The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton and The Atheist's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur.

Since the end of January I've been reading Four Revenge Tragedies published by Oxford University Press (1995). It consists of:
  • The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, which I wrote about in February.
  • The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton.
  • The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois by George Chapman - this I didn't read at all as it's a sequel to Bussy D'Ambois, which I've not managed to get a hold of yet.
  • The Atheist's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur.
With The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy I must say I had some bad luck: I actually think these are my least favourite plays of all time and I had the misfortune of reading them back to back! Nevertheless, if only to 'anchor' them into my brain a little I'll try and say a few words.

The Revenger's Tragedy

This play, which to be fair I preferred to The Atheist's Tragedy, was believed to have been written by Cyril Tourneur, the author of The Atheist's Tragedy, however it turns out it was actually written by Thomas Middleton (who collaborated with William Shakespeare in writing Timon of Athens, 1605-06). The Revenger's Tragedy was written around the same time as Timon of Athens in 1606 and was published in 1607. It begins with a prologue by Vindice, our revenger:
Duke, royal lecher, go, grey-hair'd adultery;
And thou his son, as impious steep'd as he;
And thou his bastard, true-begot in evil;
And thou his duchess that will do with the devil:
Four ex'lent characters. Oh, that marrowless age
Would stuff the hollow bones with damn'd desires,
And stead of heat kindle infernal fires
Within the spendthrift veins of a dry duke,
A parch'd and juiceless luxur! Oh God, one
That has scarce blood enough to live upon!
And he to riot it like a son and heir?
Oh, the thought of that
Turns my abused heartstrings into fret!
Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love,
My study's ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face of my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally fill'd out
These ragged imperfections,
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In those unsightly rings: then 'twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman's bought complexion
That the uprightest man, if such there be,
That sin but seven times a day, broke custom
And made up eight with looking after her.
Oh, she was able to ha' made a usurer's son
Melt all his patrimony in a kiss,
And what his father fifty years told
To have consum'd, and yet his suit been cold!
But oh, accursed palace!
Thee, when thou wert apparel'd in thy flesh,
The old duke poison'd,
Because thy purer part would not consent
Unto his palsy-lust, for old men lustful
Do show like young men angry, eager-violent,
Outbid like their limited performances.
Oh, 'ware an old man hot and vicious!
"Age, as in gold, in lust is covetous."
Vengeance, thou murder's quit-rent, and whereby
Thou shouldst thyself tenant to tragedy,
Oh, keep thy day, hour, minute, I beseech,
For those thou hast determin'd! Hum: whoe'er knew
Murder unpaid? Faith, give revenge her due:
Sh'as kept touch hitherto. Be merry, merry;
Advance thee, O thou terror to fat folks,
To have their costly three-pil'd flesh worn of
As bare as this: for banquets, ease, and laughter
Can make great men, as greatness goes by clay,
But wise men little are more great than they.
As he explains the Duke poisoned his sweetheart "Because thy purer part would not consent / Unto his palsy-lust". We also learn that the Duke's son Junior raped the wife of Antonio, a lord who does not like the Duke. Vindice and his brother Hippolito vow revenge. Vindice disguises himself as Piato and works for Lussurioso, another son of the Duke. In their plans to kill the Duke, Vindice and Hippolito also discover that Lussurioso wishes to sleep with Castiza, and, not realising Castiza is the sister of Vindice and Hippolito, asks them to help him with his scheming. Now the two brothers intend to kill him too, as well as the Duke and Junior. This is complicated yet more by the Duke's families own plots of revenge and assassinations. Eventually Vindice and Hippolito's plans come into fruition, but they themselves play with their lives for their endeavours.

I found it an extraordinarily complicated play, and (I may well be wrong here) but I don't recall this level of complication outside a Ancient or Renaissance comedy! Whatever the case I'm afraid it left me rather cold, and I would venture to say it might have been a tad overdone. I'll be interested, nevertheless, to read another revenge play by Middleton - The Maiden's Tragedy - over the weekend.

The Atheist's Tragedy

Following The Revenger's Tragedy is The Atheist's Tragedy or the Honest Man's Revenge, written by Cyril Tourneur and published in 1611. It's the only work by Tourneur scholars can agree what actually written by him. Another play by Tourneur, incidentally, was The Nobleman and it was accidentally destroyed by Betsy Baker, the cook of Robert Warburton. Warburton collected manuscripts and had a habit of leaving them lying around, including in the kitchen, and Betsy had a habit of using them as baking tin liners and kindling (Betsy also destroyed many of Philip Massinger's plays, Marlowe's The Maiden's Holiday, for which I cannot forgive her, two of Shakespeare's plays - Duke Humphrey and Henry I, and a great many others). But as I say The Atheist's Tragedy survived, and I would happily trade it for The Maiden's Holiday.

In this play Tourneur tells the story of D'Amville, the atheist of the play, and his nephew Charlemont, the honest play of the title. D'Amville is a truly heinous character who seeks power and murders those who get in his way (including Charlemont's father). When Charlemont returns he finds that he has been declared dead, and his fiance Castabella has been married to his cousin Rousard, D'Amville's son. He argues with his uncle and ends up duelling his other cousin Sebastian, but spares his life, and when Charlemont is imprisoned Sebastian actually bails him out. Meanwhile D'Amville, having attempted to rape Castabella, plans to murder Charlemont. Fortunately for Charlemont he defeats his assassin, however D'Amville then accuses him and Castabella of adultery for which they are imprisoned and sentenced to death. As this plays out, however, D'Amville's own ambitions of a dynasty are scuppered and members of his family die, either violently or because of illness whilst his wife Levidulchia has many affairs, resulting in the death of his son Sebastian.

Oddly enough this play has a happy ending, though not, as the title suggests, for the atheist D'Amville. Good triumphs over evil, D'Amville confesses his crimes, and Castabella and Charlemont are free at last to marry one another. As with The Revenger's Tragedy we see characters on a lower social standing to their targets: both D'Amville and the Duke are powerful men, far more powerful than Charlemont, Vindice, and Hippolito yet the revengers are to an extent successful. Both sets achieve their goal, though for Charlemont the result is far happier. In that sense they're interesting, but I've no desire to ever re-read them.


  1. the Elizabethans were a lot like usa today... some works funny and elevating, others egregiously cruel and revolting (i'm speaking of public tv here, which i don't watch anyhow); don't know what this means in predictions for the future, unless it just suggests humans don't change very much....

    1. I don't watch much TV to comment, really. I know what you mean, though. I don't think humans change much, however much I wish they would sometimes! I think it's a fascination with the dark side of life - who was it said that that was cathartic? Aristotle perhaps?


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