Middleton: The Revenger’s Tragedy

April 27, 2021

The Revenger’s Tragedy
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1606]
50 p.

In his 1908 study of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Charles Swinburne calls The Revenger’s Tragedy “the most perfect and most terrible incarnation of the idea of retribution impersonate and concentrated revenge that ever haunted the dreams of a tragic poet or the vigils of a future tyrannicide”. It is indeed a bracing play, propelled by a long-simmering animosity now brought to boil, and it moves nimbly and surely through its scenes toward the vengeance for which it hungers.

At the play’s center is Vindice, a man whose beloved had been poisoned by the Duke nine years previously; in the interim he has been watching, waiting, and plotting his revenge. When an opportunity arises to offer a service to the Duke, he seizes on it, relishing the chance to get close to his target. As the play spools out, he gets his wish — the nine-years-gone poisoning returning in macabre echo — and more than his wish. The play ends, as such plays do, with bodies littering the stage.

We are in the hands of a dark poet. This is a play in which a man tries to convince his sister to play the prostitute to the Duke; in which the stake in a case of mistaken identity is whether a man is beheaded; in which heads swing in burlap sacks and lascivious men unwittingly kiss skulls. But it is also a play with a “profound and noble reverence for goodness” (Swinburne again), a goodness embodied with memorable strength by Castiza, a woman whose adamantine resistance to temptation burns white hot and casts a bright light in the darkness.

The verse of the play is excellent throughout. Swinburne works himself up into quite a sweat in his enthusiasm, waxing eloquent about “the fiery jet of his molten verse, the rush of its radiant and rhythmic lava”. This is not my style, but his love is understandable. Consider this passage, from the first scene, in which Vindice addresses the skull of his beloved, which he has kept with him since she died:

Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love,
My study’s ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face of my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally filled out
These ragged imperfections;
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In these unsightly rings;—then ’twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman’s bought complexion
That the uprightest man (if such there be,
That sin but seven times a day) broke custom
And made up eight with looking after her.

The introductory essay in my Oxford edition of Middleton suggests that the presiding spirit of the play is that of Yorick, and it is in passages like this that the claim is most convincing.

In general Middleton doesn’t give his characters long speeches — the above is one of the longest — and while this allows the story to move on briskly, it also limits his ability to really develop and unfold his characters. This becomes a problem at the very end of the play when Vindice, his revenge finally achieved, does something that was to me surprising and incongruous: he, who had nursed his anger in secret for so many years, suddenly and most imprudently boasts of his vengeance, to his death. I am tempted to call this a simple, though significant, fault. It is possible, perhaps, that a good actor could find a character arc that makes it plausible, but the text of the play really doesn’t lead us to expect it.

There is also, in this play, the problem that afflicts so many action movies: the drama is engaging until the action begins, and then it slackens and drains. There are many characters who must die before the play ends, and Middleton opts to pack most of them into one scene — the “action scene”, if you wish — in which daggers fly and bodies drop, but in such quick succession that the audience isn’t given time to absorb it; I found it dramatically unsuccessful.

All the same, I found this a ferociously good play, one that would be well worth revisiting. I’ll give the last word to Swinburne, as I gave the first:

There never was such a thunder-storm of a play: it quickens and exhilarates the sense of the reader as the sense of a healthy man or boy is quickened and exhilarated by the rolling music of a tempest and the leaping exultation of its flames.

4 Responses to “Middleton: The Revenger’s Tragedy”

  1. Matthew Says:

    My Middleton scholar wife says that this play is the most hilarious parody of the revenge tragedy ever written. Swinburne would never have had a chance to see it in the theatre, so he missed the point. It’s parodying the old and extremely popular Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd and any number of revenge tragedies that followed it. She too saw it as dark and flawed, but it really came to life as a parody when she saw it staged.

    • cburrell Says:

      I really appreciate this comment, Matthew. One of the challenges of reading these plays has been to try to imagine how they would play on the stage, and in particular to ascertain what the tonal range of the plays could be. It’s really helpful to hear that this one should — or perhaps just could? — be played as parody.

      I’ve been casting about for video of staged performances of Middleton’s plays, but I’ve not had success. If you know of any good ones, please do let me know.

      • Matthew Says:

        We’ve had a chance to see two live performances of the Changeling, once off-Broadway in New York and once at Stratford, all in support of my wife’s work on a performance history of the play.

        We did manage to see the Revenger’s Tragedy put on by theatre students at McGill where one of my wife’s former students was doing her grad work. They were without a director for the two months before their run, so the result was understandably uneven.

        The theatre troupe in New York that puts on non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays is called the Red Bull Theater. It was their version of the Changeling we went to New York to see. They did a wonderful online version of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore early on in the pandemic with all the actors making their own props at home. I can’t find it easily on YouTube, but you might be able to dig for it. Interestingly, I did find an hour-long discussion of the Revenger’s Tragedy.

  2. cburrell Says:

    You must be in the elite 1% in the contest to see as many as possible of Middleton’s plays on stage! I’ve actually come across Red Bull Theater when casting about online for performances of Middleton, but found nothing but trailers, of course. I wish I’d have thought of looking them up when I was in NYC a couple of years ago.

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