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Abstract

This essay explores the treatment of female characters in Renaissance revenge tragedy: specifically in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Revenge tragedy is a dramatic sub-genre that conventionally develops an unsettling level of audience sympathy for male characters who are, essentially, murderers. The paper shows how famous male revengers such as Kyd’s Hieronimo and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are characterised in a way that subtly resists their firm categorisation either as righteous or truly immoral figures. By contrast, it suggests, early modern culture displays a pronounced tendency to judge women only in relation to the divisive ideological dichotomy of the angel or the whore. The context of ambivalence which revenge tragedy creates for its male protagonists, does, however, have implications for women. The essay goes on to illustrate ways in which the portrayal of female characters in these plays transcends the rigid prescriptions of the angel/whore binary. It argues that Kyd’s Bel-Imperia and Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Gertrude cannot be fully aligned with either pole; theirs is a necessarily transgressive position through which the dramatists emphasise the problematic insufficiency of this divisive cultural model. Revenge tragedy, the essay argues, therefore grants its female characters an ambivalent status that notably parallels the intriguing allure of the tragedy’s male protagonists. In both cases, however, this challenging status is licensed by, and limited to, the consciously illusory space of the playhouse stage itself.

Note on the Author

Roxanne Grimmett is in her third year of a BA degree in English Studies at the University of Exeter.

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