Biography of Cyril Tourneur

Cyril Tourneur was a prominent Jacobean playwright. For many years, scholars and historians assumed that he was the author of The Revenger's Tragedy (1607). There is a dearth of biographical information about Tourneur, leaving most of his life shrouded in mystery.

Cyril Tourneur was likely born in 1575, believed to be the son of Captain Richard Turner, a water-bailiff and Lieutenant Governor of Brielle, the Netherlands. As a young man, Tourneur became involved in politics, stationed in the Low Countries in 1613 and in the United Provinces sometime before 1616. In 1625, Tourneur was appointed secretary to the council of war by Sir Edward Cecil, but the appointment was canceled by Buckingham. Tourneur sailed to the Spanish city of Cadiz with Cecil instead. After returning from this failed expedition, he was forced onshore at Kinsale with the other ill sailors and died in Ireland on February 18th, 1626.

During his political career, Tourneur became a poet and playwright. His most notable works are The Revenger's Tragedy (now attributed to Thomas Middleton) and The Atheist’s Tragedy (1611). The Atheist’s Tragedy is widely considered to be a weaker piece of writing than The Revenger's Tragedy because of the clumsy writing and weak attempt to mimic the style of a medieval morality play. Tourneur also wrote a verse satire, The Transformed Metamorphosis (1600), and an elegy for King James I’s son Prince Henry. Records also mention a lost play entitled The Nobleman.

Controversy surrounded the authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy, for the play was published anonymously and historians only attributed it to Tourneur in 1650. A few critics claimed for years that the play is actually the work of Thomas Middleton, which has since become the popular opinion (see “About The Revengers Tragedy” in this study guide for more information).

Literary scholar C.E. Vaughn wrote of Tourneur: "It is as poet that Tourneur claims our attention: a poet whose imagination is poisoned by the sense of universal vanity and corruption, but who lights up this festering material with flashes of high genius."

Study Guides on Works by Cyril Tourneur