The Revenge Tragedy
Table of Contents
Definition of Revenge 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 or by someone else on his behalf. The revenge tragedy has its origin in ancient Greece in the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. Agamemnon is a revenge tragedy: Antigone and Electra belong to this group. But in their tragedies there was nothing of that horror and sensationalism which come to be associated with the revenge tragedy. In the Elizabethan age, the revenge tragedy took on new features and new complexion.
Characteristics of Revenge Tragedy
It was Seneca, the great tragic dramatist of ancient Rome who introduced the element of horror in the revenge play. The chief features of Senecan revenge tragedy are:
(a) Some murder is committed and the ghost of the murdered person appears to some close relative and enjoins on him to take revenge.
(b) Revenge is conceived of as a sacred duty, not as a kind of wild justice. The avenger is moved by a sense of sacred duty and not by any passion greed, hatred or some personal injury.
(c) It is sensational and melodramatic. The appearance of the ghost, the scenes of madness, crude villainy make the drama 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 used by the characters.
(e) There is a Machiavellian villain given to reflection. He is a malcontent type of character.
Examples of Revenge Tragedy in English Literature
Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy inaugurates the type of Revenge tragedy in Elizabethan drama. Kyd introduces 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. Shakespeare takes over all the conventions of revenge tragedy. He has a shot at this kind of drama in Hamlet. Hamlet is called upon to take revenge upon the foul and unnatural murder of his father. He hesitates a good deal. The parallel between Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet is very close. Both are stories of revenge: in the one the father is left to avenge the son’s murder, in the other the case is the reverse.
In both, revenge is duty, duty imposed by the social code demanding ‘blood for blood’ and ‘tooth for tooth, duty to which the father in one case and the son in another is called as much by nature as by social custom. This duty in both cases calls for resolution in which Hieronimo is as much lacking as Hamlet. But while Hieronimo’s irresolution is due to ignorance, possibly to fear-the criminals being placed too high, Hamlet’s irresolution is a far more complicated affair, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has all the characteristic features of a revenge tragedy- the ghost, the cry for revenge, difficulty in executing revenge, the play, the accumulation of horror, plenty of action of strong external action, the hesitating type of hero, madness feigned and real, yet Shakespeare’s Hamlet is more than a mere revenge tragedy.
In fact, the revenge play (even in Kyd’s hands) is a lively melodrama, never high tragedy. And Shakespeare uses melodrama but never writes it. His Hamlet has melodrama but it is no melodrama. The excesses of the revenge play he eschews carefully, so that his Hamlet has enough horror and sensationalism to make it theatrically effective but not enough to make it merely theatrical. His play has an inwardness, a psychological subtlety, an introspective fineness of which the revenge plays are all but innocent. And finally the glory of poetry is all his-no revenge play compares with it in this respect. In the main, the difference is in the character of the hero and the splendor of poetry.
The Revenge tragedy enjoyed great popularity in the 17th century. The influence of Seneca, the romantic love of incident and the Elizabethan interest in abnormal psychology and love of melancholy largely account for this popularity. Almost all the successful dramatists were attracted to write this type of tragedy. Among them the most important are Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Marston’s Antonio and Mellida, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Tourneur The Revenger’s Tragedy. The revenge tragedy in the hands of Webester and Tourneur degenerated into the horrible and the macabre. They are men of genius but they do not possess Shakespeare’s power of combining particular interest with the universal appeal. They cannot portray convincing characters and the revenge motive is very weak. Revenge is not a sacred duty, but a satisfaction of personal passion.
In the Duchess of Malfi, Cardinal and Ferdinand, the two brothers torture the Duchess out of morbid pleasure in inflicting pains. Here we do not sympathize with the revenger, but with the victim. There is a free and full exploitation of crude, physical horrors like the dance of mad men, the presentation of a dead man’s hand to the Duchess, the appearance of the tomb-maker and the executioner with the apparatus of death-murders by strangling and poisoning. Webster has a strange power of evoking shudders. The Duchess of Malfi is, however, superior to the Spanish Tragedy because of poetry and the superb characterization of the Duchess. Webster gets wonderful poetry out of the macabre. The Spanish Tragedy excels in crude horror and melodrama. Webster’s play is inferior to Shakespeare’s because of its note of despair and disillusion and its insistence on the macabre.
In Shakespeare’s tragedy there is the reintegration of the disintegrated tragic universe. But with the successors of Shakespeare, the tragedy ends with a note of darkness and disillusion. Shakespeare’s tragedy ends with the feeling of the resurrection of the forces of good which were temporarily eclipsed. But in the post-Shakespearean tragedy, incest, villainy, lechery and morbid and macabre elements so dominate the drama that it leaves an ultimate impression of bitterness and boredom. Webster tries to preach some moral doctrines, but they are not realized through dramatic representations and so they sound hollow and obtrusive. Shakespearean tragedy achieves an equivalence of joy and sorrow. beauty and sordidness, grandeur and worriness which is something unique in the history of tragedy.