Anyone approaching the study of Cyril Tourneur’s work encounters two major debates. The first is the problem of whether he wrote The Revenger’s Tragedy. No author’s name is given in the Stationers’ Register entry, but the play was coupled in double entry with Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One (pr. c. 1605-1606), and current scholarship assigns the authorship of the play to Middleton.
The Atheist’s Tragedy
The Atheist’s Tragedy is an idea play, a moral exemplum demonstrating the failure of faith in nature instead of faith in God. It shows also that human striving is vain and that God’s justice prevails effectively. The play uses the medieval de casibus structure, substituting Providence for Fortune, paralleling the rise and fall of the atheist d’Amville (the atheist’s tragedy) with the fall and rise of the patient Christian Charlemont (the honest man’s revenge). The moral premise is that vengeance belongs to God, who will punish those who disturb his order and reward those who suffer patiently. Some of the methods are the same, particularly the use of symbolic rather than naturalistic characters. The structure shows the influence of the morality tradition: Humankind is shown as it should be in an ordered patriarchal society headed by Montferrers and Belforest, is led away from God during d’Amville’s amoral machinations (which destroy the social order by attacking primogeniture while at the same time questioning the fatherhood of God), and then is restored in Charlemont’s self-conquest, which achieves a right relationship of humankind with God. As in the morality play, characters are sharply divided into good and evil, and the vicious characters, more energetic than the virtuous, are more interesting to the audience.
The play was probably composed as an answer to George Chapman’s The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois (pr. c. 1610). The names Charlemont and d’Amville echo those of Clermont and Bussy d’Ambois, Chapman’s passive revenger and supreme individualist. Tourneur refutes Clermont’s self-sufficient stoicism by showing the failure of d’Amville’s self-sufficiency and the success of Charlemont’s positive Christianity.
As a revenge-play variant, The Atheist’s Tragedy is daringly experimental. It calls attention to this fact by recalling Hamlet in the two appearances of the ghost and in the graveyard scene. Its ghost, however, is used to urge a son not to revenge. This results in a dramatic problem: how to maintain sympathy for a passive hero. Tourneur attempts to solve this, first by having the ghost—unlike that which appears to Clermont d’Ambois—give reasons for not avenging, and then by arranging for Charlemont almost to give way to passion once and be restrained by the ghost, after which he is under physical restraint throughout most of the rest of the play so that he cannot act. In addition, Charlemont is given a clear moral...
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