The Revenger's Tragedy

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This article is about the play. For the film, see Revengers Tragedy.
Title page of The Revenger's Tragedy

The Revenger's Tragedy is an English language Jacobean revenge tragedy, formerly attributed to Cyril Tourneur but now generally recognized as the work of Thomas Middleton. It was performed in 1606, and published in 1607 by George Eld.

A vivid and often violent portrayal of lust and ambition in an Italian court, the play typifies the satiric tone and cynicism of much Jacobean tragedy. The play fell out of favour at some point before the restoration of the theatres in 1660; however, it experienced a revival in the twentieth century among directors and playgoers who appreciated its affinity with the temper of modern times.[1]


  • Vindice, the revenger, frequently disguised as Piato (both the 1607 and 1608 printings render his name variously as Vendici, Vindici and Vindice, with the latter spelling most frequent)
  • Hippolito, Vindice's brother, sometimes called Carlo
  • Castiza, their sister
  • Gratiana, mother of Vindice, Hippolito, and Castiza
  • The Duke
  • The Duchess, the duke's second wife
  • Lussurioso, the duke's son from an earlier marriage, and his heir
  • Spurio, the duke's second son, a bastard
  • Ambitioso, the duchess's first son
  • Supervacuo, the duchess's middle son
  • Junior Brother, the duchess's third son
  • Antonio, a discontented lord
  • Piero, a discontented lord
  • Nobles, allies of Lussurioso
  • Lords, followers of Antonio
  • The Duke's gentlemen
  • Two Judges
  • Spurio's two Servants
  • Four Officers
  • A Keeper
  • Dondolo, Castiza's servant
  • Nencio and Sordido, Lussurioso's servants
  • Ambitioso's henchman


The play begins in the setting of an unnamed Italian court with Vindice brooding his father's recent death and his desire for revenge on the lustful Duke for poisoning his beloved nine years before. Vindice's brother Hippolito brings news: Lussurioso has asked him if he can find a pandar (a 'procurer' of women akin to but distinct from a pimp), because there is a young virgin he lusts after. Seeing this as an opportunity to act against the Duke, the brothers decide that Vindice in disguise can pose as this pandar. Meanwhile Lord Antonio's wife has been raped and the new Duchess' youngest son is on trial for the crime. He brazenly admits his guilt, even joking about it, but to widespread surprise the Duke suspends the proceedings and defers the courts' judgment until a later date. As guards take the youngest son away his brothers (Ambitioso and Supervacuo) whisper a promise to have him freed; the Duchess vows to be unfaithful to the Duke. Spurio (the Duke's bastard son) agrees to be her lover but, as soon as he his alone, declares he hates her and her sons as intensely as he hates the Duke and Lussurioso. Vindice, disguised as a smart procurer named 'Piato', is accepted by Lussurioso, who tells Vindice/Piato that the virgin he desires is Vindice's sister, Castiza; and he predicts her mother will accept a bribe and be a 'bawd to her own daughter'. Vindice, once he is alone, vows to kill Lussurioso, but decides meanwhile to stay in disguise and put his mother and sister to the test - tempting them as a real 'villain' would have done. Elsewhere Antonio's wife, victim of rape, commits suicide. Antonio displays her dead body to fellow mourners and Hippolito swears all those present to revenge her death.

Vindice, still disguised as 'Piato', tests the virtue of his sister and mother. Castiza proves resolute but his mother yields to an offer of gold. Vindice/Piato gives Lussurioso the false news that Castiza's resistance to his advance is crumbling. Lussurioso resolves he must sleep with her that same night. Hippolito and Vindice by chance overhear a servant tell Spurio that Lussurioso intends to sleep with Castiza 'within this hour'. Spurio rushes away to kill Lussurioso in flagrante delicto. A moment later Lussurioso himself enters, on his way to Castiza, but Vindice/Piato deceptively warns him that Spurio is bedding the Duchess. Angered, Lussurioso rushes off to find Spurio. Lussurioso bursts into the royal bedchamber, only to find his father lawfully in bed with the Duchess. Lussurioso is arrested for attempting treason; in the excitement Hippolito and Vindice/Piato discreetly withdraw. The Duke, seeing through Ambitioso and Supervacuo's pretend reluctance to see Lussurioso executed, dispatches them with a warrant for the execution of his son 'ere many days' - but once they have gone he gives a countermanding order for his son's release.

Ambitioso and Supervacuo disobey the Duke's instruction: they set off directly to the prison to order the instant execution of his son. Before they arrive however the Duke's countermanding order is obeyed - Lussurioso is freed. Ambitioso and Supervacuo arrive at the prison and present the Duke's first warrant to execute (in their words) 'our brother the duke's son'. The guards misinterpret these words, taking instead the youngest son out to instant execution. Meanwhile Vindice/Piato is hired again as a pandar - this time by the Duke himself. His plan is to procure the Duke an unusual lady - a richly clothed effigy, her head the skull of Vindice's beloved and covered with poison. The meeting is in a dark and secret place near where the Duchess has an meeting with Spurio. The Duke kisses the supposed lady and is horrified when the truth is revealed, subsequently being stabbed by the revenging Vindice after being forced to watch the Duchess betray him with Spurio. Ambitioso and Supervacuo, still confident that Lussurioso has been executed, both look forward to succeeding the throne in his place. A freshly severed head is brought in from prison. Assuming it is Lussurioso's, they are gloating over it when Lussurioso himself arrives, alive. They realise to their dismay the head is the youngest son's.

Lussurioso tells Hippolito he wants to get rid of 'Piato'. In a deeply ironic twist, he asks if Vindice would replace him. Hippolito assents, realising that Lussurioso would not recognise Vindice without a disguise. Accordingly Vindice gets his new mission - to kill 'Piato', himself. Hippolito and Vindice take the corpse of the Duke and dress it in 'Piato's' clothes, so that when the corpse is found it will be assumed that 'Piato' murdered the Duke then switched clothes with him to escape. The scheme with the Duke's corpse is successful, with the Duke's death becoming public knowledge. Vindice assembles a group of nobles for a political uprising. Shortly after he installation of Lussurioso as Duke, Vindice's group attack and stab all those present at the court, and leave. A second group of murderers then arrive; they discover their intended victims already dead, then turn on each other: Supervacuo, Ambitioso and Spurio die. A dying Lussurioso is unable to expose Vindice's group to Lord Antonio before his death. Exhilarated by his success and revenge, Vindice confides in Antonio that he and his brother murdered the old Duke. Antonio, appalled, condemns them to execution. Vindice accepts his death in a final speech while Antonio expresses hope that there will be no more treason.


The Revenger's Tragedy belongs to the second generation of English revenge plays. It keeps the basic Senecan design brought to English drama by Thomas Kyd: a young man is driven to avenge an elder's death (in this case it's a lover, Gloriana, instead), which was caused by the villainy of a powerful older man; the avenger schemes to effect his revenge, often by morally questionable means; he finally succeeds in a bloodbath that costs him his own life as well. However, the author's tone and treatment are markedly different from the standard Elizabethan treatment in ways that can be traced to both literary and historical causes. Already by 1606, the enthusiasm that accompanied James I's assumption of the English throne had begun to give way to the beginnings of dissatisfaction with the perception of corruption in his court. The new prominence of tragedies that involved courtly intrigues seems to have been partly influenced by this dissatisfaction.

This trend towards court-based tragedy was contemporary with a change in dramatic tastes toward the satiric and cynical, beginning before the death of Elizabeth I but becoming ascendant in the few years following. The episcopal ban on verse satire in 1599 appears to have impelled some poets to a career in dramaturgy;[2] writers such as John Marston and Thomas Middleton brought to the theatres a lively sense of human frailty and hypocrisy. They found fertile ground in the newly revived children's companies, the Blackfriars Children and Paul's Children;[3] these indoor venues attracted a more sophisticated crowd than that which frequented the theatres in the suburbs.

While The Revenger's Tragedy was apparently performed by an adult company at the Globe Theatre, its bizarre violence and vicious satire mark it as influenced by the dramaturgy of the private playhouses.


The play portrays a decaying moral and political order and demonstrates a nostalgia for the Elizabethan era. Vindice, the revenging protagonist, explicitly links economic problems with the issue of female chastity in several of his speeches. While the play uses this in part to analyse women themselves – their inherent weakness, which eventually leads to heavenly grace – it is also clearly looking back to Elizabeth, the 'Virgin Queen.' The power structure depicted at the play's outset is corrupt and morally bankrupt. The plot follows Vindice's quest to undo this new order, responsible for the death of his beloved and unfit to rule. The thought of unseating a ruler, deeply troubling to Shakespeare, was seized upon with glee by the anonymous author of The Revenger's Tragedy.

In 1607, the Midland Revolt occurred. It was the largest mass revolt since the Northern Rebellion of 1569: thousands rose up in protest against the enclosure of public spaces by wealthy landowners. The rebellions were brutally suppressed; hundreds of people were hanged. Since The Revenger's Tragedy is the story of how two malcontents destroy a dynasty of noble dukes, earls, and lords, it was perhaps wise of the author to remain anonymous.

It is interesting – in this context of imminent rebellion – to compare The Revenger's Tragedy with Shakespeare's Coriolanus, probably published in 1607. Shakespeare addresses the rebels' grievances (shortages and the high price of corn) but his hero is Coriolanus, who disdains and suppresses them. Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy appears, at least to a modern reader, as a social rebel, who declares, delightedly, "Great men were gods – if beggars couldn't kill 'em!"

  • Revenge

Revenge inflicts equally upon the revenger and the antagonist. This is seen as Vindice resorts to compromising the same moral values that were discarded by the nobility. Within the play, he kills, lies frequently, convinces his mother to prostitute his sister to further his revenge, and allows others to become scapegoats for his sins. This theme is expanded past the main character, as each of the cast which seeks revenge ends up dead: Vindice, Lussurioso, Spurio, Ambitioso, Supervacuo and Hippolito.

The play opens with Vindice explicitly establishing his motive behind his revenge, introducing the backbone of the play. In this opening scene, Vindice carries the skull of his murdered lover; this alludes to Hamlet, a play commonly known for its themes in revenge. Aside from Vindice’s revenge, this theme can be seen throughout the play including Spurio’s retribution against his father and the Duchess’s sons against the Duke’s eldest son.

  • Justice
    • Sinners: The Duke is brought to justice in his death for the crime of poisoning Vindice’s betrothed. The third son found his justice for his crime of rape, even with his brothers attempting to save him.
    • Law: There are forms of law without justice. Many acts of justice are performed out of the range of legality. Vindice carries out his revenge as a vigilante.
    • Court: Corruption permeates the court in the play, which obstructs the natural order of justice. The Duke’s opinion over-rides the court’s decisions, because he was the one who made the final decision regarding his youngest son’s death.
    • Vigilantism: Vindice embodies vigilantism. He is aware of this fact as he later admits to his actions of murder.
    • Rebellion: Each of the Duke’s sons desires the mantle of their father. Thus they go as far as murdering their own brothers to acquire a position of power.
  • Love vs. Lust

The theme of love is portrayed vividly throughout The Revenger’s Tragedy. Familial love, for example, is seen in Vindice’s family; brothers Vindice and Hippolito show this love through their quest for revenge. On the other hand, there is a lack of familial love in the Duke’s family; when the Youngest Son is tried for rape, the Duke does not speak up for him when he could have easily saved him. Lust is also evident throughout the play. The main example of this is the Duke’s pursuit of Vindice’s betrothed. The Duke lusted for her, but she would not give in, leading him to kill her thereby igniting Vindice's vendetta. Another example is seen when the Duke’s son Lussurioso asks a disguised Vindice to persuade Castiza, Vindice’s sister, for sex. Lussurioso’s drive for lust with the virgin Castiza is brought about by her beauty.

    • Adultery
  • Morality and Sin: During the play, Vindice both kills and indirectly causes the death of half the court due to their lustful and self-destructive actions. Vindice therefore views himself as a vigilante and justifies his actions by the corruption and adultery he sees in the court.
    • Corruption: Each member of the court possesses his or her own political agenda and is willing to do anything to further his or her own gains, including setting aside moral codes. Even Vindice, who sees himself as working for justice, lies and kills his way through the play.
    • Misogyny: Much of the misogyny within the play is created by the women, who view themselves as weak and incapable of operating without a man. The men in turn see the women as naturally lustful and deceitful, and cannot bring themselves to trust the female cast characters.
    • Family: Familial ties are present, such as the somewhat twisted bonds between the Duke’s various sons, Vindice’s fondness for his sister and his initial relationship with his mother. However, as the corruption progresses through the play, it poisons these ties as brother kills brother and Vindice’s mother sells her own daughter for gold.

Analysis and criticism: “subversive black camp”[edit]

Ignored for many years, and viewed by some critics as the product of a cynical, embittered mind,[4] The Revenger's Tragedy was rediscovered, and often performed as a black comedy, during the 20th century. The approach of these recent revivals mirrors shifting views of the play on the part of literary critics. One of the most influential 20th century readings of the play, by the critic Jonathan Dollimore, claims that the play is essentially a form of radical parody that challenges orthodox Jacobean beliefs about Providence and patriarchy.[5] Dollimore asserts the play is best understood as “subversive black camp” insofar as it “celebrates the artificial and the delinquent; it delights in a play full of innuendo, perversity and subversion ... through parody it declares itself radically skeptical of ideological policing though not independent of the social reality which such skepticism simultaneously discloses”[6] In Dollimore’s view, earlier critical approaches, which either emphasise the play’s absolute decadence or find an ultimate affirmation of traditional morality in the play, are insufficient because they fail to take into account this vital strain of social and ideological critique running throughout the tragedy.


The play was published anonymously in 1607; the title page of this edition announced that it had been performed "sundry times" by the King's Men (Loughrey and Taylor, xxv). A second edition, also anonymous (actually consisting of the first edition with a revised title-page), was published later in 1607. The play was first attributed to Cyril Tourneur by Edward Archer in 1656; the attribution was seconded by Francis Kirkman in lists of 1661 and 1671.[7] Tourneur was accepted as the author despite Archer's unreliability and the length of time between composition and attribution (Greg, 316). Edmund Kerchever Chambers cast doubt on the attribution in 1923 (Chambers, 4.42), and over the course of the twentieth century a considerable number of scholars argued for attributing the play to Middleton.[7] The critics who supported the Tourneur attribution argued that the tragedy is unlike Middleton's other early dramatic work, and that internal evidence, including some idiosyncrasies of spelling, points to Tourneur.[7]

More recent scholarly studies arguing for attribution to Middleton point to thematic and stylistic similarities to Middleton's other work, to the differences between The Revenger's Tragedy and Tourneur's other known work, The Atheist's Tragedy, and to contextual evidence suggesting Middleton's authorship (Loughrey and Taylor, xxvii). Since the massive and widely acclaimed statistical studies by David Lake (The Canon of Middleton's Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1975) and MacDonald P. Jackson (Middleton and Shakespeare: Studies in Attribution, 1979), Middleton's authorship has not been seriously contested, and no scholar has mounted a new defence of the discredited Tourneur attribution.

The play is attributed to Middleton in Jackson's facsimile edition of the 1607 quarto (1983), in Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor's edition of Five Middleton Plays (Penguin, 1988), and in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (Oxford, 2007). Two important editions of the 1960s that attributed the play to Tourneur switched in the 1990s to stating no author (Gibbons, 1967 and 1991) or to crediting "Tourneur/Middleton" (Foakes, 1966 and 1996), both now summarising old arguments for Tourneur's authorship without endorsing them. A summary of the great variety of evidence for Middleton's authorship is contained in the relevant sections of Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture, general editors Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford, 2007).


The Revenger’s Tragedy is influenced by Seneca and Medieval theatre. It is written over 5 acts[8] and opens with a monologue that looks back at previous events and anticipates future events. This monologue is spoken by Vindice who says he will take revenge and explains the corruption in court. It uses onomastic rhetoric in Act 3, scene 5 which is where characters play upon their own names, a trait considered to be Senecan.[9] The verbal violence is seen as Senecan, with Vindice in Act 2, scene 1, calling out against heaven: Why does not heaven turn black or with a frown/ Undo the world?

The play also adapts Senecan attributes in ways such as with the character of Vindice. At the end of the play he is a satisfied revenger, which is typically Senecan. However, he is punished for his revenge, unlike the characters in Seneca’s Medea and Thyestes.[10] In another adaptation of Seneca, there is a strong element of metatheatricality as the play makes references to itself as a tragedy. For example, in Act 4, scene 2: Vindice: Is there no thunder left, or is’t kept up/ In stock for heavier vengeance [Thunder] There it goes!

The medieval qualities in the play are described by Lawrence J Ross as "the contrasts of eternity and time, the fusion of satirically realistic detail with moral abstraction, the emphatic condemnation of luxury, avarice and superfluity, and the lashing of judges, lawyers, usurers and women”.[11] To personify Revenge is seen as a Medieval characteristic[12] and although The Revenger’s Tragedy does not personify this trait with a character, it is mentioned in the opening monologue with a capital, thereby giving it more weight than a regular noun.

Performance history[edit]

After its initial run, there is no record of The Revenger's Tragedy in performance by professionals until the 20th century. It was produced at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre in 1965. The following year, Trevor Nunn produced the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company; Ian Richardson played Vindice. Executed on a shoestring budget (designer Christopher Morley had to use the sets from the previous year's Hamlet), Nunn's production earned largely favourable reviews.[1]

In 1987, Di Trevis revived the play for the RSC at the Swan Theatre; Antony Sher played Vindice. It was also staged by the New York Protean Theatre in 1996. A Brussels theatre company called Atelier Sainte-Anne, led by Philippe Van Kessel, also staged the play in 1989. In this production, the actors wore punk costumes and the play took place in a disqueting underground location which resembled both a disused parking lot and a ruined Renaissance building.

In 1976 Jacques Rivette made a loose French film adaptation Noroît, which changed the major characters into women, and included several poetic passages in English; it starred Geraldine Chaplin, Kika Markham, and Bernadette Lafont.

In 2002, a film adaptation entitled Revengers Tragedy was directed by Alex Cox with a heavily adapted screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic Liverpool and stars Christopher Eccleston as Vindice, Eddie Izzard as Lussurioso, Diana Quick as The Duchess and Derek Jacobi as The Duke. It was produced by Bard Entertainment Ltd.

In 2008, two major companies staged revivals of the play: Jonathan Moore directed a new production at the Royal Exchange, Manchester from May to June 2008, starring Stephen Tompkinson as Vindice, while a Royal National Theatre production at the Olivier Theatre was directed by Melly Still, starring Rory Kinnear as Vindice, and featuring a soundtrack performed by a live orchestra and DJs Differentgear.

References in literature and popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wells, p. 106
  2. ^ Campbell, 3
  3. ^ Harbage, passim
  4. ^ Ribner, Irving (1962) Jacobean Tragedy: the quest for moral order. London: Methuen; New York, Barnes & Noble; p. 75 (Refers to several other authors.)
  5. ^ Dollimore, Jonathan (1984) Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; pp. 139–50.
  6. ^ Dollimore; p. 149.
  7. ^ a b c Gibbons, ix
  8. ^ Baker, Howard. "Ghosts and Guides: Kyd's 'Spanish Tragedy' and the Medieval Tragedy." Modern Philology 33.1 (1935): p. 27
  9. ^ Boyles, A.J. Tragic Seneca. London: Routledge, 1997, p. 162
  10. ^ Ayres, Phillip J. "Marston's Antonio's Revenge: The Morality of the Revenging Hero." Studies in English Literature: 1500–1900 12.2, p. 374
  11. ^ Tourneur, Cyril. The Revenger's Tragedy. Lawrence J. Ross, ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966, p. xxii
  12. ^ Baker, p. 29

Further reading[edit]

  • Campbell, O. J. Comicall Satyre and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Publications, 1938
  • Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Theatre. Four Volumes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923.
  • Foakes, R. A. Shakespeare; the Dark Comedies to the Last Plays. London: Routledge, 1971
  • Foakes, R. A., ed. The Revenger's Tragedy. (The Revels Plays.) London: Methuen, 1966. Revised as Revels Student edition, Manchester University Press, 1996
  • Gibbons, Brian, ed. The Revenger's Tragedy; New Mermaids edition. New York: Norton, 1967; Second edition, 1991
  • Greg, W. W. "Authorship Attribution in the Early Play-lists, 1656–1671." Edinburgh Bibliographical Society Transactions 2 (1938–1945)
  • Griffiths, T, ed. The Revenger's Tragedy. London: Nick Hern Books, 1996
  • Harbage, Alfred Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1952
  • Loughrey, Bryan and Taylor, Neil. Five Plays of Thomas Middleton. New York: Penguin, 1988
  • Wells, Stanley "The Revenger's Tragedy Revived." The Elizabethan Theatre 6 (1975)

External links[edit]