Revenge tragedy

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Revenge tragedy (less commonly referred to as revenge drama, revenge play, or tragedy of blood) defines a genre of plays made popular in early modern England. Ashley H. Thorndike formally established this genre in his seminal 1902 article "The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays," which characterizes revenge tragedy "as a tragedy whose leading motive is revenge and whose main action deals with the progress of this revenge, leading to the death of the murderers and often the death of the avenger himself."[1] Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c.1580s) is often considered the inaugural revenge tragedy on the early modern stage. However, more recent research extends early modern revenge tragedy to the 1560s with poet and classicist Jasper Heywood's translations of Seneca at Oxford University, including Troas (1559), Thyestes (1560), and Hercules Furens (1561).[2] Additionally, Thomases Norton and Sackville's play Gorbuduc (1561) is considered an early revenge tragedy (almost twenty years prior to The Spanish Tragedy). Other well-known revenge tragedies include William Shakespeare's Hamlet (c.1599-1602) and 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 generic invention, developed as a means to talk about early modern tragedies that maintain a theme or motif of revenge in varying degrees. In respect to early modern drama more broadly, generic classification is difficult and, at times, contentious, and revenge tragedy is by no means exempt from this. More or less, the genre came into existence simply because it had to.

First Folio

Lawrence Danson, for example, suggests that Shakespeare and his contemporaries had a "healthy ability to live comfortably with the unruliness of a theatre where genre was not static but moving and mixing, always producing new possibilities.[3] Contrastively, Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio's frontispiece famously depicts the printer-imposed (Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount) three genres of comedy, history, and tragedy, which can erroneously lead readers to believe that plays are easily categorized and contained.[4] While these three genres have remained staples in discussions of genre, other genres are often either invoked or created, including not only revenge tragedy but also city comedy, romance, pastoral, and problem play, among others, in order to accommodate the generic slipperiness of early modern drama.[citation needed] While Thorndike is rather conservative in his definition of a revenge tragedy, it has become common to consider any tragedy that maintains an element of revenge in it a revenge tragedy.[citation needed] Lily Campbell even 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.[5] Furthermore, Fredson Bowers's groundbreaking work (1959) on this genre significantly widened and complicated not only what revenge tragedy is but also augmented its function as a productive lens in the work of dramatic and dramaturgical interpretation.[citation needed] A revenge tragedy thus can also be any tragedy where revenge is, more or less, a minor part of the overall narrative rather than just a narrative's major driving force. As long as revenge is an underlying theme or motivation throughout the piece, it can be labeled as revenge tragedy.

Duchess of Malfi title page

For example, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (c.1613), while often classified as a tragedy (its original frontispiece marketed it as The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy), can also be classified or read as a revenge tragedy since both major and minor characters are motivated by revenge. Likewise, Titus Andronicus was originally marketed in the First Folio as The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, and Hamlet was similarly titled in the First Folio as The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke and The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke in the Second Quarto edition (1604). It is not unusual, then, to find present-day editors classifying these plays as tragedies;[6][7] however, it is becoming increasingly common to also read and interpret early modern drama with other genres in mind, such as revenge tragedy.[citation needed]

Generic conventions

While these conventions don't apply to all plays that can be read as revenge tragedies, this list represents those things that commonly take place in the narrative of a revenge tragedy.

  • The revengers are always killed
  • Spectacle for the sake of spectacle
  • Tool villains and accomplices that assist the revenger are killed
  • The supernatural (often in the form of a ghost who urges the protagonist to enact vengeance)
  • A play within a play or dumb show
  • Madness or feigned madness
  • Disguise
  • Violent murders, including decapitation and dismemberment
  • Soliloquies
  • A Machiavelli 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 highly subjective)
  • In later revenge tragedies, there is often more than one character seeking revenge

Evaluating the genre through Lucius Seneca: One of the first revengers

As we explore the realm of revenge tragedy, it’s impossible to discount the front runner of its development: Lucius Seneca, one of the most prominent playwrights of the first century. He’s 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.[8] The importance of his plays lies in the difficulty of the time period. While 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 some of the most grueling pieces of film and literature that we see today. Infamous scenes like the cannibalistic feast in Thyestes introduces the audience to another dimension of the human experience, challenging us to reflect on extreme emotions and dig deeper into the conventions of the genre. Seneca’s Thyestes, a classic tale of revenge and horror, with a prominent theme of 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 story of the plot is that Thyestes has had an affair with Atreus' wife, stolen his golden fleece, and sneakily taken the throne of Mycenae from him. After a long period of exile, Thyestes is allowed to return to Rome. However, the conflict escalates when Atreus executes his revenge by tricking Thyestes into eating his own children. Although overtly grotesque, this is a piece of literature that follows the conventions of the revenge tragedy genre. Ultimately, everyone ends up dead and revenge has been taken to a level that would not be anticipated in the beginning.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright from the 16th century.[9] Through plays as Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare could portray all the basic characteristics of revenge tragedy, presenting elements that are quite similar to those from Seneca's tragedies, establishing tragedy as a more known genre. Shakespeare followed a similar style as Seneca's tragedies.

Titus Andronicus is one of the plays from Shakespeare during which, through the madness of Titus, who wanted to take revenge on Tamora and her sons for what they did to Lavinia and Bassianus, leading him to kill everybody that he faced in his search to satisfy himself avenging them. The main theme is Titus looking for revenge against Tamora and her sons but also there are other people on whom he is focused in taking vengeance; this is an element that is defined in revenge tragedy. Also the appearance of cannibalism in the last scene at the banquet and grotesque elements during the play make Titus Andronicus a reference to revenge tragedy and an example based on its characteristics.

Gender controversies and female sexuality

Throughout plays of Revenge Tragedy, numerous different types of revenge are played out. However, the biggest difference between each form of revenge is shown through which gender the revenge is coming from. In the play Titus Andronicus, we see the men as the ones who are bold enough to carry out their own revenge, or take revenge for another. The women, however, get their revenge through another. Tamora, Queen of the Goths, uses her power to make the people around her, including her own sons, basically do her dirty work for her. The women in these plays are shown as powerful, but in the sense that they can use others for their own benefit. Not only that, but it seems that the women are depicted as the cause for the protagonist's revenge. Tamora and Lavinia both pushed Titus more and more over the edge throughout the play. Tamora pushing him through injustices and by letting her sons mutilate Titus' daughter, Lavinia, and Lavinia by being his only daughter having to live her life in shame. By not only carrying out their own revenge, the men are viewed as smarter than the women by being able to see through fake attempts of kindness.[10] In the end of Titus Andronicus, Titus is pretending to be ignorant to Tamora's schemes, but in reality, it is Tamora who is ignorant to the real reason Titus began to play nice. Through these plays, the women are portrayed as weaker and easy to be fooled, even though they are also characterized as power people. To further enforce gender controversies, sexual persuasion seems to be the only way that female characters can execute their revenge. It also seems to be the primary source of conflict within this genre. By that context, the woman is always portrayed as one of two extremes, either she is the promiscuous manipulator or a delicate virgin- leading us to the conclusion that the value of women lies solely in their chastity. Just by glimpsing at Titus Andronicus, two characters clearly fit the mold. Tamora, empress of Rome, is an explicitly sexualized character who can only attempt revenge by manipulating the men in her life using them as pawns and Lavinia, daughter of Titus, is portrayed as a pure doe, who loses her value upon being ravished. Basically, women never seem to find a healthy equilibrium in the literary works of revenge tragedy. But as time progresses, the genre continues to evolve by at least blurring the line of discrimination with creating more complex female characters who's measure can be valued by more than just their sexuality. Overall, there is a clear difference between how the sexes are portrayed in the genre.


Revenge tragedy is a genre that has existed for a long time. However, its recognition only floated to the surface because of the famous, and little known, playwrights that developed it. They helped the literary world become more accustomed to the grotesque nature of the genre by revisiting dark themes, all of which involve vengeful motives. In doing so, readers have discovered a different realm in which they must confront the harsh truths of humanity.


  1. ^ Thorndike, A. H. "The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays." Modern Language Association. 17.2 (1902): 125-220. Print.
  2. ^ Irish, Bradley J. "Vengeance, Variously: Revenge before Kyd in Early Elizabethan Drama." Early Theatre. 12.2 (2009): 117-134. Print.
  3. ^ Danson, Lawrence. Shakespeare's Dramatic Genres. Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2000. Print. p. 11.
  4. ^ The First Folio, printed posthumously, was also prepared by Shakespeare's colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell.
  5. ^ Campbell, Lily. "Theories of Revenge in Renaissance England." Modern Philology. 28.3 (1931) 281-296. Print.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ 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 Literature6.9 (Sept. 2015): 163-167. Print.
  9. ^ Alchin, Linda K. "William Shakespeare". William Shakespeare. Retrieved 24 October 2015. 
  10. ^ Green, Douglas E. (Autumn 1989). "Interpreting "Her Martyr'd Signs": Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus". Shakespeare Quarterly. 40: 317. doi:10.2307/2870726. 
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