The Revenger's Tragedy

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05.05.2021

We open with our hero, Vindice, holding the skull of his dead fiancée, Gloriana. He swears revenge on the Duke, who killed Gloriana for rejecting his amorous advances. Vindice’s brother brings news that the Duke’s son Lussurioso is looking to hire a pimp. The brothers decide that Vindice will disguise himself as ‘Piato’ and offer his services to Lussurioso, so he can get close to the Duke’s family. Later, dressed as ‘Piato’, Vindice is horrified to discover that the woman Lussurioso lusts after is Vindice’s sister, Castiza.

Meanwhile, the Duchess’s youngest son, Junior, has been imprisoned for the rape of a noblewoman. The Duchess begs the Duke to pardon Junior, but he refuses. The Duchess secretly swears revenge on her husband and starts an affair with Spurio, the Duke’s illegitimate son.

In a soliloquy, Spurio declares that he hates everyone, including the Duchess, and that he only agreed to the affair to get revenge on the Duke for making his life miserable.

Back to Vindice’s revenge – as ‘Piato’ he informs Lussurioso about Spurio’s affair with the Duchess. Furious, Lussurioso rushes to the Duchess’s chamber to kill Spurio, but finds her with the Duke instead. The Duke has him arrested.

Lussurioso’s step-brothers, Ambitioso and Supervacuo, promise to free him, but secretly try and expedite his execution. They stuff up the plan and accidentally get their brother, Junior, executed instead.

Vindice finally has his revenge when the Duke hires ‘Piato’ to procure him a new mistress. Vindice sticks a headdress on Gloriana’s skull, smears poison on its lips and presents it to the Duke (in low lighting) as a “bashful country lady”. The Duke goes in for a kiss and dies a horrible death.

Then there’s a party with masks. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t end well for anyone.

Thomas Middleton (1580–1627) was a Jacobean playwright, 16 years Shakespeare’s junior. He collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens, but he’s also known to have adapted a number of Shakespeare’s more famous plays, including Macbeth and Measure For Measure. In fact, the only authoritative texts we have of those two plays (in Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623) are almost certainly Middleton adaptations.

Middleton was born in London, the son of a wealthy master bricklayer. At the age of 18 he went to Oxford, but was back in the capital a few years later writing city comedies – scathing satires of contemporary London. These plays, including The Phoenix and A Mad World My Masters were written to be performed by companies of boy actors, which were very popular at the time. In 1606, Middleton turned his hand to tragedy, writing the chaotic The Revenger’s Tragedy. Revenger’s took the playwright’s trademark critique of modern-day corruption, hypocrisy and sexual transgression, and added poison, blood and guts.

In 1611–12 Middleton returned to comedy with The Roaring Girl, a dramatisation of the life of Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. His most famous tragedies, The Changeling and Women Beware Women, were written a decade later, and picked up on the misogyny and violence he had explored earlier in The Revenger’s Tragedy. Middleton’s final play, A Game at Chess (1624), was a political satire, and this one hit a little too close to home. The play was banned after nine performances at the Globe, and Middleton was prosecuted for allowing a living king to be portrayed onstage. Although he was ultimately acquitted, Middleton never wrote another play, and he died in London three years later.

With thanks to our Play In A Day Patrons Kimberly Cartwright and Charles Littrel