The Revengers Tragedy
Parody or Tragedy?: The Role of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy
A revenge tragedy is a genre of play, popularized in the seventeenth century, in which the protagonist pursues revenge for real or perceived abuses. Thee tragedies typically employ a number of the same conventions, such as escalating causes for revenge, interrupted trials, botched executions, and tragic endings. Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy is a curious example of this type of play, ultimately reading as a pastiche of a variety of other revenge tragedies. Through employing comedy and exaggerating conventions typically found in revenge tragedies such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Middleton effectively parodies this genre in his play, The Revenger’s Tragedy.
In many revenge tragedies, Shakespeare’s Hamlet included, the thought of revenge emerges from a murder. Conventionally, character one kills character two, and character three seeks revenge on character one for this murder. In Hamlet, there are only two clear revenge plots. The first commences when Hamlet discovers that his uncle, Claudius, murdered his father, King Hamlet of Denmark. Early on in the play, the ghost of King Hamlet appears in front of Hamlet and states, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love – / … / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” (1.5.25) before revealing that Claudius poured poison into his ear while he was sleeping in his orchard (1.5.59-79). After learning this shocking news about his father’s death, Hamlet makes it his goal to prove his father’s story to be true and kill Claudius. However, in doing so, he mistakenly kills Polonius, who was hiding behind a tapestry, believing it to be Claudius (3.4.23-25). This action serves as the catalyst for the second revenge plot in the play. Laertes, Polonius’ son, when returning home from France, learns of the unjust murder of his father: And so have I a noble father lost, A sister driven into desp’rate terms, Who has, if praises may go back again, Stood challenger, on mount, of all the age For her perfections. But my revenge will come (4.7.25-29). This “revenge” that he references is similar to the revenge that Hamlet aims to obtain for his father; Laertes becomes resolute in his plot to murder Hamlet, who both killed his father and caused his sister to go mad. Both of these plots for revenge have a justifiable impetus and a linear form of reasoning to achieve their purposes.
The plots for revenge in Middleton’s The Revengers Tragedy are not so sparse and linear. Only a few of the characters seek revenge for what can be argued as noble and warranted reasons. Vindice, for example, seeks revenge for his late love, Gloriana, stating, “The old Duke poisoned, / Because thy purer part would not consent / Unto his palsy-lust” (1.1.32-34). Similarly, Antonio and Hippolito aim for revenge against the Duchess’ unnamed youngest son for the rape of Antonio’s wife and her subsequent suicide (1.4.59-64). In both of these cases, the characters seek revenge because of unlawful wrongdoings, murder and rape, against their loved ones. These causes for revenge are justified in the genre of revenge tragedies and can be found in multiple plays of this particular genre.
However, not all of the characters in The Revenger’s Tragedy are as virtuous; some seek revenge for unreasonable, absurd reasons. The best example of this can be seen in the characters Supervacuo and Ambitioso. When Lussurioso is thrown in jail for treason, the Duke gives Supervacuo and Ambitioso a signet to deliver to the guards, stating that Lussurioso is to be executed (2.3.99-101). When Supervacuo and Ambitioso take the signet to the guards, they state that the Duke wants “[their] brother” to be executed right away (3.31-3); however, the guards kill their younger brother instead, seeing as Lussurio was released (3.4.39-40). After discovering their younger brother’s fate, Supervacuo and Ambitioso vow to avenge his death: Well, no more words – shalt be revenged i’ faith. Come throw off clouds now brother; think of vengeance And deeper settled hate. Sirrah sit fast: We’ll pull down all, but thou shalt down at last (3.6.88-91). If one were to look at these lines alone, it would appear as if Supervacuo and Ambitioso had a just cause for seeking revenge for their younger brother; however, his swift execution was their fault alone. They may believe that they have a noble, justifiable cause to avenge their younger brother, but, in reality, their cause is absurd and unnecessary. Through providing the audience with examples of varying degrees of justified revenge, Middleton is able to emphasize just how ridiculous some of these revenge plots truly are. For example, when the murder of one character’s wife is placed next to the accidental execution of other characters’ brother, the former highlights the absolute absurdity of the latter. This juxtaposition not only serves as a comedic tool but also exaggerates the role of revenge in these revenge tragedies, effectively satirizing the genre and its main trope.
Since death plays such a vital role in revenge tragedies, images of death, such as skulls, are eminent. In Hamlet, before Ophelia’s funeral, Hamlet finds himself in a graveyard conversing with gravediggers. After picking up a skull and recognizing it as a former jester he once knew, Hamlet throws the skull on the ground and muses about death, stating “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make load, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?” (5.1.192-195). When viewing the skull, Hamlet is prompted to think about the universality and inevitability of death. He recognizes that, though life may be important and some will amount to greatness, in the end, everyone dies and becomes a skull in the ground. His musings are philosophical and existential, highlighting the innate severity of revenge tragedies and the deaths that inhabit them.
In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice, on the other hand, uses this imagery of death for other purposes. In the opening scene of the play, Vindice enters carrying a skull, cursing the Duke and his family. Throughout his first monologue, we learn that this skull is the “sallow picture of [his] poisoned love,” (1.1.14) or his dead fiancée, Gloriana. This conventional use of a skull is similar to Hamlet’s; Vindice is addressing the skull and reflecting on the untimely death of his love. He does not go into its philosophical implications as Hamlet does, but he does recognize its grave meaning. However, this solemn musing is short lived. A few acts later, The Duke hires Vindice, disguised as Piato, to arrange a meeting with him and a lady in an abandoned lodge (3.5.8-18). Vindice sees this as the perfect opportunity to exact his revenge on the Duke and decides that the “lady” he brings for the Duke will be the adorned skull of his murdered fiancée: Madam, his Grace will not be absent long. Secret? Ne’er doubt us madam. ‘Twil be worth Three velvet gowns to your ladyship. Known? Few ladies respect that; disgrace? A poor thin shell! ‘Tis the best grace you have to do it well; I’ll save your hand that labor, I’ll unmask you (3.5.43-48). Following this quote, Vindice unmasks this “lady” and reveals her true identity. This is a stark contrast to Hamlet’s existential musings. By having Vindice dress the skull up as a woman, Middleton is inserting humor and absurdity into an otherwise serious scene. Vindice’s folly is recognized in the play, as Hippolito states, “Why brother, brother,” (3.5.49) after Vindice unmasks the skull. Through having another character acknowledge this absurdity, Middleton calls attention to the fact that dressing up your dead fiancée’s skull is, indeed, a ridiculous plan. Simiarly, because the audience has seen Vindice’s solemn musing about this skull at the beginning of the play, Middleton further highlights the use of comedy in a conventionally humorless scene, successfully deepening the notion that this play is a parody of the typical revenge tragedy.
Another convention typically found in revenge tragedies is the employment of the unintentional execution. In Hamlet, Claudius sends Hamlet and his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on a ship to England with a letter that asks for the execution of Hamlet upon his arrival (4.3.60-70). Hamlet, hearing wind of this, switches the letter with one that he wrote. This letter states that “the bearers [should be] put to sudden death,” (5.2.48) who, in this case, are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, since Hamlet leaves the ship and makes his way back toward Denmark. Through the unintentional execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet is not only able to avoid his own execution but also punish those who worked against him, showing no sympathy for his traitors: Why, man, they did make love to this employment. They are not near my conscience. Their defeat Doth by their own insinuation grow. ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes Between the pass and fell incensed points Of mighty opposites (5.2.58-63). These deaths function to further the notion of revenge in this play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wronged Hamlet; therefore Hamlet devises a way to get them killed. Their executions provide a means to an end that benefit both Hamlet and the overall narrative, proving to be purposeful as opposed to superfluous.
The Revengers Tragedy, on the other hand, employs unintentional executions for a different purpose. When Supervacuo and Ambitioso tell the guards that the Duke wants their “brother” to be executed, they are intending that the guards will execute Lussurioso, their half-brother (3.31-3). However, Lussurioso was released without their knowledge; therefore, the guards take their younger brother to his execution instead (3.4.39-40). When the guards bring the decapitated head of their younger brother to Supervacuo and Ambitioso, they pretend to be upset, still believing it to be Lussurioso (3.6.39-42). However, immediately following this fake mourning, Lussurioso enters, prompting Supervacuo and Ambitioso to exclaim, “Alive! In heath! Released!” in an attempt to hide their surprise (3.6.58). After learning that it was, in fact, their younger brother who was executed, they similarly exclaim, “Plagues! Confusions! Darkness! Devils!”; however, this time, these exclamations are in earnest (3.6.75). The repetition of short exclamations serves to highlight the surprise these characters face when learning the truth. Additionally, through having the characters take turns with each individual word, Middleton introduces comedy into the scene. Not only is the accidental execution absurd in and of itself, the characters’ reactions are as well. This humor and absurdity rejects the conventional unintentional execution trope, such as the scene in Hamlet, therefore effectively undercutting the grave tone used in many revenge tragedies.
Typically, revenge tragedies end in brutal, bloody death scenes, and Hamlet’s infamous finale is a well-known example of this convention. Claudius agrees with Laertes that he should avenge his father’s death and suggests that Laertes challenge Hamlet to a fencing duel, which would give him the opportunity to kill Hamlet without the appearance of foul play (4.6.79-84). Additionally, Laertes anoints his sword with poison to ensure that Hamlet dies, and Claudius has a poisoned chalice to give him, if all else fails (4.6.111-133). However, this plan backfires. While Hamlet and Laertes and fencing, Laertes wounds Hamlet, they drop their rapiers, and Hamlet grabs Laertes’ rapier and wounds Laertes, meaning they both have been poisoned. While this fighting ensues, Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, takes a sip from the chalice, becomes poisoned, and dies (5.2.234, 253). Upon learning that the chalice was poisoned and Claudius is to blame, Hamlet stabs and kills Claudius and, soon after, both Laertes and Hamlet die from their poisoned wounds. By the end of this scene, the only character that remains alive is Horatio; all other characters are slain by another, exemplifying the typical death scene of a revenge tragedy. Not only does everybody die, but they do so dramatically, uttering apologies and profound statements in the moments before they pass. This heightens both the severity of these deaths and the moral implications that accompany them, causing the audience to feel as if this play is truly tragic.
However, The Revenger’s Tragedy handles the final tragic death scene very differently. Vindice, Hippolito, and two lords enter Lussurioso’s banquet as part of a masque. They begin their masked dance and, during all of this frivolity, kill the four nobles at the table, including Lussurioso. The masque then retreats, and a new masque, consisting of Supervacuo, Ambitioso, Surpio, and a fourth man, enters in a dance routine. Seeing that Lussurioso has been stabbed, Supervacuo states, “Then I proclaim myself. Now I am duke,” (5.3.54) prompting Ambitioso to yell, “Thou duke! Brother thou liest” (5.3.55) and stab Supervacuo so that he may become the new Duke. This causes Spurio to yell, “Slave! So dost thou” (5.3.55) and stab Ambitioso, which leads the fourth man in the masque so exclaim, “Base villain, hast thou slain my lord and master?” (5.3.56). This chain of stabbings is vastly different than the death scene portrayed in Hamlet for a variety of reasons. First, there is no secret plot for revenge that initiated all of this murder; instead, these men stab one another impulsively when they see fit, exaggerating the act of killing. This certainly makes this death scene dramatic but it is not tragic like the scene in Hamlet. Tragedy implies suffering and distress, none of which are portrayed in these hasty deaths. Second, the characters in this scene do not utter any significant musings and statements in the moments before their death like Laertes and Hamlet in Hamlet. Instead, they bicker like children, arguing over who is in the wrong. This introduces comedy into a traditionally somber scene, removing the potential gravity of the situation. Through exaggerating the act of killing itself and employing humor, Middleton is able to highlight the absurdity of some tragic death scenes and therefore successfully parody them.
Middleton most blatantly parodies the genre of the revenge tragedy by making The Revenger’s Tragedy a metadrama, meaning that the play is conscious of the genre it inhabits. Examples of this can be found throughout the entirety of the play and include the abundance of asides, Vindice’s continuous mentioning of the word revenge, and the employment of traditional conventions of revenge tragedies, to name a few. The most glaring example of Middleton’s use of metadrama can be seen in the characters’ names. When Lussurioso meets the real Vindice for the first time, he states that Vindice has a good name, to which Vindice replies “Ay, a revenger” (4.3.170). As if this is not redundant enough, Lussurio goes on to state, “It does betoken courage, thou shouldst be valiant / And kill thine enemies” (4.3.171-172). In this exchange, Middleton could not make it more obvious that Vindice’s entire purpose is to exact revenge. By acknowledging the genre itself, Middleton allows the audience to recognize traditional tropes, which subsequently makes his use of comedy and exaggerations more effective.
When traditional revenge tragedies, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are compared to Middleton’s The Revengers Tragedy, it becomes apparent that The Revengers Tragedy acts as a parody of the genre. Through his use of comedy and thoughtful exaggerations, Middleton calls attention to the traditional conventions found in revenge tragedies, such as varying causes for revenge, botched executions, and tragic endings. Highlighting these tropes causes the audience to recognize them and their subsequent roles, allowing for a successful and culturally relevant parody and cementing The Revenger’s Tragedy’s role in the tragic canon.
Better Health Care, Same Drama: Why Modern Readers Continue to Connect with Renaissance Revenge Tragedies
Renaissance revenge tragedies, like all works of arts, are profoundly influenced by the state of the world around them. Thousands of years later, those state of affairs – wars, love triangles, and power struggles – have evolved, but not truly changed and arts continue to capture the evolution of family dynamics that accompanied them. Although one can argue that the family dysfunctionalities, such as fatal sibling rivalries and incest, presented in revenge tragedies such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy are beyond a modern audience because of the heavy presence of misogyny and murders, but it is not. The modern family still contains enough dysfunctionalities for modern readers to connect with the scenes presented in Renaissance revenge tragedies. The interest in dramatic family quarrels has not diminished over the years as one can witness in the literature accumulated over each passing historical period. During the Renaissance, revenge tragedies like The Spanish Tragedy portrayed the presence of primogeniture and deep patriarchy that caused trouble in the family. In modernism era, plays like Sam Shepard’s Buried Child and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? highlighted the alienation and struggle for authority within the family unit. In both plays, family disputes took center stage and kept the attention of the audience. In our contemporary era, we have movies like Fences and books like The Namesake that capture the belief disparity in the family. Families continue to fight, maybe not always over land and power as it was the case in the Elizabethan literature, but the animation between the members remain as compelling stories for the audience. Thus, since the audience continues to be drawn in by family dramas, the literal reasoning behind the fights in revenge tragedies become irrelevant to establish a connection.
The impairment that is most commonly found in Renaissance revenge tragedies is the discordance in dividing the family’s wealth once the head of the household is dead. Although the concept of primogeniture has been out fashion for quite sometimes, there is still inheritance to pass on. The average family does not have to worry about keeping a title alive and no specific person immediately inherits everything based on the law. So, the disappearance of primogeniture was replaced with the family will. This retained the same drama, though. The main differences are the decreased influence of the patriarchy and the chance for individual control over one’s possession. The wealth is not concentrated under the husband’s power, but becomes more unified in the marriage. This means that both sides of the family can be included in that will and earn part of the inheritance. The obstacle now becomes the individual who creates the will. The owner has the undeniable right to pass everything on to whomever he chooses and may exclude anyone at his own discretion. Therefore, fights in families remain the norm and can become fatal if anyone is excluded or inherit less. It may be viewed as even more chaotic than with the primogeniture law because of the inclusion of natural children or the ones from previous marriages with the recognition of divorce, and anyone that the person may wish to have his possessions.
Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy may have included way more gruesome and cruel fights than the average family go through, but the reasoning behind them remained the same. The main fight was between Lorenzo and Bel-imperia. Their sibling rivalry was focused on trying to outwit each other which hasn’t truly changed. Siblings relations still contain a good amount of competition with each other. Lorenzo and Bel-imperia had limited interactions in the play and every time they conversed, it was strained. It was obvious that Lorenzo was pushing for something and Bel-imperia was determined to keep her power by denying him. Lorenzo and Bel-imperia’s rivalry was not one dimensional, though. It was more than two spoiled kids trying to outdo each other because their fight was influenced by power and wealth. Within the patriarchal society, Lorenzo was above his sister and he could have a say in who she married. He took it as his mission to bring his sister and Balthazar together when he found out that he had an interest in her. Although, his sister’s happiness was not his chief motivation. In the play, Lorenzo excused his treatment of his sister by saying that “Unless, by more discretion than deserv’d, / I sought to save your honour and mine own.” (58). Judging by his actions throughout the entire play, happiness and honor were not his aimed goals. Instead, his actions, like his sudden attachment to Balthazar, prince of Portingale, showed his crave for power. The marriage would not only boost his sister’s status, but his entire family’s. He would have an ally in Portingale and a familial linked that could make it possible to claim Portingale under his rule if he wanted to. In the modern world, brothers do not go around telling their sisters who to marry, but marriage continues to be a big part of someone’s connection. Therefore, families do arrange meetings if not the marriage of their relatives with someone they would like to become part of the family. Often times, someone’s choice of a spouse can make or break their relationship with their family members which makes Lorenzo’s situation simply deranged in the way he approached it but not alien to us.
Another family relation that modern readers can draw on from this play is the parents-children one especially the father-son relationship. The Spanish Tragedy revolved around three main families – the royal family of Spain, the royal family of Portingale, and the Knight Marshal of Spain’s family. They all contained a father figure and zoomed in on the children’s relations with them. The father-son dynamic is a related dynamic that the modern world has not stopped wanting to talk about as we can see when we are presented with characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker or Marlin and Nemo. Fathers’ relationship with their sons are sometimes overbearing or revolve more around physical dynamics than emotional ones. This relationship did not change as the world modernized, it also modernized. The subjects that tied the relationship in the Elizabethan era may have been wars and keeping the family’s wealth and title alive. While in the modern time, the subjects may be sports and the family business. That is why modern readers can enjoy watching the father-son dynamic presented in this play like Viceroy and Balthazar or Hieronimo and Horatio. All the sons had their fathers whom they wanted to make proud and those fathers in return were willing to destroy countries to avenge them at any moment. The relationships presented there are more The Godfather or Taken 2 instead of Finding Nemo, but it is not an alien notion. It is ultimately about human emotions as we can see when Hieronimo was lamenting about his dead son, saying that “Where shall I run to breathe abroad my woes, / My woes, whose weight hath wearied the earth / Or mine exclaims, that have surcharg’d the air / With ceaseless plaints for my deceased son?” (53). There are no foreign notions showed here. It was about a father having to bury his son and now wanted revenge. Modern society would prefer to push toward justice instead of revenge, but there is only a fine line between those two concepts.
Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy provided a different perspective on those familial relationships, but they remained as dysfunctional. There was the sibling rivalry and the protectiveness of a brother to his sister. Unlike in The Spanish Tragedy, the two relations were not blended into one. On one side, there was the royal children fighting for the dukedom. On the other side, there was the Vindici and Hippolito protecting their sister’s honor. The latter came off as the less realistic one in modern times. Today’s audience may feel less sympathetic to Vindici and Hippolito’s cause when it came to their sister because of Castiza’s personality and what she represented. Her saying that “If maidens would, men’s words could have no power. / A virgin honour is a crystal tower, / Which being weak is guarded with good spirits: / Until she basely yields no ill inherits” (402) was not something that everyone wants to root for. She presented herself as a weak woman who believed that women should stay behind locked doors, so they could retain their worth. The type of woman that she was projecting may have been the ideal one for the safety of the patriarchy so having decreased its power makes her projection less ideal. So, having Vindici and Hippolito backing her up and punishing their mother for not agreeing with her was not an element that most modern audience would support. Nonetheless, the fight for the dukedom was the central focus of the play. In the literal sense, most people do not kill for a title anymore but people, specifically family members, do kill over land and money. As argued in The Spanish Tragedy, family fights over wealth and power may be one of the most empathetic aspect of Renaissance revenge tragedies.
The Revenger’s Tragedy included one more familial relation that we did not get to see in The Spanish Tragedy – marital. The Spanish Tragedy did have Hieronimo and Isabella, but we mainly got to see them as the parents not as a married couple. In this play, we got a closer look at the dynamic between the duke and duchess. The focus on the marital life allowed Middleton to broach the subjects of incest and affairs. Those two subjects were deemed immoral and viewed negatively throughout the years and the feeling does not seem to be dissipating. Vindici opened the play with “Duke, royal lecher, go, gray-hair’d adultery; / And thou his son, as impious steep’d as he; / And thou his bastard, true-begot in evil; / And thou his duchess that will do with devil” (327). From the get-go, it was established that the family was the tightest one. There were affairs and jealousy between them. The drama only escalated from there as the duchess started to sleep with the duke’s illegitimate child. However, she excused it as a rebuke against the duke for not freeing her youngest son, Junior, from prison. That went to show how little power she held in the marriage and the level of emotional involvement it contained. She had children from a previous marriage and the duke was not exactly their biggest fans. She had to beg him to “Think him to be your own as I am yours; / Call him not son-in-law” (332) because all the duke’s affections were directed at his son not even at his wife. There was no love in that marriage and the cold relationship between the husband and wife extended to the children. Although a modern audience would not enjoy or relate to their marriage, like an audience during the Renaissance, we do understand that a toxic relationship between the parents will create a toxic environment for their children, making it impossible to have a unified family. That understanding is powerful enough to keep their attention.
Renaissance revenge tragedies do not present many subjects to us. The way they handle said situations are viewed as overdramatic and unsympathetic. However, the main ideas they discuss are human emotions and those do not get cancelled. Human emotions do not disappear over time. In some respects, we differ as we can see on the concept of titles and gender issues. Many times, we continue to experience the same feelings, having the same fights, and undergoing the same dilemmas. Modern audience can find these plays compelling because we can still relate to them and put ourselves in their shoes at times.