Wednesday, 24 January 2001

Cyril Tourneur (?): The Revenger's Tragedy (1607)

Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1996
Review number: 726

Originally published anonymously, The Revenger's Tragedy was attributed to Tourneur later in the seventeenth century - but as part of a list of plays others of which were linked to the wrong authors. It is today apparently considered to be by John Middleton, but nobody can really know. Anonymous publication was not particularly uncommon, and the play has political nuances which may provide a motivation for the author to hide their identity.

The plot of The Revenger's Tragedy is sufficiently convoluted that any summary of it seems to invite the rider "Confused? You will be after this episode" which followed the plot reminders in eighties spoof soap opera Soap. Basically, it is set at a decadent Italian court where the Duke's son has attempted to rape a virtuous woman, Gloriana; her death prompts her betrothed Vindice to swear revenge on the Duke's family. His plots are aided by the lusts and ambition of the various members of the family; most of them die flamboyantly before Vindice is led off to face justice at the end of the play.

The political comment is highlighted by the name of Vindice's dead lover - Gloriana, the poetic nickname of Queen Elizabeth, who died three years before the play was first published. The name makes explicit an idea common to several similar plays of the time, that the court of James I was corrupt and depraved.Elizabeth's ministers were hardly better, but it appears to have hardly taken any time before her reign came to be regarded as a golden age.

In the early seventeenth century, there was a genre of rather gothic revenge tragedies; Hamlet is on the fringes of it. They tended to be set in some foreign - usually Italian - court, and have a lot of baroque murders (here, for example, the Duke is killed when he kisses Gloriana's skull, which has had poison smeared on it) in poetic language; there are frequently hints of incest and other crimes. The Revenger's Tragedy is almost a parody of the genre, it is so fantastical and over the top. For a tragedy, it is great fun.

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