The Revenger's Tragedy

The Revenger's Tragedy Summary and Analysis of Act II


Scene 1:

Castiza enters, and moments later the madman Dondolo appears to inform her that a man is there to see her. She hopes to receive tidings from her brother, Vindice.

The visitor is actually Vindice himself, but he is disguised as Lussurioso's pander. "Piato" gives Castiza a letter from Lussurioso. She responds by boxing the pander on the ears, as she swore to do to the next person who came to her as Lussurioso's "sins' attorney" (67). Furious, she departs. Vindice is pleased to witness his sister's determination to maintain her chastity. He approaches his mother next.

"The pander" plies Gratiana with compliments. He says that he knows she is poor, but tells her that she can elevate her station in life. At first, Gratiana refuses to be a bawd for her daughter. Once Vindice begins to preach that it is Castiza's responsibility to improve her mother's life, Gratiana begins to yield. She admits to herself that women cannot resist the strong words of men. Vindice, shaken by his mother's moral pliability, shows her the gold. Gratiana says she will try to change her daughter's mind.

Castiza enters and Gratiana tries to convince her to take up with the Duke. Castiza is shocked and cannot understand why her mother would encourage her to do this. Gratiana says it is time for Castiza to leave her childishness behind. Vindice (still in disguise) encourages Castiza as well, although he is roiling inside. However, Castiza defies both of them and departs. Gratiana tells Vindice she will speak to her daughter and may be able to convince her yet. After Gratiana leaves, Vindice rues the fact that men would never sin were it not for women and gold.

Scene II:

Lussurioso and Hippolito enter. Lussurioso compliments Hippolito for finding the pander (Vindice). When the pander enters, Lussurioso sends Hippolito away. Lussurioso asks Vindice about his meeting with with Castiza and Gratiana. Vindice relays that he had no success with Castiza but that Gratiana "threw [him] / These promising words" (77).

Lussurioso is pleased and asks Vindice what office he might like as payment. Vindice responds glibly, which confuses Lussurioso. The Duke's son then proclaims his intent to visit Gratiana and exits.

Vindice is filled with anger and wonders if he should stab Lussurioso in the back as he leaves, but decides that he wants to look Lussurioso in the face as he dies. Vindice privately deplores his mother's wickedness but hopes his sister will resist Gratiana's influence and retain her purity. Hippolito enters, excited about the gossip he has heard: the Duchess has made a cuckold of the Duke by sleeping with Spurio the bastard. The brothers see Spurio coming and hide.

Spurio speaks with his servants, one of whom tells him about Lussurioso's plan to corrupt the chastity of Hippolito's sister. Spurio decides to let his hated brother carry out his plan before making him bleed. Once Spurio and his men have passed through, Vindice speaks volubly about cuckolds and the Duke's downfall. Hippolito praises his fine words. Lussurioso enters and spots Vindice, identifying the pander as the man he is looking for. Hippolito withdraws.

Lussurioso wants Vindice to accompany him to see Castiza, but Vindice quickly tells Lussurioso about Spurio and the Duchess. Lussurioso is insensate and proclaims boldly that he will go to the Duchess's chambers and expose her infidelity right this instant, thus abandoning his plan to visit Castiza.

Scene III:

Lussurioso, followed by Vindice in disguise, bursts into the Duchess's chambers. He yells "Villain! Strumpet!" (81) and approaches the bed, only to find the Duchess there with her husband, the Duke. The Duke and Duchess are startled. The Duke lashes out angrily at Lussurioso and calls for the guards. The nobles and Hippolito appear. The Duke tells them that Lussurioso wants to usurp him and was trying to kill his own father in his bed. Abashed, Lussurioso knows he is doomed. Vindice and Hippolito converse privately, then flee.

Spurio then enters the room with his two servants. Lussurioso brightens and says he will tell the truth about Spurio's reason for coming to the Duchess's chambers, but the Duke won't hear it. Instead, the Duke commands his guards to take Lussurioso to prison immediately. On his way out, Lussurioso implores his stepbrothers, Ambitioso and Supervacuo, to help him. They pretend to agree but privately comment, "thy death shall thank me better" (83). Spurio and his servants also leave.

Ambitioso and Supervacuo pretend to care about Lussurioso and ask the Duke to have mercy on him. Ambitioso flatters his stepfather by saying, "A duke's hand strokes the rough head of law / And makes it lie smooth" (84). The Duke sees through his stepsons' lies and decides to test their reactions. At first, he agrees to set Lussurioso free. Ambitioso and Supervacuo stumble for a moment, but then Duke changes his mind and dispatches the brothers with a signet condemning Lussurioso to die "ere many days" (85).

After the brothers leave, the Duke reflects on their duplicity and decides to free his son. He calls in the noblemen and gives them a countermanding pardon demanding Lussurioso's release. Alone, the Duke reckons that he should forgive sins that are less than his own, stating, "My hairs are white, and yet my sins are green" (86).


The previous section establishes some of the misogynistic public opinions of the Jacobean era. For example, Junior smugly states that he does not regret raping Lord Antonio's wife because she was beautiful and he could not help himself. After being raped, Lord Antonio's wife commits suicide because without her virtue, her life has no meaning. This turn of events reveals the belief that a woman's honor was both her only source of value as well as a hurdle for persistent men to overcome with pride. Therefore, it makes sense why Castiza is so desperate to preserve her own purity - without it, she would lose any inherent human value in the eyes of society. Her mother, meanwhile, is easily swayed by the Duke's gold. Afterwards, Vindice laments, "Oh, / Were't not for gold and women, there would be no / damnation – " (76). He does not blame men for their sins, but rather, places the responsibility on women for tempting them. Additionally, Vindice presents women as a form of material wealth by equating the entire gender with gold.

Gratiana's greed and willingness to sacrifice her daughter may not have come as a shock to the 17th century audience, however. As scholar Jennifer Panek explains, the literature of the era reveals a strange disparity between the mother's scriptural claim to authority and her innate instability and untrustworthiness. In early modern domestic conduct books, for example, "bawds" lacking husbands for whatever reason occupy "a radically unfixed position." In these texts, the frailty and weakness associated with a woman become exacerbated when she occupies a position which the patriarchal society deems inappropriate for her gender. The aforementioned texts are also particularly ambivalent about a mother's ability to arrange marriages.

The scene between Gratiana and Castiza thus presents an intersection of multiple gender issues that appear in The Revenger's Tragedy, least of all the popular discomfort with a mother taking on a position of authority. Gratiana absorbs and parrots society's assumptions about her gender throughout the text, commenting that it was wise for her husband not to trust her with his thoughts. Whereas some viewers/readers might be inclined to see this and other commensurate statements as indicative of individual failings, The Revenger's Tragedy wants to stress, as Panek points out, that Gratiana "is individual than specifically a mother, working with cultural notions of what it means to be a 'natural' or 'unnatural' mother." Because Castiza does not come from a traditional home with a father-protector, she is not available for a beneficial marriage thus leaving her privy to the advances of men like Lussurioso. Because of the fact that Castiza cannot marry, Vindice is easily able to sway Gratiana into "enact[ing] a travesty of the paternal right of bestowal."

Finally, Panek notes, there is also an inherent contradiction in the nature of a mother as presented in The Revenger's Tragedy. Gratiana (like most mothers of grown children) is "an older, sexually experienced woman," which is at odds with the idea that a woman's chastity determines her value. Gratiana tells her daughter, "if thou knew'st / What 'twere to lose it, thou would never keep it" (71), which suggests that Gratiana may even be hoping to live vicariously through her daughter's sexual experiences. Panek concludes her discussion by noting that Middleton clearly delineates the difference between a good, "natural" mother and a bad, "unnatural" mother, but then complicates the binary by insinuating to the audience that a mother's very nature makes her unstable and untrustworthy.

This act also emphasizes the power of the tongue, a theme that will extend throughout the play. There are thirty-two references to the tongue in the relatively short work, which is only one indicator of its corruptive power in the world of The Revenger's Tragedy. Scholar J.L. Simmons describes the moral climate of the play as demonstrating a "dark Calvinistic sense of innate depravity, of mankind's inescapable damnation without the divine miracle of grace .... a world without faith or hope" in which chastity is the only remaining virtue. Even the protagonist is deeply flawed; Vindice loses sight of his moral compass while trying to avenge his father's wrongful death. He starts out with noble intentions that are soon corrupted by his arrogance.

In the play, rhetoric is powerful and can result in seduction, fawning, or deception, which Simmons equates to the Biblical version of the theme. Middleton portrays the tongue an insidious instrument that is reminiscent of that evil tempter, the serpent. It functions as a "quasi-independent organ capable not only of infecting 'the whole bodie' but also of receiving spiritual efficacy directly from powers outside the human personality." The image of the corrupting tongue is very prominent in the seduction scene between Vindice, Castiza and Gratiana, although Middleton later asserts that even the most powerful words cannot corrupt true chastity.

However, as the play continues, Vindice cannot stop himself from winding his false identity tighter around himself and his victims. As a result, he loses control of his tongue and becomes the last victim of its deleterious nature. At the end of the play, Vindice's arrogant tongue betrays him and leads him to confess for his crimes, which he would have otherwise ostensibly gotten away with.