The Revenge Theme Earlier Writers of Tragedy in the English Language


“Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.”
Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)
English philosopher, statesman, and lawyer.
Essays, "Of Revenge"

The earlier writers of tragedy in the English language Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, fastened on a story of revenge for the Gorboduc, first produced in 1561. Since then, for another six years revenge continued to be one of the popular themes of dramatic representation. Gorboduc has a simple plot: Gorboduc, King of Britain, divides his realm between his sons, Ferrex and Porrex and retires from rule. Soon afterwards vaulting ambition enslaves both the brothers; the younger Porrex acts quickly, invades Ferrex’s territory and slays his brother with his own hand. Queen Videna revenges the murder of her first son by killing Porrex. The outraged public rise in revolt and murder both the King and the Queen.

Gorboduc was significant in its day, not merely for its political overtones but also, perhaps chiefly, for breaking fresh ground in dramaturgy. The play, however, did not serve as a model for later writers of revenge plays. The authors of Gorboduc would have been familiar with the translations of Seneca’s plays but they did not induct into English drama all the conventions of Senecan tragedy. In fact, Revenge Tragedy, form of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in which revenge provides the mainspring of the action, it is usually characterized by bloody deeds, intrigue, and high melodrama. Revenge tragedy was pioneered by English dramatist Thomas Kyd with The Spanish Tragedy (1589?); other playwrights who used the form are William Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus (1594?) and Cyril Tourneur in The Revenger's Tragedy (1607). Its influence is also apparent in tragedies such as Shakespeare's Hamlet (1601?) and Macbeth (1606?). In the later plays of John Webster’s The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi both the action and thoughts are more matured and penchant.

 Naturally, it was left to Thomas Kyd to provide a model of Senecan revenge tragedy to the English audience through The Spanish Tragedy, (1594). Since his day the features of revenge came to be recognized as the following:

(a) A shocking murder has been committed and it cries out for revenge;
(b) Person or persons take up revenge as a sacred duty;
(c) The ghost of the murdered person stalks about, asking for revenge or providing the stimulus for revenge; alternatively there are omens and presentiments;
(d) There is a Machiavellian villain, who, acting on his own behalf or for others, causes widespread bloodshed; new-tangled tortures and horrors are introduced;
(f) The objects of revenge are often better than the so-called avengers;
(g) Some characters grow mad or feign madness;
(h) There is a play within a play which often mirrors the core of the main action; and
(i) The imagery and language emplaced often suit the violence of the action.

The Elizabethan and Jacobean tragic writers employed as many of these features as their plots allowed and freely made variations in them. The Spanish Tragedy exhibits only a few of these features, the others being the innovations of later writers. In this play the ghost of Don Andrea appears in the Induction along with Revenge (from hell) and these two form the Chorus for the play. Don Andrea, the Spanish courtier, has been killed in battle by Don Balthazar, son of the Portuguese Viceroy and the ghost of Andrea seeks revenge Balthazar and Lorenzo are the villains who murder Horatio unjustly, just to get him out of fair Belimperia’s way.

Horatio’s death drives his mother mad and she commits suicide. Horatio’s father Hieronimo swears revenge and executes, but by means of a play within a play. Finally Hieronimo bites out his tongue to avoid making a confession and later stabs himself.

Schemes, intrigues, plots, counterplots, unwarranted murder, revenge involving many deaths, a ghost and a play within the play—these are the main features of The Spanish Tragedy as a revenge play. These involved exciting and unusual scenes of violence and thrilled the uneducated part of the audience. But behind the spectacle lay the mainsprings of action, namely, questions of honour and prestige and the feeling of satisfaction that an important person derives in destroying wrong-doers even at the risk of his own life—these appealed to the educated and the nobility.

So the rich potential of revenge tragedy taught the imagination of writers like John Marston, Shakespeare and Tourneur and they attempted plays of this type with their variations of dramatic technique. In making the avenger a virtuous, sensitive, and scholarly person, Shakespeare raised his revenge tragedy, Hamlet, to high intellectual and philosophical level. Cyril Tourneur exploited the morbid and melodramatic aspects of revenge tragedy and heaped horrors on horror’s head in The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607) and The Atheist’s Tragedy (1611).

John Webster, starting after the revenge tragedians, great and small, showed his originality basically in reversing the moral positions of the avengers and the victim. In The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi the victims of the so-called revenge are heroic women and the ‘avengers’ are bloodthirsty villains. While tortures are there aplenty for the entertainment of the groundlings, the two plays raise the questions of degree and dignity of high places and in fact make in hem the springs of action: this has been done to satisfy the nobility and the educated among the audience.


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