The revenge tragedy genre was notoriously gruesome, full of gore and murder—and even by those standards, The Revenger’s Tragedy is a bloody play. Whether this is Middleton poking fun at the genre or simply trying to outdo the revenge tragedies that came before is hard to say, but it certainly lends the play an anarchic streak of dark humor. When the play ends, there is the curious sense that perhaps none of the characters’ actions have really been worth it. One possible reading of the play is that it is an examination of the futility of the passions and motivations of life, that eventually lead to the same void—death. Furthermore, the play suggests the hold that death exerts on the living.
Death is present in the play from the very beginning to the very end. Almost all of Middleton’s characters are connected to death one way or another. The overall effect is to make death a tangible presence in the play, showing the way in which it both obsesses the living and lurks underneath life as its one true certainty. Vindice’s particular obsession with death mirrors the prevalence of death in the play more generally. In the opening scene, Vindice appears on stage carrying the skull of his murdered fiancée, Gloriana. He’s been carrying her skull for almost an entire decade, suggesting both his consuming desire for revenge and the grip that her death has understandably had on his life—he is literally unable to let her go. While one interpretation of Gloriana’s skull is Vindice’s determination to enact revenge, there’s also a clear sense that it in part represents an obsession with death.
But while Vindice’s words to his beloved might sound heartfelt and emotional on one level, his plans for the skull prove otherwise. Vindice uses Gloriana’s skull as the instrument with which to administer poison to the lusty Duke—which seems an unnecessarily convoluted method for murder. If Vindice’s priorities really were to do right by his deceased fiancée, it’s worth considering whether parading her skull around and using it as a murder weapon is the most respectful and honorable mode of action. Accordingly, Vindice’s use of the skull seems more a way of intensifying the death of the Duke. By killing him with this “memento mori”—a physical symbol of death—he literally kills the Duke with death itself. While it could be said that this ultimately lets Gloriana have the satisfaction of killing the Duke, the fact she is no more than a skull suggests otherwise. Vindice’s wish for revenge, then, has turned into a wider obsession with death, in which he isn’t happy to simply get his own back on the Duke—it has to be done in a particular way that most amplifies the death itself.
The play’s conclusion, in turn, is relentless: numerous characters die, including Vindice and his brother, Hippolito, who has helped him plan revenge. On the one hand, this shows the consequences of the violent and destructive urges that most of the characters exhibit; on the other, it undermines the entire action of the play. With almost all of the characters dead, the audience is left to ask who it is that benefits, and how the action of the play reflects on the presence of death in real life itself. Most of the characters in the play have a motive to bring about someone else’s death. There’s Vindice of course, but even the Duchess’s two sons, Supervacuo and Ambitioso, who are relatively minor characters, want to kill whomever they need to in order to attain power.
These multiple murderous desires accumulate throughout the play, making it teeter on the edge of absurdity. Middleton then contrasts the frantic behavior of the characters with the impending sense that all of them are going to die—which most of them do. This shines a light on the way the characters behave, asking whether their motives really worthy of their actions. When the inevitable bloodbath does come, numerous characters are killed off instantly, almost implausibly. There is the sense that this is partly Middleton mocking the seriousness of revenge tragedy—but it’s a legitimate interpretation to say that he is mocking the seriousness of people in life more generally. Death, the play, seems to say, is coming to everyone and undermines the weighty wants, dreams and actions of the living.
This is best expressed by Vindice’s final action. Having successfully brought about the murders he’d wanted, Vindice looks like he might escape the traditional fate of the revenge tragedy protagonists—that is, death. But Vindice can’t help but brag about the way in which he’s manipulated events, and Antonio—the most likely new ruler of the court now that all the other candidates are dead—instantly sentences Vindice and his brother to die. It’s almost as if Vindice’s desires towards death culminate in bringing about his own. Death, then, is everywhere in The Revenger’s Tragedy. In the end, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the play represents a kind of cosmic joke, building up tension only to release it one of the bloodiest, but darkly absurd, finales in Jacobean theatre.
Death Quotes in The Revenger’s Tragedy
[To the skull] Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love,
My study’s ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally filled out these
These ragged imperfections,
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In those unsightly rings […]
Thee when thou wert appareled in thy flesh
The old duke poisoned,
Because thy purer part would not consent
Unto his palsy-lust
Duchess, it is your youngest son, we’re sorry,
His violent act has e'en drawn blood of honour
And stained our honours,
Thrown ink upon the forehead of our state
Which envious spirits will dip their pens into
After our death, and blot us in our tombs."
SECOND JUDGE: Confess, my lord,
What moved you to’t?
JUNIOR BROTHER: Why, flesh and blood, my lord.
What should move men unto a woman else?
LUSSURIOSO: O do not jest thy doom; trust not an axe
Or sword too far. The law is a wise serpent
And quickly can beguile thee of thy life.
LUSSURIOSO: Well this night I'll visit her, and 'tis till then
A year in my desires. Farewell, attend,
Trust me with thy preferment.
[Exit Lussurioso. Vindice puts his hand to his sword]
VINDICE: My loved lord.—
Oh shall I kill him o'the wrong-side now? No,
Sword thou wast never a back-biter yet.
I'll pierce him to his face, he shall die looking upon me;
Thy veins are swelled with lust, this shall unfill 'em.
O, take me not in sleep; I have great sins.
I must have days—
Nay, months, dear son, with penitential heaves,
To lift 'em out and not to die unclear;
O, thou wilt kill me both in heaven and here.
VINDICE: Look you brother,
I have not fashioned this only for show
And useless property, no — it shall bear a part
E'en in it own revenge. This very skull,
Whose mistress the duke poisoned with this drug,
The mortal curse of the earth, shall be revenged
In the like strain and kiss his lips to death.
My lords, be all of music;
Strike old griefs into other countries
That flow in too much milk and have faint livers,
Not daring to stab home their discontents.
Let our hid flames break out, as fire, as lightning
To blast this villainous dukedom vexed with sin:
Wind up your souls to their full height again […]
And when they think their pleasures sweet and good,
In midst of all their joys, they shall sigh blood.
ANTONIO: Bear 'em to speedy execution. […]
VINDICE: May not we set as well as the duke's son?
Thou hast no conscience: are we not revenged?
Is there one enemy left alive amongst those?
When murderers shut deeds close this curse does seal 'em:
If none disclose 'em, they themselves reveal 'em!
This murder might have slept in tongueless brass
But for ourselves, and the world died an ass.
Now I remember too; here was Piato
Brought forth a knavish sentence once:
No doubt, said he, but time
Will make the murderer bring forth himself.
'Tis well he died, he was a witch.—
And now my lord, since we are in for ever:
This work was ours, which else might have been slipped;
And if we list we could have nobles clipped
And go for less than beggars. But we hate
To bleed so cowardly: we have enough—
I'faith we're well: our mother turned, our sister true,
We die after a nest of dukes! Adieu.
Exeunt [Vindice and Hippolito, guarded)
ANTONIO: How subtly was that murder closed! Bear up
Those tragic bodies; 'tis a heavy season.
Pray heaven their blood may wash away all treason.