The Revenger’s Tragedy

The Revenger’s Tragedy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Thomas Middleton's The Revenger’s Tragedy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Thomas Middleton

Thomas Middleton’s father was a bricklayer who found success and wealth with the booming London property market. He died when Middleton was just five, however, plunging the family into a prolonged battle over inheritance. Middleton went to Oxford University without graduating, and subsequently supported himself by writing pamphlets on the topical subjects of the day. He also became more involved in the theater world, writing for one of the same troupes as William Shakespeare. After James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth as the English monarch, Middleton entered his most productive period and wrote numerous plays across several genres, including The Revenger’s Tragedy. In 1624, his satirical play on the subject of Anglo-Spanish relations, A Game of Chess, was performed for the King, before being banned from performance due to a complaint by the Spanish ambassador. It’s thought that Middleton went into self-imposed exile to avoid punishment, or at the very least was discouraged from publishing any more dramatic work. He did, however, maintain a deep involvement in civic life, serving as chronologer to the city of London from 1620 until his death in 1627.
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Historical Context of The Revenger’s Tragedy

The Revenger’s Tragedy was written and first performed during the English Renaissance, a rich period for theater in England in which Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I encouraged the increasingly popular art form. Plays were often comments on the political climate of the times, but in general writers had to be careful not to cause offence to the authorities and risk punishment. Queen Elizabeth I presided over a relatively peaceful and prosperous time in England’s history, which saw the rise in dominance of the English navy after the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. With the ascension to the throne of James I came the unification of England and Scotland. He was generally devoted to peace, keeping his kingdoms out of the Thirty Years’ War that that devastated much of Europe from 1618 onwards.

Other Books Related to The Revenger’s Tragedy

Revenge represents one of the oldest and most compelling themes in drama, and vengeance-centered stories can be found within every major cultural period—from the early establishment of theatrical principles in Ancient Greece to the 20th century Western film canon (e.g. Kill Bill and other work from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino). Philosopher and dramatist Lucius Seneca, writing during Nero’s Roman Empire, had a great influence on the way Middleton negotiates the plot in The Revenger’s Tragedy, as did Hamlet, the work of his contemporary, William Shakespeare. The use of abstracted character names—in which the name clearly points to the character’s dominant trait, e.g. “Ambitioso”—also points to the influence of medieval Morality plays. General tropes found in Jacobean revenge tragedy include gratuitous violence, the use of disguise and deception, and a grand finale in which many of the characters are killed, often including the avenger themselves. Other key revenge plays of the period are The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, George Chapman’s Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois, and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.
Key Facts about The Revenger’s Tragedy
  • Full Title: The Revenger’s Tragedy
  • When Written: c. 1606
  • Where Written: Most likely London
  • When Published: 1607 (anonymously)
  • Literary Period: Jacobean / English Renaissance
  • Genre: Revenge Tragedy (Jacobean)
  • Setting: An unspecified Italian court
  • Climax: The murders of Lussurioso, Spurio, Supervacuo, and Ambitioso
  • Antagonist: The Duke/Lussurioso
  • Point of View: Objective Third Person

Extra Credit for The Revenger’s Tragedy

Mistaken authorship. The Revenger’s Tragedy was initially published anonymously, and later thought to be the work of Cyril Tourneur. More recent scholarship has established with reasonable certainty that Middleton is the play’s author.

Famous friendship. Middleton is also thought to have collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens.