Parody or Tragedy?: The Role of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy
A revenge tragedy is a genre of play, popularized in the seventeenth century, in which the protagonist pursues revenge for real or perceived abuses. Thee tragedies typically employ a number of the same conventions, such as escalating causes for revenge, interrupted trials, botched executions, and tragic endings. Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy is a curious example of this type of play, ultimately reading as a pastiche of a variety of other revenge tragedies. Through employing comedy and exaggerating conventions typically found in revenge tragedies such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Middleton effectively parodies this genre in his play, The Revenger’s Tragedy.
In many revenge tragedies, Shakespeare’s Hamlet included, the thought of revenge emerges from a murder. Conventionally, character one kills character two, and character three seeks revenge on character one for this murder. In Hamlet, there are only two clear revenge plots. The first commences when Hamlet discovers that his uncle, Claudius, murdered his father, King Hamlet of Denmark. Early on in the play, the ghost of King Hamlet appears in front of Hamlet and states, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love – / … / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” (1.5.25) before revealing that Claudius poured poison into his ear while he was sleeping in his orchard (1.5.59-79). After learning this shocking news about his father’s death, Hamlet makes it his goal to prove his father’s story to be true and kill Claudius. However, in doing so, he mistakenly kills Polonius, who was hiding behind a tapestry, believing it to be Claudius (3.4.23-25). This action serves as the catalyst for the second revenge plot in the play. Laertes, Polonius’ son, when returning home from France, learns of the unjust murder of his father: And so have I a noble father lost, A sister driven into desp’rate terms, Who has, if praises may go back again, Stood challenger, on mount, of all the age For her perfections. But my revenge will come (4.7.25-29). This “revenge” that he references is similar to the revenge that Hamlet aims to obtain for his father; Laertes becomes resolute in his plot to murder Hamlet, who both killed his father and caused his sister to go mad. Both of these plots for revenge have a justifiable impetus and a linear form of reasoning to achieve their purposes.
The plots for revenge in Middleton’s The Revengers Tragedy are not so sparse and linear. Only a few of the characters seek revenge for what can be argued as noble and warranted reasons. Vindice, for example, seeks revenge for his late love, Gloriana, stating, “The old Duke poisoned, / Because thy purer part would not consent / Unto his palsy-lust” (1.1.32-34). Similarly, Antonio and Hippolito aim for revenge against the Duchess’ unnamed youngest son for the rape of Antonio’s wife and her subsequent suicide (1.4.59-64). In both of these cases, the characters seek revenge because of unlawful wrongdoings, murder and rape, against their loved ones. These causes for revenge are justified in the genre of revenge tragedies and can be found in multiple plays of this particular genre.
However, not all of the characters in The Revenger’s Tragedy are as virtuous; some seek revenge for unreasonable, absurd reasons. The best example of this can be seen in the characters Supervacuo and Ambitioso. When Lussurioso is thrown in jail for treason, the Duke gives Supervacuo and Ambitioso a signet to deliver to the guards, stating that Lussurioso is to be executed (2.3.99-101). When Supervacuo and Ambitioso take the signet to the guards, they state that the Duke wants “[their] brother” to be executed right away (3.31-3); however, the guards kill their younger brother instead, seeing as Lussurio was released (3.4.39-40). After discovering their younger brother’s fate, Supervacuo and Ambitioso vow to avenge his death: Well, no more words – shalt be revenged i’ faith. Come throw off clouds now brother; think of vengeance And deeper settled hate. Sirrah sit fast: We’ll pull down all, but thou shalt down at last (3.6.88-91). If one were to look at these lines alone, it would appear as if Supervacuo and Ambitioso had a just cause for seeking revenge for their younger brother; however, his swift execution was their fault alone. They may believe that they have a noble, justifiable cause to avenge their younger brother, but, in reality, their cause is absurd and unnecessary. Through providing the audience with examples of varying degrees of justified revenge, Middleton is able to emphasize just how ridiculous some of these revenge plots truly are. For example, when the murder of one character’s wife is placed next to the accidental execution of other characters’ brother, the former highlights the absolute absurdity of the latter. This juxtaposition not only serves as a comedic tool but also exaggerates the role of revenge in these revenge tragedies, effectively satirizing the genre and its main trope.
Since death plays such a vital role in revenge tragedies, images of death, such as skulls, are eminent. In Hamlet, before Ophelia’s funeral, Hamlet finds himself in a graveyard conversing with gravediggers. After picking up a skull and recognizing it as a former jester he once knew, Hamlet throws the skull on the ground and muses about death, stating “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make load, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?” (5.1.192-195). When viewing the skull, Hamlet is prompted to think about the universality and inevitability of death. He recognizes that, though life may be important and some will amount to greatness, in the end, everyone dies and becomes a skull in the ground. His musings are philosophical and existential, highlighting the innate severity of revenge tragedies and the deaths that inhabit them.
In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice, on the other hand, uses this imagery of death for other purposes. In the opening scene of the play, Vindice enters carrying a skull, cursing the Duke and his family. Throughout his first monologue, we learn that this skull is the “sallow picture of [his] poisoned love,” (1.1.14) or his dead fiancée, Gloriana. This conventional use of a skull is similar to Hamlet’s; Vindice is addressing the skull and reflecting on the untimely death of his love. He does not go into its philosophical implications as Hamlet does, but he does recognize its grave meaning. However, this solemn musing is short lived. A few acts later, The Duke hires Vindice, disguised as Piato, to arrange a meeting with him and a lady in an abandoned lodge (3.5.8-18). Vindice sees this as the perfect opportunity to exact his revenge on the Duke and decides that the “lady” he brings for the Duke will be the adorned skull of his murdered fiancée: Madam, his Grace will not be absent long. Secret? Ne’er doubt us madam. ‘Twil be worth Three velvet gowns to your ladyship. Known? Few ladies respect that; disgrace? A poor thin shell! ‘Tis the best grace you have to do it well; I’ll save your hand that labor, I’ll unmask you (3.5.43-48). Following this quote, Vindice unmasks this “lady” and reveals her true identity. This is a stark contrast to Hamlet’s existential musings. By having Vindice dress the skull up as a woman, Middleton is inserting humor and absurdity into an otherwise serious scene. Vindice’s folly is recognized in the play, as Hippolito states, “Why brother, brother,” (3.5.49) after Vindice unmasks the skull. Through having another character acknowledge this absurdity, Middleton calls attention to the fact that dressing up your dead fiancée’s skull is, indeed, a ridiculous plan. Simiarly, because the audience has seen Vindice’s solemn musing about this skull at the beginning of the play, Middleton further highlights the use of comedy in a conventionally humorless scene, successfully deepening the notion that this play is a parody of the typical revenge tragedy.
Another convention typically found in revenge tragedies is the employment of the unintentional execution. In Hamlet, Claudius sends Hamlet and his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on a ship to England with a letter that asks for the execution of Hamlet upon his arrival (4.3.60-70). Hamlet, hearing wind of this, switches the letter with one that he wrote. This letter states that “the bearers [should be] put to sudden death,” (5.2.48) who, in this case, are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, since Hamlet leaves the ship and makes his way back toward Denmark. Through the unintentional execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet is not only able to avoid his own execution but also punish those who worked against him, showing no sympathy for his traitors: Why, man, they did make love to this employment. They are not near my conscience. Their defeat Doth by their own insinuation grow. ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes Between the pass and fell incensed points Of mighty opposites (5.2.58-63). These deaths function to further the notion of revenge in this play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wronged Hamlet; therefore Hamlet devises a way to get them killed. Their executions provide a means to an end that benefit both Hamlet and the overall narrative, proving to be purposeful as opposed to superfluous.
The Revengers Tragedy, on the other hand, employs unintentional executions for a different purpose. When Supervacuo and Ambitioso tell the guards that the Duke wants their “brother” to be executed, they are intending that the guards will execute Lussurioso, their half-brother (3.31-3). However, Lussurioso was released without their knowledge; therefore, the guards take their younger brother to his execution instead (3.4.39-40). When the guards bring the decapitated head of their younger brother to Supervacuo and Ambitioso, they pretend to be upset, still believing it to be Lussurioso (3.6.39-42). However, immediately following this fake mourning, Lussurioso enters, prompting Supervacuo and Ambitioso to exclaim, “Alive! In heath! Released!” in an attempt to hide their surprise (3.6.58). After learning that it was, in fact, their younger brother who was executed, they similarly exclaim, “Plagues! Confusions! Darkness! Devils!”; however, this time, these exclamations are in earnest (3.6.75). The repetition of short exclamations serves to highlight the surprise these characters face when learning the truth. Additionally, through having the characters take turns with each individual word, Middleton introduces comedy into the scene. Not only is the accidental execution absurd in and of itself, the characters’ reactions are as well. This humor and absurdity rejects the conventional unintentional execution trope, such as the scene in Hamlet, therefore effectively undercutting the grave tone used in many revenge tragedies.
Typically, revenge tragedies end in brutal, bloody death scenes, and Hamlet’s infamous finale is a well-known example of this convention. Claudius agrees with Laertes that he should avenge his father’s death and suggests that Laertes challenge Hamlet to a fencing duel, which would give him the opportunity to kill Hamlet without the appearance of foul play (4.6.79-84). Additionally, Laertes anoints his sword with poison to ensure that Hamlet dies, and Claudius has a poisoned chalice to give him, if all else fails (4.6.111-133). However, this plan backfires. While Hamlet and Laertes and fencing, Laertes wounds Hamlet, they drop their rapiers, and Hamlet grabs Laertes’ rapier and wounds Laertes, meaning they both have been poisoned. While this fighting ensues, Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, takes a sip from the chalice, becomes poisoned, and dies (5.2.234, 253). Upon learning that the chalice was poisoned and Claudius is to blame, Hamlet stabs and kills Claudius and, soon after, both Laertes and Hamlet die from their poisoned wounds. By the end of this scene, the only character that remains alive is Horatio; all other characters are slain by another, exemplifying the typical death scene of a revenge tragedy. Not only does everybody die, but they do so dramatically, uttering apologies and profound statements in the moments before they pass. This heightens both the severity of these deaths and the moral implications that accompany them, causing the audience to feel as if this play is truly tragic.
However, The Revenger’s Tragedy handles the final tragic death scene very differently. Vindice, Hippolito, and two lords enter Lussurioso’s banquet as part of a masque. They begin their masked dance and, during all of this frivolity, kill the four nobles at the table, including Lussurioso. The masque then retreats, and a new masque, consisting of Supervacuo, Ambitioso, Surpio, and a fourth man, enters in a dance routine. Seeing that Lussurioso has been stabbed, Supervacuo states, “Then I proclaim myself. Now I am duke,” (5.3.54) prompting Ambitioso to yell, “Thou duke! Brother thou liest” (5.3.55) and stab Supervacuo so that he may become the new Duke. This causes Spurio to yell, “Slave! So dost thou” (5.3.55) and stab Ambitioso, which leads the fourth man in the masque so exclaim, “Base villain, hast thou slain my lord and master?” (5.3.56). This chain of stabbings is vastly different than the death scene portrayed in Hamlet for a variety of reasons. First, there is no secret plot for revenge that initiated all of this murder; instead, these men stab one another impulsively when they see fit, exaggerating the act of killing. This certainly makes this death scene dramatic but it is not tragic like the scene in Hamlet. Tragedy implies suffering and distress, none of which are portrayed in these hasty deaths. Second, the characters in this scene do not utter any significant musings and statements in the moments before their death like Laertes and Hamlet in Hamlet. Instead, they bicker like children, arguing over who is in the wrong. This introduces comedy into a traditionally somber scene, removing the potential gravity of the situation. Through exaggerating the act of killing itself and employing humor, Middleton is able to highlight the absurdity of some tragic death scenes and therefore successfully parody them.
Middleton most blatantly parodies the genre of the revenge tragedy by making The Revenger’s Tragedy a metadrama, meaning that the play is conscious of the genre it inhabits. Examples of this can be found throughout the entirety of the play and include the abundance of asides, Vindice’s continuous mentioning of the word revenge, and the employment of traditional conventions of revenge tragedies, to name a few. The most glaring example of Middleton’s use of metadrama can be seen in the characters’ names. When Lussurioso meets the real Vindice for the first time, he states that Vindice has a good name, to which Vindice replies “Ay, a revenger” (4.3.170). As if this is not redundant enough, Lussurio goes on to state, “It does betoken courage, thou shouldst be valiant / And kill thine enemies” (4.3.171-172). In this exchange, Middleton could not make it more obvious that Vindice’s entire purpose is to exact revenge. By acknowledging the genre itself, Middleton allows the audience to recognize traditional tropes, which subsequently makes his use of comedy and exaggerations more effective.
When traditional revenge tragedies, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are compared to Middleton’s The Revengers Tragedy, it becomes apparent that The Revengers Tragedy acts as a parody of the genre. Through his use of comedy and thoughtful exaggerations, Middleton calls attention to the traditional conventions found in revenge tragedies, such as varying causes for revenge, botched executions, and tragic endings. Highlighting these tropes causes the audience to recognize them and their subsequent roles, allowing for a successful and culturally relevant parody and cementing The Revenger’s Tragedy’s role in the tragic canon.
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