Revenge Tragedies Become Popular in England

Beginning with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, portrayals of the tragic consequences of seeking revenge became one of the dominant dramatic forms on the London stage for almost a century. Though William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is the major example of the genre, other revenge tragedies by such contemporaries as Thomas Middleton and John Webster were equally popular with theater audiences and continue to be performed.

Summary of Event

When the Renaissance reached England in the sixteenth century, the study of Roman dramatists became part of school curricula. Prominent among these ancient playwrights was Seneca the Younger, whose plays probably were recited or read aloud by a single speaker. By the mid-1550’s Seneca’s plays were being translated from the Latin and performed at schools in England. In 1561, as part of a natural progression from translation to imitation, the first English tragedy—Gorboduc (pr. 1561, pb. 1565, authorized edition pb. 1570; also known as The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex)—was written by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton and presented to their fellow lawyers at London’s Inns of Court. In 1576, the first of a number of public theaters opened, and about a decade later, Thomas Kyd’s Kyd, Thomas
The Spanish Tragedy
Spanish Tragedy, The (Kyd) (pr. c. 1585-1589, pb. 1594?) introduced revenge tragedy to London audiences. A masterful blend of popular and academic traditions, The Spanish Tragedy may have been the most successful play of its age. It was often revived, and it begat a new genre that dominated the English stage for almost a century. [kw]Revenge Tragedies Become Popular in England (early 17th cent.)
[kw]England, Revenge Tragedies Become Popular in (early 17th cent.)
[kw]Tragedies Become Popular in England, Revenge (early 17th cent.)
Theater;Early 17th cent.: Revenge Tragedies Become Popular in England[0010]
Literature;Early 17th cent.: Revenge Tragedies Become Popular in England[0010]
England;Early 17th cent.: Revenge Tragedies Become Popular in England[0010]
Revenge tragedy

Generally set in royal courts, revenge tragedies portray intrigue and corruption thriving behind a facade of normality, conflicts spurred by sibling or political rivalry, and characters maneuvering for social or political advancement. Most of the plays are set in Italy or Spain, exotic and sinister locales about which most seventeenth century Englishmen knew little. These alien settings provided a useful distance from the action, enabling London audiences to observe parasitical flatterers with political aspirations and other evils of preferment at court with a comfortable detachment. At the same time, a London audience would have noticed parallels with the contemporary English court and the intrigues and political struggles of the day.

In the plays, people engage in private acts of revenge instead of relying upon the law, acts Elizabethans accepted when a son exacted revenge for the murder of his father, as in William Shakespeare’s Shakespeare, William
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1600-1601), or when a father avenged the killing of his son, as in The Spanish Tragedy. The latter play opens with a ghost revealing the details of a murder, as Hieronimo, a Spanish gentleman beset by melancholy and madness because of his son’s murder, learns the identity of the villains and plots his revenge. He presents a play in which he and the unwitting culprits take part and in which he kills them and himself. Shakespeare in Hamlet used this play-within-a-play device, which Kyd introduced, as did John Marston Marston, John in Antonio’s Revenge
Antonio’s Revenge (Marston)[Antonios Revenge (Marston)] (pr. 1599, pb. 1602). The concluding carnage in these plays also is present in most other revenge tragedies, such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare) (pr., pb. 1594), Henry Chettle’s Chettle, Henry
The Tragedy of Hoffman: Or, A Revenge for a Father
Tragedy of Hoffman, The (Chettle) (pr. 1602, pb. 1631), and The Revenger’s Tragedy
Revenger’s Tragedy, The (Middleton)[Revengers Tragedy, The (Middleton)] (pr. 1606-1607, pb. 1607), which was once attributed to Cyril Tourneur but is now believed to be by Thomas Middleton Middleton, Thomas .

A revenger was typically meant to command the sympathy of the audience, at least at the start, but his mental state or actions over the course of the play could cause this sympathy to fade or be tempered with other judgments. To increase dramatic tension, the playwright introduced obstacles that slowed the protagonist’s pursuit of his goal, which may be why, in most of these plays (following Seneca’s pattern), a ghost or the spirit of revenge was present to prod and encourage his vengeance. Many also had dumb shows or pantomimes between the acts to exemplify the action, but these may have had their origin in medieval English drama.

There were other variations among the major Jacobean revenge tragedies: Some featured several revengers and conflicting intrigues. These include Marston’s The Malcontent
Malcontent, The (Marston) (pr., pb. 1604), in which only one of the attempted revengers succeeds, and The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois
Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois, The (Chapman) (pr. c. 1610, pb. 1613) by George Chapman, Chapman, George a didactic play whose moral lessons almost overshadow the revenge framework of the plot. The medieval morality play tradition of personifying abstract qualities is apparent in The Revenger’s Tragedy, whose characters’ names are Italianate versions of such qualities. John Webster Webster, John in The White Devil
White Devil, The (Webster) (pr. c. 1609-1612, pb. 1612) further expanded the parameters of the Kyd tradition by using events from the recent past for his plot, although he employed an Italianate setting to disguise his criticism of evils at the English court. In The Duchess of Malfi
Duchess of Malfi, The (Webster) (pr. 1614, pb. 1623), largely a Kydian play, Webster made the revengers’ victim the play’s protagonist. The play’s Bosola, nominally a villain and the revengers’ instrument, is one of the most psychologically complex and indefinable characters in the genre.

Another departure from the Kyd tradition is exemplified by The Changeling
Changeling, The (Middleton and Rowley) (pr. 1622, pb. 1653), by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, Rowley, William in which Beatrice cannot cope psychologically with the consequences of her crimes, confesses to adultery and murder, and is killed by her accomplice Deflores, who then commits suicide. The murder and suicide of the play’s conspirators thwarts the proper revenger, denying him the satisfaction of taking his own revenge. By the 1620’, playwrights usually created revengers who were utter villains from the first act, making no attempt to encourage initial sympathy. Because audiences enjoyed seeing evil machinations perpetrated on the stage, playwrights catered to this predilection. Three plays of John Ford Ford, John may serve as prime examples of this trend: The Broken Heart
Broken Heart, The (Ford) (pr. c. 1627-1631, pb. 1633), ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore
’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Ford)[Tis Pity Shes a Whore (Ford)] (pr. 1629?-1633, pb. 1633), and Love’s Sacrifice
Love’s Sacrifice (Ford)[Loves Sacrifice (Ford)] (pr. 1632?, pb. 1633).

As the decades passed, revenge tragedies, though increasingly imitative of earlier works, remained popular. Among the later plays in the genre is James Shirley’s Shirley, James
The Cardinal
Cardinal, The (Shirley) (pr. 1641, pb. 1652), which appeared just before the closing of the theaters in 1642 during the English Civil Wars and was often revived in the decades after the Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660. The Spanish Tragedy; Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; The Duchess of Malfi; The Broken Heart; and Cyril Tourneur’s Tourneur, Cyril
The Atheist’s Tragedy: Or, The Honest Man’s Revenge
Atheist’s Tragedy, The (Tourneur)[Atheists Tragedy, The (Tourneur)] (pr. c. 1607, pb. 1611) are obvious antecedents of The Cardinal, with such parallels as the murder of a rival by a jealous lover, support for the murderer by a Machiavellian villain eager for advancement or wealth, madness (real or feigned) as a result of grief, a play within a play, and revenge as an obsessive motive.

Shirley, however, departed from past practice with a lighthearted prologue that teased the audience about whether the play was a comedy or tragedy, even suggesting by his style and tone that it was the former. The prologue also engaged in self-mockery and made satiric comments about classical dramatic theory. These decisions may indicate that, in 1641, Shirley was sensitive to the risks of offering what was by then an old-fashioned revenge tragedy to sophisticated Londoners at a private theater. The ironic presentation of the genre by Shirley and other Restoration playwrights may account for their popularity on the Restoration stage.


Revenge tragedy, which became the dominant Elizabethan dramatic form soon after public theaters began to open in the late English Renaissance, maintained its preeminent position as the decades passed, attracting almost all of the leading playwrights. The genre continued to develop in the hands of these playwrights, whose plays not only made structural changes to the basic generic template but also contained subtle allusions to current issues, such as the conflicts with Spain that had climaxed with the defeat of the Spanish Armada; to the controversies over Catholicism and the royal succession that dominated the seventeenth century; and to intrigues at court, which could not safely be addressed in a more direct and open manner.

The playwrights, after all, wrote for London’s theatergoers, and they modified both the form and the content of revenge tragedies to cater to the interests of their audience. As the audience changed over the first half of the seventeenth century—becoming largely private and upper class by the late 1620’—the flexibility of the genre enabled revenge tragedy not only to survive but also to flourish, modifying its tone and concerns as necessary to accommodate new spectators. When the theaters reopened in 1660 after an eighteen-year hiatus, revenge tragedies by Shirley and others were revived, often with revisions, and they continued to influence new generations of dramatists into the eighteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Bowers, Fredson Thayer. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1940. A seminal work that traces the origin of the form and sets the parameters for subsequent studies of revenge tragedy.
  • Braunmuller, A. R., and Michael Hattaway, eds. The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A valuable collection of essays by different specialists that reflects the latest scholarly reviews; also has useful biographies, bibliographies, and chronological tables.
  • Leggatt, Alexander. English Drama: Shakespeare to the Restoration, 1590-1660. London: Longman, 1988. Surveys English drama during its golden age, focusing upon individual playwrights and genres; useful appendices include biographical and bibliographical information as well as historical and cultural chronologies.
  • Ribner, Irving. Jacobean Tragedy: The Quest for Moral Order. London: Methuen, 1962. Chapters on six playwrights—George Chapman, Thomas Heywood, Cyril Tourneur, John Webster, Thomas Middleton, and John Ford—include close examinations of their plays with extensive focus upon textual analysis.
  • Sanders, Julie. Caroline Drama: The Plays of Massinger, Ford, Shirley, and Brome. Plymouth, Mass.: Northcote House, 1999. A brief study of how the plays of four major dramatists reflected the social and political milieu of Caroline London.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Charles I; Charles II (of England); James I; Thomas Middleton; James Shirley; Cyril Tourneur; John Webster. Theater;England
Revenge tragedy