Warning: murder, mayhem, and spoilers ahead!
A man walks onstage holding a skull. He starts to speak.
No, you’re not watching Hamlet – though there’s little doubt that it is a cheeky reference to one of the most recognisable scenes in English dramatic history.
The play is The Revenger’s Tragedy, written either by Cyril Tourneur or crowd favourite Thomas Middleton, depending on which scholar you believe. It is a confusing, bloody, and at times hilarious look at the revenge tragedy genre and, like all good revenge tragedies, there are gory deaths aplenty.
The story’s protagonist is Vindice, the aforementioned skull-handler. The skull belongs to his love, Gloriana, who was murdered by an unscrupulous Duke some nine years ago. As you can probably guess (based on the weird and obsessive hoarding of his beloved’s bones) Vindice has had a little bit of trouble getting over it. So he devises a scheme to avenge Gloriana by disguising himself as a servant and insinuating himself with the Duke’s son, Lussurioso. The usual murder, mayhem, and sexual escapades ensue. The play ends with a massacre that treads the line between tragedy and farce:
Then I proclaim myself: now I am duke.
Thou duke! Brother, thou liest.
Slave, so dost thou!
Base villain, hast thou slain my lord and master?
(V:iii, ll. 58-61)
So, what to make of this strange play? An interesting suggestion, which I found particularly compelling, is that the play is a subtle critique of the Jacobean court. The play was first performed in 1606, several years after the death of Elizabeth I. Though James I had only been on the throne for a few years, there was already a great deal of discontent with his rule. People suggest that the lustful, small-minded Duke of the play, and his court of cruel, lazy, or just plain useless courtiers is a reflection of the state of English politics at the time. Vindice’s beloved, we know, was called Gloriana; is it a coincidence that this is the famous name used to refer to Elizabeth I in the poetry of the Elizabethan period? The first scene could very well signal the kind of decay that has crept into the state since the glorious ‘Virgin Queen’ reigned.
But if the play is nostalgic for the good old days of the female monarch, it is also quite unfair on women. The first act it filled with crimes against them: Vindice’s mother is persuaded to try and sell her daughter off as a mistress to Lussurioso, and the Duke’s stepson is charged with raping a lady of the court. These sexual politics continue to hover over the entire play, and none of the women in it come off particularly well. Worst of all is Junior, the man convinced of raping a courtier; when he is dragged off to be executed (I think I speak for everyone when I say that nobody is sorry for him), he delivers this absolutely disgusting speech:
Must I bleed then without respect of sign? Well,
My fault was sweet sport, which the world approves;
I die for that which every woman loves.
(III: IV, ll. 79-81)
Bastard. Of course, the fact that Middleton/Tourneur doesn’t even deign to give him a name (his two elder brothers both have one) could potentially be a signal that he is even less to be trusted than the other characters in the play. The fact that he gets accidentally murdered by his own brothers (who were intending to murder Lussurioso, who is also a pretty rotten character) is a sweet kind of justice for the audience.
As you can see, there are very few likeable characters in this play. This may be a deliberate choice on the playwright’s part; the characters are clearly types, almost like allegorical figures in a medieval morality play (which is demonstrated in their names: Vindice, Gloriana, Ambitioso, Spurio (who is, as his name suggests, an actual bastard)). My preliminary reading probably didn’t get past the surface of the play, and I was left with an impression of the play’s pessimism. One of my favourite lines reflects exactly this:
I know this, which I never learnt in schools:
The world’s divided into knaves and fools.
(II: ii, ll. 4-5)
Finally, I was thrilled to learn that there was actually a film version of this play made, which also seems to capture something of the play’s pessimism. It has been set in a kind of post-apocalyptic England, and looks wonderfully inventive. Since it stars Christopher Eccleston, Derek Jacobi, and Eddie Izzard, I just know I will have to get my hands on this:
Rating: 4 Stars