Revenge Tragedy in English Literature: Seneca's Influence

The Impact of Seneca on European Renaissance

The history of tragedy is diverse and intricate, and one significant phase in the dramatic movement was shaped by Seneca, a Roman dramatist of his time. Seneca's tragedies had a profound influence on Europe during the beginning of the Renaissance. Particularly in England, the Renaissance saw a remarkable advancement in tragedy, largely influenced by Seneca's ten plays.

The Emergence of Revenge Tragedy

The genre of Revenge Tragedy originated during the Elizabethan to Caroline period, spanning from the mid-1580s to the early 1640s. While Seneca wrote various kinds of tragedies, the Elizabethan playwrights were particularly drawn to Revenge Tragedies such as "Thyestes," "Medea," and "Agamemnon."

Seneca's Revenge Tragedies vividly depicted murder, betrayal, and blood revenge against villains. They showcased excessive emotions such as hate, jealousy, and love, while incorporating sensational elements like supernatural occurrences, cruel torture, and violent acts. Critics believe that no other author had a more extensive or deeper impact on the Elizabethan mind and the form of tragedy during that period than Seneca.

The Influence of Kyd and Shakespeare

Major playwrights of the time contributed to the Revenge Tragedy genre, with Thomas Kyd being credited for initiating the archetype with his play "The Spanish Tragedy." Written between 1585 and 1589, this play laid the foundation for the genre, which was later enhanced by other playwrights like William Shakespeare, John Marston, George Chapman, and more.

Shakespeare's masterpiece, "Hamlet," also belongs to the tradition of Senecan Revenge tragedy. The play revolves around the central conflict of revenge between Hamlet and Claudius, providing an exquisite example of English literature. Shakespeare's artistry and character development elevated the simple revenge theme into a profound and poetic tragedy.

Continuation and Success of Revenge Tragedy

The influence of Seneca's Revenge Tragedies is also evident in the works of other playwrights. Christopher Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta" and Robert Greene's "Alphonsus" incorporate the spirit of revenge. Additionally, plays like John Webster's "The White Devil" and "The Duchess of Malfi" and Cyril Tourneur's "The Revenger's Tragedy" and "The Atheist's Tragedy" effectively exploit the revenge-horror tradition.

Audience Appeal and Dramatic Potency

The Revenge Tragedy genre had a natural appeal to the common audience of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. The dark and intense themes, the powerful revenge motif, and the portrayal of chaotic inner worlds consumed by the desire for revenge captivated popular audiences, making these plays both compelling and suspenseful.


Seneca's influence on English literature, particularly in the form of Revenge Tragedy, is undeniable. The genre thrived during the Renaissance period, with playwrights like Kyd and Shakespeare adding depth and complexity to the themes of revenge and human emotions. The legacy of Seneca's tragedies continues to resonate in the works of subsequent playwrights, making Revenge Tragedy an enduring and captivating genre in English literature.

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