Tragedy in the days of Shakespeare is often referred to as Elizabethan tragedy. Few people realise this was a revivial of a form that had a long history, originating alongside the gladiators, only a handful of centuries after the birth of western theatre.
In the 1st Century AD, Roman philosopher Seneca wrote a series of plays involving characters who, during the course of the plot, sought revenge upon another character for an evil doing.
These types of plays are today referred to as Revenge Tragedies and they flourished during the 1600s in England. The plots of such plays included insanity, murder, ghosts, torture, graveyards, ambition and severed limbs.
Most Revenge Tragedies were written after the death of Queen Elizabeth I and during the reign of her successor King James I (1603-1625). Hence, they were a form largely belonging to the Jacobean (not Elizabethan) period and were therefore represented by Shakespeare only in his later works.
The greatest example of a Revenge Tragedy is Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603), where the title character seeks revenge on his uncle Claudius for murdering Hamlet’s father. In keeping with the genre, Hamlet ends with the carnage of many characters in the final scene.
Interestingly, the difference between Seneca’s Revenge Tragedies and Shakespeare’s, was that in the Roman drama all the bloodshed occurred offstage and was usually reported via a messenger. In Jacobean tragedies however, this action happened onstage before the audience. Indeed, all the deaths at the end of Hamlet were very much a part of the play’s attraction to a 17th century audience.
Another excellent example of a Revenge Tragedy is John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623). In this play, the widowed duchess secretly remarries a man against the will of her two powerful brothers. In return, they seek revenge and arrange for her murder as punishment.
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The reason that the murders were always reported by messenger was the strict decorum rules outlined by Aristotle’s Poetics (i.e. no murder on stage). Judges of playwrighting competitions were strict followers of Poetics during this time, and would not allow the publishing of works which did not follow this doctrine.