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Broadcaster: BBC Radio 4
Year: 2009
Genre: Documentary
URL: http://bobnational.net/record/286880

Review by Lisa Smalley

Students on Renaissance Drama or Shakespeare modules may find this 2009 discussion on revenge tragedy very useful. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg, the episode looks at the popularity of revenge tragedy among theatre goers is considered, as well as its medieval context within the Elizabethan legal system.

Contributors to this discussion are:

  • Julie Sanders, Professor of English Literature and Drama at the University of Nottingham
  • Janet Clare, Professor of Renaissance Literature at the University of Hull
  • Jonathan Bate, Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at the University of Warwick.

‘The Spanish Tragedy’ is of course the first to be addressed, massively influential, the panel discuss it’s response to the Spanish Armada, and the societal context of which it was set, where public executions and bear bating were the norm.  They also consider the Tudors attempt at reforming the legal system, and how this may have impacted on the subject matter.

The macabre ‘Titus Andronicus’ is believed to be directly influenced by ‘The Spanish Tragedy’, with the panel mainly considering the similarities between Titus and Hieronimo.

Research into audience records and the typical characteristics of the revenge play are discussed, before moving onto the consideration of academic Seneca-ism.  Admiration of his style and morality have led to a series of imitations, including ‘Hamlet’.  The panel go on to discuss an ‘old Hamlet play’ that had been lost, which is particularly interesting, as is the idea that Shakespeare questions the ethics of revenge in his ‘Hamlet’.

The use and importance of the soliloquy in revenge tragedy is debated, with some useful points about their impact on the audience, especially with Hamlet’s ethical questions about revenge, giving new depths to the perception of purpose to the play.

Revenge plays written by Lawyers (Webster, Marston etc) are discussed in their performance context, with the focus on how how the revenge tragedy did evolve and change in response to changes in the law system, the location in which they were performed, and audience they were performed to.  For example, a performance Whitehall for the Queen about the corruption of the court, would have been set in another country to avoid any wrath from the monarch.

The panel give details on why revenge tragedy lost its popularity, with ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ and ‘The Cardinal’ used as examples.

Unfortunately, the recording cuts off before the show is completed, but there are some really interesting and useful discussions that are well worth listening to.