Vindice, the Duke, Duchess, Lussurioso (the Duke’s legitimate son), Spurio (the Duke’s bastard son), and a train of others pass across the stage. Vindice furiously describes the lechery of the Duke and his son. For emphasis, Vindice holds up a skull and addresses it as his former beloved, Gloriana, whom the Duke poisoned because she would not consent to his lustful desires. Vindice calls for “Faith [to] give Revenge her due” (46).
Hippolito, Vindice’s brother, enters. He gently chides Vindice for mourning over the skull. Vindice asks how things are going at court and Hippolito shares the events of the previous evening, which he believes will bring his brother pleasure. Lussurioso asked Hippolito to share any rumors he had heard and Hippolito was clever enough to satiate Lussurioso's curiosity but not to give away too much sensitive information. Lussurioso then asked Hippolito if he knew of any angry men of “ill-contented nature” (47) who would want to work as a pander (a procurer of women). Vindice agrees to dress up as a pander in order to get close to the Duke.
Gratiana and Castiza, Vindice and Hippolito's mother and sister, enter. Hippolito tells them the latest gossip – that Junior, the Duchess’s youngest son, raped Lord Antonio’s wife. The women are aghast. Vindice says that he must depart. Before leaving, he utters a melancholy word about his deceased father, saying that he has never felt right since his father’s funeral. Gratiana agrees that their father (her husband) was a “worthy gentleman” (49). Vindice is bitter because the Duke did not treat his father well, and posits that his father died of discontent.
The Duke, Duchess, Lussurioso, Spurio, and the Duchess’s two sons Ambitioso and Supervacuo enter; they are accompanied by the Duchess’s youngest son, Junior, who is on trial for rape, and the two judges who will determine his fate.
The Duke laments that his second wife's son’s has dishonored the whole family with his violent and lustful act. He fears that the ignominy of Junior's crime will outlive all of them. The first judge agrees with the Duke's assessment, proclaiming that the heroic inscription on their family tomb will not matter if men’s hearts reproach their name. The Duke says he leaves Junior's sentence to the judge's discretion.
The Duchess kneels down in anguish, imploring the Duke to be merciful. Lussurioso says that mercy might look good on the outside but it covers man's grossest sins. Ambitioso also beseeches the judges to treat his brother with mercy. Spurio moves aside to speak to himself. He reveals bitterly that if his wish were to come true, everyone in the court would be a corpse. The Duchess rises in despair because the judges will grant Junior no pity.
The first judge calls forth the accused, and the second judge asks Junior why he committed the rape. Junior responds flippantly that “flesh and blood” (51) drove him to have his way with Lord Antonio's wife. Lussurioso warns Junior not to jest because the law is a “wise serpent” that can “beguile thee of thy life” (51). The first judge alludes to the victim's fair nature, but Junior scoffs, claiming that he would rape her again if he could. The first judge prepares to issue a sentence, and Spurio looks on with the hope that Junior will die. Right as the first judge begins to speak, the Duke intervenes and asks him to defer judgment until their next sitting. As Junior is led away, Ambitioso privately promises his brother that he will find a way to free him.
The rest of the court exits, leaving only the Duchess. She furious with the Duke, who only had to speak “one single [word] / [which would have] quite have freed [her] youngest dearest son” (53). She rages against her husband and wants to strike him dead. When Spurio enters, the Duchess refers to him as her true love. However, she wonders why Spurio rejects her gifts of jewels and words of love. She plans to seduce him in order to anger the Duke.
Spurio kisses the Duchess politely. She asks him what he thinks of her and he replies that she is his father’s wife. She replies that Sprurio is the Duke's son in name alone, manipulating the young man's emotions. Eventually, the Duchess convinces Spurio that the Duke has committed a horrible wrong in fathering an illegitimate son. Spurio, getting angrier by the minute, agrees that it is unfair for Spurio to pay the price of his father's infidelity by going through life as a bastard. Furthermore, the Duchess informs him, all of Spurio's own lustful desires are rooted in the fact that his father was acting out of evil lust during his conception. Spurio feels a surge of anger, and the Duchess promises to “arm thy brow with woman’s heraldry” (55).
Spurio tells himself he will consent to his stepmother’s desires but not because he loves her; he hates her and her sons and hopes that “death and disgrace may be their epitaphs” (56) as well as his father's. He also plans to take revenge upon Lussurioso, his father’s legitimate son and only heir.
Hippolito, Vindice, and Lussurioso enter. Vindice is dressed as Piato the pander, so Lussurioso does not recognize him. Hippolito introduces Vindice to Lussurioso, who gives Hippolito some money in thanks and asks him to leave him alone with Vindice. Vindice quickly earns Lussurioso’s approbation by speaking openly about the kinds of vulgar activities that Lussurioso enjoys.
Lussurioso offers Vindice an opportunity to make a great deal of gold. Lussurioso explains that he is “past [his] depth in lust / And [he] must swim or drown” (59). He is obsessed with a young virgin who lives not far from court, but she does not respond to his gifts of jewels and his lines of poetry. Lussurioso wants Vindice to tempt the girl with a “smooth enchanting tongue” (60). Vindice asks for the lady's name, and to his shock, Lussurioso identifies the object of his lust as Castiza, Vindice’s sister. Vindice manages to conceal his horror and lets Lussurioso continue. Lussurioso goes on to say that if Castiza herself rejects the pander's advances, then he must go to the girl's mother and to see if she is willing to sell her daughter's chastity for a generous sum.
Vindice agrees to the task and Lussurioso makes him swear to it. Once Lussurioso departs, Vindice bursts out in rage. He resolves to use this opportunity to test his sister and mother, but he also wants to kill Lussurioso.
Lord Antonio, Piero, and Hippolito enter. Lord Antonio is disconsolate because his wife has poisoned herself to escape the shame of being raped. Lord Antonio regretfully recounts the events on the night Junior singled his wife out of a crowd and raped her. Hippolito encourages the other men there to swear an oath that they will take revenge on Junior. Lord Antonio is grateful for their support, and glad that at least he had a chaste wife.
The inspiration for the title of The Revenger’s Tragedy becomes abundantly clear this first act. Almost every character articulates his or her desire for revenge against another character, especially Vindice, the de facto protagonist. These vendettas will become increasingly intense as the play goes on. The events of the first act clearly place The Revenger's Tragedy into a particular sub-genre of Jacobean theater and “tragedy of the blood” theater known as “revenge tragedy.” Scholar Gamini Salgado lists the major tenets of revenge tragedy as: violence, crime, mayhem, and disorder. In most revenge tragedy plays, Salgado writes, “the violence is an end in itself” and is therefore often staggering in its magnitude.
In the case of The Revenger's Tragedy, however, Salgado points out that the intense violence is also a result of the era during which the play was written and first performed. In 16th and 17th century England, the tradition of vengeance was still commonly accepted, especially when it came to defending the honor of one who had been wronged. Even though legal systems existed, many felt that the law did not always bestow a sufficient punishment on an offender, especially in the case of blood-murder or rape. In fact, English society could often sympathize with crimes of revenge, particularly if the criminals had exhausted other options to procure justice for their loved ones.
The popularity of the theme of revenge led Jacobean playwrights to the work of Seneca, a Roman philosopher whose plays were translated into English between 1559 and 1581. Seneca's work often features vengeful characters (like Medea and Clytemnestra), gratuitous violence, and torture. The basic narrative structure that Seneca established nearly 1500 years before Middleton's time is evident in Revenger’s Tragedy: Exposition, Anticipation, Confrontation, Partial Execution, and Completion of the act.
The Revenger's Tragedy has some additional elements that diverge from the Jacobean tradition. For one, it takes place in Italy instead of England. Salgado writes that Jacobean society considered Italy to be “the seed-bed of vice, villainy, and perversion so vast and various that it was all that the right –thinking sober-minded Englishman could do to imagine it.” For the Jacobean writers, therefore, Italy and Italians came to symbolize treachery and depravity. Also, Middleton links the theme of revenge to the pervasive corruption of society, making the play a social satire as well as a drama. Tonally, it often reads like a mockery of human existence, demonstrating that an ideal standard of morality is almost impossible to achieve. Even Vindice is a satirical character because of his divided set of values. He spends his days railing against the injustice in the world, but then finds himself caught between his public and private personas.
Meanwhile, critic Brian Jay Corrigan categorizes The Revenger's Tragedy as "crisis literature." Corrigan believes that Revenger's actually mocks and lampoons older Jacobean dramas, whose popularity was just starting to fade at the time that Middleton was writing. According to Corrigan, crisis literature has “its own artistic merit” but also “comments self-consciously upon the external times in which it is written.” This genre of theater engages directly with the audience on a topic the public could appreciate and understand; crisis literature also addresses the reality that “a literary state of affairs, such as a faddish genre or motif, will terminate or suffer material change.” Corrigan explains that Middleton (whom he has always believed to be the author of the play) often uses “a dismissive, parodic” tone and subtly satirizes older theatrical styles to show the evolution of literary expression. Corrigan lists the hallmarks of crisis literature (all of which are immediately apparent in Revenger’s) as: “exaggeration, conflation, and proliferation of motif.”
To support Corrigan's claim that The Revenger's Tragedy is satire, all of the characters read like archetypes. Even their names indicate that Middleton wrote them to embody specific qualities instead of imagining fully-formed, realistic individuals. Lussurioso is lustful, Ambitioso is ambitious, Vindice is vengeful, Castiza is chaste, Supervacuo is overly foolish, etc. The play opens with Vindice's monologue about why he is so focused on retribution - his beloved died after rejecting the Duke’s advances. Later, he adds that the Duke also betrayed his father, which led to his father's death. While Vindice starts out believing that his intentions are noble, his morality becomes increasingly murky as the play goes on - thus making his character more layered than the others.