Date of Award

Spring 5-5-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Paul Voss

Second Advisor

Wayne Erickson

Third Advisor

Paul Schmidt


Through four hundred years of accumulated disparaging comments from critics, revenge plays have lost much of the original luster they possessed in early modern England. Surprisingly, scholarship on revenge tragedy has invented an unfavorable lens for understanding this genre, and this lens has been relentlessly parroted for decades. The conventional generic approach that calls for revenge plays to exhibit a recurring set of concerns, including a revenge motive, a hesitation for the protagonist, and the revenger’s feigned or actual madness, imply that these plays lack philosophical depth, as the appellation of revenge tends to evoke the trite commonalities which we have created for the genre. This dissertation aims to rectify the provincial views concerning revenge tragedies by providing a more complex, multivalent critical model that makes contemporary the outmoded approaches to this genre. I argue that Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival, and the ways in which it engages with new historical interpretations of early modern drama, functions as a discursive methodology to open up more creative interpretative possibilities for revenge tragedy. Carnival readings expose gaps in new historicism’s proposed systems of omnipresent power, which deny at every turn the chance for rebellion and individuality. Rather than relegating carnival to an occasional joke, quick aside, or subplot, revenge plays explore carnivalesque concerns, and revengers plot their vengeance with all the aspects of a carnival. In these plays, revengers define subjectivity in terms of the pleasure-seeking, self-serving urges of unofficial culture; negotiations for social change occur in which folk culture avoids a repressive, hierarchal order; and carnival play destabilizes courtly systems that track, classify, pigeonhole, and immobilize individuals.