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.