There’s hardly a moment that goes by in The Revenger’s Tragedy that doesn’t involve lust. Middleton shows lust to be a strong force, and to be especially volatile when mixed with power. In fact, lust is so powerful in this play that, for characters like Lussurioso and the Duke, sexual desire governs almost everything they do. Acting on lust becomes a kind of expression of power itself; sex is used both for gratification and as a weapon to exert dominance. Excessive lust can also become a weakness, however, which Vindice exploits in his quest for revenge. Middleton ultimately associates lust with depravity, positioning it as a consuming, blinding force that displaces morality.
The Duke presides over an empire of lust, with himself the all-powerful tyrant at its center. He poisoned Vindice’s fiancée Gloriana, for instance, for not sleeping with him. His “bastard” son, Spurio, is further evidence of the Duke’s lustiness: he was conceived out of wedlock and must live a life in which he is excluded from the advantages of being the ruler’s son. Junior Brother, the Duchess’s youngest son, is imprisoned for the rape of the wife of court nobleman Antonio—further underscoring that lust is everywhere in this world. Lust also begets lust: Spurio and the Duchess indulge in an illicit (arguably incestuous, given that she is his stepmother) relationship both as an attack on the Duke and as an expression of uncontrollable desire.
Lussurioso in particular takes after his father. At one point he says, “I am past my depth in lust, and I must swim or drown.” Here, he explicitly states the way in which lust has consumed him—and his words could easily apply to the other characters too. Lust, then, is set up from the beginning as a potent force throughout the Duke’s kingdom, arguably both causing and filling the moral vacuum left by the conspicuous lack of religious devotion.
The Duke and Lussurioso both abuse their positions to satisfy their lust and also use sex as a way of demonstrating and, ultimately, enjoying their authority. They behave with a perverse sense of entitlement, showing the way in which lust and power make a potentially dangerous combination. It never crosses the Duke’s or Lussurioso’s minds whether the women whom they lust after want to have sex with them or not—or if it does, they don’t care either way. To these two characters, women are mere objects of desire, sexual conquests to be won by force if necessary. That’s why rape and sexual coercion are a constant presence throughout the play.
Lussurioso, for example, orders Vindice (in disguise as a pimp) to make Castiza, Vindice’s sister, sexually available to him. Though this luckily plays into Vindice’s revenge plans anyway, Vindice is obligated to assist regardless because of Lussurioso’s powerful position. When Gratiana, Castiza’s mother, temporarily consents to effectively prostituting her daughter, it’s because she is attracted by the power that might come with a closer association to the Duke’s family. She is willing to exchange Castiza for a taste of power—in the process, only serving to confirm the original power embodied by the Duke and his son. Lust and power are thus twinned together. The play shows that one influences the other, potentially leading to an extreme breakdown of morality.
But just as lust—and acting on it—can be an expression of power, it can also become a point of weakness. Vindice is fully aware how much lust controls the actions of the Duke and Lussurioso and decides to use that to his advantage. In fact, rather than merely killing these men, Vindice wants to kill them in a way that makes them see both that he is the avenger and, crucially, the way in which he has exploited their own lust to bring about their deaths.
That Vindice sees lust as an exploitable flaw is clear in his disguise as a pimp, which he uses to get closer to Lussurioso and to manipulate events to bring about Lussurioso’s death.
The danger of succumbing to lust, however, finds its ultimate—and grotesque—expression in the Duke’s death. Vindice, now also acting as the Duke’s pimp, orchestrates a scenario in which the Duke kisses the skull of Gloriana, thinking it’s a living a woman. Vindice has planted poison on the skull’s mouth, meaning the Duke is literally killed because of his own lust-inspired actions. This represents the ultimate revenge, weaponizing not just the Duke’s present lust but also the object of his original lust, Gloriana. Vindice posthumously empowers Gloriana by letting her provide the kiss of death. Lust, then, is linked to weakness as well as power. Vindice’s skill and success as the avenger depend upon his recognition that his enemies will follow their desires at any cost—even if that means endangering themselves and setting up the opportunity for Vindice’s revenge to come to fruition.
Lust Quotes in The Revenger’s Tragedy
Duke—royal lecher! Go, grey-haired adultery;
And thou his son, as impious steeped as he;
And thou his bastard true-begot in evil;
And thou his duchess that will do with devil;
Four ex’lent characters.
[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.
DUCHESS: Who would not be revenged of such a father,
E'en in the worst way? I would thank that sin
That could most injury him, and be in league with it.
Oh what a grief 'tis that a man should live
But once i'th’ world, and then to live a bastard,
The curse o' the womb, the thief of Nature,
Begot against the seventh commandment
Half damned in the conception by the justice
Of that unbribed everlasting law.
SPURIO: O, I’d a hot-backed devil to my father.
LUSSURIOSO: Attend me, I am past my depth in lust,
And I must swim or drown. All my desires
Are levelled at a virgin not far from Court,
To whom I have conveyed by messenger
Many waxed lines, full of my neatest spirit,
And jewels that were able to ravish her
Without the help of man: all which and more
She, foolish-chaste, sent back, the messengers
Receiving frowns for answers.
'Tis a rare phoenix whoe'er she be.
If your desires be such, she so repugnant.
How hardly shall that maiden be beset
Whose only fortunes are her constant thoughts,
That has no other child's-part but her honour
That keeps her low and empty in estate.
Maids and their honours are like poor beginners:
Were not sin rich there would be fewer sinners:
Why had not virtue a revenue? Well,
I know the cause: 'twould have impoverished hell.
VINDICE: What think you now lady? Speak, are you wiser?
What said advancement to you? Thus it said:
The daughter's fall lifts up the mother's head.
Did it not madam? But I'll swear it does
In many places; tut, this age fears no man.
‘‘Tis no shame to be bad, because 'tis common.’
GRATIANA: Aye, that's the comfort on't.
VINDICE: The comfort on't!
I keep the best for last; can these persuade you
To forget heaven—
[Gives her money]
GRATIANA: Ay, these are they—
VINDICE [aside]: O!
GRATIANA: —that enchant our sex; these are the means
That govern our affections. That woman
Will not be troubled with the mother long,
That sees the comfortable shine of you;
I blush to think what for your sakes I'll do.
VINDICE [aside]: Oh suffering heaven with thy invisible finger
E'en at this instant turn the precious side
Of both mine eyeballs inward, not to see myself.
GRATIANA: O, if thou knew'st
What 'twere to lose it, thou would never keep it.
But there's a cold curse laid upon all maids,
Whilst others clip the sun they clasp the shades!
Virginity is paradise, locked up.
You cannot come by yourselves without fee,
And 'twas decreed that man should keep the key:
Deny advancement, treasure, the duke's son!
CASTIZA: I cry you mercy; lady I mistook you,
Pray did you see my mother? Which way went you?
Pray God I have not lost her.
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.
It well becomes that judge to nod at crimes
That does commit greater himself, and lives.
I may forgive a disobedient error
That expect pardon for adultery,
And in my old days am a youth in lust.
Many a beauty have I turned to poison
In the denial, covetous of all.
Age hot, is like a monster to be seen:
My hairs are white, and yet my sins are green.
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.
GRATIANA: Are you so barbarous, to set iron nipples
Upon the breast that gave you suck?
VINDICE: That breast
Is turned to quarled poison.
GRATIANA: Cut not your days for't: am not I your mother?
VINDICE: Thou dost usurp that title now by fraud,
For in that shell of mother breeds a bawd.
GRATIANA: A bawd! Oh name far loathsomer than hell!
HIPPOLITO: It should be so, knew'st thou thy office well.
GRATIANA: Bethink again, thou know'st not what thou say'st.
CASTIZA: No—deny advancement, treasure, the duke's son?
GRATIANA: O see, I spoke those words, and now they poison me.
What will the deed do then?
Advancement? True, as high as shame can pitch.
For treasure? Who e'er knew a harlot rich
Or could build by the purchase of her sin
An hospital to keep their bastards in?
The duke's son! Oh when women are young courtiers,
They are sure to be old beggars;
To know the miseries most harlots taste
Thou'd'st wish thyself unborn, when thou’rt unchaste.
CASTIZA: Oh mother let me twine about your neck
And kiss you till my soul melt on your lips:
I did but this to try you.
GRATIANA: Oh speak truth!
CASTIZA: Indeed I did not;
For no tongue has force to alter me from honest.
If maidens would, men's words could have no power;
A virgin honour is a crystal tower,
Which, being weak, is guarded with good spirits:
Until she basely yields, no ill inherits.
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.