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Revenge Tragedy and Classical Philosophy on the Early Modern Stage

Christopher Crosbie

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Examines the influence of classical philosophy on revenge narratives by Shakespeare and his contemporaries

This book discovers within early modern revenge tragedy the surprising shaping presence of a wide array of classical philosophies not commonly affiliated with the genre. By recovering the pervasive influence of Aristotelian faculty psychology on The Spanish Tragedy, Aristotelian ethics on Titus Andronicus, Lucretian atomism on Hamlet, Galenic pneumatics on Antonio’s Revenge and Epictetian Stoicism on The Duchess of Malfi, Crosbie reveals how the very atmospheres and ontological assumptions of revenge tragedy exert their own kind of conditioning dramaturgical force. The book also revitalises our understanding of how the Renaissance stage, even at its most lurid, functions as a unique space for the era’s practical, vernacular engagement with received philosophy.

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Introduction: On Revenge Tragedy and the Shaping Influence of Classical Philosophy

  1. Oeconomia and the Vegetative Soul: Thomas Kyd’s Naturalisation of Revenge in The Spanish Tragedy
  2. Fixing Moderation: Titus Andronicus and the Aristotelian Determination of Value
  3. ‘A fine pate full of fine dirt:’ Hamlet Among the Atomists
  4. ‘Vein by vein:’ The Pneumatics of Retribution in John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge
  5. Prohairesis on the Inside: The Duchess of Malfi and Epictetian Volition

Epilogue: A kind of sensible justice


About the Author

Christopher Crosbie is Associate Professor of English at North Carolina State University where he teaches Shakespearean drama. His research examines the influence of classical philosophy on Renaissance literature, paying particular attention to the capacity of early modern theater to appropriate received intellectual traditions in innovative ways.


With expert attention to the philosophical frameworks as well as the performance conventions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Revenge Tragedy and Classical Philosophy on the Early Modern Stage elegantly aligns the materialist theories of Aristotle, Lucretius and others with the plots and language of revenge. A major contribution to the field, it establishes the ethical and communal power of revenge plays and their ability to dramatize vengeance as metaphysically fitting and recuperative.

- Heather Hirschfeld, University of Tennessee

Crosbie’s book supplies an important absence in early modern literary studies, bringing several strands of classical philosophy into lucid conversation with the passion-fueled, metaphysical dramas of revenge of the period.

- Michael Witmore, Folger Shakespeare Library

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