During Shakespeare’s playwrighting career, revenge drama was one of the most popular theatrical forms. Its origins lay in Roman theater, notably in the plays of Seneca, but Shakespeare brought complexity to the genre. In general, revenge drama centers on a single figure who is inspired by one transgression to pursue a path of destruction that becomes more damaging than the act that provoked it. Because this revenge is fulfilled outside traditional moral order, the ethical code of the day proscribed that the story must conclude with the revenger’s downfall. But Shakespeare also dramatizes revenge outside such formal structure, under circumstances when characters become so possessed by hatred that they lose all control.
In Henry VI, Part 3, for instance, Queen Margaret, wife of the ineffectual King Henry, leads her forces representing the crown and the Lancaster family against the insurgent army of the Duke of York, who seeks to put his own dynastic family on the throne. When Margaret captures York, she subjects him to humiliation, not because of a specific action, but because of his insolence in challenging her husband’s authority. She dips York’s handkerchief into the blood of his recently slain son, the Earl of Rutland, places a paper crown on York’s head, and viciously belittles his ambition:
Is crown’d so soon, and broke his solemn oath?
And I bethink me, you should not be king
Till our King Henry had shook hands with death.
(I, iv, 99–102)
York responds with characteristic bitterness: