Vindice, the Duke, Duchess, Lussurioso (the Duke’s son), Spurio (the Duke’s bastard), and a train of others enter. Vindice ruminates on how lecherous the Duke and his son are. He 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. He calls for “Faith [to] give Revenge her due” (46).
Hippolito, Vindice’s brother, enters. He gently chides his brother for mourning over the skull. Vindice asks how things are going at Court and Hippolito tells him that there is something happening that might bring him pleasure. It seems that on the previous evening he was with the Duke’s son. Lussurioso asked him of rumors he’d heard and Hippolito was clever enough to satiate his curiosity but not give too much away. 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 the part to get close to the Duke.
Gratiana and Castiza, the mother and sister of Vindice and Hippolito, respectively, enter. Hippolito tells them the gossip –that the Duchess’s youngest son has raped Lord Antonio’s wife. The women are aghast. Vindice says he must depart. First, though, he utters melancholy word about his deceased father, saying that he has never felt right since his father’s funeral. Gratiana agrees that he 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 brought out for the rape, and two judges.
The Duke laments how her son’s violent act has dishonored his state, and the ignominy of the crime will live on even when they are dead. The first judge agrees with his assessment, saying that it matters little if there is a heroic inscription on their tomb if men’s hearts reproach them. The Duke says he leaves Junior to their sentencing.
The Duchess kneels down in anguish, imploring the Duke to be merciful. Lussurioso says that mercy might look good on the outside but covers grossest sins. Ambitioso also beseeches mercy for his brother.
Spurio, off to the side, talks to himself. He says bitterly that if his wish were carried out, all of them would be corpses.
The Duchess rises in despair because there is no pity yet granted.
The Judge calls forth the accused, and the second judge asks Junior why he did it. Junior responds that he was moved to it by “flesh and blood” (51). Dismayed, Lussurioso tells him not to jest because the law is a “wise serpent” that can “beguile thee of thy life” (51). The first judge speaks of the woman’s fairness, but Junior scoffs that he would do it again if he could. The first judge prepares to issue a sentence, and Spurio looks on with hope that Junior will die. As the first judge begins to speak, the Duke intervenes and asks to defer judgment until the next sitting. As Junior is led away, Ambitioso tells him privately that he will find some trick to free him.
All exit but the Duchess. She remains, full of fury against the Duke, of whom “one single [word] / Would quite have freed my youngest dearest son” (53). She rages against her husband and wants to strike him dead. She sees Spurio enter the room and refers to him as her true love, although she wonders why he rejects her gifts of jewels and words of love. She plans to seduce him to anger the Duke.
Spurio kisses her politely. She asks him what he thinks of her and he replies that she is his father’s wife. She says that he is only his son in name only, and encourages him to think about how terrible the crime of bastardy his father committed is. It is unfair that a man lives once and is doomed to the cursed status of a bastard. Furthermore, she tells him, all of his own lusts are due to the fact that he was conceived in evil lust. Spurio feels a surge of desire for revenge, and the Duchess tells him she will “arm thy brow with woman’s heraldry” (55).
Spurio tells himself he will consent to his stepmother’s desires but not because h loves her; he hates her and her three sons and hopes that “death and disgrace may be their epitaphs” (56). He also plans to loose revenge upon Lussurioso, his father’s true son.
Hippolito, Vindice in disguise, and Lussurioso enter. The brothers speak privately. Vindice is dressed as the pander and Lussurioso does not recognize him. Hippolito introduces him, and Lussurioso gives him money in thanks and bids him leave them. Through his course words and behavior, Vindice earns Lussurioso’s approbation.
Lussurioso tells him about an opportunity to make a great deal of gold. He explains that he is “past my depth in lust / And I must swim or drown” (59). He desires a virgin who lives not far from court, but she has not responded to jewels and poetry. He wants Vindice to go speak to her and try to tempt her with a “smooth enchanting tongue” (60). Vindice asks who the lady is, and to his shock, Lussurioso responds that it is Castiza, Vindice’s sister. He conceals his shock and Lussurioso continues, saying that if Castiza remains chaste, then Vindice must go to the mother and see if she will sell out her daughter for a bribe.
Vindice agrees and Lussurioso makes him swear on it. Once the latter departs, Vindice bursts out in rage. He will still test his sister and mother, but he also plans to kill Lussurioso.
Lord Antonio, Piero, and Hippolito enter. Lord Antonio is disconsolate because he wife has poisoned herself due to the shame of her rape. He reflects on the night Junior saw her and lusted after her. Hippolito encourages the men there to swear an oath that they will take revenge on Junior. Piero mentions her funeral, and Lord Antonio contents himself that at least he had a chaste wife.
The Revenger’s Tragedy’s title can no doubt be affirmed as completely appropriate simply from reading this first act –almost all of the characters, especially Vindice, the “protagonist” if he can be deemed as such, articulate their desire for revenge against another character. These desires will only amplify as the play goes on. Thus, the play is aptly named and aptly referred to as a particular subgenre of Jacobean theater and “tragedy of the blood” theater known as “revenge tragedy.” Scholar Gamini Salgado explains the major tenets of this type of theater, noting the centrality of violence, crime, mayhem, and disorder. In most of these types of plays “the violence is an end in itself” and staggering in its magnitude. However, Salgado notes that in this play the intense violence also points to the instability of the age in which the play was written and performed. In this age of revenge, the law was supposed to play the role of arbiter and punisher but the tradition of private revenge for wrongs remained, especially when it came to defending honor. Oftentimes the revenger had the sympathy of society in the 17th century if they were avenging a blood-murder or the rape of a loved one, particularly if they had exhausted other options to procure resolution.
The pervasiveness of the concept of revenge in the Jacobean era led playwrights to delve into the work of Seneca, whose plays were translated into English in 1559-1581. They feature vengeful characters like Medea and Clytemnestra, gratuitous violence, and torture. The basic structure established by Seneca is observable in Revenger’s –Exposition, Anticipation, Confrontation, Partial Execution, and Completion of the act. This play, however, has some additional, complicating elements; it takes place not in England but in Italy, which, as Salgado notes, was considered “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.” Italy and Italians became symbols for treachery and depravity.
The play is also a social satire in that its theme of revenge is linked to a critique about the corruption of society. There is a mockery of human existence, an ideal standard of justice and morality almost impossible to achieve, and a satirical hero caught between his public and private personas who spends his days railing against the world.
The critic Brian Jay Corrigan offers another type of literature through which to analyze the play –crisis literature. This type of play contains “its own artistic merit” but also “comments self-consciously upon the external times in which it is written.” It engages directly with its audience on a topic they appreciate and understand and 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 claims is the author of the play) often uses “a dismissive, parodic” tone and subtly incorporates the reality that a literary style is changing by parodying the old forms. The hallmarks of this type of literature, which readers can note immediately when reading Revenger’s, are “exaggeration, conflation, and proliferation of motif.” The play thus mocks and lampoons this older type of Jacobean drama that is just starting to shift.
In terms of the actual content of the play, the first act establishes the reality that these “characters” are barely that; even their names indicate that they are personifications of specific qualities, not fully-formed, realistic individuals. Lussurioso is lustful, Ambitioso is ambitious, Vindice is vengeful, Castiza is chaste, Supervacuo is overly foolish, etc. Despite the presence of multiple characters all planning some kind of revenge against each other, the play’s focus is Vindice and his desire for revenge against the Duke and then Lussurioso as well. Vindice opens the play with a monologue about precisely why he is so focused on retribution (the death of his beloved due to her rejection of the Duke’s advances), and adds not long after that his father was wretchedly used by the Duke as well. There is some credence to his goal for revenge, although it gets murkier as the play continues.