violent events onstage for the audience to see and experience in the most graphic and cathartic way possible.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602), the best-known revenge tragedy written in English; The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607), once attributed to Cyril Tourneur but later attributed, based on linguistic and other scholarly analysis, to Thomas Middleton.