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The Revenger’s Tragedy: Post-Participatory Justice

  • Derek Dunne
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)

Abstract

By its very title The Revenger’s Tragedy proclaims itself to be the quintessential specimen of the genre known as early modern revenge tragedy. And in many ways the play does represent the culmination of a number of the features argued for in this book. Vindice’s principle target is a duke who interferes with a trial in the first act, and this is then used as justification for the multiple homicides committed in the last. The protagonist is without doubt drawn from outside the ruling elite, and in the course of the play he accrues a band of followers that help to transform his actions from personal revenge to political assassination. On a purely structural level, these components all have antecedents in other revenge tragedies examined thus far. However, having identified an undercurrent of social commentary, dissatisfaction with legal innovation, and even civil unrest within the revenge genre, I want finally to suggest how these features can become fossilised within the narrative arc of a revenge play, after their specific social charge is spent. By this I mean that while many of the socio-legal elements identified in other revenge plays are present in The Revenger’s Tragedy, they do not drive the action in the same way as the multiple trial scenes of The Spanish Tragedy, or Jerome’s abortive insurrection in The Tragedy of Hoffman, elements which prove to be thematically integral as well as narratively expedient.

Keywords

Death Sentence Social Commentary Legal Term Civil Unrest Final Scene 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Eileen Allman argues for the misogyny of the play as ‘political’ in the sense of being loaded with Elizabethan nostalgia and thus implicitly critical of James’ reign, Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue (London: Associated University Presses, 1999).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Thomas A. Green, ‘The Jury and the English Law of Homicide, 1200–1600’, Michigan Law Review, 74 (1976), 413–99 (p. 499). See Chapter 3 for a description of the 1590s as a decade of unparalleled legal innovation.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 4.
    The play’s first performance is uncertain, but a date of 1606 seems likely, see Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture: A Companion to the Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), p. 362.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Sandra Clark, for example, discusses how the play’s unstable society, lapsed morals and ineffectual law are ‘suggestive of Jacobean England and the court of King James, regularly satirised for its extravagance and loose morality’, Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), pp. 144–5. See also Nicholas Brooke, Horrid Laughter in Jacobean Tragedy (London: Open Books, 1979), pp. 10–27.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Richard T. Brucher, ‘Fantasies of Violence: Hamlet and The Revenger’s Tragedy’, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 21 (1981), 257–70; Scott McMillin, ‘Acting and Violence: The Revenger’s Tragedy and Its Departures from Hamlet’, Studies in English Literature 24 (1984), 275–91;Henry E. Jacobs, ‘Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy, and the Ideology of the Memento Mori’, Shakespeare Studies, 21 (1993), 96–108; Steven Mullaney, ‘Mourning and Misogyny: Hamlet, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and the Final Progress of Elizabeth I, 1600–1607’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 45 (1994), 139–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    Alvin Kernan, ‘Tragical Satire and The Revenger’s Tragedy’, in Shakespeare’s Contemporaries: Modern Studies in English Renaissance Drama, ed. Max Bluestone and Norman Rabkin, 2nd edn (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1970), pp. 317–27; Sanders, ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’, pp. 25–36; Wilds, ‘The Revenger as Dramatist’, pp. 113–22; Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2nd edn (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p. 149.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Brucher, ‘Fantasies of Violence’, p. 258–9. Cf. McMillin: ‘he practices the arts of the theatre with increasing elaborateness and self-consciousness’, p. 285; Robert C. Jones: ‘the emphasis on the jest or the neatness of the contrivance moves us … more to humor than to horror’, Engagement With Knavery: Point of View in Richard III, The Jew of Malta, Volpone, and The Revenger’s Tragedy (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986), p. 141; Sandra Clark: ‘their success is figured rather as a triumph of wit than of honour or justice’, Renaissance Drama, pp. 144–5; Heather Hirschfeld: ‘[Vindice] sees his demise not as a moral but as an aesthetic end to the play’, ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy: Original Sin and the allures of vengeance’, in The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 200–10 (p. 208).Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Albert Tricomi, ‘The Aesthetics of Mutilation in Titus Andronicus’, Shakespeare Survey, 27 (1974), 11–19; Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy, p. 200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 11.
    See for example L. G. Salingar, ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Morality Tradition’, Scrutiny, 4 (1938), 402–24.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), p. 543.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Case of Prohibitions (1607), 12 Co Rep 63–64. Martin Wiggins also relates the story of how James uses his royal prerogative to have a cutpurse hanged without trial at Newark on his initial progress south for coronation in 1603, Drama and the Transfer of Power in Renaissance England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 27.
    McMillin, ‘Acting and Violence’, p. 279. Michael Neill too recognises this when he says how ‘revenge is scarcely dramatized as a problem here in the way that it is in The Spanish Tragedy, say, or even Hamlet’, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 398 (original emphasis).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 33.
    Karin S. Coddon, ‘“For Show or Useless Property”: Necrophilia and The Revenger’s Tragedy’, English Literary History, 61 (1994), 71–88 (p. 85).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Derek Dunne 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Derek Dunne
    • 1
  1. 1.University of FribourgSwitzerland

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