Revenge Tragedy in English Drama || Elizabethan Era

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      The Revenge Tragedy as its name implies is a tragic play in which the tragedy results from the revenge that is taken, for some wrong or wrongs either by the person wronged himself or by some one else on his behalf. This kind of tragedy had its beginning in ancient Greece in the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. However in their tragedies there was nothing of that horror element which soon came to be associated with the revenge play and which is a marked feature of the Elizabethan Revange Tragedy.

The Revenge tragedy as its name implies is a tragic play in which the tragedy results from the revenge that is taken, for some wrong or wrongs either by the person wronged himself or by some one else on his behalf.
Revenge Tragedy


      It was Seneca, the great tragic dramatist of ancient Rome who introduced the element of horror in the revenge play. Chief features of the Senecan Tragedy are:

(a) Some murder is committed and the ghost of the murdered person appears to some close relative and joins him to take revenge.

(b) Revenge is conceived of as a sacred duty, not as a kind of wild justice. The averger is moved by a sense of sacred duty and not by any passion of greed, hatred or some personal injury.

(C) There is a piling up of crude, physical horrors upon horrors. It is sensational and melodramatic. The appearance of the ghost, the scenes of madness, crude villainy make the melodrama complete. In the end, the stage is littered with dead bodies.

(d) There is abundant use of the imagery of violence and horror. Long declamatory speeches are the characteristics.

      The Revenge tragedy enjoyed great popularity in the seventeenth century due partly to romantic love of incident, partly to the influence of Seneca. It was to Seneca that the Elizabethan's owed their themes of revenge, their ghosts and horrors. The popularity of Revenge tragedy was also due to the Elizabethan interest in abnormal psychology and love of melancholy (both of which the revenge play could amply satisfy). No wonder that the form proved popular and men of such diverse genius as Kyd (Spanish Tragedy), Marston (Antonio and Mellida), Shakespeare, Webster (The Duches of Malfi) and Tourneur (The Revenger's Tragedy) felt tempted to have a shot at it. Significant too that Hamlet, itself the greatest glory of that glorious age of drama should belong to this genre.

      Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy inaugurated the type in English drama. Kyd was deeply intluenced by Seneca from whom he took over the ghost, the motive of revenge and the soliloquy. In The Spanish Tragediy Kyd transforms revenge into a convention and justifies it. It is undertaken by the father for the murder of his son and the avenger feels that revenge is a solemn duty, yet he hesitates and has doubts till a ghost appears and enjoins on him the task of revenge as sacred duty Thus, Hieronymo, the father avenging the death of his son is no villain. Rather he is presented as a hero accomplishing a duty. Thus Kyd created the avenging hero. He also introduced the hesitating type of the hero. The hero cannot sweep to his revenge all at once. He proceeds and retreats. The agony of indecision is tragic. After Kyd, the type can be traced in a number of plays, e.g, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Marston's Antonio's Revenge and Malcontent, Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy, Webster's The White Devil and Duchess of Malfi. Certain common features are noticed in these plays: The ghost, the cry for revenge, difficulty in executing revenge, the play within the play, the accumulation of horror, hesitating type of the hero, madness feigned and real.

      Marston's revenge plays are crude but he made another contribution - he introduced the note of general disgust at life and the weakness of a mother. These elements are found in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

      Shakespeare essayed the Revenge tragedy in Hamlet. Hamlet is called upon to take revenge upon the foul and unnatural murder of his father. He hesitates a good deal. He is a more complex character than Hieronymo. His moral sensibility receives a rude shock at the shallowness and sensuality of the age. He is given to melancholy and disgust at life. The avenger receives our sympathy.

      Revenge motive however changes with Websters's two tragedies - The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Here the revengeful brothers are villains and revenge is detestable and inexcusable. Revenge is not a sacred duty, but a satisfaction of personal passions. We sympathise with the victims, and not with the revengers. In both Tourneur's tragedy and Webster's plays, there are crude horrors. Imagery of violence, decay and corruption preponderate.

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