Piracy, Insurrection and The Tragedy of Hoffman

  • Derek Dunne
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


The previous chapter saw how Hamlet works to absolve its protagonist from some of the guilt associated with his actions; in Chettle’s The Tragedy of Hoffman, the criminality of the eponymous Hoffman is beyond doubt. The opening scene sees him put to death the innocent son of his enemy by means of a burning crown, and his catalogue of crimes includes stabbing, poisoning, identity theft, and attempted rape. For all this, Chettle creates a revenger whose villainous exploits may be abhorrent, but which ask to be placed within a wider frame of reference. This is achieved by the introduction of discourses of piracy and rebellion that resist simple categorisation and instead act to destabilise even the most basic early modern hierarchies of meaning. Superficially, Chettle’s play seems to deal in straightforward binaries — lawful duke/convicted pirate; virtuous mother/villainous son; pious forgiveness/sinful rebellion — but each of these hierarchies is overturned in due course. The Tragedy of Hoffman may not pitch a heroic avenger against the forces of social injustice; nevertheless, I suggest that Chettle’s play evinces the revenge genre’s skill for acute social commentary. The Tragedy of Hoffman carries forward the work of earlier revenge tragedies by positing the problem of revenge within a network of legal, and even jurisdictional questions, in a way that Shakespeare’s Hamlet never does.


Corporal Punishment Previous Chapter Identity Theft Social Protest Attempted Rape 
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  1. 1.
    Bernhard Klein, ‘“We Are Not Pirates”: Piracy and Navigation in The Lusiads’, in Pirates? The Politics of Plunder, 1550–1650, ed. Claire Jowitt (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 105–17 (p. 110).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    ‘Notes on Henry Chettle [pt 1]’, The Review of English Studies, 45 (1994), 384–8; ‘Notes on Henry Chettle [pt 2]’, The Review of English Studies, 45 (1994), 517–22.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Richard Brucher, ‘Piracy and Parody in Chettle’s Hoffman’, The Ben Jonson Journal, 6 (1999), 209–22; Sarah J. Glady, ‘Revenge as Double Standard in The Tragedy of Hoffman’, Discoveries: South-Central Renaissance Conference News and Notes, 18 (2001), 3–4; Paul Browne, ‘A Source for the “Burning Crown” in Henry Chettle’s The Tragedy of Hoffman’, Notes & Queries, 51 (2004), 297–9; Duke Pesta, ‘Articulating Skeletons: Hamlet, Hoffman, and the Anatomical Graveyard’, Cahiers Élisabéthains, 69 (2006), 21–39; Marie Honda, ‘The Tragedy of Hoffman and Elizabethan Military Affairs’, 演劇研究七 夕一紀要 [Bulletin for the Centre of Theatre Research, Waseda University Japan], 6 (2006), 197–207. <> [accessed 27 July 2015]. Janet Clare also touches on the play briefly in Revenge Tragedies of the Renaissance (Devon: Northcote House, 2007), pp. 49–54.Google Scholar
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    See for example Bernhard Klein’s edited collections Fictions of the Sea: Critical Perspectives in British Literature and Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002); Sea Changes: Historicizing the Ocean (New York: Routledge, 2004).Google Scholar
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    Each of these overlapping issues is well developed by the various essays in Claire Jowitt’s edited collection, Pirates? The Politics of Plunder, 1550–1650. In the collection, literary representations of piracy are used extensively; yet despite the early date and the subject matter of Chettle’s play, Hoffman goes unnoted by contributors. See also Jowitt’s monograph, The Culture of Piracy: English Literature and Seaborne Crime (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), which touches on the repeated use of pirates in the plots of late Elizabethan drama (Chapter 4), describing how ‘buccaneers and their activities possess a burgeoning political dynamic’, p. 134.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Privateering was used extensively as part of Queen Elizabeth’s policy towards Spain in the 1580s, see Christopher Harding, ‘“Hostis Humani Generis” — The Pirate as Outlaw in the Early Modern Law of the Sea’, in Pirates? The Politics of Plunder, 1550–1650 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 20–38 (p. 25). He goes on to say: ‘Quite simply, privateering was a form of maritime plunder carried out by private parties but authorized and sponsored by state authority through formal documentation known as letters of marque’, p. 24.Google Scholar
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    The charges against Ralegh were primarily related to treason but also included piracy. For an excellent account of Ralegh’s trial, see Karen Cunningham, ‘A Spanish Heart in an English Body: The Ralegh Treason Trial and the Poetics of Proof’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 22 (1992), 327–51: ‘the consensus is that it was legal but unjust’, p. 337.Google Scholar
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    Harold Jenkins, The Life and Work of Henry Chettle (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1934), p. 85.Google Scholar
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    The idea that the courts of Chancery were more equitable than common law courts is more theoretical than actual, as both had strict mechanisms in place to ensure a fair outcome for the cases brought before them. See Lorna Hutson, ‘Imagining Justice: Kantorowicz and Shakespeare’, Representations, 106 (2009), 118–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 29.
    Smith, Five Revenge Tragedies: Kyd, Shakespeare, Marston, Chettle, Middleton (Oxford: Penguin, 2012), p. xix.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Derek Dunne 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Derek Dunne
    • 1
  1. 1.University of FribourgSwitzerland

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