Elizabethan Tragedy: Revengers and Over Reachers

by David Hamilton (September 2012)

The great period of English tragic drama was the Elizabethan period when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne. There were two principle forms: Revenge and Over Reachers tragedies. I examine two of each to introduce a new audience to these great plays.

The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd is a neglected masterpiece but began the fashion for one of the two principle forms of Elizabethan tragic drama the Revenge play. The other was the Over Reacher and begun coterminously by Christopher Marlowe. Spanish Tragedy is very theatrical and uses highly formalised language in a line by line movement of blank verse for the sinister parts and prose for the comic patches. It is not hum drum because of the theatrical action presented and the dramatic declamatory speeches. The use of rhyme would have made the form humdrum, but not the action. The dramatic method is primitive but the plotting is ingeneous. Public executions were popular at the time and often carried out in theatres.

The Mystery Plays reached their greatest popularity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the ?Renaissance they waned. In England by the end of the fifteenth century they had been for the most part replaced by a kindred species which had been developing alongside them – Morality Plays. These taught the ?Christian life in a direct and entertaining way rather than through the severer stories of the Mysteries in the Bible. They were dramatized moral allegory and had abstract allegorical figures like The Seven Deadly Sins, Contemplation, and Raise-Slander.

The Spanish Tragedy mixes theatricality from Latin writer Seneca with traditional elements of dramaturgy from Morality plays. The ghost is from Seneca who uses the ghost of the Greek mythological character Tantalus to frame Thyestes. Spanish Tragedy is framed by the ghost and Revenge, an abstract character influenced by the abstract characters of Morality plays.

It has many set speeches – some are soliloquies and the characters display deep passions. There is an extravagant rhetoric of gesture when Hieronimo gets up and falls to the ground rather than the sophisticated self-analysis which derives from Morality plays. The viceroy also falls to the ground declaiming on melancholy in Act i, scene ii.

Hieronimo's declamation uses images of hell and fiends which reinforces the supernatural element behind the action:

Oh sacred heauens, if this vnhallowed deed,
If this inhumane and barberous attempt,
If this incomparable murder thus
Of mine, but now no more my sonne
Shall pass vnreueald and vnreuenged passe,
How should we tearme your dealings to be iust,
If you vniustly deale with those that in your iustice trust?

The ougly feends do sally forth of hell,
And frame my hart with fierce inflamed thoughts;
The cloudie day my discontents records,
Early begins to regester my dreames
And driue me forth to seeke the murtherer.
Eies, life, world, heauens, hel, night and day,
See, search, show, send, some man, some meane, that may!

The characters emotions are externalised in rhetoric and the representation of grief is formalised.

Hieronimo imagines Bazulto as Horatio come back from the dead as Lear later sees Gloucester as Goneril and projects his obsession on the outside world.

The sense of obligation to take revenge for the blood of kin is a duty. The delay in doing so brings dramatic tension. The end is a double Revenge – the first for Andrea, the second, Horatio. It emerges that his murder in battle was dishonourable and the accounts of his death emerges in stages. Hieronimo, the protagonist only appears half way through at the climax of Act 2 when Horatio is killed.

Acts 1 and 2 lead up to revenge for Andrea but end in the death of Horatio. Andrea was having a relationship with Bel-Imperia which her family see as a disgrace. He was from a lower social rank. Bel-Imperia is destined for a dynastic marriage. Her family tries to rule her but she is strong willed.

Hieronimo finds his murdered son's body hanging in an arbor in his garden. He first demands that the universe be just. Justice in society was thought to reflect justice in the universe itself. He appeals to the heavens to learn who murdered his son. A letter written by Bel-Imperia in blood drops from heaven. Her hand is guided by some other power. He thinks it is a plot to ensnare him:

   A letter falleth.
Whats heere? a letter? Tush, it is not so!
A letter for Hieronimo.
[Reads] ?”For want of incke receiue this bloudie writ.
Me hath my haples brother hid from thee.
Reuenge thy-selfe on Balthazar and him,
For these were they that murdered thy sonne.
Hieronimo, reuenge Horatios death,
And better fare then Bel-imperia doth!”–

Proof comes when Hironimo is brought a letter of confession from one of the murderers, Pedringano. There is a dark irony here as Pendringano has been duped into thinking that he will be pardoned, but is hung.

The moment of crisis is expressed in Hieronimo's central soliloquoy. With the book in hand like Hamlet, a symbol of authority:

Vindicta mihi! Ay, heaven will be revenged of every ill, Nor will they suffer murder unrepaid: Then stay, Hieronimo, attend their will, For mortal men may not appoint their time. ?

Vengance is mine, saith the Lord, from St. Paul. This speech heralds change as his attitude changes and brings the dramatic thrust. Hieronimo resolves to be devious and circumspect. The strategem:”Not as vulgar wits of man.”

The notion of final justice is revealed in the supernatural frame:


Then, sweet Revenge, do this at my request; Let me be judge, and doom them to unrest:

Let loose poor Tityus from the vulture's gripe, And let Don Cyprian supply his room; Place Don Lorenzo on Ixion's wheel, And let the lover's endless pains surcease – Juno forgets old wrath, and grants him ease; Hang Balthazar about Chimaera's neck, And let him there bewail his bloody love.


Then haste we down to meet thy friends and foes:
To place thy friends in ease, the rest in woes.

For here, though death hath end their misery, I'll there begin their endless tragedy.

This is a double revenge. Hieronimo consciously takes revenge for Horatio but unwittingly takes supernatural revenge for Andrea. The humans think they are in control but they are puppets. There are inset dramas like little Morality plays – the courtier in Spain tries to blacken the character of another and the viceroy accepts it without evidence and nearly commits an injustice. There is a need for caution. Hieronimo is cautious and honourable but driven to revenge. The villains facilitate revenge by asking the Revenger to stage an entertainment then agreeing to act in it. The play within a play is an inversion of the whole play ?and in enacting revenge they are themselves slaughtered. The play within a play is a recurring feature. Then Horatio's corpse is produced. The Revengers have a need for their revenge to be known.

The Revenger's Tragedy

This came at the end of the genre and is attributed to either Cyril Tourneur or Thomas Middleton. The opening scene is an imaginative and vivid staging. The stage directions tell us Enter Vindici [with his dead lover's skull]; the Duke, Duchess, Lussurioso [his] son, Spurio the bastard, with a train pass over the stage with torchlight:

Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love, My study's ornament, thou shell of death, Once the bright face of my betrothed lady, When life and beauty naturally fill'd out These ragged imperfections, When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set In those unsightly rings: then 'twas a face So far beyond the artificial shine

He devises an intrigue and lures his opponent while disguised as a malcontent and provokes discord amongst his enemies leading them to plot against each other. His disguise allows him to act as a detached, satirical and didactic commentator on the folly and evil of the others. The form is loose enough to allow the sequences to unfold at length 1, iii, ll.1, lV.ii.

Vindice is quite mad when he dons his disguise and his hired by Lechery to seduce what is actually his own sister. This sets up a nice irony as he is hired again later as himself to murder his disguised self which is comical on the stage. Black comedy was not a type then though this is simila. In Kyd the method of managing the masque is irony but here it is dark comedy. ?

There are two masques. The first, is Vindici's real masque and they dance; the second is a masque of murder when the slaughter of revenge is carried out. It has multiple plots and the step-brothers trying to take the ducal throne kill their brother by mistake. They are all dead at the table: “Here's a labour saved.” The plots usually fail. L comes round for the last word:”Those in masks did it.” It is a sound alibi. Vindici finally gives himself away. Antonio: “What happened to the old Duke?” Vindici cannot resist taking the credit to show how clever he is but Antonio does not react how he expects and has him arrested.

Their names show their characters and Vindici embodies revenge. These emblamatic names de-individualise the characters rendering them types. Vindici shows what the desire for vengeance might lead to. He intended to revenge the death of his betrothed and his father who died of discontent and had the desire to purge society of evil. He believed his motives to be pure and retained the characteristic heroic stance.

The Revenger's Tragedy alternates energetic, high-speed action and brooding, slow-paced scenes on death, revenge and evil. The authors aim is to present an ironic and disturbing view of human nature. Vindici alternates from gloom to gaiety. He imagines Revenge leading his enemies to the cauldron fire. Act.1 has lively but farcical, satiric comedy. The subject is unpleasant and disturbing but the action has no murder or torture. It is where the intrigues begin and set-up escalating horrific action. The dialogue in later scenes is indecorous in the mood and tone of comedy without the profound reflections on tragic themes when death takes place. No character reflects on his motives or state of grace.

Vindice is no tragic hero like Hamlet and has no conflict with his planned revenge or hesitation as Hieronimo at the inception of the genre. He neither develops or decreases in morality, nor gains self-knowledge. His revenge draws the meditative passages into a terrible focus. The intensity of the killing of the Duke sustained by the allusive and vivid imagery is what makes the writer a tragedian. Melancholy was associated with madness as well as dark moods. It was thought to be physiological and prompted by frustrated ambition or injustice Stage-thunder represented the wrath of God in the early Revenges. Vindici showed Hippolito the skull as Hamlet does Horatio.

The exponent of Over Reachers was Christopher Marlowe. Two fine examples are The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine the Great. Marlowe gives the impression that he came early and established grand, heroic speeches. There is a sense of opening out. The over reacher over reaches in an act of Hybris by challenging the gods or thinking he is one.

Tamburlaine the Great

Is based on the life of a 14c Turk from central Asia, Timur. It is in two parts. The first part is a drama of conquest. We first see him as an obscure shepherd chieftain who defeats the King of Persia, Mycetes and then his brother Cosroe. Then he defeats Bajazet, Emperor of Turkey and finally takes Damascus from the Soldan of Egypt. These victories show the triumph of energy and ruthlesness over weak and decadent civilisations.

He is no mere brute and worships the potential of the human mind. He shows great passion in his love for his bride Zenocrate, the daughter of the Soldan. He is a product of Marlowe's Renaissance imagination. A fascination with the earthly magnificence of men who have the courage of their convictions as well as the imaginative power. It is a non-moral play that presents Tamburlaine as a natural force and does not judge him.

Part 2 was probably written because of the success of Part 1.

The first part of Tamburlaine the Great is not tragic in the formal sense as it ends with a marriage. It is serious in spirit and elevated in tone and without scenes of comic relief. These qualities allow it to be classed as a tragedy. For many other characters it is a tragedy as they are either killed or commit suicide so though the central story is not formally a tragedy, there are many tragedies around it.

Marlowe draws upon classical myth in the poetry, astronomy, medicine. Those are the literary attractions – the richness of the linguistic decoration he brings to it.

It has a classical structure and is divided into 5 Acts and separate scenes and the Senecan influence on the declamatory speeches is notable. The set speeches on the bloody contents and the rejection of the comic are derived from Seneca and mingle with influences from native dramatic traditions.

These are positive influences of classical drama, but it is episodic in structure and repetative and reflects moods but has no development of the character, say, of Tamberlaine as there is in Macbeth or King Lear Shakespeare's later work. He simply puts events moving towards a close, marriage in the first part, death in the second.

Part1 has little overt violence but violence begins obtruding as the play unfolds. It is as if Marlowe tries to induce the audience into admiration for Tamburlaine's ambition and willpower through rhetoric, imagery and eloquence, ideas, mood and personality. It is only later that Marlowe shows the consequences: the violence of the battles, suicides and murders are off stage and we learn of them by report in the first 2 Acts there is a whole succession of characters who die on stage. In a Senecan play these things would be narrated. The cruelty intensifies and is fully shown by the end of the play. There is a psychological climax towards the end of the first part when when Zenocrate had been captured and forced to marry him, though perhaps falls in love with him, feels pity for the victims and tries to warn him of pride and prays for him. That is a sort of turning point because it is the first expression of pity and there are no inhibitions about pride. He ignores her warnings and becomes ever more inflexible and triumphant in ambition and cruelty. It is an archetypal play of a Herculean hero, proud, ambitious and tyrannical.

Tamburlaine has to face the truth that though he thinks his energy inexhaustable he can not beat death. He first loses his wife, then he too is stricken. This play is a tragedy: Tamburlaine feels himself to be immortal, but is mortal.

Marlowe was 23 when he wrote and dismisses the work of his predecessors in the prologue:

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits, And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay, We'll lead you to the stately tent of war, Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine Threatening the world with high astounding terms, And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.

For two plays, these “high astounding terms” are delivered fortissimo. The central problem is how long the audience can be kept in sympathy with the all-conquering hero and has polarised critics since the 19c. To one school of critics the play is a celebration of human aspiration with Tamburlaine transcending orthodox moral judgement through the power of his imagination expressed in poetry; to another school it is a moral spectacle showing the inexorable fate of over-weening ambition and the futility of earthly conquest. He kept the Emperor of Turkey in a cage until he batters his own brains out in despair.

It needs to be read with a sense of its theatrical potential, visualising how it would look on stage. The stage of the Rose Theatre was about 25ft across. In a scene of spectacular conquest Tamburlaine enters with 2 kings of Asia harnessed to his chariot. The entry line is: “Holla, you pampered jades of Asia.” His pulling him round in the Rose Theatre – they could only go round in small circles. That image of the confinement and narrowness, within the vision of vaunting ambition is something brought home by the play being staged.

The reaching aspiring qualities are wonderfully expressed, but after the objective, the earthly crown is a let down. He refers to the woman who will become his wife. She would be carried around in a golden sarcophagus. He speaks of his feelings for her before the wedding.

Like Marlowe's other heroes Tamburlaine is self-made: “I am a lord or so my deeds shall prove and yet a shepherd by my parentage.” to mortality. His defiance and anguish against his fate – partly because they show the futility of his aspirations – also show the pathetic vulnerability of those aspirations to inevitable process of time-decay. Finally, one has a pity for him as he fights the death that is claiming him:

What daring god torments my body thus,
And seeks to conquer mighty Tamburlaine?
Shall sickness prove me now to be a man,
That have been term'd the terror of the world?
Techelles and the rest, come, take your swords,
And threaten him whose hand afflicts my soul:
Come, let us march against the powers of heaven,
And set black streamers in the firmament,
To signify the slaughter of the gods.
Ah, friends, what shall I do? I cannot stand.
Come, carry me to war against the gods,
That thus envy the health of Tamburlaine.


Why, shall I sit and languish in this pain?
No, strike the drums, and, in revenge of this,
Come, let us charge our spears, and pierce his breast
Whose shoulders bear the axis of the world,
That, if I perish, heaven and earth may fade.
Theridamas, haste to the court of Jove;
Will him to send Apollo hither straight,
To cure me, or I'll fetch him down myself.

Between those defiant railings Theridamas advises:

Ah, good my lord, leave these impatient words,
Which add much danger to your malady!

Then came the reality:

Ah, friends, what shall I do? I can not stand.

A few lines on the first physician is telling him he has viewed his urine and its thickness and obscurity mean this is his end. The conqueror of the world is subject to mortality, the humiliating ordinariness of thick urine.

Doctor Faustus (c1592-4)

This was performed by The Admiral's Men twenty-five times between October 1594 and October 1597. It is based on a medieval legend of a necromancer Doctor George Faust. He was a scholar who wanted to understand more than academic facts and turned to magic. The Devil sends his agent Mephistopholes in the form of an ugly beast who is commanded to change his shape to a friar. The bargain is that Lucifer will give him 24 years of life with Mephistopholes as his servant. Then Lucifer will claim him body and soul.

Blank verse is largely used for the main scenes and prose in the comic scenes. Modern texts divide the play into five acts; act 5 being the shortest. As in many Elizabethan plays, there is a chorus that does not interact with the other characters but provides an introduction and conclusion and introduces events that have unfolded at the beginning of some acts.

Faustus delivers soliloquies at the beginning and end of the play and puts the focus on his emotions about surrendering to the devil. In the opening soliloquy, Faustus ponders his life and what he wants. He ends with decision to give his soul to the devil and in the closing soliloquy he anticipates the terrors that are before him. Then comes a line that demonstrates Marlowe's natural poetic ability:

See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament! One drop would save my soul, half a drop…Ah! My Christ.

These high emotions are spoken in language of an equivalent stature but the scenes where Faustus has grapes brought to him and when horses are turned into bales of straw is in prose and feeble compared to the imaginative, poetic passages. ?

He is granted all he asks but Mephisto will not answer certain questions such as who made the world. Faustus' guardian angel tries to redeem him while a bad angel tries to convince him he is damned. Lucifer approaches him and shows him the pleasures of the Seven Deadly Sins. As a Protestant thrust Faustus mocks the Pope and cardinals in Rome. An old man urges him to step back from the brink as there is still hope of redemption. He makes his choice and invokes Helen and embraces her: “Her lips suck forth my soul.” These angels are like abstract figures from Morality Plays which used figures like King Herod and the Devil in that way.

It has features of a medieval morality play yet it is a Renaissance play in its treatment. The psychology of Faustus and Mephistopholes shows an insight which is moving.

It was common in the Elizabethan period for comedy to appear in tragedy and history plays including Shakespeare's. It provides an emotional contrast with the sinister passages. The porter in MacBeth is an example. Written in earthy prose is intended a comic relief before the discovery of the murdered King Duncan. The the gravediggers in Hamlet, the speeches of the Fool in King Lear. Some of the comedy in Faust extends the tragedy to everyday life as in the parody where Wagner also tries to summon the Devil.

Faustus: “Now is he born, his parents base of stock.”

Is this intentionally or unintentionally bathetic? ?

The opening of Doctor Faustus shows the aspiring mind at its most vigorous. Tamburlaine sought his satisfaction through physical power, Faustus through intellectual power and knowledge.

His first requirement in the pact with Mephistopheles is the simple but sweeping one; the Devil must tell me whatsoever I demand.” The intention is in that beautiful line: “That all things that move between the poles shall be at my command.” The yearning for limitless knowledge and power through knowledge drives him to necromancy. This is the last path available as he has mastered law, medicine, divinity etc. “Yet are but thou still Faustus.” He seeks to transcend himself. Tamburlaine is only troubled by his mortality at the end, Faustus is troubled by his mortality at the beginning and one feels his futility at the beginning not the end.

His search for knowledge in necromatic incantations is obvious folly as the line he convinces to follow that path makes clear: “a sound magician is a mighty god.” From the beginning of the pact the answers Mephisto gives show there is something unsatisfactory. In a sense the play as conceived is unwritable because the author is confined within mortality and can not provide M with supernatural answers. From these beginnings we move into a rough and disappointing patch in the middle that must be interpolations by a lesser talent. We go from unsatisfactory answers to petty and shallow trickery – providing grapes in the middle of winter and turning horses into bales of hay. One is initially stirred by the initial striving for greatness but the end justifies the final unsympathetic verdict of the chorus: “Faustus is gone. Regard his hellish form.” That chorus triumphantly booms out orthodox morality as the confinement of human mortality that Faustus challenged has been re-asserted.

We admire his vain strivings and are appalled by the narrow chorus but the hopelessness of his quest is always in mind. There is a sense of moral ambiguity about Faustus and Tamburlaine generated by the gap between their aspirations and our response to those, and the means they use to pursue them and our response to those means.

Macbeth thought he was in control but was being manipulated by fiends which is given dramatic representation by the 3 witches. Tragedy often gives this feeling that though the characters think they are in control they are being manipulated. As Faustus is told: “When you thought you took the book to read, I turned the leaves.”

(1) ?The Spanish tragedy ?


(2) ? The Revenger's Tragedy


(3) Tamburlaine the Great



(4) The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus


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