British and Irish Literature Revenge Tragedy
Derek Dunne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0194


Revenge tragedy is one of the most recognizable subgenres of early modern English drama, containing as it does such well-known plays as The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, and The Revenger’s Tragedy. While the moniker of “revenge tragedy” is a retrospective coinage, it’s undeniable that authors of the period responded and reacted to each other’s writing, from the knowing title of Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge to the melancholic protagonist of Chettle’s The Tragedy of Hoffman sending up Shakespeare’s Danish prince. Revenge is a ubiquitous motive and theme in world literature, from Homer’s Iliad to Marvel’s Avengers blockbusters. Even so, the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods witnessed an unprecedented upsurge of interest in the motivations and methods of vigilants operating in a world without justice. As Titus Andronicus puts it “Terras Astraea reliquit” (4.3.4)—justice has fled the earth. At first literary criticism was most concerned with tracing how far this reflected the reality—and morality—of revenge in the early modern world, but gradually a more nuanced approach emerged that saw the genre as critiquing contemporary society on a number of fronts, from the social to the economic to the legal.

General Overviews

The popularity of revenge tragedy as a genre in early modern England has lent itself to a wide variety of theories and accounts that give different weight to artistic, contextual, political, and even religious influences. An early focus on the extremity and excesses of revenge in Hallett and Hallett 1980 and Braden 1985 gave way to a more holistic approach that recognized the cultural and symbolic importance of these plays, as in Kerrigan 1996. Revenge plays were shown to respond to and critique their political moment in Griswold 1986 and Allman 1999, while also being inextricable from deeper religious shifts brought about by the Reformation, in particular in Rist 2008. At the turn of the twenty-first century, new avenues of research were synthesized in the essay collection Simkin 2001, while the monograph Clare 2007 argues against a monolithic idea of “revenge tragedy,” instead seeing a variety of artistic responses to the same generic material.

  • Allman, Eileen. Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue. London: Associated University Presses, 1999.

    Focusing on the period 1610–1613, this book relates James VI/I’s absolutist policies while on the English throne to the concurrent vogue for revenge plays with an anti-authoritarian stance. Royal prerogative is critiqued through the figure of the lone revenger seeking justice in the face of tyrannical monarchy, which Allman supplements with a feminist reading of how gender is also implicated. Plays treated include The Maid’s Tragedy, The Second Maid’s Tragedy, Valentinian, and The Duchess of Malfi.

  • Braden, Gordon. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger’s Privilege. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

    Where early chapters treat Seneca and his drama in its Roman contexts, Braden subsequently moves on to discuss a wide range of Renaissance dramas, including Italian (Mussato) and French (Corneille). English plays treated include Tamburlaine, Hamlet, and Othello, with a focus on the hero’s anger bordering on madness.

  • Clare, Janet. Revenge Tragedies of the Renaissance. Devon, UK: Northcote House, 2007.

    This book conducts close readings of revenge plays from Kyd to Middleton and Rowley. In identifying intertextual echoes, Clare argues that the “genre” of revenge tragedies actually contains a disparate collection of plays that share conventions but ultimately have different aims, from providential (The Atheist’s Tragedy) to parodic (The Revenger’s Tragedy). A final chapter on “The Woman’s Part” includes analysis of The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois and The Maid’s Tragedy.

  • Griswold, Wendy. Renaissance Revivals: City Comedy and Revenge Tragedy in the London Theatre, 15761980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

    Griswold approaches the genre from a sociologist’s perspective, searching for evidence of how certain plays were received not only in their own time but also in subsequent revivals (up to 1980). This has much to say on canon-formation as well as on how cultural objects such as plays accrete meaning over time.

  • Hallett, Charles A., and Elaine S. Hallett. The Revenger’s Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

    In the Hallets’ study of revenge tragedy motifs, they take the usual checklist of ghosts, madness, theatricality, death, and elevate these from theatrical conventions to symbolic properties. A focus on the excessiveness of revenge means that the book argues against audience empathy with the plays’ protagonists, who abandon civil society in their pursuit of vengeance.

  • Hirschfeld, Heather. The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.7591/9780801470639

    The title’s keyword of “satisfaction” is used to prise open Reformation theology specifically around repentance, and this is then applied to a range of Renaissance texts, from Doctor Faustus to Othello. A chapter on “Setting Things Right: The Satisfactions of Revenge” looks at The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, and The Revenger’s Tragedy in terms of the revengers’ own penitence and an inability to be satisfied with “enough.”

  • Kerrigan, John. Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

    Kerrigan radically expands the limits of the genre by including authors such as Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle alongside the more traditional fare of Aeschylus, Kyd, and Shakespeare. The transhistorical examination of revenge seeks to identify its fundamental role in European culture, while paying attention to local variations. Provocative and erudite.

  • Keyishian, Harry. The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995.

    A focus on reciprocity in this book seeks to rectify the long-standing obsession with the immorality of the revenger, showing how revenge could potentially be salutary in psychological terms. Keyishian draws in comedy, history, and romance as well as tragedy, showing the many guises of revenge across Shakespeare.

  • Rist, Thomas. Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama Series. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.

    This book sees the genre of revenge tragedy as deeply rooted in England’s post-Reformation religious culture, whereby the denial of certain Catholic funeral rites is linked to an equivalent rise in tales of unruly ghosts and disturbed burials. Revenge is seen as a displaced form of mourning in a number of plays, including Hamlet, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi.

  • Simkin, Stevie, ed. Revenge Tragedy: A New Casebook. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

    Eleven chapters range across plays such as The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Changeling, The White Devil, and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. A strong collection that consolidates much of the previous scholarship in this area, with contributions from Ania Loomba, Jonathan Dollimore, Michael Neill, and Susan Wiseman, among others.

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