The Revenger's Tragedy

The Revenger's Tragedy Summary and Analysis of Act III


Scene I:

Ambitioso and Supervacuo enter trying to identify a way to “trick and wile” (87) their brother, Junior, out of prison. First, though, Ambitioso decides to see the prison officers and sends Supervacuo to the executioner to make sure he carries out the Duke’s command for Lussurioso’s death. Ambitioso begins to plot against Supervacuo, saying to himself, “I rise just in that place / Where thou’rt cut off, upon thy neck, kind brother / The falling of one heads lifts another” (88).

Scene II:

Lussurioso thanks the nobles for helping to secure his release from prison.

Scene III:

Ambitioso and Supervacuo enter with the officers. Ambitioso presents them with the Duke’s signet on a command for the execution of the Duke’s son. Ambitioso pretends to be sorry to have to present this order, which he believes is for Lussurioso. He asks the officers to execute the Duke's son in private, not public, so that people will not gape and jeer. The officers agree to the terms and depart. Ambitioso mocks them as “fine fools in office” (89).

Scene IV:

The keeper enters Junior’s jail cell and gives him a letter from his brothers. Junior reads the letter and is annoyed that his brothers say nothing other than that they have a trick to get him out and it will come suddenly. It bothers him that they are telling him to be merry when he is stuck in prison.

The officers enter the jail cell and inform Junior that they are there on the Duke’s command to take Junior away - to die. Junior is stunned, and tells them his father had deferred the sentence just that morning. The officers respond that Junior's own brothers have delivered the command for execution directly from the Duke's own hand. Junior is confused and becomes petulant; he whines that his brothers are going to get him out of jail with their “trick.” His pleas carry no weight with the officers, who prepare to take him away. Resigned to his fate, Junior laments, “My fault was sweet sport, which the world approves, / I die for that which every woman loves” (92).

Scene V:

Vindice and Hippolito enter. Vindice gleefully tells his brother that the Duke has hired "the pander" to find a willing young lady whom he can meet far away from Court. Vindice arranges for the Duke to meet his mystery lady at the same place where the Duchess and Spurio are scheduled to have their own tryst, so that the “most afflicting sight will kill his eyes / before [Vindice and Hippolito] kill the rest of him” (93).

Hippolito inquires about the lady's identity, and Vindice goes to fetch her. He returns with the skull of Gloriana dressed up as a lady. Hippolito is surprised at first but then approves of his brother’s audacity. Vindice explains further – he has placed poison on the skull's lips so that when the Duke kisses "her," he will die in the same manner as Gloriana did. Hippolito is impressed. He says, “Brother, I applaud thy constant vengeance” (96).

The brothers hear the Duke arriving. Hippolito takes the skull-lady and withdraws from sight. Vindice, dressed up as Piato the pander, greets the Duke. The Duke immediately asks to see the lady, and Vindice warns him that she is a country lady and quite shy. The Duke is excited and moves closer to the skull. He kisses it boldly, but then recoils in shock.

Vindice reveals himself a villain and a devil, and calls for Hippolito to expose the skull of Gloriana. Vindice then rips off his own disguise and tells the Duke that he has been poisoned by the one he poisoned. The Duke is horrified and writhes in pain as his tongue begins to disintegrate. Hippolito accuses the Duke of causing their father’s death. Vindice gloats that the Duke's punishment is not over yet - the Duke will witness the affair between Spurio and the Duchess as he dies.

The Duke cries out in anger and Vindice stabs him. The Duchess and Spurio enter, and unaware of the tragedy unfolding behind them, speak sensuous words to each other. After they leave, the Duke expires. The first part of his plan complete, Vindice now focuses his vengeance on the Duke's sons who will try to succeed their father.

Scene VI:

Ambitioso and Supervacuo enter, gloating over their putative success in getting Lussurioso executed. Although they squabble a bit between themselves, they agree to share the glory and continue to brainstorm ways to get their younger brother out of prison.

An officer enters carrying a head and explains that he was ordered to present the bleeding head to Ambitioso and Supervacuo after the execution was complete. Ambitioso asks how their brother died; the officer replies, “full of rage and spleen” (102). The officer adds that their brother cursed both of them with his dying words. The brothers struggle to hide their glee, but then Lussurioso enters and thanks his stepbrothers for their role in sparing his life.

Lussurioso's sudden presence renders Ambitioso and Supervacuo speechless, and they stammer out their gratitude for his freedom. Once Lussurioso leaves, however, they burst out with execrations. They are stunned to see that the officer is in fact holding Junior’s head because Lussurioso had been released earlier that day and the officers executed the only "son" of the Duke's who remained in captivity. Full of sorrow and confusion, Ambitioso and Supervacuo vow to avenge their brother's death.


This act features several comedy-of-errors tropes, but each with a deadly twist. Lussurioso ends up in jail for accidentally bursting in on his father and stepmother in bed. He is trying to catch the Duchess and Spurio in the act, but Vindice's misinformation nearly costs Lussurioso his life. Ambitioso and Supervacuo assure their brother Junior that they are going to get him out of jail and then accidentally deliver the message for his execution instead of Lussurioso's. These incidents, Vindice's absurd plan to seduce the Duke with Gloriana’s skull, and the constant array of masks and disguises give the third act of The Revenger's Tragedy a patina of dark humor.

Many critics have analyzed the macabre scene in which the Duke kisses Gloriana's skull and receives a dose of poison in return. In her article, scholar Karin Codden addresses the intersection of death and sex in Vindice's plan. She interprets the skull as a symbol for the eroticized body, a representation of the “corrupting realm of sexual desire.” Gloriana is dead because of the Duke's lustful arrogance, and ultimately it his is lust that leads to his death when he kisses her dead body. Additionally, Vindice keeps Gloriana's skull for nine years and allows the Duke to defile it, which indicates that Vindice's desire for the Duke's death motivates him more than his broken heart or his respect for Gloriana's virtue. Throughout The Revenger's Tragedy, sexual desire rarely results in an intimate interaction between two consenting individuals. Instead, lust is an uncontrollable urge that almost always leads to death and destruction.

Contemporary readers should note that the morbid plot of The Revenger's Tragedy was normal for its time, Coddin explains. She identifies other works from the era that contain "a burgeoning humanism, the lingering psychic, social, and economic effects of the Black Death, and an ecclesiastical interest in promoting anxiety about death." In 17th century Europe, the discipline of anatomy was becoming increasingly popular, and with it, there was a growing curiosity surrounding dissection of bodies. Gloriana's skull alludes to this and illustrates a popular question of that time about whether or not dissecting a female body could lead to a man's arousal.

Middleton also associates Gloriana's skull with vile female sexuality because Vindice uses Gloriana's skull to kill the Duke. This ties into the pervasive misogyny in the text. Vindice knows that his obsession with the skull is unnatural, which Coddin describes as "sexual nausea" and equates Vindice's obsession with necrophilia or vampirism. The image of a skull is traditionally associated with death and of science. In The Revenger's Tragedy, Coddin argues, the skull is also a symbol of desire and eroticism, representing the "subversive slippages between the body of death and the body of desire." Instead of signaling the end of desire, Gloriana's skull becomes its deathly embodiment. Coddin ultimately suggests that Gloriana's skull indicates that at the time, "the emblematic desirable female body [was] a dead one, spectacularly displayed to appraising, evaluating male gazes." Coddin's argument also applies to the scene in Act I where the noblemen glorify the dead form of Antonio's wife.

The central act of vengeance in the play (Vindice killing the Duke) has already occurred by the end of Act III. It is unusual for this to happen so early in a play of this genre, but as The Revenger's Tragedy is a satire, Middleton builds his criticism of contemporary society around Vindice's actions after the protagonist has achieved his goal. Vindice is not satiated by the Duke's agonizing death; he now turns his focus towards Lussurioso. Meanwhile, all the other characters are becoming increasingly passionate about their own vengeful plans, as well. The Duke's death sets off an escalating series of deaths and double-crosses that cannot be untangled until there is nobody left to kill.

Finally, Junior's death, though not as important as the Duke's, actually represents another common theme in the political and social arena of the Jacobean era: an egregious, immoral crime, like rape, is not only bad for the individual but for the kingdom as a whole. In Act I, the Duke laments, "His violent act has e'en drawn blood of honour / And stained our honours, / Thrown ink upon the forehead of our state / Which envious spirits will dip their pens into / After our death, and blot us in our tombs" (49). Junior's death is therefore inevitable, but it is only a step toward the purgation and renewal in this corrupt kingdom. As we will see in the last two acts, it will take many more deaths to cleanse the sins of the rest of the characters in The Revenger's Tragedy.