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Theatre / The Revenger's Tragedy

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The Revenger's Tragedy is a Jacobean Revenge play written in 1606 by (scholars now believe) Thomas Middleton. Earlier studies attributed the play to Cyril Tourneur and some scholars (e.g. Frank Kermode) still list Tourneur as the main author to this day, though a majority of scholars agree that Middleton is the most likely identity of the author.

Disaffected Anti-Hero Vindice returns home to get revenge on the lustful Duke who poisoned Vindice's beloved, Gloriana, when she refused to sleep with him. It's convoluted, disgusting and full of over-the-top gory acts of vengeance. Some people think that it was intended as a parody of the revenge-tragedy genre so popular at the time. And of Hamlet in particular.

There is a 2002 film adaptation which sets the play in post-apocalyptic Liverpool, and stars Christopher Eccleston as Vindice.

This play provides examples of:

  • Alas, Poor Yorick: Played with; since Hamlet came out a few years earlier, it's clearly poking fun at that scene. In fact, the play even opens with the image of Vindice holding a skull.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The royal family is made up of seven characters (The Duke, The Duchess, Lussurioso, Spurio, Ambitioso, Supervacuo, and Junior), and they are all terrible people. The Duke is a lecherous murderer, the Duchess and Spurio engage in an adulterous relationship to spite the Duke, Lussurioso is just as lecherous as his father, and Ambitioso and Supervacuo are constantly scheming to have their step-brothers killed for their own gain. Junior is probably the worst offender, as he rapes a woman, which results in her committing suicide. He feels absolutely no remorse for this and even jokes about it at his trial.
  • Break the Cutie: Vindice plays at doing this to his own sister, and only stops after she realizes who he is.
  • Characters Dropping Like Flies: And THEN some. Only four major characters are still alive by the end, with ten having died over the course of the show, and another three being taken away to execution. This is particularly evident during the last scene (Act 5, Scene 3) where a total of SEVEN characters die in rapid succession.
  • Character Filibuster: Vindice soliloquizes a few times.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The Duke. Good LORD, The Duke. First, he's tricked into kissing a skull that has been covered in a poison that is caustic enough to dissolve his teeth. Then, he gets stamped on by Hippolito, a man he thought was his ally. Then, his tongue gets nailed to the floor. Finally, he's forced to watch his wife engage in adulterous acts with Spurio, his own bastard son. Only then does The Duke finally die which, depending on the production, comes about from the poison, his massive blood loss, Vindice murdering him, or his tongue being ripped out. Yikes.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: Vindice does this to Castiza when he sees her again for the first time in nine years.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Lussurioso leaps out from behind an arras to confront his mother having sex with her step-son Spurio. Turns out she's with his father, the Duke. Oops.
  • Even Evil Can Be Loved: Depite Junior Brother's horrible crimes, The Duchess refers to him as her "dearest son" and begs The Duke not to sentence him to death. The Duke's subsequent imprisonment of Junior is what leads The Duchess into engaging an adulterous and semi-incestuous relationship with Spurio, The Duke's bastard son, in order to spite her husband. Likewise, Ambitioso and Supervacuo, Junior's elder brothers, clearly care about him and spend half of the play attempting to free him. When their scheming accidentally results in Junior's execution, the two are distraught at his death.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: To an absurd degree. By the end of the show, ten characters have died, with another three being escorted off to be executed for a total of 13 deaths. Of the main cast, only Antonio, Castiza, Gratiana, and the Duchess are still alive. Antonio's wife dies offstage at the start of the play (suicide), then Junior (beheaded), then the Duke (poisoned and/or blood loss), then three nobles (stabbed), then Supervacuo (killed by Ambitioso), then Ambitioso (killed by Spurio), then Spurio (killed by an unnamed henchman of Ambitioso) and then Lussurioso (also stabbed). Ambitioso's henchman, Vindice, and Hippolito are all lead away to "speedy execution" at the end of the play. This list does not include Gloriana, Vindice's lost love who dies before the show starts.
  • Grievous Harm with a Body: Supervacuo beats the officer who brings news of Junior's death with Junior's severed head.
  • Hate Sink: In a play full of awful people, Junior Brother stands out as a particularly vile character, to the point where Castiza refers to him as a "monster" who deserves to die in the opening scene of the play. Junior is an unrepentant rapist who gloats and jokes about his crime and even admits that he would gladly do it again if he could. His victim, Antonio's wife, commits suicide not long after. Needless to say, while his brothers are devastated by his death, the audience certainly isn't.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: After earning Lussurioso's ire as Piato, Vindice is hired as himself (well, a comically melancholy version of himself) to kill Piato.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Castiza is, easily, the most innocent and morally good character in the entire play. When Vindice pretends to be a pandar for Lussurioso in order to test Castiza's honor, she firmly and proudly rejects Lussurioso's advances, even when offered gold and promises of a lavish lifestyle. Even when Gratiana, her own mother, tries to convince her to give herself up to the Lussuroso, Castiza doesn't budge in her refusal to give in. The play rewards her by letting her survive the events of the play, giving her a relatively happy ending with her mother.
  • Karma Houdini: Subverted. Vindice and Hippolito would have got away clean, if Vindice didn't have to go and brag about it on his way out the door.
  • Karmic Death: The Duke poisoned Vindice's wife because she wouldn't sleep with him. So Vindice uses her skull, with poison on the lips (the more you think about how this has to be staged, the weirder it gets. And seeing it is stranger still...), as the instrument to poison the Duke.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Vindice does both, a few times. Most obviously in the line:
    Is there no thunder left, or is't kept up
    In stock for heavier vengeance?
    [thunder rolls]
  • Like Father, Like Son: Lussurioso is just as lecherous and awful as his dad, The Duke.
  • Meaningful Name: Nearly all of the characters are named for their most prominent attribute:
    • Vindice = Vengeance
    • Piato = Hidden
    • Lussurioso = Lecherous
    • Spurio = Bastard
    • Ambitioso = Ambitious
    • Dondolo = Idiot
    • Nencio = Dolt
    • Sordido = Corrupt
    • Gratiana = Grace
    • Castiza = Chastity
    • Gloriana = Glorious
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Gratiana feels extremely guilty for trying to corrupt her daughter for Lussurioso and can barely bring herself to look at her. Thankfully, Gratiana fully repents to her children. Castiza tests her mother by pretending to offer herself to Lussurioso willingly. When Gratiana begs her not to, Castiza drops the facade, embraces her mother, and forgives her. This is the closest we get to a "happy ending" in the play.
  • No Name Given: Being an Early Modern drama, this applies to multiple characters.
    • The Duke and The Duchess are only referred to by their titles, with their actual names never being said or even mentioned anywhere in the text itself.
    • While Junior Brother is usually listed as "Junior" in speech prefixes and the dramatis personae, it's safe to say that this is not actually his name. He is only referred to in dialogue as "Junior Brother" or "The Duchess' youngest son".
    • Downplayed with Lussurioso, who is almost always referred to as "the Duke's son" or "the Duke's only son". His name is only said once in the entire play by Hippolito.
    • Downplayed with Ambitioso and Supervacuo. In the dialogue, they are only referred to as "the Duchess' sons". The speech prefixes and stage directions, however, do refer to them by their actual names.
    • The masquer who kills Spurio in the final scene is only referred to in the stage directions as "a fourth man", with speech prefixes being "Fourth Man" or even just "Man". He refers to Ambitoso as his "lord and master", implying that he is Ambitoso's servant/henchman.
    • Played straight with Antonio's wife in the original play. She is referred to only as Antonio's wife or "that goodly lady". Averted in the film where she is given the name Imogen.
    • Minor characters such as Lussurioso's fawning nobles, the judges at Junior Brother's trial, and the officers and keeper of the prison are also never named.
    • Downplayed with Gratiana. The speech prefixes, the dramatis personae, and her three children (Vindice, Castiza, and Hippolito) only refer to her as "Mother". Other characters also mostly refer to her as "the mother" or "Castiza's mother". Lussurioso is the only character who uses her name, saying it only one time during Act 1, Scene 3, a scene where she does not appear.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Vindice is pretty nihilistic.
  • Off with His Head!: The fate of Junior Brother. Though the execution is not seen, we do get to see the end result via Junior's head in a bag.
  • One-Shot Character: While some productions may add them to more scenes, The Revenger's Tragedy has two prominent examples of this trope:
    • Castiza's servant Dondolo is the closest the play has to a clown, offering snarky responses to his mistress when he introduces the disguised Vindice to her. Dondolo excuses himself and he is never seen again in the text.
    • The Fourth Man who kills Spurio during the massacre at Lussurioso's banquet never appears in the play before that scene. He is then swiftly arrested, blamed for all of the murders, and led away to execution.
  • Parental Incest: Between Spurio and his step-mother, The Duchess. Though the two of them are not related by blood, the play still refers to their relationship as "foul incest".
  • Revenge Before Reason: Very much so. In fact, when Vindice brags to Antonio about how they killed the Duke, and everyone else in his family, and Antonio sentences them to death, Vindice seems happy to accept his fate.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: The guard who delivers Junior's head hightails it out of there when Supervacuo threatens to beat him up.
  • Shoot the Messenger: The poor officer who brings Junior Brother's severed head in a bag to Ambitioso and Supervacuo. Upon realizing that the bag contains Junior's head, Supervacuo attempts to beat the officer over the head with...well...Junior's head. The officer manages to get away, leaving the brothers to lament Junior's death.
  • Sketchy Successor: Played with, as the Duke's sons scramble and backstab each other to be the new Duke.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Somewhat on the cynical side of the scale.
  • Sliding Scale of Free Will vs. Fate: Fate crops up a few times.
    Vindice: Why, brother, it is fate!
    Hippolito: It is, but whose? His or yours?
    Vindice: I set my fate at naught, so that I have revenge.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: This goes for several characters in the play:
    • Antonio only appears in two scenes: once near the beginning as he mourns his wife, and once at the very end. Antonio ends up becoming Duke at the end of the play and is the one who sentences Vindice and Hippolito to death for their crimes.
    • Castiza, Vindice and Hippolito's sister, only appears in three scenes. Vindice's desire for revenge against Lussurioso largely comes from the latter's lust for Castiza, and Vindice spends a lot of time defending his sister's honor.
    • Junior Brother has the least amount of stage time of any of the royal family members, only appearing in two scenes alive and once as a severed head. Nevertheless, Junior's crime of rape is a major motivating factor in Vindice, Hippolito, and Antonio's friends seeking revenge on the royal family. His imprisonment and death also serve as a major factor in the schemes and motivations of The Duchess, Ambitioso, and Supervacuo.
    • A henchmen of Ambitioso (referred to in the script only as "Fourth Man") accompanies Ambitioso, Supervacuo, and Spurio to Lussurioso's coronation banquet, despite never appearing in the play at all before this scene. Despite his random appearance, the Fourth Man is the one who ends up killing Spurio after the latter murders Ambitioso. Vindice and Hippolito are quick to blame all the murders on the Fourth Man, who gets led away to be executed.
  • Stealth Insult
  • Take That!: Several to the revenge-tragedy genre, and at Hamlet (which was first performed six years earlier) in particular.
  • Talkative Loon: Vindice, although he isn't loony so much as he's insanely driven toward his purpose.
  • The Lost Lenore: The Duke murdered Gloriana, Vindice's bride-to-be, nine years before the play begins. Vindice even spends a large part of the play carrying around her skull. The Duke's murder of Gloriana serves as Vindice's primary motivation for seeking revenge on The Duke and his family.
    • Antonio's wife also serves as this for the man himself. Antonio's grief for his wife's murder compels him to accept help from Hippolito and other lords in getting revenge on Junior and the rest of the royal family.
  • The Scapegoat: At Lussurioso's coronation banquet, Vindice, Hippolito, and two allies end up murdering Lussurioso and his nobles. Soon after, Ambitioso kills Supervacuo, Spurio kills Ambitioso, and a "Fourth Man" (Ambitioso's henchman) kills Spurio. When Antonio and the guards arrive at the scene of the massacre, Vindice and Hippolito blame the Fourth Man for all of the deaths, despite the man's insistence that he is only responsible for Spurio's death. Antonio orders him to be taken away and executed.
  • Those Two Guys: Vindice and Hippolito. Ambitioso and Supervacuo also qualify, with one never appearing in a scene without the other close by.
  • Token Good Teammate: Downplayed with The Duchess, who is the least awful member of the royal family by FAR. The Duchess is certainly not a great person, considering she attempts to defend her youngest son Junior when he's put on trial for raping a woman, and that she engages in an adulterous relationship with her husband's bastard son out of spite. At the very least, she is the only member of the royal family who does not murder, rape, or even attempt to murder anyone. While the play calls her relationship with Spurio "incest", they are not actually related by blood at all, making their dalliances at least a little less awful (not to mention that The Duke has cheated on her multiple times before this point). Fittingly, The Duchess is the only member of the royal family to survive the entire play, as Lussurioso banishes her before the final massacre scene happens.
  • Tongue Trauma: The Duke gets his tongue nailed to the floor by Vindice and Hippolito during his excruciating death scene.

The 2002 film version provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The 2002 version cuts some of the subplots, to streamline the story. And, you know, updates it a lot.
  • Darker and Edgier: You wouldn't think that was possible, with this source material. But in the original play, the Duke and Duchess have no children together (Lussurioso is the Duke's son by a previous wife, Spurio by his mistress, while Ambitioso, Supervacuo, and Junior are the Duchess' children by a previous husband). The film makes them all one biological family, which means that: the Duke sentences HIS SON Junior to death; Spurio has an affair with HIS MOTHER; Ambitioso and Supervacuo try to murder THEIR BROTHER Lussurioso. Pretty screwed up in a step-family, but even worse when they're blood relations. Similarly, while The Duke is awful in the original play, the film adds necrophilia to his list of crimes when he admits to a disguised Vindice that he raped Gloriana's body after he killed her.
  • I Love the Dead: The Duke, raping Gloriana's corpse.
  • Setting Update: The movie adaptation updates it to Post Apocalyptic Liverpool. Or just Liverpool.