The Revenger’s Tragedy

The Jacobean drama series, and the best is the last.

The Revenger’s Tragedy was not written by Cyril Tourner but Thomas Middleton.

This was news to me until I bestirred myself into making a very rare appearance at a theater.

It was a community production in a small theater, but I had to go. It’s my favorite Jacobean drama and performed seldom. (The Duchess of Malfi is the usually performed Jacobean drama.)

In the program notes, it was noted that local professor Peter Murray had established Middleton’s authorship.

Which I hadn’t heard. I knew Murray. He was the professor I had for Shakespeare though not Jacobean drama.

Murray was a chemist who took up English literature after being injured in a lab accident. He was also a former technical writer who was very particular about how your papers were written and final essay exams that had all of us pondering half an hour before we even began writing.

Peter B. Murray also wrote Shakespeare’s Imagined Persons: Psychology of Role-Playing and Acting. I think, though I haven’t read the book, he incorporated some quite useful background material he gave us on the medieval and Renaissance context of Shakespeare’s plays. (For instance, the Hamlet you see is not the Hamlet its first audience saw. To them, human vengeance is not to be sought. And you definitely should not be taking the word of a ghost about things.)

It turns out, besides actually seeing The Revenger’s Tragedy performed, there was something else notable in the performance.

In the cast was one Sara Jane Olson, I think she played the Duchess, who was something of a revenger herself.

Sara Jane Olson was, I’m sorry to say, a North Dakotan gone bad and a wanted terrorist. In 1974, she was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and participated in a bank robbery and attempt to blow up some police cars.

And then she disappeared to become housewife, a neighborhood fixture, and community actor, until 1999 when the long arm of the law caught up with her.

You don’t have to check the local theater listings to check out the play. Repo Man director Alec Cox did a modernized movie version which isn’t too bad. It has Doctor Who actor Chris Eccleston as Vindici (so IMDB list’s the name, it’s Vindice in the play).

I’m not the only fan of the play.

For his essay in Kim Newman and Stephen Jones Horror: Another 100 Best Books, Robert Silverberg chose The Revenger’s Tragedy.

Raw Feed (1990): The Revenger’s Tragedy, Cyril Tourner [really Thomas Middleton], 1967, 1971.Revenger's Tragedy

“Introduction”, Brian Gibbons — This is the first critical work I’ve read on this, my favorite, Jacobean play. It mostly concerns the dispute over authorship, the use of motifs drawn from the Dance of Death, and Tourneur’s use of comedy. Gibbons places the play in the farcical Greek tradition of comedy. This I found interesting. What I, as a modern reader, see as very sarcastic and malicious may, in fact, have been intended to be much broader, more slapstick (certainly less punny than Shakespeare) than we generally think. I don’t know enough to have an informed opinion one way or another. It’s just one example of what a reader’s background brings to a work, for better or worse, regardless of the author’s intent. And, of course, another example of the endless debate in literary criticism (at least when literary critics didn’t devote themselves to “signifiers”) is what degree of supremacy the author’s intent should have in interpretation.

 

This is the second (maybe the third) time I’ve read The Revenger’s Tragedy, my favorite, Jacobean tragedy. 

I usually have a mental block in remembering the plots of these Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, but I remember this one.

What impressed me most this time and the first time I read the play is Vindice’s gleeful, malicious character who plots quite “quaint” revenge and Tourneur’s use of the metaphor of bodily corruption.

What struck me more this time, though, was how corrupt everyone in this play is or they’re in the process of becoming corrupt.

Hippolito, Vindice, and Antonio may be the only ones who aren’t corrupt.

Given the morals of the time, it can certainly be argued that Vindice and Hippolito are corrupt just for being revengers.

A more subtle argument can be made for Antonio, a seemingly wronged man for much of the play, becoming corrupted by becoming Duke. He proclaims the death of the old Duke just, but, when Vindice and Hippolito confess to it, he has them put to death. There is no indication they will be disloyal to him, much evidence to the contrary. Perhaps Antonio, corrupted by his new position, seeks to eliminate any dangers.

I also noticed Vindice in not only an incorruptible avenger but tester and corrupter of his mother (quite cruely) and sister. Family corruption (incest, patricide, fratricide all show up as acts or attempted acts) is a big theme here as are crossed plans.

But the highlight is still the poisoned skull and Vindice’s gloating over the dying duke.

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