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Elizabethan Tragedy Essay, Research Paper

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet very closely follows the dramatic conventions of revenge in Elizabethan theater. All revenge tragedies originally stemmed from the Greeks, who wrote and performed the first organized plays. After the Greeks came the Roman, Seneca, who had a great influence on all Elizabethan tragedy writers. Seneca basically laid the foundation for the ideas and the norms for all Renaissance tragic revenge playwrights, including William Shakespeare. The two most famous Elizabethan revenge tragedies were “Hamlet”, written by William Shakespeare, and “The Spanish Tragedy”, written by Thomas Kyd. These two plays used many of the Elizabethan conventions for revenge tragedies in their plays. Hamlet incorporated all revenge conventions in one way or another, which presented “Hamlet” as the model for Elizabethan drama. “Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of many heroes of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage who finds himself grievously wronged by a powerful figure, with no recourse to the law, and with a crime against his family to avenge.”

Seneca was among the greatest classical tragedy authors and many educated Elizabethans had read his works and his biography. There were different stylistic devices that Elizabethan playwrights, including Shakespeare, learned and implemented from Seneca’s great tragedies. The five-act structure, the appearance of some kind of ghost, the one line exchanges known as stichomythia, and Seneca’s use of long rhetorical speeches were all later used in Elizabethan tragedies. Some of Seneca’s ideas were originally taken from the Greeks when the Romans invaded and conquered the Greeks, and with the new ideas, the Romans created their own theatrical ideas. Many of Seneca’s works, which dealt with bloody family histories and revenge, captivated the Elizabethans. Seneca’s works weren’t written for performance purposes, therefore English playwrights who wanted to realize Seneca’s ideas had to determine a method to make the story theatrically workable, relevant, and exciting to the demanding Elizabethan audience. Seneca’s influence formed part of a developing tradition of tragedies, whose plots hinge on political power, forbidden sexuality, family honor, and private revenge. “There was no author who exercised a wider or deeper influence upon the Elizabethan mind or upon the Elizabethan form of tragedy than did Seneca.” For the Renaissance Italian, French, and English dramatists, classical tragedy included only the ten Latin plays of Seneca, and excluded Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles. “Hamlet is certainly not much like any play of Seneca’s one can name, but Seneca is undoubtedly one of the effective ingredients in the emotional charge of Hamlet. Hamlet without Seneca is inconceivable.”

During the period of Elizabethan theater, plays about tragedy and revenge were very common and a regular convention was based upon certain aspects that were worked into a typical revenge tragedy. In all revenge tragedies, first and foremost, a crime is committed and for various reasons, laws and justice cannot punish the crime. Therefore, the main character pursues his revenge, in spite of everything around him. The main character then usually experiences a period of doubt, when he tries to decide whether or not to go through with the revenge, which usually involves complex planning and much personal debate. Another typical feature was the appearance of a ghost who urges the lead character, seeking revenge, to go through with the deed. The “revenger”, as he is sometimes called, also usually had a very close relationship with the audience through soliloquies and asides, which are personal speeches in which the character evaluates his mind or the current situation. The original crime is almost always sexual, violent, or both. The main crime is always committed against a close family member of the “revenger”. The main character then places himself outside the normal moral order of things, and often becomes isolated as the play progresses. The revenge must be the cause of a major catastrophe and the planning for revenge must start immediately after the crisis.

After the ghost persuades the revenger to commit his deed, an initial hesitation occurs, then a delay before the main character kills the original murderer. The revenger or his trusted accomplices must carry out the revenge, no matter what the cost. The revenger and his accomplices may also die at the moment of success, or even during the course of revenge, in order to fulfill the original “Senecan formula”.

It should not be assumed that revenge plays parallel the moral expectations of the Elizabethan audience. The Church, State and the morality of the people during the Elizabethan Age did not accept revenge; rather it was thought that revenge would not be tolerated, no matter what the original deed was. ” It is repugnant on theological grounds, since Christian orthodoxy posits a world ordered by Divine Providence, in which revenge is a sin and a blasphemy, endangering the soul of the seeker of revenge.” The revenger, by taking law into his own hands, completely turns against the political authority of the state. People should therefore never think that revenge was expected by Elizabethan society. Although the idea of revenge was accepted in drama, it was considered sinful and revenge was vehemently condemned.

“The Spanish Tragedy”, written by Thomas Kyd, is an excellent example of a revenge tragedy. With this play, Elizabethan theater received its first great revenge tragedy, and due to the success of this particular play, the dramatic form was imitated. The play was performed from 1587 to 1589 and gave people an everlasting remembrance of the story of a father who avenges the murder of his son. In this story, a man named Balthazar kills a fighter named Andrea, in the heat of battle. The Elizabethan audience accepted this as a fair death, therefore creating a problem when Andrea’s ghost appeared to seek vengeance on its killer. Kyd appeared to have used this spirit to parallel a ghost named Achilles in Seneca’s play “Troades”. Andrea’s ghost comes and tells his father, Hieronimo, that he must seek revenge for his son’s death. Hieronimo does not know who killed his son but he attempts to discover the assassin. During his investigation, he receives a letter saying that Lorenzo killed his son, but he doubts this fact and runs to the king for justice. Hieronimo importantly secures his legal rights before taking justice into his own hands. The madness element is added when Hieronimo’s wife, Usable, goes mad, and he is so bewildered that his mind becomes unsettled. Finally Hieronimo decides to go through with the revenge, so he sets out to murder Balthazar and Lorenzo, and eventually completes his gruesome task. Hieronimo becomes a bloodthirsty maniac and when the king calls for his arrest, Hieronimo commits suicide.

Along with the fact that Elizabethan theater had its rules on the structure of tragic drama, Thomas Kyd had a specific method for revenge drama. He came up with the Kydian Formula to distinguish revenge tragedies from other plays. His first point was the fundamental motive was revenge, and that an accomplice always aids the revenge. The second point Kyd makes is that each main character, the accomplice and the avenger lose their lives at the end of the play. The dead character’s ghost oversees the revenge, and ensures that action is taken again his killer. The avenger goes through justifiable hesitation before committing to revenge as a solution, due to the mortal consequences.

Madness occurs due to the intense grief after a loss. There is bloody action and death occurs throughout the entire play. The perpetrators on both sides are killed. The criminal is full of villainous devices. The revenge is accomplished terribly and fittingly. The final point that Thomas Kyd made about his play was that minor characters are left to deal with the lurid situation at the end of the play.

“The Spanish Tragedy” follows Kyd’s rules very closely, simply because Kyd developed these rules from the play. The fundamental motive was revenge because revenge was the central theme of the play. Andrea’s ghost sees his father kill his original murderers. Hieronimo hesitates at first, because he sees the king and then is faced with Isabella’s madness, which is brought on by the grief of Andrea’s death. The play is filled with a variety of bloody action, and many characters perish throughout the course of the play. The accomplices all also end up dead. Lorenzo, who is the true villain, possesses many evil devices that he relies upon. The revenge works out perfectly, because Hieronimo murders both Lorenzo and Balthazar at the end of the play. The minor characters were then left to deal with the many number of deaths at the end of the play.

“The Spanish Tragedy” also follows the conventions of Elizabethan theater closely. The murder was committed and Hieronimo had to take justice into his own hands because true justice simply wasn’t available. Hieronimo then delays his revenge for many reasons that surface in the play. The ghost of Andrea appeared and guided Hieronimo to the direction of his killer. At the end of the play, both Hieronimo and his accomplices die, only after they were successful in committing the revenge. This satisfactorily fulfills all the Elizabethan revenge requirements.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare follows convention for a majority of the play. At the beginning, Shakespeare constructs the scene, having a ghost appear on a dark night and eerie night. Everyone is working and something strange is happening in Denmark. It is as if Shakespeare is alluding to the fact that some kind of foul play has been committed. This builds towards the major theme of the play, revenge for an unlawful death. The ghost, which is the spirit of Hamlet’s father, appears to speak directly to Hamlet. It is quite obvious that a gruesome, violent death has occurred, and revenge is being sought. The sexual aspect of the play is clearly introduced when Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, marries Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. The ghost commissions Hamlet as the person who will take revenge upon Claudius. Hamlet must now think of how to take revenge on his uncle, although he doesn’t know what to do about the situation as a whole. He ponders the possibilities for a long period of time, initially expecting to carry out the deed immediately, but instead he churns the thought over and over until the end of the play.

All Elizabethan tragic heroes delayed their actual revenge until the end of the play. In most revenge plays, the avenger was often anonymous and well disguised, stalking the enemy about to be killed. Hamlet, however, started a battle of wits with Claudius by acting mad and calling it his “antic disposition”, although the whole act was a ploy to get closer to Claudius, in order to avenge his father’s death more easily. The tactic was a disadvantage due to the fact that it drew the majority of the attention to him. More importantly though, it was an advantage that his “antic disposition” isolated him from the rest of the court, because the people diverted their attention from what Hamlet thought or did due to his mental state.

One important part of all revenge plays is that after the revenge is finally decided upon, the tragic hero delays the actual revenge until the end of the play. Hamlet’s delay of killing Claudius takes on three distinct stages. First, he had to prove that the ghost was actually telling the truth, and he proved it by staging the play “The Mousetrap” at court. When Claudius stormed out in a fit of rage, Hamlet was then sure of his uncle’s guilt. The second stage took place when Hamlet could have killed Claudius while he was confessing the murder to God. If Hamlet had done it at that moment, then Claudius would have gone to heaven because he confessed while Hamlet’s father was in purgatory. Hamlet therefore decided not to murder Claudius at this point in the play, because the revenge would not be complete. The third delay was due to the fact that outside forces distracted Hamlet. Hamlet accidentally killed Polonius, which created a whole new problem because Laertes, Polonius’s son, now wanted Hamlet dead. After he commits this accidental murder, Hamlet was also sent away, and was unable to see the king for another few weeks until he could finally do the job. “What makes Hamlet stand out from many other revenge plays of the period is not that it rejects the conventions of its genre but that it both enacts and analyses them.”

It is easily understood that “Hamlet” very closely follows the regular conventions for all Elizabethan tragedies. First, Hamlet is faced with the fact that he has to avenge the murder of his father and, since there is no true justice available, he must find vindication on his own. The ghost appears to guide Hamlet to Claudius and inform Hamlet of the evil that Claudius has committed. At that point, Hamlet delays his revenge and always finds a way to put it off. Finally, in Act V, Scene 2, Hamlet carries out the revenge of his father’s death. Hamlet, at the same time, continues to keep a close relationship with the audience through his seven main soliloquies including the famous “To be, or not to be…”(Act 3 Scene 1). The play also consists of a madness scene in which Ophelia has gone mad because her father Polonius had been killed, and because Hamlet was sent off to England. The sexual aspect of the play was brought in when Claudius married Gertrude after he had dreadfully killed Old Hamlet and assumed his throne.

“Hamlet” also follows almost every aspect of Thomas Kyd’s formula for a revenge tragedy. The only point that can be argued is how accomplices on both sides were not killed because, at the end of the play, Horatio was the only one to survive. If it weren’t for Hamlet, Horatio would have commit suicide when he said, ” I am more an antique Roman than a Dane. Here’s some liquor left.”(Act V, Scene 2). If Horatio had killed himself, then Hamlet would have followed the “Kydian formula”, as well as the regular conventions for Elizabethan revenge tragedy because then all the major accomplices would have died.

Hamlet is also a model of a revenge tragedy of the Elizabethan theater era. It followed every convention required to classify it as a revenge play accurately. Hamlet is definitely one of the greatest revenge stories ever written and it was all influenced first by Sophocles, Euripides and other Greeks, more importantly, by Seneca. Hamlet as well as The Spanish Tragedy sufficed all required areas for the consummation of a great revenge tragedy. Revenge although thought to be unlawful and malevolent to the Church, was adored by many Elizabethan people. ” The Elizabethan audience always insisted on seeing justice achieved, no matter what the cost or circumstance. “That no revenger, no matter how just, ever wholly escapes the penalty for shedding blood, even in error.” This was a very important point that Shakespeare brilliantly dealt with, by finding a way to kill Hamlet justly, even though he was required to kill Claudius. “Hamlet” has served as the model for revenge plays, even to this date. Shakespeare worked with the past to entertain the present, and affect the future of theatre indefinitely.

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