Many of the characters are out to right wrongs in The Revenger’s Tragedy—not least the play’s protagonist, Vindice, whose fiancée, Gloriana, was poisoned by the Duke ten years earlier. Revenge is Vindice’s obsession, just as sex is both the Duke’s and his son and heir Lussurioso’s. The play works hard to reflect the moral complexity of revenge, however, leaving it up to the audience whether the acts of revenge depicted truly represent justice—or needlessly pile violence on top of violence.
Like other avengers in the revenge tragedy genre, Vindice takes matters into his own hands following his fiancée’s poisoning. To understand why he does so, it’s vital to look at the failures of the other potential moral authorities that might otherwise have been entrusted with the task of bringing about justice for Gloriana. From the very beginning of the play, the Duke is discounted as any kind of moral arbiter—in fact, he is the cause of Vindice’s desire for revenge in the first place. The Duke, the audience quickly learns, poisoned Gloriana because she refused to have sex with him (which, it’s worth pointing out, would have been adultery). For him, Gloriana’s death itself represents a skewed form of revenge—but not moral justice.
Though there are also numerous judges and legal professionals in the play—both on stage and off—there isn’t a single instance in which these men impose justice in accordance with a reliable moral framework. Instead, they prove to be as ethically corrupted by money (in the form of bribes) as characters like the Duke are by lust. Early in the play, Spurio, the Duke’s bastard son, outlines the corruptibility of the judges: “if judgments have cold blood, flattery and bribes will kill it.” Even if the judges did have a more virtuous moral worldview, they would be rendered useless by their deference to the Duke—who clearly has the ultimate power and final say in any given dispute. Given his brazen immorality, this completely undermines any pretensions of a fair legal system.
Whereas other plays lend more plausibility to the idea of divine providence—interventions by God or gods in the name of justice—The Revenger’s Tragedy represents a world in which religion is ineffectual, unable to address any of the fiendish acts committed throughout the play. Characters often talk about religion—Christianity specifically—but, aside from Vindice’s virginal sister, Castiza, they show no genuine allegiance to Christian morals. In fact, “sin” is present throughout, in the form of dishonesty, rape, incest, and murder. Characters often create their own justification for their actions, absolving themselves from any sense of religious or moral obligation. The idea of divine providence is even gently mocked. For instance, Vindice’s call for thunder and lightning—which is promptly and impossibly answered, “on cue”—makes the possible intervention of a deity seem nothing more than a clichéd theatre trick.
There is a moral vacuum, then, which Vindice decides it is his duty to fill. Perhaps with more reliable moral authorities elsewhere, a different, less violent form of justice could have been served. Yet even as Vindice has no choice but to avenge the murder of Gloriana himself, the play makes it far from clear whether his revenge actually equates to justice.
Though he seems to have a simple aim, Vindice gets embroiled in all sorts of moral tangles throughout the play, suggesting violent revenge is not a clear-cut guarantee of justice. For example, while in disguise as the pimp Piato, Vindice agrees to do a favor for Lussurioso (something Vindice thinks will improve his chances of taking revenge): Vindice manages to convince his mother, Gratiana, that she should prostitute his virginal sister, Castiza, to Lussurioso. Though Vindice does this as part of his wider quest for vengeance, this has little to do with Gloriana. Later in the play, Vindice almost decides to kill his mother for her being willing to prostitute Castiza. But it was Vindice himself—albeit in disguise—who used his powers of persuasion to make Gratiana think that way. This is a moral paradox, then, because he wants to punish his mother for a “crime” in which he is arguably complicit. This quandary seems far removed from his simple desire to kill the Duke.
When Vindice’s plan for revenge does eventually come to fruition, many people die in the closing scene’s bloodbath, including some who have not displayed any immoral behavior at all. This suggests that personal vengeance can have unintended and deadly repercussions. And with his revenge complete, Vindice can’t help but brag about his achievements to Antonio, the new ruler. Vindice is then instantly sentenced to death, a kind of cosmic joke on the part of the playwright. This both implies that Vindice’s view of the revenge as personal achievement is fundamentally flawed (and perhaps even a sin itself deserving of instant “justice”) and undermines any sense of fairly applied justice present in the play. Revenge, then, is not a simple case of dishing out like for like. The avenger is naïve to think that vengeance will be simple or clear-cut, and through his quest for supposed justice only becomes further entangled in the complicated moral world of humanity.
Revenge and Justice ThemeTracker
Revenge and Justice 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.
Now let me burst, I've eaten noble poison!
We are made strange fellows, brother, innocent villains:
Wilt not be angry when thou hear'st on't, think’st thou?
I'faith thou shalt. Swear me to foul my sister!
[Unsheathes his sword]
Sword I durst make a promise of him to thee,
Thou shalt dis-heir him, it shall be thine honour;
And yet, now angry froth is down in me,
It would not prove the meanest policy
In this disguise to try the faith of both.
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.
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.