A new, authoritative edition of five classic revenge plays
As the Elizabethan era gave way to the reign of James I, England grappled with corruption within the royal court and widespread religious anxiety. Dramatists responded with morally complex plays of dark wit and violent spectacle, exploring the nature of death, the abuse of power, and vigilante justice. This anthology presents five crucial tragedies of the era collected together for the first time, including Shakespeare's 1603 version of "Hamlet"and Middleton's "The Revenger's Tragedy," a ferocious satire that reflects the mounting disillusionment of the age.
The introduction by Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith explores the political and religious climate behind the plays, as well as their dramatic conventions.
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About the Author
William Shakespeare (1564 1616), English poet and dramatist of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean period, is the most widely known author in all of English literature and often considered the greatest. He was an active member of a theater company for at least twenty years, during which time he wrote many great plays. Plays were not prized as literature at the time, and Shakespeare was not widely read until the middle of the eighteenth century, when a great upsurge of interest in his works began that continues today.
Thomas Dekker was an English Elizabethan dramatist, born in 1572. Possibly of Dutch origin, very little is known of Dekker's early life and education. His career in the theatre began in the mid-1590s but it is unclear how or why Dekker came to write for the stage. By that time he was odd-jobbing for various London theatre companies, including both the Admiral's Men and its rivals the Lord Chamberlain's Men; he probably joined the large team of playwrights, including Shakespeare, who penned the controversial drama Sir Thomas More around this time. Dekker struggled to make ends meet, however, and in 1598 he was imprisoned for debt. 1599 was, by contrast, an annus mirabilis for Dekker. The theatrical entrepreneur and impresario of the Admiral's Men, Philip Henslowe, lists payments to Dekker that year for contributions to no fewer than eleven plays; two of these, Old Fortunatus and The Shoemaker's Holiday, were selected to be performed at Court during the Queen's Christmas festivals. Dekker received royal favour again after the death of Elizabeth and the accession of King James I in 1603 when he was contracted with Ben Jonson to write the ceremonial entertainments for James's coronation procession through London. He was sorely in need of such commissions; the playhouses were closed for much of this year because of a plague outbreak that killed as many as a quarter of London's population. During the outbreak, he retooled himself as a writer of satires - a genre in which he had acquired some dramatic experience in 1602, when he penned Satiromastix, a play that took aim at Ben Jonson (who had lampooned him the previous year in Poetaster). Dekker's prose satires about the plague year reveal a new skill for gritty reportage and sympathetic attention to the enormous sufferings of the afflicted. He repeatedly returned to this genre when he was prevented, whether by theatre closures or by imprisonment, from writing for the stage. Like The Shoemaker's Holiday, Dekker's plays in the years of James's reign tend to dramatize the stories of citizens. And they again display a sympathetic fascination with socially marginal characters, often women - a prostitute (The Honest Whore, co-written with Thomas Middleton, 1604), a transvestite (The Roaring Girl, 1611, also co-written with Middleton), and a witch (The Witch of Edmonton, 1621, co-written with John Ford and William Rowley). But Dekker's financial woes continued through these years, and he was once more imprisoned for debt between 1612 and 1619, a harrowing experience that he later claimed turned his hair white. Upon his release, he continued to write plays, citizen pageants, and prose pamphlets, but he never enjoyed the success of his earlier years. He died, leaving his widow no estate except his writings, in 1632.
John Marston (c. 1575-1634) was an English playwright who wrote thirteen plays between 1599 and 1609, his two finest being the tragicomedy "The Malcontent" (1604) and the comedy "The Dutch Courtesan" (1605). He is noted for his violent imagery and his preoccupation with mankind's failure to uphold Christian virtues. Other plays include the tragedies "Antonio's Revenge" and "Antonio and Mellida "(both 1599) and the comedy "What You Will "(1601). At the turn of the century Marston became involved in the so-called war of the theatres, a prolonged feud with his rival Ben Jonson. Jonson repeatedly satirized him in such plays as "Every Man Out of His Humour "(1599) and The Poetaster (1601), while Marston replied in "Satiromastix "(with Thomas Dekker; 1601). Their squabble ended in time for the two to collaborate with George Chapman on the ill-fated" Eastward Ho! "(1605), which resulted in all three authors being briefly imprisoned. Marston was later imprisoned for offending James I with his tragedy "The Insatiate Countess" (1610). After his release he took holy orders and wrote no more plays.
“Five Revenge Tragedies makes the core texts of the genre available to students in an affordable, accessible edition. Emma Smith’s introduction is scholarly and at the same time engaging, and will likely prove useful to undergraduate and graduate students a like. This is a volume which is long overdue, and a welcome edition to the Penguin catalog.”
—Gabriel A Rieger, Assistant Professor, Languages and Literature, Concord University