Early Modern Mondays: Top 5 Tragedies

EM Mondays

I’m starting a new monthly series on my blog called Early Modern Mondays and I just wanted to start this new series by exploring my top five early modern tragedies. These plays aren’t necessarily the “best” tragedies written during the era but they’re my favourites and I’ll explain why they’re my favourites in this post.

Spanish-tragedy (1)The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd (c.1587)

Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy tells the story of Hieronimo, Knight Marshal of Spain, avenging the death of his son, Horatio. He initially seeks justice for the murder of his son by petitioning the King but he is driven to seek personal blood revenge when he is not allowed to see the King. What follows is a very bloody, and rather sad, chain of events in which Hieronimo ‘goes mad’ and kills those who murdered his son.

The play features a play-within-a-play, several violent murders, a strange mixture of Catholicism and Roman polytheism, and a character who is the personification of Revenge. What more could you ask for in a revenge play?

I love this play because it’s one of the earliest known revenge tragedies in English. We don’t have access to the Ur-Hamlet (which was probably by Kyd too) but this play gives us an insight into a newly emerging genre and a new age of theatre in early modern England. The Spanish Tragedy was such an influential play, for Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights, and it’s also just a really great story.

Where to read it:


Doctor Faustus 1620Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (c.1592)

The story of this play is very simple: Doctor Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer for supernatural powers and a weird demonic relationship with the spirit of Helen of Troy but eventually, after twenty-four years of living his best life, demons arrive to take Faustus to hell. There are two versions of the play, the A text (printed in 1604) and the B text (printed in 1616), and no one is sure which is closer to Marlowe’s original play (written c.1592) but it doesn’t really matter because they’re both great plays.

Doctor Faustus is so much fun to watch and read! It’s very comical, if rather dark, and Marlowe really had fun with the subject matter, playing with the audience’s expectations of medieval morality plays and their knowledge of the tale of the Faustian pact. Mephistopheles is one of the best characters in early modern theatre, a true vice figure who tempts and taunts Faustus, and his lines are so dry and witty. I just love everything about it.

Where to read it:


Shakespeare_Titus_Andronicus_Q1_1594Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (c.1593)

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play and it’s based rather heavily on the myth of Philomel from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The themes explored within the play are horrific and they’re made worse by the constant hand-related puns that Titus makes after he cuts his own hand off. I’m not sure how to summarise this play because a lot happens but it should probably come with warnings for rape, murder, dismemberment, and cannibalism.

I must admit that I’d never be able to watch this play live. I’d know exactly what was going to happen next and I’d anticipate every horrific scene in the worst way. However, I put it on this list because it’s one of my favourite plays to research. There’s just so much going on in this play and I’ve never run out of things to say about this play. It also features one of Shakespeare’s best jokes:

Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.

Where to read it:


The_Revengers_TragedyThe Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton (1606)

How do you summarise the glorious excess of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy? Vindice, whose name means ‘revenger’, is plotting revenge against the man who murdered his fiance, Gloriana. He disguises himself as Piato and lures the Duke – the man who killed Gloriana – to his death.

That’s the basic plot but there’s so much more to The Revenger’s Tragedy than just the basic plot. Middleton’s play is excessive, both in its approach to death and to metatheatre, and it’s so over-the-top that it verges on being camp. You really have to read/watch it to understand how wonderful it is.

I love it because it’s just so much fun to read and research! I never pass up an opportunity to talk about it (or write about it). It’s a dark, humorous parody of the revenge tragedy genre and I’d love to see a performance of it one day. Until that day comes, I’ll just continue talking about how much I love it.

Where to read it:


The Duchess of Malfi 1623The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (c.1613)

This play features a poisoned bible, lycanthropy (as an actual medical diagnosis, not werewolves), creepy wax figures, and some of the best lines ever written in English theatre.

The Duchess of Malfi is loosely based on events that occurred between 1508 and 1513 surrounding Giovanna d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi who secretly married Antonio Beccadelli di Bologna after the death of her first husband Alfonso I Piccolomini, Duke of Amalfi. It’s a love story, as the Duchess marries beneath her class, but it quickly turns into a nightmare when her brothers seek revenge. Webster explored a variety of themes including gender (especially in regards to women and their status in society), objectification, cruelty, social class, power, corruption, religion, and family.

Webster’s language is beautiful and poetic and that’s what I love most about this play. Alongside the poisoned bible, of course. It is truly one of the best tragedies in the English language and I will not be told otherwise.

Where to read it:


I’ll probably write about my favourite comedies and tragicomedies in the future but that’s it for this post. As always, if you’d like me to write a post about one of these plays or authors please let me know in the comments!

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1. Title page of The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd (1615)
2. Title page of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1620)
3. Title page of Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (1594) – Folger Shakespeare Library
4. Title page of The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton (1608)
5. Title page of The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (1623)

3 thoughts on “Early Modern Mondays: Top 5 Tragedies

  1. Titus Andronicus is one of my favourite plays, too! It’s just so excessive it’s almost a joke, but yet there’s so much real emotion in the characters and the relationships that you can’t help but feel horrified. Love me some melodrama! Good picks all!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of it definitley is a joke (like Titus dressing as a cook) but I agree, the emotions and relationships are so realistic and raw. It’s a wonderful play but I can understand why people are put off by it!

      Liked by 1 person

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