Revenge tragedy

Origins of revenge tragedy

The revenge tragedy was very popular during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. An early example is Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy; probably the most famous example is Shakespeare's Hamlet. Although ideas about tragedy and other forms of drama originally came from Ancient Greece, Greek was not widely understood and it was the works of the Roman dramatist Seneca that popularised tragedy in Elizabethan England. Seneca's works were first translated into Senecathe English language in 1559, and by 1581 Senecan tragedies had circulated widely among the English literate.

In Seneca's plays the element of impiety towards the gods was replaced by the theme of revenge. In consequence the emotions displayed were crude rather than elevated and various devices were employed in these plays, which added to the atmosphere of terror and retribution. These became common features of the genre.

Other critics have argued that, in addition to Seneca's influence, the Italian novella provided another literary source for the revenge tragedy. Many of these Italian tales feature a sinister Machiavellian villain, sexual betrayals that culminate in private revenge, and bloody vendettas between rival families.

Developments in revenge tragedy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

Most scholars have agreed that revenge tragedies exhibit similar themes and theatrical devices but they have also pointed out that revenge does not always figure as the central theme of the individual plays.

The characteristic revenge tragedy is a grim, cynical statement on the moral and spiritual chaos that results from a society which has decayed and morally disintegrated. Works from this period include:

  • Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (1606)
  • Webster's The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614)
  • Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (c. 1630-33) and The Broken Heart (c. 1630-33)
  • Shirley's The Cardinal (1641).

Features of revenge tragedy

Usually one or more characters are exacting revenge, which may well have a ‘snowball' effect. In The White Devil both Francisco and Lodovico are motivated by the desire for vengeance.

There are other aspects which are typical of revenge tragedy and appear in The White Devil:

Dumb show

Murders and other horrific events are often shown through a ‘dumb show'. In Act 2 sc 2 the murders of Isabella and Camillo are enacted in dumb show through the magic of a conjuror.

Machiavellian villain

The works of the Italian writer Machiavelli were popular at the time. In his book The Prince, he advised kings and other rulers how to plot and be devious in order to keep their power. Such advice was exaggerated in popular sentiment so that in The White Devil Francisco de Medici was seen to typify a Machiavellian plotter.


These are necessary, not only for advancing the plot, but also to reveal a character's state of mind. There are important soliloquies from a number of characters:

  • Francisco's soliloquy in Act 4 sc 1 reveals the extent of his deviousness to the audience
  • Lodovico's soliloquy in Act 4 sc 3 shows his resolve to pursue his vengeance
  • In Act 5 sc 5 Flamineo's soliloquy gives the audience access to the moral debate that is going on in his mind.

Murders and corpses

There are usually a number of murders that happen both on and off stage. In The White Devil the majority of the main characters are dead by the end of the play, most of them as a result of violence.


Ghosts of murder victims often appear to persuade family members of friends to avenge their deaths:

  • In Act 4 sc 3 the ghost of Isabella appears to Francisco
  • In Act 5 sc 5 Brachiano's ghost appears to Flamineo.

Physical torment

There are often a number of murders that are both ingenious and brutal. The murders and methods of death are often sensational and sometimes presented at length so that the suffering of the victim is seen:

  • This is apparent in the dumb shows which portray the deaths of Isabella and Camillo - Isabella dies by kissing a poisoned picture and Camillo dies a violent death at the hands of Flamineo in Act 2 sc 2.
  • Brachiano dies as a result of donning a poisoned helmet during ceremonial combat for his wedding celebrations in Act 5 sc 3.

Sudden reversals

Incidents such as Brachiano's revival after Lodovico and Gasparo have disclosed themselves, and Flamineo rising after acting as if he had been shot, were designed to shock the audience and maintain dramatic tension. They are still staple elements of horror films today.

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