How would you describe Middleton's depiction of parenthood in The Revenger's Tragedy?
Overall, the parents in the play are are far from being excellent role models for their impressionable offspring. Gratiana (a widow) is willing to sell her daughter’s chastity for gold. The Duke has fathered an illegitimate child and continues to seek lovers outside of his marriage. The Duchess engages in adultery as well - with her husband's illegitimate son, no less. Meanwhile, the children that grow up in these unstable family environments are similarly led astray. Spurio, the bastard, sees himself as the physical embodiment of his father's unrepentant sin and his bitterness consumes him. Lussurioso inherits his father's appetite for women, power, and wealth. After losing their father, even Vindice and Hippolito take their vengeful mission too far. Ultimately, the play conveys the message that deviation from the established norms of patrimony and familial structure is dangerous to the individual and to the realm. All of the aforementioned parents and children are either dead or exiled at the end of the play - with the exception of Gratiana, who repents.
Why do you think Thomas Middleton, an English playwright, set The Revenger's Tragedy in Italy?
Italy was a popular locale for playwrights in the Jacobean era - Middleton set The Revenger’s Tragedy there, and Webster chose the country as the setting for The White Devil and The Changeling. These writers ascribed to the pervasive English belief of the time that Italy was a hotbed of vice, sin, depravity, and corruption. The root of this ideology stems from the Protestant fear of Roman Catholicism and popery that was rampant at the time. Additionally, the published tales and translations of Italian works, like those of Guicciardini, furthered the country's decadent reputation. The popularity of Machiavelli also added to the image of Italian society as a web of manipulation and macabre goings-on, although the character of Machiavelli had almost no relation to the everyday lives of most Italians. Nevertheless, these Jacobean playwrights would have known that their readers and audiences would immediately understand the cultural and stylistic implications of a play set in Italy. Therefore, if a Jacobean play takes place in an Italian court, it is logical to assume that its characters will most likely engage in debauched and immoral acts.
What moral or message do you think Middleton wanted to impart in The Revenger's Tragedy, if any?]
Despite the fact that The Revenger's Tragedy is riddled with sex and violence, the play still embodies a fairly classical set of 17th century English values. In fact, critic Galmini Salgado describes it as a "deeply moral and deeply traditional" play. Middleton makes a strong moral statement by punishing every character who is guilty of overweening pride, ambition, lust, greed, and/or desire for unwarranted revenge. The characters who stay morally pure or regret their bad behavior survive, while those who celebrate in their sinful behavior receive their just punishments. Salgado points out Middleton's use of juxtaposition to heighten the purity and/or lasciviousness of his characters: he contrasts images of decay and changelessness, sin and virtue, deception and honesty. Salgado notes that "the shifting disordered round of earthy existence, especially among the great ones of the world...and the endless peace, certitude and judgement that follows death" imparts a clear message that death is final and "you cannot deceive worms."
Is Vindice a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
Vindice certainly begins the play as a sympathetic character. His wants to take revenge against the Duke and Lussurioso because the Duke killed Gloriana (Vindice's beloved) and also dishonored Vindice’s father, which led to his death. Meanwhile, Lussurioso tried to seduce Vindice's sister and corrupt his mother. Vindice thus seems to have concrete motives for his revenge, at least in the eyes of Jacobean era readers who would have sympathized with his mission. However, as the play goes on, Vindice seems to take joy from his macabre plots - which soon outweighs his desire for vengeance. His methodology becomes unnecessarily cruel and he does not care if his plans harm innocent people. He seems to think that his personal tragedies transcend the law, thus sending the entire kingdom into chaos. However, Vindice's desire to cleanse the kingdom of deceit and corruption is fulfilled at the end of the play - by his own death. Therefore, Vindice begins the play as a sympathetic character but eventually becomes corrupted by his own success. By the time he dies, he closely resembles the men he once abhorred.
What role does Christianity play in The Revenger's Tragedy, if any?
On the surface, Christianity is a major theme in the play given the frequency of Biblical allusions and sentiments. However, while the characters speak to and about God, they never actually demonstrate true faith or adhere to Biblical doctrine. Most of the characters in Middleton's world share the understanding that God is just and has power over the events in the human world, but they each behave in an autonomous way nevertheless. Ultimately, the allusions to Christianity are likely a cultural reflection of the time than a conscious thematic choice.
How does The Revenger's Tragedy embody the tradition of Senecan drama?
The defining theme of Senecan drama is blood-revenge for murder, with its concomitant sinister tone - both of which are evident in The Revenger’s Tragedy. The Revenger's Tragedy also follows Seneca’s unique structure. First comes "Exposition": Vindice explains why he is seeking revenge in order to gain the audience’s approval. Second, there is "Anticipation": Vindice and other characters plot out their revenge. Third comes "Confrontation": Vindice and others come into contact with their intended victims. After that is "Partial Execution": all the Revengers carry out most of their plans or at least put them in motion - Vindice kills the Duke but not Lussurioso. Fifth, there is "Completion": Vindice kills Lussurioso, and the others who set out for revenge also kill their intended victims. The Revenger's Tragedy also builds upon the Senecan structure by weaving in the Jacobean tradition of an Italian setting (see Essay question #2), and incorporating satire and parody.
What is the significance of the character of the Duchess?
There are only three (living) women in The Revenger's Tragedy: Castiza, Gratiana, and the Duchess. The Duchess has a great deal more in common with Gratiana than Castiza, for she also fails to adhere to the appropriate gender norms in this patriarchal society. The Duchess has three sons from a previous marriage, which complicates her marriage to the Duke. She implores the Duke to save Junior but he refuses to do anything substantial because Junior is not his natural-born son. The Duchess's fierce loyalty to her offspring and her inherent capacity for duplicity (according to the prevailing gender norms of the time) lead her to seek revenge on the Duke by sleeping with Spurio. The Duchess then uses her feminine wiles to further cement Spurio’s belief that his illegitimate status is an aberration and perversion. While the Duchess does not carry out acts of revenge with her own hands, she helps to facilitate them. In the end, Lussurioso banishes her for her behavior. Overall, while the Duchess is a minor character, she nonetheless embodies the era's popular ideas about a woman who is sexually experienced. (While we never learn the fate of the Duchess's first husband, it goes without saying that she was not a virgin when she married the Duke).
Is The Revenger's Tragedy a comedy, a tragedy, or both? Why or why not?
On the surface, The Revenger's Tragedy seems to have the characteristics of a Shakespearean tragedy. Nearly all of the characters die by the end of the play. Others have lost loved ones or have to watch their loved ones die over the course of the play. The kingdom appears to be unstable, and Nature expresses anxiety for its diseased state. There is little love, sympathy, or amiability amongst the characters. Furthermore, the title of the play and the name of the genre it fits into both contain the word “tragedy.” Nevertheless, the tone of the play is satirical, which colors the tragedy inherent in the plot. It is a critical assessment of politics and decadent high society, taking delight in shameful spectacle and calculated deception. The characters are thinly veiled archetypes, as indicated by their overly informative names. Even though the pall of death hangs over the play from beginning to end, certain absurd elements of the plot border on comedic: like Vindice using Gloriana’s skull to kill the Duke and the comedy-of-errors that leads to Junior’s death.
What role does rhetoric play in The Revenger's Tragedy?
Merriam Webster defines "rhetoric" as "the art or skill of speaking or writing formally and effectively especially as a way to persuade or influence people." Throughout The Revenger's Tragedy, rhetoric has a consistently negative effect. Those who possess rhetorical skills use them to harm others. Their words are laced with prevarication, intended to deceive and seduce. The Duke is full of bluster in his position of power, but behind the scenes, he tries to seduce young women. Hippolito's counsel is fawning and specious. Vindice disguises his influential voice to corrupt his mother and deceive Lussurioso. In the play, the tongue is a weapon with the power to beguile and corrupt. The message is that listeners must be perceptive and quick to probe the veracity of what they are being told (especially by those in a position of power) in order to avoid being deceived.
How does Middleton use the metaphor of counterfeited coins in the play, and why is it helpful to understanding the play's message about patrimony?
There are several mentions of counterfeit money in [The Revenger's Tragedy]. Vindice critiques the court as being full of "cuckolds are a-coining, apace, apace, apace, apace" (80) and agrees with his brother's assessment of "Piato" as "some base-coin'd pander" (47). The name Piato, according to scholar Michael Neill, "identifies [Vindice's alternate identity] with that form of spurious currency known as 'blanched coin'...thereby associating him with the deceptive glitter of the whole court." The metaphor continues when Vindice claims that women are the ones who "are apt, you know, to take false money" (48), and that if his sister and mother fall prey to his wiles they will be "chang'd / Into white money with less labour far" (76). Here, Middleton uses the metaphor of counterfeit coinage to insinuate that women are more susceptible to seduction while being simultaneously more likely to engage in the practice. The monetary references throughout the text implicate deceptive characters - like Spurio the bastard and Vindice disguised as a pander - for being false, unacceptable, and dangerous. These characters are equivalent to counterfeit coins that should be discarded and replaced with real money.