The genre, which is considered more theoretical than literal, was established by Ashley H. Thorndike in a 1902 article, “The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays.” In the article, he defined the genre, Tragedy of Blood, as containing stories in which the protagonist follows the plot of revenge and often leads to their demise as well as that of their enemies.
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Definition of Tragedy of Blood
The phrase “Tragedy of Blood” refers to a theoretical genre of theatre that’s concerned with revenge. These stories feature protagonists who pursue revenge at all costs. Their quests often lead to the demise of their enemies as well as to their own deaths (and perhaps even the deaths of those close to them). With revenge as an all-consuming theme, these plays are often quite dark. The genre dates back to the 16th century with the publication of works like Seneca, Gorbuduc, and The Spanish Tragedy, a play by Thomas Kyd.
Examples of Tragedy of Blood Theatre
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Hamlet is the most famous example of Tragedy of Blood theatre. The play, fully titled The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was written between 1599 and 1601. It’s the Bard’s longest play and one of his best-known. It follows Hamlet as he attempts to get revenge on his uncle, Claudius, for killing Hamlet’s father, the former King of Denmark. Here is a quote from early on in the play where the Ghost suggests that he’s doomed to suffer in Purgatory until Hamlet avenges his murder by killing Claudius:
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their
Thy knotted and combinèd locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
These lines are a great example of the kind of writing readers can expect in Hamlet. It lays out the reasoning behind the revenge the protagonist embarks on. It also alludes to the difficulties that are sure to be in his future. It’s clear from the beginning that he has no choice but to go down this path. Consider these lines from Act II in which Hamlet is berating himself for not being able to carry out Claudius’s murder:
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit—and all for nothing!
He wonders why he can’t force himself to do the one thing he needs to do—avenge his father when other people can, just watching actors playing out a fiction, and feel something. Both of these quotes demonstrate the ups and intense downs of the play.
The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton
In this Jacobean tragedy, readers encounter a dark portrayal of love, revenge, lust, and ambition. It’s set in an Italian court and was published in 1607, after having been performed a year earlier. The play opens with Vindice, cast as the “revenger,” considering his fiancé’s death and his desire to take revenge on the Duke for killing her (because she wouldn’t sleep with him). The death was nine years earlier, but he still hasn’t gotten his revenge or gotten over it. Here is a quote from the play:
Faith, if the truth were known, I was begot
After some gluttonous dinner; some stirring dish
Was my first father. When deep healths went round,
And ladies’ cheeks were painted red with wine,
Their tongues as short and nimble as their heels,
Uttering words sweet and thick, and when they rose
Were marrily disposed to fall again:
Oh, damnation met
The sin of feasts, drunken adultery!
As the plot progresses, it gets more and more complicated. There are multiple plot lines, and the families scheme against one another.
The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd
The Spanish Tragedy is considered to be the first British revenge tragedy.It was published in the second half of the 1500s, written sometime between 1582 and 1592. It was incredibly popular at the time it was penned due to its dark and violent plot. It features numerous murders and uses personified Revenge as a character. Here is a quote from the play:
Let dangers go; thy war shall be with me,
But such a war, as breaks no bonds of peace.
Speak thou fair words, I’ll cross them with fair words;
Send thou sweet looks, I’ll meet them with sweet looks;
Write loving lines, I’ll answer loving lines;
Give me a kiss, I’ll countercheck thy kiss.
Be this our warring peace, or peaceful war.
Throughout history, authors have parodied this play, a testament to its influence. It’s even thought to have influenced William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While the play has never been staged for television or film, it has had many modern productions, as recently as 2010.
This genre of theatre is important because it produced Hamlet, one of the most influential plays in the English language. It has also produced numerous well-loved, less famous plays that consider the intricacies of the human condition and the pitfalls of pursuing revenge at any cost.
The characteristics are a revenger or someone who is willing to go to any lengths in order to get revenge on someone who has wronged them. Tragedy befalls most of the characters in these plays, often leading to the revenger/protagonist’s death.
These plays were priorly written in the 1600s, but they are certainly not confined to that time period. Authors still write revenge plays to this day but, due to the theoretical nature of the genre, it’s difficult to classify them all in the same way.
A revenge tragedy is a tragic play in which revenge is a central plot point. The main character is after revenge, for one reason or another, and is willing to do anything to make this happen. These plays are tragedies because they often lead to many deaths.
A. H. Thorndike defined the genre in the early 1900s, but it is still only theoretical. Authors from the 1600s did not classify their own plays this way, nor did authors in the following centuries.
Related Literary Terms
- Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Protagonist: the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.
- Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Watch: Ghosts, Murder, and More Murder- Hamlet
- Listen: Why should you read ‘Hamlet’?
- Watch: The Art of the Revenge Story