Elizabethan Tragedy



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