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In what ways is "The White Devil" typical of Jacobean Revenge tragedy?

A-Level: English

Title:  In what ways is "The White Devil" typical of Jacobean Revenge tragedy?
Description  Looking at the genre of Revenge Tragedy through the study of "The WHite Devil" (John Webster)
Word Count:  3000


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The Revenge Tradition
"The Spanish Tragedy" (Thomas Kyd 1586) is about the earliest commonly known example of this genre. It is relatively short and unsophisticated as a play. Hieronimo = the play’s hero and avenger. He is driven mad by the murder of his son. He discovers the identities of his murderers and the rest of the play is the ingenious revenge he plans. He stages a play in which the murderers are members of the cast and as part of his role, he kills them before killing himself
• Hieronimo = unsubtle, unsophisticated and uncomplicated character. We feel he is justified in taking his revenge
• Plot = relatively untwisted, straightforward
• Murderers = similarly 2-dimensional

A later (but still Elizabethan) revenge tragedy is "Hamlet" (1600). After a visit from his father's ghost, Hamlet is convinced that his Uncle, Claudius, has murdered him and has not only taken his crown (and title King of Denmark); he has married his mother. The rest of the play is about Hamlet's indecision about how and when to act to take revenge. At one point his uncle counterplots against him and nearly has him murdered.
This is a far more sophisticated play. Shakespeare is bowing to 2 traditions:
1) Classical tragedy = in which the hero (Hamlet) is an important man of outstanding personal qualities and lofty ideals. He falls to his tragedy through a combination of his own personal failings (he can't take the ruthless course of action that he should and would take because he is too high minded and idealistic) and circumstances. As a consequence not only do Claudius and Hamlet die but innocent people too.
2) Revenge = the whole play hinges on Hamlet's pursuit of revenge against his Uncle for his murdered father. It ends, as "The Spanish Tragedy" ends, in the deaths of all the main characters
The main differences between "The Spanish Tragedy" and "Hamlet" lie in:
• more sophisticated characterisation
• Hamlet's antagonist (his Uncle) is a more sophisticated villain and is well Hamlet's equal in terms of power and cunning
• The plot of the later play contains more twists, complications and counterplots

Jacobean Period (1603-)
By the time we get into the Jacobean period Revenge tradition is moving apace. Queen Elizabeth had kept a "tight ship" at court and her courtiers, who included dramatists and poets, held her in some awe. Any criticism of the monarch = treason ~> execution. Therefore, drama of any kind was highly unlikely to be set in a domestic context in case it was perceived as satirical. It was more likely to be set in far away places or times and be about heroes and wrongdoers who are less identifiable.
King James and his advisors had less respect. It was still considered treason to criticise the king but James did not win the same awe as Elizabeth had. Many dramatists felt more able to imply criticism if not directly of the king, certainly of his chief advisors. This meant that Jacobean tragedy tended to be rather more overtly domestic, in the sense that:
• it was often set in contemporary times or was based on incidents that were within living memory
• it was often set at court - maybe in a country like Italy to give some element of cover up, but the characters and satire might well be only too recognisable to a contemporary audience
• it often involved scandal and intrigue of a more domestic sort
• the hero himself is not a whiter than white unblemished character, like those of the Elizabethan period. He's less idealistic and more politically aware than the likes of Hamlet. He probably lives in a more "real world" than the likes of Othello (who trusted people too much and only saw the good in them)
• his motives for revenge are more questionable than, say, Hieronimo's or Hamlet's. His motives are not so pure or sharply focused. We know what motivated Hamlet; it's less obvious what is really motivating the Jacobean avenger

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