Though in part a reflection of the time in which the play was written, women are treated terribly throughout The Revenger’s Tragedy—both by those men wishing to sexually exploit them and those who believe themselves to be more morally forthright. Even Vindice, technically the “hero” of the play, has a shallow and disparaging view of the opposite sex. That said, when looked at as a whole, it is women who provide the only genuine example of something approaching morality. Middleton portrays a deeply skewed power structure between men and women, making it all the more remarkable that Castiza, and to a lesser extent her mother, Gratiana, can offer any sense of redemption from the play’s relentless immorality and nihilism.
The play works hard to demonstrate the entrenched attitudes of men toward women throughout. It’s not possible to say whether this is intended as a criticism by the author, but the relentless misogyny undoubtedly shows men in a bad light. The Duke and Lussurioso’s relentless pursuit of women—and their numerous instances of rape and prostitution—reflect that women are seen primarily as objects of sexual desire. Vindice, despite being set up as the moral avenger of the play, also thinks little of women. Quoting his deceased father, he asserts, “Wives are but made to go to bed and feed”—that is, women are good for nothing except sex and reproduction. The fact that this is an attitude inherited from his father shows the extent to which misogyny is embedded in the deeply patriarchal culture of the court. Vindice goes on to double down on his own misogyny, by placing the responsibility of the world’s ills at the feet of women: “Wer't not for gold and women, there would be no damnation; / Hell would look like a lord's great kitchen without fire in't. / But, 'twas decreed before the world began, / That they should be the hooks to catch at man.”
Yet it’s patently clear to the audience that all of the violence in the play is caused by men. It’s the Duke who kills Gloriana; Junior Brother who rapes Antonio’s wife; and Lussurioso who wants to force Castiza to have sex with him. Though two women in the play do engage in behavior that is arguably immoral—the Duchess’s incest and Gloriana’s attempts to prostitute her own daughter—the bloodbath at the play’s end is entirely the men’s making. This reinforces the fact that it’s men, not women, who are responsible for the violence in the play, and, society more generally. Women are consistently derided throughout the play but attempts to blame them for everything that goes wrong are clearly laughable and misguided. Accordingly, the audience gets an overall impression of the male characters as being unable to see their own role in the play’s action, perhaps gesturing at the disproportionately male nature of warfare and crime.
There’s arguably only one true example of moral virtuousness in the play—if Vindice is set aside because of his misogyny. His sister, Castiza, behaves with dignity and a quiet but assured self-empowerment. Even she is almost defeated by male dominance, but she truly stands out against the backdrop of lusty men and vengeful acts of retribution.
Castiza is impoverished but determined to remain chaste and true. Early in the play Vindice, in disguise, visits Castiza to try and persuade her to give herself to Lussurioso. Castiza quickly demonstrates that she won’t be convinced, and detests Lussurioso, who has tried to win her over before. She hits Vindice for proposing such an offer and tells him to send that “message” to the Duke. She also outlines her belief in the importance of her honor: “Tell [Lussurioso] my honor shall have a rich name, / When several harlots shall share his with shame. Farewell! Commend me to him in my hate.” This is a brave and virtuous position to hold, risking the wrath of such a powerful man as the Duke’s son. In this, then, Castiza is the only character to show any true sense of principle when it comes to women’s place in society. She is the sole defender of womanhood, believing it to be too valuable to be sold to men, but her resistance seems futile in the male-dominated world of the play. Castiza does appear to briefly consider giving herself to Lussurioso, but only as a test for Gratiana, granting her mother an opportunity to repent for her earlier. In fact, Castiza ends up demonstrating another rare moral virtue—forgiveness—in eventually making amends with her mother.
Women are by and large presented as powerless figures and objects to be possessed by men in the play. Overall, though, the play emphasizes the absurdity of men’s actions, particularly when it comes violence, (in)justice, and lust, while making the one character who displays a genuine sense of morality a woman—intended or not, this suggests that women possess a strength that some men cannot even begin to recognize.
Women and Misogyny ThemeTracker
Women and Misogyny 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: 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.
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.
I marked not this before:
A prayer book the pillow to her cheek;
This was her rich confection, and another
Placed in her right hand with a leaf tucked up,
Pointing to these words:
Melius virtute mori, quam per dedecus viyere.
True and effectual it is indeed.
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.
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.