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Title: The origins of English revenge tragedy, ca.1567-1623
Author: Oppitz-Trotman, George David Campbell
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2011
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This thesis offers a materialist account of dramatic genre. It shows how English revenge tragedies were mediated by the social circumstances of their early modern dramatic production, and how in turn such circumstances found expression in dramatic form. Its method draws on Marxist critical theory, but the work also makes extensive use of traditions in English social history and more conventional literary criticism. Influenced by Walter Benjamin’s early work, 'Urprung des deutschen Trauerspiels', in which ‘origin’ (Ursprung) is distinguished from ‘genesis’ (Entstehung), the dissertation offers an account of the genre’s dialectical relationship with the social realities and legal circumscriptions accompanying theatrical performance at the time revenge plays became popular. Focusing on the characterization of avenging protagonists, the dissertation suggests how the ambivalent disposition of such figures to narrative and scene drew on historical problems of social and occupational identity in early modern England. The first chapter dwells on the ambiguities of the avenger’s marginalisation in Thomas Kyd’s seminal revenge play, The Spanish Tragedy. This chapter realizes the problem of revenge as one relating to the household, and in turn connects this to the image of the early professional theatre as a disorderly house. Building on this analysis of the historical grounds of Hieronimo’s disenfranchisement and revenge, the second chapter explores the resources of characterization provided for such avengers by the dramatic tradition of the Vice which, by the 1570s and 1580s, had become associated with the professional actor. The third chapter examines how the idiom of the ruin in the two tragedies of John Webster might invite a Benjaminian analysis of the revenge play as a vulnerable allegory of production. This chapter looks to link revenge plays’ representations of death to contingencies of performance. The final two chapters are connected by an interest in the relationship between characterization and forms of historical risk. Chapter 4 explores the duel at Hamlet’s climax from a variety of perspectives, arguing that its debased nature as a ritual of valour interacted in highly sophisticated ways with the problems of intentionality and invention associated with earlier revenge plays as well as with performance itself. The final chapter builds on the arguments of Chapter 4 while recalling many of the arguments made earlier in the thesis. Demonstrating the dialectical interaction of the actor-as-servant and the servant-intriguer, this fifth chapter situates the study of such characterization within the historiographical controversies surrounding the early-modern wage labourer. This dissertation aims (i) to provide innovative criticism of English revenge tragedy, insisting upon the genre’s dialectical foundation in processes of dramatic production; (ii) to outline a viable, dialectically materialist genre criticism; (iii) to show how changes in socio-economic dependencies produced specific dramaturgical effects, particularly as these related to the process of characterization.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: University of Cambridge ; Arts and Humanities Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: revenge tragedy ; professional acting ; early modern england ; theatre