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It is well known that Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy established the genre of revenge tragedy in Elizabethan drama. The play contains many elements such as the appearance of a ghost, a play within the play and madness that were frequently used in subsequent revenge tragedies.

Hamlet undoubtedly has the outer structure of a revenge tragedy but its extreme popularity makes me wonder whether it has certain features that are unusual in a conventional revenge tragedy? Is Hamlet's tendency to procrastinate one of them? Are there any others?

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  • 1
    One of the drawbacks of many revenge tragedies is that all the characters are bent on revenge, and so rather unsympathetic. But Hamlet's characters are in general somewhat more sympathetic.
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 2 '19 at 14:29
  • Could you give an example of a play written after The Spanish Tragedy that you consider as a conventional revenge play?
    – Tsundoku
    Apr 21 '20 at 16:42
  • @PeterShor I don't think it's the case that the avengers in other English Renaissance plays are presented unsympathetically.
    – verbose
    Dec 21 '20 at 12:47
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tl;dr

It isn't.

Hamlet and its contemporaries

Hamlet is one of a cluster of similar plays that were tremendously popular on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage that are now grouped as revenge tragedies. These plays draw upon the works of the Stoic philosopher and playwright Seneca, whose blood-soaked tragedies feature the revenge motif, a ghost, and rhetorical excess. Some examples of revenge tragedy on the English Renaissance stage include:

Of these plays, the Ur-Hamlet is lost, but its existence is known because Thomas Lodge alludes to it in his tract Wit's Misery (1596). Lodge says of a man who resents another man's success:

he walks for the most part in black under colour of gravity, and looks as pale as the visard of the ghost which cried so miserally at the theatre like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge. (p. 62)

From Lodge, we know that even the idea of a ghost urging Hamlet on to revenge was not original to Shakespeare, but had made its way to the stage some years before Shakespeare's own play. Given this, it is unsurprising that the plot, situations, style, and characterization of Hamlet have much in common with other revenge tragedies of the period.

The Tropes of Revenge Tragedy

The elements of revenge tragedy as a genre were first identified by Ashley H. Thorndike in a 1902 article. The tropes Thorndike enumerates are these:

  • The ghost of a murdered man urges his son to seek revenge.
  • The revenger hesitates in his task. Elaborate soliloquies often provide both the medium of and the justification for his procrastination.
  • One or more characters, typically including the revenger, are or pretend to be mad.
  • Both the revenger and his enemies make use of intrigue. Characters plot against each other and traps are laid for the unwary.
  • The body count is very high; few characters are left standing at the end.

These elements, all present in Hamlet, are found in revenge tragedies both preceding and succeeding that play. Not every play has all these elements. For example, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois is about a murdered brother rather than father. But the plays clearly form a group that draw upon a shared set of tropes. Let's look at some examples.

The Spanish Tragedy

The Spanish Tragedy is the earliest extant play of the revenge tragedy genre. Hieronimo, the protagonist, is driven mad by the murder of his son, Horatio. After much soliloquizing, he exacts his revenge on the killers by staging an elaborate play-within-a-play. The ghost of Hieronimo's best friend, Andrea, who has been killed in battle prior to the action of this play, is onstage throughout, as is another character who is the personification of Revenge.

Antonio's Revenge

Harold Jenkins's introduction to the Arden edition of Hamlet (1982) summarizes the parallels between Shakespeare's play and Marston's:

In each a son is visited by the Ghost of his father, who reveals that he has been poisoned, laments that his wife has yielded to the murderer, and calls on his son for revenge. The son, already separated from his beloved, whose chastity is put in question, becomes melancholy and impersonates a fool or madman. He forgoes an opportunity to stab the murderer for the sake of a fuller revenge later, and the Ghost appears to him again in his mother's chamber. (p. 7)

Jenkins also lists several "incidental similarities" between the two plays, for example both heroes' wearing black and appearing onstage reading a book.

The Atheist's Tragedy

Tourneur's play features a wicked uncle, D'Amville, who murders his brother Montferrers. Montferrers' ghost tells his son Charlemont about the murder, but specifically instructs him to leave revenge to God, who will surely punish the avowed atheist D'Amville. (Get it? Damn-ville?) In a neat inversion of the usual vacillating revenger trope, Charlemont wants to avenge his father, but the ghost himself has counseled inaction.

Similar parallels and contrasts can be drawn between Hamlet and every other revenge tragedy of the period. From this, it is clear that Shakespeare's play does not deviate from the conventions of revenge tragedy. Whatever accounts for the popularity of Hamlet (and that's a whole 'nother question altogether), none of its structural or thematic features make it unique among revenge tragedies.

Why Revenge Tragedies?

Perhaps instead of focusing on the popularity of Hamlet specifically, we could examine why revenge tragedies in general were so popular on the English Renaissance stage. Katharine Eisaman Maus has argued:

Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies explore the particular stresses and incongruities produced by the highly stratified society of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. ... Overt displays of dominance and submission marked degrees of rank: and everyone, of course, except the monarch at the apex of the pyramid, had to humble himself before someone else. Renaissance revenge tragedy taps the repressed frustration of such situations, presenting the delicious spectacle of subjects hoodwinking and finally annihilating their superiors.

Revenge tragedy, reflects, however, not merely the predictable strains of life in a hierarchical society, but the less calculable effects of a hierarchy in the process of transformation. (p. xi–xii)

Maus points out that as the older, fixed hierarchies gave way to new forms of social organization, individuals could no longer rely on established norms or processes of justice. One might consider the effects of the Reformation in dismantling certainties. As established norms crumbled, individuals found themselves having to act alone in situations where they would previously rely upon systems. Maus writes:

Revenge tragedies feature someone who prosecutes a crime in a private capacity, taking matters into his own hands because the institutions by which criminals are made to pay for their offenses are either systematically defective or unable to cope with some particularly difficult situation. Such plays testify to an apparently ineradicable yearning for justice—a yearning that abides even, or especially, in the most unfairly victimized persons. But at the same time, they register a troubling discrepancy between the desire for equity and the means of fulfilling that desire.

Usually the deficiencies of the world presented in the play antedate the action we see on stage. Indeed the defectiveness of the status quo is virtually a precondition of the genre; for by definition revenge occurs after a crime has been perpetrated, as a response to some previous outrage. ... The importunate ghosts who haunt revenge tragedies remind characters and audiences of constraints the past places upon the present, of obligations the living bear to the departed. (p. ix)

As the social order crumbles around him, how is Hamlet to seek justice for his murdered father? He can hardly go to the king; the very situation forecloses that avenue. He can't even trust his mother. All he can do to fulfill his obligations to his father and to achieve some measure of equity is to wreak revenge by acting on his own. The figure of Hamlet, alongside the other haunted, lonely, and mad avengers of this period, epitomizes the emergence of the early modern subject during the Renaissance as an autonomous actor, an individual unmoored from the fixities of the vanished feudal system.

References

  • Lodge, Thomas. Wit's Misery and the World's Madness. 1596. In The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, v. 4. Glasgow: Hunterian Club, 1883.
  • Maus, Katharine Eisaman, ed. and intro. Four Revenge Tragedies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1601. Ed. Harold Jenkins. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1982.
  • Thorndike, Ashley H. “The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays.” PMLA, vol. 17, no. 2, 1902, pp. 125–220. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/456606. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.
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Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy was immensely popular; not only was it printed ten times between 1592 and 1633 (although only one copy of the 1592 edition has survived), it was also quoted, alluded to and reworked by other authors. Thomas Kyd is also attributed an Ur-Hamlet, which is now lost. The Spanish Tragedy borrowed certain elements from Seneca's Thyestes and other sources:

  • the "induction", in which the ghost of a murdered person (Andrea in The Spanish Tragedy) is brought back to the world of the living by a Revenge figure (the Fury in Thyestes),
  • the rhetorical language, the long monologues and stichommythia (from Seneca),
  • the machiavellian villain (from Italian novellas that treated revenge stories) which acts as a foil to the main character,
  • feigned madness (from Italian novellas),
  • the avenger's suicide (from Italian novellas).

However, in contrast with Seneca, violent acts are shown on stage instead of merely reported.

The above characteristics and motifs were combined with other ones, such as delaying the revenge, a play within the play, madness caused by great emotional stress, and often imitated in other plays. The success of the revenge tragedy in Elizabethan times was not exclusively based on the audience's predilection for violent and bloody action but also on an interest in the issue of revenge as a social and ethical problem. Private revenge was prohibited both by Christian ethics and by law, but this prohibition conflicted with a code of honour that required revenge for a murdered father, son or brother. This conflict explains several features of the revenge tragedy: hesitation to execute the revenge, soliloquies, and the suicide after the act of vengeance (see Schabert pages 67-70).

Hamlet exhibits mnay of the above features:

  • the ghost of a murdered father (in this case merged with the revenge figure, rather than separate),
  • feigned madness, possibly verging on real madness,
  • a play within the play,
  • delaying the act of vengeance,
  • soliloquies discussing the inner conflict caused by the demand for the revenge on the one hand and ethical or philosophical concerns on the other,
  • the avenger's death (in this case not suicide).

However, the entry "Revenge tragedy" in Wynne-Davies's The Renaissance distinguishes between three types of revenge tragdies depending on how the play deals with the state of inner conflict mentioned above:

  1. tragedies offering a straightforward treatment of the theme of revenge: The Spanish Tragedy, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (and Richard III), The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur or Thomas Middleton, and Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton;
  2. a kind of "anti-revenge" tragedy, "in which the hero is too enlightened to seek revenge", for example The Atheist's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur and The Revenge of Bussy d'Ambois by George Chapman;
  3. a kind of "tragedy of retribution", in which "a crime is avenged but the drama is not centred on a specific avenger", for example The White Devil by John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (also by Webster) and The Changeling by Thomas Middleton.

The text goes on to say that Shakespeare's Hamlet sits between the first two types "inasmuch as the hero both accepts the obligation to revenge and has to fight against his revulsion for it". This implies that there may be no such thing as a single convention for Elizabethan revenge tragedy, let alone that Hamlet would represent an example of a single convention.

The inclusion of Richard III in the first category may seem controversial. It seems that Wynne-Davis is using broader definition of "revenge tragedy" than what one might call "Kydean revenge tragedy", which would represent of subset. She is not the only one. For example, Marjorie Garber writes in Shakespeare After All (page 490):

The "revenge play" was a popular part of the early modern repertoire, and Shakespeare reworked this genre throughout his career, even in as late a play as The Tempest.

(Garber is not saying that The Tempest is a revenge play; it "is one of Shakespeare's most compelling 'revenge tragedies,' turned, at the last moment, toward forgiveness" (page 853).)

In Titus Andronicus, vengeance is much more obvious, even it is not in the tradition of The Spanish Tragedy.


Sources:

  • Garber, Marjorie: Shakespeare After All. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
  • Schabert, Ina (editor): Shakespeare-Handbuch. Die Zeit. Der Mensch. Das Werk. Die Nachwelt. Third edition. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1992. (See pages 67-70: "Kyds Spanish Tragedy und die elisabethanische Rachetragödie".)
  • Tydeman, William (editor): Two Tudor Tragedies. Norton and Sackville: Gorboduc. Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy. London: Penguin, 1992.
  • Wynne-Davies, Marion (editor): The Renaissance. A Guide to English Renaissance Literature: 1500–1660. Bloomsbury Guides to English Literature. London: Bloomsbury, 1994
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  • Great answer, but I don't think I'd agree with Wynne-Davies's taxonomy. Titus Andronicus and Richard III would not be covered by "revenge tragedy" in any definition I've seen of the term elsewhere. The term "revenge tragedy", when used to demarcate a genre, does in fact involve a play using Senecan conventions. Even including The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois is stretching things a bit. I think Wynne-Davies is simply overbroad in extending the term to cover any play that has revenge as part of the action.
    – verbose
    Dec 21 '20 at 14:50
  • @verbose Including Richard III may be a stretch, but would you deny the influence of Seneca or Kyd on Titus Andronicus?
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 21 '20 at 14:52
  • It’s been a while since I read Titus Andronicus, but as I recall there are no ghosts, there’s no soliloquizing, and no madness. I don’t believe I’ve seen it discussed as a revenge tragedy the way the plays mentioned in my answer are.
    – verbose
    Dec 21 '20 at 14:57
  • For that matter, Webster’s plays don’t qualify either; nor does The Changeling. They’re all fantastic plays, but not in the Seneca mold.
    – verbose
    Dec 21 '20 at 14:59
  • @verbose I think that entry assumes a broader definition of "revenge tragedy" than what one might call "Kydean revenge tragedy", which would represent of subset. Hence the different taxonomy.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 21 '20 at 15:04

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