The Revenger's Tragedy

The Revenger's Tragedy Themes


Revenge is the central theme of The Revenger's Tragedy, as the title of the play indicates. Nearly all the characters are plotting revenge against one another (or against multiple people). The value system of the play suggests that some forms of revenge are more legitimate, such as Vindice's desire to avenge Gloriana's death and to account for his father's death, but that revenge for the sake of power is not acceptable. By the end of the play, all of the characters who set out for revenge are dead (or banished, in the Duchess's case), which serves as a warning: revenge can arise from a desire for justice but can quickly descend into obsession and irrationality, thus corrupting the revenger's soul.


The theme of power is pervasive in The Revenger's Tragedy, woven tightly with the theme of revenge. Many of the characters use revenge as a tool to assert their dominance over each other to varying degrees. Junior, Lussurioso, and the Duke all try to exercise their power over women by raping them or seducing them with money. The Duke's sons and stepsons (Lussurioso, Spurio, Ambitioso, and Supervacuo) plot to usurp their father's throne and/or to subvert their brothers' intentions to gain political prominence. Vindice and Hippolito desire to demonstrate their power over Lussurioso and the Duke by engaging in trickery to humiliate and ultimately kill them. Only the characters who do not aspire to gain power - Castiza and Antonio - are alive and well at the end of the play. They find strength in virtue as opposed to vying for meaningless titles. The play ultimately recognizes adherence to one's morals as a legitimate source of power, as opposed to power that is rooted in jealousy, greed, and/or lust.


In the play, the characters of Lussurioso, the Duke, and Junior all exemplify lust. Their lust is uncontrollable, destructive, and consuming. The Duke points out (ironically) that Junior's lust threatens to destabilize the entire kingdom. Later, Vindice takes advantage of the Duke's lust to murder him. It is important to note that Junior, the Duke, and Lussurioso all target unavailable women as their objects of lust (virgins, other men's wives, betrothed women), and therefore, their lust coincides with their need for power. In all of the aforementioned instances, lustful pursuits lead to death. Therefore, the play justifies revenge that intends to counteract the deleterious effects of lust.


The Revenger's Tragedy clearly ascribes to a patriarchal value system. Castiza, Antonio's wife, and the deceased Gloriana exemplify the most significant feminine virtue - chastity. It was a common belief in Jacobean England that a woman's virtue dictates her value. Castiza is lauded for her rejection of Lussurioso's advances. Meanwhile, the nobles praise Antonio's wife for her decision to commit suicide rather than to live with the shame of being raped. Paradoxically, the women in the play are punished for being the victims of male lust and aggression. Owing to the entrenched patriarchy of the era, works of fiction from this time also characterize women as seductresses who bring about men's downfalls. The Duchess is the only woman who defies the rules for her gender by remarrying and trying to defy her husband's orders, and she is banished as a result. Gratiana's sons are ready to kill her for her moral slip until she expresses sincere repentance and slips back into her gendered box. Therefore, in the world of [The Revenger's Tragedy], the subversion of gender roles is liable to result in punishment (and even death).


Patrimony is extremely important to the characters in The Revenger's Tragedy. Birth order and lineage define a person and determine the power structure of the kingdom. There are many unstable patrilineal relationships in the play, Spurio being the most consistent example. Spurio's illegitimate birth is supposedly the reason for his immoral instincts, and as a result, he consistently poses a keen threat to his father and to the kingdom. Supervacuo, Ambitioso, Junior, Vindice, and Hipplito are all sons without fathers, exacerbating the tensions in the realm with their machinations and plots for revenge. Legitimate patrimony is inextricably linked to leadership and authority in this world, because a man can only gain power from his father. Furthermore, the play punishes a father without moral virtue (the Duke) or a leader who chooses to act in his own self-interest (both the Duke and Lussurioso).


The Revenger's Tragedy is filled with disguises, which are always used for the purpose of deception. Vindice, for example, becomes Piato the pander in order to exact revenge on the Duke, and he dresses up Gloriana's skull for the same purpose. The characters use disguises to mask their true feelings and motivations while they carry out revenge. These disguises are effective for most of the play, especially for Vindice. However, his disguises end up corrupting him and he soon loses the capability to differentiate between his true nature and the murderous pander. Ultimately, all of the characters who don disguises in the play - whether in the form of a physical mask or an intricate web of lies - are punished for their duplicity.


It is not common in works of literature, even from this era, for the author to kill off nearly every main character in his or her work, but only a few characters are left alive at the end of The Revenger's Tragedy. This ending feels inevitable, though, because the theme of death is ubiquitous throughout the play. Characters are trying to avenge the deaths of their loved ones by bringing about the deaths of others. Vindice has carried Gloriana's skull around for 10 years - a macabre reminder of his all-consuming desire for vengeance. While the death of Gloriana and Vindice's father are unjust (among others), most of the deaths that occur over the course of the play serve to purge the kingdom of its sins. In this way, the play portrays death as a process of cleansing, necessary for a new beginning - ultimately evinced by Antonio's righteous sentencing of Vindice and Hippolito.