A Revenge tragedy, is a tragedy, as its name implies, in which the tragedy is brought about by the pursuit and accomplishment of revenge. The revenge tragedy was very popular during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and it owed its popularity largely to the influence of Seneca, the ancient Roman dramatist.
Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy was the first revenge play in the language and following it there was a spurt of revenge plays.
Shakespeare’s four tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear are among the greatest tragedies of the world. But in the post-Shakespearean era i.e. the early 17th century, tragedy degenerated into melodrama. John Webster is the only dramatist who in his The Duchess of Malfi rises to the heights of true tragedy. It is a typical example of the revenge tragedy,
The chief features of the Revenge tragedy are:
1. Some murder is committed and the ghost of the murdered person appears to some close relative or friend of his and enjoins him to take revenge.
2. Revenge is conceived of as a sacred duty, and not as a kind of wild justice. The Avenger is moved by a sense of sacred duty, and not out of any passion, say greed or hatred for some personal injury.
3. There is a piling up of crude, physical horror upon horror’s head and thus there is much that is sensational and melodramatic. These terrors are intensified by the repeated appearance of the ghost.
4. In the end there are a number of deaths, and the stage is left littered with dead bodies.
5. There is the abundant use of the imagery of violence and terror.
6. Prominent role is assigned to some rascally servant known as the ‘malcontent’ a Machiavellian-villain, much given to reflection and satiric comments.
7. Sympathy is aroused for the avenger.
John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi has several features of a revenge tragedy. There is free exploitation of crude, physical horror, like the dance of madmen, the presentation of a dead man’s hand to the Duchess, the showing to her of the wax figures of her husband and children as if they were dead, the appearance of the tomb-maker and the executioner with all the apparatus of death. There are a number of murders including murders by strangling and poisoning. Imagery of violence, decay, and corruption, has been abundantly used to intensify the atmosphere of horror. There is also Machiavellian Malcontent, Bosola, a rascal who also indulges in satiric reflections on life.