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Four Revenge Tragedies: (The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger's Tragedy, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, and The Atheist's Tragedy): "Spanish Tragedy", ... "Atheist's Tragedy" (Oxford World's Classics) [Paperback]

Katharine Eisaman Maus

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Book Description

7 May 1998 Oxford World's Classics
The Revenge Tragedy flourished in Britain in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy helped to establish the popularity of the genre, and it was followed by The Revenger's Tragedy, published anonymously and ascribed first to Cyril Tourneur and then to Thomas Middleton. George Chapman's The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois and Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy appeared soon after. Each of the four plays printed here defines the problems of the revenge genre, often by exploiting its conventions in unexpected directions. All deal with fundamental moral questions about the meaning of justice and the lengths to which victimized individuals may go to obtain it, while registering the strains of life in a rigid but increasingly fragile social hierarchy. Under the General Editoriship of Dr Michael Cordner, of the University of York, the texts of the plays have been newly edited and are presented with modernized spelling and punctuation. In addition, there is a scholarly introduction and detailed annotation.

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"A provocative selection with incisive apparatus."--Gale H. Carrithers, Jr., Louisiana State University

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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Delightfully Macabre 15 Nov 2005
By Q - Published on Amazon.com
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An excellent collection! THE SPANISH TRAGEDY, of course, is the mother of all English Renaissance revenge tragedies, and it still holds up well today. It inaugurated the fashion that culminated in Shakespeare's HAMLET. THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY, probably by Middleton, is another strange and wonderful tragedy, full of skulls and poison and dramatic ironies.

Revenge tragedies are intensely political; they typically involve a terrible murder committed by someone in power, and the court is so corrupt that only extra-legal means for justice or revenge are available. Revenge tragedies always include sensational elements of violence and the macabre that made them very popular in their time. Feigned or real madness, poison, bloodshed, skulls and graveyards abound. Sexual obsession and incest are common. The only modern comparison that seems justified is the horror movie; of course these are stage productions with a minimum of scenery, but many of the actions are just as gruesome and horrific, including explorations of strange obsessions and sexual perversions.

THE REVENGE OF BUSSY D'AMBOIS by Chapman is notable for the elevated language, but hard to follow since it is a sequel without the original. Chapman's drama, however, is rarely published today, so it's nice to have it. THE ATHEIST'S TRAGEDY by Tourneur is amazing for its seeming nihilism. Evil triumphs here.

The introduction is also helpful and interesting after you've read the plays. The only fault here is the editing; the editors have inexplicably chosen to use endnotes, which are very inconvenient.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Collection - Very Helpful Introduction and Explanatory Notes 31 Mar 2008
By Michael Wischmeyer - Published on Amazon.com
This Oxford World's Classics compilation, Four Revenge Tragedies, warrants five stars. The four plays exemplify widely different ways that the revenge genre can be elaborated, and all four stories make good reading. More importantly, the lengthy introduction by Katharine Eisaman Maus is exceedingly helpful, particularly in the way its compares and contrasts the four selections. Moreover, her extensive explanatory notes are quite valuable.

Even if you are interested in only one of the four plays, I highly recommend this anthology. Understanding how a particular play compares to other Elizabethan and Jacobean drama of the same genre will add both understanding and pleasure to your reading.

The Spanish Tragedy (1587, Thomas Kyd) and The Revenger's Tragedy (1606, uncertain authorship) culminate in bloody, disproportionate revenge. Kyd's play is credited with directly influencing Shakespeare while elements within The Revenger's Tragedy mirror aspects of Hamlet (1601). The other two relatively unfamiliar plays, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (George Chapman, 1609) and The Atheist's Tragedy (Cyril Tourneur, 1609), are less conventional and are sometimes classified as anti-revenge plays.

These four rather different plays do share some common features. Katharine Eisaman Maus argues that the protagonist must confront a dreadful situation not of his own making. Moreover, institutional justice is not available; in many cases individuals in high authority have committed the crime.

The fascination of revenge drama revolves around a moral dilemma: does the protagonist's victimization exonerate him - at least partially - for exacting revenge? What if the revenge itself proves excessive and disproportionate to the original crime? And what is the role of divine justice in compensating for failures in human justice?

I have reviewed the four plays elsewhere under their individual titles. I gave five stars to both The Spanish Tragedy and The Revenger's Tragedy, four stars to The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, and three stars to The Atheist's Tragedy.

Despite my lower rankings, the anti-revenge plays are both intriguing as we observe the protagonists steadfastly resist the natural impulse to take revenge. Clermont D'Ambois, consistent with his Stoic philosophy, goes no further than to challenge the killer of his brother to a duel. The pious Charlemont in The Atheist's Tragedy relies entirely on divine justice, and refuses to make any direct effort on his own part to revenge the death of his father, the forced marriage of his intended bride to another man, and the loss of his inheritance.
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