Hereditary curse: inheritance and legacy in early modern revenge tragedy 1550-1610
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date09/07/2020
Lankester-Carthy, Natalie Elizabeth
My thesis examines how changing perceptions of the past, and escalating anxieties about the future, brought about by a disputed succession and the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century, impacted on the development of revenge tragedy. Through a close analysis of the motifs of inheritance and legacy, I shall consider the ways in which revenge plays reshape Senecan ideas on hereditary violence, redress, and retribution for contemporary audiences. This thesis shows how the revenge tradition pulls some enduring sixteenth and seventeenth-century political preoccupations with disordered patrimonies into excessively violent narratives and reflects on the significance of these tropes for the authors and audiences of this popular mode. My project analyses how these key themes develop chronologically from the accession of Elizabeth I, to the early Jacobean period. The thesis does not aim to provide a comprehensive survey of the genre but examines the evolution of these themes in some defining instances of the mode to broach a new reading. While most scholarship of revenge tragedy begins with the drama of the 1590s, my study explores new insights into the tradition by starting with the classical translations of the mid sixteenth-century. It then follows the trajectory of the genre towards its sustained incorporation of parody and tragicomedy in the early seventeenth century. I begin my inquiry with some close analysis of the lexical choices in the Senecan translations, looking at Heywood’s Thyestes in particular and its accentuation of maternity and succession. I build upon these initial observations in my analysis of some of the more frequently-discussed revenge plays in The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus, looking specifically at how these works explore language, autonomy, and memory. My focus on inheritance and legacy leads me to investigate how the history of Richard III deals with revenge tropes surrounding legacy, violence, and redress. The final chapter looks at how The Revenger’s Tragedy self-consciously interrogates its position as a successor to the traditions explored in this thesis, and ultimately how the text reappraises understandings of memory, storytelling, and narrative conclusions. Critics have noted how the speed of political and religious change in the period contributed to an increasing sense of disjuncture with the past and exacerbated apprehensions about impending instability. My analysis aims to shed new light on how such responses affected the genre’s preoccupation with balancing the debts of the past and ensuring the stability of the future. Although conventions of the revenge genre are predominantly concerned with anxieties around the loss of heirs and of lines unnaturally stopped, this project considers how the sixteenth-century revenge tradition also introduces notions of legacy and continuity. I shall demonstrate how narrative and language are explored as potential sources of reparation and renewal, in their ability to forge a sense of meaning in an ever-changing world.