Webster’s Contribution to the Tradition of the Revenge Play

The Revenge Tragedy as its name implies is a tragic play in which the tragedy results from the revenge that is taken, for some wrong or wrongs, either by the person wronged himself or by someone else on his behalf. This kind of tragedy had its beginning in ancient Greece in the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. However in their tragedies three was nothing of that horror element which soon came to be associated with the revenge play and which is a marked feature of the Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy.

Webster’s two tragedies are belated members of the school of revenge play. A scrupulous, painstaking artist, he has in them refined the material and motives of the earlier tragedies of blood and gloom and wrought all that he took into something much richer, much more subtly wonderful. He has, in a word, converted melodrama into tragedy. In The Duchess of Malfi revenge is seen in its ugliest form. It is entirely detestable and inexcusable. The revengeful brothers are both villains who carry their villainy to the farthest verge of human depravity.

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They are the victims of an insensate fury that blinds the eyes, maddens the brain, and poisons the springs of pity, a fury that, in the more violent choleric temper of Ferdinand, leads to a maddening remorse, and, in the more studiedly treacherous soul of the Cardinal, to a callousness and inhumanity that strikes one cold. The piteous sufferings of their victim evokes a passionate sympathy even from the hard heart of Bosola,

You may discern the shape of loveliness

More perfect in her tears than in her smiles.

Says Fredrick Allen: “Heinous guilt would not have justified such torture. The brothers’ resentment and disappointment at their sister’s secret marriage may be natural, but in its effect it goads them to an unnatural rage beyond all reason and humanity. Hence their deeds of revenge are not a wild kind of justice, but an inexplicable and monstrous wrong,” Revenge here is no longer a solemn duty but results from vindictiveness and hatred. Instead of feeling sympathy for the avengers, we are sympathetic to the Duchess, the victim of revenge.



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