Revenge Tragedy is a genre
that can be seen in many different forms of texts. Literature
, and film
all have their fair share of Revenge Tragedy. It is a genre that can be seen in old, classic texts, dating back as far as Ancient Greece
, just as easily as it can be seen in contemporary
texts, and the genre has transformed dramatically over this time.
Revenge Tragedy is defined by two simple elements. Firstly, there must be some form of revenge taking place within the narrative. Secondly, the narrative must include tragic elements. Beyond this, there are many stylised conventions of the genre, of which several can be seen in almost every revenge tragedy. The Revenger, who is in most cases the protagonist and hero or antihero, has been wronged in some way before the beginning of the narrative. They spend much time plotting out a suitable revenge throughout the story, which is usually enacted at the climax. The revenge must be suitable and in kind for the wrong that has been done, and the victim must know of his or her downfall, and why it occurred. This Revenger will usually operate on the verge of insanity, and the theme of blood revenge for murder is common. Woman in Revenge Tragedy are either idolised, or seen as temptresses, and when partaking in revenge, generally use poison as a weapon of choice. Revenge Tragedy almost always features the use of disguise, usually involved in the plan to enact the revenge. This genre also tends to use gratuitous, and sometimes over the top levels of violence and immorality, as well as often having a series of complicated subplots.
Revenge Tragedy has evolved thoroughly since its inception. Much of this has come about from differing contexts and views of tragedy. Some revenge tragedy relies on the Aristotelian definition of tragedy, involving the tragic hero with a hamartia, or tragic flaw. Other Revenge Tragedy is based on the English or Senecan paradigm.
One of the earlier Revenge Tragedies is Medea by Euripides. This Ancient Greek play deals with a woman who, after being dumped by her husband for another woman, kills her two children as revenge. Here we can see many of the stylised elements listed above, such as the plotting, a woman who uses poison as a tool of revenge, and a hero who operates on the verge of insanity.
Another very good example of dramatic revenge tragedy can be seen in The Revenger’s Tragedy, attributed to Cyril Tournear, which is almost a parody or send up of the genre, made in Jacobean times. In Jacobean plays, which were designed to be read, rather than acted, social comment regarding the current political situation involving England is made by showing scenes usually in Italy. At this time, England was a protestant country, and due to the Pope being situated in Rome, Italy was often seen as a pit of debauchery. It was suggested in the plays of this time that when the upper classes are corrupt, due to power, this corruption trickles down all the way through society. The Revenger’s Tragedy saw the character Vindice (Revenger, a remnant from the days of morality plays, in which characters took the part of moral values themselves) striking revenge on the Duke. The Duke made advances on Vindice’s wife, and when she refused, had her killed. Vindice takes revenge on the duke and is carried too far, seeking revenge on all those corrupt in court, and is eventually consumed by this. Under this lie several subplots, which I will not detail here.
Tlachtga says: "...as far as the Jacobians go, go back a little further and you've got Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, which really revived the genre in England and is considered one of the main sources for Hamlet."
Revenge tragedy can also be seen readily in other literature. Poetry has a large amount of it, both in the form of ballads, such as My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning, or other poetry, such as William Blake’s The Poison Tree. It can also be seen in novels, both classic (Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville) and contemporary (Wrack, by James Bradley.) In terms of contemporary fiction, Revenge tragedy is often seen in the mutated form of Crime Fiction.
The modern medium of film also has a variety of revenge tragedy. High Noon, for example, sees the revenger as not the hero but the villain, a criminal coming to kill the man who put him in jail. It is very frequently seen in contemporary film, to the point where it is visible in such texts as the Kevin Smith film Dogma, which despite being a comedy, contains enough of the elements of the genre to pass as a part of it.
Below is a by no means comprehensive list of other Revenge Tragedy examples. It was not compiled by me but by my teacher, so I cannot comment on its accuracy.
The Duchess of Malfi
- Elizabethan/Jacobean Tragedy
The White Devil
The Count of Monte Christo
The Last of the Mohicans
– Toni Morrison
The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith
– Thomas Kenneally
The Shape of Snakes
– Minette Waters
The Crossing Guard
An Eye for an Eye
A Time to Kill
First Wives Club
Interview with a Vampire
Thelma and Louise
The War of the Roses