Revenge Tragedy in English Literature and the Influence of Seneca

In the long and chequered history of tragedy, the place of Seneca, a Roman dramatist of the time constitutes a significant phase in the dramatic movement. The tragedies of Seneca have a sweeping influence on Europe at the beginning of Renaissance.

As a matter of fact the immense advancement of tragedy during the Renaissance in different European countries and particularly in England was mainly prompted by some ten plats of Seneca. 

The genre of Revenge Tragedy started from the mid 1580’s to the early 1640’s that is from the Elizabethan to the Caroline period. Though Seneca wrote several kinds of tragedies the Elizabethan playwrights were particularly attracted to the Revenge Tragedies such as Thyestes, Medea and Agamemnon.

Seneca’s Revenge Tragedies dramatized murder, betrayal and blood revenge on the villain or villains. He showed all of the passions in excess such as hate, jealousy and love. He also used many sensational elements such as supernatural phenomena, cruel torture and bloody violence. Critics say that no author exercised a wider or deeper influence upon the Elizabethan mind or upon the Elizabethan form of tragedy than did Seneca. 

Nearly all of the major playwrights of the time contributed to this class of drama, including Thomas Kyd, William Shakespeare, John Marston, George Chapman, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, James Shirley and John Ford. According to most literary scholars Kyd initiated the dramatic archetype of Revenge Tragedy with his The Spanish Tragedy.

Though the exact date of when the play was written is not known, it is believed to be performed sometime between 1585 and 1589, with this play Kyd invented the basic formulas of the genre and his successors added creative new layers of dramatic tension, characterization, imagery and ideological representation.

The machinery of the Senecan Tragedy is mainly of three fold, revenge, blood and supernatural terror. Despite its melodramatic and theatrical excesses, the Senecan tragedy found an easy way into the tragic world of other countries of Europe. In England, the first regular tragedy Gorboduc was produced in 1562 by Sackville and Norton under the senecan pattern and that was followed by a number of similar places.

Gorboduc was modelled as closely as possible upon senecan style. The theme of the play was full of revenge, blood and the supernatural agency and the senecan theatrical devices are found well exploited by the authors. As a matter of fact the play remains senecan to the core, with a serious theme of blood and revenge and a rich profusion of stately and pompous speeches.

The senecan model of the Revenge Tragedy is found to be continued in Thomas Hughes’s The Misfortune of Arthur, Robert Wilmot’s Tragedy of Tancred and Gismund and George Gascoigne’s Jocasta. All these plays are clearly senecan in their themes as well as in their treatment. It is seneca’s influence that is found to have laid the foundation of the English Revenge Tragedy which had a tremendous popularity in the later half of the Sixteenth century and the earlier half of the Seventeenth. 

Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy that has revealed the triumph Seneca on the English stage. Prior to Shakespeare’s masterpieces, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy proved to be the most successful stage performance and was immensely popular. The play opens in the orthodox Senecan fashion with a ghost and the spirit of Revenge. The subject matter of the tragedy traces how an old father avenges the cruel and treacherous murder of his young son, Horatio by some villainous person. 

Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet also belongs to the tradition of the Senecan Revenge tragedy. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is definitely an exquisite piece of English literature. A Shakespearean tragedy is built upon a central conflict which runs through from the beginning to the end of the tragedy until the conflict is finally resolved.

The conflict provides the exposition, suspense, climax and the catastrophe of the play.In the case of Hamlet it is not otherwise. The play is built upon the long, tragic conflict between Hamlet and Claudius and the conflict is built upon the motif of revenge. The theme is here just the reverse of Kyd’s tragedy with the young son’s revenge for the treacherous murder of the old father, the King of Denmark by the usurper. Shakespeare’s artistry and art of characterization have turned the mere revenge theme into a high and poetic tragedy. 

The spirit of the Senecan Revenge theme is also perceived in the works of the two eminent predecessors of Shakespeare in The Jew of Malta of Marlowe and Alphonsus of Greene. The Revenge theme of Seneca is found more startling and effectively in the plays of Webster and Tourneur.

Webster’s The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are founded on the horror theme. In Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Atheist’s Tragedy are two successful revenge plays. Both the plays are found to exploit with a highly dramatic efficacy the revenge-horror tradition.

The Revenge tragedy has a natural appeal to the common audience of the Elizabethan and Jacobean times. The gloomy setting, the stark strains of the revenge motif and the revelation of the chaotic inner world, maddened by the desire of revenge, have all a dramatic potency as well as suspense to enthral a popular audience.    

Article submitted by Snigdha Basu