Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2010
My music is a cannon, a pitched field my stage, Furies the actors, blood and vengeance the scene; death the story, a sword imbrued with blood the pen that writes, and the poet a terrible buskined tragical fellow, with a wreath about his head of burning match instead of bays.
Describing his activities on the battlefield in theatrical terms, the soldier Balthazar in Thomas Dekker's The Noble Spanish Soldier (c. 1621-34) captures neatly the popular stereotype of Renaissance tragedy, characterised by blood, revenge, high-blown rhetoric and death. He also highlights its derivation from classical archetypes in his reference to the figures known in Roman mythology as the Furies and by the Greeks as the Erinyes - who pursued wrongdoers and, in particular, those who murdered members of their own family - and in the image of the 'buskined' poet, who wears the high boot, or buskin, that was associated with Greek tragedy, and a wreath of combustible match-sticks around his head instead of the customary laurel leaves.
Keen to establish and maintain the genre's artistic and cultural authority, writers and other commentators often give the impression that tragedy was static and unchanging, clinging tightly to time-worn conventions and clichés. A closer look at the wide range of tragedies produced in this period, however, undermines such assumptions about tragic form. G. K. Hunter refers to tragedy as the 'most clear-cut of dramatic genres', and to some extent this is true; but, as he acknowledges, early modern playwrights tend 'to turn the concept of genre from a set of rules into a technique of multi-layering'.