Vengeance, Variously: Revenge Before Kyd in Early Elizabethan Drama

Vengeance, Variously: Revenge Before Kyd in Early Elizabethan Drama

Bradley J. Irish (University of Texas)

Early Theatre, 12.2 (2009): 117-34 (paper). Article 6.


Though it is a critical commonplace that English revenge tragedy began with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, there has been little systematic discussion of how revenge fared as a dramatic theme before Kyd’s inaugural work. This essay reexamines the importance of revenge in early Elizabethan drama, by broadly surveying its thematic and rhetorical prominence in the corpus of extant plays that predate Kyd’s tragedy. The prominence of revenge in pre-Kydian drama reveals that The Spanish Tragedy intensifies and systematizes structurally a theme that had for decades already been a well-worn mainstay on the English stage. A study of early dramatic revenge provides the basis for a more contextually sensitive account of revenge tragedy’s origin, and of its larger relationship to contemporary Elizabethan theatre.

In 1973, Ronald Broude observed that, though ‘revenge tragedy ranks among the major dramatic forms left us by the English Renaissance, we know relatively little about its development prior to its remarkable vogue in the 1580s and ’90s’. In his subsequent investigation, Broude suggests that a search for antecedents to the Elizabethan revenge play might first consider the larger ‘trends in religion and politics’ that marked the contemporary cultural scene — a rich milieu that gave rise to certain ‘forerunners’ of the genre, such as the morality plays of the mid-sixteenth-century.

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