The Revenge Tragedy


The revenge Tragedy on the Elizabethan stage used a standardized plot as familiar to Shakespeare’s audience as certain T.V. sitcom formulas are to us: the cop show with the rookie learning the ropes, the doctor show with inevitable love affairs between staff members, the obligatory car chases, shoot outs and life/death emergencies, the domestic comedy featuring a lovely mother with the clean children and a dim husband. In the movies science fiction reigns. We have all seen a million different variations on the alien from outer space plot.


Shakespeare’s theatre public in 1600 had similar expectations. The rage that year was the revenge tragedy. Thomas Kyd, a rival playwright had made a killing with a play called The Spanish Tragedy which had been a smash hit a few years before. A murder is committed secretly. “The name of the murderer is given to the revenger by a medium he distrusts. Delay results until additional facts corroborate the ascription, but then the revenger is hampered by the counter designs of his enemy and all perish in the catastrophe.” (Frederson Bowers)


Revenge tragedies always follow this formula:


1.       a murder is committed

2.       the revenger is unable to get justice through usual means

3.       family allegiance dictates the necessity of revenge

4.       the revenger goes mad; frequently a woman goes mad as well

5.       a ghost appears

6.       the play makes use of all sorts of mementi mori: bones, skulls, stc.

7.       A suicide is threatened

8.       The revenger assumes a disguise, often he will feign distraction

9.       A play within a play occurs in mid-action

10.    A Machiavellian villain uses hirelings to do his dirty work

11.    The revenger suffers anguish, thwarted at every turn

12.    In a violent climax, all die, the guilty and the revenger


Play after play was written during the 1590’s following this basic structure. Novel twists and innovations were added. Inventive deaths imagined. (In one an evil duke kisses a poisoned skull thinking it is a shy young beauty and dies horribly!)


There were no copyright laws then. The notion that a writer somehow owned words was ridiculous. Plagiarism was the rule in Shakespeare’s time. Most of his plays retold old stories or reworked new versions of familiar plots. Shakespeare was probably working with an extant script called “Hamlet”.


The Hamlet story dates back to the 13th century. It came to Elizabethan audiences by way of Belleforest’s Tragic Histories. The Danish legend told the sad tale of Prince Amleth. Shakespeare’s theatre goers had probably already seen at least one version of Hamlet.


Shakespeare had already written his first attempt at a revenge tragedy in 1593 when he penned Titus Andronicus, a work short on poetry and long on gore which is probably the most disgusting in his complete works. It is a nauseating bloodbath featuring a woman raped, hands cut off, tongue cut out, etc., a lot of heads roll, the sons of Titus have their heads removed and sent to their father, etc. etc.  Julie Taymor, the director who brought you “The Lion King” did Titus as her next major project, I assume to get the Disney aftertaste out of her system, - with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. By the time Shakespeare had gotten around to writing another revenge tragedy, he had mastered his craft.


Hamlet was written at the height of Shakespeare’s extraordinary experiment with tragedy. In his hands the revenger formula becomes the opportunity to create the most extraordinary philosophical theatre since Sophocles.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet is thus the highly commercial work of a highly commercial playwrite, but it is also a work which explores the timeless ambiguities of tragedy with unmatched wit, power, and art.