The Revenger's Tragedy

The Revenger's Tragedy Study Guide

The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607) is a Jacobean play and one of the most prominent examples of the “tragedy of the blood” and “revenge tragedy” genres. Like many other plays from that same theatrical tradition, such as John Webster’s The White Devil, The Revenger's Tragedy is set in Italy. Playwrights of the time regarded Italy as a paragon of vice, depravity, and corruption. According to the original title page of The Revenger's Tragedy, Shakespeare's theater company, The King’s Men, performed the play at some point. If this was the case, the performance would have taken place at the famous Globe Theatre.

Published anonymously in 1607, The Revenger's Tragedy was ascribed to Cyril Tourneur for many years, which was always a subject of great controversy. However, many contemporary critics now believe it is actually the work of Thomas Middleton, another well-established Jacobean playwright. E.H.C. Oliphant was one of the earliest scholars to suggest Middleton as the author of the play. He supported his claim by pointing out specific similarities between The Revenger's Tragedy and Middleton's other work, as it shares the metrical peculiarities, expressions of thought, and dramatic method that marked his style.

Another scholar, Wilbur D. Dunkel, points out that Revenger’s opens with a soliloquy, like some of Middleton’s other plays. He writes, “the scenes of minor action are dramatically effective as units rather than as a developed minor plot.” In addition, Middleton's comedies often feature the trope of a masque as a major plot point, and “the use of disguise for dramatic irony [in The Revenger's Tragedy] is in accordance with Middleton’s method.” Now that scholars generally accept that Middleton wrote The Revenger's Tragedy, some have hypothesized that it is actually a play called The Viper and Her Brood that is missing from record but appears in a legal document purported to contain a complete list of Middleton's work.

The Revenger's Tragedy contains five acts and begins with a monologue by Vindice, the de facto protagonist. Middleton wrote the play following the Senecan structure (for the most part), which was re-popularized by Thomas Kyd, author of the Spanish Tragedy (1582?). However, the focus on courtly intrigue in The Revenger's Tragedy likely derives from the public dissatisfaction with the court of James I in 16th century England. Some critics claim that the high value placed on female chastity in The Revenger's Tragedy it is meant to invoke nostalgia for the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Despite (or perhaps, because of) the implausibly dramatic plot and the gratuitous displays of lust and violence, The Revenger's Tragedy was very popular during its own era and continues to resonate with modern audiences. Prominent contemporary critic Jonathan Dollimore believes that the play exemplifies “subversive black camp” and “celebrates the artificial and the delinquent; it delights in a play full of innuendo, perversity and subversion ... through parody it declares itself radically skeptical of ideological policing though not independent of the social reality which such skepticism simultaneously discloses."