The Revenger’s Tragedy: Plot

The play is a veritable choreography of vengeance.  A negative appraiser might find the complexities tedious and contrived, but we might, by examining some of the characters, come to a more positive conclusion; because, indeed, as in any well-contrived dramatic work--which excludes most films made in the past 50 years--plot and character are so interwoven that one might well say that the plot is driven by character.

To what extent is this true in The Revenger's Tragedy?  I can give a few examples and invite others to contribute.  First, the Duke's lechery not only caused him to attempt a woman and then murder her to keep her silent but also puts him into Vindice's hands.    Vindice is a just and courageous man, but one might well arraign him on the charge of a fanatical and self-absorbed devotion to his revenge plot, which he sets above all interests of the state.  Assassinating the Duke--and by what a grisly means--brings upon him the wrath of the wronged Antonio, whose desire for justice does not extend to killing the ruler, however much he deserves it.

Some of the more bizarre twists and turns of the plot derive from the character of the Duke's sons and stepsons, who ar enot only lecherous, vain, and self-seeking but also extraordinarily duplicitous and disloyal to each other.

So, come then, and explain how the characters drive the plot, beginning with the ladies.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    The Duchess, it seems to me, is rather much like a female version of her husband. I deserve what I want, I shall get what I want as quickly as possible by the easiest means I can immediately think of. The things which I regard as good are that which first pops into my head, no more questions asked. Though my son raped a woman, punishment for this crime is not what I want. She and her family seem to be the model for what some people say is the corrupt nature of nobility. Her character is contrasted by Lord Antonio’s wife, presented as general honest, religious, valuing honor over her own life. They are hat nobility is supposed to be. Castiza, also, is presented as honorable, though her brother fears she may be easy in belief, a weakness which drives his urge for protection/revenge. Vindici and Castiza discover a disturbing feature of Gratiana’s character when she argues that the possible practical benefits of her daughter availing herself to Lussurio’s desire outweigh considerations of honor. That she repents when confronted by this, I wondered, is perhaps an illustration of the necessity of social pressure for maintaining good behavior among the common people. Vindici’s dead fiance may also, I suppose, be considered as well. The fact that Vindici says she had a face far beyong the artificial shine of a bought complexion I think is worthy of consideration, in contrasting the other characters, and establishing a motivation.

  2. Dom says:

    The characters of Castiza and Gratiana present general guilelessness or innocence. Vindice observes how credulous they are and how easily they will swallow his and Hippolito’s lie. He also likens his sister to blind Justice herself. They desire revenge on behalf of another woman, Antonio’s wife, and in response to an objective crime. They expect others to exact the revenge.

    Antonio’s wife is universally admired as a pious and upright character. She does not desire revenge, unless there is something vengeful in suicide. However suicide might be viewed in this case, she is both subject and object. Her primary motivation seems to be the indignity suffered, but the indignity was inflicted through actual injury. Her motivation could be considered pride, but Antonio and the others regard her deed with admiration and so there is a sense humility in it.

    The Duchess seems like an inversion of these other women. She dismisses the rape of another woman and has been attempting to seduce her son-in-law for some time. Her desire for revenge has nothing to do with justice and in fact seeks to avenge the very justice that Castiza and Gratiana expect. That the avenged act has not even occurred indicates that the Duchess is reacting to insult rather than injury and because of pride in contrast to Antonio’s wife’s humility. (I think of Montresor in The Cask of Amontillado – “The thousand injuries of Fortunado I had born as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. ” I guess it’s an Italian thing.)
    Her self-serving concept of revenge also has a corrputing effect on others. Spurrio seems to have been avoiding the Duchess’ advances, but playing to his unease about his birth she finally convinces him to participate in her vengeance with relish.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    What about our hero? Is he rightly condemned?

    A broader question is in what sort of society would such a play be written and produced? Obviously, in the USSR or Nazi Germany, even the rumor that it was being written would be fatal to the author. In the Athens of Aeschylus and Sophocles, such a dark view of the ruling class is inconceivable. In America, one might say such things on FB–at least for a time–or in an offoff Broadway show, but Primetime TV? The big exception is the British production of House of Cards.

    My point is not to suggest that the play is deliberately written as a satire on the state of English upper class life in the days of James I, but what does the implied condemnation tell us about Middleton and the people he wrote for? That is, what sort of ruling class had they been brought up to expect or demand and by implication, what is their complaint?

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    One more question. There is a cynical brilliance in many of the utterances, of Vindici/Vendice in particular. Submit a a few striking lines and use them to answer the question put in the above comment.

  5. Jacob Johnson says:

    Is Vindice rightly condemned? He seems to think so. “Tis time to die when we ourselves are out foes.” I should think that the origin of his grievances, his woman’s murder for resisting seduction, is something that generally inspires a vengeful desire. Should it matter that his mark is a duke? Most people today would say no but have mixed opinions about Bill Clinton. Perhaps he went overboard a bit, Castiza didn’t want Lussorioso anyway. I’ll have to think bout it.

    In what sort of society would such a play be produced? Apparently a society in a “marrowless age.” The hollow hollowed out remains of what once provided structure and protection for sort vital organs, but no longer is. One can say such things about the ruling class on prime time, but it depends on who the ruling class is said to be. It’s ok to say they’re people like Richard Nixon, but if they’re said to be people like George Soros that’s “stochastic terrorism.” The complaint seems to be that is the ruling class is not on their best behavior, fairly or not, it may eventually contribute to bloody disorder, and in 1606 this was prescient.

  6. Michael Strenk says:

    Vindice, as Dr. Fleming notes, has pursued his task, in a fanatical way. Fanatics generally lose their compass, which is what happens in the end. So proud is he of his achievements that he proudly owns the assassinations of the Duke and his son expecting that all others will be grateful. Chief among those who will not be grateful should be his loyal brother, Hippolito, who will now share his fate, and his mother and sister, who will afterward be even more destitute than they already were and henceforth unprotected. They will also, likely, be stigmatized as the relatives of regicides.

    What the hapless Spurio does not realize about the Duchess’ plan for him is that for her to be truly avenged through her affair, the affair must, at some point, become known. Spurio would seem to be more inclined to giving his purported father his horns in secret rather than risk suffering his wrath.

    My knowledge of the history of the Tudor period is abysmal, but I would venture that the tolerance for the production of such a play might be likened to the period after the death of Stalin in the Soviet Union during which a sort of catharsis was achieved through the condemnation of the cult of personality and the excesses of the past with Henry VIII playing the role of Stalin.