Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Winter's Tale and Revenge Tragedy

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Winter's Tale and Revenge Tragedy

Article excerpt

IN THIS ESSAY, I consider the genre of The Winter's Tale by situating the play in the intertheatrical context of London in 1611. (1) Through comparison to the language, structure, and staging of plays by Kyd, Marston, Chettle, and Middleton, I argue that The Winter's Tale's dramatic project stems from its close relationship to contemporaneous revenge tragedies. (2)

Of course, neither Shakespeare nor his audiences referred to plays as "revenge tragedies." A. H. Thorndike coined the term in 1902 to describe plays which, following Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1587) dramatize a disenfranchised hero's retribution for wrongs. (3) Mid-twentieth century critics, including Ronald Broude, Fredson Bowers, and Lily Campbell, identify the genre by certain recurring tropes: vendettas, corrupt courts, ghosts, madness, poison, plays-within-plays, etc. (4) Around thirty extant early modern tragedies fall into the category as it is most strictly defined. (5) More recently, scholars have pushed revenge tragedy's generic boundaries. Linda Anderson studies revenge as "a benignly punitive forgiveness that awakens the offender's conscience" in Shakespeare's comedies; Harry Keyishian classifies revenge as a psychological pattern across genres that can be either "redemptive" or "vindictive." (6) Linda Woodbridge, noting that the word "revenge" occurs in all but two of Shakespeare's plays, argues for a "revenge drama" inclusive of tragedies and histories. (7) Despite the fact that "revenge tragedy" is, like all genres, constructed and challenged by critics, it allows us to identify plays that derive meaning from the same materials arranged and rearranged in increasingly self-referential patterns. Though The Winter's Tale is not a revenge tragedy, the generic template is useful to think with when considering how Shakespeare constructed his play and, perhaps, construed its relationship to earlier works. Indeed, a close reading of the The Winter's Tale with an eye to revenge tragedy's formal features reveals surprising continuities.

However, the purpose of this essay is neither to suggest a new generic label for the play nor to allege insight into Shakespearean "intentions." Rather, it is to consider The Winter's Tale as a link in a longer chain of events in theater history, to recuperate a sense of the play as a product of the creative and commercial networks of the Jacobean playhouses. Inherent in this claim is the contention that playwrights saw what we call "revenge tragedy" as a tradition--or at least as a particular breed of drama--not least because they consistently characterize themselves and their works in relation to it. Just as Marston parodies the excesses of poetry and passion in The Spanish Tragedy with his Antonio and Mellida and, in the induction to Bartholomew Fair, Jonson derides the indefatigable popularity of "Andronicus" and "Hieronimo," in The Winter's Tale Shakespeare echoes a certain dramaturgy most often to point out what his play is not (Ind. 79-82). (8) He is among playwrights who approach revenge tragedy with a ludic, even revisionist touch: Marston's Antonio's Revenge (1600) might be seen as a burlesque and his Malcontent (1603) as a kind of revenge comedy, while plays closely abutting the premiere of The Winter's Tale-Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy (1611) and Chapman's The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (1610)--have been called "anti-revenge tragedies." (9) As work by Marvin Carlson, Roslyn Knutson, Jeremy Lopez, Emma Smith, and William N. West has demonstrated, meanings reverberate among such plays in a company's repertory as well as throughout theater history. Placing a formalist analysis into conversation with their findings makes possible new interpretations of The Winter's Tale. (10)

Reading the play alongside Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, Marston's Antonio's Revenge, and Chettle's The Tragedy of Hoffman, I identify both typical tropes and moments of intertheatrical reference in Leontes's revenge. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.