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The Revengers Tragedy and the Revenge Play Genre - Essay Example

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The Revengers Tragedy and the Revenge Play Genre

Eliot recognized the dominance of the Senecan mood in drama during the era of the revenge tragedy when he suggested, "No author exercised a wider or deeper influence upon the Elizabethan mind or upon the Elizabethan form of tragedy than did Seneca" (Arkins 2).
Any analysis of the revenge play genre centers on two particular plays, which both typify and transcend the revenge play genre Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and ur-Hamlet. The blueprint of the revenge tragedy is laid out and executed here to brilliant and devastating effect, an effect which indeed defined the notion of how revenge was to be played out on stage. There is of course significant disagreement to how the concept of revenge was interpreted via Elizabethan mores, whether the multitude of avengers in the various stage dramas put on during the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries represented immoral exemplars, examples of Anglo-Saxon barbarianism combined with un-Christian Senecan ethic (Broude 39), or perhaps something more noble like retribution in the mode of divine justice.
Regardless, the ethical valence in the standard form of the revenge tragedy was generally unambiguous and robustly on the side of revenge and its attendant carnage. As as interesting caveat to this, Shakespeare's Hamlet often seen as a response to the non-extant ur-Hamlet offers a level of ambiguity that does not so much negate the vengeful mood of the play but nuances it in such a way that makes Hamlet the singularly important and influential play it is today. A purer example of the revenge tragedy is perhaps Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy. Though as we will show, while it is most obviously ruled by many of the conventions of the revenge tragedy and is clearly meant to fall within it as an artful example of the genre, it does not adopt all of its conventions carte blanche. In order to make sense of this it will be necessary to delineate the specific features of the revenge tragedy as put forth by scholars and how The Revenger's Tragedy both clearly accepts the mantle of the revenge play genre and subtly deviates from that form and to this end a thematic and structural comparison to such plays as Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy will be conducted.
The central plot element which pervades every revenge tragedy is of course the crime, or what Seneca refers to as scelus (Arkins 3). In his plays such as Thyestes the word scelus is referred to no less than 200 times and becomes the singular obsession of the revenger. The crime usually immediately takes place or its occurrence is established within the first few minutes of the action of the play. It immediately impels the play "towards a disaster for which the cause is established" (Arkins 4). The obsession with the crime often serves to transform the protagonist or revenger, a transformation which often consists of mock or genuine madness, philosophical soliloquies that ruminate on the nature of private revenge and a relentless delaying that does not resolve itself until the end of the play five acts later. The second convention present in many revenge tragedies of the time is the presence of a ghost which charges the revenger with his task, Old Hamlet in Hamlet, and Don Andrea in The Spanish Tragedy. Thorndike in establishing a chronology for the establishment and perpetuation cites a number of sources to suggest that ...Show more


The motivation of revenge is a literary trope that is played out in a number of different styles and literary genres. The history of the revenge tragedy, a phenomenon articulated during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, and as a particular instantiation of the theme of revenge played out on stage has its origins in the work of Seneca the Younger (Arkins 1; Thorndike 126)…
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The Revengers Tragedy and the Revenge Play Genre essay example
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