The motif of romantic love in Renaissance Revenge Tragedies

Term Paper, 2008

18 Pages, Grade: 2,3




2. Romantic love and the problem of marriage in Renaissance society

3.The problem of love and marriage in Revenge Tragedies
3.1. John Webster: The Duchess of Malfi
3.2. Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy
3.3. William Shakespeare: Hamlet

4. The question of sexuality

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography


The concerns of civilized human society from the beginning on until our days have not changed much. The basic problems of mankind and therefore the basic topics literature was written about are religion, love, family and war. English Renaissance drama is no exception to that. One of the most fascinating genres of Shakespeare’s contemporaries is the Revenge Tragedy. It combines revenge plots with love matters and confronts all this with the structure and beliefs of society. One of the motifs the Revenge Tragedy depends on in order to remain absorbing for the audience is the motif of romantic love. Hence this will be the topic of the paper at hand. Further on I will discuss the different aspects of romantic love and analyse their status in Renaissance society and also the representations of this aspects in three of the most important Revenge Tragedies of that time.

At first I will look on how love was seen in Renaissance society, and in which way matters of marriage were settled. This topic will be regarded deeper in the second chapter, where the approach to love and marriage will be exemplified on the tragedies. The problem of marriage, particularly unequal and secret marriage will be analysed in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Afterwards I am going to compare the play to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and see how Kyd handled the Problem of unequal relationships. In chapter 3.3 one of the most important plays in literary history will be analysed on the love relationships of its main characters. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the romance between the Prince of Denmark and the fair Ophelia is of highest interest to the literary critic. Well, naturally the motif of romantic love does not only include marriage and interpersonal relationships, but also the question of sexuality is quite important. In this paper, I will discuss the dealing with all these topics in the Renaissance tragedies by working closely with the plays in question. As will be found out in the course of the discussion, romantic love, with its different aspects is a crucial motif to every successful Revenge Tragedy.

2. Romantic love and the problem of marriage in Renaissance society

The English Renaissance covers the time of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, in which England produced not only great kings and rulers such as Elizabeth I and James I, but also important dramatist, who though mostly not extremely popular in their contemporary times, are worldwide classics nowadays. The society of Shakespeare, Kyd and Webster had its own rules and conventions, which determined everyday life of the people, and consequently, the actions on stage. Particularly the approach to the topic of romantic love and hence marriage was quite different from modern thinking. Though the feeling of romantic love certainly existed, only in the noble society and the court young people with little supervision really had the leisure and time for romantic intrigue.[1] As love’s entire endeavour finally leads to marriage, it is crucial to analyse the Renaissance view of the “marriage problem” more closely.

In Elizabethan and Jacobean romantic love and lust were regarded as irrational, and were therefore strongly attributed to women, who as the descendants of the biblical Eve were believed to be irrational and easy to seduce due to an uncontrollable sexual desire. Thus the decision of marriage based on love, was not a thoroughly thought through one. More important reasons for marriage were the continuing of the male line of the family, the preserving and acquiring of property and status. Overall the family as a “household, including servants as well as those united by ties of love and marriage was an institution of exceptional social [and public] importance”[2] Therefore marriage was not a matter of individual preference, but a public decision. Especially the upper class and the nobility understood the importance of making the right marriage choice, on which in princely households even the fate of the country could depend. This is why decision was made, not by the person to be married, even more if the person was female, but by the parents or other direct relations of the person in question. As the King in The Spanish Tragedy puts it: “Young virgins must be ruled by their friends.”(II.iii.43)[3].

So the right person to marry, particularly in noble society was one, of at least equal or preferably higher rank and wealth. Unequal marriages were not much approved by society, the situation was even more complicated when, the woman was of higher rank than the man, because in an oppressive patriarchal society, where women are seen as inferior, the woman should not exceed her husband neither by wealth nor by status. Equal marriages were considered as necessary, whereas unequal marriages usually meant “harm to public order, […] public disapproval, […] [and the] neglect of duty”[4].

In contrast to the “maids” and “virgins” whose marriages were mostly arranged by their kins whether they consented or not, although through the ceremony of courtship an illusion of the wooed woman’s free will was constructed , those women that had already been married and widowed were allowed to chose their husbands themselves. But second marriages were accompanied with many prejudices and confirmed the belief of woman’s unlimited sexual desire.

Despite all these social restriction, as already mentioned, romance and love truly existed and was important to the people in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, which is proven in the rich vocabulary that signifies the emotions and powers of true love. Also, most of that time’s drama deals in some way with the motif of romantic love. Revenge tragedies, as will be shown in further discussion in this paper, deal with this topic exceedingly, as love is very often used by the dramatists to further the plot.

3.The problem of love and marriage in Revenge Tragedies

The genre of Revenge Tragedies became very popular in the English Renaissance. With its “gaudily spectacular, repulsive and yet fascinating” plot, the revenge play was a “carnival escape from everyday norms”[5] for the audience. Within the play conventions could be bent and ignored, and the playgoers could delight in the tragic consequences of breaking the rules of society. Further on we will discuss the major plays of that period and genre, such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and of course William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These plays are centred around a human avenger who “is great in his capacity, both in love […] and desire for justice, and it is the power of human feeling in the play […] that is its claim to greatness”[6]. They also would not exist if not for the problem of love and hence, marriage. Revenge Tragedies deal, besides the obvious revenge plot, with the problems deriving from romantic choices that are not approved by the society and that lead to tragic consequences. Even more than that, “romance itself can be a form of revenge.”[7]

3.1. John Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi was published in 1623 and is based on the true story of Giovanna d’Aragona and the account of it in Bandello’s Novelle, which was adapted into French by François de Belleforest. In the play the young widow of the Duke of Malfi, marries her servant Antonio, despite the forbiddance of her two brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal to marry again. Throughout the whole play her brothers dictate the Duchess violently, they expect her “to concede their authority over any alliance to be made by her marriage”[8] and react with cruel brutality when they learn of her disobedience. The Duchess however, being a young and prospering woman rebels against the patriarchal regime of her brothers and marries nevertheless. Besides that, she also chooses Antonio, who is her servant and of common blood. This means, that the marriage is secret and also unequal, which brings a whole load of problems with it. The Duchess is the female regent of Malfi, a powerful woman ruling over a male court. She is supposed to remain the chaste mourning widow for the public, but really she longs for love, affection and tenderness.

“This is flesh and blood, sir/ ‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster / Kneels at my husbands’ tomb”[9] she says in I.i.445-447. That is why in her yearning she turns to Antonio, who though beneath her rank, seems to be an honourable man. In Act III, scene II, Bosola, though it is not clear whether he is sincere or just tries to win the Duchess’ confidence, praises Antonio to be “an excellent courtier, and most faithful, a soldier that thought it/ As beastly to know his own value too little/ As devilish to acknowledge it too much” (III.ii.246-249). When alone with Antonio the Duchess reveals her vulnerability and human warmth, which she is forced to hide in public. She does not care about Rank and Degree at that moment, the consequences of an unequal marriage are unimportant to her, she just does not want to be alone.[10] The irony of this is that Antonio does set value on the hierarchical structures of society. He is therefore quite reluctant to the Duchess’ wooing at first. He says:

“Conceive not I am so stupid but I aim

Whereto your favours tend: but he’s a fool

That being a-cold would thrust his hands I’th’fire

To warm them. (I.i.417-419)


Were there nor heaven nor hell

I should be honest: I have long served virtue

And ne’er ta’en wages of her. (I.i.430-433)


Truth speak for me,

I will remain the constant sanctuary

Of your good name.”


To him the consequences of their marriage are quite apparent. He knows that the Duchess is higher in rank than he is, and that their marriage would stir reproaches in society. He is concerned about the Duchess’ “good name” and his own “virtue” and is conscious that Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who forbid the Duchess to marry at all, will even more disapprove of her marrying a servant, so low beneath her rank. These concerns are quickly brushed away by the Duchess. “Do not think of them” she says, hoping that their marriage will either remain secret or that “time will easily/ Scatter the tempest” (I.i.462-463).

The fatal marriage is legitimate as the two lovers have Cariola witnessing their vows to each other. “Per verba de Presenti” – “by words, as from the present” was a legal marriage contract, but it was also quite unusual and also unsure of approval by the church, which was actually very important in the Renaissance, a time still dominated by religion. It is quite important to note that in The Duchess of Malfi the Church is represented by the Cardinal, who not only disregards his vow of celibacy and the holy institute of marriage himself, by keeping Julia, a married woman, as a mistress, but is also brother of the Duchess, who forbid her to marry again. From his point of view for his sister “the marriage night/ Is the entrance into some prison.” (I.i.317-318). The Church, represented thus, would with most certainty not approve of this marriage. Just after the vows are exchange the Duchess realises that “’tis the Church that must but echo this” and suddenly fears (rightly so) that it won’t. She proposes to Antonio to stay chaste, but still leads him to their marriage bed, as her longing for a man is stronger than her fear of her brothers. Hence she disobeys her brothers’ orders as she does not “concede their authority over any alliance to be made by her marriage”[11], but does quite the contrary. From the beginning on, this marriage is doomed to tragedy. This is indicated by Cariola’s lines at the end of I.i. which also conclude the whole act. They also summarize the Duchess’ inner conflict: woman versus sovereign. Cariola says:


[1] Cf: Stone, p.81

[2] cf: Ingram p.114

[3] cf: The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd

[4] cf: Leech, p.52

[5] cf: Findlay, p.49

[6] cf: Gibbons in Elzabethan and Jacobean Tragedies, p. xi

[7] cf: Findlay, p.58

[8] cf: Gibbons in The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, p.xx

[9] all further references to the text of The Duchess of Malfi: cf : The Duchess of Malfi Ed. Brian Gibbons

[10] One can easily see a parallel between the Duchess and Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, who had already deceased by the time the play was published. Elizabeth I had never married, because she could not find a worthy candidate who would allow her not to enter an unequal marriage and still keep her sovereignty over the country.

[11] Cf: Gibbons in They Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, p.xx

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The motif of romantic love in Renaissance Revenge Tragedies
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
504 KB
revenge tragedy, rennaissance, literatur, english literature, Anglistik, Shakespeare
Quote paper
Natalia Gubergritz (Author), 2008, The motif of romantic love in Renaissance Revenge Tragedies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The motif of romantic love in Renaissance Revenge Tragedies

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free