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Forgotten Classics Reviews

Knaves and Fools: The Revenger’s Tragedy, by – Thomas Middleton? Or Cyril Tourneur? – (1607)

Four Revenge TragediesWarning: murder, mayhem, andĀ 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.

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Reviews

Death By Cauldron: Plus, Fifty Other Ways To Die in Elizabethan England: The Jew of Malta (c. 1590), by Christopher Marlowe

Jew of MaltaWarning! DangerousĀ spoilers ahead!

Renaissance drama certainly packs a punch. And Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta is no exception. If you’re ready for scheming, thieving, poisoning, blackmail, more poisoning, and Death By Cauldron, then you’ve certainly come to the right place. It’s hardly surprising that this play was so popular with the Elizabethans – and it’s amazing that Marlowe managed to stuff so much murder and mayhem into just one play.

The Jew of Malta, unsurprisingly, is set on the tiny Mediterranean island, which is being besieged by Turkish troops. The slippery governor of the island decides that in order to pay a tribute demanded by the Turks, he will take the money of Malta’s wealthiest citizen, a Jewish merchant called Barabas. As you can probably imagine, Barabas doesn’t take too kindly to being robbed blind, and sets out to take his revenge on the unscrupulous Christians. With the help of a Turkish slave called Ithamore, Barabas does any number of nasty things, including poisoning an entire nunnery (including his own daughter, Abigail), and tricking his daughter’s suitors into killing one another. As might be expected, the whole situation quickly deteriorates, and double-crossings and murders ensue by the bucketload.

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Books and Reading Reviews

Revenge Overload: The Spanish Tragedy (1592), by Thomas Kyd

Spanish TragedyPlease note: there are spoilers ahead. Mostly of the who-kills-whom variety. If you’re a fan of mystery, I’d recommend you get comfy with a copy of Kyd before you read on with my review.

BALTHAZAR
Hieronimo, methinks a comedy were better.

HIERONIMO
A comedy?
Fie, comedies are fit for common wits:
But to present a kingly troupe withal,
Give me a stately-written tragedy,
Tragedia cothurnata, fitting kings,
Containing matter, and not common things.

(IV:i, ll. 155-161)

The Spanish Tragedy is one of those plays that shows up very frequently on college courses and Shakespeare-related reading lists. Yet despite its popularity with Theatre Studies professors the world over, it’s very rarely the first thing to pop into someone’s head when they think of Elizabethan theatre. Or the second thing, for that matter.

I have to admit, this puzzles me a little. After all, The Spanish Tragedy pretty much does exactly what it says on the can: it’s set in Spain; it’s about revenge; and there’s enough tragedy to make even Romeo and Juliet take a break from their incessant adolescent whining to sit up and take notes.