In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section English Tragedy

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Editions
  • Journals
  • Performance
  • Influences on English Renaissance Tragedy
  • Major Critical Works

Renaissance and Reformation English Tragedy
Garrett Sullivan, Tanya Pollard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0214


The English Renaissance produced some of the major tragic works in Western literature. While most readers associate this period with the plays of William Shakespeare, other playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Middleton, and John Webster also made enormous contributions to the flowering of the genre. This entry will largely exclude Shakespeare, whose works are admirably covered in the Oxford Bibliographies article by David Bevington (see William Shakespeare). Most of the playwrights taken up here wrote for the professional playhouses in London between the late 1580s and early 1630s, although the London theater was not the only source of tragic literature: Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville’s Gorboduc was written and performed at the Inns of Court, while Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam is a closet drama, composed with no intention of public performance. Nevertheless, the tragic masterpieces of this era—works such as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi—were produced to serve flourishing theatrical enterprises in London’s public and private playhouses. Tragedy was widely believed to be the most elevated dramatic genre, dealing as it does with affairs of state as well as issues of life and death, fate and free will, social corruption and violent retribution, damnation and the possibility (or impossibility) of redemption. The dominant literary strain was that of revenge tragedy, with Kyd’s play providing a template built upon and modified by numerous others. At the same time, the genre was also capacious and flexible. “Domestic tragedies” like the anonymous Arden of Faversham centered not upon the court but the household and seemingly had little to do with affairs of state. Other works feature comic subplots (Middleton and Samuel Rowley’s The Changeling) or a mordant black humor that borders on self-parody (Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy or John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore). In this regard, English Renaissance tragedy is hardly monolithic. It is instead marked by a vibrancy and experimental energy that are still appreciable today. For information on bibliographies, reference works, and comprehensive literary histories, see the Oxford Bibliographies article on “English Renaissance Drama” by David Bevington.


Most general discussions of tragedy trace the genre from its classical origins in ancient Greece through to the present day, Aeschylus to Arthur Miller. Hand in hand with analysis of tragedies themselves are theoretical discussions of the genre, starting with Aristotle’s enduringly influential account, which introduced readers to notions of hamartia and catharsis and emphasized the “tragic” emotions of pity and terror. Poole 2005, Wallace 2007, and Bushnell 2008 all offer broad discussions of “tragedy” in literature and life, while Drakakis and Liebler 1998 and Nevitt and Pollard 2019 collect major theoretical statements about the genre. Smith and Sullivan 2010 and Watson 1990 emphasize Early Modern English tragedy, while Hopkins 2010 contributes to a fine series of critical guides centered upon individual works.

  • Bushnell, Rebecca. Tragedy: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

    An overview of the evolution of tragedy as a theatrical genre from the classical period to the present.

  • Drakakis, John, and Naomi Liebler, eds. Tragedy. New York: Longman, 1998.

    Useful collection of some of the major theoretical statements about the genre by the likes of Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Brecht, Freud, and Derrida.

  • Hopkins, Lisa, ed. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: A Critical Guide. London and New York: Continuum, 2010.

    One of a strong new series called Continuum Renaissance Drama—other featured titles focus on Doctor Faustus and The Duchess of Malfi—that offer critical and performance histories as well as new interpretive essays.

  • Nevitt, Marcus, and Tanya Pollard, eds. Reader in Tragedy: An Anthology of Classical Criticism to Contemporary Theory. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

    Anthology of major texts on tragedy by writers ranging from Plato and Aristotle to 21st-century critics.

  • Poole, Adrian. Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192802354.001.0001

    Accessible introduction to the history and conceptual breadth of tragedy.

  • Smith, Emma, and Garrett A. Sullivan Jr., eds. The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521519373

    Newly commissioned essays on broad topics—e.g., “Tragedy, family and household” (pp. 17–29), “Renaissance tragedy on film: Defying mainstream Shakespeare” (pp. 116–131)—and individual works—e.g., “The Revenger’s Tragedy: Original Sin and the allures of vengeance” (pp. 200–210).

  • Wallace, Jennifer. The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    A wide-ranging introduction to tragedy that considers the relationship between tragic representation and tragic experience.

  • Watson, Robert N. “Tragedy.” In The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama. Edited by A. R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway, 292–343. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    Rich and insightful essay that offers a theory and history of Renaissance tragedy, with additional discussion of specific tragedies of revenge and theodicy, including The Spanish Tragedy, Doctor Faustus, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi.

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