Cyril Tourneur (1575 – 28 February 1626) was an English dramatist who enjoyed his greatest success during the reign of King James I of England. His best-known work is The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), a play which has alternatively been attributed to Thomas Middleton.
Cyril Tourneur was possibly the son of Captain Richard Turner, a water-bailiff and, later, lieutenant-governor of Brielle in the Netherlands. Tourneur too served in the Low Countries, for in 1613 there is a record of payment to him for carrying letters to Brussels. He enjoyed a pension from the government of the United Provinces, possibly by way of compensation for a post held before Brielle was handed over to the Dutch in 1616.
In 1625, he was appointed by Sir Edward Cecil, whose father had been a former governor of Brielle, to be secretary to the council of war. This appointment was cancelled by Buckingham, but Tourneur sailed in Cecil's company to Cádiz. On the return voyage from the disastrous expedition, he was put ashore at Kinsale with other sick men and died in Ireland on 28 February, 1626. (M.BR.)
A difficult allegorical poem called The Transformed Metamorphosis is his earliest extant work; an elegy on the death of Prince Henry, son of James I of England, is the latest. The two plays on which his fame rests, The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy, were published respectively in 1607 and 1611. Tourneur's only other known works are a lost play, The Nobleman, some contributions to Sir Thomas Overbury's Book of Characters, and an epicede on Sir Francis Vere. This poem conveys the poet's ideal conception of a perfect knight or happy warrior, comparable, by those who may think fit to compare it, with the more nobly realized ideals of Chaucer and of Wordsworth.
If Tourneur had left on record no more memorable evidence of his powers than might be supplied by the survival of his elegies, he would not claim a high place among English writers. His fame indeed rests on his two surviving plays. Little is known about their composition and The Atheist's Tragedy may well have been written earlier than The Revenger's Tragedy, although it was published later. From a literary viewpoint, The Atheist's Tragedy is generally considered as weaker than its counterpart because it is relatively clumsy and straightforwardly moralistic. It confidently reproduces themes and conventions which are characteristic of medieval Morality plays and of Elizabethan memento mori emblems. More interestingly perhaps, it uses these conventions in the context of Calvin's Protestant theology.
By contrast, The Revenger's Tragedy has long been recognized as a far more original dramatic work that takes its cue from the achievements of contemporary playwrights, notably Shakespeare. The theme of revenge is pastiched from Hamlet, but the play focuses on the atrocities of blood retribution instead of developing philosophical reflection. Vindice's macabre pose with the skull of his beloved is farcically inspired from Hamlet's contemplation of Yorick's skull.
Of this play, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica says,
[I]t is so magnificent, so simple, impeccable and sublime that the finest passages of this play can be compared only with the noblest examples of tragic dialogue or monologue now extant in English or in Greek. There is no trace of imitation or derivation from an alien source in the genius of this poet ... [T]he resemblance between the tragic verse of Tourneur and the tragic verse of Shakespeare is simply such as proves the natural affinity between two great dramatic poets, whose inspiration partakes now and then of the quality more proper to epic or to lyric poetry. The fiery impulse, the rolling music, the vivid illustration of thought by jets of insuppressible passion, the perpetual sustenance of passion by the implacable persistency of thought, which we recognise as the dominant and distinctive qualities of such poetry as finds vent in the utterances of Hamlet or of Timon, we recognise also in the scarcely less magnificent poetry, the scarcely less fiery sarcasm, with which Tourneur has informed the part of Vindice--a harderheaded Hamlet, a saner and more practically savage and serious Timon. He was a satirist as passionate as Juvenal or Swift, but with a finer faith in goodness, a purer hope in its ultimate security of triumph. This fervent constancy of spirit relieves the lurid gloom and widens the limited range of a tragic imagination which otherwise might be felt as oppressive rather than inspiriting. His grim and trenchant humour is as peculiar in its sardonic passion as his eloquence is original in the strenuous music of its cadences, in the roll of its rhythmic thunder. As a playwright, his method was almost crude and rude in the headlong straightforwardness of its energetic simplicity; as an artist in character, his interest was intense but narrow, his power magnificent but confined; as a dramatic poet, the force of his genius is great enough to ensure him an enduring place among the foremost of the followers of Shakespeare.
Perhaps this ecstatic response should have to be directed to somebody else than Tourneur. As the play was published anonymously, and as Tourneur was only described as the author in a 1650s booklist, the attribution of The Revenger's Tragedy to him is increasingly in question. External and internal evidence strongly suggests that the true author was the more distinguished Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton. In the Stationers' Register of 1607, The Revenger's Tragedy and A Trick to Catch the Old One can be found in the same double entry. In every other double entry of this register, the plays prove to be by the same author, and we are certain that A Trick was written by Middleton. It is also known from contemporary records that Middleton composed another play called The Viper and her Brood, of which nothing survives. Some scholars think that Viper and The Revenger's Tragedy are in fact one and the same play.
Until a relatively recent period, many stage directors considered The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy as oddities whose Gothic horrors made completely alien from modern taste. Things have changed for The Revenger's Tragedy, which has been performed with increasing frequency and success since the 1980s, both in Britain and elsewhere. In 2003, this play even inspired a movie called Revengers Tragedy. However, stagings of The Atheist's Tragedy remain few and far between. If, as seems likely, it is his only surviving play, he can no longer be ranked among the greatest playwrights.
- The Atheists Tragedie; or, The Honest Mans Revenge (1611)
- A Funeralt Poeme Upon the Death of the Most Worthie and True Soldier, Sir Francis Vere, Knight.. (1609)
- A Griefe on the Death of Prince Henrie, Expressed in a Broken Elegie ..., printed with two other poems by John Webster and Thomas Haywood as Three Elegies on the most lamented Death of Prince Henry (1613)
- The Revengers Tragaedie (1607 and 1608)
- The Transformed Metamorphosis (1600), an obscure satire
- The Nobleman, a lost play entered on the Stationers Register (Feb. 15, 1612) as "A Tragecomedye called The Nobleman written by Cyrill Tourneur", the MS. of which was destroyed by John Warburton's cook
- Arraignment of London (1613), stated in a letter of that date from Robert Daborne to Philip Henslowe that Daborne had commissioned Cyril Tourneur to write one act of this play
- The Character of Robert, earl of Salisburye, Lord High Treasurer of England, "ritten by Mr Sevill Tumour" may be reasonably assigned to Tourneur; it was found in an MS in possession of Lord Mostyn (Hist. MSS. Commission, 4th Report, appendix, p. 361)
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- Parfitt, George, ed. The Plays of Cyril Tourneur. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978.
- Higgins, Michael H. 'The Influence of Calvinistic Thought in Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy', Review of English Studies XIX.75 (Jul 1943), 255-262.
- Neill, Michael. 'Bastardy, Counterfeiting and Misogyny in The Revenger's Tragedy', Studies in English Literature 36:2 (Spring 1996), 397-416.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.