The origins of revenge tragedy date back to Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC – AD 65) who wrote a small number of closet dramas (plays intended to be read, not performed). Senecan tragedy typically involved elements of revenge via the supernatural, which later appealed to the tastes of Elizabethan playwrights and audiences. In the 1st century AD there were strict guidelines set in place to ensure the bloodshed in the plot of a revenge tragedy was communicated to characters on stage via a messenger.
Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama
Influenced by the Senecan tragedies of Roman times, revenge tragedies became very popular in the Elizabethan (1558-1603) and Jacobean (1603-1625) periods in England. As the title suggests, these dramas involved one or more characters seeking revenge upon another. Most importantly, bloodshed and murder were integral to the form and unlike the Senecan tragedies, Elizabethan audiences demanded the violent display of murder and revenge occur before their eyes on stage.
Revenge tragedies typically consisted of one or more of the following:
- ghosts and the supernatural
- insanity/mad scenes
- a character seeking revenge against a strong(er) opponent for a real or imagined wrongdoing
- personifications of revenge / the supernatural
- a clear villain (although interestingly the character of Hamlet was a hero seeking revenge)
- onstage violence, often sensational
- blood-filled conclusions
- often isolated revenger(s)
Revenge: retribution, retaliation, payback, vengeance, reprisal, avenge, getting even
Revenge tragedies also included many well-known conventions belonging to most Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas, such as:
- play within a play
- presentational acting style
- a five-act structure
A more detailed explanation of these conventions can be found on the Elizabethan theatre conventions page.
Tragedy: catastrophe, casualty, misfortune, disaster, calamity, destruction
Playwright Thomas Kyd is accredited with bringing the revenge tragedy to the English stage with his play The Spanish Tragedy (1582-1592). The plot surrounds the character Hieronimo who seeks revenge for his son’s murder. The drama also contains a number of other violent murders and uses the Elizabethan conventions of both a play within and play and a ghost.
Play script: The Spanish Tragedy play script
Study guide: The Spanish Tragedy study guide
The most famous revenge tragedy is William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603) where the audience witnesses a young Hamlet avenging his uncle Claudius for the murder of his father. Here, Shakespeare also uses the convention of a play within a play to allow Hamlet to confirm his suspected guilt of Claudius. Four characters die in a bloody carnage in Hamlet‘s final scene, including the protagonist. With an envenomed sword and a poisoned chalice, the end of Hamlet is pure spectacle. All the deaths occur on stage. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar are also considered revenge tragedies.
Play script: Hamlet play script
Study guide: Hamlet study guide
The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607), published anonymously though most likely written by Thomas Middleton, was a prominent revenge tragedy consisting of numerous plots to kill, plus counter plots. The play followed the structure of Seneca’s dramas, includes numerous soliloquies and has lust and violence at its core.
Play script: The Revenger’s Tragedy play script
Study guide: The Revenger’s Tragedy study guide
In John Webster’s revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (1623), two brothers insist their widowed sister, The Duchess, remain chaste and not remarry. However, things do not go according to plan as the duchess’ remarries below her class and bears three children. Eager not to share their inheritance, the brothers go on a bloody rampage to avenge her wrongdoing. No less than seven characters die on stage in The Duchess of Malfi.
Play script: The Duchess of Malfi play script
Study guide: The Duchess of Malfi study guide
Revenge Tragedy Drama Activities
Read: Either download and print or read online the play script to Hamlet in this post, above. As a class, read through the play. Use the study guide provided to assist your understanding of the most famous revenge tragedy of all time.
Discuss: Discuss exactly what makes Hamlet a revenge tragedy?
Present: Dramatise key scenes from Hamlet in class using the play script.
Research: Visit Google News online. Hit the settings icon and turn on the safe search settings. Search “revenge” in the Google News search bar. Read some of the news articles about various forms of revenge. Now search “tragedy” and read news articles the media consider as tragedies. Finally, search “revenge” plus “tragedy” in Google News and read news stories that consist of elements of both revenge and tragedy in our modern world.
Discuss: Discuss as a group what was typical of “revenge” news stories, “tragedy” news stories, and “revenge” + “tragedy” news stories? Note: this activity is best suited for senior drama students, as even with a search filter in place, some articles found can be disturbing.
Brainstorm: Form groups of 4-6. Choose one article from those read in the Google News activity, above, that best typifies a modern-day “revenge tragedy”. Use this news story as a stimulus. Perhaps each group in the class could choose a different news category to find their revenge tragedy article (eg. music, politics, sport, television, world news, etc.). Brainstorm ideas for a short drama based on the news article. Focus on the exact nature of revenge depicted in the tragedy and the characters, setting and plot needed.
Rehearse and Present: Rehearse the drama and when finished, present it to the class.
Reflect: Discuss the various revenge tragedies after viewing all groups’ performances. What were the similarities and common elements amongst the groups’ performances? What were the differences? What constitutes a modern-day revenge tragedy? Were some revenge tragedies trivial? Were they necessarily tragic? Were others more serious? Were they different from the plots of Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies?