Revenge in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is more of a genre than a theme, as it generally applies to plays that are specifically about revenge. That may be somewhat simplistic, however, as the plays of that era are never about just one thing. That’s particularly so of Shakespeare’s plays and, indeed, Hamlet, the greatest revenge play of all time, is about more things than can be described, even after four hundred years of its existence. Nevertheless, it is a play that depicts the revenge that a young man plans for the murder of his father.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, coinciding with the great age of English drama, the works of the Roman playwrights were being translated into English. Seneca was of great interest to English dramatists, particularly the Jacobean writers because his plays were filled with such horrifying events as cannibalism, incest, rape, and violent death, things that Jacobean audiences really loved. Most of Seneca’s plays concerned the heroic figures of classical legend, and in their stories there was a great deal of revenge. In Hippolytus, for example, Theseus takes revenge on his son for the supposed rape of Phaedra; in Agamemnon the ghost of Thyestes urges Aegisthus towards revenge.
One of the first English revenge plays of note – a play that is still performed today – is Thomas Kyd’s 1587 play, The Spanish Tragedy, which became the model for the revenge plays of his contemporaries. It contains a ghost as one of the dramatic devices, something that Shakespeare also employed in Hamlet. In both plays that supernatural framework is set against a protagonist’s struggle to achieve justice by taking direct action. In both plays the playwrights use the device of a play-within- a-play as a powerful weapon in the protagonist’s effort to move things on. While Hamlet uses it to prove the guilt of his target, Kyd’s hero, Hieronimo, takes part in the play and stabs the villain in the middle of the performance.
Shakespeare’s revenge play, Titus Andronicus is quite possibly the most grotesque play of the period, with its unpalatable violence. Audiences could not identify with the methods of the protagonist, but in Hamlet we have a thoughtful, decent, highly intelligent young man who would not normally do anyone any harm and, indeed, is unable to perform the violence that his call to revenge demands. Conventionally, in revenge plays, the avenger is something of a hero but, in seeking revenge, is himself a killer. In some of the plays the avenger is not in any way a hero but utterly villainous. It is an interesting situation because although the avenger has the right to realise justice by taking revenge it is simply not Christian. The Christian way would always be forgiveness. But forgiveness is not an option in revenge plays. Shakespeare, of course, as he always does, resolves this problem by having all the wrongdoers, including Claudius, the murderer of Hamlet’s father, caught in the traps they have set for the young prince. Hamlet does not have to do a thing to any of them, and never intentionally kills anyone. His father’s death is avenged by the end of the play but there has been no violence from Hamlet.
Interestingly, the difference between Seneca’s revenge tragedies and Shakespeare’s, is that in the Seneca’s all the bloodshed occurred offstage and was usually reported by a messenger. In Jacobean tragedies however, violent action had to happen onstage because that’s why the audiences came to see the play: all the deaths at the end of Hamlet were very much a part of the play’s attraction to a 17th century audience. In the final scene everyone dies, including Hamlet and the stage is littered with corpses. And right at the end, a character that has had almost no role in the action comes onstage and his soldiers carry all the bodies off.
If one were to attempt a definition of the revenge tragedy one could say that it is the story of a disturbed protagonist and his elaborate plan of revenge for the murder of someone close – a mother, father, brother, sister, loved one. The plays follow a formula which includes the vengeful ghost of the murder victim appearing to the protagonist; the protagonist taking justice into his own hands after other methods fail him; the hero’s gradual descent into madness; a play within a play that reveals the murderer’s guilt; a subtle game of cat and mouse between the avenger and the murderer; and a climactic ending in which all of the main characters die.
Even Hamlet, often called Shakespeare’s best play, follows this somewhat simplistic formula. However, Hamlet is not just entertainment as many of the revenge plays of the time were, but a deep psychological character study with profound moral reflections. And, of course, with the language to go with those things – the poetry that we associate with all Shakespeare’s plays.