What Is the Definition of Revenge Tragedy?

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Revenge tragedy is a form of tragedy that focuses on the protagonist's plight for revenge, usually for the death of a close relative. Revenge plays were extremely popular during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras in England. These tragedies tended to follow a set of common plot elements. The earliest forerunner to the English revenge tragedy is found in the works of the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The revenge tragedy follows the story of a disturbed protagonist and his elaborate scheme of revenge against the murderer of a loved one. The most notable work in this subgenre is "Hamlet," by William Shakespeare.

Revenge tragedies follow a formula. They include the vengeful ghost of the murder victim appearing to the protagonist; the protagonist taking justice into his own hands after public methods fail him; the hero's degeneracy and gradual descent into madness; a play within a play that reveals the murderer's guilt; a subtle game of cat and mouse with the antagonist; and a climactic ending in which all of the main characters die.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, literary critics consider "Hamlet" the best of the revenge tragedies because of its deep psychological character study and moral reflections. The Roman stoic Seneca wrote what many consider to be the first revenge tragedy. In particular, his drama "Thyestes" contains many elements of the genre.