Cyril Tourneur

Start Free Trial

T. S. Eliot (essay date 1930)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Cyril Tourneur,” in The Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 1930, p. 925.

[In the following essay, Eliot considers the question of whether both The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy can be rightly attributed to Tourneur. He goes on to argue that The Revenger's Tragedy is one of the greatest plays written by a minor Elizabethan, asserting that while the play is a work of morbid and juvenile fascination with death that is marked by cynicism and loathing, it also demonstrates remarkable technical innovations and employs a unique verse style.]

Although the tragedies which make immortal the name of Cyril Tourneur are accessible to every one in the Mermaid edition, it is still an event to have a new edition of the “work” of this strange poet. Fifty-two years have passed since the edition in two volumes by Churton Collins. And this sumptuous critical edition of Professor Nicoll's1 reminds us that it is time to revalue the work of Tourneur.

None of the Elizabethan dramatists is more puzzling; none offers less foothold for the scholarly investigator; and none is more dangerous for the literary critic. We know almost nothing of his life; we trace his hand in no collaboration. He has left only two plays; and it has been doubted even whether the same man wrote both; and if he did, as most scholars agree, there is still some doubt as to which he wrote first. Yet in no plays by any minor Elizabethan is a more positive personality revealed than in The Revenger's Tragedy. No Elizabethan dramatist offers greater temptation: to the scholar, to hazard conjecture of fact; and to the critic, to hazard conjecture of significance. We may be sure that what Mr. Nicoll does not know is unknown to anybody; and it is no disrespect to his scholarship and diligence to remark how little, in the fifty-two years of Elizabethan research since Collins, has been added to our knowledge of the singular poet with the delightful name. Churton Collins, in his admirable introduction, really knows nothing at all about the man's life; and all that later students have been able to do is to piece together several probable shreds. That there was a family of Tourneurs is certain; the precise place in it of Cyril is, as Mr. Nicoll freely admits, a matter of speculation. And with all the plausible guesses possible, Mr. Nicoll tells us that Tourneur's “whole early life is a complete blank.” What he does give us is good reason for believing that Tourneur, with perhaps other members of the family, was a servant of the Cecils; and he adds to our knowledge a prose piece, “The Character of Robert Earl of Salisbury.” Besides the two tragedies, he also gives “The Transformed Metamorphosis,” the “Funeral Poem upon the Death of Sir Francis Vere,” and the Elegy on the death of Prince Henry, already canonically attributed to Tourneur; and “Laugh and Lie Down,” a satirical pamphlet, no better and no worse than dozens of others, which is probably Tourneur's—at least, it is attributed to him, and there is no particular reason why he should not be the author.

The information of fifty years is meagre, and probably will never be improved. It is astonishingly incongruous with what we feel we know about Tourneur after reading the two plays: two plays as different from all plays by known Elizabethans as they are from each other. In Elizabethan drama, the critic is rash who will assert boldly that any play is by a single hand. But with each of these, The Atheist's Tragedy

(This entire section contains 3729 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The Atheist's Tragedy and The Revenger's Tragedy, the literary critic feels that, even were there some collaboration, one mind guided the whole work; and feels that the mind was not that of one of the other well-known dramatic writers. Certainly, Tourneur has made a very deep impression upon the minds of those critics who have admired him. It is to be regretted, however, that Professor Nicoll, at the beginning of his otherwise sober and just introduction, has quoted the hysterical phrase of Marcel Schwob's vie imaginaire of Tourneur. To say that Tourneur naquit de l'union d'un dieu inconnu avec une prostituée is a pardonable excess of a romantic period, a pardonable excess on the part of a poet discovering a foreign poet. But this is not criticism; and it is a misleading introduction to the work of a man who was a great English poet; and it produces an impression which is increased by the excellent but too macabre decorations of Mr. Carter. What matters first is the beauty of the verse and the unity of the dramatic pattern in the two plays.

The author of The Atheist's Tragedy and The Revenger's Tragedy belongs critically among the earlier of the followers of Shakespeare. If Ford and Shirley and Fletcher represent the decadence, and Webster the last ripeness, then Tourneur belongs a little earlier than Webster. He is nearer to Middleton, and has some affinity to that curious and still underestimated poet Marston. The difference between his mind and that of Webster is very great; if we assigned his plays to any other known dramatist, Webster would be the last choice. For Webster is a slow, deliberate, careful writer, very much the conscious artist. He was incapable of writing so badly or so tastelessly as Tourneur sometimes did, but he is never quite so surprising as Tourneur sometimes is. Moreover, Webster, in his greatest tragedies, has a kind of pity for all of his characters, an attitude towards good and bad alike which helps to unify the Webster pattern. Tourneur has no such feeling for any of his characters; and in this respect is nearer, as Professor Stoll has pointed out and Professor Nicoll has reminded us, to the author of Antonio and Mellida. Of all his other contemporaries, Middleton is the nearest. But Mr. Nicoll, we think quite rightly, rejects Mr. E. H. C. Oliphant's theory that Middleton is the author of The Revenger's Tragedy, and with Mr. Dugdale Sykes restores the play to Tourneur. And in spite of Mr. Oliphant's weight of probabilities, there is one quality of Middleton which we do not find in the two plays attributed to Tourneur. The finest of the tragic characters of Middleton live in a way which differs from Tourneur's, not in degree but kind; and they have flashes of a kind of satiric wit unknown to Tourneur, in whom wit is supplied by a fierce grotesquerie. In reading one play of Middleton, either The Changeling or Women Beware Women, for instance, we can recognize an author capable of considerable variety in his dramatic work; in reading either of Tourneur's plays we recognize a narrow mind, capable at most of the limited range of Marston.

Indeed, none of the characters of Tourneur, even the notable Vindice, the protagonist of The Revenger's Tragedy, is by himself invested with much humanity either for good or evil. But dramatic characters may live in more than one way; and a dramatist like Tourneur can compensate his defects by the intensity of his virtues. Characters should be real in relation to our own life, certainly, as even a very minor character of Shakespeare may be real; but they must also be real in relation to each other; and the closeness of emotional pattern in the latter way is an important part of dramatic merit. The personages of Tourneur have, like those of Marston, and perhaps in a higher degree, this togetherness. They may be distortions, grotesques, almost childish caricatures of humanity, but they are all distorted to scale. Hence the whole action, from their appearance to their ending, “no common action” indeed, has its own selfsubsistent reality. For closeness of texture, in fact, there are no plays beyond Shakespeare's, and the best of Marlowe and Jonson, that can surpass The Revenger's Tragedy. Tourneur excels in three virtues of the dramatist: he knew how, in his own way, to construct a plot, he was cunning in his manipulation of stage effects, and he was a master of versification and choice of language. The Revenger's Tragedy starts off at top speed, as every critic has observed; and never slackens to the end. We are told everything we need to know before the first scene is half over; Tourneur employs his torrent of words with the greatest economy. The opening scene and the famous Scene V of Act III are remarkable feats of melodrama; and the suddenness of the end of the final scene of Act V matches the sudden explosiveness of the beginning.

Before considering the detail of the two plays, we must face two problems which have never been solved and probably never will be: whether the two plays are by the same hand and, if so, in which order they were written. For the first point, the consensus of scholarship, with the exception of Mr. Oliphant's brilliant ascription of The Revenger's Tragedy to Middleton—an ascription which leaves the other play more of a mystery than before—assigns the two plays to Tourneur. For the second point, the consensus of scholarship is counter to the first impressions of sensibility; for all existing evidence points to the priority of The Revenger's Tragedy in time. The records of Stationer's Hall cannot be lightly disregarded; and Mr. Dugdale Sykes, who is perhaps our greatest authority on the texts of Tourneur and Middleton, finds stylistic evidence also. Professor Nicoll accepts the evidence, although pointing out clearly enough the anomaly. Certainly, any testimony drawn from the analogy of a modern poet's experience would urge that The Atheist's Tragedy was immature work, and that The Revenger's Tragedy represented a period of full mastery of blank verse. It is not merely that the latter play is in every way the better; but that it shows a highly original development of vocabulary and metric, unlike that of every other play and every other dramatist. The versification of The Revenger's Tragedy is of a very high order indeed. And yet, with the evidence before us, summed up briefly in Mr. Nicoll's preface, we cannot affirm that this is the later play. Among all the curiosities of that curious period, when dramatic poets worked and developed in ways alien to the modern mind, this is one of the most curious. But it is quite possible. We may conjecture either that The Atheist's Tragedy was composed, or partly composed, and laid by until after The Revenger's Tragedy was written and entered. Or that after exhausting his best inspiration on the latter play—which certainly bears every internal evidence of having been written straight off in one sudden heat—Tourneur, years after, in colder blood, with more attention to successful models—not only Shakespeare but also perhaps Chapman—produced The Atheist's Tragedy, with more regular verse, more conventional moralizing, more conventional scenes, but with here and there flashes of the old fire. Not that the scenes of The Atheist's Tragedy are altogether conventional; or, at least, he trespasses beyond the convention in a personal way. There was nothing remarkable in setting a graveyard scene at midnight; but we feel that to set it for the action of a low assignation and an attempted rape at the same time seems more to be expected of the author of The Revenger's Tragdy than of any one else; while the low comedy, more low than comic, does not seem of the taste of either Webster or Middleton. Webster's farcical prose is harmonious with his tragic verse; and in this respect Webster is a worthy follower of the tradition of the Porter in Macbeth. Middleton again, in his tragedies, has a different feel of the relation of the tragic and the comic; whereas the transitions in the two tragedies of Tourneur—and especially in The Atheist's Tragedy—are exactly what one would expect from a follower of Marston; especially in The Atheist's Tragedy they have that offensive tastelessness which is so positive as to be itself a kind of taste, which we find in the work of Marston.

The Atheist's Tragedy is indeed a peculiar brew of styles. It has well-known passages like the following:2

Walking next day upon the fatal shore,
Among the slaughtered bodies of their men,
Which the full-stomached sea had cast upon
The sands, it was my unhappy chance to light
Upon a face, whose favour when it lived
My astonished mind informed me I had seen.
He lay in his armour, as if that had been
His coffin; and the weeping sea (like one
Whose milder temper doth lament the death
Of him whom in his rage he slew) runs up
The shore, embraces him, kisses his cheek;
Goes back again, and forces up the sands
To bury him, and every time it parts
Sheds tears upon him, till, at last (as if
It could no longer endure to see the man
Whom it had slain, yet loth to leave him) with
A kind of unresolved unwilling pace,
Winding her waves one in another, (like
A man that folds his arms, or wrings his hands
For grief) ebbed from the body, and descends;
As if it would sink down into the earth
And hide itself for shame of such a deed.

The present writer was once convinced that The Atheist's Tragedy was the earlier play. But lines like these, masterly but artificial, might well belong to a later period; the regularity of the versification, the elaboration of the long suspended sentences, with three similes expressed in brackets, remind us even of Massinger. It is true that Charles Lamb, commenting on this passage, refers this parenthetical style to Sir Philip Sidney, who “seems to have set the example to Shakespeare”; but these lines have closer syntactical parallels in Massinger than in Shakespeare. But lines like

To spend our substance on a minute's pleasure

remind one of The Revenger's Tragedy, and lines like

Your gravity becomes your perished soul
As hoary mouldiness does rotten fruit

of The Revenger's Tragedy where it is likest Middleton.

As a parallel for admitting the possibility of The Atheist's Tragedy being the later play, Professor Nicoll cites the fact that Cymbeline is later than Hamlet. This strikes us as about the most unsuitable parallel that could be found. Even though some critics may still consider Cymbeline as evidence of “declining powers,” it has no less a mastery of words than Hamlet, and possibly more; and, like every one of Shakespeare's plays, it adds something or develops something not explicit in any previous play; it has its place in an orderly sequence. Now accepting the canonical order of Tourneur's two plays, The Atheist's Tragedy adds nothing at all to what the other play has given us; there is no development, no fresh inspiration; only the skilful but uninspired use of a greater metrical variety. Cases are not altogether wanting, among poets, of a precocious maturity exceeding the limits of the poet's experience—in contrast to the very slow and very long development of Shakespeare—a maturity to which the poet is never again able to catch up. Tourneur's genius, in any case, is in The Revenger's Tragedy; his talent only in The Atheist's Tragedy.

Indeed, The Revenger's Tragedy might well be a specimen of such isolated masterpieces. It does express—and this, chiefly, is what gives it its amazing unity—an intense and unique and horrible vision of life; but is such a vision as might come, as the result of few or slender experiences, to a highly sensitive adolescent with a gift for words. We are apt to expect of youth only a fragmentary view of life; we incline to see youth as exaggerating the importance of its narrow experience and imagining the world as did Chicken Licken. But occasionally the intensity of the vision of its own ecstasies or horrors, combined with a mastery of word and rhythm, may give to a juvenile work a universality which is beyond the author's knowledge of life to give, and to which mature men and women can respond. Churton Collins's introduction to the works is by far the most penetrating interpretation of Tourneur that has been written; and this introduction, though Collins believed The Revenger's Tragedy to be the later play, and although he thinks of Tourneur as a man of mature experience, does not invalidate this theory. “Tourneur's great defect as a dramatic poet,” says Collins, “is undoubtedly the narrowness of his range of vision”: and this narrowness of range might be that of a young man. The cynicism, the loathing and disgust of humanity, expressed consummately in The Revenger's Tragedy, are immature in the respect that they exceed the object. Their objective equivalents are characters practising the grossest vices; characters which seem merely to be spectres projected from the poet's inner world of nightmare, some horror beyond words. So the play is a document on humanity chiefly because it is a document on one human being, Tourneur; its motive is truly the death-motive, for it is the loathing and horror of life itself. To have realized this motive so well is a triumph; for the hatred of life is an important phase—even, if you like, a mystical experience—in life itself.

The Revenger's Tragedy, then, is in this respect quite different from any play by any minor Elizabethan; it can, in this respect, be compared only to Hamlet. Perhaps, however, its quality would be better marked by contrasting it with a later work of cynicism and loathing, Gulliver's Travels. No two compositions could be more dissimilar. Tourneur's “suffering, cynicism and despair,” to use Collins's words, are static; they might be prior to experience, or be the fruit of but little; Swift's is the progressive cynicism of the mature and disappointed man of the world. As an objective comment on the world, Swift's is by far the more terrible. For Swift had himself enough pettiness, as well as enough sin of pride, and lust of dominion, to be able to expose and condemn mankind by its universal pettiness and pride and vanity and ambition; and his poetry, as well as his prose, attests that he hated the very smell of the human animal. We may think as we read Swift, “how loathesome human beings are”; in reading Tourneur we can only think, “how terrible to loathe human beings so much as that.” For you cannot make humanity horrible merely by presenting human beings as consistent and monotonous maniacs of gluttony and lust.

Collins, we think, tended to read into the plays of Tourneur too much, or more than is necessary, of a lifetime's experience. Some of his phrases, however, are memorable and just. But what still remains to be praised, after Swinburne and Collins and Mr. Nicoll, is Tourneur's unique style in blank verse. His occasional verses are mediocre at best; he left no lyric verse at all; but it is hardly too much to say that, after Marlowe, Shakespeare and Webster, Tourneur is the most remarkable technical innovator—an innovator who found no imitators. The style of The Revenger's Tragedy is consistent throughout; there is little variation, but the rapidity escapes monotony.

Faith, if the truth were known, I was begot
After some gluttonous dinner; some stirring dish
Was my first father, when deep healths went round
And ladies' cheeks were painted red with wine,
Their tongues, as short and nimble as their heels,
Uttering words sweet and thick; and when they rose,
Were merrily disposed to fall again.
In such a whispering and withdrawing hour …
                                                                                          … and, in the morning
When they are up and drest, and their mask on,
Who can perceive this, save that eternal eye
That sees through flesh and all? Well, if anything be
It will be twelve o'clock at night. …

His verse hurries:

O think upon the pleasure of the palace!
Secured ease and state! the stirring meats,
Ready to move out of the dishes, that e'en now
Quicken when they are eaten!
Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!
Bareheaded vassals, that had ne'er the fortune
To keep on their own hats, but let horns wear 'em!
Nine coaches waiting—hurry, hurry, hurry—

His phrases seem to contract the images in his effort to say everything in the least space, the shortest time:

                                                                                Age and bare bone
Are e'er allied in action …
To suffer wet damnation to run through 'em …
The poor benefit of a bewildering minute …

(Bewildering is the reading of the “Mermaid” text; both Churton Collins and Mr. Nicoll give bewitching without mentioning any alternative reading: it is a pity if they be right, for bewildering is much the richer word here.)

forgetful feasts …
falsify highways …

And the peculiar abruptness, the frequent change of tempo, characteristic of The Revenger's Tragedy, is nowhere better shown than by the closing lines:

This murder might have slept in tongueless brass,
But for ourselves, and the world died an ass.
Now I remember too, here was Piato
Brought forth a knavish sentence once;
No doubt (said he), but time
Will make the murderer bring forth himself.
'Tis well he died; he was a witch.
And now, my lord, since we are in forever,
This work was ours, which else might have been
And if we list, we could have nobles clipped,
And go for less than beggars; but we hate
To bleed so cowardly, we have enough,
I' faith, we're well, our mother turned, our sister true,
We die after a nest of dukes. Adieu!

The versification, as indeed the whole style of The Revenger's Tragedy, is not that of the last period of the great drama. Although so peculiar, the metric of Tourneur is earlier in style than that of the later Shakespeare, or Fletcher, or Webster, to say nothing of Massinger, or Shirley, or Ford. It seems to derive, as much as from any one's, from that of Marston. What gives Tourneur his place as a great poet is this one play, in which a horror of life, singular in his own or any age, finds exactly the right words and the right rhythms.


  1. The works of Cyril Tourneur. Edited by Allardyce Nicoll, with decorations by Frederick Carter. London: The Fanfrolico Press.

  2. The text used in the following quotations is the critical text of Professor Nicoll; but for convenience and familiarity the modernized spelling and punctuation of the “Mermaid” text is used.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Cyril Tourneur c. 1580-1626

English poet and dramatist.

Tourneur was a Jacobean playwright whose fame largely rests on a single play, The Revenger's Tragedy, which many critics claim he did not author. The similarities between that work and The Atheist's Tragedy, which Tourneur unquestionably did write, are striking in their treatment of the morality and psychology of revenge and the intricacies of plot and counterplot, and for this reason most critics believe both plays are indeed written by the same hand. Both these works present a world that is inherently corrupt and evil, and their emphasis on death, the macabre, and sexual perversions (Tourneur deals with, among other indecencies, necrophilia and incestuous rape) have prompted critics to compare them to modern-day horror films. But while the dramas are certainly intentionally shocking, their author has a clear moral purpose and offers penetrating insights into the psychology of revenge, and The Revenger's Tragedy in particular has been seen as playing a key role in the development of the genre of the revenge play. Little is known of Tourneur's life, and the attribution of The Revenger's Tragedy to him will most likely never be settled, but for many Tourneur is the quintessential Jacobean playwright, an elusive figure whose work presents a dark and malignant universe in which tragedy is inevitable and moral chaos reigns.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known about Tourneur's early life. He was most likely born between 1575 and 1585 in Essex. It is speculated that in 1596 he joined an expedition to Càdiz, and around the same time he served as secretary to Sir Francis Vere. The following years, including those during which he wrote his major works, are shrouded in mystery. Tourneur was probably employed as a minor civil servant and courtier, and his writing was merely a sideline that did not capture the attention of the literary establishment; his name is certainly not one that was well known to the Jacobean stage. It seems clear that around 1613 he began work as a diplomatic courier, carrying official papers from London to Brussels. In 1617 he was arrested for unknown reasons and released into the custody of Sir Edward Cecil, who was known for his dealings in espionage. In 1625, while Tourneur was serving as secretary to Cecil, he participated in the second expedition against Càdiz, a ill-conceived raid that saw English forces turning back from Spain after failing in their objectives. Tourneur grew ill and on his way home to England stopped in Ireland, where he died in February, 1626.

Major Works

In addition to The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy, Tourneur wrote several poems, and at least one other play, The Nobleman, of which there is no extant copy. His first published work, The Transformed Metamorphosis (1600), deals with Tourneur's favorite theme of political corruption. The poem is an allegorical satire, but critics have disagreed as to the subject of the allegory. In 1605 Tourneur wrote a prose pamphlet entitled Laugh and Lie Down that again inveighs against the corruption of the state and the world. His two other known poems, elegies on the deaths of Vere and Prince Henry VII, are more interesting for the insight they provide into Tourneur's courtly associations than they are for their literary merit.

The Revenger's Tragedy was probably written and first performed in 1606, and was published anonymously the following year. It was not until 1656 that the play was attributed to him, by the dramatist Edward Archer. In the nineteenth century scholars began to question Tourneur's authorship of the play, with many critics arguing that it was in fact written by Thomas Middleton. While most scholars accept that Tourneur is the likely author, the issue has never been settled. The Revenger's Tragedy, set in Italy, centers around Vindice, a man wronged by the Duke many years before the opening of the play. Vindice's wife, Gloriana, had refused to sleep with the Duke who, in a fit of rage, killed her. Vindice's hatred for this Duke has never subsided, and he vows to punish him for his sins. He goes about his revenge by exploiting the tensions in the Duke's household, pitting the Duke's children and wife against each other. The action of the play is breathless and the plot and subplots intricate, and the audience sees how the revenge of the protagonist is a corrupting force that eventually destroys him.

The Atheist's Tragedy was published in 1611 but, because it is inferior to The Revenger's Tragedy, critics speculate that it was written earlier than the other play but perhaps completed and published later. It tells the story of D'Amville, an atheist and naturalistic skeptic who tries to prevent his brother's son from inheriting his legitimate fortune so that he can confer it to his own children. Like The Revenger's Tragedy, the play has a considerable number of twists and turns and erotic entanglements as well as gruesome and lewd exchanges. In the course of the play D'Amville loses his sons and kills himself, and at the end the rightful inheritor declares that the Christian renunciation of revenge is greater than the aristocratic ideal of vengeance as displayed by D'Amville.

Critical Reception

There is no evidence that either The Revenger's Tragedy or The Atheist's Tragedy enjoyed much popularity in their own day. It is uncertain that The Atheist's Tragedy was even staged in Tourneur's lifetime. Beginning in the nineteenth century Tourneur began to receive some critical admiration, including praise from the poet A. C. Swinburne. In the early twentieth century T. S. Eliot revived interest in the dramatist with an essay that noted the shortcomings of Tourneur's adolescent obsession with the macabre but praised The Revenger's Tragedy as a work of genius and sophisticated versification. Much subsequent discussion of Tourneur's two plays has centered around the question of their dating and authorship. Most critics have agreed that The Atheist's Tragedy is an inferior work to The Revenger's Tragedy, but many have pointed out their similarities in theme and subject matter, their common emphasis on the gruesome and horrific, and their underlying moral and Christian concerns. The Revenger's Tragedy in particular has elicited considerable commentary, and recent critics such as Karen Robertson and Karin S. Coddon have been interested in the author's use of irony, sexuality, and death to comment on what he viewed as the corrupt moral order of the Jacobean world.

Una Ellis-Fermor (essay date 1936)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Cyril Tourneur,” in The Jacobean Drama, Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1961, pp. 153-69.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1936, Ellis-Fermor characterizes Tourneur as a moralist and a man who viewed the world as irredeemably evil, and she views his plays as showing a great deal of craftsmanship in their concern with meter, imagery, philosophical reflection, and theatrical effect.]


The work of Cyril Tourneur presents one extreme of early Jacobean tragic thought and presents it with a completeness and single-mindedness else only to be found in the deliberate self-absorption of much of the comedy in the evidence of the world about it. Like the middle comedy of Middleton and much of Ben Jonson, Tourneur excludes in his first play specific or implicit reference to that universe of the spirit to which Chapman and Webster in their different ways give positive or negative testimony, and in his later play the references are perfunctory and unconvincing. He, alone among the dramatists who seem to have brought to this problem clear and coherently conscious thought, appears to accept a world-order inherently evil. He alone among the tragic writers of the first decades seems untroubled by the sense of the conflict of two worlds, of the confounding knowledge with knowledge; he accepts, if not the evidence of the world immediately around him, a consistent body of evidence from within his own imagination which gives to his plays a unity of mood absent from those of his contemporaries. He offers thus what is in fact a universe and since his interpretation is tragic, it is a universe of evil that he reveals. This is his peculiar contribution to the various but related conceptions of the major dramatists. His detachment from his characters is nearly as complete as Middleton's in tragedy, but they are produced upon a background of horror and evil fraught with emotional implications from which Middleton's are free. Beside the tragic uncertainty of Webster, on the other hand, who resembles him often in theme and choice of material, his definite affirmation of evil stands inflexible and positive.

Tourneur anatomizes minds. They are specimens that come into his laboratory. On the whole he analyses well and the resulting dissections and articulated skeletons tell us much of what is inside the man. There is far more scientific exposition, far clearer description of the parts and their relations than in the pictures of living people that Webster draws. But the difference is that Tourneur's do not live. He does not enter them and speak from within them. He draws them all (except Sebastian) by inspection from outside. They are laboratory specimens. He does not love them or sympathize with them. Nor do we.

How is it then that we have the effect of tragedy at all in these plays—or have we indeed that effect and not, instead, something approximating to it, imitating it and imposing itself on us for tragedy? Webster has a sense of tragic issues. Some at least of his characters—all the chief ones—he enters. He speaks from within them. Only the less significant remain unanimated, a record merely of observed characteristics. Many of them he loves, admires; certain of their qualities—their resolution and dauntless bearing—move him and us through him to wonder, upon which the ineluctable fate imposes the mood of pity. Man, at war with a fate less noble than he, rouses, in Webster's plays, pity and admiration which become at moments pity and fear. There is a tragic system, if only by means of the implicit commentary on man and his fate. But with Tourneur there is no pity and, I think, no sympathy for his strange anatomies, either from us or from the author. A kind of comment there may be, but it is shrouded. What there is, especially in the Revengers Tragedie, where he conducts himself more nearly in conformity with ordinary dramatic usage, is horror. This, strictly speaking, is the only emotion roused. Much interest we may experience, much speculation, much keen following up of thought, but the only emotion we are subjected to is horror and that comes to us, not from our entry into the characters' experiences but from extraneous aids, not from identifying ourselves with apparently living people, but from two things, one of them the very opposite of this; from the aroma of evil with which Tourneur by the aid of diction and verbal music surrounds these walking anatomies, these galvanized laboratory subjects, and from the very fact that, being dead, they do so adequately mimic life. There is a hideousness (and its effect grows upon us as the play progresses) in the very separation of our observation from the emotions that should accompany it, in watching this simulacrum of experience where there is no experience. That absence of sympathy in Ben Jonson which hinders sometimes the full experience of comic emotion in his reader and gives us a sense of detachment and so eventually of unreality is met and combated in Tourneur's work by the deep sense of horror implicit in the very circumstance of being. And, paradoxically, when once that has got to work, it is only enhanced by the unnatural absence of normal human feelings. It is not in fact tragedy which Tourneur offers us, but something which, by presenting a deeply inhering fear and by the lifelike movements of these figures so devoid of life, blinds us momentarily to the absence of the equally essential tragic pity which the approach to character by way of inspection can never give to us. Tourneur, thus excluding from his mind and ours pity and that part of normal tragic fear which is sympathy, leaves us face to face with a form of horror that is in tragedy the logical inference from a universe denuded of spiritual significance. It is Tourneur's peculiar function to accept single-mindedly this denuding and its implications where the other dramatists hesitate, confounding knowledge with knowledge.


To find a world vibrant with imaginative horror as was Tourneur's we must fetch a wide compass and shall not even so find it easily. It swings between the tingling dread of Edgar Allan Poe or Ambrose Bierce and the ‘implacable dejection’ of James Thomson. We have entered indeed a ‘City of Dreadful Night’, and if we pass beyond its bounds it is into that world where Hamlet dwelt for a time, ‘a sterile and barren promontory’, ‘a pestilent congregation of vapours’, where the ‘intellectual tapers’ are ‘fed with Hell's flame’ and the poet himself knows that the agony of his mind ‘Doth make his gesture seem a troubled story’:

Ev'n from the artique to the antartique pole,
          All in a rowe in ranke proportionate;
Subject unto th' unstedfast moones controle
          Do stand the lights that should truth animate;(1) …

It is indeed a universe upon which Mutabilitie has seized and in his earliest poems we find Tourneur still struggling in vain to compose it again with the ‘Stedfast rest of all things firmely stayd upon the pillours of Eternity’. For the ultimate guardian of this universe is not for him, as for Spenser, ‘Great goddesse, great Dame Nature’, but a strange anticipation of a Nature more like De Sade's, a ravening and dominating force, destroying and urging on the destroyer. Indeed, it is with De Sade and his successors, particularly his later successors, the followers of Baudelaire, that we next breathe the atmosphere of the Revengers Tragedie (an atmosphere which is hardly dissipated when it is rationalized in the Atheists Tragedie). There is a metallic quality, the acrid taste of brass, in this atmosphere; the very thoughts and words of the people have about them the clang of a brazen gong and the light by which we see them comes from a sky that is itself a brazen disk. Like Satan in La Révolte des Anges the author seems to wake into a world of shades. ‘Et quand j'eus accoutumé mes yeux a l'ombre épaisse, j'aperçus autour de moi mes compagnons d'armes gisant par milliers sur le sol solfureux, où passaient des lueurs livides. Mes yeux ne découvraient que solfatures, cratères fumants, palus empoisonnés … un ciel d'airain pesait sur nos fronts.’ … ‘Un ciel d'airain’, ‘les compagnons d'armes gisant … sur le sol solfureux’; there we have the setting of Tourneur's drama.

It is by the great scenes of this kind in his two plays that we at first remember him; Vindice waiting with the skull of his mistress in the dark hunting lodge for the Duke her murderer; Lussurioso after his attempt on Vindice's sister unwittingly swearing him to the performance of the very vengeance he seeks; D'Amville, his brain staggering under the sudden realization of his crimes, repeating in an agony of fear and repentance the very imagery in which he had earlier proclaimed his criminal exultation; D'Amville again, in the last moment of his life, searching feveredly for the Cause that can supersede the law of that Nature he has hitherto worshipped.2

Vindice with his mistress's skull hardly recalls at all those prototypes of his, Hamlet in the grave-yard, Hippolito of the Honest Whore with his easily forgotten ritual,3 for the scene is no longer, as in these plays, a relief between two periods of stress, but is itself the climax of the action, the skull the veritable reminder of deaths past and to come, and both deed and setting have a terrible economy and relevance. It is no longer an expression of the irrelevant arabesques of Hamlet's melancholy, but the concentrated and ironic malice of a mind which, if it were once melancholy, is now compact of action, formed all of an insane and fiendish purpose:

(Enter Vindice, with the skull of his love dresst up in Tires.) [Vindice and his brother are waiting in the Lodge in the park for the Duke, the murderer of his betrothed, who has appointed that place for an assignation with a lady Vindice has promised him.]

Vin. Madame, [speaking to the decorated skull] his
          grace will not be absent long.
Secret? nere doubt us, Madame; twill be worth
Three velvet gownes to your Ladyship—knowne!
Few Ladies respect that—disgrace?
Ile save your hand that laboure Ile unmaske you.
Hip. Why, brother, brother
Vin. Art thou beguild now? … Here's an eye,
Able to tempt a great man—to serve God,
A prety hanging lip, that has forgot now to dissemble;
Heres a cheeke keepes her colour; let the winde go
          whistle …
Spout, Raine, we feare thee not, be hot or cold
          Alls one with us …
Who now bids twenty pound a night, prepares
Musick, perfumes, and sweete-meates? All are husht.
Thou maist lie chast now … See Ladies, with false
You deceive men, but cannot deceive wormes.(4)

This has the right Thyestean ring, perhaps the only scene in Jacobean drama that is true kin to Seneca's own supreme imaginative achievement. Yet it is at the same time more than this, for the economy, the irony, raise it beyond Seneca's range into momentary comparison with those same qualities in Oedipus Tyrannus.

Vindice poisons the lips of the skull and draws on the mask again. ‘Hide thy face now for shame; thou hads't need have a mask now’—one of those jests which hold the essential flavour of Tourneur's mind, jests which, if we gather into recollection all that has preceded this in the play and before the opening scene of the action, are seen to be instinct with an insane horror, ushering the play in triumph to its fit climax. The Duke enters and all is ready.

Vin. Brother, fall you back a little With the bony Lady.

Duke. Piato, well done; hast brought her, what Lady ist?

Vin. Faith, my Lord, a Country Lady, a little bashfull at first, as most of them are, but after the first kisse my Lord the worst is past with them, your grace knowes now what you have to doe; sha's somewhat a grave looke with her—but—

Sophocles need not have been ashamed of this, one of the moments when the pun, in its apotheosis, becomes no longer the misplaced frivolity that Jonson so misliked in Shakespeare, but, rather, the charged receptacle of bitter and terrifying irony. The same quality runs through the scene where Lussurioso unknowingly swears his own murderer to the performance of vengeance, Machiavellian outwitted by Machiavellian:

Lus. … The ingreatfull villayne,

[The ‘villain’ had been VINDICE spying upon him in disguise and the episode quite other than his description. But LUSSURIOSO had not realized this.]

To quit that kindnes, strongly wrought with me …
With jewels to corrupt your virgin sister.
Hip. O villaine.
Vin. He shall surely die that did it.
Lus. I far from thinking any Virgin harme,
          … would not endure him.
Vin.Would you not my Lord?
Twas wondrous honorably donne.
.....Lus. Thy name, I have forgot it?
Vin. Vindice, my Lord.
Lus. Tis a good name that.
Vin. I, a Revenger.
Lus. It dos betoken courage, thou shouldst be valiant,
And kill thine enemies.
Vin. That's my hope, my Lord.(5)

Where the irony of Sophocles derives in part at least from the motionless indifference of fate, Tourneur's has a restless, mordant quality deriving from the infusion of implacable and purposed malice.

The Atheists Tragedie is a later comment upon the imagined world which is revealed in the Revengers Tragedie without comment, even with complete subjection and identification of the poet's mood with the unbroken mood of the world he watches. In the later play he detaches himself, portrays again this world of lust and intrigue but leads the virtuous characters to triumph and not merely to escape and sets the chief characters to work to analyse their motives and rationalize their moods. The world upon which they (and Tourneur through them) are working is less terrifying than that of the Revengers Tragedie because it is less all-embracing, it is a world not darker but meaner, more sordid and more immediate. With the figures of Languebeau Snuffe and Levidulcia, it seems less detached from the world of Jacobean London than the Revengers Tragedie with its deep imaginative coherence. But the last act and at least one speech in the fourth act have that strange fineness peculiar to Tourneur at the height of his power. They have the half-apocalyptic, half-hysterical quality—like the leap of lightning and the crash of thunder on a mountain—which alone can reflect the convulsions of D'Amville's mind:

D'Am. Why doest thou stare upon me? Thou art not
The soul(6) of him I murdered. What hast thou
To doe to vexe my conscience? … And that Bawde,
The skie, there; she could shut the windowes and
The dores of this great chamber of the world;
And draw the curtaines of the clouds betweene
Those lights and me about this bed of earth,
When that same Strumpet Murder and my selfe
Committed sin together. Then she could
Leave us i' the darke, till the close deed
Was done: But now, that I begin to feele
The loathsome horrour of my sinne; and (like
A Leacher emptied of his lust) desire
To burie my face under my eye-browes, and
Would steale from my shame unseene; she meetes me
I' the face with all her light corrupted eyes,
To challenge payment o' mee.(7)

This imagery, magnificent as is its sustained and cumulative power, gains impressiveness in its setting by its close integration both with the preceding scenes and with the earlier scene of the murder of Montferrers, that scene where D'Amville hails in exultation the black night sky, the ‘Beauteous mistress of a murderer’. This gathering up in one climactic speech of the images whose tones have been running through the play, gathering them to such different purpose and with such reversal of their earlier effect, is the work of a precise artist, just such, in fact, as we recognize in Tourneur as soon as we attempt any closer examination of his work.

For it is this very quality of control, this steady, cool handling (even in the tempest of passion) of the forces he has set going that distinguishes most notably Tourneur's conduct of a play, extending from his handling of imagery and metre (which most clearly of all reflect the essential quality of his mind) to the revelation and manipulation of the characters and even to the narrative itself.

Isolated images in both plays have this sudden and surprising virtue, this moving power which is yet precise in its minute articulation: Spurio, in the Revengers Tragedie, yielding at last to the Duchess's persuasions:

Oh one incestuous kisse picks open hell.

Vindice with his denunciation of the lust of the court, where the changing rhythm and the imagery bear equal parts in the apocalyptic, lightning-stroke of the words:

                                                                                O howre of Incest!
Any kin now, next to the Rim ath sister,
Is mens meate in these dayes, and in the morning,
When they are up and drest, and their maske on,
Who can perceive this? save that eternall eye,
That see's through flesh and all.

Or, yet again, D'Amville in the later play, after he has struck the blow by which he kills himself:

D'Am. What murderer was hee that lifted up
My hand against my head?
1st Judge. None but yourselfe, my Lord.
D'Am. I thought he was a murderer that did it.
1st Judge. God forbid.
D'Am. Forbid? You lie Judge. He commanded it.(8)
To tell thee that mans wisedome is a foole.

But there is more in Tourneur's precise art than mere isolated flashes of power. There is, in his use of imagery, a sensitiveness to the underlying harmony of image and character, image and setting, or image and situation which deserves no less a term than the much-loved Elizabethan ‘decorum’. This appears already in the earlier play, but it is almost invariable in the later one. To D'Amville and to Vindice, the focuses of passion, fall most of the images of strong imaginative or poetic power; those of Sebastian are homely in source, pithy and effective in application; Charlemont's imagery, whatever his circumstances, is obvious and simple; Gratiana's is slipshod like her mind, superficially effective but uncertain in its clinch as often are the metaphors of rapid, fluent talkers; the Duchess's metaphors, like Levidulcia's, have more force than Gratiana's, and, like Castabella's, though they have little poetry, have a practical effectiveness and some penetration. Nor is this all. Sometimes the most important undertones of a scene are referred entirely to the imagery; the glib, profuse, conventional imagery that ornaments D'Amville's speeches at the funeral of Montferrers and Charlemont,9 the elaborate but shallow artistry of Charlemont's parting speech to Castabella,10 even the conventional images of the unconvincing mourning of Castabella at her lover's supposed tomb,11 all these give us warning, obviously or subtly, that something lying beneath the actual statements is quite other (and far more important) than the logical content of the words.12

The same subtle but precise impression is left, by the mood of any given character, scene or situation, upon the metre, and here again, with a meticulousness which shows Tourneur to have been one of the most careful of all Jacobean workmen. In the passages already quoted this has been apparent enough. The lines are crisp and hard and clear more often than mellifluous, but they have a capacity for modifications of tempo that makes them flexible to any mood and at all times a ringing quality that reveals a mind alert and clear in command. The rhythms are never sensational, though they sometimes, like Ford's, demand a training in the subtleties of their cadences:

D'Am. Now to myselfe I am ridiculous.
Nature thou art a Traytur to my soule.
Thou hast abus'd my trust. I will complaine
To a superior Court, to right my wrong.
I'le prove thee a forger of false assurances.
In yond' Starre Chamber thou shalt answere it.
Withdraw the bodies.(13)

But they vary, within their own range, from character to character and from mood to mood:

Grat. Dishonorable Act?—good honorable foole,
That wouldst be honest cause thou wouldst be so,
Producing no one reason but thy will.
And t'as a good report, pretely commended,
But pray by whome? Meane people; ignorant people;
The better sort Ime sure cannot abide it.
And by what rule should we square out our lives,
But by our betters actions?(14)

The impression of a clear, presiding mind which we receive from a study of the details of Tourneur's work and particularly his correlation of detail in imagery and metre, is confirmed when we come to consider his control of his characters. Hardly ever do we feel, as we do with the characters of Shakespeare, Marston, Webster and others of his contemporaries, that they are organic growths developing in the mind of the author, taking charge of the play and almost it might seem of the poet. Rather are they, like the pair in Mr. Shaw's Methuselah, ‘thought-out and hand-made’. Only Sebastian shows signs of breaking away and possessing the author; the rest are all too obviously possessed by him.

In the Revengers Tragedie they are for the most part embodied passions, the men clearly and definitely portrayed, but except for Vindice a little remote, the women slighter still, except for the figure of Gratiana where the workmanship is uneven. This effect is emphasized by the perfunctory labelling with the descriptive names of the morality and humour comedy tradition: The Duke, Lussurioso, Spurio, Ambitioso, Supervacuo, Youngest Son, The Duchess, Castiza. These all obey their names more or less faithfully and it is probably the absence of individualizing inconsistencies in this automatically moving body of evil spirits that gives to the play its unique atmosphere of compact and irrefragable evil. Like corpses animated by Voodoo magic they move about their tasks, horrible simply because, but for this one trait of inhuman consistency, they are so nearly human. Castiza, who has a slightly drawn but definite personality, is a preliminary study for the far more fully thought-out Castabella of the later play; the Youngest Son, whose elimination was essential to the survival of the atmosphere, anticipates Sebastian. Gratiana alone seems to have puzzled the author, but the inconsistencies or unexplained passages in her character are the result of gaps in his observation, not of individuality in what he observed. The first scene of the second act, for instance, is a mixture of close and penetrating observation (‘Ay, that's the comfort on't …’ or the hurrying anger of the speech ‘Dishonourable act!’)15 and lapses into undramatic self-analysis of which such a character in such a moment is generally incapable.16 In the main, however, she is the most nearly human figure in the play, one that Tourneur modified and developed in Levidulcia of the later play. He seems to know these women when they reveal themselves in emotion, though he cannot readily enter their minds in everyday moods. In the second act of Revengers Tragedie he portrays without faltering the hurrying, half-hysterical, breathless movement of the mind, where thought pours in upon thought till persuasion rises to indignation, indignation to anger, in a throbbing crescendo of emotion that feeds upon itself and at last overbears pretence, laying bare the coarse, vulgar, scheming mind of a shallow virago. He knows their fluent, sentimental repentances too, just as he knows their coarse, domineering anger and the scene (IV, iv) so highly praised of Lamb, has its chief merit in this unflinching revelation of facile tears. The same theme is worked out more fully in the death scene of Levidulcia.

In the later play a similar attitude to the characters produces a rather different group. Levidulcia and Sebastian seem integral and almost organically growing things, while an immense amount of thought has gone to the construction of most of the others, particularly Castabella, Charlemont, D'Amville. But these others, and the minor characters too, have ceased now to be embodied passions and are becoming embodied principles or ideas. The danger that threatened Tourneur from the beginning, of over-control amounting sometimes to manipulation of his personages, has grown more marked. He appears to think that the opinions a man holds (atheism, nature worship, conventional piety) can be regarded as the sources from which his actions spring; in fact, that conduct rests directly upon principles and ideas. Thus his characters now tend to become aggregations of interesting problems or of qualities with no necessary relation each to each. Some show more unity of principle than others and some more connexion between principle and conduct, but all tend to the same unreality of effect because we are not aware, as we are with Shakespeare's people, of an underlying relation between the different qualities in the character and so of a relation between action and motive or sentiment and motive. The more carefully he works upon a character, the more fully he elaborates its ideas. This does not mean that he succeeds in making it move as a whole: the parts are excellent, but they do not integrate. Almost he would seem to tell us that what is not thought-out is not real, an unconscious misconception that seems to have been shared by Ben Jonson in his early comedy and Bacon as a psychologist and is peculiarly fatal to dramatic art. This is revealed very clearly in the figure of Levidulcia, the innate whore of Jacobean drama who must yet, in the middle of her instinctive, animal existence, first realize that ‘the god [she] serves is [her] own appetite’ and then evolve a philosophy of appetite like any modern hedonist. It is a queer tribute to Tourneur's power and to the deepness of his conviction that she is never more convincing than when she is expounding this philosophy.17 The Atheists Tragedie is a play written primarily to satisfy this desire to think out positions, a play whose chief characters are nearly all self-conscious exponents of the springs of their own motives, simple or complex, related or unrelated.

D'Amville is the clearest and at the same time the extremest of these. He is a conscious theorist and as such might pass muster, were it not for the logical finality with which his every action, up to the time of his defeat and disintegration, is referred to his theory. A deliberate atheist (which seems to mean for Tourneur a nature-worshipper,18 what we might call a materialist), he makes his every action a demonstration and delivers brief explanatory lectures on the application of his theory even in the heat of action, plotting or crime. We cannot say categorically ‘This cannot be’, but we derive more pleasure from taking him to pieces and examining his philosophy in isolation than from contemplating him as a human being or as the agent of the plot. Castabella is clearly presented but is a rigid figure. She seems at first sight obsessed with a rather priggish sense of the importance of her virginity and on nearer view to be a study of what was probably becoming a common type on the fringe of the Jacobean court, a young girl suffering from a violent revulsion from the lasciviousness about her. This links her at once with Isabella of Measure for Measure (among other later studies) and indeed she seems to owe much to her; even the inhumanity of her chastity, which has not escaped Tourneur's notice, is akin to Isabella's. But she has vigour and scorn and, in the scaffold scene, a touch of Belphoebe's or Brunhilda's quality, which redeems her. Charlemont is less of a piece than either of the others; at one moment the mouthpiece of chivalric sentiment, he at another repudiates Castabella as basely as Claudio does Hero; the self-constituted redeemer of the revenge motive, he is at one moment falsely romantic, at another falsely cynical. A prig and a cad he yet conducts the action to a successful end—supplying us by the way with some excellent annotations on the psychology of dreams. Did Tourneur mean to make this of him or has the character, as it were, come apart in his hands through his trying to make it represent simultaneously too many groups of insufficiently related ideas? (Possibly the same weakness is to be traced here as in Chapman's somewhat similar figure of Clermont.) We turn with relief to Sebastian. Here is the man after Tourneur's heart and, like Shakespeare in a similar predicament with his blood-brother Mercutio, he was obliged to kill him or he would have wrecked the play. Sebastian and his predecessor the Youngest Son in the Revengers Tragedie are (with the possible addition of Levidulcia) the only characters of the two dozen odd in the two plays in whom Tourneur shows any sign of joy in the creating or of affection to the creation. They like the Bastard Falconbridge are staunch advocates of the kind of truth that shames not so much the devil as the unco' guid—there is better fun to be had out of the unco' guid than out of the devil. Sebastian is in fact a Jacobean Devil's Disciple, from his first appearance, where he scandalously interrupts the course of justice with a far too apt monosyllable, through his whimsical redemption of Charlemont from prison, to the moment when, uttering a jest worthy of Cyrano, he dies in a strumpet's quarrel. Like Blanco Posnet again, he never disappoints us and is never quite predictable. But he is alone—except perhaps for Levidulcia, that frank and refreshing blend of Thierry and the Insatiable Countess with a dash of Mistress Page; in contact with her vital, salacious garrulity we forget (perhaps pardonably) that this is all part of the service paid to the abstraction Nature and remember only that we have here a blood-relation of Doll Tearsheet, Mistress Quickly, Francischina and Frank Gullman translated to a slightly higher social sphere.

The measure of the difference in the treatment of character in the two plays can be seen in their titles: the revenger is the incarnation of a passion and he acts; the atheist is the receptable of certain opinions and theories, and, though he also acts, his prime function from Tourneur's point of view is to test the operation of these theories in the theatre of the world. And so we are haunted throughout the play by a pair of protagonists who do not appear on the character list, abstractions who threaten to push the human automata from the stage or at least to direct the action by pulling the cords that control them. If, as in Hardy's Dynasts, we could have a momentary transparency that showed us the cords at work upon the figures, we should see that the real causes and controls were these abstractions, Nature (or materialist philosophy) and her less clearly defined antagonist Heaven (or the religious sense). From them emanate the host of opinions and loyalties—the atheism of D'Amville, the piety of Montferrers, the animalism of Levidulcia, the chastity of Castabella, the stoicism of Charlemont. And these in their turn are not, as in Beaumont and Fletcher, the topics of debate bandied to and fro between the characters (who, when they come to their senses, act on instinct and disregard them); they are embedded deep in the action, acting as the springs of personality, so that D'Amville pursues his quest of Nature to the verge of life itself and Levidulcia, compact of lust, is yet never so powerful or so convincing a figure as when she rationalizes it as natural law.

The drama of Tourneur, then, is at bottom that of a poet-philosopher who approaches his theme with a thesis in mind and groups his abstractions, embodying them in dramatic persons whose first task is to expound them. His lucid and admirably thought-out psychological theories break through, again and again, in explicit analyses, especially in the later play; D'Amville on atheism and natural causes, Charlemont on dreams, are lucid and logical theorists like their creator; Levidulcia in self-analysis, Castabella disputing upon incest with D'Amville, have a surprising fluency and coherence of thought. But this does not mean that Tourneur is defective in his dramatic effect, still less in his sense of his theatre. His understanding of startling effects and settings, the vigour with which his people live in and plead for their theories would alone give power to the two plays, conceived as they are so entirely in terms of Jacobean tradition. Apparent weaknesses are often found to be short cuts to an effect desired by the audience with the help of a convention accepted by them. The acting quality is invariably excellent; indeed, so obviously is this in the poet's mind that a passage, a line, is sometimes no more than a hint to be developed by the tones and gestures of the actors. [In] the opening scene of the Revengers Tragedie … a fine dramatic and a keen theatrical sense are combined. Other scenes, only second in effect to this, stand out in the reader's memory: the murder of the Duke in the hunting-lodge, the indictment of Gratiana by her sons, the masquerade and murder of Lussurioso, all in the earlier play; and from the later, the murder of Montferrers in the chalk-pit, the scene in the charnel-house, the judgement scene and the death of D'Amville at the end. There are parts even of these which do not bear careful examination as drama, but always they are effective theatrically and here, as in certain cases where the work seems to be scamped with an almost perilous indifference to illusion, the theatrical effectiveness will generally be found to justify the dramatic weakness. It is, of course, never accompanied by metrical weakness (so far as we can judge from such texts) and certainly never by slovenly imagery; the final effect therefore is not of careless workmanship but of indifference to something not germane to his purpose as are metre, imagery, philosophic reflection and theatrical effect.19

Even the weakness of the supernatural passages can be justified by theatre convention. Montferrers, a courteous old gentleman in life, makes but a bald and mannerless ghost; he has somewhat elementary sentiments which he utters (once in four, once in five lines) without expansion or circumlocution and forthwith vanishes again. But we are in, or about, the year 1610. The ghost of King Hamlet, with his full explanations and minute instructions, is fresh in the audience's mind; the revenge theme is familiar to them in this and other forms from ‘a’ to ‘z’. They are not interested in ‘supernatural soliciting’ and are willing to accept the briefest of short-hand formulae for all that. What they do want and what Tourneur proceeds to give them—hastily and before their attention flags—is a new interpretation of the position and duty of the avenging son, indicated and summed up by Montferrers himself: ‘But leave revenge unto the King of Kings.’20

Tourneur's later critics have from time to time spoken well of him, so well indeed that we must judge him one of those artists who induce in those who make them their special study a fineness and precision of phrase not unlike their own. J. Churton Collins, in 1873, J. A. Symonds, in 1885, have summed up Tourneur's genius (though Symonds took only two paragraphs) with unforgettable insight. Swinburne, in 1908, gives him the highest and in some passages the most penetrating praise he has ever received, commenting especially on his style, ‘the hard Roman style of impeachment by photography’. Marcelle Schwob and his French descendants have the same inspiration and it continues among our immediate contemporaries: ‘Mieux que tout autre, il garde le farouche élan, l'éclair métallique; et les machinations de Vendice sont réglées comme une machine infernale.’21 ‘Its [the Revengers Tragedie] motive is truly the death motive, for it is the loathing and horror of life itself. To have realized this motive so well is a triumph: for the hatred of life is an important phase—even, if you like, a mystical experience—in life itself.’22


  1. The Transformed Metamorphosis, stanzas 16, 42 and 44.

  2. Revengers Tragedie [R.T.], III, v, and IV, ii. Atheists Tragedie [A.T.], IV, iii, and V, ii.

  3. Honest Whore, Part I, IV, i. Still less is it aesthetically related to the opening of Chettle's Hoffman's Tragedy, which else it resembles closely.

  4. R.T. (ed. Nicoll), III, v, 46 seq., passim.

  5. Revengers Tragedie, IV, ii, 143 seq. The italics are mine, but, in effect, every line of Vindice's italicizes itself.

  6. scull, Q. 1611.

  7. A.T., IV, iii, 239-58.

  8. A reminiscence of Faustus that, like a later one in this same play, is not unworthily applied.

  9. A.T., III, i.

  10. Ibid., I, ii.

  11. Ibid., III, i.

  12. In one case (II, iv, 38-55) the lapse into lurid, Marstonian imagery by a character (D'Amville) whose images at other times, though often passionate and sometimes of the highest order, are never sensational, is seen, upon closer view, to be exactly similar to Macbeth's words about Duncan's ‘silver skin laced with his golden blood’ and in an exactly similar situation. Each man is overacting, in a crisis, the part of the horror-stricken discoverer of a murder he has in fact himself committed.

  13. A.T., V, ii.

  14. R.T., II, i.

  15. See supra, p. 162.

  16. As when she receives money from Vindice to corrupt her own daughter Castiza:

    Gra.                                                                                                    These are
    The means that governe our affections—that woman
    Will not be troubled with the mother long,
    That sees the comfortable shine of you,
    I blush to thinke what for your sakes Ile do.

    (R.T., II, i.)

  17. A.T., I, iv.

  18. The atheism of D'Amville is extremely interesting. It owes something to Jacobean Machiavellianism in its refusal of religious sentiment, in its cult of aggression and in its frank pragmatism. But his use of the term ‘Nature’ (more frequent than his use of ‘atheist’ or ‘atheism’) goes back to the middle ages. Its connotation varies from passage to passage, but always, I think, within the scope of the three main medieval usages or an obvious modification of them. It is at one time the law that governs the physical universe, the creative power in the universe (controllable by man) (Natura Naturans), at another time the particular manifestation of the governing law in man or animal (Natura Naturata) and at others ‘the loving Mother of us all’, who does not ‘purpose anything for nothing’ (Natura Dea). The conflict between the idea of supreme Nature, Natura Dea, and the idea of a power above Nature relegating her, as with Bacon, to the position of Second Cause, or limiting her solely to her double aspect of Natura Naturans and Natura Naturata forms, of course, the climax of the spiritual career of D'Amville. (See A.T., V, i, and V, ii passim.)

  19. There is, in fact, only one passage in the two plays for which there seems to be no sufficient justification, the criminal foolishness of Charlemont and Castabella in being overtaken by slumber in a critical moment in the charnel-house so that ‘They lie downe with either of them a Death's head for a pillow.’ True, this gives rise to a satisfactory crop of catastrophes and confusions that save the play from a threatened fourth-act decline and set it going robustly for another act and a half. But probability has been too ruthlessly sacrificed. The other cases that come to mind, the unnaturally elaborate recital of Borachio in II, i, D'Amville's similar over-acting his part in II, iv, the abrupt arrival of the dead body of Sebastian at the moment of D'Amville's exultation in V, i, would all fall into their place on the stage, the first two in accordance with the law that a speech must be ludicrously theatrical if it is to outgo the dramatic heightening of the rest of the play and appear theatrical in the theatre, the second because, however abrupt the stage direction (‘Enter servant with the body of Sebastian’) or the modern entry, the deep Jacobean stage would give an entry slow and solemn enough for a pause of horrified realization most potent in effect.

  20. Even the most unfortunate line in either play, that of the Executioner (Atheists Tragedie, V, ii, 263-4) as D'Amville strikes his own death-blow:

    In lifting up the axe
    I think he's knocked his brains out,

    is necessary for an audience that could not otherwise realize what it was required to imagine, and presents, after all, no more difficulty to an intelligent producer than Malcolm's notorious ‘Oh! By whom?’ the bugbear of Shakespearian actors.

  21. La Tragédie de la Vengeance, traduit de l'anglais par Camille Cé et Henri Sarvajean. Paris, 1925.

  22. Cyril Tourneur. T. S. Eliot, Elizabethan Essays [Faber, 1934.]

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Transformed Metamorphosis (poem) 1600

Laugh and Lie Down; Or, The Worldes Folly (prose pamphlet) 1605

The Revenger's Tragedy (drama) c. 1606

The Atheist's Tragedy (drama) 1611

A Funeral Poem upon the Death of the Most Worthy and True Soldier, Sir Francis Vere (poem) 1611

A Grief on the Death of Prince Henry (poem) 1611

The Character of Robert, Earl of Salisbury (poem) 1612

Kenneth N. Cameron (essay date 1940)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Cyril Tourneur and The Transformed Metamorphosis,” in The Review of English Studies, Vol. 16, No. 61, January, 1940, pp. 18-24.

[In the following essay, Cameron claims that earlier critics' dismissals of Tourneur's early poem The Transformed Metamorphosis are too harsh, and that the poem about the exploits of a gallant English knight reveals considerable learning and poetic feeling.]

Cyril Tourneur's first attempt to achieve literary fame—The Transformed Metamorphosis (1600)—has long been the subject of abuse. It has been described and dismissed as “an involved allegory,” “written in uncouth jargon,”1 and as “absurd verbiage,” “composed on the principle that to be intelligible is to be found out.”2 But while every reader of the poem will agree that it is both obscure and affected, these judgments are too harsh. The Transformed Metamorphosis is clearly the work of a very young man, and a young man of wide, though desultory, reading, who has done considerable thinking along certain lines. The knowledge exhibited of theology and the sciences—in particular astrology—is quite extensive; the flow of the verse is smooth and pleasing; and many passages show a true poetic feeling for word and phrase. But the chief value of the poem for us to-day lies in the light which it throws upon the development of the mind which later produced The Atheist's Tragedie and The Revengers Tragædie. The strange ideas and motives which dominate those works are evident, as it were, in embryo in the early poem. The same unusual and tortured mind, the same perverse intensity of emotion which characterize the plays and make them unique in Elizabethan drama are clearly discernible behind the barbaric jargon and obscure allegory of The Transformed Metamorphosis. For this reason alone it is worth while attempting an explanation of the poem.

There has been only one attempt at a complete explanation so far, that by Churton Collins in his edition of Tourneur in 1878; and one fragmentary explanation, consisting mostly of disconnected suggestions, by Professor Allardyce Nicoll in his The Works of Cyril Tourneur (1930). Collins's solution was accepted by T. Seccombe for his article on Tourneur in the D.N.B., and by C. E. Vaughan in The Cambridge History of English Literature. Neither Collins nor Nicoll, unfortunately, bases many of his deductions on fact, and their explanations are of little use to the serious researcher. The only possible thing to do, it seems to me, if we are to produce a theory that has any scientific value at all, is to stick to the facts at our disposal, meagre though they may be.

In the first part of the poem the writer describes the “metamorphosis” of the world. Good is overthrown and evil reigns supreme. The Church of Rome is extending her corrupting influence everywhere. With the aid of the wealth of “India” she is attempting to enslave “Pan,” who “was wont upon the fertile ground of Arcadie to feed”—a pretty clear reference to the Church of England in view of Spenser's similar use of “Pan” in The Shepheardes Calendar (May Eclogue). The poet is appalled at the likelihood that

Barb'rous India should ouer-peer
Fruitful Arcadie, the world's great Peere,

and calls upon heaven for aid.

He then somewhat abruptly turns to an island called Delta, where the inhabitants enjoyed an idyllic existence and would have continued to do so “had not a beast spoil'd this their sweetned rest.” This beast lay in wait for them and lured them into thickets:

With such chaung'd voice no mortal wight could say
But that the notes with voice of man he sung.

Fortunately, a “gallant Knight,” Mavortio (i.e. martial, warlike), roused to indignation by this state of affairs, attacks the beast and after a fierce fight slays it. Mavortio then apparently goes to heaven, and the poem closes on a note of hope for the future. That which has been “metamorphosed” is to be “transformed” again to its former glory.

“The key to the poem,” wrote Collins, “is in the English history at the time it appeared, i.e. the dread and hatred of Papal power, which was creating a great deal of alarm; the power of Spain, which was supported by Rome; the conditions of Ireland, which Spain and Rome were endeavouring to incite against England; the expedition and death of Essex, and the consequent supposed depression of art and literature, of which he had ever been the ready and liberal patron; the hope that the coming of King James VI of Scotland would put everything right.”3

That the religious conspiracy of Spain and Rome plays a big part in the poem is clear, but Collins has little to support his contention that either Essex or Ireland is involved. Professor Nicoll quite rightly argues that such a theory is made highly improbable by the fact that Essex was in disgrace in 1600, that a favourable reference to him would be highly dangerous, and that his fall was largely engineered by Sir Robert Cecil, with whose family Tourneur had, some years later, the most intimate connections. But while Professor Nicoll has fairly satisfactorily disposed of Collins's suggestion, he has none of much consequence to put in its place. His main contention is that the poem falls into two parts, the first being general and the second dealing with the adventures of Mavortio in Delta (which Collins had interpreted as the expedition of Essex to Ireland). The first part Professor Nicoll considers of later composition than the second because it contains “more coined and barbarous words.” Beyond making this division, and remarking that Ireland has roughly a delta shape, Professor Nicoll does not go.4

In attempting a fresh interpretation it is essential, as was remarked above, to stick to the facts at our disposal. The first fact worth noting is that the poem is dedicated to one Sir Christopher Heydon, an old soldier and companion-at-arms of Sir Francis Vere, who was then living in retirement on his Norfolk estate.

The second fact is that a peculiar picture of a dog which adorns one of the preliminary pages represents, as neither Collins nor Nicoll seems to have noted, the Heydon crest. As the dedicatory sonnet to Heydon is clearly a plea for assistance—probably in commencing a military career—we should expect that the poem would contain matter pleasing to Sir Christopher and might even concern itself with him personally.

The third, and most important, fact is that the dedicatory sonnet in praise of Heydon, which begins as follows:

Thou, thou that art the Muses Adonie,
          Their Pyramis, adorner of their mount,
Thou Christalizer of their Castalie,
Thou Lillian-rose, sprung from the horse-foote fount,
To thee, Artes Patron, Champion to the highest,
          That giuest the Sunne a fairer radiance,
          To thee Musophilus, that still appliest
          Thy sacred soule, to be Trueths esperance,

is clearly parallel to the praise meted out later in the poem5 to the hero Mavortio:

O peerlesse worth! O worth Mauortian!
          Heau'n vpholding Atlas; warres melodie;
          Knight of the lilly; heauens champion;
          Artes patron; Muses dearest Adonie;
Vrania's soule refreshing Castalie;
Pieria's darling; cleare-streaming Helicon;
          Bœotia's pearle; the nine-voic'd harmony;
          Heart crystalline; tongue pure Castalion;
          Delta's Adamant; Elizium's melody;
Vrania's selfe that sung cœlestially;
Was then for Mars apt, by the Muses nurs'd
For Mars his knights are 'squires to'th muses first.

Though both Collins and Nicoll noted this similarity, neither of them favoured the most obvious conclusion, that Mavortio was Sir Christopher Heydon. This is made even more likely when we remember that Heydon was celebrated as an astronomer and the author of two books on the subject,6 one of which called forth a long and erudite controversy.7 Only in view of this do the frequent references—as in the passages just quoted, for instance—to Urania, muse of astrology, have any significance. Other references occur in lines 595, 603, and, in particular, lines 481-3:

He [Mavortio] bent his mind to pure Vranian vses,
Vranianie, him did to heau'n vpreare;
And made to man, him demi-god appeare.

It will also be noticed that Heydon is praised in part as a patron of art and an author. While we have no examples of his literary skill extant, I take it that he probably, like so many English gentlemen of the time, indulged in verse and prose, and (like Mavortio—“For Mars his knights are 'squires to'th muses first”) fancied himself as an author rather than a soldier, a failing not uncommon among men of action with literary aspirations. That none of his writings has survived—except those on astrology, which may possibly be what Tourneur is referring to as entitling him to a place among the poets: “Urania's self that sung coelestially”—is not surprising when we consider the aversion, real or affected, of the Elizabethan gentleman to print.

I reject Professor Nicoll's hypothesis that the poem falls into separate parts, composed at different periods. The first half of the poem is clearly an attack by a young and fervid Protestant on the vices of the Catholic Church and its alliance with Spain—hence the numerous references to the evils caused by the use of the wealth of “India” (i.e. the West Indies, source of Spanish riches) for the conversion of Arcadie to Catholicism. The second half—Mavortio slaying the beast that was assailing the island of “Delta”—I take to be a description of some exploit of Heydon's directed against this encroachment of the Catholic Church. “Delta” I take to be England and not Ireland; for while Ireland, according to Elizabethan notions of geography (Abraham Ortellius's maps) is oblong and almost square in shape—anything but the shape of delta (Greek Δ)—England is so perfect a delta that strips of paper placed along its borders will form an exact triangle.

The attack on the Roman Church in the first part is not disguised. Rome (l. 59):

Whose seau'n hill'd head did ouer all aspire,
Is now transform'd to Hydra-headed vice.

With the aid of the wealth of “India”—“noysome filth, the poison of our time”—she conspires to overthrow “Pan” (who in The Shepheardes Calendar symbolizes Christ):

Somnus, awake: hell and the world conspire:
          Pan is transform'd, and al his flocke neere drownd
          Pan that from heau'n receiu'd his due paid hyre,
          He that was wont, vpon the fertile ground
          Of Arcadie to feed, wherein was found,
No golden India that might preuent
That high estate of poore, meane, rich content.

Arcadie I take to mean England in the (imagined) good old days when the Protestant Church (Pan) reigned supreme and its ministers were firm of faith. Now it is “metamorphosed” by the corrupting wealth of “India” (Spain) used by the emissaries of Rome.

The second half begins somewhat abruptly, and it is this abrupt start—the usual failure of the immature author to effect a smooth transition—that made Professor Nicoll think that there were really two poems (ll. 330 f.):

In Delta that's enuironed by the sea,
          The hills and dales with heards are peopled,
          That tend their tender flocks vpon the lea.

Soon this idyllic existence is shattered by a “beast” which (ll. 344 f.):

Among the shrubbes had set him priuily,
          To spoyle the lambes that sometimes did estray;

The “gallant Knight” Mavortio then appears and after a fierce struggle slaughters the monster. This is what Churton Collins took to be a description of Essex's military expedition to Ireland. If we accept his point of view, then the poem certainly falls into two parts, but there does not seem to be much point in first launching an attack on the machinations of the Roman Catholic Church in England, which is apparently preparatory matter for the second half, and then describing a military expedition in Ireland. But if we take Delta to be England—noting how the description of it just quoted tallies with that of Arcadie—and take the struggle depicted to be a religious one, then the two parts of the poem fit naturally together. The language—“heards,” “flocks”—is clearly that of a religious allegory.

The Heydons were an old Norfolk family, far-famed in the county, and, to judge by the numerous rectors and vicars appointed by them,8 fervently Protestant in their belief. Sir Christopher's grandfather had been engaged in anti-Catholic activity,9 and apparently Sir Christopher himself followed in his footsteps, for in July 1599 Chief Justice Popham (Chief Justice of the King's Bench from 1592 to 1607) wrote to Sir Bassingbourne Gawdy—“touching Bruerton [a recusant] I have written to Sir Christopher Heydon allready for that he is near him.” This sounds as though Sir Christopher were well known as a staunch supporter of the new faith and an active persecutor of recusants. Apparently his zeal in this direction did not slacken with the years, for in 1620 he condemned a loan for the recovery of the Palatinate on the grounds that “the Papists were as ready to assist the Emperor as the king was to assist the King of Bohemia, and that they met at the house of Mr. Henry Kervill … upon which Kervill was sent for and imprisoned.”10

When we note that Norfolk was a hotbed of recusancy at the time—as is witnessed by the autobiography of Father John Gerrard, who in 1588 visited “nearly every gentleman's house in the county”—and that in some districts nearly all the squires, headed by the notorious Walpole and Yelverton families, were recusants,11 and that the jails of Norwich were actually overflowing with these religious prisoners, it seems extremely likely that Sir Christopher Heydon engaged in a campaign against them, and that Tourneur, in his eagerness to secure his patronage, flatteringly exaggerated this into a national salvation.

I would suggest, too, that Tourneur is using the same purposely exaggerated flattery in his apparent reference to the death of Mavortio, when his spirit rises to heaven and “Urania, onelie's seated on the Twin top'd hill.” He means, I take it, that Heydon was so versed in astrology that he, in spirit, visited heaven—“Uranianie him did to heau'n vpreare”—a type of hyperbolical compliment in perfect accordance with Elizabethan literary convention. The poem concludes with a reference to the coming of a “Unicorne,” which, as Collins suggests, probably refers to the future enthronement of King James.12 And in the last stanza I interpret the line “Urania sits amid Pernassus vale” as meaning either that the astrologer Heydon has written poetry or that he has turned the writing of astrological theses into a literary art. Finally the poet hopes in the future:

That India it selfe, may sweetly raise,
Her well tun'd notes in high Iehouah's praise.

This shows that a distinct connection is meant to exist between the first and second parts of the poem.

To sum up: the poem is dedicated to Heydon and adorned with the Heydon crest; the praise allotted to Heydon corresponds to that allotted to Mavortio; Mavortio is connected with astrology and, like Heydon, is a “gallant Knight”; Delta means an island with a triangular shape, a description which exactly fits the Elizabethan conception of England; the poem, therefore, deals with an exploit of Sir Christopher Heydon, and the scene is laid in England.

As the first part of the poem is an indictment of the Catholic Church and her designs upon “Arcadie” and the language of the second part is that of a religious allegory in which an island beset by a monster suggests the machinations of Rome in England, it is almost certain that the two parts are connected. The seriousness of the recusant problem in Norfolk and the militant Protestantism of the Heydons make it likely that the second part describes an attack made by Sir Christopher Heydon upon the adherents of the Catholic faith.


  1. The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. vi, p. 166.

  2. Seccombe and Allen, The Age of Shakespeare, vol. ii, p. 188.

  3. Churton Collins, ed., The Plays and Poems of Cyril Tourneur, vol. ii, p. 178.

  4. The Works of Cyril Tourneur, ed. Allardyce Nicoll, pp. 8-16.

  5. Nicoll's edition p. 70, stanza 3; p. 71, stanza 3.

  6. A Defence of Judiciall Astrologie, 1603, and An Astrological Discourse, a much smaller work, which was not published until 1650, but which, according to the preface, was presented to one Dr. Richard Foster, by Heydon, “some years after king James his coming to England.” It is probable that one or both of these works were known in manuscript before 1600.

  7. The Madnesse of Astrologers, by G. C. (George Carleton), 1624; Judicial Astrology … Condemned, by William Rowland, M.D., 1652. Both are vigorous and learned attacks on Heydon.

  8. See Blomefield's History of Norfolk, vols. vi-ix.

  9. For the anti-recusant activities of Sir Christopher's grandfather see Original Papers of the Norfolk and Norwich Archæological Society, vol. ix, p. 283. He even went to the extent of persecuting his own brother-in-law, Robert de Grey. See also Augustus Jessopp, One Generation of a Norfolk House, p. 108.

  10. W. B. Haydon, The Heydons in England and America (London, 1877, p. 20).

  11. Victoria History of Norfolk, vol. ii, pp. 269-73.

  12. As Professor Nicoll points out, the royal arms of Scotland consist of a unicorn.

Harold Jenkins (essay date 1941)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Cyril Tourneur,” in The Review of English Studies, Vol. 17, No. 65, January, 1941, pp. 21-36.

[In the following essay, Jenkins argues that Tourneur's two major works, The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy, are reflections of his intellectual and artistic interests and personal circumstances at different periods of his life, and that The Revenger's Tragedy was written in a fevered burst of passion while The Atheist's Tragedy was more carefully pondered.]

Cyril Tourneur is known as the author of two tragedies: The Revenger's Tragedy, published in 1607, and The Atheist's Tragedy, published in 1611. They reveal one of the most fiery and energetic imaginations possessed by any Elizabethan writer; yet the personality of their author is also one of the most mysterious. Recent biographical discoveries have served to enlarge our knowledge of his soldiering exploits, but these are totally irrelevant to the remarkable mind which illumines the tragedies. Not only do these two tragedies stand apart from the rest of Elizabethan drama, but they are themselves sufficiently unlike in style and temper for it sometimes to have been held that they cannot have been written by the same hand. The Atheist's Tragedy had Tourneur's name on the title-page, and any uncertainty of authorship therefore attaches to The Revenger's Tragedy. Yet almost all attempts to characterize the genius of Tourneur have been based upon The Revenger's Tragedy, which is admittedly the finer of the two. Writers who have not thought the disparity between the two plays too great to believe in their common authorship have repeatedly shirked the difficulty of reconciling the views they give of the personality behind them. The only notable exception is Miss Ellis-Fermor, whose interest in the philosophic ideas underlying Jacobean drama has led her to attach special importance to the thought of Tourneur in The Atheist's Tragedy. Fascinating as is the sombre magnificence of the verse and imagery of The Revenger's Tragedy and the light it casts on the nature of the author, obsessed with a burning hatred of the vicious humanity he depicts, the supremely interesting thing about Tourneur is seen when one sets side by side the morbid passion of The Revenger's Tragedy and the deliberate reasoning of The Atheist's Tragedy.The Revenger's Tragedy remains Tourneur's masterpiece in drama, but between the composition of the two plays his mind progressed enormously. In The Atheist's Tragedy an instinctive disgust with humanity has been replaced by a searching inquiry into the foundations of human life, a desire to understand its purpose and to formulate a view of man's position in the universe. A calmer and more balanced view of life is presented, and while Tourneur has not succeeded in resolving his conflict with the world, The Atheist's Tragedy shows him at least strenuously attempting to resolve it.

In studying a dramatist one has always to beware of reading a statement of the author's own point of view or a record of his own experience into what is intended only as dramatic fiction. But in Tourneur we are less fascinated by the dramatic presentation of men and women objectively realized than with the nature of the mind in which such conceptions could have arisen. What manner of man was this who filled a diabolic picture-gallery with image after image of horror? “Never, indeed,” wrote Churton Collins, “with the single exception of Byron, has a dramatist … so obviously and so defiantly interwoven and interpenetrated objective embodiment with an intense and all-absorbing subjectivity.” Some fragment of a spiritual autobiography has evidently been left to us in the tormented creations of Tourneur's brain. Yet I do not understand how Churton Collins, so finely sensible of this, can have felt that “these two plays have the same dreary burden, the same melancholy moral. … One chord is struck and there are no variations”; nor how Mr. Eliot, whose brilliant approach to the spirit of Tourneur in the mood in which he wrote The Revenger's Tragedy expresses once and for all the quality of that play, can have found that “The Atheist's Tragedy adds nothing at all to what the other play has given us; there is no development, no fresh inspiration.”

The development of Tourneur's mind has been largely obscured by the dispute over the chronology of his two extant plays. The date of publication need have no relation to the date of composition, and The Revenger's Tragedy, intenser in its vision, finer in its imagination, more overwhelming in its passion, has often been thought the later. Churton Collins finds in the bitterness of The Revenger's Tragedy the fruit of much experience and praises the firmness of its workmanship and the maturity of its outlook. But Mr. Eliot shows that for all its firmness and its sure control, maturity is precisely what The Revenger's Tragedy has not. Its “intense and unique and horrible vision of life” is “such a vision as might come, as the result of few or slender experiences, to a highly sensitive adolescent with a gift for words.” The “narrowness of range might be that of a young man. The cynicism, the loathing and disgust of humanity, expressed consummately in The Revenger's Tragedy, are immature in the respect that they exceed the object.” Mr. Eliot thinks, therefore, that the greater play need not have been the later. This view is also stated by Professor Allardyce Nicoll in the introduction to his edition of Tourneur, and it is the one to which recent criticism seems to have returned. Most of the evidence is only negative: there being nothing tangible to show that The Atheist's Tragedy was composed before The Revenger's Tragedy, should one not naturally assume that the order of publication is the order of composition? All Elizabethan scholars will know exactly how negative such an argument is. But Miss Ellis-Fermor has brought positive evidence in a detailed study of the imagery of the two plays.1 She shows that the imagery of The Atheist's Tragedy has a “clearer habit of thought”, with “a complete elimination of confused or turbulent emotion”; and concludes that “for all its greater passion and force, its greater co-ordination of plot, and its amazing synthesis of passions into unity of mood”, The Revenger's Tragedy is the work of a less mature mind than The Atheist's Tragedy.2

Some confirmation of this point of view I find in a comparison of the style of the two plays. The verse of The Revenger's Tragedy, energetic, fiery, rapid, and passionate, in keeping with the fierceness of the emotion, has been generally admired. But the brilliant reproduction of the passion in the rhythms of the poetry is intuitive. It springs from the intense sincerity of Tourneur's mood. The triumphant variations from the blank verse pattern, the vibrant strength of movement, are the work of a poet of genius translating passion instinctively into phrase and image without the mediation of deliberate thought. The palpitating speed is not the result of conscious experiment. The greater precision that Miss Ellis-Fermor finds in the imagery of The Atheist's Tragedy and the tendency there to work out an image at length in minute detail, rather than to depend on brilliant flashes of imagination, are the result of a more laborious workmanship. And the greater deliberation is reflected in the rhythms. The tempo on the whole is slower. And the blank verse is more regular—not because the poet is less experienced but because he is composing with more studied purpose. The regularity is formal only; there is no monotony of rhythm, and there is a skilful modulation of the sense rhythm with the pattern of the verse. A passage like Castabella's mourning speech in Act iii, Scene i may be fairly regular in mere scansion, but it is the work of a man sufficiently master of blank verse to experiment deliberately with its rhythmic movement, seeking to achieve flexibility for the natural expression of thought and feeling:

O thou that knowest me iustly Charlemonts,
Though in the forc'd possession of another;
Since from thine own free spirit wee receiue it,
That our affections may; be not displeas'd, if on
The altar of his Tombe, I sacrifice
My teares. They are the jewels of my loue
Dissolued into griefe: and fall vpon
His blasted Spring; as Aprill dewe, vpon
A sweet young blossome shak'd before the time.

As the scene progresses, with a remarkable increase in the run-on lines and the weak endings already present here, the verse grows rapidly freer in movement until we reach a point where the intensity and heightened expressiveness of verse is combined with the ease and fluency of a sort of rhythmic prose:

Married? had not my mother been a woman,
I should protest against the chastitie
Of all thy sexe. How can the Marchant, or
The Marriner, absent whole yeares (from wiues
Experienc'd in the satisfaction of
Desire) promise themselues to find their sheetes
Vnspotted with adultery, at their
Returne? when you that neuer had the sense
Of actual temptation; could not stay
A few short months.

Such another passage occurs in Castabella's violent protest when D'Amville suggests to her an incestuous relationship.3 With less speed of utterance and less urgency of passion, when thoughtful exposition is required, the verse often approximates yet more closely to prose rhythms. Charlemont's attempt to explain his father's apparition as a dream may serve as an example:

Tush. These idle dreames
Are fabulous. Our boyling phantasies
Like troubled waters falsifie the shapes
Of things retain'd in them; and make 'em seeme
Confounded, when they are distinguish'd. So
My actions daily conuersant with warre;
(The argument of bloud and death) had left
(Perhaps) th'imaginary presence of
Some bloudy accident vpon my minde:
Which mix'd confusedly with other thoughts,
(Whereof th'remembrance of my Father, might
Be one) presented all together, seeme
Incorporate; as if his body were
The owner of that bloud, the subiect of
That death; when hee's at Paris, and that bloud
Shed here. It may be thus. I would not leaue
The warre, for reputation's sake, vpon
An idle apprehension; a vaine dreame.(4)

Such verse is marked by a slow reflectiveness quite unexpected from the author of The Revenger's Tragedy. There is skill in its exposition, in the variation of long sentences and short, and in the ease with which the long involved sentences spread out their formidable array of clauses with complete and fluent clarity. It is the nearest we get before Massinger to that masterly lucidity of exposition which is one of Massinger's principal merits in dramatic poetry, though it often at the same time brings his verse down to the lower key of prose. In Tourneur it arises because the emotion is for the time being overlaid with serious thought. The thought is master of the metre, just as in The Revenger's Tragedy the passion stretches the elastic verse; neither thought nor emotion are in Tourneur ever cramped by the demands of the metre, but they brilliantly transform the metre to serve their immediate needs. And the contrast in the style of the two plays is conditioned by the striking difference of the poet's mood. Churton Collins sees in these plays different phases in the development of Tourneur's art. To me they seem rather different phases in the development of his mind. The difference in technique is less remarkable than the supplanting of a fiery instinct by a reasoning purpose, of which this new verse, more consciously and deliberately contrived, is but the manifestation.

Another manifestation of it is to be seen, I think, in a comparison of the two plots. Both show a good deal of ingenuity, together with a fine sense of theatrically effective situation. In this respect The Revenger's Tragedy is superior, though it is also the more derivative.

Even where most derivative it is still brilliantly original. It obviously owes much to the long line of revenge tragedies, though it strains their conventions to breaking-point. Tourneur gives us a new kind of revenge and a new kind of revenger; while the vengeance of as individual for wrongs he has suffered seems to expand into the greater motive of revenge upon perverted humanity for its revolting wickedness. The situations themselves are startling, but in them the dramatist modifies, perhaps unwittingly, scenes from earlier plays. The opening scene, with Vendici's address to the skull, inevitably recalls Chettle's Hoffman. The final scene, showing vengeance carried out by masked revellers, is equally close to Marston's Antonio's Revenge, which may also have suggested the taunting of the dying Duke by his murderers and his being forced to silence, though in The Revenger's Tragedy the silence is very much less crudely contrived. The idea of revenge for the seduction of the beloved may also derive subconsciously from Antonio's Revenge, where much play is made of Mellida's alleged unchastity; while Hoffman precedes The Revenger's Tragedy in entrapping its villain by a lustful assignation, Chettle's cave and “queachy plot” corresponding to Tourneur's “unsunned lodge”. Tourneur is nowhere imitating, but his mind draws forth from its well of impressions remembered hints of these earlier plays for his imagination to work on. The Atheist's Tragedy in its central situation resembles many revenge tragedies, but shows no such parallels with earlier plays in its particular episodes; for the plot of The Atheist's Tragedy is not so much a plot wrought by the imagination as one intellectually constructed to develop a certain train of thought. Tourneur takes over familiar materials like the ghost—the ghost of a man murdered by his brother appearing to the victim's son—and works them into his plan; but he does not here use scraps of incidents from other plays, remembered and transformed, as he had done in the more spontaneous play, when his subconscious mind had greater freedom to throw up its impressions. He does not now strain the conventions of the revenge tragedy; he deliberately and ruthlessly snaps them. For he denies the validity of the whole revenge morality. He intentionally places his hero in the stock situation which demands revenge: D'Amville is both the murderer of Charlemont's father and the usurper of his inheritance as well as the lustful wooer of his beloved. But Tourneur's purpose is to suggest that Charlemont should abstain from revenge and leave it to a higher than earthly hand. The working out of the story of The Atheist's Tragedy was a calculating process. It is perhaps just because the imagination is there dominated by reason that the play is inferior as a work of art. Even when there are in The Atheist's Tragedy reminiscences of the language of Shakespeare or sometimes of the thought of Chapman,5 these seem less like unconscious echoes than a studied attempt to achieve the dignified philosophic utterance of a chosen model.

It is interesting, and, if one is really to understand Tourneur, important to inquire what it was that Tourneur wanted so anxiously to express in this later play, when the habit of thought had taken charge of his mind; and to see how the Tourneur of The Revenger's Tragedy could develop into the Tourneur of The Atheist's Tragedy.

We do not know the date of Tourneur's birth; but though The Revenger's Tragedy may be the work of his immaturity, he can hardly have been very young when he wrote it, for his poem The Transformed Metamorphosis was published in 1600. Its satiric tone owes something to the vogue for satire established by Hall and Donne and Marston, but it has also a very personal note. It reveals in daring imagery a world full of sin and vice. In the very first lines of the author's address to his book, Tourneur exclaims:

O were thy margents cliffs of itching lust;
Or quotes to chalke out men the way to sinne
Then were there hope, that multitudes wold thrust
To buy thee.

The Epistle to the Reader shows a similar obsession with the idea of sin as well as with death and decay. The imagination of the poem is extravagant, the diction stiff; but it is violently original and shows a power of macabre imagery, as Tourneur in “accents of soule-terrifying paine” describes “This hellish ill o'ermask'd with holinesse.” There is nothing here which would foreshadow the really “soule-terrifying” accents of The Revenger's Tragedy; but there is thus early a preoccupation with the wickedness of men. The wildly distorted vision which sees all humanity as vicious and inspires a bitter loathing was already, well before The Revenger's Tragedy, a habit of Tourneur's mind. In The Revenger's Tragedy the hatred of sin has become white-hot, until it sears Tourneur's very soul, and his morbid concentration gives to his imagination a hectic brilliance.

A militant morality is apparent in everything of Tourneur's that we know. It colours his Character of Salisbury and his funeral poems of Prince Henry and Sir Francis Vere, who are celebrated for their merit in putting down vice or, as Tourneur's characteristic superlative would phrase it, their ability “to suppresse the strong'st Commotions of licenciousness”. But the obsession is at its height in The Revenger's Tragedy, where it stamps on Tourneur's brain distorted, elongated shapes revelling in every kind of lasciviousness and lust.

Mr. E. H. C. Oliphant6 has pointed out that the moral passion which marks The Revenger's Tragedy distinguishes it from the work of Middleton, to whom he would otherwise ascribe the play. Perhaps nothing can more plainly bring out this quality of Tourneur's mind than a comparison of his characters with Middleton's. Middleton's wicked people revel in their wickedness as enthusiastically as do Tourneur's—only nowhere in Middleton is there any suggestion, tacit or overt, that it is wickedness at all. Guardiano, in Women Beware Women, is a prince of panders. He takes a joyous delight in his craft, without ever feeling that it is not a particularly noble one. What he has to do he does superlatively well. Bringing Bianca to be seduced by the Duke, with an artist's subtlety he “showed her naked pictures by the way”. The Duke is similarly an artist in his way, a connoisseur in seduction. He affects “a passionate pleading” above “an easy yielding”; and although he “can command”, he prefers the “infinite pleasure” of

                    gentle, fair entreatings, when love's businesses
Are carried courteously 'twixt heart and heart.

The villainous crew of The Revenger's Tragedy are also epicures in lust, but their palates enjoy not so much the richness of its sensuality but the added spice that comes with the consciousness of sin. The Duchess assures her incestuous lover that “there's no pleasure sweet but it is sinfull”; and Lussurioso explains his preference: “Giue me my bed by stealth—theres true delight”; while the Duke enjoys the fine flavour of a “sin thats rob'd in Holines”. These people are all moral perverts; they wring a more exquisite delight out of a sensation because they feel it to be sinful. Middleton's men and women know only the sensation itself: they have the thrill of a thing well done, but they ask no question of right and wrong. Middleton in detachment analyses thoughts and passions; his only emotion is an aesthetic one. In Tourneur even the irony, which is otherwise very close indeed to Middleton's in kind, may be reinforced by its moral appropriateness. That Beatrice should be entrapped into having to surrender her virginity to the man she abhors is a situation which should appeal to the most fastidious taste for piquant drama; but Middleton does not for a moment suggest that this refinement of torture is a punishment for her guilt. When Tourneur's Duke, however, is poisoned by the skull of the woman he seduced, when Lussurioso is slain in vengeance by the man he sought to employ as a pander and a murderer, one feels not only the pungent irony but the poetic justice of it all.

The Revenger's Tragedy is sustained by a frenzied morality of this kind. It sees all life as wickedness and turns all its wickedness into horror. It is aggressive, fierce in its scorn and detestation, and seems to have been composed in a fevered burst of passion—a passion suddenly flaring up beyond the poet's control, hurling itself forth in mandrake shrieks. The Atheist's Tragedy is altogether more carefully pondered. There are still figures of monstrous vice—Levidulcia, Cataplasma, Soquette, though a less morbidly excited mind makes the last two little different from many of the bawds and courtesans known to us in Elizabethan drama. Yet that does not prevent Tourneur's scathing indignation from treating them with righteous savagery. The harshness of their sentence is perhaps only matched in Volpone. It is not, however, a passionate vengeance; it is a penalty exacted with all the calm dignity of the law. For during the years since the composition of The Revenger's Tragedy Tourneur has reduced his instinctive hatred of vice to a fairly rational code. He has ceased scorching mankind with his passion and has paused to examine this thing that he loathes more closely. His mind shows no relenting towards depravity, but his eye can now perceive other than nightmare shapes. The virtuous Castiza of The Revenger's Tragedy is succeeded by the much fuller portrait of Castabella, and the heroine is now matched by a virtuous hero, Charlemont, who, pale as he is beside the sinister Vendici, has greater moral stability. The other figures of the play include also the quite innocuous Montferrers and Belforest. Disillusion is still strong, but with a cooling off of passion cynicism is less bitter. In the person of Sebastian it is almost urbane—in the soliloquy at the end of Act 1, or in his reply to the question, “How many mistresses ha' you i'faith?”

In faith; none. For I think none of 'em are faithfull, but otherwise, as many as cleane Shirts. The loue of a woman is like a Mushroom; it growes in one night, and will serue somwhat pleasingly, next morning to breakfast but afterwards waxes fulsome and vnwholesome.”

Sebastian is the healthiest of all Tourneur's people. He could almost have stepped out of a Middleton comedy. There is something comic—if savagely comic—too in the discomfiture of Languebeau Snuffe in the churchyard, whereas the only approach to humour in The Revenger's Tragedy lay in the grimmest of irony and double entendre.

The persistent reasoning in The Atheist's Tragedy shows that Tourneur, when finally nauseated with horror, must have striven to discover the cause of the wickedness he saw around him. From the first he sought the universal; and the passion of The Revenger's Tragedy is the more awful for being directed against humanity at large. It is not men Tourneur hates, but man. Man is an indivisible monster of sin—a single spectre of decay.7 In The Atheist's Tragedy Tourneur again seeks the universal; the whole play represents an attempt to distinguish a design in the universe and man's life. A mind so blinded by the fascination of evil that it perceived no virtue in the world might naturally tend to atheism, and the atheism of D'Amville may conceivably represent a philosophy which Tourneur himself toyed with—only to reject, as D'Amville's own philosophy is finally rejected in the play. D'Amville sees no sign of a benign power shaping human ends—the mind which conceived The Revenger's Tragedy could never even have expected to discover one—but he ranks Nature supreme in the universe. Man—a bestial enough creature in the imagination of the earlier Tourneur—is for D'Amville distinguished from the beasts by powers superior only in degree, not in kind.

The contrast between the philosophic discussion which opens The Atheist's Tragedy and the passionate eloquence of Vendici in the first scene of The Revenger's Tragedy illustrates the difference in the motives that lie behind the two plays. D'Amville, monster as he is works out his villainous schemes rationally, directs them systematically towards a preconceived end. He is in that a most formidable villain, though at the same time less revolting than the creatures of The Revenger's Tragedy, who sensually give way to every sudden lustful impulse. But D'Amville is not, of course, a real person at all. He is simply a means to embody an idea. The play derives its main interest from the struggle between antagonistic beliefs. From the very beginning D'Amville's faith in “Nature” is set against the belief in a world designed and ordered by a benevolent deity. Castabella, separated from her beloved Charlemont, submits with hardly a protest to the will of Heaven.9 In The Revenger's Tragedy Tourneur could only hate the wicked world; he could not calm himself to begin to understand it. He now sees that the world was not intended to be wicked, but has become so because men have abandoned God. He has hope for mankind because he has faith in an ultimate good. But that does not make him hate mankind the less. He hates men now for their perversity; they were not made evil by nature, but they have chosen wickedness themselves. And he cynically observes that the professing good are as rotten as the rest. “The nearer the Church; the further from God”, he makes Sebastian quote. And hence the bitterly satiric portrait of the Puritan Languebeau Snuffe. Snuffe is easily won over to aid in D'Amville's machinations, and this only helps to confirm D'Amville in his atheism, his belief in the power of his own nature. Is it perhaps possible that Tourneur's perception of the worldly selfishness for which the profession of religion was too often only a hypocritical cloak had been a serious obstacle in the way of his accepting the principle of good?

The submission of Castabella to the Divine will is echoed by Belforest after the death of Montferrers.8 He refuses to lament, since Nature has not “purpos'd any thing for nothing”. By “Nature”, of course, he means what Castabella means by “Heaven” and what D'Amville has just referred to as “the King of nature”. Actually D'Amville does not believe there is any “King of nature”, as his talks with Borachio make clear; but Nature for Belforest implies the eminence of some sovereign power. For D'Amville it is simply the motive force of man without the presence of a controlling power inherent in the idea of God. Strong in this belief, D'Amville himself aims at controlling Nature. In the earlier part of the play, while D'Amville is in the ascendant, the belief in Nature as uncontrolled by any higher being or any force of reason or design dominates the action; and the success of D'Amville's schemes seems at first to justify his confidence. He can afford to ridicule those who ascribe the “power of rule” to “him they call the supreame of the Starres”. As if to prove him wrong, thunder and lightning interrupt his meditation; but he has a natural explanation of the phenomenon and easily persuades himself that Nature “fauoured our Performance”. D'Amville has a Macchiavellian faculty of turning everything to his own advantage, and the view of Nature as favouring those “that strengthen their estate” is not entirely uninfluenced by the Elizabethan perversion of the Macchiavellian doctrine of expediency. But the thunder is not intended by Tourneur as a natural coincidence; still less is it the conventional melodrama of the Elizabethan theatre, though it does in part derive from that. It pleases Tourneur to make use of this theatrical device as a manifestation of a supernatural power. Thunder and lightning also herald the appearance of Montferrers' ghost,10 and the apparition itself is equally symbolic. Again a rational explanation is offered and rejected. Charlemont accounts for the apparition by the psychology of dreams; but the return of the ghost convinces him of its reality. It does not follow from this that Tourneur does not understand the natural phenomena which produce thunder and lightning nor that he literally believes in ghosts. But he does believe in a power above the material, and he uses these very stagy circumstances as symbols of it, investing them with a highly extraordinary significance.

The purpose of the ghost is quite different from that of the ghost familiar in revenge tragedy. This ghost does not incite Charlemont to revenge; but instead it advises patience and counsels him to “leaue revenge vnto the King of kings”.

Let him reuenge my murder, and thy wrongs,
To whom the Iustic of Reuenge belongs.

Charlement accepts the view that revenge belongs to a superhuman power, to whose dictates he willingly resigns himself. His soliloquy in prison,11 though it rebels against having to suffer afflictions greater than the crimes they punish, shows an implicit belief in “the sacred iustice of my God”. And Charlemont can bear more than Sebastian has power to inflict on him if it is the will of Fate to have him suffer it. The surrender to the decree of Fate and the fortitude to endure unprotesting whatever Fate enacts, which we have already seen in Castabella and Belforest, are especially characteristic of Charlemont The completeness of his surrender and the ever-present note of resignation in his conduct have a good deal of stoicism about them Tourneur has come under the influence of the Stoic philosophy which absorbed so much of the attention of Jacobean writers, and his Charlemont has, I think, a debt to Chapman's heroes.12 But the Fate of which Charlemont speaks is yet another name for Castabella's “Heaven”, the supernatural force which orders the world in which mere mortals live. In the graveyard scene13 this force, which gradually identifies itself with divine providence, assumes complete control and goes on to an emphatic triumph at the end of the play. Having killed Borachio, Charlemont is willing to die by the hand of the law; but be is at the same time compelled to take the opportunity which offers of escape. For

                                                                                                                        It may
Be Heau'n reserues me to some better end.

Later in the scene, when he rescues Castabella from “the arme of lust” in the person of D'Amville, it becomes clear what this “better end”, “this blessed purpose”, was. He has availed himself of the disguise afforded by the sheet and beard left in his way by “the purpose of a friendly accident” against which he must “not expostulate”. This is again the stoic, but at the same time the believer in Divine providence, for his feeling that the “accident” is “friendly” shows his instinctive belief that it was not really an “accident” at all. If it were an accident, it would be a crude piece of melodrama; but the striking coincidences in the action of this play are redeemed from melodrama by being represented as the mysterious ways in which the hand of God moves. Both Charlemont and Castabella firmly believe in Heaven's guidance of events and in the “protection that still guards the innocent”. That is why they are quite unafraid of death, and why they can so peacefully lie down to sleep among the death's heads. D'Amville himself, when he sees them, has to confess that there is a “happiness within the freedome of the conscience”.

This scene, which unites Charlemont and Castabella in happiness, also shows the beginning of the wreckage of D'Amville's schemes and of D'Amville's loss of faith in Nature as the supreme power. Characteristically macabre and theatrically the most remarkable scene in the play, it is the climax of the action and is crucial to the thought. Here the atheist's interpretation of the universe is brought into direct conflict with the belief in a benevolent deity, and it is typical of the way in which action is subordinated throughout to the interest of philosophic argument that D'Amville and Castabella have an argument on Nature when he is trying to seduce her. Forced and unreal as this sounds, it is nevertheless dramatically effective because at the crucial moment a reasoning belief is supported by passion, and ultimately the whole play achieves a certain success because, although it aims at the exposition of a philosophy, the philosophy is less logically expounded than passionately felt. D'Amville can speak of God as a “suppos'd protectour”; but Castabella believes that the wrath of Heaven manifests itself in thunderbolts.14 Then, after he has been frightened away by Charlemont, D'Amville comes, in spite of himself, instinctively to feel the same. He who but now has held that man should obey the instincts of his nature and work only for his own profit and pleasure begins to feel remorse of conscience. Here Tourneur's superb imagination takes control. A pale cloud in the sky appears as

                    the Ghoast of olde Montferrers in
A long white sheete, climbing yond' loftie mountaine
To complaine to Heau'n of me.

Languebeau Snuffe, arriving with the Watch, is

                                                            Black Beelzebub,
And all his hell-hounds come to apprehend me.

D'Amville is quickly calmed, but his disintegration has begun, and we have been given a glimpse of the breakdown of his mind which comes with the overthrow of his schemes. The whole of the fifth act is to be devoted to the representation of this overthrow. It is heralded by the Ghost of Montferrers, which enters pat to confute D'Amville when he still clings to his belief that “Mans high wisedome” is the “superiour power”, unruled by any stars of Heaven. And the significance of D'Amville's overthrow is emphasized by irony. Upon his words,

My reall wisedome has rais'd vp a State,
That shall eternize my posteritie,

the dead body of his son Sebastian is brought in. This is followed immediately by the appearance of the bed bearing the dying form of his other son Rousard—a coincidence which again is not melodramatic but perfectly logical, since it is to be interpreted as the work of the omnipotent Being whom D'Amville has denied. This working of the hand of God has already been pointedly anticipated when Rousard has had to confess that his sickness dated from the day when, through D'Amville's scheming, he married Castabella,

As if my sicknesse were a punishment,
That did arrest me for some iniurie
I then committed.

The death of his two sons and the collapse of the edifice he was seeking to build for his posterity compel D'Amville to admit the existence of a power greater than Nature which “controules her force”. Nature is “a forger of false assurances”, and D'Amville confesses what the Ghost has already told him, that, with all his wisdom, be is a fool. The superiority of the creed of Charlemont and Castabella is apparent in the last scene, when D'Amville envies the courage and resolution which they have in face of death and which he himself lacks. Divine providence now again takes a hand and saves Charlemont and Castabella while putting D'Amville to death. The mode of his death—on the surface a very stagy accident—is again no accident, since God “commanded it”, and D'Amville's death bears witness to the truth of what he all his life denied. It is a supreme example of Tourneur's irony. And upon a similar note of irony the play closes:

Thus by the worke of Heau'n; the men that thought
To follow our dead bodies without teares;
Are dead themselues, and now we follow theirs.

Justice has been done and all testifies to the power of “eternall prouidence”. Goodness triumphs, and faith in order and in a benevolent disposition of the universe is vindicated. This is a highly surprising conclusion from the author of The Revenger's Tragedy. His mind, instinctively aware only of the sin everywhere rife in the world, found, when it sought consciously to examine the causes of sin's preeminence, the most rational explanation in a denial of a benevolent providence; but he was then compelled to abandon his disbelief, seeing signs of goodness and of a noble design behind the universe. Finally he attributes the wickedness of the world to men's betrayal of the Divine purpose, while affirming his belief in an ultimate good which transcends all evil.

Instinctive passion has given way to thought, and the effort to express thought has left its mark on every detail of The Atheist's Tragedy, from the manipulation of the plot and characters to the structure of the verse. But in spite of the lucidity of the language, the play is not a successful exposition of a philosophy. It affirms, but it cannot logically prove. The overthrow of atheism and the triumph of faith represent something that Tourneur passionately feels—and even more passionately wants to feel; for, perhaps, in face of the vice that still crowds in upon his sight, he has not even yet entirely persuaded himself of the truth of what he so anxiously asserts. In any case, for all the show of reason, the ultimate appeal must still be to passion. And it is because here passion is not spontaneously expressed, but is overlaid by the thought-driven argument of one who strives to prove what can only be believed, that the play is less successful than Tourneur's earlier masterpiece, where passion dominated the conception and swept headlong through the verse.15 The nightmare of the mind produced greater poetry, a grander and more terrible art; but the later play is an important sequel for the reader fascinated by Tourneur's horror, suggesting where the revulsion he felt for human wickedness was to lead him, and affording a valuable clue to the development of his mind.


  1. Modern Language Review, xxx., 1935, 289-301.

  2. Miss Ellis-Fermor also makes the excellent point that some of the most powerful images in The Atheist's Tragedy echo the passionate interest in lust and lechery which was the main motive-force of The Revenger's Tragedy. It is as though this youthful obsession has permanently coloured Tourneur's imagination and woven itself into the very fabric of his thought.

  3. iv. iii.

  4. Consider also similar passages like the long speech of Languebeau Snuffe in i. iv. or Charlemont's soliloquy at the opening of iii. iii.

  5. I agree with Mr. Eliot in suspecting an influence of Chapman on this play.

  6. Times Literary Supplement, December 18, 1930.

  7. And this is felt to be a complete view of life. The unbiased observer, of course knows it to be partial; but Tourneur, and the reader swayed by Tourneur's passion do not know it. That is what makes it so terrifying, so hopeless, and, when presented with Tourneur's magnificent imagery, so tragically grand:

    Dos euery proud and selfe-affecting Dame
    Camphire her face for this? and grieue her Maker
    In sinfull baths of milke,—when many an
              infant starues,
    For her superfluous outside, all for this?

    This is not an ordinary rhetorical question: it is a riddle of the sphinx, eternally unanswerable.

  8. ii. iii.

  9. ii. iv.

  10. ii. vi.

  11. iii. iii.

  12. See especially The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, iv. i, the speech of Clermont's burning: “Good sir, believe that no particular torture”.

  13. iv. iii.

  14. The dramatist implies here a further comment on D'Amville's attempt to explain away the thunder and lightning in the scene of Montferrers' murder.

  15. It is to be noted that when imagination is dominant in The Atheist's Tragedy, as in the hallucinations of D'Amville, Tourneur retains his former skill in the delineation of passion. And it is then that the play achieves its greatest tragic strength.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Ayres, Philip J. Tourneur: The Revenger's Tragedy. London: Edward Arnold, 1977, 62 p.

Discusses influences; sources; and ironic, social, comic, and tragic dimensions of the play.

Ellis-Fermor, Una. “The Imagery of The Revenger's Tragedie and The Atheist's Tragedie.Modern Language Review 30 (1935): 289-301.

Discusses the common imagery in the two plays, paying particular attention to the imagery of the house in The Atheist's Tragedy.

Foakes, R. A. Marston and Tourneur. London: Longman Group Ltd., 1978, 54 p.

Thoroughly examines The Revenger's Tragedy and offers commentary on Tourneur's life and The Atheist's Tragedy.

Gauntlett, Mark. “‘Had his estate been follow to his mind’: Ironic Strategies in The Revenger's Tragedy.Cahiers Élisabéthains 42 (October, 1992): 37-48.

Examines the modes of irony by which The Revenger's Tragedy attains its peculiar status as a revenge comedy.

Higgins, M. H. “The Influence of Calvinistic Thought in The Atheist's Tragedy.Review of English Studies 19 (1943): 255-62.

Argues that the play is Calvinist and Puritan in its outlook, as it reveals a disgust with the human body.

Kernan, Alvin. “Tragical Satire and The Revenger's Tragedy.” In Shakespeare's Contemporaries, edited by M. Bluestone and N. Rabkin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970, pp. 317-29.

Discusses the nature of satire and argues that Vindice is a satirist who comments on other characters and on society.

Layman, B. J. “Tourneur's Artificial Noon and the Design of The Revenger's Tragedy.Modern Language Quarterly 34, No. 1 (March, 1973): 20-35.

Disagrees with critics who view Tourneur as a masterful moralist.

Levin, Richard. “The Subplot of The Atheist's Tragedy.Huntington Library Quarterly 29 (1965): 17-33.

Analysis of the related themes in the main plot, subplot, and a third comic plot.

Mincoff, Marco K. “The Authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy.Studia Historico-Philologica Serdicensia 2 (1940): 1-87.

Detailed explication of the imagery in The Revenger's Tragedy that also argues the work is not by Tourneur's hand.

Murray, Peter. A Study of Cyril Tourneur. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964, 257 p.

Comprehensive scholarly analysis of Tourneur's major works which argues that The Revenger's Tragedy is not by Tourneur.

Oliphant, E. H. C. “The Authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy.Studies in Philology 23 (1926): 157-68.

Suggests that The Revenger's Tragedy is not by Tourneur but by his contemporary John Middleton.

Ornstein, Robert. “The Atheist's Tragedy and Renaissance Naturalism.” Studies in Philology 51 (1954): 194-207.

Views the protagonist's naturalistic outlook as typical of the atheist as characterized by Renaissance writers.

Peter, John. “The identity of Mavortio in Tourneur's The Transformed Metamorphosis.Notes and Queries 193 (1948): 408-12.

Sees the poem as a political allegory in which the hero, Mavortio, is Henry VIII and the Unicorn is Elizabeth I.

Salingar, L. G. “The Revenger's Tragedy and the Morality Tradition.” Scrutiny 6 (1938): 402-24.

Discusses the work as a morality play, as characters and events are manipulated for didactic purposes.

Schuman, Samuel. Cyril Tourneur. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 163 p.

Presents the life and works of Tourneur within the frame of the contemporary literary and historical situation.

Simmons, J. L. “The Tongue and Its Office in The Revenger's Tragedy.PMLA 92 (1977): 56-68.

Argues that the imagery of the tongue helps to illuminate the grotesque Jacobean darkness of the play.

Additional coverage of Tourneur's life and works can be found in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 58; and DISCovering Authors Modules:Dramatists.

Henry Hitch Adams (essay date 1949)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Cyril Tourneur on Revenge,” in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, January, 1949, pp. 72-87.

[In the following essay, Adams argues that in The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy Tourneur uses a common approach to the problem of revenge, as both dramas study the ethics of revenge and finally embrace a Christian solution—that God ultimately wreaks vengeance on the wicked and rewards the virtuous.]

Cyril Tourneur occupies a peculiar position in Jacobean drama. If the sole play to be laid to his credit is The Atheist's Tragedy, [A.T.] he is decidedly second rate. On the other hand, if we can restore to him The Revengers Tragædie, [R.T.] he takes his place as a peer of Middleton, Ford, Webster, Marston, and Massinger. The Revengers Tragædie was published in quarto in 1607 with no author indicated. It was ascribed to Tourneur in 1656 by Archer's list, and in Kirkman's lists of 1661 and 1671.1 Until the time of Fleay, no one had questioned this ascription. In this century, Professor Oliphant has marshalled an imposing array of metrical and verbal evidence to give the play to Middleton,2 but verbal tests must give place to other evidence if it can be found. Oliphant himself admits one weakness to his argument, saying: “In his tragedies Middleton shows no concern whatever with moral problems (though he does in one comedy, ‘The Phoenix’), whereas Tourneur is primarily a missionary moralist.”3 He goes on to say, “To make the case [for Tourneur's authorship] a good one, some development from one play to the other must be shown; but such development never has been shown, and, I venture to say, never can be shown.”4 With all due respect to Professor Oliphant, the present writer feels that he can detect such a development from one play to the other, and that together they possess a common approach to the problem of revenge, and that together they present a single mind's ordered view of the universe.

Most critics agree that The Revengers Tragædie (c. 1606) is the earlier play. Under the influence of Marston, Tourneur combines in his protagonist, Vindice, the functions of revenger and malcontent. Vindice's mistress has been murdered by the Duke because she will not submit to his lust. Holding her skull in his hands as a symbol of revenge, Vindice opens the play with a soliloquy which reveals how the entire court has abandoned reason and order in favor of avarice, lechery, and chaos.

Duke: royall letcher; goe, gray hayrde adultery,
And thou his sonne, as impious steept as hee:
And thou his bastard true-begott in euill:
And thou his Dutchesse that will doe with Diuill,
Foure exlent Characters—O that marrow-leffe [sic]
Would stuffe the hollow Bones with dambd desires,
And stead of heate kindle infernall fires,
Within the spend-thrift veynes of a drye Duke,
A parcht and iuicelesse luxur.
[To the skull of his mistress.]
Thou sallow picture of my poysoned loue,
When life and beauty naturally fild out
These ragged imperfections;
When two-heauen-pointed Diamonds were set
In those vnsightly Rings;—then 'twas a face
So farre beyond the artificiall shine
Of any womans bought complexion
That the vprightest man, (if such there be,
That sinne but seauen times a day) broke custome
And made vp eight with looking after her.
Oh she was able to ha made a Vsurers sonne
Melt all his patrimony in a kisse,
And what his father fiftie yeares told
To haue consumde, and yet his sute beene cold:(5)

Vindice, having in his Marstonian fashion put his finger on the corruption of the court, then appoints himself a Hercules to sweep out this Augean Stable, and incidentally to revenge his murdered mistress. At every turn he is aided and abetted by his younger brother, Hippolito, who is but a weaker Vindice. Once he has clearly established Vindice's motive, Tourneur abandons him to introduce other characters, and we discover to our surprise that nearly all of them seek revenge. No fewer than six other people start plots and inform the audience that vengeance motivates their actions. For convenience the revenge motives are first arranged in a list. Each of these will be considered in detail.

(1) The Duchess, whose “Youngest Son” is on trial for rape, seeks revenge on her husband because he has not caused the boy to be immediately acquitted. He has merely stopped the trial to prevent the sentence of death from being pronounced.

(2) The Duchess convinces Spurio, the bastard son of the Duke, that his bar sinister gives him cause for vengeance against his father.

(3) The “Youngest Son” having been executed by a mistake, Supervacuo and Ambitioso seek revenge on Lussurioso whom they hold responsible.

(4) Lussurioso seeks revenge on his servant, Piato (Vindice in disguise), who had given him erroneous information. In acting on it, Lussurioso nearly lost his life.

(5) Lussurioso thinks that Piato's trick had been motivated by revenge because he (Lussurioso) was “too honest.”

(6) Ambitioso and Supervacuo plan revenge on Spurio because of his adultery with their mother.

(7) Vindice and Hippolito seek revenge for the death of the former's mistress.

(8) Vindice and Hippolito seek revenge on Lussurioso because he has attempted to seduce their sister, Castiza.

(9) Antonio, the husband of the woman raped by the “Youngest Son,” has cause for revenge, but takes no active steps himself.

This list clearly indicates that Tourneur was exploring the entire idea of revenge, attempting to illustrate it in all its aspects. After the long series of revenge plays which had held the stage since Kyd, it remained for Tourneur to experiment with many revengers and to come to grips with the moral aspects of the problem. This list suggests that the title of Tourneur's earlier play may have been incorrectly read for over three hundred years, and that it should be The Revengers' Tragedy instead of The Revenger's Tragedy.6 If we are to understand Tourneur's ideas, we must analyze these revenge plots and reach what conclusions we can from their development as a preliminary to reconstructing his ethical position.

(1) The Duchess leaves the trial scene filled with rage at her husband, the Duke, because her “Youngest Son” has been brought so near the scaffold. She congratulates herself for her forbearance in not seeking her husband's death. Instead, “wedlock faith shall be forgot.”7 Tourneur answers her view in the Castiza plot where he strongly upholds conventional views of sex morality.

(2) The Duchess has chosen Spurio, the bastard son of her husband, as the man with whom she will simultaneously consummate revenge and adultery, and skillfully convinces him that he should be revenged.

Who would not be reuengd of such a father,
E'en in the worst way? I would thanke that sinne,
That could most injury him, and bee in league with

Spurio consents, even though he hates her and all her children.

                                        … oh—damnation met
The sinne of feasts, drunken adultery.
I feele it swell me; my reuenge is iust.(9)

That Tourneur rejected the idea of revenge by adultery the Castiza plot and the subsequent fate of these two worthies amply attest.

(3) Ambitioso and Supervacuo, younger brothers to Lussurioso have conspired his death. Their tricks backfire, and the “Youngest Son” meets the death intended for Lussurioso. In senseless rage, they plan “revenge” on the latter who has been so inconsiderate as to escape with his life. This plot runs into the ground, being swallowed up by the schemes of Vindice and his brother, but it is clearly and explicitly stated.10 This instance presents an illogical revenge, baseless, motivated only by malice and injured pride. Tourneur felt, apparently, no need to pursue it, for the audience would readily see it for what it was, and reject its basic premises together with its would-be perpetrators.

(4) Vindice, in his role as Piato, has told Lussurioso that his stepmother, the Duchess, is at that moment in bed with Spurio. Lussurioso, sword in hand, rushes into the room, only to find the Duke instead of Spurio sharing the Duchess's bed. Lussurioso's disgrace and peril motivate his desire for vengeance on Piato. Vindice abandons his disguise as Piato and takes service under Lussurioso under his own name. His first task is to murder Piato! Lussurioso's constant and bold-faced lying in the scene, and his actions throughout the play sufficiently dispose of him as a revenger worthy of serious consideration. On no ethical problem is he ever on the side of morality.

(5) This requires no comment, serving merely as a variation in a minor key on the main theme.

(6) Ambitioso and Supervacuo's plan of revenge on their stepmother and on Spurio because of their adultery takes its stand on better moral grounds than their previous revenge notion. They seem, however, less concerned about their stepmother's morals than they do about the possible advantages that may accrue to Spurio as a result of his position as royal lover. The conclusion of this plot emphasizes this idea, because the brothers die in a quarrel over the succession.

(7 and 8) These points must be considered together because they are inter-dependent, although Act Three sees the fruition of the first. In the speech already quoted, Vindice sounds the moral note, and pictures himself as a cleanser of the corrupt court. His Mistress's skull becomes his memento of revenge, replacing the customary ghost, and is made into the instrument of revenge when the Duke dies as a result of kissing its poisoned lips. Vindice never questions the ethics of revenge. He and Hippolito have high moral standards throughout their dealings with their sister, but become machiavellians toward the Duke and Lussurioso. Vindice repeatedly calls on Heaven for vengeance, and then never waits for it to act. He scruples at nothing to attain his vengeance; lies, deceits, poisons, flattery, dissimulation, disguises, and treachery lie ready to his hand. When he kills the Duke, he displays a sadistic joy at the nobleman's suffering. He deteriorates steadily throughout the play. On hearing his first speech, we accept his views, and ally ourselves firmly with his cause. But on hearing his foolish rationalization of his offensive proposals to his own sister, we begin to lose faith in him. The juxtaposition of his pleadings for Heaven's aid with his own diabolic action stands out so clearly that we can only conclude that Tourneur must have meant it to be noted. When they murder the Duke, Vindice and Hippolito definitely turn villains. Hippolito approves his brother's schemes,

Brother I do applaud thy constant vengeance,
The quaintnesse of thy malice aboue thought.(11)

And when the Duke falls into the trap, Vindice exclaims about himself, his brother, and the skull:

Villaines all three!—the very ragged bone
Has beene sufficiently reuengd.(12)

At the end of the play, Vindice and Hippolito accomplish their revenge by the old trick of the mask. Immediately Heaven shows its disapproval of the violence by thundering.13 Then the brothers smugly announce their crimes to Antonio, whom they have seated on the throne. He responds with what might be called the official vengeance by the state. It was the duty of the magistrate, who was God's authorized deputy for earthly justice, to punish criminals. Only when rulers or courts were weak or corrupt would God's Providence intervene to insure justice. No such difficulty arises here, however; the brothers openly confess their guilt, and their sentencing is a matter of course. This is clearly no personal revenge; Antonio has reasons for gratitude toward the brothers, but as head of the state must condemn them to death. His comment, “You that would murder him would murder me,”14 must be read to mean, you who have once committed regicide might do so again. This is the only interpretation that makes sense when taken with the speech of Vindice which follows, and which is completely in the tradition of the “scaffold speech.”

May not we set as well as the Dukes sonne?
Thou hast no conscience, are we not reuengde?
Is there one enemy left aliue amongst those?
Tis time to die, when we are our selues our foes.
When murders shut deeds closse, this curse does seale
If none disclose 'em they them selues reueale 'em!
This murder might haue slept in tonglesse brasse,
But for our selues, and the world dyed an asse;
Now I remember too, here was Piato
Brought forth a knauish sentance once—no doubt (said
          he) but time
Will make the murderer bring forth himselfe.
Tis well he died, he was a witch.
And now my Lord, since we are in for euer:
This worke was ours which else might haue beene
And if we list, we could haue Nobles clipt,
And go for lesse then beggers, but we hate
To bleed so cowardly; we haue ynough.
Yfaith, we're well, our Mother turnd, our Sister true,
We die after a nest of Dukes, adue.(15)

Here Vindice plainly calls himself a murderer, and clearly states that Providence will reveal a murderer if all else fails. This theme is repeated by his reference to Piato, himself in disguise, who had iterated the same truth, and whom he calls a witch for his veracity. But Vindice shows his final lack of faith by showing that he could not wait for vengeance, that he would take no chances that the revenge “might haue beene slipt.” The morals are rendered emphatic by the frequent use of rhyme in the speech. Antonio drives the point home in his closing lines, lines which act as epilogue for the play.

How subtilly was that murder closde! bear vp
Those tragick bodies, tis a heauy season:
Pray heauen their bloud may wash away all treason.(16)

The word “murder” in the first line can hardly refer to any other actions than those of Vindice and Hippolito, coming as it does after the speech previously quoted. Their blood is to wash away their crimes. With the brothers dragged to execution like criminals, Tourneur dismisses their style of vengeance. Their reasons, he tells us, were good, their methods evil.

(9) One revenger's conduct appears to be beyond reproach. Where Vindice had engaged in bloody crimes for the furtherance of his vengeance, Antonio waits for Heaven's intervention. Antonio has only two significant appearances in the play and is often overlooked. He is, however, of the utmost importance. His situation is nearly parallel to Vindice's, for his wife has been raped by the Duchess's “Youngest Son,” and has ended her life with becoming reverence to literary tradition. Thus each man has lost the woman he loves, through the lust of the Duke and his family. The first time he appears, Antonio tells of his wife's ravishment and death. He suggests no action. Hippolito swears vengeance, and Antonio simply accepts it on the condition that it will be done if the courts do not condemn the boy and all else has failed. But Providence clearly takes a hand when the ravisher perishes through a misunderstanding. At the very end of the play, Vindice tells Antonio that his wife's murder has been revenged. Antonio replies, “Iust is the Lawe aboue,”17 a clear acceptance of divine law's having willed this revenge.

In Antonio, then, is the man who is the first draft of Charlemont in The Atheist's Tragedy. He does nothing for himself. He waits for justice; he does his duty; he does not try to control events; and he is rewarded in the end by the chief position in the state. His immediate and decisive action against Vindice and Hippolito reinforces his moral position.

The Revengers Tragædie can be said to be primarily a study in the whole problem of revenge. Active personal vengeance of any type is rejected, death being the invariable lot of any who take this route, and Tourneur makes it clear that such vengeance is directly opposed to God's law. What, then, is the conclusion taught in the play, and exemplified by Antonio? Simply, it is this, that if established authorities fail, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” and that Heaven will aid the honest man who suffers his wrongs in patience and faith.


In The Atheist's Tragedy, or, The Honest Man's Revenge (c. 1610), Tourneur set himself the task of dramatizing the conclusion he had already reached in The Revengers Tragædie. Here a revenger with faith is contrasted with an atheist, and the plots of D'Amville give the dramatic conflict which can no longer be supplied by the revenger's machinations. The atheist, D'Amville, who depends on material gain plus human reason for the attainment of his ends, murders his brother, Montferrers, and falsely reports the death of the latter's son, Charlemont. D'Amville speedily weds his sickly son, Rousard, to Castabella, the affianced of Charlemont. Montferrers's ghost reveals his murder to Charlemont, but bids him

… leaue reuenge vnto the King of kings.(18)

Thus appears a man who is bidden to act as Antonio had done, to take no direct steps, but to wait for Providence to accomplish vengeance for him. After Charlemont's return, Providence begins to move against D'Amville by smiting his sons. D'Amville trumps up murder charges against Charlemont who disdains to defend himself, and is condemned to death. D'Amville claims the privilege of chopping off Charlemont's head, and in lifting the axe for the stroke, knocks out his own brains. With gratifying if surprising stamina, D'Amville delivers a long speech recognizing the power of heavenly justice and its particular aptness in his own case. Triumphantly acquitted, Charlemont receives as his due not only the titles left vacant by the several deaths in the play, but also the hand of the fair Castabella, still chaste by reason of her former husband's impotence.

D'Amville's atheism is a logical development of Vindice's fear that if he failed to act his revenge would never be accomplished. D'Amville goes further than Vindice in his rational expression of his views, rejecting Godhead for Nature, by which he means scientific nature as understood by the limits of man's reason. Along with showing the answer to the revenge problem, the play has the additional purpose of discrediting D'Amville's view. God's Providence early warns him of his error, for thunder and lightning are used as in The Revengers Tragædie to show Heaven's stern disapproval of the murder of Montferrers.19 D'Amville, recovering from a momentary fear, explains the phenomenon in scientific terms.

Doest start at thunder? Credit my beliefe,
T'is a meere effect of nature. An
Exhalation hot and dry, inuolu'd
Within a watrie vapour i' the middle
Region of the ayre. Whose coldnesse
Congealing that thicke moysture to a cloud;
The angry exhalation shut within
A prison of contrary qualitie,
Striues to be free; and with the violent
Eruption through the grossenesse of that cloud;
Makes this noyse we heare.(20)

Facing death, D'Amville, convinced of the folly of his ways, renounces his materialistic position, exclaiming to the Judge's cry of “God forbid!”

Forbid? You lie Iudge. He commanded it.
To tell thee that mans wisedome is a foole.
I came to thee for Iudgement; and thou think'st
Thy selfe a wise man. I outreach'd thy wit;
And made thy Iustice Murders instrument,
In Castabella's death and Charlemonts.
To crowne my Murder of Montferrers with
A safe possession of his wealthie state.—
There was the strength of naturall vnderstanding.
But Nature is a foole. There is a power
Aboue her that hath ouerthrowne the pride
Of all my proiects and posteritie;
(For whose suruiuing bloud, I had erected
This proud monument) and strucke 'em dead
Before me. For whose deathes, I call'd to thee
For Iudgement. Thou didst want discretion for
The sentence. But yond' power that strucke me, knew
The Iudgement I deseru'd; and gaue it.(21)

In the last four lines of this speech, D'Amville appears to be developing Antonio's statement, “Iust is the lawe aboue.” Here is a clear contrast of heavenly justice with the imperfect workings of earthly courts. Although the court here is honest, as it is not in R. T., its wisdom is limited, and it requires an act of God's Providence to insure justice.

As Antonio succeeded to the chief position in the state in R. T., so Charlemont succeeds to the titles formerly possessed by D'Amville. Thus in each case, the injured but honest man is rewarded with the estates and positions of the injurers.

Two or three other similarities between the two plays exist which seem to show the same imagination at work. Both the big seduction scenes, the Duke and “The Country Lady” (R. T., iii, v), and D'Amville and Castabella (A. T., iv, iii), have a decided charnel house atmosphere. “The Country Lady,” of course, is the skull of Vindice's mistress, while the Castabella resistance is set in a cemetery just beside the charnel house itself. Again, when D'Amville is attempting to win Castabella (A. T., iv, iii), she invokes Heaven.

O patient Heau'n! Why doest thou not expresse
Thy wrath in thunderbolts; to teare the frame
Of man in pieces? How can earth endure
The burthen of this wickednesse without
An earthquake? Or the angry face of Heau'n
Be not enflam'd with lightning?(22)

Vindice, after winning his mother to the task of helping to get Castiza's acceptance of Lussurioso as a lover, exclaims in soliloquy:

Why do's not heauen turne black, or with a frowne
Vndoo the world—why do's not earth start vp,
And strike the sinnes that tread vppon't?(23)

The poetic imagery of these two speeches is almost identical. For “teare the frame of man in pieces,” we have “with a frowne Vndoo the world.” For “earthquake,” we have “earth start vp” in the other; for the “burthen of this wickednesse,” we find “the sinnes that tread vppon't.” More striking than the existence of these parallels, is the fact that these items are in precisely the same order in the two speeches. Surely such similarity of imagery and thought process argues common authorship.

There is a very similar ring to the two heroines' protests in favor of chastity, but it is not close enough to be more than literary tradition.


Why was it that if Tourneur had his idea for the proper revenger as early as 1606 he waited so long before writing The Atheist's Tragedy? Possibly he had left London;24 possibly, and this seems to be the likely reason, he was baffled by the problem of the revenge play with a do-nothing revenger. A dramatic protagonist must act, but Tourneur's moral position called for his hero to be inactive. He may have found his answer in Chapman's The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (c. 1610), which had solved the problem by throwing the burden of the action on the forces of opposition. Chapman's play was written about the same time as The Atheist's Tragedy, but appears pretty clearly to be the parent play.

In The Revenge of Bussy, Chapman raised the question already studied by Tourneur of the moral justification of revenge. His leading character, Clermont, is faced with the solemn duty of revenge, but has misgivings about the ethics of his course. This “Senecal man” was one of Chapman's most important contributions to the drama of the time. He is a necessary complement in Chapman's thinking to the slaves of passion, Bussy, Byron, and Tamyra. He conceives that it is the wildest folly to set himself against that which has been ordained by the nature of things. Instead he will submit to and obey “anything the high and general Cause … hath ordain'd.”25 “He is a curious mixture of Christian, Stoic, and Platonic morality.”26 This morality, guided by reason, was a clear departure from that of the customary revenger, and was intellectually incompatable with the basic premise of revenge.

The initial doubts of Clermont on his course of revenge indicate a tendency toward the Christian morality to be the basis for Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy. Clermont says:

No time occurs to kings, much less to virtue;
Nor can we call it virtue that proceeds
From vicious fury. I repent that ever
(By any instigation in th' appearance
My brother's spirit made, as I imagin'd)
That e'er I yielded to revenge his murther.
All worthy men should ever bring their blood
To bear all ill, not to be wreak'd with good:
Do ill for no ill; never private cause
Should take it on the part of public laws.(27)

It seems quite likely that this speech confirmed Tourneur in his determination to complete his study of revenge. In The Atheist's Tragedy, every time the ghost of Montferrers appears, it warns against action by the revenger. The whole play is based on the idea that Providence will accomplish the ends of divine justice.

Chapman's hero in The Revenge of Bussy is the unmistakable model for Tourneur's Charlemont. The similarity of names cannot be mere coincidence.28 Each man abhors unreasonable action, and each calmly accepts adverse fortune. The incidents which happen to the two are strikingly similar. Each is imprisoned unjustly, and each, with the same Stoicism, accepts his fate. Clermont explains his resignation.

                                                            To love nothing outward,
Or not within our own powers to command;
And so being sure of everything we love,
Who cares to lose the rest? If any man
Would neither live nor die in his free choice,
But as he sees necessity will have it
(Which if he would resist, he strives in vain)
What can come near him, that he doth not [will,]
And if in worst events his will be done,
How can the best be better? All is one.(29)

Under the same circumstances, Charlemont soliloquizes in prison, justifying his calmness.

                                                            We neuer measure our
Conditions but with Men aboue vs in
Estate. So while our Spirits labour to
Be higher then our fortunes th'are more base.
Since all those attributes which make men seeme
Superiour to vs; are Man's Subjects; and
Were made to serue him. The repining Man
Is of a seruile spirit to deiect
The valew of himselfe below their estimation.(30)

and concluding,

                                                            Instead of that, I am
Created King. I'ue lost a Signiorie,
That was confin'd within a piece of earth;
A Wart vpon the body of the world.
But now I am an Emp'rour of a world.
This little world of Man. My passions are
My Subjects; and I can command them laugh;
Whilst thou doest tickle 'em to death with miserie.(31)

Faced with adversity, each of these men explains how he has become master of the microcosm of himself by means of his reason. This idea is, of course, an Elizabethan commonplace, but the absence of such expressions in The Revengers Tragædie, and the close parallel between The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois with The Atheist's Tragedy hint at a closer connection than has heretofore been suspected. To both heroes the power of reason gives the strength and courage to suffer what he must with calmness and deliberation.

On being confronted with a ghost, each explains the phenomenon in the same way, using very similar imagery. Clermont says:

'Twas but your fancy, then, a waking dream:
For as in sleep, which binds both th' outward senses,
And the sense common too, th' imagining power
(Stirr'd up by forms hid in the memory's story,
Or by the vapours of o'erflowing humours
In bodies full and foul, and mix'd with spirits)
Feigns many strange, miraculous images,
In which act it so painfully applies
Itself to those forms that the common sense
It actuates with his motion, and thereby
Those fictions true seem, and have real act:
So, in the strength of our conceits awake,
The cause alike doth [oft] like fictions make.(32)

And Charlemont,

                    Dreames are but the rais'd
Impressions of premeditated things,
By serious apprehension left vpon
Our mindes, or else th' imaginary shapes
Of objects proper to th' complexion, or
The dispositions of our bodyes.(33)

At the end of the play, Clermont is describing his duty to follow in death his friend, the Guise, and his speech includes a lengthy metaphor of a ship which has put out to sea.

                                                            Now, then, as a ship,
Touching at strange and far-removed shores,
Her men ashore go, for their several ends,
Fresh water, victuals, precious stones, and pearl,
All yet intentive (when the master calls,
The ship to put off ready) to leave all
Their greediest labours, lest they there be left
To thieves or beasts, or be the country's slaves:
So, now my master calls, my ship, my venture,
All in one bottom put, all quite put off,
Gone under sail, and I left negligent,
To all the horrors of the vicious time,
The far-remov'd shores to all virtuous aims,
None favouring goodness, none but he respecting
Piety or manhood—shall I here survive,
Not cast me after him into the sea,
Rather than here live, ready every hour
To feed thieves, beasts, and be the slave of power?
I come, my lord! Clermont, thy creature, comes.(34)

Charlemont, as he expects to die, uses a similar image, this time, to be sure, of a whole navy.

D'Amville! to shew thee with what light respect,
I value Death and thy insulting pride;
Thus like a warlike Nauie on the Sea,
Bound for the conquest of some wealthie land,
Pass'd through the stormie troubles of this life,
And now arriu'd vpon the armed coast;
In expectation of the victorie,
Whose honour lies beyond this exigent;
Through mortall danger with an actiue spirit,
Thus I aspire to vndergoe my death.(35)

The verbal parallels are not as exact as might be desired, but they are of the sort to be expected when a poet pays another the compliment of imitation. Tourneur needed no one to help him cast his poetic language, but he was, apparently, baffled by the dramatic situation necessitated by his concept of the proper revenger. Chapman solved the problem in The Revenge of Bussy by concentrating the action on the characters opposed to Clermont, and Tourneur in imitation synthesized the forces of opposition in D'Amville. Tourneur failed to achieve the subtlety and depth of Chapman's intellectual endeavors, but it seems clear that he found in Chapman a person whom he desired to use as a model for his writing, in Chapman's hero a pattern for his own, and in Chapman's plot the solution to a difficult dramatic tangle. Chapman derived his complex world picture from the dichotomy of sense and intellect, a belief based on his own resolution of Stoicism and Neo-Platonism.36 Tourneur based his ethical world on conventional Christian beliefs of the time, particularly on the commonplace view that there is a direct reaction of Providence to punish the guilty and reward the virtuous; and that men should not undertake the vengeance that is God's. However, Tourneur utilized Chapman's method of employing the static revenger, and built around him a thesis play designed to expose the folly of the atheist, and to solve in Christian terms the problem of revenge.37


It remains for us to consider why the later play is so inferior to the earlier, if, as we have concluded, it contains Tourneur's triumphant answer to the problems of revenge. In the first place, a thesis play per se usually fails to have the dramatic interest of a play primarily concerned with action. Tourneur rides his ideas of Providence too hard, and, while the antagonistic forces are strong, the protagonistic forces are impotent until reinforced by God's direct intervention, so that no one can get very excited about Charlemont's successes or failures. We feel Charlemont to be something of a prig. Where we expect fine speeches in moments of emotional stress, he falls back on religious platitudes, so that his lines seem dull, insipid, and pietistic. However, and this may be taken as further evidence of Tourneur's authorship of both plays, it is difficult to find in The Atheist's Tragedy worse poetry than Vindice's “scaffold speech” already quoted, or than Castiza's encomiums on chastity. So even in The Revengers Tragædie, in moments of moralizing, we may note the same falling off of poetic accomplishment apparent in The Atheist's Tragedy.

In spite of Chapman's example of the method of employing a static hero, it cannot be said that Tourneur's dramatic use of it was brilliant. It is the most difficult problem in dramatic construction to build effective action with only one side acting, and the other unresponsive. Critics have wished that Hamlet were a little more active so that the play could have a little more excitement, but Hamlet is a demon of activity in comparison to Charlemont. Thus Tourneur's failure to make an interesting play out of The Atheist's Tragedy results from his failure to achieve the blend of action and idea which must exist to make a thesis play effective, and his failure to make the action gripping arises from his inability to cope with a static hero.

Tourneur's two plays, then, present a study of revenge in its entirety. He carefully considers the elements concerned with the ethics of revenge, and rejects all except the Christian view that God will revenge, if not through His authorized agents, then by direct intervention, and that the injured man must not usurp this function for himself. In The Revengers Tragædie he shows the evil of all conventional revengers. In a minor character, Antonio, Tourneur illustrates his view of the correct action, which is not action, but forbearance; not haste, but patience. The dramatic problem of the static revenger Chapman seemed to have solved for him in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, a means Tourneur seized upon in The Atheist's Tragedy to bring his criticism of revenge to its logical, if undramatic, conclusion.


  1. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (London, 1923) iv, 42.

  2. E. H. C. Oliphant, “The Authorship of the Revenger's Tragedy,Stud. Phil., xxiii (1926).

  3. E. H. C. Oliphant, “Tourneur and Mr. T. S. Eliot,” Stud. Phil., xxxii (1935), 594.

  4. Ibid., p. 550.

  5. Cyril Tourneur, The Revengers Tragædie, (ed. by Allardyce Nicoll, London, 1929), i, i, 1-69.

  6. Although little weight can be placed on Elizabethan punctuation, it is interesting to note that in the only two contemporary versions of R. T., the apostrophe is omitted, the Stationers' Register entry of 1607 reading. “Twoo plaies: thone called the reuengers tragedie,” and the t.p. of the only Q. (1607) “The Revengers Tragædie.” The three surviving versions of the title of A. T. all definitely indicate its singularity. S. R., “The tragedie of the Atheist.” Q1. (1611) “The Atheist's Tragedie.” Q2. (1612) “The Atheist's Tragedy.”

  7. R. T., i, ii, 122.

  8. Ibid., i, ii, 176-178.

  9. Ibid., i, ii, 209-211.

  10. Ibid., iii, vi, 120.

  11. Ibid., iii, v, 111-112.

  12. Ibid., iii, v, 162-163.

  13. Ibid., v, iii, 56.

  14. Ibid., v, iii, 148.

  15. Ibid., v, iii, 151-169. For a discussion of the “scaffold speech” convention, see my English Domestic, or Homiletic Tragedy, 1575-1642 (New York, 1943), pp. 17-18, 185 ff.

  16. Ibid., v, iii, 170-172.

  17. Ibid., v, iii, 132.

  18. Cyril Tourneur, The Atheist's Tragedy, (ed. by Allardyce Nicoll, London, 1929), ii, vi, 27.

  19. Ibid., ii, iv, 161.

  20. Ibid., ii, iv, 162-173.

  21. Ibid., v, ii, 270-291.

  22. Ibid., iv, iii, 177-182.

  23. R. T., ii, i, 275-277.

  24. See Nicoll's introduction to his edition of Tourneur, pp. 22-24.

  25. George Chapman, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (ed. by T. M. Parrott, London, 1910), iv, i, 133 ff.

  26. Roy W. Battenhouse, “Chapman and the Nature of Man,” ELH, xii, 97.

  27. R. B. D., iii, ii, 107-116.

  28. Even the name D'Amville seems to be a reflection of D'Ambois.

  29. R. B. D., iv, v, 4-13.

  30. A. T., iii, iii, 17-25.

  31. Ibid., iii, iii, 42-49.

  32. R. B. D., v, i, 41-53.

  33. A. T., ii, vi, 29-34.

  34. R. B. D., v, v, 175-193.

  35. A. T., v, ii, 135-144.

  36. Cf. Battenhouse, op. cit., pp. 87-107.

  37. It is a defensible thesis that both figures go back to Kent in King Lear, but there are no such close parallels between the two figures here discussed and Kent as there are between Clermont and Charlemont. In addition, Kent never faces the problem of revenge.

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1954)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Ethical Design of The Revenger's Tragedy,” in English Language History, Vol. 21, No. 2, June, 1954, pp. 81-93.

[In the following essay, Ornstein argues that in The Revenger's Tragedy Tourneur depicts a world of moral rogues in which ethical law is absent or ineffectual but in which an ethical design operates through the processes of human psychology, and that this moral order, like Tourneur himself, is disillusioned in its outlook on life but orthodox in its values.]

Although a just appreciation of Tourneur's artistry has replaced the nineteenth century celebration of him as a master of satanic revels, recent critical attention has centered more upon explaining the mind that created The Revenger's Tragedy than upon analyzing the play as dramatic literature. We need not inveigh, however, against “irrelevant conjectures,” for after paying homage to Tourneur's management of plot and dramatic irony and to his poetic genius, the critic must inevitably attempt to relate Tourneur's vision of licentiousness and depravity to either the world as normally apprehended by the reader or to the creative process which embodies an artist's perception of life in literature. U. M. Ellis-Fermor has suggested that Tourneur accepted (imaginatively at least) “a worldorder inherently evil,” “a universe denuded of spiritual significance.”1 T. S. Eliot has attributed The Revenger's Tragedy to an adolescent hatred of life.2 Harold Jenkins has inferred that Tourneur's mind was “instinctively aware only of the sin everywhere rife in the world.”3 Michael H. Higgins has found in Tourneur's drama a Calvinistic revulsion against human corruption and moral perversity.4

But it does not seem to me that a disgust with life or with humanity is the deeply ingrained characteristic of Tourneur's mind and art. I would suggest that The Revenger's Tragedy metaphorically expresses the intense, but only temporary, disillusion of a very orthodox and very conservative mind.5 Indeed, despite its lurid and seemingly eccentric depiction of life, the play is cast, as we shall see, in an ethical design as subtle, sophisticated, and intellectual as that of Jonson's great comedies.

It is indicative of Tourneur's artistic powers that even recent critics, overlooking his use of conventional materials, interpret The Revenger's Tragedy as a direct transcription of an inflamed emotional outlook. Yet the play is set in the Italy familiar to Elizabethan Protestant imaginations—the Italy so vividly described in Ascham's Scholemaster as a sink of atheism, luxury, and corruption. Other Jacobeans, to be sure, use Italianate settings in tragedy, but only as backdrops for such glorious villains as Flamineo and De Flores. Tourneur's characters, however, do not transcend the Italianate—they epitomize it. His imagination triumphs over nature and reality by distilling the essence of Italianate horror, by pre-empting and refining a conventional image of sensuality and violence.

Like his dramatic universe, Tourneur's characters seem peculiarly his own and unrelated to their many conventional Elizabethan analogues. For though these allegorical figures are not sophisticated by psychological complexities, they bear the unmistakable stamp of their creator. Their ruling passions swell, not from within, but from one central, inexhaustible reservoir of emotion that animates virtuous and vicious alike and that gives the play its superb unity of tone. Cynicism, outrage, loathing, and horror: all are present, fused and focused by Tourneur's morbid fascination with the erotic.

To the mind that created Vindice's world, the sexual is as intriguing and repelling as a hideous disease. The most characteristic and memorable lines in the play are concerned with some facet of illicit sexual desire or bawdry. There are, of course, other vices in Vindice's society, but they are subsidiary ones; the lust for murder is always the desire to avenge some rape, incest, or adultery. Like the medieval satirist, Vindice castigates the frailty and concupiscence of women, but unlike the medieval satirist, he is vastly amused by their sly tricks. Knowing their coy whoredoms, he trusts no woman's virtue, not even his mother's or sister's. His erotic imagination transfigures even his dead mistress' skull as he recalls when

                                                                                                    'twas a face
So farre beyond the artificiall shine
Of any womans bought complexion
That the uprightest man, (if such there be,
That sinne but seaven times a day) broke custome
And made up eight with looking after her.

(I. i. 23-28)

Similarly, Vindice cannot think of night without imagining strange and fulsome lusts:

Night! thou that lookst like funerall Heraulds fees
Torne downe betimes ith morning, thou hangst fittly
To Grace those sins that have no grace at all.
Now tis full sea a bed over the world;
Theres iugling of all sides; some that were Maides
E'en at Sun set are now perhaps ith Toale-booke;
This woman in immodest thin apparell
Lets in her friend by water, here a Dame
Cunning, nayles lether-hindges to a dore,
To avoide proclamation.
Now Cuckolds are a quoyning apace, apace, apace,
And carefull sisters spinne that thread ith night,
That does maintaine them and their bawdes ith daie!

(II. ii. 149-161)

This is hardly Elizabethan paganism. Vindice's thoughts do not hover on feminine beauty or on the physical pleasures of sex. He is aroused and revolted not by what is seen, but by what is imagined—by the hugger-mugger, the backstairs work, the juggling behind the arras, and the stealing away by torchlight. He is fascinated with stealth rather than with sex. He is the Peeping Tom turned moralist and moralizing with the fevered sexual images dwelt upon by the impotent or the frustrate.

If the eroticism of The Revenger's Tragedy were confined to Vindice's speeches, we might credit Tourneur with a penetrating study of psychological abnormality. But actually the erotic is woven into the total fabric of the play, present as it is in every act and almost every scene. Indeed, we find in both of Tourneur's tragedies a consistent association of the sexual and the macabre, a lingering over “fulsome lusts” and assignations in graveyards and with skulls.6

At the same time that Tourneur places his individual stamp, as it were, upon the decadent world which he depicts, he isolates that world from any contact with larger or more normal realms of experience. Other Jacobean playwrights attempt to universalize the action of their dramas by the use of philosophical reflection. Tourneur admits none within his play (unless, of course, we call Vindice's choric commentaries “philosophical”). Other dramatists, using traditional parallels and correspondences, enlarge their dramatic scene; their characters, vehicles for philosophical and moral attitudes, become archetypal Stoics, politicians, and good or evil kings.7 Tourneur's allegorical method of characterization paradoxically denies universal importance to such major villains as the Duke or Lussurioso. They may personify particular vices, but they are cross-sectional samplings of a depraved world, not archetypal figures.

Actually Tourneur suggests the existence of his dramatic universe not by philosophical expansion of his immediate scene, but by the use of perspective. He draws a group of characters who are, depending upon their prominence in the play, “large” or “small,” distinct or vague. In the foreground are Lussurioso, the Duke, and Vindice; slightly “behind” them are the Duchess, Spurio, and Hippolito. Further in the background, and therefore smaller and less distinct in outline are Ambitioso and Supervacuo. Almost fading into the background itself is Junior, the “yongest sonne,” and behind him are all the shadowy figures of the court. But there is no essential difference between the Duke, the “yongest sonne,” and any of the lesser courtiers, except that the Duke's villainy is writ large, while the courtiers' lusts and assignations are only vaguely sketched. Tourneur lacks the power to convince us that his tragic world is the human world itself, but he skillfully creates an illusion of depth in his flat, two-dimensional scene by suggesting that the Duke's court extends and merges imperceptibly with a larger world which, if brought into the foreground, would be no different from the group of sensualists which Tourneur examines in detail.

No less skillful is the handling of character and dialogue in The Revenger's Tragedy. Although a sustained bitterness permeates the lines, Tourneur's intellect is always in control. We would never, for example, mistake Vindice's attacks upon lechery, gluttony, and pride for the spontaneous overflow of powerful moral feelings. Addressing the skull of Gloriana he says:

                                                                                                    … here's an eye,
Able to tempt a greatman—to serve God,
A prety hanging lip, that has forgot now to dissemble;
Me thinkes this mouth should make a swearer tremble,
A drunckard claspe his teeth, and not undo e'm,
To suffer wet damnation to run through e'm.
Heres a cheeke keepes her colour; let the winde go
Spout Raine, we feare thee not, be hot or cold
Alls one with us; and is not he absurd,
Whose fortunes are upon their faces set,
That feare no other God but winde and wet?

(III. v. 57-67)

Vindice's sermon is brittle and premeditated. Each word, each image, and each line falls perfectly into place. Some kind of moral frenzy is perhaps implicit, but it is a frenzy that has been transmuted into detached bitterness. Some shock of intense disillusion and horror has given way to the cynicism that turns all of life into a sardonic joke. And it is not only the vanity of evil that amuses Vindice; it is the whole futility of a life in which there are but three kinds of human beings: the completely abandoned, the hypocritical, and the rare, impecunious, malcontented good.

That Vindice serves as Tourneur's moral chorus we cannot doubt, but he is more importantly a character in the play, one whose moral perceptions are limited, and in the end, perverse. It is fittingly ironic that Vindice, the cynic, should uphold morality in his world, and that it should be the task of one who is contemptuous of all feminine modesty to protect virginity and to avenge murdered innocence. Vindice loathes vice, but he has no faith in virtue. He makes a jest of religion as of everything else. “Save Grace the bawde,” he remarks, “I seldome heare Grace nam'd!” And when Gratiana insists that all the riches in the world could not make her an unnatural bawd, he answers:

No, but a thousand Angells can;
Men have no power, Angells must worke you too't,
The world descends into such base-borne evills
          That forty Angells can make fourescore divills.

(II. i. 98-101)

Vindice wittily imbues a conventional Elizabethan pun with new meaning. These are the angels whose potency he does not doubt; when he speaks later of the heavenly angels and their “Christall plaudities,” he is much less convincing. His opposition to evil, though violent, lacks both direction and ultimate goal. He may use the phraseology of religion and of moral philosophy; he may assert that evil is unnatural. But his cynicism springs from an awareness that his world has departed from its natural course.

Within his society Vindice represents the only possible moral order, one that is perverse in nature and eminently corruptible because it has no higher purpose than the accomplishment of revenge. Vindice sees himself as the instrument of divine justice, but he interprets that justice as a lex taliones which gruesomely requites villainy with villainy. When the tortured Duke screams, “Is there a hell besides this, villaines?” Vindice answers:

Nay heaven is iust, scornes are the hires of scornes,
I nere knew yet Adulterer with-out hornes.

(III. v. 197-199)

To be sure, the Vindice who says this is not the Vindice who originally set out to revenge his murdered love. Although he can save his sister and mother from shame, he cannot save himself from his own cynicism. After murdering the Duke, he can watch with satisfaction an innocent man condemned for telling the truth, because such travesty of justice vindicates his own “moral” viewpoint. By the end of the play little semblance of Vindice's moral purpose remains; he and Hippolito are hardly distinguishable from the men they slaughter. Murder piles on murder, revenge upon revenge, as hate, lust, and ambition set lechers, adulterers, and assassins at each others' throats. Vindice and Hippolito are sent off to execution, not because the moral order is restored, not because the Goddess Astraea returns to earth, but only because Antonio is a politic ruler who fears that those who killed the old Duke might also kill him.

To all appearances the ending of The Revenger's Tragedy is quite amoral. In the last judgment, life and death—all's one. Two self-satisfied murderers unexpectedly “go to it” because of one final ironic twist of fate. The adventitious destruction of evil does not in itself reaffirm moral values unless we draw our conception of morality from such sources as The Spanish Tragedy. And yet the denouement of Tourneur's play is moral, in fact inevitably moral, for even as Vindice's character disintegrates, the incorruptible, remorseless moral order that governs his abandoned world reveals itself slowly and subtly, but unmistakably.

Throughout The Revenger's Tragedy a malicious Fate seems to thwart the best laid plans of sensualist and revenger alike. But on no character does irony weigh more heavily than on Vindice. Seeking only to revenge himself upon the Duke, he is hired first to procure his own sister for Lussurioso. Then he is engaged to pander for the Duke; and lastly he is employed by Lussurioso to murder Piato, i. e., to kill himself. But in his most trying moment Vindice appreciates the grim comedy of his situation, for it is the kind his intellect can savor. Above all he enjoys his superior knowledge and position in the deadly game of pretending which he must play. Vindice can always see through Lussurioso's pretenses, but his own disguises are impenetrable. He always knows Lussurioso's masked motives, but his own are well hidden. Thus his outbursts against Lussurioso are tempered by an unholy enjoyment of the game in which he is—or so he believes—always master.

Vindice is not, at the beginning, one of those half-mad revengers introduced to the stage by Kyd. He is a malcontented scholar brooding over his wrongs, morbid but not depraved. He will have none of society until Hippolito relates that Lussurioso has asked him:

To seeke some strange digested fellow forth:
Of ill-contented nature, either disgracst
In former times, or by new groomes displacst,
Since his Step-mothers nuptialls, such a bloud
A man that were for evill onely good;
To give you the true word some base coynd Pander.

(I. i. 84-89)

Vindice seizes this opportunity to obtain revenge and undertakes to disguise his true self in a mask of evil:

And therefore ile put on that knave for once,
And be a right man then, a man a'th Time,
For to be honest is not to be ith world.

(I. i. 101-103)

Having temporarily assumed the guise of knave, Vindice jestingly asks Hippolito, “Am I farre inough from my selfe?” and calls upon Impudence,

Thou Goddesse of the pallace, Mistris of Mistresses
To whom the costly-perfumd people pray,
Strike thou my fore-head into dauntlesse Marble;
Mine eyes to steady Saphires: …

(I. iii. 6-9)

His pretense of knavery is brilliantly successful, so successful in fact that it would seem he has a natural talent for it. Yet he is shocked to learn that he must launch his new career by procuring his own sister for Lussurioso:

Now let me burst, I've eaten Noble poyson.
We are made strange fellowes, brother, innocent

(I. iii. 190-192)

Nevertheless, Vindice's distrusting nature and his desire for revenge lead him to test his mother's and sister's virtue. Again he plays he role of scoundrel so brilliantly that he converts his mother, Gratiana, into an unnatural bawd. Later defending herself, Gratiana claims that only the disguised Vindice could have suborned her. And it is hard to disagree, for there was no one better fitted to play the pander.

With Vindice's success as a pander, the richer irony of his disguises begins to unfold. When we witness his fiendish murder of the Duke we realize that this “innocent villain” has put on the knave not for once, but for all time. He has indeed gone far from himself, and yet he must go even farther. After the Duke's murder the game of seeming becomes so hectic that Vindice is forced to assume disguise upon disguise until he completely forgets his nature. Hippolito sees more clearly than his brother what is happening, and when Lussurioso hires Vindice to kill Piato (Vindice's “former self”), he cries out, “Brother we loose our selves.” But Vindice brushes aside this fear, for he now sees the opportunity for perfect vengeance and finds the humor of the situation irresistible:

Thats a good lay, for I must kill my selfe.

Brother thats I [the Duke's body]: that sits for me: do you make it, And I must stand ready here to make away my selfe yonder—I must sit to bee kild, and stand to kill my selfe, I could varry it not so little as thrice over agen, tas some eight returnes like Michelmas Tearme.

(V. i. 3-7)

Vindice does not yet know that he is the butt of his own joke. He exults in his continued triumph over Lussurioso, unaware that Lussurioso has triumphed as well. Lussurioso sought to hire a villain and he succeeded. He sought to hire a cunning pander and he succeeded in that too. Finally he hired Vindice to kill himself and Vindice does so. By the end of the play Vindice has learned so well the roles that Lussurioso hired him to play that his “outward shape, and inward heart / Are cut out of one peice.” And it is altogether fitting that Vindice, who hated the revels of the court, becomes in the end one of the court masquers. This is his last disguise, and he goes to his death precisely because of the courtly impudence he once mockingly assumed. He exists annoyed but unpenitent, chiding Hippolito:

May not we set as well as the Dukes sonne?
Thou hast no conscience, are we not revengde?
Is there one enemy left alive amongst those?
Tis time to die, when we are our selves our foes.


Since he is a man who is “for evill onely good,” Vindice does not know how meaningful these last words are. But before he leaves the stage he seems to glimpse the design of past events and to penetrate, for the first time, beyond the immediate irony of the situation:

This murder might have slept in tonglesse brasse,
But for our selves, and the world dyed an asse;
Now I remember too, here was Piato
Brought forth a knavish sentance once—no doubt (said
                                                                                                                                  [but time
Will make the murderer bring forth himselfe.
Tis well he died, he was a witch.
And now my Lord, since we are in for ever:
This worke was ours which else might have beene


Vindice has not lost his sense of humor. Knowing that it is he and not the world that dies an ass, he joins in the offstage laughter that has greeted every successive act of his “flawless” knavery.

Although there is little comedy in the ordinary sense in The Revenger's Tragedy, its ethical design is not very different from that of Volpone. Like Jonson, Tourneur depicts a world of rogues and scoundrels in which moral law seems absent or ineffectual. Yet governing this world is a moral order, detached and ironic, which operates through the inevitable processes of human psychology. In Volpone the operation of the moral order produces comedy—the comedy of futility, of the Seven Deadly Sins—which establishes, if only by inference, that God's in His heaven even though all's not right with the world. But no laughter can purify the horror of Vindice's deeds. The moral order governing his universe is like Tourneur himself: unerring in its craftsmanship, disillusioned in its outlook on life, but orthodox in its values. It is in keeping with the “comic spirit” of the play that Vindice's one moment of redeeming human joy results in the cruelest jest of all. Upon reforming his fallen mother, he enjoys a single interlude of happiness, only to be reminded by Hippolito that he forgets his task of revenge. Vindice answers:

                                        … ioye's a subtill elfe,
I think man's happiest, when he forgets himselfe.


Finally, we must face the question which has been growing implicitly in the preceding discussion of The Revenger's Tragedy: namely, how are we to reconcile Tourneur's apparently eccentric vision of human depravity with the subtle ethical design of his play? His fascination with sex and his use of the Italianate do not in themselves explain the passion and the conviction of his dramatic portrait. The explanation would seem to lie, rather, in his literalistic religious viewpoint. Despite his sophisticated Jacobean artistry, Tourneur's intellectual and spiritual roots were in a pre-Renaissance past. The medieval cast of his thought is evident in most of his works—in his predilection for allegory and in his preoccupation with the themes of vanitas, memento mori, and contemptus mundi. A literalistic religious viewpoint is, of course, far more apparent in The Atheist's Tragedy than in The Revenger's Tragedy, but even in the latter the degeneracy of the world is measured by its divergence from a medieval conception of the universe as the theatre of God's judgment. Why has virtue no reward? asks Castiza.8 Vindice wonders:

Why do's not heaven turne black, or with a frowne
Undoo the world—why do's not earth start up,
And strike the sinnes that tread uppon't?


And after listening to Lussurioso's murderous plans, he exclaims:

Is there no thunder left, or ist kept up
In stock for heavier vengeance?


Without identifying Tourneur's thoughts with those of his character, I would suggest that his was a mind that dealt with satisfaction upon the medieval De Casibus. To the modern reader D'Amville's death is a bit preposterous; to Tourneur it was simply an example of inevitable divine justice. When the bad bleed, then is Tourneur's tragedy good.

Such a literalistic mind, whose faith was attached to the material “facts” of God's universe, may well have been appalled when those “facts” failed, when radical change destroyed the “divine” scheme of things. It has been effectively argued that Tourneur's pattern for society was feudalistic and that he viewed the decay of the manorial system as the distintegration of the moral order itself.9 In Vindice's society abundancy has replaced sufficiency as the goal of men's lives, and the new Deadly Sin of Trade has replaced the ancient sin of avarice. “Why are there so few honest women,” Vindice asks his mother,

but because 'tis the poorer profession? that's accounted best, thats best followed, least in trade, least in fashion, and thats not honesty—beleeve it, and doe but note the loue and deiected price of it.


A mind that could see in “patrimonyes washt a peices” the deterioration of the moral order would have been even more profoundly shocked by the seeming decay of religion itself. If we may judge by the early seventeenth-century apologists, the orthodox minds of Tourneur's age were gravely disturbed by the real and imagined spread of disbelief. To the orthodox, an atheistic world was literally one possessed by devils and, of course, by animal sensualists.10 Thus, while it is unlikely that Tourneur's vision of satanic evil resulted from atheistic convictions, it may well have been shaped by the ungodliness which he later refuted.

But if the terms of religion and moral philosophy seem little more than empty commonplaces in The Revenger's Tragedy (especially when mouthed by irredeemable sinners), their conspicuous presence indicates a traditional frame of reference which Tourneur did not easily abandon. And if heaven is a remote possibility, sinners like the Duke find their hell on earth; for Tourneur exercises the artist's prerogative of creating in literature the pattern—in this instance, the moral pattern—missing in life. We need not posit then that Tourneur experienced a religious “conversion” between The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) and The Atheist's Tragedy (1611). More than likely, the later play simply chronicles a return to the orthodoxy that was Tourneur's fundamental position after a disillusion which he immortalized in Italianate metaphor.


  1. The Jacobean Drama (London, 1947), pp. 153, 155.

  2. See “Cyril Tourneur,” Selected Essays (New York, 1950), pp. 159-169.

  3. “Cyril Tourneur,” RES, XVII (Jan. 1941), 21-36.

  4. See “The Influence of Calvinistic Thought in Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy,RES, XIX (July 1943), 255-262.

  5. Even the curious Transformed Metamorphosis (1600), which appeared seven years before the R. T. seems to convey hyperbolically and obscurely some shock of disillusionment. See the Prologue and first hundred stanzas (The Works of Cyril Tourneur, ed. Allardyce Nicoll [London, 1930], pp. 55-60. All citations from Tourneur in my text are to the Nicoll edition.

  6. It is worth noting, moreover, that the most effective characterizations in the A. T. are Levidulcia and Sebastian, and that the most famous passage in the play is in D'Amville's soliloquy in the graveyard (IV. iii. 244 ff.).

  7. Some Jacobeans allow their characters “moral digressions” of unexpected clarity and profundity in order to present essential ideas. Tourneur's characters, however, never step momentarily out of character to comment on their world, because their very existence in the reader's imagination depends upon the consistent pulse of the vicious passion which they embody.

  8. Castiza's purity remains unsullied, but her moral convictions do not appear to be much stronger than her brother's. In her only soliloquy (II.i.1-8), she reveals that she is far less self-assured than is Milton's “Lady,” who never pities herself and whose crystal tower of virginity is proof against assault.

  9. See L. G. Salinger, “‘The Revenger's Tragedy’ and the Morality Tradition,” Scrutiny, VI (March 1938), 402-422.

  10. According to Renaissance belief all atheists are necessarily immoralists and primarily sensualists. See John Dove, A Confutation of Atheisme (London, 1640 [first ed. 1605]), p. 2; Bishop Martin Fotherby, Atheomastix (London, 1622), p. 113.

Inga-Stina Ekeblad (essay date 1959)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “An Approach to Tourneur's Imagery,” in The Modern Language Review, Vol. LIV, No. 4, October, 1959, pp. 489-98.

[In the following essay, Ekeblad argues that attempts to determine that The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy are written by the same hand by comparing the use of imagery in the plays are misguided; instead, she emphasizing a functional approach to the authorship question.]

In the discussion of the authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy two attempts have been made to solve the problem by examining the imagery of the play and comparing it to that of the play known to be Tourneur's, The Atheist's Tragedy.1 Both Una M. Ellis-Fermor and Marco K. Mincoff make illuminating remarks on the imagery of the two plays; but their conclusions are, somewhat disturbingly, opposed. Professor Ellis-Fermor finds that the same man wrote the two plays, Professor Mincoff that they must have had different authors. Both critics rely largely on the method of analysis first demonstrated by Caroline F. Spurgeon, classifying images by subject-matter and drawing on them for clues to the habits of mind, the interests and the background of the author—or authors. Their contradictory conclusions would seem to suggest that the imagery in the plays examined does not respond to the kind of analysis made. Or, in other words, the statistical-biographical method of studying imagery seems to obscure, rather than reveal, some important qualities of Tourneur's dramatic imagery.

It goes without saying that, if a study of imagery is to be a reliable test of authorship, it must penetrate to the essential characteristics of the imagery examined. It has often been pointed out that Miss Spurgeon's method tends to neglect the relationship of images to the purely dramatic elements of a play: character, plot and dramatic structure.2 Now, it seems to me that it is precisely in its relationship to the structure of either play that we find the crucial characteristics of Tourneur's imagery—characteristics which, in this case, are more fundamental than the choice of subject-matter and form of individual images. In this paper I shall try to show that there are important similarities in the use to which imagery is put in the two plays, in the function of imagery as part of dramatic structure and technique.

Elsewhere I have tried to show the basic similarities between the plays as wholes.3 in both drama is, ultimately, conceived of as a vehicle for the expression of moral truth. Both have a firm moral scheme, which in The Revenger's Tragedy holds together the three traditional components of Revenge Tragedy, Satiric Comedy and Morality, and into which in The Atheist's Tragedy the various plot-strands, each with its moral, are fitted. Each is organized by the idea of the exemplum horrendum—for in The Atheist's Tragedy, despite the introduction of the ‘Senecal man’, Charlemont, who has received his full due of critical attention,4 it is on the rise and fall of the wicked man, the Atheist, that the interest centres. The basic difference between the plays lies in the way this exemplum is held up ad horrendum: in structure and technique. And in each play the imagery is an integral part of that structure and technique.

The Atheist's Tragedy (to start with the less commented-on of the two plays) opens with a philosophical discussion:

Borachio, thou art read
In Nature and her large Philosophie.
Obseru'st thou not the very selfe same course
Of reuolution both in Man and Beast?

(i. i. 4-7)5

The scene continues as a discourse between D'Amville and Borachio—an exposition of D'Amville's naturalist and atheist philosophy.6 The speeches have a strictly logical structure. Hypotheses become theses, and these form the bases for new theses. Throughout the play we find that not only D'Amville's speeches but also those of other characters are built as if they were part of a formal discourse. Thus Levidulcia tries to persuade Castabella to marry:

Preferr'st th' affection of an absent Loue,
Before the sweet possession of a man;
The barren minde before the fruitfull body;
Where our creation has no reference
To man; but in his body: being made
Onely for generation; which (vnlesse
Our children can be gotten by conceit)
Must from the body come. If Reason were
Our counsellour, wee would neglect the worke
Of generation, for the prodigall
Expence it drawes vs too, of that which is
The wealth of life. Wise Nature (therefore) hath
Reseru'd for an inducement to our sence,
Our greatest pleasure in that greatest worke.
Which being offer'd thee; thy ignorance
Refuses …

(i. iv. 83-91)

Levidulcia's besetting sin is lust, instead of atheism and avarice, and she is speaking on other matters than is D'Amville. But the structure of her reasoning is no less controlled and balanced. It is based on carefully observed parallelisms and contrasts of adjectives and nouns. Each clause is logically dependent on the previous and simultaneously a step to the following. Imagery is sparse, and when it occurs it is used as clarifying illustration rather than for its suggestive or emotive effect. Abstract concepts are only half personified and remain abstractions. That the author knows what he is doing, and has a conscious purpose when he gives the speeches of the play this argumentative character, is shown by the fact that he is able to shed ironic light on the manner from the outside. The speeches of Langbeau Snuffe, the one comic character of the play, often become parodies of the characteristic manner of speaking in the play:

All men are mortall. The houre of death is vncertaine. Age makes sicknesse the more dangerous. And griefe is subiect to distraction. You know not how soone you may be depriu'd of the benefit of sense. In my vnderstanding (therefore) you shall doe well if …

(ii. i. 147-50)7

But it is not only the smaller units of the separate speeches—of which those quoted are extreme examples—that are constructed like would-be logical arguments. The whole play follows the pattern of a gradually progressing argument: scenes and incidents are arranged so as to show, first the postulates on which Evil bases its works and the wrongness of which must be apparent to the audience or reader from the very first lines, then its actual working, and finally its debacle. The denouement in the last scene, when Evil destroys itself, is the logical conclusion of an argument the scope of which is the whole play.

It is in relation to this structure that we must see the chief characteristics of the imagery of the play. On the whole, imagery here serves as clarifying amplification; and we find that, unlike The Revenger's Tragedy,The Atheist's Tragedy tends towards conscious comparisons, with ‘as’ or ‘like’. Hence an image which in The Revenger's Tragedy would have been telescoped into a couple of words becomes in The Atheist's Tragedy a simile of two lines:

… your grauitie becomes your perish'd soule, as hoary mouldinesse does rotten fruit.

(i. iv. 143-4)

The favourite figure of speech is the personification of abstracts: emotions, qualities and relationships. But they never take the whole step over to the concrete. They remain abstract notions, the exact meaning of which—necessary to the general ‘argument’ of the play—is always made explicit:

O Loue! thou chast affection of the Soule,
Without th' adultrate mixture of the bloud;
That vertue which to goodnesse addeth good.

(ii. iii. 1-3)

Immediacy of effect, or suggestiveness, is constantly put aside for strictly logical clearness:

… let thy trust,
Hold measure with thy amplitude of wit;
And thy reward shall paralell thy worth.

(i. i. 131-4)

… must my wisedome that has beene
The obiect of mens admiration, now
Become the subiect of thy laughter?

(v. i. 117-19)

These images, then, are shaped by the same purpose as the structure of the whole play. Even in D'Amville's distracted speech,

… And that Bawde,
The skie, there; she could shut the windowes and
The dores of this great chamber of the world;
And draw the curtaines of the clouds betweene
Those lights and me about this bed of earth,
When that same Strumpet Murder & my selfe
Committed sin together …,

(iv. iii. 244-50)

the imagery is deliberately used to make absolutely clear the situation and its (moral) meaning. By echoing and developing previous images—D'Amville's pretended grief at Montferrers's death,

 … 'prithee tell me heuen!
Hast shut thine eye to winke at murther; …

(ii. iv. 43-4)

and his joy, a little later, over the apparently perfect crime,

… Now farewell blacke night;
Thou beauteous Mistresse of a murderer;

(ii. iv. 203-4)

—it insists on the connexion between parts of the play. We are given no chance to forget that the ‘beauteous mistress’ has become a ‘bawd’; that murder will out; and that sin will eventually be punished.

It is important to notice that, just as the dramatic structure is arranged to show the rise and fall of Evil and to build up to the all-concluding moral, so is much of the imagery constructed to conduct a kind of argument. Connected systems of imagery work in the same fashion as the whole play. Most obvious is this in the case of the building imagery. D'Amville's rise and fall are accompanied by the image of the founding, erecting and subsequent ruining of a building. In all but two cases the image is used by D'Amville himself; in the two cases it is used in direct reference to him. It appears twelve times altogether in the play, and each time at a crucial point in the plot, where it receives considerable emphasis and stands out from the context—as in Borachio's one-man show, just before the murder of Montferrers:

Enter Borachio warily and hastily ouer the Stage,
          with a stone in eyther hand.
Bor. Such stones men vse to raise a house vpon;
But with these stones I goe to ruine one.

(ii. iv. 1-4)

The development of the image is extremely methodical. The stages of the rising and the falling of the house move together with the tenses of the verb used in the image, from future and foundation,

… The foundation's laid. Now by degrees,
The worke will rise and soone be perfected.

(ii. i. 136-7)

to retrospective pluperfect and ruin:

… ouerthrowne the pride
Of all my proiects and posteritie;
(For whose suruiuing bloud, I had erected
This proud monument).

(v. ii. 284-7)

Most striking, and most effective as an ironic comment on the situation, is this image in the scene where D'Amville—having just prided himself that

My reall wisedome has rais'd vp a State,
That shall eternize my posteritie—

sees one of his sons carried in dead, while simultaneously hearing the dying groans from the other son. He now realizes that his building is threatened with ruin:

His gasping sighes are like the falling noise
Of some great building when the ground-worke
On these two pillars stood the stately frame,
And architecture of my loftie house.
An Earthquake shakes 'em. The foundation shrinkes.
Deare Nature! in whose honour I haue rais'd
A worke of glory to posteritie;
O burie not the pride of that great action,
Vnder the fall and ruine of it selfe.

(v. i. 92-100)

So the building-image is used to emphasize the de casibus theme of the rise and fall of the wicked man.8

While the house-image accompanies the D'Amville plot, a great number of references to, or images of, Nature point the moral of that plot. In the succession of images concerning Nature, spoken by D'Amville and others in the course of the play, we have in fact a discussion of what Nature is and can do. In the development from ‘Nature and her large Philosophie’ in the first scene to ‘Nature is a foole’ in the last we have in a nutshell the exposition and refutation of the naturalist and atheist philosophy which the play at large forms. In a closely similar fashion other key-words—for example, ‘wisdom’, ‘providence’, ‘posterity’—are manipulated through the play, from the introductory to the final scene. ‘Providence’, to take one example, is in the beginning repeatedly used by D'Amville in the sense of his own foresight:

As they increase, so should my prouidence;

(i. i. 62)


… in my reason dwels the prouidence,
To adde to life as much of happinesse.

(i. i. 141 2)

Even in the last scene he comes back to his ‘providence’:

… My [by?] prouidence,
Eu'n in a moment; by the onely hurt
Of one, or two, or three, at most: and those
Put quickly out o' paine too, marke mee; I
Had wisely rais'd a competent estate
To my posteritie.

(v. ii. 82-7)

And therefore the repetition of this word, together with a suggestion of the building-metaphor, in the Judge's comment on D'Amville after his death, points the irony of his fate emphatically:

The power of that eternall prouidence,
Which ouerthrew his proiects in their pride.

(v. ii. 297-8)

So ‘providence’ has here become God's ‘eternall prouidence’—something which D'Amville in his ‘pride’ overlooked.

We have seen that Tourneur uses key-words and images to give firm support to the dramatic structure.9 It is significant that these key-images are often used not only to illuminate the chief theme of the play, but also to emphasize effects of irony. For irony in The Atheist's Tragedy is essential as well to the plot-structure as to the whole meaning of the play.10 There are plenty of ironical situations, pointed by asides (as the scene where the forged news of Charlemont's death arrives), or by language used so that the audience is made to recognize its artificially rhetorical quality (as the funeral scene). Imagery of a more extravagant kind than that usually found in the play helps to stress the irony in D'Amville's epitaphs over the brother he has murdered and the nephew whose death he has falsely announced:

O might that fire reuiue the ashes of
This Phenix! …
And of his goodnesse, was his vertuous Sonne
A worthy imitatour. So that on
These two Herculean pillars, where their armes
Are plac'd; there may be writ, Non vltra. …

(iii. i. 42-52)

But the essential irony of the play—the irony of its action rather than of separate plot-events—lies in the vanity of D'Amville's striving. And it is in the emphasizing of this that the key-images are most effectively used. For example, after the report of Charlemont's death, D'Amville, though actually rejoicing at the seeming success of his plans and his ascendent fortune, must put on a becoming mask of melancholy. (Of the speech that follows, the first lines are, of course, an aside.)

The foundation's laid. Now by degrees,
The worke will rise and soone be perfected.
O this vncertaine state of mortall man!

(ii. i. 136-8)

On the level of stage-effect an ironic contrast is created between the introductory aside and the rest of the speech. It is sharpened by the imagery: the supposedly firm ‘foundation’ as against the ‘vncertaine state’. But this is not all. We are also given, in a condensed form, D'Amville's real dilemma and the moral of the whole play. For the real irony lies in the fact—to which D'Amville is blind—that it is the aside which is the false proposition, whereas ‘this vncertaine state of mortall man’ is true; just as D'Amville's philosophy is false and Charlemont's, built on an understanding of ‘this vncertaine state’, is true.

The last scene is the structural climax as well as the resolution of the argument of the play. Here theatrical irony of situation and deeper moral irony become one, and imagery helps to fuse the two. D'Amville knocks his own brains out with the axe that he was going to use in his self-imposed hangman's task of executing Charlemont. It is a huge practical joke—just as in The Revenger's Tragedy the scene with the Duke and the Bony Lady is a practical joke. The irony is at once farcical and deadly serious, theatrical and moralizing. As D'Amville dies, the imagery in his last words—ironically recalling the scene of his attempted rape—carries the idea of retribution, of ‘the wages of sin’, which is central to the play:

                                                                                                                                            … O!
The lust of Death commits a Rape vpon me
As I would ha' done on Castabella.

(v. ii. 291-3)

Thus, the imagery in The Atheist's Tragedy is intimately related to the play's moral scheme, its structure and its technique. We must now pass on to The Revenger's Tragedy. Much has been written on its dramatic form and its verse,11 and I shall therefore limit myself to those aspects which are strictly relevant in a comparison of the imagery in the play with that of The Atheist's Tragedy.

Obviously the structure of The Revenger's Tragedy is very different from that of The Atheist's Tragedy. The play opens with a kind of tableau: the chief characters passing over the stage in a torch-lit procession. Upon this come Vindice's words:

Dvke: royall letcher; goe, gray hayrde adultery,
And thou his sonne, as impious steept as hee:
And thou his bastard true-begott in euill:
And thou his Dutchesse, that will doe with Diuill,
Foure exlent Characters. …

Vindice is here not really speaking as a character in the play. He is speaking straight out to the audience to introduce the dramatis personae and—most important—their vices. He goes on as a moral commentator,

                                                            … O that marrow-lesse age,
Would stuffe the hollow Bones with dambd desires,

(i. i. 1-6)

and it is only with the apostrophe to the skull of his mistress—‘Thou sallow picture of my poysoned loue’—that he recedes into his plot-part and the Revenge theme is introduced. Throughout the play this alternation between plot-proceedings and direct commentary is maintained.12 Time and again characters break out of the plot-frame to make a speech which, in fact, says: look here how evil we are (e.g. the Bastard's speech on the gluttonous dinner), or they are (many of Vindice's speeches, the skull-scene, of course, being the supreme example). The two Tourneur plays, then, ask for different responses from their respective audiences or readers. In The Atheist's Tragedy we are asked to follow an argument which eventually proves D'Amville to be wrong and damned; in The Revenger's Tragedy we are asked for immediate responses to the evils that are being demonstrated, through the swiftly moving intrigue, which hurries us from one striking situation to another, and through the out-of-plot speeches. It is in the light of this general difference of aim that we must see the individual images.

We see then that the brief, compressed, metaphors, hitting one with an almost physical force, in which The Revenger's Tragedy abounds, are part of the technique of the play—such metaphors as

Oh one incestuous kisse picks open hell!

(i. ii. 195)

Your Tongues haue struck hotte yrons on my face;

(ii. i. 259)

Now must I blister my soule,

(ii. ii. 40)

to mention only a few out of a multitude. They are images intent on ‘handing over sensations bodily’.13 Perhaps the general difference between the shaping of images in the two plays is nowhere to be seen more clearly than in the large groups of personifications. We saw how in The Atheist's Tragedy abstracts remained abstract. In The Revenger's Tragedy they become highly concrete and tangible, often through the use of some verb of bodily motion:

The Crowne gapes for him euery tide,

(ii. i. 71)

Murder will peepe out of the closest huske,

(iv. ii. 236)

Death too soone steales out of a Lawyers lip;

(i. ii. 76)

often through a peculiarly concrete noun or adjective:

… is the day out ath-socket?

(ii. ii. 257)

… now Ile gripe thee
Ee'n with the Nerues of wrath;

(ii. ii. 223)

and often through a combination of both:

A Dukes soft hand stroakes the rough head of law,
And makes it lye smooth.

(ii. ii. 291-2)

‘Revenge’, a thematic word in both plays, is in The Revenger's Tragedy repeatedly personified, or in other ways made concrete. We hear about ‘the vengeance that my birth was wrapt in’, about the ‘fly-flop of vengeance’, and about revenge which ‘shall reach high’. We hear of revenge which ‘hits’ or ‘throttles’, and of nine years' vengeance which ‘crowd in a minute’. But in The Atheist's Tragedy ‘revenge is to be an abstract concept: not to be seen or felt or demonstrated, but to be talked about and meditated upon. Hence it never comes alive in the imagery. When we do meet with it, it is in phrases like ‘Revenge to thee Ile dedicate this work’, or—the motto of the play—‘Leave Revenge unto the King of Kings’.

The reason why I have dwelt on the concrete, compressive and suggestive power of images throughout The Revenger's Tragedy is that this characteristic of the play's imagery has so often made critics think and speak of the imagery as a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion, a revelation of Tourneur's morbid and obsessed mind. In fact, it is as much part of the dramatic technique in the play as is the way characters are handled, or scenes arranged, and it is as much related to the general structure of the play as is the more deliberate, often illustrative, imagery of The Atheist's Tragedy to the structure of that play.

Not only, however, is the imagery intended to provoke immediate and violent responses to various dramatic situations; it is also intended to guide our responses. Obviously this is a different function from just ‘handing over sensations bodily’: it is a question of bringing out the meaning of a situation and implying a moral evaluation of it. Sometimes it is as clear as Castiza's image,

A vergin honor is a christall Tower,
Which being weake is guarded with good spirits,
Vntill she basely yeelds no ill inherits,

(iv. iv. 165-7)

which sums up and helps to ‘place’ the temptation scene. This is, of course, the traditional image of holy maidenhood,14 and it hints that the situation which it comments on is a kind of morality scene, with the tempter assailing the tower of virginal virtue. But often this function is less obtrusive—though no less effective. In the Bastard's speech,

Faith if the truth were knowne, I was begot
After some gluttonous dinner, some stirring dish
Was my first father; when deepe healths went round,
And Ladies cheekes were painted red with Wine,
Their tongues as short and nimble as their heeles
Vttering words sweet and thick …,

(i. ii. 200-5)

the feverish sensuality of the banquet spoken about is re-enacted through a union of images and rhythm. Yet there is no doubt that the ultimate purpose of the passage is to hold up vice to be denounced. Placed safely by the first image—the gluttonous dinner—the passage is firmly held within the moral scheme of the play by the fact, accepted by author and audience alike, that this is Sin personified speaking. The Bastard's words are setting before an audience, fascinated and horrified at the same time, an exemplum horrendum. This is a reflexion, within a brief episode and small speech-unit, of what Vindice's skull-speech does for the play as a whole. In that speech Vindice gives a frame of reference for the whole play; repeatedly in the play individual images do so for a situation. Sometimes they do so through their subject-matter—as when Vindice tells his mother that ‘forty Angells can make fourescore diuills’ (ii. i. 101). Sometimes it is their place in the context that makes them morally effective—we know, for example, that Vindice's ‘pleasure of the Pallace’ speech is persuasive rhetoric, that all he says is wrong and wicked. Therefore the greater the excess and exuberance—

… the stirring meates,
Ready to moue out of the dishes, that e'en now
          quicken when their eaten—

(ii. i. 223-4)

the greater the moral effect. And so, all over the play, imagery points the moralistic-satiric structure of the play, preventing us from taking it at the plot-level of melodramatic Revenge.

It is to be expected in The Revenger's Tragedy that we should not, as we do in The Atheist's Tragedy, find chains of related images developing an argument. We saw in The Atheist's Tragedy how in the last scene the structural climax was supported by the gathering up of functionally used strands of imagery. In The Revenger's Tragedy the climax of the play is not at the end, but very near the middle of the play: in the skull-scene. Instead of being the logical solution to a ladder-like argument, it is the hub from which meanings radiate out over the whole play. Scattered over the play are images dealing with vice in one form or another—lechery, gluttony, avarice and vanity—with death and corruption, and in Vindice's skull-speech all these are gathered up and compressed into a memento mori.

As in The Atheist's Tragedy, the climactic scene in The Revenger's Tragedy contains the central irony of the play. Imagery throughout the play feeds with meaning the many plot-level ironies,15

A drab of State, a cloath a siluer slut,
To haue her traine borne vp, and her soule traile i'th
          durt; great.

(iv. iv. 80-1)

The daughters fal lifts vp the mothers head:

(ii. i. 127)

but in the skull-scene it points the irony most poignantly. The silk-worm expending her yellow labours, being ‘undone’ for what must eventually become a skull and ‘bare bone’—that is the fundamental irony of the play: vain, sinful, human life against implacable, retributive, death.

A study of the imagery of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy, then, shows a firm integration, a unity of aim, of the imagery with the dramatic structure and technique. It shows Tourneur to be alert to some important dramatic uses of imagery. It should be clear that the question whether the two plays have the same author can never be answered by a study of the imagery apart from dramatic structure and technique. The problem of authorship in this case must be solved by showing why the structures are different. What I hope to have shown here is the necessity for a functional approach to Tourneur's imagery.


  1. U. M. Ellis-Fermor, ‘The Imagery of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy’, M.L.R. xxx (1935), 289-301; M. K. Mincoff, ‘The Authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy’, Studia Historico-Philologica Serdicensia, ii (1939), 1-87. The two studies were carried out independently. Professor Mincoff has, however, a postscript (pp. 85-7) where he considers Professor Ellis-Fermor's article.

  2. Notably by Wolfgang Clemen in his Shakespeares Bilder: Ihre Entwicklung und ihre Functionen im Dramatischen Werk (Bonn, 1936), revised and translated into English as The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (London, 1951). Cf. also R. A. Foakes, ‘Suggestions for a New Approach to Shakespeare's Imagery’, Shakespeare Survey 5 (1952), 81-92.

  3. In an article on ‘The Authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy’, to appear in English Studies.

  4. See M. Higgins, ‘The Convention of the Stoic Hero as Handled by Marston’, M.L.R. xxxix (1944), 338-46; ‘Chapman's “Senecal Man”’, R.E.S. xxi (1945), 183-91; and ‘The Development of the “Senecal Man”’, R.E.S. xxiii (1947), 24-33; and also C. Leech, ‘The Atheist's Tragedy as a Dramatic Comment on Chapman's Bussy Plays’, J.E.G.P. lii (1953), 525-30.

  5. I quote from Professor Allardyce Nicoll's edition of Tourneur (Fanfrolico Press, 1929).

  6. Cf. Robert Ornstein, ‘The Atheist's Tragedy and Renaissance Naturalism’, S.P. li (1954), 194-207. This article is interesting and valuable in showing how D'Amville is ‘the archetypal Renaissance atheist synthesized from contemporary opinion about, and refutations of, atheism’ (p. 195), but it comes to the curious conclusion that ‘D'Amville's view of nature is never actually refuted’, and that Tourneur therefore never quite denies ‘a materialistic interpretation of the universe’ (p. 204). There may be no verbal argument that totally refutes D'Amville's views, but what is the whole action of the play if not a conclusive dramatic argument against his philosophy?

  7. Cf. also such a Langbeau line as ‘Since Charlemont's absence I haue waighed his loue with the spirit of consideration’ (i. iv. 40-1), where the use of half-concrete abstracts in the play as a whole is ridiculously overdone.

  8. The repeated use of this image is noted by Miss Ellis-Fermor, but the interest she finds in it is that it shows the author to have had ‘an isolated prepossession, the idea of the rise and collapse of buildings’ (op. cit. p. 295).—This is clearly an image which easily lends itself to the illustration of a de casibus theme, but I have not found it so deliberately and consistently used in any other play of the period. It is interesting to notice how this image contrasts with one commonly connected with the sic transit gloria mundi theme, e.g.: ‘If we would but consider well how quickly we shall be placed beneath the feet not only of men, friend and foe alike, but of dogs, and the beasts of the field—where he who now rears and possesses mighty palaces shall have a hall whose roof touches his nose’ (from the Summa Predicantium, quoted by G. R. Owst, Preaching in Medieval England, 1926, p. 343). This contrast with D'Amville's ambition is used in the churchyard scene, in Charlemont's homily: ‘Perhappes th' inhabitant was in his life time the possessour of his owne desires. Yet in the midd'st of all his greatnesse and his wealth; he was lesse rich and lesse contented, then in this poore piece of earth, lower and lesser then a Cottage’ (iv. iii. 4-8).

  9. Cf. also J. M. S. Tompkins, ‘Tourneur and the Stars’, R.E.S. xxii (1946), 315-19.

  10. This needs stressing, for the critics who have discussed the supposed similarity of the irony in The Revenger's Tragedy to that in Middleton's plays have not at all considered irony in The Atheist's Tragedy. See R. H. Barker, ‘The Authorship of The Second Maiden's Tragedy and The Revenger's Tragedy’, S.A.B. xx (1945), 51-62 and 121-33, and the same author's book, Thomas Middleton (New York, 1958), ch. iv; also S. Schoenbaum, ‘The Revenger's Tragedy and Middleton's Moral Outlook’, N.Q. cxcvi (1951), 8-10, and his Middleton's Tragedies (New York, 1955), notably pp. 17 ff. and p. 31.—Space forbids a detailed discussion of the problem here, but it seems to me that the irony which The Revenger's Tragedy has in common with Middleton's comedies it also shares with practically every other satirical comedy of the period. Dr Schoenbaum limits his comparison to Middleton and The Revenger's Tragedy, without mentioning the comedies of, say, Jonson or Marston.—Furthermore, irony as a dramatic device was conventional in the Revenge play as well as in the satiric comedy.—What The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy have in common is a deeper irony of moral retribution which governs each play, and which at the climax of each play—the skull-scene and D'Amville's death, respectively—fuses comic and tragic material, farce and morality. This, again, is very different from the irony of Middleton's tragedies, which arises out of the blindness of individuals to the consequences of their actions. Middleton's characters deceive themselves into believing that they are doing the right thing, whereas Tourneur's, part of a rigid scheme of goodness and badness, go with open eyes against the moral order of traditional religion. (Witness Lussurioso, taking the first step on the road to his ‘undoing’: ‘It is our bloud to erre, tho' hell gap't wide; / Ladies know Lucifer fell, yet still are proude.’ He could hardly be more explicit about the moral order he knows but acts against.)

  11. See M. C. Bradbrook's chapter on Cyril Tourneur in Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge, 1935); L. G. Salingar, ‘The Revenger's Tragedy and the Morality Tradition’, Scrutiny, vi (1938), 402-24; S. Schoenbaum, ‘The Revenger's Tragedy: Jacobean Dance of Death’, M.L.Q. xv (1954), 201-7; Robert Ornstein, ‘The Ethical Design of The Revenger's Tragedy’, E.L.H. xxi (1954), 81-93; John Peter, ‘The Revenger's Tragedy Reconsidered’, Essays in Criticism, vi (April, 1956), 131-43.—R. A. Foakes, ‘On the Authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy’, M.L.R. xlviii (1953), 129-38, has valuable comments on the versification.

  12. This morality-like feature of Tourneur's technique was first commented on by Miss Bradbrook and has later been discussed at length by Mr Salingar and Mr Peter.

  13. Cf. T. E. Hulme's essay on ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ in Speculations, ed. Herbert Read (London, 1924), p. 134.

  14. Examples are legion, in homily, poetry and pageantry; but cf., e.g., Hali Meidenhad, ed. F. J. Furnivall, E.E.T.S. (London, 1922), p. 5.

  15. Miss Bradbrook has counted no less than twenty-two ironic reversals in the play (Themes and Conventions, p. 165).

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1960)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Cyril Tourneur,” in The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, Greenwood Press, 1975, pp. 105-27.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1960, Ornstein argues that The Revenger's Tragedy was in fact written by Tourneur; points out the playwright's fascination with the exotic and the erotic; and considers The Atheist's Tragedy a failure because the complexity of the subject matter was beyond Tourneur's artistic capabilities.]

Studied individually The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy seem curious monuments to the diversity of Jacobean tastes. Studied together as works attributed in the seventeenth century to a single author, they pose a unique critical problem because they seem to express totally opposite moral viewpoints and artistic talents. The problem vanishes, of course, if we agree with eminent scholars that The Revenger's Tragedy was written by Middleton. But this solution leads in turn to an equally vexing question of interpretation, for The Revenger's Tragedy is, I think, more alien in spirit to Middleton's art than to Tourneur's. It is difficult, in fact, to believe that the poised, detached observer of life who gave us Middleton's comedies and tragedies could ever have felt the moralistic passion that informs Vindice's lines.

My reasons for assigning The Revenger's Tragedy to Tourneur are set forth in the present chapter and, to some extent, in my later discussion of Middleton. Compared to the precise scholarship of those who argue for Middleton they may seem unscientific; but I do not expect here to settle a controversy that hangs in such even balance as to permit only personal conclusions. If the stylistic evidence in favor of Middleton is impressive, so too is the stylistic and bibliographical evidence supporting the traditional attribution to Tourneur. Moreover while the parallels of expression in The Revenger's Tragedy and Middleton's plays may suggest influence or imitation, they do not establish a single authorship.1

Approaching the question from another direction, I would suggest that the artistic relationship between The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy has not been adequately explored because the latter play has not received the close, careful critical attention lavished on the former. When we study in detail the polemical intention and achievement of The Atheist's Tragedy, however, we find strong evidence that it is a product of the same mind and talent which created The Revenger's Tragedy. Indeed, as we shall see, Tourneur's success as a melodramatist is the chief clue to his failure as a didacticist.

Although a just appreciation of Tourneur's artistry has replaced the nineteenth-century celebration of him as a master of satanic revels, recent critical attention has centered more upon explaining the mind that created The Revenger's Tragedy than upon analyzing the play as dramatic literature. But the purists need not complain; for after paying homage to Tourneur's poetic and dramatic powers, critics must inevitably attempt to relate his vision of licentiousness and depravity to some realm of normal experience. Not surprisingly Tourneur has divided the critics as well as the bibliographers. Miss Ellis-Fermor and Harold Jenkins speak of Tourneur's instinctive awareness of universal evil.2 John Peter and Samuel Schoenbaum place Tourneur in the tradition of the medieval moralists.3 Michael Higgins finds in Tourneur a Calvinistic revulsion against man's depravity.4 And lurking behind most recent discussions of The Revenger's Tragedy is Mr. Eliot's influential opinion that the play expresses an adolescent hatred of life.5 Such diversity of opinion suggests that before we can celebrate the wedding of moral vision and artistic form in Tourneur's drama we must first carefully distinguish between the two.

Unlike Chapman and Jonson, Tourneur is completely at ease with the techniques of popular melodrama and totally uninterested in political themes and problems. The Revenger's Tragedy lacks even the shadowy political background which provides a framework of great events for the sensationalism of The Spanish Tragedy and The Jew of Malta. Like Chapman's heroes and like Jonson's Cicero, Vindice is pitted against a decadent society, but one that is corrupted by sensual appetites, not by political opportunism or tyranny; its villains are, for the most part, ambitious only in their lusts. Like Bussy, Vindice is a malcontent, isolated from society, who faces the problem of virtuous action in an evil milieu and who finds that he must flank policy with policy to gain revenge. In The Revenger's Tragedy, however, there is no disjunction of moral argument and revenge fable, for Tourneur's ethical vision is perfectly imaged in the dramatic action; his moral argument and his plot are one.

Inspired by the literary and scholarly idealism of Renaissance humanism, Chapman and Jonson find their tragic fables in the pages of history. Untouched by their classicism, Tourneur finds the materials of tragedy in the popular myth of Italianate evil, which had already become a common property of the stage. It is a tribute to Tourneur's powers that with all our knowledge of dramatic convention we still feel that The Revenger's Tragedy expresses an intensely personal view of reality, though we know its setting is the Italy of the novella and of Elizabethan Protestant imaginations, the Italy described so vividly by Ascham and others as a sink of atheism, luxury, and sensual abandonment. In other Jacobean tragedies, Italianate settings are used more or less as backdrops for such glorious villains as Brachiano or Ferdinand. Tourneur's characters, however, do not transcend the Italianate; they epitomize it. His imagination triumphs over nature and reality by distilling the essence of Italianate horror, by pre-empting and refining a conventional image of sensuality and violence.

At the same time that Tourneur's genius presents the Italianate image in all its lurid perfection, his artistic discipline (a rare attribute in Jacobean dramaturgy) makes it difficult to penetrate beyond the image to the mind that created it. Other Jacobean playwrights universalize the action of their dramas by philosophical reflection. Tourneur admits none in The Revenger's Tragedy unless we call Vindice's choric commentaries “philosophical.” Other dramatists use traditional parallels and correspondences to enlarge their dramatic scene; their characters, vehicles for philosophical and moral attitudes, are archetypal Stoics or politicians. Tourneur's allegorical method of characterization paradoxically denies universal importance to such automata of evil as the Duke and Lussurioso, for though they personify particular vices they are no more than samplings of a depraved world. They cannot vary or develop; they cannot step momentarily out of character to comment on their world because their existence in the reader's imagination depends upon the consistent pulse of the vicious passion which they embody.

Actually Tourneur suggests the existence of his dramatic universe not by philosophical expansion of his immediate scene, but by the use of perspective. He draws a group of characters who are, depending upon their prominence in the play, “large” or “small,” distinct or vague. In the foreground are Lussurioso, the Duke, and Vindice; slightly “behind” them are the Duchess, Spurio, and Hippolito. Further in the background, and therefore smaller and less distinct in outline, are Ambitioso and Supervacuo. Almost fading into the background itself is Junior, the “yongest sonne,” and behind him are all the shadowy figures of the court. But there is no essential difference between the Duke, “the yongest sonne,” and any of the lesser courtiers, except that the Duke's villainy is writ large, while the courtiers' lusts and assignations are only vaguely sketched. Tourneur cannot convince us that his tragic universe holds a mirror up to nature, but he skillfully creates an illusion of depth in his two-dimensional scene by suggesting that the Duke's court extends and merges imperceptibly with a larger world which, if brought into the foreground, would be no different from the group of sensualists which Tourneur examines in detail.

Even as Tourneur isolates his Italianate scene from contact with normal experience he places upon it the stamp of his unique temperament. The ruling passions of his characters swell not from within, but from one central, inexhaustible reservoir of emotion that animates virtuous and vicious alike and that gives the play its superb unity of tone. Cynicism, outrage, loathing, and horror are fused in The Revenger's Tragedy by Tourneur's morbid fascination with the erotic. To the mind that created Vindice's world, the sexual is as intriguing and repelling as a hideous disease. The most characteristic and memorable lines in the play are concerned with some facet of illicit sexual desire or bawdry. There are of course other vices in Vindice's society, but they are ancillary; the lust for murder is almost always a desire to avenge some rape, adultery, or incest. Like the medieval satirist, Vindice castigates the frailty and concupiscence of women, but unlike the medieval satirist, he is amused by their sly tricks. Knowing their coy whoredoms, he trusts no woman's virtue, not even his mother's or sister's. His erotic imagination transfigures even his dead mistress' skull as he recalls when

                                                                                'twas a face
So farre beyond the artificiall shine
Of any womans bought complexion
That the uprightest man, (if such there be,
That sinne but seaven times a day) broke custome
And made up eight with looking after her.(6)

(I. i. 23-28)

Similarly Vindice cannot think of night without imagining strange and fulsome lusts:

Night! thou that lookst like funerall Heraulds fees
Torne downe betimes ith morning, thou hangst fittly
To Grace those sins that have no grace at all.
Now tis full sea a bed over the world;
Theres iugling of all sides; some that were Maides
E'en at Sun set are now perhaps ith Toale-booke;
This woman in immodest thin apparell
Lets in her friend by water, here a Dame
Cunning, nayles lether-hindges to a dore,
To avoide proclamation.
Now Cuckolds are a quoyning apace, apace, apace,
And carefull sisters spinne that thread ith night,
That does maintaine them and their bawdes ith daie!

(II. ii. 149-61)

This is far removed from Elizabethan paganism. Vindice's thoughts do not hover on feminine beauty or on the physical pleasures of sex. He is aroused and revolted not by what is seen, but by what is imagined—by the huggermugger, the backstairs work, the juggling behind the arras, and the stealing away by torchlight. He is fascinated with stealth rather than with sex. He is the Peeping Tom turned moralist and moralizing with the fevered sexual images dwelt upon by the impotent or the frustrate.

If the eroticism of The Revenger's Tragedy were confined to Vindice's speeches, we might credit Tourneur with a penetrating study of psychological abnormality. But actually the erotic is woven into the total fabric of the play, present as it is in every act and in almost every scene. Indeed, we find in both of Tourneur's tragedies a consistent association of the sexual and the macabre, a lingering over “fulsome lusts” and assignations in graveyards and with skulls. We cannot, however, view the hectic sexuality of The Revenger's Tragedy as an unconscious Freudian revelation when in fact it is a superbly fashioned poetic and dramatic motif. Despite the intense feeling that animates Tourneur's lines, his ironic intellect is always in control. We would never, for example, mistake Vindice's attacks on luxury and sensuality for the spontaneous overflow of powerful moral feelings. Addressing the skull of Gloriana he says:

                                                                                … here's an eye,
Able to tempt a greatman—to serve God,
A prety hanging lip, that has forgot now to dissemble;
Me thinkes this mouth should make a swearer tremble,
A drunckard claspe his teeth and not undo e'm,
To suffer wet damnation to run through e'm.
Heres a cheeke keepes her colour; let the winde go
Spout Raine, we feare thee not, be hot or cold
Alls one with us; and is not he absurd,
Whose fortunes are upon their faces set,
That feare no other God but winde and wet?

(III. v. 57-67)

Vindice's sermon is brittle and premeditated; each word and image falls perfectly into place. Some kind of moral frenzy is implicit, but it is a frenzy that has been transmuted into detached bitterness. Some shock of intense disillusion and horror has given way to the cynicism that turns all of life into a sardonic joke. It is not the vanity of evil alone that amuses Vindice; it is the utter futility of a life in which there are only three kinds of human beings: the completely abandoned, the hypocritical, and the rare, impecunious, malcontented good.

That Vindice serves as Tourneur's moral chorus we cannot doubt, but he is more importantly a character in the play, one whose moral perceptions are slightly distorted at the beginning and, in the end, perverse. It is fittingly ironic that Vindice, the cynic, should uphold morality in his world, and that it should be the task of one who is contemptuous of all feminine modesty to protect virginity and to avenge murdered innocence. Vindice loathes vice, yet he has no faith in virtue. He makes a jest of religion as of everything else. “Save Grace the bawde,” he remarks, “I seldome heare Grace nam'd!” And when Gratiana insists that all the riches in the world could not make her an unnatural bawd, he answers:

No, but a thousand Angells can;
Men have no power, Angells must worke you too't,
The world descends into such base-borne evills
That forty Angells can make fourescore divills.

(II. i. 98-101)

Vindice wittily imbues a conventional Elizabethan pun with new meaning. These are the angels whose potency he does not doubt. When he speaks later of the heavenly angels and their “Christall plaudities,” he is much less convincing. His opposition to evil, though violent, lacks philosophical conviction and an ultimate moral goal. Although he uses the phraseology of religion and moral philosophy, and although he complains that evil is unnatural, his cynicism springs from an awareness that his world has irrevocably departed from its natural course.

Within his society Vindice represents the only possible moral order, one that is warped in nature and eminently corruptible because it has no higher purpose than the accomplishment of revenge. Vindice sees himself as the instrument of divine justice, which he interprets as a lex talionis that gruesomely requites villainy with villainy. When the tortured Duke screams, “Is there a hell besides this, villaines?” Vindice answers:

Nay heaven is iust, scornes are the hires of scornes,
I nere knew yet Adulterer with-out hornes.

(III. v. 197-99)

To be sure, the Vindice who says this is not the Vindice who originally set out to revenge his murdered love. Although he can save his mother and sister from shame, he cannot save himself from his own cynicism. After murdering the Duke, he can watch with satisfaction an innocent man condemned for telling the truth, because such travesty of justice vindicates his own “moral” viewpoint. By the end of the play, little semblance of Vindice's moral purpose remains; he and Hippolito are hardly distinguishable from the men they slaughter. Murder piles on murder, revenge upon revenge, as hate, lust, and ambition set lechers, adulterers, and assassins at each others' throats. When the carnage ends, Vindice and Hippolito are sent off to execution, not because the moral order is restored or because the goddess Astraea returns to earth, but only because Antonio is a politic ruler who fears that those who killed the old Duke may also kill him. The royal lechers have paid for their crimes, but we do not feel that their blood has cleansed the Augean filth of the court.

To all appearances, then, the ending of The Revenger's Tragedy is quite amoral. In the last judgment, life and death—all's one. Two self-satisfied murderers unexpectedly “go to it” because of a final ironic twist of fate. Evil (or at least some evil) is purged adventitiously but in the process the once virtuous agents of retribution are corrupted. The fact that the stage is littered with corpses does not convince us of the existence of some higher moral order, for in Vindice's society the good die as horribly as the evil, and the triumph of justice requires something more than balanced double entries in the ledger of Death. We must have a deeper understanding of the “why” of Vindice's fall—we must recognize some pattern of ethical causality in the loathsome incidents of the plot—if we are to believe that The Revenger's Tragedy draws to a moral conclusion. Such a pattern of causality does emerge; in fact it grows more distinct with every step of Vindice's descent into criminality, until at last we see that far from exploiting irony for irony's sake, The Revenger's Tragedy is cast in an ethical design as sophisticated and intellectual as that of Jonson's greatest comedies.

The apparent imitations of Volpone in The Atheist's Tragedy support my belief that The Revenger's Tragedy was also influenced by Jonson's play. The same dark, cynical, satiric spirit broods over Volpone and The Revenger's Tragedy. Both plays center on the conflict between a pair of cunning, knavish minds. They have similar allegorical characters, ironic reversals, and uses of disguises and deceptions. Like Volpone's, Vindice's disguises reveal more of the inner man than they hide, since a mastery of deception requires some natural affinity for the assumed role.7I have considered,” Jonson writes in Discoveries, “our whole life is like a Play: wherein every man, forgetfull of himself, is in travaile with expression of another. Nay, wee so insist in imitating others, as wee cannot (when it is necessary) returne to our selves. …”8 Here in sober commonplace is the moral “lesson” of Volpone and The Revenger's Tragedy.

Throughout Tourneur's play a malicious Fate seems to thwart the best laid plans of sensualist and revenger alike. But on no other character does irony weigh more heavily than on Vindice. Seeking only to revenge himself upon the Duke, he is hired first to procure his sister for Lussurioso. Then he is engaged to pander for the Duke, and lastly he is employed by Lussurioso to murder Piato, i.e., to kill himself. In his most trying moments, however, Vindice appreciates the comedy of his situation, for it is the kind his intellect can savor. Above all he enjoys his superior knowledge and position in the deadly game of pretending that he must play. He can always see through Lussurioso's pretenses, but his own disguises are impenetrable. He always knows Lussurioso's masked motives, but his own are inscrutable. Thus his outbursts against Lussurioso are tempered by an unholy enjoyment of the battle in which he is (or so he believes) always master.

In Vindice's society seclusion and retreat are the only ways to preserve one's integrity against the degrading temptations or coercions of the court. Seclusion, however, breeds its own spiritual ills—among them “discontent,” the nobleman's consumption. Vindice's opening soliloquy reveals that bitterness and cynicism have already eroded his moral beliefs. He has already seen too much of the world—his own beloved murdered, virgins surrendered, families destroyed, all that men prize bought and sold like so much merchandise. Obsessed with vengeance, he broods in isolation and castigates the court from a distance until Hippolito brings word that Lussurioso has asked him

To seeke some strange digested fellow forth:
Of ill-contented nature, either disgracst
In former times, or by new groomes displacst,
Since his Step-mothers nuptialls, such a bloud
A man that were for evill onely good;
To give you the true word some base coynd Pander.

(I. i. 84-89)

Here is an irresistible temptation to assume, for a little while, the way of the world in order to obtain revenge. Seizing the opportunity Vindice decides to disguise his true self in a mask of evil; he will “put on that knave for once” and be “a man a'th Time.” Adopting his temporary role Vindice jestingly asks Hippolito, “Am I farre inough from my selfe?” and he calls upon Impudence,

Thou Goddesse of the pallace, Mistris of Mistresses
To whom the costly-perfumd people pray,
Strike thou my fore-head into dauntless Marble;
Mine eyes to steady Saphires: …

(I. iii. 6-9)

Perfect in his disguise Vindice plays the villain so brilliantly that it would almost seem he has a natural talent for it. He is shocked to learn, however, that he must launch his new career by procuring his own sister for Lussurioso. He complains to Hippolito that they are made “strange fellowes,” “innocent villaines.” And yet the idea of testing his sister's and mother's virtue is not wholly repellent to his distrusting nature. Again he plays the role of scoundrel so well that he converts his mother, Gratiana, into an unnatural bawd. Later defending herself, Gratiana claims that only the disguised Vindice could have suborned her. And it is hard to disagree, for there was no one better fitted to play the pander.

With Vindice's success as a pander, the richer irony of his disguises begins to unfold. When we witness his fiendish murder of the Duke, we realize that this “innocent villain” has put on the knave not for once but for all time. He has indeed gone far from himself, and yet he must go even farther. After the Duke's murder the game of seeming becomes so hectic that Vindice is forced to assume disguise upon disguise, until he literally forgets himself. Hippolito sees more clearly what is happening, and when Lussurioso hires Vindice to kill Piato (Vindice's “former self”), he cries out, “Brother we loose our selves.” But Vindice brushes aside this fear, for he now sees the opportunity for perfect vengeance, and he finds the humor of the situation irresistible:

Thats a good lay, for I must kill my selfe.

Brother thats I [the Duke's body]: that sits for me: do you marke it, And I must stand ready here to make away my selfe yonder—I must sit to bee kild, and stand to kill my selfe, I could varry it not so little as thrice over agen, tas some eight returnes like Michelmas Tearme.

(V. i. 3-7)

Vindice does not yet know that he is the butt of his own joke. When Lussurioso curses over his father's body, Vindice exults in his continued triumph, in his knowledge that with the game nearly over, Lussurioso has “lost.” He does not see that Lussurioso has in his own way triumphed as well. Lussurioso sought to hire a villain and he succeeded. He sought to hire a cunning pander and he succeeded in that too. Finally he hired Vindice to kill himself and Vindice does so, because he comes to love the game of evil for its own sake and to relish the murder rather than its “moral” purpose. By the end of the play he has learned so well the roles that Lussurioso hired him to play that his “outward shape, and inward heart / Are cut out of one piece.” And it is altogether fitting that Vindice, who hated the revels of the court, becomes in the end one of the court masquers. This is his last disguise, and he goes to his death precisely because of the courtly impudence which he once mockingly assumed. He exits annoyed but unpenitent, chiding Hippolito:

May we not set as well as the Dukes sonne?
Thou hast no conscience, are we not revengde?
Is there one enemy left alive amongst those?
Tis time to die, when we are our selves our foes.

(V. iii. 151-54)

Since he is a man who is “for evill onely good,” Vindice does not know how meaningful these last words are. But before he leaves the stage, he seems to glimpse the design of past events and to penetrate for the first time beyond the immediate irony of the situation:

This murder might have slept in tonglesse brasse,
But for our selves, and the world dyed an asse;
Now I remember too, here was Piato
Brought forth a knavish sentance once—no doubt (said
          he) but time
Will make the murderer bring forth himself.
Tis well he died, he was a witch.
And now my Lord, since we are in for ever:
This worke was ours which else might have beene

(V. iii. 157-64)

Vindice has not lost his sense of humor. Knowing that it is he rather than the world that dies an ass, he joins in the off-stage laughter that has greeted every successive act of his “flawless” knavery.

Like Jonson, Tourneur depicts a world of rogues and scoundrels in which there is no true regard for moral principles. Yet governing this world is a moral order, detached and ironic, which operates through the inevitable processes of human psychology. In Volpone the operation of the moral order produces comedy—the comedy of futility, of the Seven Deadly Sins—which establishes, if only by inference, that God's in his heaven though all's not right with the world. No laughter, however, can purify Vindice's deeds. The moral order governing his universe is like Tourneur himself: unerring in its craftmanship, disillusioned in its view of life, but orthodox in its values. It is in keeping with the “comic spirit” of the play that Vindice's one moment of redeeming joy produces the cruelest jest of all. Upon reforming his fallen mother, he allows himself a stolen interlude of happiness, only to be reminded by Hippolito that he forgets his task of revenge. Vindice answers:

                    … ioye's a subtill elfe,
I think man's happiest, when he forgets himselfe.

(IV. iv. 92-93)

We do not have to resort to psychoanalytical conjectures to understand how a mind capable of this moral subtlety could have spent such artistic care on, and poured such intense conviction into, a bizarre portrait of decadence. For Tourneur's Italianate portrait, like Chapman's vision of political decadence, is a poetic protest against the decay of long established moral and social ideals. Despite his sophisticated Jacobean artistry, Tourneur's intellectual and spiritual roots were in a pre-Renaissance past. The medieval cast of his thought is evident in all of his works—in his satiric passion, his predilection for allegory, and in his use of the themes of vanitas and memento mori. L. G. Salingar has very effectively argued that Tourneur's pattern for society was feudalistic and that he viewed the decay of the manorial system as the disintegration of the moral order itself.9 In Vindice's society abundance has replaced sufficiency as the goal of men's lives; the new Deadly Sin of Trade has replaced the ancient sin of Avarice, and the love of money has corrupted the love of the soil. “Why are there so few honest women,” Vindice asks his mother,

but because 'tis the poorer profession? that's accounted best, thats best followed, least in trade, least in fashion, and thats not honesty—beleeve it, and doe but note the loue and deiected price of it.

(II. i. 250-53)

Tourneur has the scorn and indignation of medieval satirists, not their religious or moral security. His faith, attached as it was to the material “facts” of God's universe, may well have been shaken when these “facts” failed—when economic change destroyed the immemorially stable, feudal agricultural scheme. Even in The Revenger's Tragedy we can see that he hungered for the kind of literal reassurances which The Atheist's Tragedy offers to the believer. That is to say, the depravity of Vindice's world is measured by its divergence from a medieval conception of the universe as the theater of God's judgment. Why has virtue no “revenewe”? complains Castiza. Vindice wonders:

Why do's not heaven turne black, or with a frowne
Undoo the world—why do's not earth start up,
And strike the sinnes that tread uppon't?

(II. i. 275-77)

And after hearing Lussurioso's murderous plans he exclaims:

Is there no thunder left, or ist kept up
In stock for heavier vengeance?

(IV. ii. 223-24)

Without identifying specific lines of the play with Tourneur's personal thoughts, I would suggest that his was a mind that lingered with satisfaction on the medieval De casibus. To the modern reader D'Amville's death in The Atheist's Tragedy is a bit preposterous; to Tourneur it was simply an example of inevitable divine retribution. When the bad bleed, then is Tourneur's tragedy good.

It would not be difficult to link the attack on “luxury” in The Revenger's Tragedy with the orthodox moralism of The Atheist's Tragedy, which emphasizes the association of atheism and sensuality. A mind that could see in “patrimonyes washt a pieces” a deterioration of moral order would have been even more profoundly disturbed by the real or imagined spread of disbelief in the early seventeenth century. But there is no reason to assume that the atheism which Tourneur conventionally refutes explains the satanic vision of his first tragedy. And there is certainly no evidence that his second tragedy expiates an earlier sin of disbelief. If the terms of religion and moral philosophy seem empty commonplaces in The Revenger's Tragedy (especially when mouthed by abandoned sinners), their conspicuous presence indicates a traditional frame of reference which Tourneur did not easily cast off. And if heaven seems a remote possibility, sinners like the Duke find their hell on earth; for Tourneur exercises the artist's prerogative of creating in literature the pattern (in this instance, the moral pattern) missing in life. We need not posit, then, that Tourneur experienced a religious “conversion” between The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) and The Atheist's Tragedy (1611). More than likely the latter play simply chronicles a return to the orthodoxy that was Tourneur's fundamental position after a temporary disillusionment which he immortalized in Italianate metaphor.


If tradition did not associate Tourneur's name with The Revenger's Tragedy, it is not likely that many readers would be interested in The Atheist's Tragedy today. Its artistic virtues are genuine enough yet not so dazzling as to make us forget its wooden characterizations and its heavy-handed moralism. Here the artist in Tourneur gives way to the didacticist, and the moral lesson can persuade only those who require no persuasion. T. S. Eliot remarks that Tourneur's genius “is in The Revenger's Tragedy; his talent only in The Atheist's Tragedy”;10 I would add that Tourneur's genius and talent are very closely related, for The Atheist's Tragedy is most effective when it most resembles The Revenger's Tragedy. Its most convincing portraits are of Levidulcia and Sebastian, who would be equally at home in Lussurioso's society; its most brilliant poetic passage is D'Amville's Vindicean soliloquy in the graveyard. Curiously, however, the inspiration of The Atheist's Tragedy is as peripheral as it is sporadic. Its liveliest characters are minor figures and, worse still, its most awkward and unconvincing moments occur at crucial points in the dramatic action. This is so, I suspect, because Tourneur's subject, though congenial enough to his moralizing temper, was quite beyond his artistic capacities.

Tourneur's art leans consistently towards the hyperbolic and the bizarre. The Transformed Metamorphosis,The Revenger's Tragedy, and The Atheist's Tragedy all give evidence that he possessed a fantastic imagination which required the impetus of great feeling to avoid vulgarity and absurdity. He had the kind of brilliant technique which could triumph over its limitations in a tour de force like The Revenger's Tragedy, but which was not suited for all dramatic occasions. Quite understandably, his allegorical method was more successful in characterizing an abnormal obsession than a normal personality. The beleaguered Castabella, for example, is a more convincing portrait of femininity than is the acrid-tongued, steely-edged Castiza, but like Charlemont, Castabella always threatens to become a purely conventional emblem of virtue. Inflexible in his dramatic methods, Tourneur paints D'Amville with the same brush that depicted Lussurioso even though the fable of The Atheist's Tragedy demands a hero-villain of Faustian proportions. Like the automata of The Revenger's Tragedy, D'Amville is an abstraction impelled by a monomaniacal lust, only his is (theoretically at least) intellectual rather than sensual. There are such men in the world around us, but they are rarely driven, as D'Amville is, to commit rape to vindicate their philosophies.

Had Tourneur been able to free himself from the satiric obsessions of The Revenger's Tragedy, he might have created a more successful hero in his second tragedy. It would seem, however, that the portrait of D'Amville incarnates the same protests against superfluity and economic opportunism that we find in Tourneur's earlier play. On its practical level, D'Amville's materialism is that of a New Man, a Jacobean parvenu with a criminal appetite for wealth and status. Indeed, were it not for D'Amville's atheistic naturalism and his sneers at Languebeau Snuffe, we might easily believe that he is at heart a Precisian, for his “piety,” his moneylending, his mercantile vocabulary, his equation of material success and providential aid, and his deification of “industry” smack more of the elect than of the damned. No wonder then that D'Amville seems neither fish nor flesh. While his ideology “dignifies” his policy, his crass ambitions cheapen his blasphemy, so that all in all he is—as Tourneur no doubt intended—a feeble opponent of an omnipotent God.

If the moralizing spirit of The Revenger's Tragedy prepares us somewhat for the didacticism of The Atheist's Tragedy, it does not prepare us for the painfully obvious and labored moralism which blankets the latter half of Tourneur's second tragedy. Even if we assume (as I think we must) that The Atheist's Tragedy is a polemic—a dramatic counterpart of Renaissance confutations of atheism—we can still say that the polemic is too crudely handled to be convincing. But while saying this, we have to keep in mind that a very literal faith in providential order was as much a part of intellectual Calvinism as of popular belief. Moreover while D'Amville may seem to modern readers a ridiculous straw man, he is, as I have shown,11 an archetypal Renaissance atheist, synthesized from commonplace opinions about the character and career of disbelievers. He had, if nothing else, a mythic reality for Tourneur's audience.

One might even argue that the polemical intention of The Atheist's Tragedy demanded the sacrifice of the subtlety which Tourneur demonstrates in The Revenger's Tragedy. In both plays he relies heavily on irony for dramatic effect. Just as the ironic reversals of The Revenger's Tragedy culminate with Vindice's self-denunciation, so too the ironic reversals of The Atheist's Tragedy culminate with D'Amville's confession of guilt and self-murder on the scaffold; both heroes, we note, bring down upon themselves an unlooked-for but perfect judgment. Compared to Vindice's unconsciously willed self-destruction, however, D'Amville's peripeta is a crude coup de théâtre. Could not Tourneur have found a more convincing way of having his villain hoist with his own petard? The answer, I think, is that Tourneur could not allow D'Amville to effect his own destruction in the way that Vindice does, because D'Amville is not an overreacher who is victimized by his own ego. An enemy of religion, he is struck down at the height of his prosperity by God, who is, according to Renaissance apologists, the implacable foe of atheists, and who accomplishes the honest man's revenge. But since God does not actually appear in Tourneur's play His intervention must be made unmistakable to the audience. Tourneur must literally explicate his fable so as to make clear that when the bad bleed—when D'Amville knocks out his brains in a preposterous accident—then is God's power revealed. In other words, the essential point of The Atheist's Tragedy would be lost if the plea for divine vengeance in The Revenger's Tragedy were not answered with a vengeance—if we were not made to feel the “unnaturalness” and miraculousness of D'Amville's catastrophe.

On the other hand, we cannot apologize for the artistic failings of The Atheist's Tragedy by arguing that it was not intended to be a work of art. Since it was written for the stage and aspires to the laurels of tragedy, it must be judged by literary criteria. Actually we cannot say that Tourneur's genius was enslaved by his subject matter, because Marlowe found in the Faustbook approximately the same ideas about atheism which Tourneur incorporates in his play. If Tourneur had written Doctor Faustus, Faustus would no doubt resemble D'Amville, and if Marlowe had written The Atheist's Tragedy, D'Amville would no doubt possess a Faustian splendor. To put it simply, a broader talent than Tourneur's was needed to realize the potential grandeur of his chosen theme.

There is an implicit confession of inadequacy in Tourneur's heavy reliance on other men's artistic ideas in The Atheist's Tragedy. That he studied literature more than he studied life is apparent even in The Transformed Metamorphosis and The Revenger's Tragedy,12 but he did not need to borrow extensively from other dramatists in The Revenger's Tragedy because his ingenious mind could work a score of variations on the revenge formulas of earlier plays. For The Atheist's Tragedy, however, he had no archetypal pattern to follow except perhaps that of Doctor Faustus, and the emphasis of Marlowe's play falls more upon the hero's superhuman aspiration than on his denial of Christianity. It is true that Tourneur derived all his ideas about atheism from contemporary prose confutations, in which the atheist is described as an arrogant, villainous blasphemer who recognizes no power above nature, who thirsts for pleasure and power, and who is tormented by a cowardly fear of death. Indeed, the very pattern of D'Amville's fate was suggested by the apologists' assertion that most atheists suffer unnatural deaths (the wages of their sins) and die confessing their sins and their folly of disbelief.13 Still Tourneur had to translate these ideas into dramatic form, and for better or worse he chose to imitate playwrights who possessed the philosophical breadth he personally lacked.

To dramatize the atheist's preoccupation with death, Tourneur borrows and transforms the graveyard themes of Hamlet. To dramatize the atheist's disillusionment with nature, he turns to King Lear. The distracted D'Amville, who has lost his faith in nature and who cries out for judgment, is quite obviously modeled on the crazed Lear. Somewhat less obvious is D'Amville's kinship with Edmund, though we can trace the line of descent in such passages as his request for Charlemont's body after execution:

I would finde out by his Anatomie;
What thing there is in Nature more exact,
Then in the constitution of my selfe.
Me thinks, my parts, and my dimensions, are
As many, as large, as well compos'd as his;
And yet in me the resolution wants,
To die with that assurance as he does.

(V. ii. 161-67)

Although the speech as a whole echoes Lear's desire to anatomize Regan, its middle lines specifically recall Edmund's early assertion that “my dimensions are as well compact, / My mind as generous, and my shape as true, as honest madam's issue.” We can also compare D'Amville's exultation after his brother's murder (“Here's a sweete Comedie. T'begins with O Dolentis, and concludes with ha, ha, he.”—II. iv. 101-2) with Edmund's “theatrical” aside about Edgar (“… and Pat! he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy. My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o'Bedlam. O, these eclipses do portend these divisions! Fa, sol, la, mi”).14 Like Edmund, D'Amville hungers for a title and conspires against his own brother. Like Edmund, he is an emancipated intellectual who takes nature for his goddess and laughs at superstitious credulity. It is not accidental, moreover, that D'Amville compares himself with Charlemont in the same terms that Edmund compares himself with Edgar, for Charlemont is merely a Gallic version of Edgar. Like Edgar he is robbed of his inheritance by a close relative, and like Edgar he is falsely condemned as a criminal. If we wish further evidence of Charlemont's ancestry, we need only compare his pious Stoicism with Edgar's speeches in the storm and deep conviction of divine justice.

Tourneur's direct imitation of Marlowe is less extensive than his imitation of Shakespeare, but he probably derived his conception of plot from the celebrated and often reprinted Doctor Faustus. The dialectical opening of The Atheist's Tragedy seems to be modeled on Faustus' great opening soliloquy, even as the crazed D'Amville's yearning for annihilation echoes Faustus' dying thought:

O were my body circumvolv'd
Within that cloude; that when the thunder teares
His passage open, it might scatter me
To nothing in the ayre!

(IV. iii. 277-80)

It is even possible that D'Amville's grotesque catastrophe was suggested to Tourneur by Thomas Beard's account of Marlowe's death, for in Beard's narrative as in Tourneur's play the judgment of God falls on a villainous atheist who, in attempting to kill another man, is mortally wounded in the head with his own weapon.15

Like Faustus,The Atheist's Tragedy dramatizes an atheist's harrowing journey towards the spiritual and moral knowledge which is gained by less arrogant minds through a simple act of faith. Tourneur's hero, however, begins his journey from an intellectual position that is diametrically opposite to Faustus'. D'Amville has no Faustian hunger for forbidden knowledge; on the contrary, he arrogantly assumes at the beginning of the play that he knows all answers and completely understands the nature of man and the universe. Only when the deaths of his sons ruin his grandiose ambitions does he question the adequacy of his philosophy; and then through personal despair he also learns a very elementary and obvious cosmological truth—that there is a power above nature that controls its force. Faustus, we might say, is the intellectual demon of an Elizabethan world awakening relatively late to the intellectual adventure of the Renaissance and rebelling against the confines of medieval thought. D'Amville, in contrast, is the demon of a seventeenth-century world that has swept away medieval assumptions and seeks a new intellectual adventure in scientific reason. While Faustus' hybris denies the limitations on human thought, D'Amville's hybris imprisons man's mind within the phenomenal universe. While Faustus seeks to penetrate arcane mysteries, D'Amville denies that any mysteries lie beyond the scope of mundane experience and empirical reason. While Faustus aspires to be a god—to gain the power of a prime mover over nature—D'Amville rejects the possibility of any higher power than nature, which is to him the ultimate reality of the universe.

Because D'Amville is philosophically complacent, Tourneur faced a more difficult problem than did Marlowe in translating the atheist's heresy into effective plot, for Faustus' hunger for knowledge provides an immediate intellectual cue to action which is lacking in Tourneur's hero. The villainous goals of pleasure and power are, of course, appropriate to D'Amville, but, as Tourneur recognized, these goals do not in themselves define the unique ungodliness of an atheist. Tourneur therefore relates D'Amville's politic ambitions to a more fundamental and richly ironic obsession: his ruling passion is the very hunger for immortality which, being universal in men, was to the orthodox mind an evidence of the immortality of the soul. Unlike the Christian believer, however, D'Amville seeks immortality in the continuance of his line. He erases through a dynastic vision the fear of death which the orthodox mind eradicates through a vision of eternal spirit.

In D'Amville's immortal longings Tourneur achieved a more sustained motive for dramatic action than Marlowe found in the Faustbook or, so far as we can tell, was able to invent. But his inspired stroke is so faultily delivered that (like D'Amville's axe-blow) it almost knocks out the brains of the play. Whereas Marlowe elevates the conventional libertinism of the atheist to heights of exquisite poetry, Tourneur stages D'Amville's ideologically inspired passion as one of several unnatural graveyard lusts. Requiring heirs, D'Amville attempts to seduce his daughter-in-law, Castabella, and manages thereby to reduce the sensational libertine plea for unconfined love to a dull pronouncement:

Incest? Tush.
These distances affinitie observes;
Are articles of bondage cast upon
Our freedomes by our owne subiections.
Nature allowes a gen'rall libertie
Of generation to all creatures else.

(IV. iii. 139-44)

When the horrified Castabella counters with her own philosophical arguments, D'Amville attempts to rape her, but is frightened away by Charlemont, who is providentially lurking in the graveyard dressed in a ludicrous disguise.

The wild improbabilities of the graveyard scene are one evidence of a flagging imagination. Another is the increasing reliance in the latter half of the play on material derived from other dramatists. Compared, let us say, to the imitations of Othello in Love's Sacrifice, Tourneur's borrowings are creative, but like Ford's imitations, they are an abdication of artistic responsibility. The attempted rape fortuitiously prevented is, I think, a reminiscence of Volpone, as is more certainly D'Amville's glorification of his gold at the beginning of the fifth act. Like Jonson's hero, D'Amville finds an unlooked-for justice in a court of law, where true judgment is meted out despite the frailties of human wisdom. To flesh out the situation borrowed from Jonson, Tourneur refashions Lear's mad scenes. Like Lear the distracted D'Amville cries out for justice to support his belief in the universe. Like Lear he discovers through suffering that man truly needs, not wealth and power, but patience—the resolute assurance in the face of calamity that comes only to the untroubled conscience.

Increasingly indebted to other writers' inspiration in the latter half of The Atheist's Tragedy, Tourneur is also increasingly willing to sacrifice credibility to didactic effect. Charlemont's and Castabella's unexpected drowsiness in the graveyard is absurd, but their chaste slumber on a pair of skulls is a vivid contrast to D'Amville's unnatural lusts and morbid fear of death. In the last act the ironic contrasts grow more and more heavy-handed. As D'Amville gloats over his gold the corpses of his sons are brought on stage. When he tries to buy back their lives with his all-powerful wealth, the Doctor laughs. As he quakes with fear of death, Charlemont and Castabella cheerfully leap to the scaffold. He requires wine to bolster his failing spirits, but Charlemont keeps up his pluck with a glass of water.

I may exaggerate the lameness of the closing scene of The Atheist's Tragedy. What seems painfully contrived on the page may be far more effective in the theater, and a fine actor could no doubt endow D'Amville's distraction with some element of pathos. But I doubt that Tourneur intended D'Amville to seem pathetic, for Tourneur does not feel Marlowe's sympathy for the aspiration he condemns, nor does he make us feel, as Marlowe does, the grandeur as well as the absurdity of his hero's denial of God.16 At his most poignant moment, when he begs the Doctor to restore his sons' lives, D'Amville is, as he recognizes, ridiculous. Similarly, when conscience first strikes him (in the graveyard scene), he is reduced to comical and quaking fears. By the end of the play it is obvious that he is more of a farcical dupe than a tragic protagonist.

In Doctor Faustus the arch-atheist Marlowe demonstrates that the tragic and the religious view of life are not necessarily antithetical. Tourneur's religious viewpoint, however, almost explicitly denies the possibility of tragedy. It makes of the world a theater of judgment in which the only conceivable dramatic action is a divine farce if not a divine comedy. In this setting the central question of The Revenger's Tragedy—that of action in an evil world—is not so much confronted as annihilated, for Charlemont does not have to take action, nor can he be corrupted by discontent. There is no inexplicable suffering, no tormenting sacrifice of innocence, no unbearable personal agony to shake his faith in this best of all possible worlds.

Because The Atheist's Tragedy was based on a secondhand and academic conception of atheism, it does not convince us that D'Amville's atheism posed a more immediate or alarming threat to Jacobean morality than did the sensuality which Lussurioso represents. But then Tourneur's play was probably not intended as a call to arms against ungodliness. It is true, as E. A. Strathmann points out, that more often than not the Renaissance apologists describe the atheist as a naturalist, “who, through overmuch study of nature, was inclined to exalt her, only the agent of creation, to the role of creator.”17 And there are enough references to naturalists outside the confutations to suggest that there were men in Tourneur's age who did not accept Bacon's limitations on the scope of scientific reason or who sought to attribute all phenomena to natural causes.18 Still it seems to me that Tourneur's play, like the usual Jacobean prose confutation of atheism, is primarily a testament of faith; it is the kind of cautionary work, filled with sound and profitable doctrine, that would have been written even if there had been no fear at all of the spread of atheism. It is not so much a refutation of a dangerous contemporary ideology as a celebration of the eternal order of Providence.

And in fact D'Amville's view of nature is not completely refuted in The Atheist's Tragedy. He does not learn that the ultimate reality of nature is rational moral order; instead he learns that his view of nature is incomplete—that reasoning “meerely out / Of Nature” does not produce a valid interpretation of the cosmos. The very orthodoxy of Tourneur's religious position makes all the more significant the fact that the Elizabethan identification of nature and moral law is shattered in The Atheist's Tragedy and never restored. It is true, of course, that D'Amville and Levidulcia are not casually permitted to usurp nature as the justification of their sensual appetites. When D'Amville argues for unconfined love, Castabella retorts that his libertine view of nature degrades man to the level of animals.19 Nevertheless D'Amville and Levidulcia are not condemned as unnatural for the simple reason that they are the representatives of nature in the play. And the very fact that nature proves to them a false goddess simply confirms the impression that nature is not a reliable guide to the proper conduct of men's lives. Corroborating evidence in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore indicates that as the Jacobean age wore on it became increasingly difficult to deny outright a naturalistic view of the universe.20 It was possible only to insist upon the limitations of naturalistic explanations and upon the validity of the higher truths of religion and morality, which lie beyond the reach and attack of empirical reason. Thus though its viewpoint is antipodal to that of the De Augmentis,The Atheist's Tragedy bears indirect witness to the encroachment of a scientific epistemology on the classical and medieval assumptions which underlay the moral philosophy of the sixteenth century.

Extremes of cynicism and moralism, of high and pedestrian art, are not rare in the works of the Jacobeans, whose tragic inspirations were short-lived and whose descents into mediocrity were often precipitous. The unique problem of Tourneur's drama, however, is that we have only two seemingly disconnected points of reference with which to chart the progress of his art. It is as if we had to piece together Chapman's personality from only Bussy D'Ambois and Caesar and Pompey, or Donne's personality from one song and one sermon, or T. S. Eliot's personality from only The Waste Land and The Cocktail Party. The apparent pattern of Tourneur's drama—the retreat (or return) from skepticism to orthodoxy—is common enough in the literature of ages of anxiety, but we lack other works, other artistic coördinates, which might confirm the pattern. That the mind and talent which created The Revenger's Tragedy found an artistic resting place in The Atheist's Tragedy seems to me perfectly plausible. …


  1. The evidence, stylistic and otherwise, for Middleton's authorship of The Revenger's Tragedy is collected and summed by Samuel Schoenbaum in Middleton's Tragedies: A Critical Study (New York, 1955), pp. 153-82. Because Mr. Schoenbaum argues for Middleton, his discussion of the stylistic evidence for Tourneur's authorship is perhaps less than adequate.

  2. The Jacobean Drama, (London, 1947; 1st ed. 1936), pp. 153 ff.; “Cyril Tourneur,” RES, XVII (Jan. 1941), 29.

  3. The Revenger's Tragedy Reconsidered,” Essays in Criticism, VI (April 1956), 131-43; Middleton's Tragedies, pp. 27 ff.

  4. “The Influence of Calvinistic Thought in Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy,RES, XIX (July 1943), 255-62.

  5. “Cyril Tourneur,” Elizabethan Essays (London, 1934), pp. 128-33.

  6. All citations from Tourneur are from The Works of Cyril Tourneur, ed. Allardyce Nicoll (London, 1930).

  7. Even as Vindice becomes more and more like the villain he once “put on,” so Volpone, who complains of cramps and palsies and requires stimulants to bolster his sagging spirits, plays the part of the old man so well because he is rapidly becoming one.

  8. Herford and Simpson, Ben Jonson, VIII, 597.

  9. The Revenger's Tragedy and the Morality Tradition,” Scrutiny, VI (March 1938), 402-22.

  10. “Tourneur,” Elizabethan Essays, p. 128.

  11. See “The Atheist's Tragedy and Renaissance Naturalism,” SP, LI (April 1954), 194-207.

  12. See Nicoll's discussion of Tourneur's imitations in his “Introduction,” Works of Tourneur, pp. 6 ff.

  13. See “The Atheist's Tragedy and Renaissance Naturalism,” pp. 201-2.

  14. Lear, I. ii. 146-50. See my discussion of Edmund's soliloquy in Chapter IX, pp. 262-64, below.

  15. See my discussion of Tourneur and Beard in “The Atheist's Tragedy,N&Q (July 1955), 285-86.

  16. See Robert Ornstein, “The Comic Synthesis in Doctor Faustus,ELH, XXII (Sept. 1955), 165-72.

  17. Sir Walter Ralegh: A Study in Elizabethan Skepticism (New York, 1951), p. 90.

  18. See Le Roy, Of the Interchangeable Course, or variety of things in the Whole World, trans. Robert Ashley (London, 1594), p. 126v; Guillaume Du Vair, A Treatise of Constancie, trans. Andrew Court (London, 1622), p. 65.

  19. Cf. Castabella's argument (The Atheist's Tragedy, IV. iii. 147 ff.) with Malheureux's revulsion against libertine animalism in Marston's Dutch Courtezan (see Ch. VI, p. 162, below). Castabella's thought is remarkably close to François Garasse's accusation that French libertines abuse the term nature to mean the animal part of man (La Doctrine Curieuse [Paris, 1623], pp. 685-86).

  20. See Ch. VIII, pp. 203-7, below.

Howard Pearce (essay date 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Virtù and Poesis in The Revenger's Tragedy,” in English Language History, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 19-37.

[In the following essay, Pearce contends that The Revenger's Tragedy is concerned with the theoretical function of drama itself; that the imagery, characterization, and action underscore the idea of the world as a stage; and that art, poetry, and rhetoric are stand in contrast with the world's moral decay.]

The Revenger's Tragedy persuades an audience of its apocalyptic vision of the void, the horror, the impending collapse of universal order and goodness. The play's intensity and power are, of course, paradoxical, for the thorough depravity of the characters and the decay of social values produce in the work of art, not further disintegration, but vitality, eloquence, and an intricate formalism. If the play demonstrates not only decay but also vitality, not only chaos but also control, not only disorder but also order, then its Weltanschauung may be far too complex to yield to simple paraphrases of the playwright's thesis.1 The play's richness may be discovered if its subject—its central problem—is taken to be, not how to live morally in a corrupt world, which may be impossible, but how to live intellectually and creatively in an alien and destructive world. The play becomes, in this light, not a “statement” of solutions to the problem of decay, but a posing of the problem in terms of “antilogies”—a word I have borrowed from C. O. McDonald.2 And the concern of the playwright is for his “art,” himself as artist displaying the creative impulse poised against the destructive. The artificiality, the mannered characters and dialogue, the stylized action, are signs of a highly sophisticated, self-conscious artist who is, in the final analysis, writing about his art.

The topos of the world as stage, long since overworked, became in the early seventeenth century both a dominant metaphor and a cliché, serviceable to both deep and superficial minds.3 In appreciating this dimension of The Revenger's Tragedy I have come to see the playwright concerned with the theoretical function of the play itself, exploiting the ideas of drama and rhetoric in terms of the individual's role in society. The traditional metaphor of the theatrum mundi becomes thus a ubiquitous and important expression of the social, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual life of the artist in a decadent world.

I shall try to show, first, not only that the play's imagery of various arts and skills points reflexively toward the art of the play itself, but also that this imagery demonstrates a principle of the artist's making use of other people, their arts or possessions, in order to “make.” I shall in addition look at several characters and scenes, considering the artists, their masks, their means and ends. Finally, I shall bring to bear on the play's concluding scene this complex of idea and image.

Metaphors of art, craftsmanship, and skill pervade the play. Especially suggestive are images of architecture and music, both of which are related to the ideas of poetry and rhetoric.4 As it occurs in the last act, the word “art” denotes “skill,” and is in addition associated with a tonsorial image of ornamentation. Lussurioso, complaining about a comet's sudden appearance, cites authority for his fears:

But yet they say, whom art and learning weds,
When stars wear locks, they threaten great men's

The authorities would seem to be practitioners of the science of astrology. Evidently they gain power through their art, their very predictions causing the new-made Duke to tremble. Lussurioso's words are ironic, however, for it is only the words of authority which affect him: it may be that the “art” referred to is, not the science of astrology, but the art of rhetoric, and that the power is of language per se. One of the play's central ironies derives from this question of the “maker's” power and force, virtù as sheer thrust rather than virtuousness. The sententious statement about comets' “locks,” as a tool of the rhetorician, indicates, like the other sententiae abounding throughout the play, the practice of an art.

Not only do images of art and skill stand against images of corruption, perversion of values, and decay; the dialectic of decay and vitality becomes a seemingly universal principle in the play. The living Gloriana, though a type of heavenly beauty, generated in men the sin of lust (I.i.23-25). Her vitality caused corruption. If beauty can cause vice, however, the horror in her play, the terror generated, produces virtue: the skull bears “an eye / Able to tempt a great man—to serve God” (III.v.54-55). The memento mori and the tragic action are allied in theory, in that both serve to generate goodness out of a vision of terror. Just as Vindice maintains a double image of women in his mind throughout the play—the ideal and the “real”—he and others demonstrate opposed conceptions of tragedy. On the one hand is the principle of pleasure, divorced from other motives: “When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good” (III.v.205). Lussurioso expects “delight” in his masque—“We are for pleasure” (V.iii.13). Opposed to the pleasure principle is the functional one, allied throughout to the Horatian idea of utile, this idea of teaching or “moving” to virtuous action sometimes approaching what appears to be an Aristotelian principle of purgation.6

The terrorizing of Gratiana is, like the horror in tragedy, purgative. Vindice speaks to his dagger: “Nay, and you draw tears once, go you to bed.” Gratiana's tears are “a sweet shower, it does much good” (IV.iv.42, 46). It would be a satisfactory end of tragedy should the dialectic of vitality and corruption operate toward healing the world's illness. But the action of the play demonstrates that while beauty may breed vice and terror virtue, such easy inversions are no certain basis for action, since corruption breeds corruption. Vicious acts produce more vicious acts; decay seems universal. The fevered vitality produces no lasting good beyond itself, being only in itself a sure demonstration of power and creativity.

Traditional images of art objects, artifacts, and embellishments point up the power of the virtuoso performer, who may destroy others' art in creating his own. In his lament that Gloriana's skull is an “accursed palace” (I.i.30), Vindice secularizes the Pauline asseveration to the Corinthians that the body is a “temple of the Holy Ghost” (I Cor. 6:19). Antonio reiterates this architectural motif in reference to his dead wife, who was, like Vindice's mistress, “falsely undermined” by an agent of vice. Antonio's image of the “fair, comely building newly fall'n” (I.iv.2), echoed by Hippolito's “ruins of so fair a monument” (I.iv.67), suggests the fragility and vulnerability in this debased, iron age of even God's handiwork. Castiza, ostensibly the sole living example of absolute female virtue, sees her own “virgin” honor as a “crystal tower” (IV.iv.152), weak and open to attack by viciousness. All these images are of a static, immobile work of art which can exist only apart from or protected against the assaults of such agents as the Duke, the Duchess's youngest son, and Lussurioso.

The power to “build,” however, lies in the virtù of the aggressors: Lussurioso can “advance” Vindice, having the skill and means to “rear up towers from cottages” (IV.i.53). The villains, indeed, are creators and builders, who would “raise” their estates upon the woman's beauty, as does Vindice in his imagination (II.i.95). T. B. Tomlinson remarks the “dominating impression” in this imagery of “an intense poetic energy feeding on and drawing substance from specifically identified sins of lust and policy” (p. 119). In stressing the idea that “life and energy” are released in such activities, he implies a connection of the architectural images with other art imagery. The energy becomes, he observes, “life and activity” in Tourneur's poetry, “converting the horror of situation into poetry of imaginative possibility” (pp. 120-21). To see this principle of conversion in the playwright I adopt the fanciful and playful view, not alien to such propensities in the Renaissance, I think, that he is dramatizing himself as playmaker, observing himself sub specie aeternitatis in a chain of “creators” that stretches from the Youngest Son to God. Vindice's fecund imagination reveals that both the sense of evil and the vitality and poetry are in Vindice himself, and his architectural metaphor, extended in self-delight, reinforces the idea of poesis in the play. The “makers” in the play, creating temples of their own delight, have ulterior motives—ulterior in the paradoxical sense of higher or lower—but their true delight is in the art itself. Hence Vindice's building metaphor is reflexive, the ostensible object—convincing his mother to pander her own daughter—being a spurious end while the immediate object is momentary delight in the metaphor itself. Vindice's “true” motive, of course, is that his highly refined rhetorical powers should prove themselves ineffectual, that in the very act of persuasion he should reveal himself powerless to move Gratiana. And this motive is self-contradictory, for he never exercises self-depreciation, demonstrating on the contrary a vigorous remonstrance against the forces of decay and impotence.

The metaphors of art, then, underline those chief arts practiced in the play: rhetoric and drama. Although in the Renaissance distinctions between poetry and rhetoric are possible, the practical functions of these arts are the same. They can be opposed to logic in that they aim at a more casual audience and make use of “colors,” or figures, in order to persuade. Poetry, drama, and rhetoric are alike, too, in being functional only insofar as they serve society, thus becoming highly important to the political world. But they are, like logic, a means of pursuing knowledge. On this ground poetry and rhetoric become thematic in The Revenger's Tragedy, as well as providing the dynamics of action. They establish a poetic framework for exploring metaphysical, epistemological, psychological, and political reality.

Serviceableness to society, the only official defense of poetry allowable, becomes in this play the issue in a logical proposition. The play's major premise is the thoroughly corrupt world, and its minor premise the activity of the artist in that milieu. In a world irremediably corrupted, action cannot be judged by consequences. This presupposition produces the play's thick and pungent ironies, readily observable.7 Neither can morality and goodness—virtuous intentions—be relied upon. Human personality and good intentions being questionable, and consequences of actions producing nothing more certain than ironic reversals, virtue being inconstant and vice growing admirable for its constancy, the world is topsy turvy and knowledge of it inconclusive.

What place, then, for the poet in it? If he conforms to the prevailing justifications of his craft, he at best can only watch his valuable lessons turned to bad ends (as Gosson grants the playwrights their good intentions while condemning the bad consequences of their craft), and he at worst must come to doubt his own good motives. One solution is to withdraw from the world, to practice a cloistered virtue—the way Castiza evidently approves. But hers is not the only way. Another is to make use of the world's activity, to grow through practice of the poet's craft, to turn that world to one's self, to transform it through an imitation of God and nature. The play's deepest paradox may be that in the poet's egotism he performs the ultimate act of piety. In his accepting the criterion of self-satisfaction, his fulfillment transcends the world's dramatic irony and other men's enmity. He, godlike, makes use of the world's evil in creating out of its chaos order and meaning. And his art becomes thus a symbolic act of redemption.

Thus virtually all the characters in the play become artists, all practicing their art for some (usually perverse) end, most of them “building” upon another's art, and most demonstrating an irrepressible surge of will and energy which directs their attention toward fulfillment and delight in the performance itself.

The performance, to be sure, as poesis or rhetoric, gains the power to influence through the attractiveness of its embellishments—“colors” or figures. Castiza's rebuff of first Dondolo and immediately afterwards Piato, the disguised Vindice, is motivated not only by a sense of her own spiritual purity but also by a mistrust of elaboration, refinement, sophistication, craftiness, and deception—no less the adornments of the court than its unmitigated vices. When Dondolo exploits metonymy—instead of saying that someone wishes to speak with her, he uses the terms “mouth to mouth” and “show his teeth”—Castiza responds, “Why, say so, madman, and cut off a great deal of dirty way; had it not been better spoke in ordinary words?” (II.i.17-19) As spokesman for simple, unadorned virtue, Castiza approves the plain style. She would agree with George Herbert, who in “Jordan I” defends himself as poet of the plain style:

          Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,
          Who plainly say, My God, My King.

In objecting to the craft of Dondolo's rhetoric Castiza shows only disdain. But her reaction to Piato is more dramatic and violent—and at the same time more adulterate. Upon his identifying Lussurioso as petitioner for her favors, she “boxes” his ear and declares:

I swore I'd put anger in my hand.
                                                            … Bear to him
That figure of my hate upon thy cheek.


She means by “figure” not only a mark, or sign, of refusal and hatred but also, still ruffled at Dondolo's verbal tricks, ironically that her “plain language” is not the usual figure of speech, but more honest and unequivocal. She would seem to be toying with the traditional comparison of the arts of logic and rhetoric to the closed and open fist.8 She disdains to use the open palm of the persuasive art, making use of the more powerful fist of logic. If she intends such an allusion, however, her sophistication belies the dramatic force of that spontaneous “cuff.”

She has opened the way, at any rate, for Vindice to pursue the irony, playing on the idea of a “cuff” as embellishment. He admires the blow as “the finest drawn-work cuff that e'er was worn” (II.i.42). A cuff may be mere embellishment, the “finest drawn-work,” and delightful for its own sake; or it may be functional—utilized to some end such as seduction. Piato has in greeting Castiza allowed both possibilities, wishing her “best of wishes”—“Fair skins and new gowns” (II.i.28). The gowns and their cuffs could be thought of as gifts bestowed to some ulterior purpose, or as simply possessions to be enjoyed in the wearing. In the play on “cuff” Vindice is suggesting that if bestowed properly by a lady it may have the rhetorical force that Castiza claims for her “figure” of logical proof. Her “logical” proof has moved him to passion and admiration—though not beyond his own inclination to respond in kind to her wit.

Castiza's subtlety here, compounded with her later feigned capitulation (which indeed seems feigned), makes her a potential artist among artists. To the degree that one cannot be sure of her immovable virtue, she, the play's single example of living purity, is indicted. If she has stooped to mortal wiles in order to preserve her immortal soul, she has only made use of vice in the cause of virtue. But if she tells the truth when she declares her intent to be as “lascivious” (IV.iv.109) as Gratiana could wish, and if she then lies when she says, “I did but this to try you” (IV.iv.148), then her retreat into virtue is somewhat less the result of her mother's artistry than was her march toward vice. As artisan working in marble, Gratiana, Castiza declares, has produced a solid, immobile statue of vice: “I am as [if] you e'en out of marble wrought.” But in addition to being Gratiana's work of art, Castiza is herself practicing craft. Even if her pretense is “but to try” Gratiana, she is nevertheless playing precisely Vindice's masking game—testing her mother, by assuming like Vindice a mask of vice, in order to prove her virtue. I find no way to determine the uncolored truth in Castiza's facile reversal. Read either way, she certainly betrays herself as another of the artists in the play. Perhaps as one of the many surrogates of the playwright, as microcosm of the poet who is in turn a microcosm of God the poet, she is the Tourneur who would retire from the “great deal of dirty way,” the court's circuitousness and intrigue, becoming artist of the pastoral. But as spokesman for the “plain” style she points up the fact that Tourneur's play demonstrates an antithetical ornateness and subtlety of thought.

Antonio's lady in dying practiced her craft to a specified end. Hippolito comments on the power of her native virtue to influence others: her “chaste presence”

Would e'en call shame up to their cheeks, and make
Pale wanton sinners have good colours.


Whether their “colours” are imaginatively the colors of rhetoric or the paints of the toilette, they are literally blushes of shame. The contrast seems, again, to be between her natural, simple, unadorned virtue and the sinners' need to conceal through art. But notice Antonio's description of the scene which he has “discovered” to Hippolito, Piero, and the Lords:

          Ant. I mark'd not this before—
A prayer-book the pillow to her cheek;
This was her rich confection, and another
Plac'd in her right hand, with a leaf tuck'd up,
Pointing to these words:
Melius virtute mori, quam per dedecus vivere.
True and effectual it is indeed.


Antonio's “I mark'd not this before” seems staged: since he is clearly concerned with the effects which this “tragedy” has on its audience, it seems possible that he rather than his wife may be the craftsman of these effects. But if the lady is artisan, she like Castiza, if truly virtuous, teaches the world its lesson through a rather self-dramatizing art. Antonio's observation of her “rich confection” emphasizes the ironic craftiness of a character seemingly innocent of calculated effects. Surely the Renaissance associations of art and embellishment attach to the word “confection” here, “this” referring either to the fact of the prayer-book arranged as pillow or to the previous “this” of “I mark'd not this before”—the entire dramatic tableau built upon the placement of two prayer-books. Thus Antonio's lady has dressed herself out in death to teach the moral of the Latin apothegm. Antonio interprets her intent as utilitarian and concludes that it is “effectual.” He applauds her drama. The visual tableau, then, becomes emblematic and hortatory, Antonio, and ostensibly his lady, engaging in rhetorical or dramatic persuasion for “noble” ends.

The play's “makers” or politicians assert something fanciful in their own nature, whether the ends they pursue are good or evil. No longer merely a religious figure or a political—the Machiavel—the medieval Vice now has become a persona of the poet as artist. In trying to save the Duchess's Youngest Son, his brothers Ambitioso and Supervacuo have become makers, “weaving” hate and love subtly together in falsely pleading for Lussurioso's life (II.iii.55ff.), though the Duke recognizes them beneath their art as “scarlet hid in lawn” (II.iii.105). Thinking their scheme against Lussurioso secure, the brothers applaud themselves: “Things fall out so fit … So happily” (III.iii.29-30). Their trick, in its superfluity, effects their brother's death rather than Lussurioso's—a consequence the brother anticipates: “Pox o' your trick, and it be so long a-playing” (III.iv.14). Their superfluity, like their younger brother's, and finally Vindice's, originates in delight in their own craft, or “tricks,” and in its audacity becomes instrumental toward the ironic consequences of their “playing.”

The Youngest Son's audacious charm cannot be read off as the seductiveness of evil; his most delightful quality, “impudence,” abounds in the play. Antonio, describing the masque-rape, identifies the Youngest Son's “true” mask as impudence, his “face more impudent than his vizard” (I.iv.41). It is this quality which Vindice condemns as “court virtue” at the moment he assumes his own mask of impudence:

Thou goddess of the palace, mistress of mistresses,
To whom the costly-perfum'd people pray,
Strike thou my forehead into dauntless marble,
Mine eyes to steady sapphires; turn my visage.


In assuming the mask of Piato, Vindice invokes the goddess Impudence, asking that he be transformed through her art. The images, suggesting permanence, ironically anticipate Castiza's use of them to describe her virtue. In a number of ways parallel, Vindice and the Youngest Son are the two most admirably impudent characters in the play, Supervacuo and Ambitioso being farcical imitations of their “marble” impudence. Vindice is lying, of course, when he accuses the honest Fourth Noble of “marble impudence” (V.iii.70), as is Lussurioso in accusing the equally honest First Noble of being an “impudent beggar” (V.i.126). Impudence, as performed in the play, is not merely brashness and egotism, although these qualities are important to it. Sidney might well be thinking of it when he talks about the Energia of the poet, identified by D. L. Clark as a traditional “vivifying quality of poetry” (p. 85). Impudence involves as well the game of deception, the impudent characters in the play assuming masks. The necessity of the mask is affirmed in Supervacuo's philosophy: he “that is least impudent, soonest dies” (III.iii.15). Supervacuo is making a pragmatic assumption about how to survive in a world of intrigue, but his statement suggests something about the psychological life of the artist. If he does not take to himself the world as he experiences it, transforming it into Energia through his “impudence,” he dies as artist. Thus the generation of the Youngest Son's masque, Vindice's Piato, and by analogy Tourneur's play.

The Youngest Son has been an artist in performing the rape not as a gross and violent act of raw lust, but as a formalized masque, anticipating the masques devised at the climax of the play's action. Antonio wittily recognizes both the literal fact of the masque-deception and its figurative value. “Violent rape,” he laments, “has play'd a glorious act” (I.iv.3-4). The irony in Antonio's pointing up the dramatic metaphor lies in the fact that Antonio himself is at the moment contriving his little tragedy. The Youngest Son, thoroughly depraved, marries his masque to its consequences. Total satisfaction is derived from the fusion of ends and means, masque transforming rape, and there is no suspicion of ulterior motives. (This distinction might be brought to bear, in the end, on those double masques which effect the last act's mass vengeance.) The Youngest Son, himself aware of the theatrical metaphor, in the word “sport” suggests both sexual play and theatrical performance. Not only is his “fault … sweet sport,” the world “approves” it; the full satisfaction of “play” or “performance” requires an audience's applause (III.iv.80). He has in his trial scene played with the word “die,” with the conventional pun on sex and death. The lady's beauty, “ordain'd to be” his “scaffold” (I.ii.64), is the thing upon which be “mounts” to death. But since a “scaffold” is also a stage, he not only links the ideas of sex and death, but sees both in terms of the theatrical metaphor:

And yet methinks I might be easier 'sess'd;
My fault being sport, let me but die in jest.


The Youngest Son's building his masque upon the lady's beauty anticipates, of course, Vindice's argument to his mother that he would “raise” his “state” upon her daughter's “breast” (II.i.95). What is built by the Youngest Son for pleasure, the dramatic experience, is transformed ultimately into death. Vindice's building comes to the same thing. If death is indeed a “leveller,” as Vindice well knows from the play's beginning, then his greatest need may be the same as the Youngest Son's: to marry means and ends, or to find satisfaction in the means so long as consequences are uncertain.

Vindice not only assumes the roles of revenger and rhetorician but also becomes, like Antonio, both director (or playwright) and actor (protagonist, sometimes chorus) in a play. Indeed, Vindice's opening soliloquy is a complaint about universal decay and spiritual corruption—lust, avarice, and injustice—as well as a set piece on power and impotence. But it is more. It is the assumption of a larger-than-life mask, which is rather self-consciously removed upon Hippolito's entrance. Certainly Hippolito's glib question is deflating: “Still sighing o'er death's vizard?” (I.i.50) And Vindice's response is a descent to familiarity:

                                                                                Brother, welcome;
What comfort bring'st thou? how go things at court?

And it is when Vindice is again exalted in a frenzy of playmaking that he declares his inability to descend to this level. At the “delectable, rare” moment when the skull is prepared to take the stage with the Duke, Vindice is “lost” in his “throng of happy apprehensions,” unable to descend to Hippolito (III.v.30).

His complaint in the opening soliloquy has been on the subject of virtù, at the same time that his poetic outburst has been a demonstration of self-generating virtù. The Duke's vice is not simply that he is lecherous, but that his lust is enshrined in an aged frame:

                                                                                O, that marrowless age
Would stuff the hollow bones with damn'd desires.


“Riot” and lechery are signs of perverse vitality in an old man. The skull, posed as antithesis to the Duke, evokes the image of beauty's power—which may be good in itself but evil in its effects, moving even “upright” men to lust. But the thing that should be young in the power of beauty, having lost that power, yet has virtù. As memento mori it moves Vindice, or is instrumental in his moving himself, to “good” actions. The duke, however, in his viciousness, has the same power, turning Vindice's “abused heartstrings into fret” (I.i.13). If the lady's skull is a “sallow picture” to move Vindice to tragic action, the opposed pageant of the Duke and his family stirs him to the eloquence of tragic music. In preparing himself in Act IV for his disguise as a rustic, he again will “tune” himself for the tragedy:

I'll bear me in some strain of melancholy,
And string myself with heavy-sounding wire.


The tragic action and music are fused in the play's final masque—which incorporates dramatic action and music.

Although in the opening soliloquy Vindice establishes the essential question of the functions, powers, and ends of art, he demonstrates in his underlying concern with power and impotence that his soliloquy is an activity whose purpose is to generate power. He installs the “art” objects—courtly procession as tableau, skull as “study's ornament”—in his own mind and then utilizes them to generate passion, to move himself toward action.

But if the function of the arts—visual, auditory, rhetorical, dramatic—is to produce finally some action like vengeance, the artificer's skills are practiced with exaggeration and their ultimate aims are obscured by his involvement in, and fascination with, the art itself. Vindice becomes self-delighting and his aim the pleasure of “creating” well. His finest hour comes with the “marriage” (a variation of the “union” achieved in the Youngest Son's masque) of the two images of vitality and impotence from the first soliloquy, decrepit Duke and revitalized Gloriana. Truly debased Machiavellianism—the Vice-Machiavel plotting not more toward sordid ends than for the delight in the scheme itself—produces Iagos and Volpones. Vindice counts himself among this troupe, when, anticipating the pleasure of the play he has written and now directs, casting the Duke and the skull as lovers, he exclaims, “O sweet, delectable, rare, happy, ravishing!” (III.v.1) When he has completed the play, and needs applause from Antonio, he confesses in modest understatement that the play was “somewhat witty carried” (V.iii.97). Vindice is proud of his virtù as artificer, confirming Hippolito's observation that their vengeance is “happy”:

                                                                                                    Why, it hits
Past the apprehension of indifferent wits.


Indeed, if the ultimate consequences of the dramatic craft can neither be assumed nor predicted, then the dramatist's end may become applause itself. The characteristic response to the play's abundant sententiae is “'Tis true.” Bradbrook imagines Vindice's response to Hippolito's “You flow well” as a turn to the outer audience for applause.9 It is not surprising, then, that Vindice interprets the ultimate audience as heaven: “When thunder claps, heaven likes the tragedy” (V.iii.47).

In bold outline the play's concluding scene rounds off the action by the murderer Vindice's being caught and sent off to punishment, order returning through Antonio's literal and symbolic assumption of control. Such is the standard conclusion in the morality-play tradition. But the skepticism and terror which imbue Jacobean tragedy provoke a comparison to a similar spirit being born in the end of the nineteenth century. Dramatic form is affected by that spirit in both ages, producing—not their traditionally neat resolution but through skepticism and burgeoning irony an open-ended conclusion. Both The Revenger's Tragedy and Ibsen's Ghosts dramatize a vision of the void. Mrs. Alving's discovery has been one of personal error as well as worth; her discovery shatters all her liberal complacencies, leaving her facing the abyss, and the necessity of action, when the final curtain falls. The final note of the play sounds the terrible irony of life. And although The Revenger's Tragedy ends “resolved,” the ironies echo to the last word; the “antilogies” are resolved only to the extent that the poet has found a tenuous meaning and value in himself.

Because of Vindice's self-delight he stands self-revealed in the final scene, ostensibly satisfying the demand of Christian ethics, which condemns such egotism. The consequences of his tragic play come together with those of Antonio's, and the catastrophe can be read in terms of those two characters as playwrights or directors as well as actors.

A practitioner of the dramatic and rhetorical arts, Antonio in I.iv has assayed roles as director, protagonist, and audience in his little tragedy. First assuming the role of audience in the final scene, he finds the general slaughter a “piteous tragedy,” moving him to tears of sympathy. Although he has appeared at the opportune moment to take control, he wears a mask of helplessness at the same time that he is effecting a resolution to the conflict. He wrongly identifies the Fourth Noble as a murderer, is led by Vindice to assurance of the Noble's guilt, and finally sends him off to execution. While Vindice and Hippolito flatter him, he modestly accepts the responsibility of rule, remarking ingenuously:

But, of all things, it puts me most to wonder
How the old duke came murder'd.


Although Vindice seemingly tries to put him off that track with the remonstrance, “O, my lord,” he persists, leading Vindice to self-revelation. And he loses no time, having elicited the confession, in taking over as director of the larger play, transforming Vindice into tragic hero. His order, “Bear 'em to speedy execution” (V.iii.102), echoes Lussurioso's earlier command, “Bear him straight / To execution” (V.i.127-28). Lussurioso has falsely ordered the First Noble's death, with Vindice's approbation: “You've sentenc'd well”—punning on “sentence” as just condemation and as effective rhetoric. Vindice in that scene, of course, ironically anticipates his own sentence, observing aside that the Noble's confession is self-condemnation: “Who would not lie, when men are hang'd for truth?” (V.i.132) Since Vindice's telling the truth is the cause of his own “hanging,” the parallel situations point up the fact that Antonio is not only in error in sentencing the Fourth Noble but also unjust—or at least rash—in condemning Vindice. Vindice's “excuse,” “Was't not for your good, my lord?” (V.iii.103) moves Antonio only to indignation. Antonio's sympathy for the Duke, “such an old man as he,” rings as false as the Duke's earlier rationale for granting mercy to Lussurioso. And his resort to the aphoristic “You that would murder him would murder me,” sounds like politic rhetoric. It is ironic that the crime for which Vindice is executed may be the single directly justifiable act of revenge in the play. For the Duke's murdering Gloriana, Vindice murders the Duke. Furthermore, the crime for which Antonio condemns Vindice and Hippolito exactly parallels Antonio's attempted vengeance. Although his action has not resulted in such an eye for an eye, he has generated a comparable action in “moving” Hippolito and the Lords. Antonio knows in I.iv that “favor” will save the rapist, and he watches with satisfaction his “audience's” oath to take revenge into their own hands.

Since in the final scene Vindice and Hippolito seem sincere in supporting his authority, Vindice having too confidently reassumed his mask of innocence, Antonio appears all too eager to dispose of them, one of them having been sought out in the beginning as accomplice. Antonio's true motives cannot be proved. But it is entirely possible to read his taking control, becoming “director,” as merely the happy fulfillment of his intentions in at first leaguing with Hippolito. Seen this way, he ends the play on an ironic note. Ordering the “tragic bodies” taken away, he reiterates his belief in the function of tragedy: “Pray Heaven their blood may wash away all treason.” In the literal sense, his wish would seem to be that there are no more ambitious men alive to shake his power. But as a tragic drama, their deaths, including Vindice's and Hippolito's, would teach, persuade, the “audience,” including anyone who might bear seeds of political ambition, that they should practice a discreet renunciation. In an extended Aristotelian sense, of course, their “blood” would become functional in ritual purgation of the body politic, a meaning that Antonio seems not to intend but that would be suggestive toward reading his play as ritualized and symbolically curative. Antonio's statement, “How subtilly was that murder clos'd,” is thoroughly ambiguous, leaving his character still masked. The remark seems naive wonderment about the ways of evil men—“How cunningly those murderers concealed their actions,” or “How crafty Vindice is!” But if there is a note of “admiration” in the word “subtly,” the statement could be reflexive, Antonio's admiring his own skill as director of the tragedy—“How skillfully did I bring this thing to a close,” or “How ingeniously did I resolve the action.” Since neither reading precludes the other, Antonio remains the perfect masquer, seemingly the only intriguer who remains disguised—assuming that Castiza revealed herself truly with “I did but this to try you” (IV.iv.148).

Yet Antonio's is not the ultimate mask. Vindice's catastrophe, the reversal of his fortune, which he recognizes (“Is't come about?”), remains a final affirmation about art and admiration for the artist figure. The artists in the play, conspicuously the Youngest Son, may be evil, but they are possessed by an undeniable vitality and creativity that give them a strange attractiveness. The impossibility of evaluating the consequences or judging the motives of their creativity, the essential post-lapsarian condition, leaves certain only the admirable impulse to create. Only self-knowledge is possible, and tenuous even a grasp of that. Though the artist's virtù may be corrupt in a corrupt world, perverted by the very ends that belie its virtue, in itself it is man's glory. The artist figures become, in a sense, allegorical: not different figures, merely, standing for the same or different vices. They all may share the root vice of destructiveness—lust, ambition, revenge; all prey, and in feeding destroy. But insofar as artists reflect the joy—the pride, self-fulfillment, even “impudence”—in creation, they come to symbolize the poet-playwright himself.

Vindice is “saved,” then, in the final scene. Far from affirming a simple just resolution, the catastrophe re-affirms Vindice's virtù. His tragic “reversal” is truly ironic, for he has brought about his own downfall. Not only in standing self-revealed because of his desire for applause is he destroyed. His motive from the beginning has been through peril to test the world in order to discover some principle of goodness remaining—and he is satisifed on that count: “Our mother turn'd, our sister true” (V.iii.124). His need to try the world is the result of his sense of discrepancy between the corrupt world—epitomized in the court which “rapes” nature (II.i.215ff.)—and the pastoral, or past, ideal world. The long-dead Gloriana symbolizes that innocent world and its destruction by the “decayed” world. Vindice's role as bumpkin is a mask of a true inner self, the Arcadian Vindice who speaks a rustic tongue—“How don you? God you god den” (IV.ii.43)—and has been killed by sophistication. Vindice's “covetousness” to “know the villain” Piato (IV.ii.128) points up his need to rediscover his innocent self through knowledge of his “villain” self. And his hope in the final scene that Antonio will “make the silver age again” (V.iii.86) seems a last breaking forth of the innocent, even naive, Vindice, still longing for, if not the golden, at least the silver age. But the Vindice who can die well, “set as well as the duke's son” (V.iii.107), is the impudent artist who but for his own fault might have succeeded entirely and “the world died an ass.” He goes further than the Machiavel who claims credit for his craft (“This work was ours” [V.iii.120]). He recognizes that his fall has been the result of his innocence, his not “knowing” Antonio. Ironically, considering himself the chief artist, the most knowing manipulator, he has fallen victim to a superior masquer, who at least thinks he knows the villainous Vindice as an absolute politician and murderer. Wit and sophistication are necessary for action in a decadent world. The very innocent self which Vindice is trying to save causes his fall.

If Vindice's impudence is a great part of his attractiveness, and if his role-playing explores these dimensions of the self, then play (masque, tragedy, intrigue) becomes a means of self-discovery through knowledge of others, by absorbing and transforming them through art. Vindice's statement, “I think man's happiest when he forgets himself” (IV.iv.84), is reflexive, pointing toward his reassumption of his mask—forgetting “himself,” but toward pleasure, “self”-satisfaction, an actor's fulfillment. It is a comment by an artist quizzically observing the frailty of his own nature in the flux of events. Confronting his mother, who impudently denies that she is a bawd, he is “in doubt whether I'm myself, or no” (IV.iv.24). By revealing himself, he elicits Gratiana's praise for his rhetorical power: “No tongue but yours could have bewitch'd me so”; and his rhetoric flows on, unimpeded by Gratiana's regeneration, until Hippolito must remind him, “O brother, you forget our business” (IV.iv.82). Although he is made to “remember” “himself,” that self is not reduced to a single conscience: he is no more simply regenerated than is he simply damned. Especially revealing is his response to his mother's praise of Piato:

Grat. I'll give you this, that one I never knew
          Plead better for, and 'gainst, the devil than you.
Vind. You make me proud on 't.


Vindice is not finished with his masks, and he is pleased to have his mother applaud one of them—to be sure, the mask of the “knave.” His pride, his happiness, is that of the artist who has “lost” himself in the mask he has created, albeit a grotesque and wicked one, but who paradoxically “finds” himself through it.

Rather than being at last repudiated, Vindice's impudence finally wins, for though Antonio assumes power and control over his life, Vindice maintains, “saves,” the mask of Piato. Vindice is both using the mask of the villain and protecting it. He likes it. As a mask of the knave it makes the artist corrupt, and accepting it is a bold affirmation that the Puritan's view of the poet is right. But in keeping it, Vindice sustains its virtú; Piato can still speak to pronounce a “sentence” on Vindice: “Time will make the murderer bring forth himself” (V.iii.116). Reciprocally “judging” Piato, Vindice does not unmask him: “'Tis well he died, he was a witch.” The too-innocent Vindice may betray himself in trusting the grandfatherly mask of Antonio, but if the morally ambivalent Vindice and the thoroughly wicked Piato have to die with him they yet have power and skill and wit to save themselves from “self-discovery.” The approval of Piato's death is a private joke among Vindice, Hippolito, and the outer audience, “fooling” Antonio and the stage audience: for the point is that Vindice sanctions his own forthcoming death. The judgment that Piato was a witch—a foreteller of coming events—is a reaffirmation of that part of Vindice which has been of superior intelligence, knowledge, sophistication, and craft. Quoting Piato is, of course, the artist's ultimate “building” upon, deriving from, others, for it is not Piato who has spoken that line earlier. Vindice has taken it from the Third Noble (V.i.156-57) and given it to Piato. The artist, then, has saved himself, all three masks, for good or evil, by transforming fact into fiction. Piato's stolen pronouncement is the perfect ironic conclusion to round off the tragic action. It is Vindice's means to self-fulfillment and self-dramatization. And it is reflexive, the playwright's fig to the Gossons and even the Sidneys who would, whatever their motives, force poetry into narrow social uses.

The Revenger's Tragedy refuses simple and complacent answers to questions of morality and value. The poet as egoist—be he Vindice or Tourneur—lives more vitally and dangerously than the poet as social servant. And his world is far more complex and challenging than it would be if he could reduce it neatly to a set of aphorisms. The real dilemma for this poet is not whether to succumb to the world's evils or to withdraw into an Epicurean garden. His alternatives must be stated in terms of his own sense of the world's attractiveness and repulsiveness. Clearly this playwright finds the challenge of the court—its sophistication, its intellectual playfulness, its opportunity for discovery of the self through the world's games, its love of ornaments, finery, and show—as attractive as he finds hateful its mutability, perversion of values, and dehumanizing drives. The play is reflexive in that its very fiber embodies these antitheses. A highly stylized, ornate, intricate play both in action and language, it would seem to negate those very qualities along with all other sophistications of its wicked world. But its rhetorical power—even too powerfully to persuade readers, as it has done, of the world's decay—is more than a “dance of death”;10 it is a demonstration of sheer power which seems to have a simple moral end only when limited to an abstracted statement. When in its fullness it is apprehended, its intellectual and verbal virtù becomes an affirmation of life and art in the face of death and annihilation.


  1. Most readings of the play see it in terms of Christian ethics, for instance those of L. G. Salingar, “The Revenger's Tragedy and the Morality Tradition,” Scrutiny, 6 (1938), 402-24; Irving Ribner, Jacobean Tragedy: The Quest for Moral Order (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1962); B. J. Layman, “Tourneur's Artificial Noon: The Design of The Revenger's Tragedy,MLQ, 34 (1973), 20-35; Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1960); and T. B. Tomlinson, A Study of Elizabethan and Jacobean Tragedy (Cambridge: Melbourne University Press, 1964).

  2. The Rhetoric of Tragedy: Form in Stuart Drama (The University of Massachusetts Press, 1960). McDonald traces from the late fifth-century Dissoi Logoi the principle of opposition which he terms “antilogistic” (pp. 10 ff.).

  3. E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), has characterized the topos. Thomas B. Stroup, Microcosmos: The Shape of the Elizabethan Play (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965), pp. 8 ff., traces the pervasive stage metaphor in Renaissance thought. Jackson I. Cope, The Theater and the Dream: From Metaphor to Form in Renaissance Drama (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), authoritatively explores this metaphor, its origins and fulfillment, in Renaissance drama. Remarking “the inspired sophistication of the self-conscious drama of the Renaissance,” Cope finds the Renaissance play “a little world which both boasts and mocks aesthetic objectivity as it incorporates the theatrum mundi into itself upon its own terms” (p. 13). Although neither Stroup nor Cope explores the play, Cope makes the valuable observation that in it “death takes on movement and animation which merge with life itself” (p. 4).

  4. Frances Yates, Theatre of the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), observes the easy equations of theater, architecture, and music in the Renaissance. This tendency, she speculates, may explain Robert Fludd's omitting architecture from his “technical history” of the world: “The answer may perhaps be suggested that the Temple of Music [Fludd's illustration for his section on music] represents architecture, represents music as architecture. All the Renaissance theorists emphasize the connection, indeed the identity, of musical proportion and architectural proportion” (p. 58).

  5. I cite the play from the Revels Plays text, ed. R. A. Foakes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), V.iii.22-23.

  6. D. L. Clark, Rhetoric and Poetry in the Renaissance (New York: Russell and Russell, Inc., 1963), finds “the Aristotelianism of the Italian renaissance” making “its first appearance in English criticism” in Sidney's Defense (p. 83). But although a “hedonistic view of poetry,” the theory allows a utilitarian interpretation. In his idea of catharsis, Clark suggests, Aristotle “had in mind an analogy with medicine.” In the Politics Aristotle “describes the beneficial effect of music on patients suffering from religious ecstasy” (pp. 108-09). Thus what might be taken as a completely hedonistic activity comes to have social value, “profit,” as a healing agent.

  7. Critics have pursued the dimensions of irony in the play, Peter Lisca's analysis being perhaps the fullest discussion: “The Revenger's Tragedy: A Study in Irony,” PQ, 38 (1959), 242-51.

  8. Wilbur S. Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (New York: Russell and Russell, 1961), observes that “over and over again in logical and rhetorical treatises of the English Renaissance, logic is compared to the closed fist and rhetoric to the open hand, this metaphor being borrowed from Zeno through Cicero and Quintilian to explain the preoccupation of logic with the tight discourses of the philosopher, and the preoccupation of rhetoric with the more open discourses of orator and popularizer” (p. 4).

  9. M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge: University Press, 1964), p. 173.

  10. See Samuel Schoenbaum, “The Revenger's Tragedy: Jacobean Dance of Death,” MLQ, 15 (1954), 201-07.

R. J. Kaufmann (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Theodicy, Tragedy, and the Psalmist: Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy,” in Drama in the Renaissance: Comparative and Critical Essays, edited by Clifford Davidson, C. J. Gianakaris and John H. Stroupe, AMS Press, 1986, pp. 192-215.

[In the following excerpt, Kaufmann sees The Atheist's Tragedy, like many Jacobean tragedies, as being both subversive and orthodox, as it dramatizes the point of tension in the ethical system it explores. He argues too that the work is a theological play, a dramatization of the 127th Psalm, and a critique of the notion that humans, and not God, are in control of their fate and in a position to mete out justice in the world.]

Evil and good stand thick around
In the fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvests in.

Edwin Muir

What can be said
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic.

Philip Larkin

Despite the journalists' banal breviary of daily violence, we know very little about the process and structure of evil. Routine information about daily transgressions, stale registers of corruption and titillating intimations of malevolence accumulate steadily but add up to less than nothing. They are a seawall blocking moral explorations as well as a protective barrier allowing us to harbor unproductive illusions about our relation to the larger, less charted state of things. If we have the courage to cherish the fragile occasions of smaller, domesticated happinesses, we will not undervalue such a seawall. Human beings seem to require fairly calm waters to preserve ordinary equilibrium; those deeps beyond the seawalls threaten, with strange analogies, our own inner turbulence. It is as easy to undervalue reason as it is to overvalue it. The moral area between these two modes of misvaluation is tightly squeezed by their converging claims. There is little room for a poised life which is not at the same time an ignorant one.

Tragic enquiry is easily discussed in terms of its centrifugal movement. Standard critical rhetoric assumes the exclusive initiative of the hero. If all tragic literature were the “matter of Ahab” which sees the tragic hero as a serendipitous being tracking his enemy beyond the edge of all ideological maps, this romantic variant would be as sufficient for tragic theory as it is relieving to our mundane frustrations. The harsh persistence of Oedipus, the intellectual stamina of Hamlet, the uncheckable erotic drives of Phaedra, or the absolute imprudence of Medea would constitute the whole story. But they do not. It is important to take some trouble to discover just why they do not.


Let Marlowe stand momentarily as an abbreviated instance. Nineteenth-century romantic critics, when they rediscovered Marlowe, quickly enshrined him and his heroes (whom they saw as unambiguous projections of his thrusting ego) as the archetype of rebellious resistance to all that compromised pure individualism. He became a symbol of daring intellectual defiance and of all those things which swelled their connotations for “renaissance man.” This position has been canonized by repetition and reinforced by intelligent critics right down to the present moment. This belief in heroic initiative as the prime motor in Marlowe has not gone unchallenged. Since Roy Battenhouse's book on Tamburlaine in 1941, there has been an ever more fully documented counter-case drawing Marlowe's plays into the tradition of Medieval Christian Humanism or even more narrowly into an anti-humanistic Christian theological connection. This interpretive posture finds its orthodox fulfillment in Douglas Cole's study of Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe in 1962, just as the earlier more romanticized reading reached its summit of sophistication in Harry Levin's The Overreacher a decade earlier in 1952. This polarization is familiar to students of Renaissance drama. Irving Ribner, in his careful appraisal of the state of Marlowe studies for the Tulane Drama Review's special issue in honor of the 400th anniversary of Marlowe's birth, described this radical division of opinion on Marlowe's attitude towards his materials as

a state of confusion, with some critics seeing Marlowe in terms so radically different from those in which others view him that it is difficult to believe that all are writing about the same man.1

Ribner's point is well made, but it does not get deep enough into the problem, for the conservative, theologically affiliated critics are merely standing the romantic position on its head. Their work is polemic and revisionist; it challenges the adequacy of the romantic reading by exposing its historical naiveté and by demonstrating the presence within Marlowe's texts of elements invisible to romantic critics blinded by their ideological presuppositions. The conservative critics are, nevertheless, bound by the same axioms about the hero's absolute centrality. They recast the hero as a minatory example of presumption, and the process of the play as ideologically repressive rather than subversive, but their method still centers on judgments of the precise moral import of the hero's initiative. There is no theoretical enlargement of the aesthetic or modal issues. Both positions, when developed by their most talented proponents, betray symptoms of chafing under theoretical constraint. On both sides there is concessive talk of “ironic undertones,” “modifying ambiguities of tone,” etc. These concessions function like the epicycular hypotheses of late medieval astronomers struggling to preserve the Ptolemaic cosmology against the slow accumulation of contradictory empirical evidence.

I would like to argue that this problem is eased if we enlarge our assumptions to include a subset of tragic dramas which are deformed in a particular way by the inertial demands of reason, as reason has been defined in any given anterior historical system. In tragic dramas of this sort the protagonist is both enlarged and belittled by the framing theoretical assumptions. These assumptions are clearly too narrow to contain his spirit, but, equally, he is not invested with enough axiologically independent initiative to shatter the frame. Thus the protagonist of such plays is not vindicated by his choices. At the same time, the “editorial” ideology of the play is not confident enough to eliminate the subversive effects of the protagonist's nontraditional selfhood as this is demonstrated within the process of the play. There are numerous examples of this type of play in English Renaissance drama, and they are often tonally the most perplexing to critics. These plays can be differentiated according to their shadings of sympathy for the protagonist, but they are radically of a type. Traditionally they are classified—uneasily—as “dark” comedies or “imperfect” tragedies. Clearly the standard classificatory system is so narrow and rigid, that no one is really satisfied. Some examples of these plays with antinomic protagonists are: Volpone; The Jew of Malta; Timon of Athens; Tamburlaine considered as ten act unit; The Atheist's Tragedy; and The Dutch Courtesan. Other plays might be added, but the list is long enough if the case can be made; if it can not, then additional examples would be superfluous.

To do justice to the historical register of tragic enquiry, we must abandon stiff, normative definitions of the tragic. Tragedy as a category is best seen in terms of a Wittgensteinian “family of resemblances,” wherein the possession of some combination of the familial attributes qualifies a play for membership in the class. Individual plays can differ so much from each other that only their restoration to the larger definitional harmony of the “family” can validate their affinity. The Wittgensteinian theory of definition does not stretch the category, “tragedy,” into meaningless looseness, since there are crucial attributes as in any familial grouping, but it does prevent the tiresome error of arguing from a magisterial (or patriarchal) example to which all aspirants to inclusion must be made narrowly to conform.

Rigid, normative definitions of tragedy can stand in the way of critical clarity. Tragedy is a mode not a format. It is an address toward motive, providing a means of evaluating the consequences of choices which deflect moral responses outside traditional grooves of judgment. The accepted logic of a culture in important ethical matters can become an illusory structure which dupes instinct and makes unwonted forms of energetic initiative automatically repellent. Tragedy is a device for rousing thoughtful attention to novel increments of behavior that have been rejected or classified thoughtlessly. A tragedy can function as a critique of passivity; it can also function in a converse manner as a critique of ill-judged activisms which threaten an ideologically anchored passivity. Since the Book of Job, the dramatic form has been useful in providing this kind of laboratory for ethical reappraisals. Job is both right and wrong in his view of himself. He is not “wrong” as compared to his shallow, reflexive “comforters,” but, structurally, he is “wrong” in supposing he has any means to evaluate God's motives or intentions. We are required to grasp both these qualitative relationships in a new light in order to “understand” the explanatory force of Job. Tragedy is a means of Re-Cognition, wherein a larger circumference of experience is used as our contextual frame, when we “think” the hero and what his agon connotes.

What I am talking about is similar to but still crucially distinct from the problem of “tainted heroes” as this phrase is applied to Shakespeare's later protagonists. In these late plays Macbeth, Antony and Coriolanus purchase our respect through a tenacious truth to self. In their struggle with genuine and often formidable structures of authority, however aberrant their moral vision may be, they obstinately preserve their hold on one rigidly conceived aspect of their life. They are noble and fixated, imbued with folly by an irreversible commitment. In each of these plays, their energy steadily subsides, their freedom is progressively cribbed and confined. Each dies having lost his love of self and his love of life. The process of the play is the attrition of antecedent nobility. The plays I'm concerned with are quite different.

These plays display aberrant energy in forms of social activism which bears no general endorsement. The hero is an outcast or intruder, a parvenu, an immoral opportunist, or culturally ineducable. He has more energy than anyone else in the play. In Tamburlaine, which is a simplistic paradigm of the mode, the earlier sections of the play are devised to show almost allegorically what a state of “maimed empery” (in Marlowe's phrase) or, in more modern terms, what a power vacuum exists. The typical world confronting the protagonist of these plays is dispirited, slack, cynical or directionless. The feeble Mycetes, whose pathetical simulations of authority in Tamburlaine always end with a question, is the satiric embodiment of this state of affairs. Where the normative characters opposing the hero are not ridiculous or faint nullities, they are often committed to an ethic of repression or to a quite abstract idealism. Whichever way the received morality is depicted in these plays there is a sense of exhausted sanctions.

In Measure for Measure, which is a comedic variant of the form, Vincentio has failed to embody authority convincingly with the result that disorder reigns; his self-transformation eventually effects a cure, but though he is hygenically admirable, he smacks of moral contrivance; so the process of reëducation and moral rehabilitation of the world of Vienna remains too schoolmarmish to satisfy us that Lucio, for example—so tonically amoral—is wholly to be despised, despite the clearest possible structural cues directing that judgment. Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois likewise divides our sympathies and our judgment. Bussy is egotistical to the point of silliness, his braggadocio and thin-skinned vanity stand directly in the path of our solicited admiration for his virility and his courageous exposure of the snobbish pretensions of the unsatisfactory courtier world he sets out to conquer. We want to approve of him more than we can. Volpone and Mosca, on the other hand, provoke more admiration than we can readily justify and no amount of careful scholarly reconstruction of their cupiditas suffices to annul our gratitude for their sheer joy in activity in a world otherwise as stagnant as the Venetian canals which are the literal and symbolic setting for their enterprise. Marston's Dutch Courtesan (unquestionably his most vibrant play) has an infra-structure in which the expression of positive sexual energy seems preferable to any other mode of existence—and this despite the editorial elements of the play which deliberately contradict this sensation.

The common denominator of this group of plays is a final irreconcilability between the activated energies they dramatize and the playwright's capacities for disciplining this released energy in an authoritative manner. There is a noticeable hiatus between his overt moral intentions and his covert sympathy for these agents whose activities are ideologically reprehensible. The ethical frame does not really cage the aberrant protagonist's energies. Hence these plays are at one and the same time subversive and orthodox. They dramatize points of stress in the ethical system, issues on which the engines of doubt are being brought to bear. It is in this light that we should look at Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy. In the end, D'Amville's “voice” lingers in our minds even though he has been “proved” wrong. Historically speaking, the play is an act of exorcism rather than effective refutation, and its dramaturgical stress pattern is most readily explained when we operate from these assumptions in interpreting it.

By this definitional procedure, tragic dramas in which the classic distribution of sympathies is disturbed: by farcical counter-currents, as in The Jew of Malta; or where compassion is extruded and hence lost, as in Timon of Athens; or where theological anxiety leads to excessive reinforcement of the play's ideology and consequently to a kind of emblematic literalism as in The Atheist's Tragedy, need not be patronized as false instances of the tragic. They can be seen instead as members of the tragic family under the forms of stress peculiar to that family. A just apprehension of the distinguishing traits of that family derives in part from a sense of the family's stress pattern. Neurotic fears can be manifested in the structure of a play as well as in its content. No slippery depth analysis of Cyril Tourneur is required to suppose that (if he is the author both of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy) the excited fascination he seems to feel for evil in the former play, might well be countered therapeutically by the punitive binding of D'Amville's ideologically provocative arguments in the latter play. The excessive weight of these needed reinforcements in The Atheist's Tragedy partially deforms the tragic structure, partially cripples and de-sophisticates his art, just as obsessions deform the psychic economy of the individual.

We can designate this subset of tragic dramas “Dramas of Ethical Display” so as to direct critical attention towards the qualitative frame in which the protagonist is placed, and less towards “protagonal biography,” in its opposing forms of romantic Prometheanism or disciplinary, negative exempla. These “Display” plays have heroes who, while stimulating fascination with the outre and larger-than-life, are not fully humanized. But, it is inaccurate to think of them as allegorical. Allegory does not require such detailed identification of the agent it seeks to reprehend. These “Display” protagonists are specimens whose proper dramatic identification obliges the playwright to draw upon many defining analogues, including evocations of allegorical prototypes from the cultural repertoire accessible to the playwright and his audience. However, these traditional analogues function much like the mutually qualifying metaphors of a good lyric poem, so that we are being historically retrograde if we label as “allegory” these dramatic efforts to identify novel refractions of human energy, and thus to augment an inadequate traditional typology. The drama of ethical display is not a mechanical application of canonized typological similes. They have to do with what is troublingly new.


Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy is an explicit dramatical projection of the themes of the 127th Psalm, “Nisi Dominus, nothing can be done without God's grace,” and a Calvinist reading at that. The correlation is detailed, so that the imagery and governing ideas of The Atheist's Tragedy are brought into intimate dramatic conjunction.

In his Third Ennead, writing of Providence, Plotinus reminds us:

All is just and good in the Universe in which every actor is set in his own quite appropriate place. … What is evil in the single soul will stand a good thing in the universal system; what in the unit offends nature will serve nature in the total event—and still remain the weak and wrong tone it is, though its sounding takes nothing from the worth of the whole, just as, in another order of image, the executioner's ugly office does not mar the well-governed state: such an officer is a civic necessity; and the corresponding moral type is often serviceable; thus, even as things are, all is well.2

These calm, reliant words sum up well the substance of Tourneur's hopes. Some of the images are even specifically appropriate to his play. They put us firmly in touch with that theodiciacal tradition of high Christian thought running from Augustine, who imbibed here, through Calvin and Milton, to come seasonably to rest in Pope. Though the terms, being simple and essential, remain the same, the ease with which they are believed varies. The tone in Tourneur is urgent and to a degree fearful. His play is a careful construct to bind up and intensify conviction. That he partly fails in this is a direct outcome of his excessive concentration on making his case.

Tourneur evidently shared with Calvin a liking for one of the latter's favorite Psalms, the Auxilium Domini (No. 127, or No. 126 in the Vulgate). Its repertoire of subjects appeals to those devoted to a life of aggressive political stewardship under an authoritarian God:

Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.

What precisely Calvin has to say of this psalm could almost be inferred by a student of his theological position, but we will seek detailed evidence of his comment later.

Meanwhile let it be stated that this is a short psalm of only five verses, but in its brief compass it neatly incorporates: 1) a text for the doctrine of work; 2) a clear image of God's overlordship and Providence; 3) an assertion of the primary value of children; while 4) stressing their contingent derivation. Moreover, since among the central drives of post-Reformation life were the establishment of a house, the building of a family, and the fathering of a business house, and since all of these are readily fused in standard English usage, so that in the context of provident familial ambition, “house” and “family” mean the same thing, Psalm 127 provides a side-by-side association of two things that become one—the desire to build and the desire to have children, to found a house and to have a family. The theme of the Psalm in Elizabethan terms is “building a family,” and “Happy is the man,” the Psalmist assures us, “that hath his quiver full of them.” Tourneur's play it will be remembered is about the naturalist D'Amville who seeks to “found a house.” First, then, pertinent excerpts from Calvin's commentary on the 127th Psalm:

1. The initial precis made by Calvin:

The Conteyntes of the CXXVII Psalme

It sheweth that the order of the world, as well in publicke affaires as in household matters, standeth not by the pollicie, diligence, and forcast of men, but by the only blissing of God, and that issew of mankind is his singular gift.

(p. 204, column 1)

2. The significance of house:

By the woord house hee not onely betokeneth a building of timber or stone: but also coprehendeth the whole order of householding: like as a little after, by the woorde citie hee betokeneth, not onely the building or compasse of the walles, but the general state of the whole comon weale. And in the words [builder and keeper,] there is the figure Sinecdoche.

(p. 204, columns 1 & 2)

3. On the Fathering of Children:

The most part of men dreameth, that after God had once ordeyned it at the beginning, from thence foorth children are bred and borne by the secret instinct of nature, and God dooth nothing unto it: yea and even they that be indewed with some feeling of godliness: although they denye not that God is the father and fownder of mankynd: yit acknowledge they not that his providence descendeth too this peculiare charge, but rather thinke that men are begotten by a certeyne universall motion.

(p. 205, column 4)3

These bear with exact particularity on the tightly related themes of the play; a further passage on the “Suffering of Believers” will be adduced later when it is time to show its bearing on The Atheist's Tragedy's longest and most peculiar scene, the churchyard scene (IV.iii).

This special exegetical comment should be related to the more philosophical theology of the relevant portion of Calvin's Institutes. I refer to chapter xv of Book I, where we have Calvin on Providence, entitled, “God's Preservation and Support of the World by His Power and His Government of Every Part of it by His Providence.”

Calvin's chapter gives a galaxy of arguments for believing that nothing happens which is not a part of God's perfectly detailed design for the universe—nothing is fortuitous, nothing may be ascribed to chance or fortune whose reified philosophical utility Calvin specifically refutes, while doing scholastic cartwheels to distinguish his perfectly resolved and totally non-permissive God from he pagan Fate. The distinction Calvin makes has considerable historical validity but no philosophical force, since there is no reason why Fate as the source of Necessity should not have acted just like the necessitarian God had it been so imagined; that it did not do so is an historical accident. The most relevant passage in Calvin's argument shows how the sun serves as God's instrument to promote natural growth. Calvin waxes as near lyrical as his severe lawyer's mind will permit him to do (these botanical ramifications of God's efficacy through the “sun” are usurped, along with much else, by D'Amville, as we will see shortly):

trees likewise and vines, by his genial warmth, first put forth leaves, then blossoms, and from the blossoms produce their fruit!4

Intermixed with this rhapsodic strain there is a darker, more tragic element, as subsequent degeneration of puritan doctrine has dramatized. The agon of the Calvinist nature defines itself as a struggle for authentic status, which easily devolves into a self-circumscribing, swelling of the Will. For the Calvinist, God's essence is remote and inviolate, but functionally the need for spiritual confirmation is so great that Godhead is expropriated lest one be forced to confess, “God knows, man does not know.” Calvinism loves the scriptures and wants to use them as a means to certain knowledge of God's aims, but since God's nature is radically unknowable beyond his empirical functions as predestinate and omniscient shaper of a total pattern, man's use of the scripture is philosophically irrelevant. Hence, the unmistakeable fear that man's activity is compulsive and unintelligible to any but the unknown God grows. Calvinism is a brand of self-subverted Socratism. It loves the search for knowledge but it can't believe in its righteousness or its efficacy. It sees life as a threatening game of reading the signs aright, a game in which disaster is equivalent to sin and possesses the same shaming force. The prudent man, being in harmony with God, reads the signs aright or, like Charlemont in The Atheist's Tragedy, waits patiently (if somewhat priggishly) until matters are clarified. The depraved man (the fool) is wrong and lost—a pragmatic tautology. The fool is condemned because he is the kind of man to whom such things are permitted to happen. The objectively “tragic space” in Calvin's world-view is marked out by the ethical contradictions inherent in their conception of prudence (or, in Tourneur's terms, in being provident). Not to be prudent advertises folly; to be prudent invites arrogation of divine privilege. Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy is a dramatic meditation on this meta-ethical quandry. Calvinists need one set of statements about God and another set of notions about human responsibility; their doctrine is metaphysically schizoid, but this metaphysical no-man's land of doubt creates the situation for a peculiar kind of tragedy. One must choose definitively but without confidence in the act's meaning; this moves us close to the absurd, and The Atheist's Tragedy teeters on the brink of black comedy or “gallows humor” much of the time.

The Atheist's Tragedy is a theological play. This does not mean, as Ornstein in his otherwise excellent study strangely assumes,5 that the aim of the playwright should have been to have his heroine, Castabella, systematically refute the evil, naturalistic doctrines of her would-be seducer, the play's hero and her father-in-law, the atheist D'Amville. There can be no water-tight, philosophical refutation of total atheism, since the atheist and the theist reside in different communities of discourse. Tourneur was perhaps wise enough not to send his gentle heroine on such an errand. To refute atheism before a community disturbed in the year 1610 by some nearly unformulatable doubts about the ways of providence could only be done through that mode of pragmatic ritual we call drama. The dramatist could employ emblematic means to show that as a course of action atheism does not work. At its most philosophical, drama, as an imitation of an action, is truest to itself when it is pragmatic. It operates through actions which are brought to meaning by the playwright's provision of motive and by the audience's imaginative concurrence in this plastic diagnosis.

The Atheist's Tragedy is thus a concrete reanimation of a distinctively pictorial variant of the traditional Christian view. In an iconographic fashion it composes a complete specific action, the life-choices of D'Amville against an architectonically intelligible world order. It is a dogmatic celebration of the agency by which life is ordered. The ideas that Tourneur sets to work are commonplaces, though they are less prevalent in the drama of the time than one would suppose from reading the routine criticism of the play. The language of the play is not so original and exciting as the nervous and impatient idiom of The Revenger's Tragedy, but the deliberately managed mutual interplay of concept and rendering image is more consistently sustained than in any other play of its general kind outside of Shakespeare.

Though the play is explicitly homiletical in its dramatization of the 127th Psalm, H. H. Adas excluded it from his book on Homiletic Tragedy. The Psalm establishes an economical format of relationship between: the play's iterative imagery; its informing concepts; and its ground theme. The theme of the Psalm is the extent and nature of God's providence. Tourneur has thickened the texture of his study of Christian hybris by punning on the seminally divergent meanings of one word, “Providence.” It means both God's benevolent and interested participation in men's affairs and man's prudent and carefully considered superintendence of his own affairs. In Geoffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblemes (1586), the crocodile's alleged ability to anticipate the rise of the Nile is used as an emblem of Providence; this image and his commentary on it indicate that prudent foresight is one of the primary meanings of the term: “When anie one doth take in hande a cause … longe thereon to ponder” (p. 3). This second meaning of “providence” is just emerging historically as the play is written. Though Tourneur opposes the two readings of providence in a too relentless manner, the play is composed with great care. Tourneur has succeeded better than most dramatists do in discovering adequate objective correlatives for his moral prevision. When The Atheist's Tragedy is classified with plays of the same mode, what I have called “Dramas of Ethical Display” or Neo-parabolical dramas—like The Jew of Malta, Measure for Measure, Volpone, Timon of Athens, and A New Way to Pay Old Debts—Tourneur's borderline interplay between realism and emblematic dramatization does not seem so crude as the rigid, illusionistic presuppositions of earlier critics of Tourneur caused them to believe.


Unless the Lord build the house they labour in vain that build it


Behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.

These two verses express in brief the two important constituents of the short 127th Psalm; they equally clearly state the central themes of The Atheist's Tragedy as well as accounting most economically and exactly for the imagery in which Tourneur expresses the atheist's desire to supersede God in his creative dominion over object and person. Stated most concisely The Atheist's Tragedy presents the didactically rationalized account of one who questioned God's providential power, arrogated to himself in specific terms the traditional operations of that Providence, tried to build a monument for himself and for his posterity through that posterity and thereby achieve through the sons whom he had generated the secularized immortality which he had a need for. The play is then a dramatization of man in his finitude contesting the rights of time and death and losing ignominiously. The contest, it turns out, isn't even close.

D'Amville's projected relationship to his real antagonist, who is not the “Christian-Stoic-Pure one,” Charlemont, but rather the Deity Himself, reflects in its neat working out the pattern of the whole play. There are two clear and divergent usages of the word “Providence”: 1) God as the supervising author of all things creates not only man but also the “plot” that man acts out. All creatures are part of the cast who wait on His will and occasionally move forward on the stage to become intelligible enough parts of the great design to be called “instruments.” God's universe is His work, and He may be said to have built it in fact, or to seem to be building it from our limited viewpoint in time. Furthermore, if God oversees our lives He has to watch us. To express this men's fancy has adopted two standard and iconographically related emblems: a) the eye functions as the symbol for the all-knowing and ever-present God; and b) the stars which in Sir John Davies' simple but eloquent lines, are seen as

The lights of heav'n (which are the World's fair eies)
Looke downe into the World, the World to see.(6)

God as the author, director, hovering over the world-stage of man's action and seeing all is contrasted to 2) the simulation of this providence in the activities of D'Amville, the modern provident man (i.e., foresighted and carefully planning). The language of the play is most explicit in its reflection of Tourneur's attempt to show D'Amville as the very usurper of God—His ape and His intended supersessor.

In the first scene D'Amville is already speaking of himself in the terms we are directed to recognize as an especially Christian kind of hybris. He is characteristically engaged in the familiar ritual of the ambitious man, discussing his “plans” and his reasons for them:

A man has reason to provide and add
For what is he hath such a present eye,
And so prepar'd a strength that can forsee,
And fortify his substance and himself
Against those accidents, the least whereof
May rob him of an age's husbandry?

(I.i.47-52; italics mine)7

He adds that as my children multiply, “so should my providence.” Notice not only that he begins to pile up the words denoting specifically providential activity but that with the phrase “fortify my substance” the imagery of building the structure of one's strong, lasting house is already under way.8 The marriage of hybris to this Elizabethan desire to found a house and to live on in it is accented by the exaggerated frequency with which D'Amville is made to use the pronoun my, mine, etc. In this same thematic first scene, Borachio, D'Amville's creature, uses the word “providence” to signify schemes to defraud the good nephew Charlemont of his inheritance. Then D'Amville's two sons enter almost as if in dumb show for choral exegesis by their father. The dramatic device underscores the sons' contingent role in their father's ambitious schematization of human relationships,

Here are my sons. …
There's my eternity. My life in them
And their succession shall for ever live,
And in my reason dwells the providence
To add to life as much of happiness.

(I.i.123-127; italics mine)

To make D'Amville's abuse of this word even more overt Tourneur has him make light of his brother's fears for his son, Charlemont's death in war by affirming his own belief in Fate which makes death a matter

                                                            so certainly unalterable,
What can the use of providence prevail?


Here only the fact of his own egocentricity prevents him falling into a contradiction.

There is a much more elaborate analogy to convince one that D'Amville (damned villain?) is developed in the play as the tragically absurd one who seeks to usurp the governing role of the providential God, but before coming to that let us speak about the ethical quality of his proceedings as these are evaluated in the play. One of the aspects of a belief in providence is that God has to use people to effect his plans. They are His instruments. D'Amville uses all other human beings to effect his ends. He has an instant genius for the main chance which makes him constantly able to convert the routine follies of men to prudent advantage. After D'Amville's creature Borachio has several times gloried in his self-identification as

Your instrument shall make your project proud

(I.ii.241 and e.g., I.ii.223)

D'Amville, viewing the drunkness of his brother's servants, and deciding to murder his brother says,

Their drunkenness …
Shall be a serious instrument to bring
Our sober purposes to their success.


This notion of making instruments of any and everyone is brought to a species of emotional climax, when immediately after the treacherous and stealthily executed murder of his ailing brother, D'Amville in an ecstasy of self-congratulation speaks a hectic duet with his creature, Borachio. At this point in the play, the notions of plotting, of building, of planning, of scheming so coalesce as to become indistinguishable. Since the legitimate definition of providence includes not only the dimension of planning and foreseeing but of benevolent intent, D'Amville's parody of the divine power grows more appallingly grotesque. Calvin is very specific on this point. A key remark in the Institutes provides a virtual epigraph for Tourneur's play:

For how does it happen that a prudent man, consulting his own welfare, averts from himself impending evils, and a fool is ruined by his inconsiderate temerity, unless folly and prudence are in both cases instruments of the Divine dispensation?

(op. cit., p. 195)

Flourishing the rock with which his brother was brained, D'Amville in a speech of black-comic burlesque on Christ's words proclaims,

Upon this ground I'll build my manor house
And this shall be the chiefest corner-stone.


And then, intoxicated by his own boldness, he refutes all other claims to a part in the design of events,

Not any circumstance
That stood within the reach of the design
Of persons, dispositions, matter, time,
Or, place, but by this brain of mine was made
An instrumental help. …

(II.iv.103-107; italics mine)

Then in operatic duet, the two conspirators gleefully catalogue the steps of the scheme, in which friendly conviviality between members of the family, D'Amville announces, was economically

… us'd by me to make the servants drunk,
An instrument the plot could not have miss'd.

(II.iv.125-126; italics mine)

The servants and friends walking with them were made unwitting accessories (“The instruments, yet knew not what they did” [II.iv.135]). And then lest we miss the extent of D'Amville's claim, Tourneur in the undaunted pedantical fashion that differentiates him from all his contemporaries has D'Amville explicitly generalize it:

That power of rule, philosophers ascribe
To him they call the supreme of the stars.


In short, what the supposedly wise call Providence (“that power of rule”), I have just embodied by “creating” and “executing” this scheme through a series of instruments. The play's precise flavor cannot be tasted unless we see that D'Amville, unlike the usual subphilosophical villain, is more interested in the meaning of his own actions than in the acts themselves. He is not seeking power in any ordinary sense; his challenge is to the Deity. In the same fashion that Marlowe's Tamburlaine is a dramatized critique of the concept called Nemesis, so The Atheist's Tragedy is an emblematic critique of the arguments for the primacy of human providence. Another constituent of the play echoes D'Amville's argument but in a more ceremonial mode.

At the opening of Act IV there is a little inset scene which bears the same relationship to the whole play as the porter's speech to Macbeth or to a dream interlude in a modern novel, i.e., it condenses the thematic content, or to put it another way, it is the inert meaning of the play divorced from the action. Here, moreover, as in the case of Macbeth, it is the “meaning” of the play seen sub specie unmediated by human intention or concern. Macbeth's actions transform any world he can know into Hell; the “porter scene” helps us to modulate from the fairly objective world of the early scenes to the subjectified latter scenes, where Macbeth actively tries to recreate the world in his own image. Similarly in The Atheist's Tragedy, Tourneur's inset scene involves a minor, thematic character, the Bawd, Cataplasma (i.e., “poultice,” or one who applies something warm and soothing to swollen members) and her maid. They are doing needlework. The prior scene has just closed on Rousard, D'Amville's sickly son, who has been married to Castabella as part of D'Amville's master plan to raise his posterity to wealth and dignity, where the sickly Rousard (indeed he is dying) is made to say,

A gen'ral weakness did surprise my health
The very day I marry'd Castabella,
As if my sickness were a punishment
That did arrest me for some injury
I then committed.


The sins of the father are not only visited upon the son, they are symbolically figured in his physical condition. That there is a direct connection between D'Amville's scheming and botanical iconography is shown in D'Amville's hypocritical remarks to Charlemont whose father he has murdered just preceding the inset scene itself:

I will supply your father's vacant place,
To guide your green improvidence of youth
And make you ripe for your inheritance.

(III.iv.51-53; italics mine)

The scene that follows this with the two sub-plot females (Cataplasma and her maid) is pointless in itself, i.e., we have no reason to be interested in their opinions for their own sake. The two are examining a piece of needlework:

What's here? a medlar with a plum tree growing hardy by it; the leaves o' the plum tree falling off; the gum issuing out o' the perished joints; and the branches some of 'em dead, and some rotten; and yet but a young plum tree. … The plum tree, forsooth, grows so near the medlar that the medlar sucks and draws all the sap from it and the natural strength o' the ground, so that it cannot prosper


and then immediately following a slightly varied repetition of the scene's point:

But here th'ast made a tree to bear no fruit. Why's that?

and the answer:

There grows a savin tree next it.


Savin is an irritant poison used to cause women to abort. The point is somewhat subtler and more functional than might readily appear. The medlar's symbolic force isn't limited to its familiar application to the prostitute, though, of course, the scene is heavily charged with sexual puns in keeping with the lust-ridden atmosphere of the play's quasi-comic subplot. The medlar also symbolizes the wisdom that supposedly accompanies the natural decline of physical strength—that is it betokens a certain kind of maturity. Under “Mespilus” in Philippo Picinello's Mundus Symbolicus we find that its famous property “non maturum prius, quam putridum” is to be understood “in Plato's words” to mean:

Mentis oculus tunc acute incipi cernere, cum primum corporis oculus deflorescit.9

We then are to understand that a natural process of growth would produce wisdom and spiritual insight in D'Amville and that by this means he should be able to nurture and promote the ready growth of his children towards the independent strength which the plum tree conventionally symbolizes. In the very first scene D'Amville has linked his specious “providence” with the image of a tree:

And as for my children, they are as near to me
As branches of a tree whereon they grow,
And may as numerously be multiply'd.
As they increase, so should my providence,
For from my substance they receive the sap.
Whereby they live and flourish.

(I.i.53-58; italics mine)10

But we see both in the play and in the thematic iconography of this little scene that this is not so. His age being wisdomless simply draws off the independent life of the child, since his roots are deeper, which is to say that his power to gratify his own needs is greater. The savin (i.e., the juniper) image emphasizes that, while all the time talking of his concern for his posterity, he is actually aborting natural growth through usurpation of his children's independent status as souls.

From this inset, emblematic scene onwards, the play's tempo picks up as D'Amville's elaborate, self-serving schemes begin to fall apart. Since the crucial indicators of the play's tone as well as of its consciously composed referential system reach a point where the action is virtually swamped under the burden of the preconceived meanings it must bear, it is time to stand back a moment, so that we can see the contours of the play more clearly.

The basic or main plot of the play is very simple by Jacobean standards. D'Amville wishes to seize the wealth of his baronial neighbor, Montferrers, and to raise higher the fabric of his own house. His drives are less from greed than to magnify his posterity and so to secure his name against eclipse by death which he fears to an unnatural extent. Hence he has the double aim of murdering Montferrers and replacing with his own son Montferrers' son, Charlemont—the play's exemplar of goodness—as the husband-to be of Castabella, daughter of D'Amville's brother, Belforest, who is also a baron. By this design, D'Amville can arrogate to himself all three large estates: his own, his brother's and his neighbor's. The treacherous cupidity which serves this aim, and his self-lauding way of premeditating and executing it, make him into a kind of parodic trinity. With Charlemont out of the way at the wars in the Low Countries, his father murdered and Castabella married to D'Amville's son, Rousard, D'Amville will have achieved a puny version of omnipotence over both the present substance and the potential for the future of his “world.” The first two acts of the play in an almost diagrammatic fashion exposit this scheme and trace its swift and adroit accomplishment. The real substance of the play, to which the first two acts are a circumstantial premise, follows in the last three acts which open with the lyric hypocrisy of D'Amville's funeral eulogies over the body of the murdered Montferrers and before the empty monument of Charlemont whose pretended death at the seige of Ostend D'Amville has contrived to promulgate, so as to speed the marriage of his son to Castabella now left bereft by this specious death.

The action from this point is one immense peripety, multiplying evidence of the foundationless nature of D'Amville's apparent “providential” design. Modern critical discussions of the play are faithful enough to its obvious structural movement, but they diverge in the most misleading way from its tone as a felt experience when reading it.11 If these modern readings are permitted to become surrogates for the experience of the play, we conclude that the play is intellectually relentless, sombre in tone and almost dirge-like in tempo. It isn't at all. Much of the action has the pace and intricacy of bedroom comedy; a large percentage of the dialogue is allocated to Sebastian, D'Amville's reckless, sexually rampageous but still rather decent younger son; to the garrulous puritanical imposter, Languebeau Snuffe, and his sneaky if inept lechery; to the ever hopeful intrigues of Castabella's lusty step-mother, Levidulcia; and the trivial clownish antics of Soquette and Fresco, the would-be sexual objects of these hustling lechers.

Moreover, the play has a double plot structure reminiscent more of The Changeling or The Dutch Courtesan than of the standard revenge or heroic plays to which it is conventionally compared.12 The sub-plot roughly parallels the main action: Cataplasma “founds a house” of ill-fame where women can meet secretly with their lovers. This part of the play is a fairly spirited, saturnalian parallel to the main plot. Its hallmark is a licentious and “free” thinking, sexual naturalism which is the grosser physical analogue to D'Amville's philosophical licentiousness. Just as D'Amville's older son Rousard is spiritually sick and wholly impotent as scion of that godless foundation, his father's house; so is Sebastian, the younger son, a kind of moral castrate who is all cheerful, unabashed, headlong libido. Both die appropriately; Rousard just gutters out like a feeble flame—snuffed out by the miasmic atmosphere of his father's ethos; Sebastian dies in a bawdy house quarrel, striving in his not ignoble but thoughtless fashion to protect the non-existent honor of his uncle's wife, Levidulcia, with whom he had meant to copulate. He kills his uncle and dies himself in the encounter. His death is almost wordless. He is snuffed out too in darkness and confusion, with shouts of the converging nightwatch as his death's noisy continuo. The hysterical penitence of Levidulcia when she discovers his bloody corpse seconds later, culminating in her stagy, implausible and unregarded suicide, offers suitably minute recompense for his genial imprudence. The point here is the almost negligible quality of these unilluminated lives. The impact of the play is meager if we view it too solemnly; but if we sense its partial affinities to the theater of the absurd, then Tourneur's play, no longer the awkward product of humorless ineptitude, takes on new vitality.

D'Amville's manipulative and egocentric talents presumptuously claim immense foresight, whereas the latter part of the action is conducted in almost surrealistic confusion. D'Amville is perpetually surprised by the turn of events. As personified in his two sons, he has neither staying power nor circumspection, rather poor credentials for a would-be providential deity. D'Amville, largely through his high-spirited and conscienceless “instrument,” Borachio, does some evil things. He murders a guiltless man, and with gleeful hypocrisy he publicly mourns him; he “uses” others constantly in direct contradiction to Kant's updating formulation of the central imperative of Christian charity: that “No man should ever be treated as a means to anything but always as an end in himself”; he incestuously propositions his virtuous daughter-in-law, Castabella; he vainly plots the murder of the guiltless Charlemont. But, in the frame of the play these acts are not so much horrible as pretentious. No one he actually succeeds in harming is a fully realized character; his designs are like the false pregnancy which forms one of the images of the play, “a tympany” (i.e., a swelling or tumor) which “turns but to a certain kind of phlegmatic windy disease” (IV.iii.38-40)—in short, a gigantic fart, the noisy evidence of false claims.

D'Amville and Borachio, a physically lazy but ingenious master and his utterly amoral and frisky instrument, are more like Volpone and Mosca than threatening presences from the world of tragic revenge. And, this is not because of lamentable artistic incapacity on the part of Tourneur; it is because the premises of D'Amville's providential schemes make him seem more foolish than terrible. The magnitude of his possible accomplishment is so trivial and vain when held up against the theoretically posited God who is omniscient stage-manager of Tourneur's world, that everything he does to invite direct comparison to providential sovereignty shrinks him smaller. In the end, D'Amville is sleepless—as far from the peace of self-contentment as Faustus or Macbeth. His insomniac condition has been prefigured, by contrast, in the play's longest and most overtly symbolic scene, that in the churchyard when Borachio is killed by Charlemont and D'Amville's hopes are thereby irretrievably lost. In this dark setting replete with charnel house, gravestones, skulls and numerous ghostly shenanigans, the “good ones,” Charlemont and Castabella, surrounded by foes and apparently lost, “lie down with either of them a death's head for a pillow” and sleep (IV.ii.190-204). Here let us recall a further section of Calvin's commentary on the 127th Psalm which the play dramatizes:

On the Suffering of Believers:

If any man obiect ageyne, that the faythfull doo often broyle in sore cares, and thoughfull [sic] for the morrow when they be pinched with want of all things and destitute of all meanes to come by any thing. I answere that if there were perfect faith & devotion in the woorshippers of god, the blissing of God which the prophet mencioneth should bee apparant. Therefore as oft as they be tormented without measure: that happeneth through their own default, bycause they rest not throughly upon Gods providence. And this I say further, that they be more streightly punished than the unbeleevers, because it is necessarie for them to bee haryed hither and thither with unquietness for a tyme, that they maye come too thys sleepe in the ende. But yet in the meane whyle Gods grace preuayleth, and shyneth foorth alwaye in the middes of dark nesse, bycause the Lorde cherisheth hys children as it were by sleepe.

(p. 205, col. 2; italics mine)

If we can accept the vantage point which makes undue thinking foolish (and Hamlet, who has superior credentials for making such a judgment, supplies a classic text in his “I defy augury” speech), then it is readily possible to see not only why D'Amville proceeds towards absurdity as a limit but also to catch hold of the comedic force of his unintentional self-execution at the end of the play. This episode has been, and possibly will remain, an embarrassment to Tourneur's admirers. D'Amville, before a court of judgment which is charged with the trial and sentencing of the virtuous young couple, Charlemont and Castabella—and here again the trial scene invokes for us not the tragic courtroom of Webster's The White Devil but the plight of the equally idealistic and misused Celia and Bonario in another “Drama of Ethical Display,” Volpone—breaks with all decorum in characteristic display of impatience. At no point in the play's action has he been content to let the initiative reside with God or with any other man. Hamlet's “Readiness is all” is utterly beyond his absurdly restricted moral capacities. Typically, then, he usurps the court's function, and proceeds to play judge, jury and, though not intentionally, executioner to himself. When he leaps to the platform, seizes the executioner's axe and “As he raise up the axe strikes out his own brains,” we are not to see this as God's hand reaching down as in a crude 15th century woodcut, but as a further example of the cosmic silliness of D'Amville's usurping role. When the dying D'Amville says, “The lust of death commits a rape on me” (V.ii.267), the flamboyant figure is quite precise. As the latter part of the play makes clear, D'Amville's basic drive has been to cheat death of its fearfulness, thus the overweening impulse to arrogate initiative to himself in his swollen efforts to simulate Providence which assigns death's moment as it closes each life account. We have seen in the “churchyard” scene, with its explicit commentary by Calvin, that patience (which is thus a by-product of faith) is most perfectly manifest in an untroubled disregard of death and its unpredictable coming as symbolized by the childlike sleep of the virtuous. D'Amville's insomniac restiveness is the polar opposite to this and is implicitly a form of self-destruction, of suicide. Still more, when married to such relentless self-advertisement as D'Amville's, to such sterile misuse of all other lives, it becomes grotesque—repellent yes, but absurd too. His silly expropriation of the instrument of death, the axe, symbolically recapitulates his misconceived life style. Like Agamemnon's treading on the scarlet carpet in the Oresteia, the final act of D'Amville is not the cause of his death in itself, it is the emblematic summation of the process of his life.

The Atheist's Tragedy is unusually self-consistent as, indeed, a play of Calvinistic inspiration should be. There are many plays in the Tudor-Stuart period which have a strong religious orientation. Tragedy often stems from a sense of the problematic nature of providence. In Tourneur's play, however, an extra step towards theodicy is taken. He believes God's intentions are explicit and demonstrable, so that for him God's justice literally vindicates itself. Whenever an artist operates from a convinced sense of God's express availability as a deus ex machina of unlimited prerogative, there is bound to be a comedic infusion, since divine judgment is full, irresistible and provides a context for the action so much more embracing than any dramatizable alternative, that human ambition is transposed into the cosmic silliness of unfounded presumption. Dramas of Ethical Display have a special competence for molding philosophical ironies into dramatic structures which invite a disjunction of response. This special inflection of the tragic may be summed up in the figure oxymoron: D'Amville is “displayed” as a “tiny monster,” or as a “dangerous trifler,” or as “vigilant blind man,” or as a “life-hoarding suicide.” What seem to be contradictions in the play's tonal stresses are resolved, when we see that Calvinism places a low valuation upon human life qua life: its stress is on innocence and theoretic virtue. Hence, we are unfaithful to the theological imperatives of the play, when we permit a few deaths (or life annulments) to darken our sense of the sovereign concerns of the play as a symbolic action. The Atheist's Tragedy possesses considerable energy when we accept all its elements and do not diagram it according to some magisterially fixed notion of the tragic. As a dramatization of the 127th Psalm, it takes a very high point of vantage in measuring human capacity. From such heights our plannings seem like scurryings, our deflections are returns, and our selfish escapades, as in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale of which The Atheist's Tragedy is a remote descendent, lead to surprising, yet obvious retributions.


  1. Tulane Drama Review, 8 (1964), 215-16.

  2. Plotinus: The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (London, 1956), p. 177.

  3. The Psalmes of David and Others with J. Calvins Commentaries, trans. Arthur Golding (London, 1571): STC 4395.

  4. Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen (Philadelphia, 1930), II, 184.

  5. Robert Ornstein, “The Atheist's Tragedy and Renaissance Naturalism,” SP, 51 (1954), 194-207.

  6. Cf. innumerable scriptural references and a standard handbook such as George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1954), p. 64. For Davies, see his “Nosce Teipsum,” in The Poems, ed. Grosart, p. 25.

  7. All quotations from The Atheist's Tragedy are from Irving Ribner's edition for The Revels Plays (London and Cambridge, Mass.: Methuen, 1964).

  8. M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1935), pp. 175-80, notes the pattern of building imagery as does Una Ellis-Fermor in “The Imagery of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy,MLR, 30 (1935), 296 et passim. Indeed, the building imagery is so functional and explicit that one supposes all readers must in some sense note its presence.

  9. Philippo Picinello, Mundus Symbolicus (Rome, 1729), I, 576.

  10. As suggested by my earlier comment on Calvin's rhapsodic passage on the fertilizing and nurturing power of God's seminal instrument the sun, D'Amville tries to usurp the natura naturans aspect of Godhead as well as God's more administrative functions. His sterile efforts in this sphere act as an ironic doubling of his groundless presumption. The play's deepest image stratum has to do with the negation of growth, the abortion of natural process.

  11. Irving Ribner in the introduction to his useful edition of The Atheist's Tragedy which I have already cited as my own text for quotation, supplies a good review of critical discussion of the play over the past thirty years or so. Essays by L. G. Salingar (1938), Harold Jenkins (1941), Michael Higgens (1943), John Peter (1956), and Inga-Stina Ekeblad (1959) may be joined to those of Ornstein, Bradbrook and Ellis-Fermor already cited to get a sense of the tradition. Ribner's own commentary is also valuable.

  12. After completing this essay, I read Richard Levin's useful essay, “The Subplot of The Atheist's Tragedy,HLQ, 29 (1965), 17-33. This carefully schematized study supplies welcome confirmation of my general claim of the deliberate reflections of the main-plot issues in the secondary plot. It is full and particularized in establishing the conscious artistry with which the parallels are developed. Since Professor Levin's perceptions of the tone, movement and intellectual tendenz of the main action are wholly in tune with the conventional critical commentary, his interpretation of Tourneur's use of his subplot and my own are healthily complimentary rather than in competition.

John S. Wilks (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Atheist's Tragedy,” in The Idea of Conscience in Renaissance Tragedy, Routledge, 1990, pp. 170-93.

[In the following excerpt, Wilks argues that The Atheist's Tragedy is one of several Jacobean dramas that reveals a changing view of the notion of conscience, and that Tourneur's play explores the atheistic and Christian accounts of humans' moral nature and metaphysical destiny in order to refute the heresy of naturalist thinkers.]

Superficially, at least, The Atheist's Tragedy invites comparison with Doctor Faustus as a moral treatise directed, once again, at the presumption of those ‘forward wits’ who would exalt a puny rationalism over the mysteries of grace and faith, and whose addiction to a blasphemous and imponderable ‘deepness’ epitomized for the Renaissance a dangerous tendency to unsatiable speculation in nature and the world. Like Marlowe's, Tourneur's play is a tragedy of knowledge, a similarly graphic depiction, as Ornstein puts it, of yet another atheist's ‘harrowing journey towards the spiritual and moral knowledge which is gained by less arrogant minds through a simple act of faith’.1 There, however, the resemblance ends. Not only is D'Amville's creator less equivocally disposed than is Faustus's towards the heady prospects of knowledge infinite—the limitless exercise of man's aspiring mind resulting, for Tourneur, in nothing more heroic than the conventional villainies of a conventionally politic brain—but his perception of positive value in the Christian myth carries a more absolute certainty of conviction, and the sufferings of the impious who incur its exemplary sanctions are, in The Atheist's Tragedy, affirmatively counterpointed by the felicities of the pious who so beatifically transcend and vindicate them. Moreover, whereas Faustus's hubris affects a godlike potentiality over mundane phenomena, avid to discern, by supernatural and forbidden means, those mysteries above nature by which her elements may be controlled, D'Amville affects only such limited and material goals—pleasure, profit, power—as are consistent with his purely naturalistic and sceptical beliefs.2 His atheism does not admit the hypothesis of a God-centred universe, and denies altogether the premise that the observable order of nature is completed by a numinous order of divine grace beyond man's rational comprehension. On the contrary, and like Shakespeare's Edmund, he makes a goodness out of nature, and binds his reason to the service of her mechanistic and amoral laws. But perhaps the most fundamental distinctions to be made between the two plays are those concerning their doctrinal and metaphysical allegiances, in which a profound transition is apparent. While Faustus's revolt represents a vigorous, if perverted, release of the energies of Renaissance humanism in the face of a confining scholastic synthesis which it threatens to fracture, it is wholly evident that in the decadent world which D'Amville inherits, that synthesis is already utterly dislocated, and his revolt against faith is a logical, if equally disordered, extension of a typically seventeenth-century emancipation of nature and reason. Tourneur's atheist is one post-Reformation consequence, just as Bacon was another, of that aggressive Renaissance secularism whose Elizabethan awakenings had been so powerfully symbolized in Faustus; for in labouring to indemnify faith by deprecating nature, Calvin hammered so relentlessly on the theme of their separation, as incidentally to prosper not only the cause of those empiricists and Pyrrhonists to whom the supernatural was unknowable, but of those sceptics and mechanists to whom it was neither knowable nor necessary.

The Atheist's Tragedy is, in short, the first of a series of Jacobean dramas which together present a changed picture of the idea of conscience. In them is bodied forth that stark voluntarist world of the early seventeenth century in which the old medieval assumptions, the common property of Marlowe and Shakespeare, are nowhere in evidence. D'Amville and Borachio, who identify wholly with the new spirit of scientific rationalism, and whose godless creed denies validity to all that lies beyond ‘Nature and her large philosophy’ (1.i.4), act out their vain and wretched pretensions in a theatre of cosmic justice directed now by a Calvinist god of unqualified will, whose secret counsels and undetermined decrees impose awful constraints upon man's rational powers. For Calvin, of course, as for Christian orthodoxy in general, atheism was the ultimate blasphemy. But doubly outrageous to him was the unspeakable presumption inherent in erecting its unholy propositions upon the enfeebled inferences of man's vitiated reason, inferences culled, moreover, from the irredeemably perverted order of nature, which atheists would exalt as the aboriginal cause of all being. To deny God, moreover, was to render man indistinguishable from the brute beasts; and those who, with D'Amville, observe the ‘self-same course / Of revolution both in man and beast’ (1.i.5-6), attributing solely to nature's power the cause of man's ‘better composition’, are condemned in the Institutes as much for their perfidious exaltation of nature as for their blasphemous disavowal of its First Cause. Of such naturalists and atheists, Calvin says, ‘[They] will not say that chance has made [them] differ from the brutes that perish; but, substituting nature as the architect of the universe, [they] suppress the name of God.’3

Tourneur's play is, of course, primarily conceived as a refutation of this heresy, its overwhelmingly contrived dramaturgy a demonstration of the two quintessential truths of man's condition, whose admission by the atheist serves as prologue to his own damnation: man's wisdom is, uncontrovertibly, ‘a fool’ (V.ii.248), and there is manifestly a ‘power above [nature] that controls her force’ (V.i.103-4). Far from removing God ‘out of sight’, or burying him in nature, Tourneur's most urgent concern is to make visible at every turn God's immediate regulation of the affairs of men; to dramatize the superintendent workings of a providence that, in Calvin's words, governs all natures by a process ‘vigilant, efficacious, energetic, and ever active’,4 and by means which, characteristically, are above the ordinary course of nature. Neither in The Atheist's Tragedy, nor in Jacobean drama generally, do we find any trace of that Thomistic order of phenomena ruled and concatenated by laws, nor of that Shakespearean conception of providential justice which is executed through a series of rationally determinate secondary causes. Whereas for Aquinas, the perfection of divine providence required intermediary causes for its fulfilment, for Calvin and Tourneur the universe exhibits predominantly an order not of causes, but of arbitrary effects merely, not of reason, but of groundless will. Thus goodness, morality, and divine justice itself are beyond the scope either of man's reason to know, or his capacity to enact. The power that executes retributive justice upon D'Amville, contrives the arbitrary overthrow of his projects ‘in their pride’ (V.ii.272), and manifests itself ominously in extraordinary and elemental portents, is profoundly at variance with that entirely natural and reactive pattern of events which forecloses upon Richard III or Macbeth. Nor is the sudden and unexpected succour proffered to Charlemont and Castabella, which occasions in them a passive and resigned fortitude, in any way to be confused with that providence which Hamlet sees in the fall of a sparrow, and to whose eternal purposes, matured to ripeness in the nature of things, he eventually coordinates his perfected, but still voluntary, intents. Although The Atheist's Tragedy is the first play in which the revenge ethic is explicitly countermanded by the Christian Vindicta Mihi, nevertheless in the cases both of Charlemont and Hamlet, vengeance is in fact ultimately secured by the King of Kings;5 but in each instance, the theatre of God's judgment is shaped and determined by mutually opposed theories concerning the precise mode of its dispensation. For the super-ordinant providence of Hooker and Shakespeare is pre-eminently that universal providence conceived of by Aquinas, which is reflected in the order of creation; they are indeed synonymous, for the most part, since both affirm the Law Divine which is the reason of order in nature. But while Calvin grudgingly concedes the existence of a corrupted order of nature instinct with a universal providence which sustains it, he submits both doctrines to that of a superintending, watchful, special providence, according to which nothing happens without God's counsel, and wherein all contingency dependent merely on fortune or human free will is necessarily and absolutely negated. For Tourneur, as for Calvin, the mighty are put down from their seats, and the righteous exalted, not by a teleological ordering of means to ends in nature, but by God's active and undetermined intervention in its ordinary processes; not by virtue of divine power, but as a consequence of divine decree. Thus it is that, in the metaphysically bisected world of The Atheist's Tragedy, where there is an absolute moral disparity between those that profess ‘a divine contempt o' th' world’ (I.iv.98) and those who are sinfully enslaved to its pleasures, we are evidently urged to the contemplation of that order of transcendental justice, the evidence of which Calvin describes in the Institutes thus:

For in conducting the affairs of men, he so arranges the course of his providence, as daily to declare, by the clearest manifestations, that though all are in innumerable ways the partakers of his bounty, the righteous are the special objects of his favour, the wicked and profane the special objects of his severity. … His power is strikingly displayed when the rage of the wicked, to all appearance irresistible, is crushed in a single moment; their arrogance subdued, their strongest bulwarks overthrown, their armour dashed to pieces, their strength broken, their schemes defeated without an effort, and audacity which set itself above the heavens is precipitated to the lowest depths of the earth. On the other hand … the oppressed and afflicted are rescued in extremity, the despairing animated with hope, the unarmed defeat the armed, the few and many, the weak and strong.6

It is this voluntarist and determinist thesis of providence to which is conformed, in Bradbrook's phrase, the play's ‘rigid pattern of incredible events’;7 and the apparently causeless web of coincidence and improbability through which the tragedy is resolved has for Tourneur this specifically hermeneutic significance.

Now, given this Calvinist metaphysic of intractable command, in which virtue is synonymous with divine fiat, and morality wholly unassimilated to nature, the conscience becomes merely instrumental in character, the operative and supra-rational medium of man's soul, through which the decrees of providence are transmitted and carried immutably into effect. Only to the elect is granted a partial knowledge of God's will, and the means of framing themselves in accordance with it; the rest are clouded in ignorance, their wills bound by the fetters of sin. In the case of Charlemont, the mysteries of providence are partially illuminated in his soul by the ghost's scriptural command, and thereafter he exhibits that passive patience and rapt serenity of conscience which are the inward blessings of those elected to the divine favour. As Herndl has remarked, helplessness and resigned fortitude are in general the marks of the Jacobean hero, indeed, the very measure of his virtue.8 In this sense, the conscience of Charlemont is quite unlike that of Hamlet; for whereas in Shakespeare, the problem of evil demands action as an essential part of its solution, in Tourneur the answer is quite specifically to take no action at all. Hamlet's conscience, moreover, is almost synonymous with that recurrent and objective process of ratiocination by which he repeatedly addresses the central epistemological questions of his own flawed universe. His ultimate perception of the good is a reasoned outcome of inferences drawn from a cumulative chain of causes in his own and others' affairs, which convince him of heaven's ordinance. Charlemont's conscience, on the other hand, is at once inimical to nature and transcendant over reason; for his moral struggle, in so far as it takes place at all, is typically not between the excitements of blood and the promptings of reason, but between ‘the passion of / My blood and the religion of my soul’ (III.iii.35-6).

In the evil characters, conscience is similarly opposed to nature, indeed, to that universal guilt in nature by which the unregenerate voluntarily, but necessarily, capitulate to every kind of corrupt depravation. Levidulcia is in some obscure sense aware of sin, but fatalistically regards her concupiscence as a ‘natural sympathy’, seemingly the ‘free effect’ of her own ‘voluntary love’, but an effect she can neither restrain, nor give reason for (IV.v.16-21). D'Amville, though similarly enslaved to sin, seeks to circumvent conscience altogether by rationalizing his perverted and unnatural lust for his niece, by an argument ‘merely out / Of Nature’ (IV.iii.135-6), whose logic he will enforce as a blasphemous and provocative challenge to her ‘great supposed protector’ (IV.iii.160). Conscience is in the wicked merely a ‘yoke’, silenced for so long, but sensitive in its moral judgments just so far as is necessary to drive them unwillingly and at last to a self-confessed conviction of sin, by which testimony they are, in Calvin's words, deprived ‘of all pretext for ignorance’.9 Thus it is that, although Levidulcia's suicide is committed in ‘detestation of my deed’ (IV.v.82), and D'Amville's self-destruction infers to him the ‘judgement I deserved’ (V.ii.266), neither character is capable of true repentance, merely of that remorse by which the inevitable fact of divine justice is automatically acknowledged.

The Atheist's Tragedy, then, is a dramatic dissertation which explores the theoretical implications of two mutually exclusive accounts of man's moral nature and metaphysical destiny.10 On the one hand are the atheists, whose radical creed, illegitimately filiated to the new spirit of scientific enquiry, substitutes for the empiricist study of second causes, a wholly discrete and amoral belief in nature as an autonomous mechanism, governed by purely physical laws of cause and effect. Set against them are the Christians, Charlemont, and Castabella, whose invincible faith in a transcendental Being above nature, to which infinite power its processes are inscrutably subject, is so spectacularly vindicated in the climactic overthrow of their oppressors. D'Amville would have had an immediate and mythic authenticity for a contemporary audience; as an archetypal atheist, he represents a synthesis culled from popular opinion and various Renaissance confutations of atheism.11 The antecedent elements of this synthesis have been thoroughly explored by Ornstein and others,12 whose valuable researches have served to illuminate, through contemporary perspectives, the atheist's characteristically scientific outlook, his elevation of an inadequate natural philosophy, his view of man as animal, and his attachment to such typically Epicurean goals as pleasure, power and profit.

In a somewhat undramatic exposition, therefore, D'Amville and Borachio systematically rehearse the cardinal tenets of their ‘large philosophy’: nature's laws determine the ‘self-same course / Of revolution both in man and beast’ (I.i.5-6), who are in consequence only to be distinguished by ‘man's … better composition’ (I.i.9); his ‘being's excellency’, on the contrary, need to be ascribed to nothing above his ‘Nature’ (I.i.14,15). Since it is true, moreover, that all life must yield to ‘Nature's weakness’, and death casts up ‘Our total sum of joy’ (I.i.16,17), the rational man owes it to himself to accumulate and augment the earth-bound felicities of which ‘Wealth is Lord’ (I.i.30), by the industrious increase of his own power and substance. Himself a part of nature's mechanism, he is nevertheless able through his intellectual capacity to understand and adapt to his own ends her autonomic processes, by these means ensuring the continuance of that posterity wherein lies man's only claim to eternity. By the energetic propagation of himself, both in his own progeny and the resources ‘Whereby they live and flourish’ (I.i.58), the rationalist may in some measure escape the central fact of human mortality to which his materialist creed condemns him. Thus D'Amville can say of Rousard and Sebastian:

Here are my sons …
There's my eternity. My life in them
And their succession shall for ever live,
And in my reason dwells the providence
To add to life as much of happiness.


In this resides the chief difference between what Murray calls the rational atheists, D'Amville and Borachio, and their sensualist counterparts, Levidulcia and Sebastian, for whom reason is entirely submerged in the instinctive and indiscriminate indulgence of physical lust.13 For them, a compulsive carnality is justified in the name of ‘Wise Nature’ (I.iv.78): Levidulcia upbraids Castabella for an unnatural chastity in refusing to wed the ailing Rousard, in a long harangue which repudiates the dictates of ‘reason’ and the ‘barren mind’ (I.iv.69) as essentially subversive of that ‘work / Of generation’ (I.iv.75) by which nature revives her age. Distinctly animal-like in her predatory licentiousness, Levidulcia exemplifies not so much reason's inadequacy as what Calvin describes as its total deformity and ruin.14 D'Amville, by contrast, denigrates with Borachio the foolish improvidence of spending either one's substance or oneself on ‘a minute's pleasure’ (I.i.27), and his subsequent attempt to gratify his physical appetites by ravishing his daughter-in-law is subordinated to the eminently rational task of securing descendants. The Atheist's Tragedy, indeed, examines several varieties of godlessness,15 and Soquette, Fresco and the false precisian Languebeau Snuffe collectively symbolize that irredeemably sin-laden and degenerate world which is so markedly a feature of the Calvinist mythos. But it is D'Amville primarily who exemplifies what, for his creator, is the monstrous iniquity, not only of accommodating nature's perverted amoralism to the depraved misuses of reason, but of blasphemously opposing the providence of a merely human reason to a divine providence whose very existence it would deny. In the voluntarist and dislocated universe in which he operates, the atheist is crushed finally by those vast metaphysical dichotomies whose sanctions he so casually pretermits, and the vanity of his ambitions is adumbrated in the series of ironic reversals by which they are successively and summarily negated. All his schemes and plots come to nothing: the murdered Montferrers reappears to haunt him, his disinherited nephew returns to claim his lawful patrimony, the enforced marriage of Rousard and Castabella proves sterile, and the judgment intended for Charlemont falls quite literally upon his own head. But more than this, their overthrow awakens him to a conscience-stricken perception of his own guilt and the generalized inadequacy of human reason that testifies irresistibly to the reality of an avenging and outraged Deity.

In thus objectifying D'Amville's anagnorisis, Tourneur clearly takes his cue from the ideas propounded in prose confutations of atheism;16 for it was widely recognized that no matter how vaingloriously such scoffers made ‘pregnant wit’ the architect of their own ‘commodious providence’ (I.i.110,112), they were nevertheless unable to escape the fearsome agonies of conscience. William Vaughan's treatise reaffirms Calvin's dictum that the vulnerability of atheists in this respect amounted to ‘an example of the fact that some idea of God exists in every human mind’,17 notwithstanding that such knowledge may be temporarily effaced or obscured by repeated wickedness. In The Golden-grove (pub. 1600) Vaughan declares:

Thus we see, that there is engraven in the hearts of men a certaine feeling of Gods nature, which can never be rooted out. And although swinish Atheists doe laugh at that, which I have written touching the Godhead, yet that is but a laughter from the teeth outward, because inwardly the worme of conscience gnaweth them much more sharply then all hote searing irons.18

So it is that D'Amville, to whom the murder of Montferrers is but a matter for ‘violent laughter’ (II.iv.89) and who seems able to ‘disburden’ his conscience by the ‘satisfaction’ of further crimes (IV.iii.96), comes to realize before he dies that a creed built upon the freedom of the reason can only deliver him at last to a ‘loathsome horror’ of sin (IV.iii.225) and an abject terror of death.

Given this connate and finally inextinguishable insight available even to the unregenerate conscience, it is easy to appreciate the widespread Renaissance supposition that those who attempted to root out its ‘engraven’ knowledge of God's nature were nothing but fools. D'Amville and Borachio congratulate themselves on their ‘amplitude of wit’ (I.i.119), and the ‘judicious’ design of their Machiavellian plot (II.iv.101), but the final cataclysm which overwhelms him demonstrates to D'Amville the precariously limited strength of natural understanding. In spite of the vaunted wisdom by which he attempts to outreach other men's wit, D'Amville's self-inflicted death-stroke duly humbles him to the Psalmist's truth (‘The Fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’: Psalms 14:1), and justifies the scathing obloquies enunciated in such treatises as Fotherby's Atheomastix:

But what is the Atheist then, if he be not a man? I finde it affirmed, in the writings of the learned, both of Divines, and Philosophers, both of Christians and Pagans; yea, and that by full consent; that all impious Atheists, and deniers of God … are in very deed, not better than mere Fooles. Who, being destitute of reason (the true specificall difference of a man) cannot truly be called men, but in an abusive and unproper acception.19

But although before his death and judgment, D'Amville experiences the ‘fearful torments’ of conscience, and confesses to the foolishness of unbelief, there is for him neither hope of conversion nor escape from the unalterable decrees of a providence which strikes down the wicked even as it safeguards the innocent. For atheists were authoritatively considered to be numbered among the reprobate, eternally predestined to damnation; and of those ‘beastes’ who make ‘open profession of contempt against [God] and all religion’, John Dove has this to say:

But as for these, they mocke God in despight of him, they sinne upon malice, and therefore their blasphemye is against the Holy Ghost, which is love and charitye. There is no hope of their conversion, because our Saviour hath already pronounced sentence of damnation against them, saying: Their sinne shall never be forgiven, neither in this life, nor in the life to come.20

If the course of D'Amville's damnable career ironically describes, in its purely secular orientation, that ‘self-same course of revolution’ as more fundamental forms of life—its genesis, state and decay yielding in a limited and finite sense to ‘Nature's weakness’21—that of Charlemont suggests the regenerate progress of a soul elected to the divine favour and therein confidently assured of its salvation. Symbolically drowned in the wars and ‘buried’ by his uncle, he is metaphorically reborn, in the aftermath of the ghost's visitation, to a blissful and self-reliant piety, schooled to attend with patience that ‘success of things’ by which he ultimately inherits all the blessings he formerly ‘Stood ready to be dispossessed of’ (V.ii.280). He embodies, with Castabella, the Calvinist virtues of patient fortitude, chastity, and a passive submission to the divine will. After his imprisonment, he is translated to that serene state of grace and peace of conscience which distinguish the adopted souls of the elect, and bears himself thereafter, in the manner of his father, with such a native goodness as if ‘regeneration had been given / Him in his mother's womb’ (II.iv.66-7). The wholesale transformation that comes over Charlemont,22 from a wayward ‘inclination’ and ‘affection to the war’ (I.ii.2,14) that would place the obligations of family honour above its mutual and ‘contracted life’ (I.ii.93), to a humbled and obedient acquiescence in the will of providence as revealed by the ghost, seems in this light not so much an inconsistency in Tourneur's characterization, as a deliberate attempt to suggest that moment of regeneration which Calvinists believed manifested itself as much in the outward demeanour of the believer as in the inner assurance of his own conscience. ‘True regeneration’, says Thomas Morton, in his Treatise of the threefolde State of man,

is not so small a matter, neither maketh so light a chaunge in a man, but that it may be plainly discerned where it is present … For regeneration being a totall and a supernaturall change of the minde, will, affections, thoughtes, wordes and dedes of a man, cannot be hid or doubtfull for any long time, but will shewe it selfe both to the eyes of other men, and much more to the conscience of the beleever himselfe.23

It is partly because the change of ‘minde’ and ‘conscience’ is ‘totall’ and moreover ‘supernaturall’ in origin, that its psychological implications remain unexplored in Charlemont. On the contrary, change is merelly imputed to him without inner turmoil or obvious moral struggle, somewhat in the manner of ‘that fire’ which, in the words of his counterfeit funeral oration, ‘revive[s] the ashes of / This phoenix’ (III.i.35,36), so that divinity comes to seem, in very truth, the description, rather than the instruction, of his life (III.i.40-1). Nevertheless, its outward effects are clearly evinced in the graveyard: for what to D'Amville is a place ‘full / Of fear and horror’ (IV.iii.285), its disinterred death's-heads mortifyingly vexatious to his conscience, to Charlemont and Castabella, on the contrary, is as ‘fit a place for contemplation’ (IV.iii.3) as for sleep. Moreover, the sight of their innocent composure convinces the atheist that there is indeed

                    some other
Happiness within the freedom of the
Conscience than my knowledge e'er attained to.


But the play also develops, in its opening scenes, two other patterns of contrast sub-joined to the central metaphysical debate between the values of godliness and godlessness: the contrast between honour earned and honour bought, and between love and lust. The dramatic purpose of these minor themes is at an obvious level further to distinguish the Christians and the atheists, but they serve also to underline that universal deformity of both reason and nature to which the whole of creation is heir. Charlemont, in his desire to fight in the wars, is identified with family honour rather than with his uncle's dynastic acquisitiveness; but from the very outset, he too demonstrates the inadequacy of his reason. Encouraged by his uncle's offer of gold to supply his expenses, he advances the claims of honour in a moving interview with Monteferrers, the ironic effect of which is to remind us how far the unreasoning naiveté of the soldier has been manipulated by the scheming politician.24 For Charlemont's sincere desire to earn honour has been seconded, and thus subtly undermined, by his uncle, who would ‘disinherit’ his ‘posterity’ to secure its ‘purchase’ (I.i.88-9). Moreover, it is D'Amville who originally applies the epithets of honour to a project rooted merely in Charlemont's unthinking ‘disposition’ and ‘affection’ for the wars, and does so in order to coordinate his nephew's somewhat nebulous and irrational motives to the unscrupulous machinations of his own Machiavellian intellect. The reasons of honour are properly neither Charlemont's own, nor, from his point of view, fully rational; for they are allowed to predominate over both his obligations to Castabella and his duty to his father. Indeed, as its only surviving scion, the increase of honour to his ‘house’ actually threatens its survival. Nevertheless, we are meant to admire the sincerity, if not the soundness, of his motives, their nobility, if not their logic; for it is the ‘soldier's heart’ in which love and courage are so ‘near allied’ (I.iv.48) that is deliberately opposed to the perverted rationality of the atheist, simultaneously indifferent to all egos except his own, and all motives other than power and wealth.

Just as Charlemont's quest for honour demonstrates the frailty of his understanding, so Castabella's fidelity in love is never permitted to question the play's general thesis concerning the wholesale depravity of purely ‘natural’ instincts. For Castabella, love is opposed to lust just as in the broader dispensations of the play-world, morality is abstracted from nature, a term which, for Christians and atheists alike, carries the same meaning.25 She therefore never directly denies the arguments of nature, whether addressed, by Levidulcia, to her ‘blood’, or by D'Amville, to her reason; but rather sublimates her love as a ‘chaste affection of the soul’, above the adulterate promptings of the flesh, a virtue she describes as the very ‘minion of Heaven's heart’ (II.iii.1-4). Forced to marry Rousard against her will, she refuses to submit divine ordinances to the judgement of reason, and yields her ‘duty’ if not her ‘heart’ to heaven's ‘pleasure’ (II.iii.13-14). These antitheses are more fully debated in the charnelhouse, where D'Amville rationalizes his incestuous designs upon Castabella by arguments drawn from that ‘general liberty / Of generation’ which nature allows to all creatures other than man:

                    Incest? Tush!
These distances affinity observes
Are articles of bondage cast upon
Our freedoms by our own subjections.


Castabella's protests are not addressed to the logic of D'Amville's philosophy, only to its insufficiency; for, as she points out, to argue ‘merely out / of Nature’, prescribing authority and law from its example, not only ignores the omnipotent goodness of God, but is unworthy the ‘Prerogative of Nature's masterpiece’ (IV.iii.135-6,138). Confessing that the ‘horror’ of the argument confounds the capacity of her ‘understanding’, she commends herself to the protection of ‘patient Heav'n’, and prayerfully invokes the thunderbolts of its wrath (IV.iii.163-4).

Whereas for the atheists, the moral law represents an artificial restraint upon man's natural freedoms, for the Christians it supererogates the laws both of nature and reason. Their translation to the realms of grace is apotheosized above all in the graveyard, where their chaste slumbers—in a place, moreover, where on every hand, lust and murder commit sin together—symbolize a blessed indifference either to sense or sensuality, and a supreme confidence in the directing hand of heaven. This sublime contempt of a world conceived of as a charnel-house of moral decay and corruption - a world from which only the elect can remain aloof—is surely the dramatist's attempt to give meaning to the central Calvinist theorem of a fragmented and divided universe, wherein all ‘Guilt is from nature, whereas sanctification is from supernatural grace’.26 To D'Amville, the sight of Charlemont and Castabella asleep among death's-heads, suggests a peace of conscience beyond the scope of knowledge; and indeed, divines such as Thomas Morton would have confirmed that the excusing consciences of the faithful in regard both of their own and imputed righteousness could deliver them to just such a state of serene transcendence over sin, death and suffering: ‘This excuser’ [sic] he says,

is he who only can abide the trials of God's justice, who maketh the faithful rejoyce in all miseries; yea secure in regard of danger. It maketh them triumph over sinne, Sathan, hell, death and damnation, and replenisheth their hearte with such a perfect peace, whereby they feele the joyes of heaven, even whilst they live upon earth.27

But, as Morton goes on to point out, this kind of excusing conscience ‘commeth of a true faith’,28 a faith which, inaccessible to merely rational knowledge, is awakened in Charlemont by the summoning mandate of heaven, revealed in turn by his father's spirit, whose essence is, by definition,

Above the nature and the order of
Those elements whereof our senses are


Charlemont's moral development in the play, therefore, to some extent counterpoints D'Amville's own, and involves his progress from an earthly code based upon the rationale of honour, to a heavenly code of patience; from a somewhat passionate impulsiveness, to the ineffable peace of conscience; in short, from the folly of corrupted reason, to the supra-rational wisdom of faith. Thus his initial pursuit of honour not only leads him unerringly to that species of ‘ill success’ previsioned in the forebodings of Montferrers and the presageful tears of Castabella; but its brittle logic is unilaterally abrogated by a divine imperative which insists that the onus of revenge, to which Charlemont is by honour and convention ostensibly bound, is the absolute prerogative of the King of Kings. But even then, Charlemont's ‘doubtful heart’ ( is slow to credit the full implications of what has been revealed to him: he attempts first to rationalize the ghost's appearance as an ‘idle apprehension’ or a ‘vain dream’ (, and even a second visitation fails to rid him of the painful conviction that his wrongs are both heavier than ‘patience can endure to bear’ (III.i.145), and that their cause is the business still of his ‘understanding to deliberate’ (III.i.136). Only after his fight with Sebastian, during which the ghost, reappearing for the third time, interposes between Charlemont and the prosecution of his revenge, is he finally content to resign the dubious propositions of both honour and passion to the ultimate dispositions of ‘Him … / to whom the justice of revenge belongs’ (III.ii.33-4).

Partly as a result of his religious forbearance in not striking down Sebastian whilst he had the chance, Charlemont is arrested and thrown into prison, an experience which so humbles the ‘pride’ of his ‘mortality’, and so arms him against the weight of his afflictions (III.iv.27-9), that he becomes heir to what Calvin called ‘the exulting confidence of the saints’.29 As with Job, the value of suffering for Charlemont lies in simply accepting its incomprehensibility, and he learns the absolute futility of all efforts to commensurate divine with human justice, of all attempts to measure ‘our conditions’ by our deserts. (Cf. Job 6:2, ‘Oh that my grief were thoroughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together’.) For to submit providential punishment to the judgment of unaided reason is merely to increase its power to hurt; in this sense, ‘profane conceit’ and ‘our own constructions’ are, as Charlemont comes to acknowledge, the ‘authors of / Our misery’ (III.iii.13-16). To accept such affliction, on the other hand, is to acquire not just a ‘heart’ above the reach of maliciousness, and a ‘fortitude’ in scorn of all contempt, but a sovereign ascendancy over the passions:

But now I am emp'ror of a world,
This little world of man. My passions are
My subjects, and I can command them laugh,
Whilst thou dost tickle 'em to death with misery.


Charlemont's stoical fortitude epitomizes the Christian mystery of redemptive suffering expressed in Matthew 24:13, that ‘he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved’; a truth vindicated in retrospect, when, standing possessed of all the symbols of heaven's favour and the world's regard, Charlemont's triumph is declared by the Judge to illustrate ‘the power of that eternal providence’, which, he affirms

Hath made your griefs the instruments to raise
Your blessings to a greater height than ever.


Above all, it is Charlemont's submission of his conscience to this directing power that not only enables him miraculously to elude the mortal dangers to which he is everywhere exposed, but delivers him up to that euphoric acceptance of mortality in which the churchyard's ‘humble earth’ comes to seem the ‘world's condition’ (IV.iii.21-2) at its best, and death, a victory, whose ‘honour’ lies beyond the exigent of a merely mundane existence. In short, his conscience is imbued with those ‘inestimable felicities’ which, according to Calvin, sustain the ‘pious afflicted’ once the light of providence has entered their souls:

But once the light of Divine Providence has illumined the believer's soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. … This, I say, is his comfort, that his heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power—so governs them at will by his nod—so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment: that received into his favour, and intrusted to the care of his angels, neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except in so far as God their master is pleased to permit. … Hence the exulting confidence of the saints. … ‘The Lord taketh my part with them that help me’ (Ps.cxviii.6) ‘Though an host should encamp against me my heart shall not fear’ (Ps.xxvii.3) ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’


But the intimately regulated order of effects predicated by the Calvinist conception of providence, though it frequently supercedes, does not ultimately pre-empt the existence of what the reformer calls ‘inferior causes’ in the dispensation of divine justice; indeed, it is often through such causes that the divine will is visibly manifested, affording categorical proof that all events, whether in or above the realm of nature, proceed from the secret counsel of God. To this end, Calvin affirms in the Institutes:

the Christian will not overlook inferior causes … If he is not left destitute of human aid, which he can employ for his safety, he will set it down as a divine blessing; but he will not, therefore, be remiss in taking measures, or slow in employing the help of those whom he sees possessed of the means of assisting him. Regarding all the aids which the creatures can lend him, as hands offered him by the Lord, he will avail himself of them as the legitimate instruments of Divine Providence.31

The fixed contemplation of a superintending providence therefore enables Charlemont to entertain each and every opportunity of escape as evidence of its beneficent favours. Thus he accepts the offer of money to redeem him from prison as the induction to ‘some end / Of better fortune’ (III.iii.59-60), acknowledging the courtesy of Sebastian in being its instrument. Later on, having killed Borachio in self-defence, he again makes his escape, forswearing his own inclinations to submit to the law, on the supposition that ‘It may / Be Heaven reserves me to some better end’ (IV.iii.35-6). Finally, it becomes clear that the better end for which he has been preserved is to become just such a ‘legitimate instrument’ of providence, as those inferior causes of ‘aids’ and ‘means’ by which he has hitherto been assisted. Entering in time to interrupt ante flagrantem the graveyard assignation of Soquette and Snuffe, he appropriates the latter's disguise of sheet, hair and beard, wisely forbearing to ‘expostulate’ the purpose of such a ‘friendly accident’ (IV.iii.71-4); a purpose which in fact triumphantly declares itself when he is made the means of Castabella's deliverance from ‘the arm of lust’, frightening D'Amville away by his opportune emergence from the charnel-house. Charlemont's sojourn in the churchyard thus culminates in his sublime conviction that his sufferings have been justified; that heaven has made him ‘satisfaction’ for his ‘wrongs’ by reserving him for the ‘worthy work’ which has just now crowned the actions of his life (IV.iii.179-85). This unspeakable exaltation of conscience and spirit continue to sustain him throughout the trial-scene, where his impregnable courage in the face of death prompts D'Amville to request his body after execution, in order to find out by his ‘anatomy’ the efficient cause of a ‘contented mind’ (V.ii.167). ‘My wit’, says D'Amville,

Has reached beyond the scope of Nature; yet
For all my learning I am still to seek
From whence the peace of conscience should proceed.


But the peace of conscience is not to be achieved either by ‘art’ or by ‘Nature’; nor is it within the comprehension of a merely naturalistic ‘Philosophy’ (V.ii.161, 166); rather, as Charlemont affirms, it ‘rises in itself’, being a spiritual state of purely supernatural origins. In all these assumptions, the atheist displays the insufficiency of his reason, for the moral serenity and guiltless courage of his victims are the imputative effects of Divine grace; and it is specifically to heaven, therefore, that Charlemont in the end attributes all his blessings, including those ‘gracious motives’ which ‘made’ him ‘still forbear / To be mind own revenger’ (V.ii.275-7).32

Just as the congruent pattern of events in the graveyard confirms Charlemont in the mysteries of a luminous faith, so a parallel series of events, by their very unnaturalness, contribute to the overthrow of D'Amville's proud reason, and enforce him to a final recognition that there is a power above nature. The providence that safeguards the innocent and emancipates them to the beatific consolations of a liberated conscience, in like manner and by similar extraordinary processes, so binds the unregenerate conscience of D'Amville that he succumbs, like Macbeth, to its stricken imaginings. Paradoxically, his conscience becomes increasingly susceptible, as it veers towards unreason, to the evidence of that order of supernatural truth by definition incommensurable with a view of life rooted exclusively in rerum natura. Ghostly apparitions, real or imagined, combine to remind him inescapably of the ‘loathsome horror’ of his sin: and Charlemont's macabre disguise precipitates him to that state of distraction where such sights as the staring death's-head (IV.iii.211), the vision of Montferrers' ghost in ‘A fair white cloud’ (IV.iii.235), and its later manifestations in a dream (V.i.27-31), prove inexorably vexatious to his conscience, and awaken it, hitherto benumbed or seared, to the sinful enormity of his crimes. He is reduced, like Faustus, to that abject state of morbid terror said to afflict unrepentant sinners, and particularly atheists, once they became subject to intimations of their own mortality. Like Faustus, he suffers apocalyptic visions of annihilation, crying out in an agony of guilt to be overwhelmed by mountains, or consumed in the elements, so that his body, ‘circumvolved’ within a cloud, might be scattered by thunder to ‘nothing in the air’ (IV.iii.249-52).33 Like Faustus, his soul is shaken by paroxysms of despair as it confronts the truth it has hitherto desired to avoid: accusing himself of cowardice, D'Amville admits that

                    the countenance of
A bloodless worm might ha' the courage now
To turn my blood to water. The trembling motion
of an aspen leaf would make me, like
the shadow of that leaf, lie shaking under it.


Tourneur's portrayal of D'Amville's spiritual desperation, and the leaf-like tremblings of his conscience, seems influenced by Calvin's doctrine that even among those who ‘deny the being of a God’, a sense of deity is nevertheless engraved upon their consciences; of atheists the Institutes affirm:

The most audacious despiser of God is most easily disturbed, trembling at the sound of a falling leaf. How so, unless in vindication of the divine majesty which smites their consciences the more strongly the more they endeavour to flee from it. They all, indeed, look out for hiding-places, where they may conceal themselves from the presence of the Lord, and again efface it from their mind; but after all their efforts they remain caught within the net.

… [In such cases] the gnawings of conscience is not unlike the slumber of the intoxicated or the insane, who have no quiet rest in sleep, but are continually haunted with dire horrific dreams.34

But having put, for the moment, his brain in ‘order’, making it the ‘happy instrument’ both of Charlemont's rearrest and the sealing up of his own ‘assurance’, D'Amville endeavours to evade all further excoriations of conscience by closeting himself with the gold coins for which he murdered his brother, ‘ravishing’ his ‘sense’ with their angels' voices (V.i.9). Moreover, he takes ironic refuge in what Tourneur evidently sees as an habitual and characteristic blasphemy inherent in the atheist's creed: the sacrilegious denial of astrological influence. Like Shakespeare's naturalist Edmund, who denies not only an ‘enforced obedience’ to the planets, but also their ‘divine thrusting on’ (King Lear, I.ii.130-1), D'Amville despises the ‘ignorant astronomer’ whose ‘wandering speculation’ would make the stars the arbiters of ‘men's fortunes’ (V.i.10-12). Instead, his reductivist faith equates the stars with gold, and reason with God:

These are the stars, the ministers of fate,
And man's high wisdom and superior power
To which their forces are subordinate.


Reassured in his convictions by this profane conceit, D'Amville falls asleep; but the complacency of his beliefs and the counterfeit security they represent are almost immediately countermined by his nightmare vision of the ghost of Montferrers, who refutes his atheistical presumption by reminding him that ‘with all thy wisdom th'art a fool’, and by predicting the imminent destruction of all his projects. We recall, with Calvin, that for the audacious despiser of God there can be no quiet rest in sleep, and prepare to behold the atheist finally caught up in the ‘net’ of providence, his conscience smitten by the divine wrath the more he endeavours to evade it.

Now the precise relationship between providential power and astrological fate was a subject of considerable controversy during the Renaissance, and the uses to which these concepts are put in The Atheist's Tragedy has occasioned a degree of critical dissension, if not outright confusion.35 Tourneur appears to align himself with a leading proponent of judicial astrology, Sir Christopher Heydon, who, in A Defence of Judiciall Astrologie, affirms that ‘the providence of God in the ordinarie government of the world, doeth as well shine in disposing the meanes, as in ordaining the ende’, and holds that such ends can be effected inter alia through stellar influence.36 And indeed, throughout the play, D'Amville's blasphemous denigration of all such influence is answered by ominous and unnatural portents in the heavens, which culminate, as we have seen, in the nightmare appearance of Montferrers. Thus on the occasion of the murder, D'Amville and Borachio gloat upon the macabre elegance of their plot, carried unobserved through the very eye of observation, by the unwitting but ‘instrumental help’ of servants made drunk for the purpose; and its successful execution through the agency of others, suggests to D'Amville's scornful pride a heinous comparison, which credits himself with

That power of rule philosophers ascribe
To him they call the supreme of the stars,
Making their influences governors
Of sublunary creatures, when their selves
Are senseless of their operations …


In thus denying the ability of the stars to exert a governing influence upon the sublunary world, D'Amville is, of course, denying the existence of a power beyond them whose rule they merely reflect and mediate. However, this assertion is ironically interrupted in mid-sentence by thunder and lightning, clearly intended as a spectacular augury of heaven's power over nature, which D'Amville attempts to rationalize scientifically as a ‘mere effect of Nature’ (II.iv.142). The thunder and lightning motif recurs in Act IV, where Castabella, propositioned by D'Amville's ‘argument’ of ‘love’ (IV.iii.83), petitions heaven to express its wrath in thunderbolts and enflame the skies with lightning, rather than thus endure the burden of man's wickedness. And in due course, its power is asserted, and wickedness warded off, if not precisely in the manner desiderated by Castabella's entreaty, then at least no less auspiciously by the happy intervention of Charlemont, providentially preserved for this ‘blessed purpose’ by the protecting hand of God. A few lines later, D'Amville reenters distractedly; stricken now with guilty horror, the sight of the stars, so far hidden in apparent complicity with his black and deep desires, convinces him that their present luminescence challenges ‘payment’ of him (IV.iii.230). Similarly the sky, hitherto darkened and obscured until the ‘close deed / Was done’ (IV.iii.223-4), now meets him in the face with her ‘light corrupted eyes’ (IV.iii.229): the empyreal witnesses of that divine power which is has been his temerity to deny.

Now in all these instances, Tourneur seems at least partly concerned to show the astrological scepticism of the atheist emphatically contravened by the manifest evidence of God's power as revealed in his creation; for the awesome impressiveness of the firmament, with its infinite multitude of stars, was held to be one proof of the existence of its creator. This is in fact the conventional Calvinist dogma, unexceptionable either to polemicists against astrology or against atheism. So the anonymous W. P. in his Foure Great Lyers, maintains that the firmment is ‘an Alphabet written in great letters, in which is described the majestie of God’, and that the ‘wonderfull varietie of Starres’ is so convincingly the work of his hands as ‘maketh sinners and wicked menne inexcusable before the judgement seate of God’.37 John Dove's A Confutation of Atheisme declares in similar vein that

No man is such a rusticke, so brutish and voyde of common sense and reason, but as often as he looketh up to heaven, if he deny this, his own eyes shall witnes against him, for although this be not sufficient to bring him to the perfecte understanding of that God by whose providence he seeth the world is governed, yet what his eye hath seene, his tongue may tell.38

The difficulty here is that Tourneur goes beyond this to a cosmological theory in which the stars are not merely the latent and inert corruscations of God's glory, but specifically the active agents of his providence, and their subordinate influence upon the fortunes and destiny of the atheist is manifestly proportionate to his denials of their significance. The playwright's association with Sir Christopher Heydon (to whom he dedicated The Transformed Metamorphosis39) has apparently led him to adopt in these instances a somewhat intrusive and anomalous metaphysic of astrological determinism, logically at odds with his more typical concern to show God's direct intervention in the affairs of men, and strictly inconsistent with the mainstream Calvinist orthodoxy which elsewhere informs the play. Somewhat ironically, therefore, D'Amville's scorn for the ‘planet-struck’ ignorance of the astronomer is actually closer in spirit to those theologians of the period who accused astrologists of a contempt for God's providence, and whose characteristic objection to the sort of astrological fate developed in The Atheist's Tragedy was that, even where it postulated God as first cause, it assumed his will to be irreversibly expressed in the order of the stars, thus confining to second causes what was by definition supernatural and unknowable.40 It is true that it was the judicial phase of the art which most antagonized its opponents. But to dogmatic reformists, even the moderate claims of a Heydon, that the divine government might shine as well in disposing the means as in ordaining the ends, infringed the Calvinist doctrine of special providence, according to which no phenomenal causes must be sought for except the secret will of God. Thus John Chamber, whose Treatise Against Judicial Astrologie was the immediate inspiration for Heydon's Defence, reasons that astrology must necessarily be opposed to divinity in that ‘The hearts and wayes of all men are in the hands of God, who doth dispose and turne them, as seemeth best to him.’41 Calvin himself in A little booke concernynge offences uncompromisingly proscribes not just astrology, but all notions of secondary causation and conditional necessity which threaten to usurp God's immediate regulation of the universe: ‘For we neither dreame of intricate knottes of causes with the Stoikes, nor submit the governance of the worlde to the Starres, nor imagine a necessitie of things in the very nature of things it selfe.’42

But in fact, what seems a philosophic inconsistency in The Atheist's Tragedy is perhaps more apparent than real. D'Amville's scepticism, though counterposed somewhat inaccurately to a thematic systasis of religion and astrology, is in fact bred partly of an established stage convention in which any systematic repudiation of stellar influence (of the sort to which, for example, Edmund, Fletcher's Alquazier, and Chapman's Byron are prone) is to be equated, if not in every case with outright villainy, then with certain dangerous and autarchic tendencies of mind and will, which immediately triggered the still medieval prejudices and suspicions of a Renaissance audience. Indeed, as Don Cameron Allen suggests, the assumptions of astrology were so widely accepted at all levels of society, that in spite of the theological ordinances against it, a disbelief in its major hypotheses could be regarded paradoxically as a sinister aberration,43 eminently consonant, therefore, with the unregenerate and irreligious scepticism of a D'Amville. And it is primarily at this level, where theology merges with popular superstition and a polymorphous dramatic tradition, that the genesis of Tourneur's beliefs must be sought; indeed, a popular Calvinism seems not to have been entirely incompatible with at least a modified form of astrologia naturalis. The Huguenot poet, Du Bartas, for example, manages to combine a belief in the unilaterality of the divine will, with an equally firm conviction that its dispositions may be predicted in the ‘fatal influence’ of the planets:

I hold, that God (as The first cause) hath given
Light, Course and Force to all the Lampes of Heav'n:
That still he guides them, and his Providence
Disposeth free, their Fatall influence:
And that therefore, (the rather) we below
Should studie all, their Course and Force to know.(44)

Even Calvin, as we have seen, does not totally repudiate the interposition of what he calls inferior causes, and in An Admonicion against astrology judiciall actually goes so far as to concede the principle that ‘god can use the naturall meanes to chasten men withall’.45 For in fact to argue that the divine decrees were exclusively effected without the intercourse of natural causes was to labour the freedom of God's will at the expense of all logic, human or divine, inviting the obvious charge, levelled in this instance by Sir Christopher Heydon, that ‘God governeth inordinately, and so most absurdly, disturbing the order of causes. … For that cannot be truely said to be naturall, which is effected immediately by the powerfull and outstretched arme of God …’46 But, allowing for a certain rhetorical exaggeration, this is very close to what the doctrine of special providence actually implied: that God indeed arranges his government so as to declare by the clearest manifestations that even where his justice is effected by natural means, it is necessarily above nature's corrupted law, and proclaims itself most strikingly in a specifically unnatural irrelatedness to the order of causes. Ultimately, the question resolves itself into one of attribution, and a more exact definition of what is ‘natural’ than is usual in contemporary treatises, or for that matter in Tourneur's thought: there is, after all, no literal deus ex machina in The Atheist's Tragedy, and the wickedness of its protagonist is punished by ‘natural’ means, but so unnaturally disposed as to suggest, as far as lies within the limits of conventional realism, the active intervention of the ‘powerfull and outstretched arme of God’. On this minimal definition of what is natural, all the extraordinary punishments which bring out the destruction of D'Amville have individually a material cause; but Calvinists would argue that God is the first, efficient and active cause from which such punishments proceeds, sin (rather than the stars, or any generalised instinct of nature) being the true impulsive cause, which provokes God into sending them.

So it is that in the opening scene of Act V, the overweening presumption which leads D'Amville to credit his ‘real wisdom’ with the creation of a state that will ‘eternize’ his ‘posterity’, and ironically to ridicule the foolish worshipper of a ‘fantastic providence’, is countered promptly by the providential annihilation of his posterity and the ‘wisdom’ by which it was to be sustained. His closet-bound meditations are interrupted by servants who enter with the body of Sebastian, ‘Slain by the Lord Belforest’ (V.i.49); while simulteneously the dying groans of the sickly Rousard emanate from a chamber ‘within’. In each instance, the wages of sin have been wrought through a material cause; but the dramatic effect of the untimely deaths is naturalistically indefensible,47 intended to suggest the unmistakable intervention of that efficient cause from which all such retribution derives. This effect is confirmed in Rousard's case when we recall how, on the ‘very day’ of his marriage to Castabella, an inexplicable ‘weakness’ surprised his health:

As if my sickness were a punishment
That did arrest me for some injury
I then committed.


And indeed the idea that sickness can have, in such cases, a moral rather than a strictly natural cause—so explicit, moreover, as to be capable of bringing even atheists to acknowledge God—is endorsed by Martin Fotherby's Atheomastix, which states that ‘even Physitians themselves doe finde in many sickenesses, that they be divine punishments’.48 At this prospect of death, D'Amville's conscience succumbs once again to brainsick and fatal visions, and for a moment its incandescent imaginings confuse the face of the messenger with that ‘prodigious apparition’ which had haunted his dream. Calling for a doctor, he offers him gold to inspire ‘new life’ into the bodies of his sons; but he learns too late that neither gold nor the ‘radical ability of Nature’ (V.i.85) can restore the heat of life to those in which it is palpably extinguished. Confronted thus by the incomprehensible dissolution, apparently by nature, of the very monument he had raised in her honour, and deprived further of his meretricious faith in wealth, D'Amville appeals amazedly to the doctor, who confirms his dawning suspicion that there must indeed be a ‘power above Nature’, by rehearsing the classic argument against atheism, a proof drawn a posteriori of the existence of God:

                    A power above Nature?
Doubt you that, my lord? Consider but
Whence man received his body and his form:
Not from corruption like some worms and flies,
But only from the generation of
A man, for Nature never did bring forth
A man without a man; nor could the first
Man, being but the passive subject, not
The active mover, be the maker of
Himself; so of necessity there must
Be a superior power to Nature.


Increasingly distracted and troubled in his conscience, D'Amville curses treacherous nature for having ‘abused his trust’, and determines to arraign her as a forger of false assurances in the ‘superior court’ of ‘yond Star Chamber’ (V.i.118-20); and the pun here evidently implies his oblique recognition that the stars have, after all, a power to influence man's destiny, and that his own ultimate fate will be decided in the high court of divine justice. In the eschatology of the play's final scene, D'Amville opposes for the last time the providence of his reason to the providence of God, and his downfall enacts the widespread Renaissance belief not only that few atheists escaped unpunished, but that the manner of such punishments, in the words of Fotherby, ‘inforceth divers of those Atheists to confesse [God] who before had denied him’.49

Thus, at the tragic climax, D'Amville interrupts the trial of Snuffe, Cataplasma and the minor workers of iniquity, entering ‘distractedly, with the hearses of his two sons borne after him’, appealing to the judges for ‘Judgement, judgement’ (V.ii.68). His own guilt-stricken terror of death causes him to marvel at the cheerful courage of Charlemont and Castabella, who, falsely accused for murder and adultery, mount the scaffold with the joyous alacrity of spirit which comes of a clear conscience. Whereas Charlemont calls for a glass of water, the apprehension of his victims' imminent end so harrows D'Amville's soul, freezing up ‘the rivers of his veins’, that, in contrast to his nephew, he calls for wine to bolster his courage; but again, his conscience becomes a prey to that stricken and phantasmagoric state in which ‘nothing is but what is not’, and the wine appears to change into blood, the ‘filthy witness’ of his own past crimes.50 Having wrought himself up, by its consumption, to a ‘bastard valour’, and goaded by his conscience to an unreasoning and frenzied desperation, he dismisses the executioner, determining himself to become the ‘noble’ instrument of his nephew's death. As he raises up the axe, and Charlemont prepares himself for an ‘unexampled dignity of death’, D'Amville accidentally strikes out his own brains, a dramatic coup intended by Tourneur to demonstrate that in the theatre of God's justice, the atheist has secured both the judgment for which he came, and the due measure of his deserts, accomplished, moreover, by the extraordinary intervention of the deity.

For the Judge, as for all who behold it, the strangeness of this counterstroke exhibits the same power of eternal providence which has made of Charlemont's griefs the instruments of his new-found blessings: an unimpeachable conclusion, given the Calvinistic certainties upon which the play is founded, and one that would be echoed fulsomely by Fotherby, for whom such signal displays of Divine retribution were a cause as much for the godly to ‘rejoyce’ as for the ungodly to tremble. Indeed, if we assume what on the evidence seems likely, that Tourneur's play is in its ideological structure a dramatic redaction of academic treatises on atheism, then the pervasive and laboured moralism by which it is contrived, and the curiously epiphanic tone of its ending, may have been suggested by just such a passage as follows from Atheomastix, which in its summary exposition of Tourneur's plot could as well serve as a homiletic prologue for The Honest Man's Revenge, as a cautionary epitaph upon The Atheist's Tragedy. ‘For if we looke with judgement’, says Fotherby,

into the lives and deaths, of those prophane persons, that have beene Gods most direct and professed Enemies, and, most gloried and triumphed in their impieties and blasphemies, as though there were no God at all to regard them; wee may easily observe, that none of them hath escaped the revenging hand of God, but that all of them have constantly falne into great calamity, and evermore ended their ungodly lives, with unnaturall, untimely, and unfortunate deathes. Which constancy, in those mens so certaine infelicity (more than in other mens, that are in other kindes wicked) doth openly proclaime, that this their punishment commeth not out of the dust; neither is it sent unto them by blind chance and fortune (for, there is no such constancie) but that it onely proceedeth from that divine providence, which both heareth, and seeth, and knoweth all things: Yea, and taketh speciall notice of those that are Atheists, as of his most daring and audacious enemies: culling them out by the head, from among all other men, to be the selected spectacles of his wrath and indignation. That they who disclaimed him in their lives, yet might proclaime him in their deathes: declaring unto all men, that the God, whom they denied, had now, by their punishment, prooved himselfe a God indeed.51

Culled out ‘by the head’ in this manner, to be the selected spectacle of the divine wrath, it need hardly be added that D'Amville is damned for his sins, not only because he dies in the commission of murder, but as a reprobate atheist, the sentence of damnation has already been passed upon him.52 Indeed, Fotherby alludes to one of the darker implications of the doctrine of predestination, when he infers that God ordains the spectacular crimes of atheists and their equally spectacular punishments, according to his secret will: ‘As though he had made them to no other purpose, but to glorifie himselfe, by taking just vengeance upon their ungodliness.’53 But by the more palpable evidence of his revealed will. D'Amville's profane faith in reason and his blasphemous exaltation of nature are anathema; and in his dying moments, the atheist proclaims their demonstrable insufficiency, driven by his conscience to render himself inexcusable before ‘yond’ power' that struck him down:

There was the strength of natural understanding
But Nature is a fool. There is a power
Above her that hath overthrown the pride
Of all my projects and posterity.



  1. Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960) p. 123.

  2. For a more sustained comparison of The Atheist's Tragedy and Doctor Faustus, see Ornstein, The Moral Vision, pp. 122-4, and Irving Ribner (ed.), The Atheist's Tragedy, the Revels Plays (London: Methuen, 1964), lxiii.

  3. Institutes, I.v.4.

  4. Institutes, I.xvi.3.

  5. For discussions of The Atheist's Tragedy in the context of the revenge tradition see Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1940), pp. 139-43; and Brian Morris and Roma Gill (eds.), The Atheist's Tragedy, New Mermaids Edition (London: Benn, 1976), pp. xviii-xxiv; also T. M. Tomlinson, ‘The Morality of Revenge: Tourneur's Critics’, Essays in Criticism, 10 (1960), 134-47.

  6. Institutes, I.v.7-8. For a Calvinist interpretation of the play see Michael H. Higgins, ‘The Influence of Calvinistic Thought in Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy’, RES, 19 (1943), 255-62.

  7. M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), p. 184.

  8. Herndl, The High Design, p. 163. I have at several points found Herndl's discussion of natural law beliefs in Jacobean tragedy invaluable.

  9. Institutes, II.ii.22.

  10. Cf. Ribner (ed.), The Atheist's Tragedy, xxxvii.

  11. Ornstein, ‘The Atheist's Tragedy and Renaissance Naturalism’, SP, 51 (1954), 194-207; see also The Moral Vision, p. 120.

  12. See ‘The Atheist's Tragedy and Renaissance Naturalism’; The Moral Vision. For more general discussions of Renaissance atheism see E. A. Strathmann, ‘Elizabethan Meanings of Atheism’, in Sir Walter Raleigh: A Study in Elizabethan Skepticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951); G. T. Buckley, Atheism in the English Renaissance (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1932); P. H. Kocher, Science and Religion in Elizabethan England (San Marino, Calif.: Huntingdon Library 1953).

  13. Peter B. Murray, A Study of Cyril Tourneur (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), pp. 60-1.

  14. Institutes, II.ii.12.

  15. Cf. Murray, A Study of Cyril Tourneur, p. 87.

  16. I am indebted, as are all who have written on this subject, to the avenues of research suggested by Strathmann's major study: Sir Walter Raleigh: A Study in Elizabethan Skepticism.

  17. Institutes, I.iii.2.

  18. William Vaughan, The Golden-grove (London, 1600), sig.C2.

  19. Martin Fotherby, Atheomastix: Clearing four Truthes, Against Atheists and Infidels (London, 1622), sig.M54.

  20. John Dove, A Confutation of Atheisme (London, 1605), sig.A4.

  21. Cf. Murray, A Study of Cyril Tourneur, p. 62.

  22. This transformation has been noticed by Una Ellis-Fermor in The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation (London: Methuen, 1936), p. 166, and by Murray, A Study of Cyril Tourneur, p. 100. I am indebted also in the following paragraphs to Murray's perceptive comments on the relationship between honour and reason in Charlemont, ibid., pp. 99-104.

  23. Thomas Morton, A Treatise of the threefolde state of man, sigs.S6v, S7.

  24. Cf. Brian Morris and Roma Gill (eds.), The Atheist's Tragedy, p. xiv.

  25. Cf. Herndl, The High Design, p. 223.

  26. Institutes, II.i.7.

  27. A Treatise of the threefolde State of man, sig.S5.

  28. ibid., sig.S5.

  29. Institutes, I.xvii.11.

  30. Institutes, I.xvii.11.

  31. Institutes, I.xvii.9.

  32. My italics.

  33. See Hosea 10:8; Luke 23:30; Revelation 6:16. For a more general discussion of Tourneur's borrowings see Ornstein, The Moral Vision, pp. 120-6.

  34. Institutes, I.iii.2.

  35. See J. M. S. Tompkins, ‘Tourneur and the Stars’, RES, 22 (1946), 315-19; Ribner (ed.), The Atheist's Tragedy, pp. xliii-xlvi; Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, pp. 176-8. Murray disagrees with the determinist interpretations of the above-mentioned critics when he states that the stars ‘do not function as they should, if they were truly in control of the actions of men’ (A Study of Cyril Tourneur, p. 95). For more general studies see Kocher, Science and Religion in Elizabethan England, pp. 201-24 and Don Cameron Allen, The Star-Crossed Renaissance (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1941).

  36. Sir Christopher Heydon, A Defence of Judiciall Astrologie (Cambridge, 1603), sig.q4v.

  37. W. P., Foure Great Lyers, Striving who shall win the silver Whetstone (London, 1585), sig.B7. W. P. is identified as William Perkins by H. Dick in ‘The Authorship of Foure Great Lyers (1585)’, The Library, IV, 19 (1938-9), 311-14.

  38. Sig.C4.

  39. According to the hypothesis advanced by Kenneth Cameron in ‘Tourneur's Transformed Metamorphosis’, RES, (1940) 18-24, p. 20.

  40. Cf. Kocher, Science and Religion in Elizabethan England, p. 215.

  41. John Chamber, A Treatise Against Judiciall Astrologie (London, 1601), sig.D1.

  42. Jean Calvin, A little booke concernynge offences, trans. A. Goldinge (1567), sig.F7v.

  43. The Star-Crossed Renaissance, pp. 184-5.

  44. Guillaume de Saluste du Bartas: his devine weekes and workes, trans. J. Sylvester (London, 1605), sig.L2v.

  45. Jean Calvin, An admonicion against astrology judiciall, trans. G. G(ylby) (London, 1561), sig.C3.

  46. A Defence of Judiciall Astrologie, sig.q4v.

  47. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, p. 178.

  48. Sig.T6v.

  49. ibid., sig.N2.

  50. Macbeth, I.iii.141, II.ii.48.

  51. Atheomastix, sigs.N2, N2v.

  52. See John Dove, sig.A4, quoted above.

  53. Atheomastix, sig.N2v.

Karen Robertson (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Chastity and Justice in The Revenger's Tragedy,” in Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, edited by Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991 pp. 215-36.

[In the following essay, Robertson argues that in The Revenger's Tragedy there is a connection between misused sexuality and ill rule, and that Tourneur shows with his play that in a corrupt court that attacks chastity there can be neither virtue nor justice.]

The court of Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (1607-1611)1 is a place of sexual and economic circulation, where women fall behind the arras, in bedchambers, in banqueting halls. The rare women who resist seduction by word or gold become targets of aggression, frequently victims of murder. In the central act of vengeance in the play, Vindice offers a poisoned skull to the Duke, who eagerly and fatally kisses the ‘bony lady’ (3.5.120). Vindice has been interpreted by a number of modern critics as a villain protagonist. Some see his villainy in the mere fact of revenge itself; others in the particular device he chooses. In this essay I argue that Vindice can been seen as a heroic revenger who uses the body of a woman in the execution of justice to uphold and affirm older, medieval ideals of chastity. Vindice finds in the bones of chaste, dead women an ideal that resists the contaminating transformations of the court. The play's assertion of the positive value to be found in the bodies of women, however, fails to address the negative implications of a system of binary oppositions which traps both men and women. The play remains within the boundaries of a system of sexuality which finds virtue readily in the bodies of chaste, dead women, and suspects the mutable virtue of the living, a system which Nancy Hartsock has described as the masculine eros.2

The dominant modern interpretation of The Revenger's Tragedy has judged Vindice as a man corrupted by his devotion to revenge.3 Such judgments are rooted in the assumption that sixteenth-century audiences had attitudes defined solely by homiletic and political injunctions against private vengeance.4 This essay is grounded in an alternative view of English Renaissance attitudes toward vengeance. While some members of an audience might adhere to homiletic injunctions against private vengeance, there existed powerful theological support for individual participation in the execution of justice. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saieth the Lord” (Rom. 12:19) does not simply enjoin human passivity before evil, but promises God's intervention in human affairs and selection of appropriate instruments for vengeance. Stories of the strange exposure of criminals are demonstrations of the inexorable operations of God's justice in the world.5 Vindice's curious vengeance on the tyrant Duke thus becomes a demonstration of such operations. An interpretation rooted in an a priori assumption of the invalidity of private vengeance for the Elizabethan and Jacobean audience unduly constricts an understanding of the play.

Since such arguments have been made elsewhere, (Broude, Robertson), this essay operates from the assumption that Vindice's vengeance could be condoned by some members of a Jacobean audience. Here I examine the connection between the bodies of women and male violence. Female sexuality pervades this play, in the delineation of tyranny, the description of a debased court, and in the definition of heroism. Vindice's activities from the first scene of the play focus particularly on the defense of the bodies of chaste women and his violence is exercised in defense of female chastity. Such violence in protection of women, condoned by a gendered system of honor, grants a range of activity to the male defender, while restricting feminine participation in the operations of justice. Like Junius Brutus, the avenger of the chaste Lucrece, the revenger finds in the bodies of dead, chaste women models of heroic virtue that animate his own resistance to tyranny.

The Italianate court of this play is a place of sin, specifically sexual sin, and the tyranny of the ducal family is carefully delineated in specifically sexual terms. The family illustrates a range of sexual crimes. The youngest son is a rapist. Lussurioso hires a pander to seduce a chaste virgin—in medieval canon law seduction was a crime.6 The bastard commits incest with his stepmother, and the Duke confesses that he has murdered women who resist his sexual advances, confirmation of the accusation of murder made by Vindice in 1.1.7 The family's power is demonstrated by their ability to invade the bodies of women.

Vindice, when disguised as a pander, describes to his mother the inevitable status of a maid at court.

And chide away that foolish country girl
Keeps company with your daughter, Chastity


The punning ambiguity of the line splits Castiza into two figures—the chaste daughter, Chastity, and the foolish, country chaperone who accompanies but cannot protect her companion at court. The bawdy pun, “country girl” suggests not only the urban progression of the country girl from maid to whore,8 but also the inevitability of such progression. From the perspective of a pander, the body of a chaste woman only promises her shame, a shame made inevitable by her possession of the female sexual organ which lies buried in her body as the word ‘cunt’ lies buried in the word country. As objects of desire, women fall—into concupiscence, adultery, incest. Vindice describes them, as agents of their own desire, enticing and inviting men:

This woman in immodest thin apparel
Lets in her friend by water; here a dame
Cunning nails leather hinges to a door
To avoid proclamation.


One such moment of feminine sexual aggression is enacted in the second scene, when we watch the Duchess seduce her husband's bastard son.

Proximity to court will expose the woman's body to male lust, a circulation of sexual energy that, in this play, is inexorably linked with economic energy. The purse of the vulva opens to receive the lover as readily as the hand opens to receive gold. This system of sexual and economic exchange is challenged by two siblings, Vindice and Castiza. Their resistance to tyranny is encoded as the defense of the chaste. The process that honors the chaste leads to an elevation of stasis, the closing of the body, and death as principles of resistance.9 Feminine self-defense operates within a severely limited structure of value, yet the play does present a sequence of increasingly energetic figures of chastity who work in their own self-defense. These figures of active virtue contribute to the cleansing of the contaminated court.

Julian Pitt-Rivers, in an anthropological analysis of the honor code, explains its gendered division of labor. For both men and women, the body is the arena in which honor is won or lost. For women, honor lies in successful protection of their sexual chastity. For men, honor can be accrued through the exercise of the body in battle-and thus the submission of the body to potential threat. Yet a painful vulnerability exists for men, for male honor is deeply entangled in the reputation of female family members. The sexual division of labor “delegates the virtue expressed in sexual purity to females and the duty of defending female virtue to the males” (Pitt-Rivers 45). The play does not overthrow this sexual division of labor, but exposes the paradoxes and dilemmas of the survival of the chaste at court. The range available to women is presented in the activities of the female characters who appear on stage and then is amplified through the numerous references to feminine emblems in the dialogue.

Three living female characters appear on stage. The Duchess, lustful, adulterous, and incestuous, delimits one boundary of feminine evil. The other female characters, Gratiana and Castiza, illustrate the precarious survival of chastity at court. These living characters are joined by the bodies of the chaste dead—Antonio's wife and the skull of Gloriana—who make explicit the court's threat to chaste survival. The value vested in the bodies of women is amplified further in the use of emblems of femininity.10

The use of feminine images as provocation for resistance to tyranny and as site of value begins in the opening scene. From the first lines, Vindice guides the audience toward accurate judgment of the ducal family and exposes the criminal behind the ducal robe. Himself an ancillary victim of unpunished crime, he mourns the murder of his mistress, poisoned by the Duke because she resisted his sexual advances. Vindice uses the skull of the dead Gloriana to tutor the audience in correct discrimination of value. In this scene the traditional virtues vested in the skull as a memento mori are granted to a specifically feminine skull.11 Vindice's lesson in discrimination is taught through the body of a woman—a pattern repeated in the play. He tutors the audience in a reconstruction of the face of the dead beloved, a lesson in which they learn to reconstruct from the substance of bone, an outward appearance of beauty. We learn to see that the skull has a truthful beauty far superior to the outward shows of the court.

The literal skull held in the hand of the revenger is then associated verbally with two other bald-headed Madams—those of Opportunity and Occasion:

                                                                                Prithee say,
Has that bald madam, Opportunity,
Yet thought upon's?


It may point out Occasion; if I meet her,
I'll hold her by the foretop fast enough;
Or like the French mole heave up hair and all.


As he evokes the image of a man grasping the forelock of the bald madam Opportunity, Vindice holds in his hand the female skull which will provide both motive and instrument for his revenge. The metaphorical is given physical representation on the stage, a literalization of the figurative that characterizes Tourneur's use of the bodies of women in this play. Further, this scene awakens in the audience an awareness of Vindice as emblem maker, a talent made completely explicit late in the play in an exchange between Vindice and Lussurioso.12

The second scene, in which the Duchess's youngest son is tried for rape, confirms Vindice's evaluation of the ducal family. The rape trial makes particularly clear the lethal danger of the court. Once at court, a chaste woman becomes the target for male sexual aggression, and her resistance can lead, as in the case of Gloriana, to murder, or, as in the case of Antonio's wife, to rape. Such behavior on the part of a male is considered, by the ducal family at least, as entirely natural. The youngest son, blaming his victim, excuses himself as moved by “flesh and blood,” powerless before the lady's beauty.

The presentation of a judicial trial for rape is intriguing in the context of contemporary, sixteenth-century English practice. Though rape had been a felony offense since the Statutes of Westminster in the thirteenth century and punishable by death (Brownmiller 22), prosecutions for rape were rare. J. S. Cockburn in Crime in England 1550-1800 analyzes indictments in three counties, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Sussex, in a roughly fifty-year period. Of the 7544 persons indicted, only 68 were charged with sexual offenses, only fifty with rape (Cockburn 58).13 Judicial trial for rape of an aristocrat, let alone a member of the ruling family, is an extraordinary exception to English practice at the turn of the century.14 A trial for rape, rather than a prosecution over trespass, focuses on the woman as the victim of aggression. For his Jacobean audience, Tourneur's presentation of a trial for rape reemphasizes the vulnerable position of women at the court. This scene demonstrates the contamination of justice in the state and, through the blocking of state justice, establishes justifications for private revenge. The lust that infects the ducal family signals the complex of failures which mark the tyrant and can provide justifications for tyrannicide.15

While the trial gives some prominence to the virtuous woman as victim of rape, Tourneur chooses not to dramatize the scene of the suicide of Antonio's wife. Instead, the play focuses on the consequences of that suicide: the precipitation of vows of vengeance by her husband and associates. Antonio's wife, after her rape, has taken the solution of Lucrece. The failure of the apparatus of public state justice and the delay in sentencing of the Duchess's son provokes her suicide. The dead body of the lady is presented on stage both as a demonstration of the failure of the judicial system and a redaction of the death of another chaste lady, Vindice's Gloriana, though in this case the lady is self-poisoned. Antonio explains:

Her honor first drunk poison, and her life,
Being fellows in one house, did pledge her honor.


Her action shows that the retrieval of contaminated honor for a woman is possible through her death.

Suicide of this sort, a ritual purgation of the shame of contaminated honor, has a long history. Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg summarizes the patristic debate over suicide in preservation of virginity. Although both Jerome and Ambrose approve of suicide in defense of virginity, Augustine, in Book I of the City of God disapproves of the solution of Lucrece and raises the possibility that rape may involve pleasure for the victim. Shame is the consequence for such a woman for “it may be believed that an act, which perhaps could not have taken place without some physical pleasure, was accompanied by a consent of the mind” (Schulenburg 35).16 Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, picks up the fine discrimination that a woman commits no sin in being violated if she does not consent “since without consent of the mind there is no stain on the body” (Aquinas, Part II-II, Q, 64, Art. 5). Thus, for Aquinas, suicide after rape is unjustified; a great sin is being committed after no sin at all. The suicide of Antonio's wife, the lady whose chastity made her the obsessive target for the attentions of the youngest brother is not subject to such criticism. On the contrary, her action is condoned, with all doctrinal sanctions against self-slaughter ignored. The stage-picture presents a Christianized version of the Lucrece story, substituting a prayer book on her pillow instead of a dagger.17 Like that of Lucrece, her suicide precipitates an immediate oath of vengeance against the tyrant by the male courtiers present. This scene makes clear one method for feminine participation in male rituals of honor. One single, final, heroic gesture is possible for Antonio's wife, yet the act of violence is turned inward. Heroic feminine violence can be condoned when that action stills the feminine agent of violence. Onstage, the silent body of a dead woman provides the impetus for male action—the drawing of swords and vows of vengeance.18

In the second act of the play, the sexual energy of the ducal family approaches Vindice's family even more closely, as Lussurioso turns his attention to the chaste maid who rejects his suit. He hires Vindice, in disguise, to pander his sister, a task which Vindice accepts both to protect and test his family. The anxiety provoked by the deaths of Gloriana and Antonio's wife is subdued by Vindice's position as pander and brother. Violent seduction cedes to the chastity test.

Gratiana submits swiftly to his persuasion. Her poverty cannot withstand the offer of one thousand angels. Further, her vulnerability to the tongue of the pander can perhaps be understood by her status as a sexually experienced woman. To Vindice's distress, she seems to prove the truth of the proverb “‘That woman is all male whom none can enter’” (2.1.111). Vindice's description of his mother makes clear that he sees her as a woman who has already admitted a number of men:

Now must I blister my soul: be forsworn,
Or shame the woman that receiv'd me first.


In the final clause we are forced to see Gratiana as one who has ‘received’ at least three men—Vindice and Hippolito, in addition to her husband. Her susceptibility to persuasion to sin becomes more explicable. Her sexual experience, her loss of a protector through the death of her husband, as well as her poverty, all combine to exacerbate her weakness. Her fall sets into high relief the testing of Castiza who must resist alone the blandishments of a skillful pander who is assisted by her own mother.

Lussurioso has been attracted to Castiza by her imperviousness to persuasion by gold. Such resistance to the common exchange of the court, particularly by one meanly provided for, leads Lussurioso into a odd quibble on the parable of the talents. He instructs his pander:

Enter upon the portion of her soul,
Her honor, which she calls her chastity,
And bring it into expense; for honesty
Is like a stock of money laid to sleep,
Which ne'er so little broke, does never keep.


Lussurioso, prime representative of the circulation of sexual energy in the court, fittingly merges sex and money. Unable to imagine the transformation of virgin into wife, because Castiza's dowry is negligible, Lussurioso insists that she move from virgin to whore.19

Vindice tests the congruence between the inward substance and outward show of his sister. Castiza, to his delight, is firm in her resistance to seduction and goes so far as to box the ear of Lussurioso's messenger. The virgin sister, tested, proves that her allegorical name accurately describes her substance. In resisting the temptation to participate in the sexual economy of the court, Castiza explains the reason why she has slapped Lussurioso's messenger:

I swore I'd put anger in my hand,
And pass the virgin limits of my self
To him that next appear'd in that base office,
To be his sin's attorney.


Her physical resistance is animated by a vow she has made. Like Vindice, she takes her vows seriously.20 The anger, the slap, and her vigorous verbal self-defense give us a female figure of much greater energy than that presented by the pious, dead body of the unnamed wife of Antonio. Although Castiza chooses a condition—chastity—which satisfies the demands of a male-defined and male-controlled system of female sexuality, the vigor of her own self-defense suggests a determined agency. The character's energetic fulfillment of the prerequisites of her name provides a valiant opponent to the sinful energies of the ducal heir, Lussurioso. She vigorously defends the “crystal tower” (4.4.152) of her own “virgin honor.”

She explains her seeming indecorum as appropriate transgressions. In Act Two, she slaps Piato. In Act Four, she pretends to have succumbed to her mother's blandishments. In both instances, she performs actions that do not seem immediately appropriate for a virgin. She explains that in defense of virtue she will “pass beyond the virgin limits of the self” (2.1.32), a licensed indecorum which echoes a punning observation made earlier by Hippolito. To Vindice's comment on the scarcity of grace at the court—“Save Grace the bawd, I seldom hear grace nam'd!”—Hippolito replied, “Nay, brother, you reach out o' th' verge now” (1.3.16-17). Ross, in his editorial note, explains that the “verge” refers to that area around the court subject to the rod, the virga, the jurisdiction of the Lord High Steward, “with probable punning sense, ‘beyond virginity.’” That pun is more than probable. Castiza passes over the limits of virgin propriety to perform actions that successfully defend her chastity.21 Not only does she act in self-defense, but her disguise as one ready to participate in the sexual activities of the palace serves as a test of Gratiana's newly found grace. Castiza is a virgin capable of unwinding “the black serpent” of persuasion (4.4.131). In the central act of vengeance, a third female figure is granted even greater agency.

The Revenger's Tragedy is a play concerned with the movement of women ‘beyond virginity.’ Such movement, as we have seen in the first two acts of the play, usually means a transformation into whore, rape victim, bawd, or incestuous partner. In the central revenge of the play, the skull of a female murder victim becomes a participant in the execution of her murderer. This passing beyond the virgin limits of self has provoked critical condemnation. Gloriana's disguise as a whore has been seen as a prostitution of the dead woman herself.22 I argue that beneath the disguise of the prostitute, the audience, already instructed in acts of discrimination, is invited to decipher a device which is a polyvalent symbol of feminine virtue.

Tourneur repeatedly uses the skull to suggest multiple meanings. In the opening scene, the skull is a memento mori, the reminder of death used to turn men from sin. The topos, Vanitas, is implied as the truth of the skull exposes the fleeting surfaces of worldly pomp. Tourneur then provides a visual pun with the conjunction of the physical skull in the hand of the character and Vindice's desire to seize the forelock of the bald head of Occasion, or Opportunity, for when Vindice holds the skull in his hand in Act One, and considers his desire to catch the forelock of Opportunity or Occasion, he holds the Opportunity or method of his vengeance. Occasion, repeatedly described as “sweet,” refers either to sexual intercourse or vengeance. For example, Spurio when he hears news of Lussurioso's planned seduction of Castiza describes the information as “sweet word, sweet occasion” (2.2.123). Vindice describes the moment of revelation of the Duke's death to Lussurioso as “the sweetest occasion” (5.1.15). In Act Three, those two descriptions of a sweet occasion—sexual congress and vengeance—are condensed into a single image. Vindice offers to the Duke the lady he has been hired to procure. The Duke is so blinded by lust that he cannot discern behind the mask and robes, the fleshless skull and bones of a dead woman. He hastens to embrace the engine of his own punishment. He kisses the poisoned lips of the skull of a woman he himself has poisoned. Then, dying, he is forced to witness the incest and adultery of his bastard with his wife. Vindice constructs from the bones and skull of the dead woman a fitting device of vengeance. As the Duke has poisoned for lust, so is he poisoned by lust. This polyvalent symbol of the device of the ‘bony lady’ provokes a number of associations.

The portrait macabre was a popular image in the Renaissance.23 The conjunction of women and death, as in Death and the Maiden,24 clearly represents theological equations between death and sexuality, particularly the sexual organs of a woman. Vindice presents to the Duke a “country lady” (3.5.132) whose mouth is literally the mouth of death, for the teeth of the skull are painted with poison. Here is a clear rendition of fears of the vagina dentata, with stage directions which concentrate attention on the skull's teeth and the nailing down of the Duke's tongue with Vindice's dagger. Yet it is also possible to see in this scene a conflation of emblems or devices in which the audience is invited to discern a more positive, though threatening, representation of feminine agency than the conventional intersection of sexuality and death in a woman's body.

In this moment, the female murder victim participates in the execution of her murderer. Feminine vengeance is enacted from beyond the grave and feminine participation in the operations of justice is reinstated. Modern critical assumptions about the invalidity of private vengeance can lead to a moral condemnation of the revenger which both erases the tragic effect of the revenge play and elides the revenger's association with justice.25 Reading these plays from a time deeply uneasy about the appropriateness of even the state's execution of criminals can lead to an elision of the revenge play's primary concern with questions of justice. Wary about the potential failures of human constructs of justice, we are reluctant to condone violence performed on criminals. Such hesitations were less widely held in the Renaissance. The right of the state to carve its power on the body of a traitor is the justification that lies behind the horrors of state executions for treason.26 For the corrupted judge—the individual who, granted privilege in the hierarchy, failed in his responsibilities—the worst punishments could be imagined.27 Vindice's witty device of the bony lady who executes judgment on her murderer presents an emblematic device that makes emphatic the justice of the punishment.

While the representation of justice most familiar in the twentieth century involves the female figure, blindfolded, robed with a sword, and scales-the scales symbol of evenhandedness, the sword symbolic of the necessity for the making of fine discriminations (Warner, 160)—other versions of justice were available to the Renaissance. Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, a major collection of emblems published in 1602, presents four figures of justice. Jean Baudoin's Iconologie, (II.56), which is a translation and illustration of Ripa published in 1644, depicts a quartet of figures of justice. Three of the women are young, beautiful, voluptuous, clothed in robes. The fourth is a robed female skeleton, named “Justice Rigoreuse.” Gloriana, though disguised as a whore,28 can be recognized literally as a figure of Justice.

Yet that single emblem may be conflated with a second one, just as, in the first scene, Tourneur played with a conflation of the emblems of Occasion and Opportunity. To Rigorous Justice I suggest he adds a second emblem, “Truth is the Daughter of Time,” although this conflation is more speculative. My argument turns on Truth, Time, and the name Gloriana. The skull has been repeatedly associated by Vindice with Truth. Vindice himself is the character most obsessively alert to time. The name Gloriana, withheld until this moment, evokes not simply Elizabeth I, a queen whose chastity was a crucial fact of diplomatic and cultural life for the preceding half-century, but may also evoke a device adopted by Elizabeth from her sister Mary I, the motto “Veritas Filia Temporis” or “Truth is the Daughter of Time.”29

The word vengeance reverberates in the scene, like the motto on an emblem. Vindice insists: “'Tis I, 'tis Vindice, 'tis I!” (3.5.165). While a careful effort at definition has been made to split the meaning of vengeance from that of justice,30 even Francis Bacon, a contemporary legal authority in England, admitted the kinship of the two words in his essay on revenge: “Revenge is a kind of wild justice” (Bacon 13). When Gloriana, resurrected from the grave and dressed in robes, confronts and executes judgment on her murderer, she has gone beyond the virgin limits of the self to become an active agent of justice. When the Duke in horror realizes that he has kissed the skull of the victim that he has murdered, a fitting vengeance executes him. He is forced to recognize the consequences of his own lust. Vindice points the lesson. To the Duke's cry, “O, 'tas poisoned me,” he asks, “Didst not know that till now?” (3.5.149-150). The Duke, whose lust has led him to poison the women who have rejected him, is forced to recognize that the poison he prepared for others has returned, inevitably, to poison himself.

The second verbal cue that suggests the connection between Vindice's device and the operations of justice is the name of the murdered lady. Gloriana, a name widely associated with Elizabeth I, reverberates in this moment of justice and evokes a golden age of regal virtue (Wilson 321-369). It is possible that the female figure of Justice is being conflated with the figure of Truth, the daughter of Time, in a second emblem that condenses and makes literal a number of verbal clues in the play.

The frequent references to time are closely linked to Vindice. When Hippolito proffers his brother as servant to Lussurioso, he says:

This our age swims within him; and if Time
Had so much hair, I should take him for Time,
He is so near kin to this present minute.


Vindice could well be called the time keeper, or clock of the court, for he repeatedly refers to minutes, hours, and days, the measurements of time. “O hour of incest” (1.3.62), “This night, this hour, this minute” (2.2.159). He even seeks to profit from time when he asks “to have all the fees behind the arras, and all the farthingales that fall plump about twelve o'clock at night upon the rushes” (2.2.79-81). He describes the hurry of the court toward the “bewitching minute.” And it is he who condenses nine years' vengeance into a minute: “Now nine years vengeance crowd into a minute” (3.5.121).31

Vindice, linked closely to time, repeatedly describes the skull as the ultimate image of truth. In this scene of vengeance, Vindice has extensively described the skull and its effects:

                                                                                Here's an eye,
Able to tempt a great man—to serve God;
A pretty hanging lip, that has forgot now to dissemble;


The skull, impervious to the effects of weather, immutable now, can turn men from sin—make the swearer tremble, the drunkard to forgo drink. At revels and brothels, the skull would “fright the sinner,” “cloy [the] epicure,” and force women to see themselves:

See, ladies, with false forms
You deceive men, but cannot deceive worms—


The bare bone of the lady is an image of Truth which the Duke is forced to confront. Vindice reveals the truth to him by saying that he has kissed “the skull of Gloriana.” Truth usually represented by the flesh of a naked woman, here has been stripped down to bone itself.32 Truth is represented by Time.33

This interpretation of the emblematic possibilities for the stage picture of a skull and bones dressed as a woman and revealed by a figure closely associated with Time is offered as a corrective to the moral criticism that has been directed at this method of justice. Vindice operates as a witty revenger in finding a fitting, appropriate mode of revenge. The Duke is killed by his own lust, his own willingness to embrace a bony lady. Vindice's explanation is crucial:

I have not fashion'd this only for show
And useless property; no, it shall bear a part
E'en in it own revenge. This very skull,
Whose mistress the duke poisoned, with this drug,
The mortal curse of the earth, shall be reveng'd
In the like strain, and kiss his lips to death.


A rape involves the seizing of a woman's body, the seizing of rights of ownership. Vindice restores the skull to its rightful owner, the skull “whose mistress the duke poisoned.” Here we see an alternate possibility for the activities of a “country girl” at court. We see here delineated a second opportunity for feminine participation in the operations of justice, though again female agency is possible only after death. Here, the female bones participate directly in the execution of justice. Although the female figure has no tongue, cannot speak, and is manipulated by the male character—thus in one way the perfect image of the woman as male property—possession is explicitly returned to the female murder victim. The scene offers a terrifying image of the rigorous execution of justice by the victim herself. From passive and manipulated bones, a woman rises to revenge. Virtuous women have turned from passive and self-mutilating victims to active participants in the operations of justice.

Let us return to Castiza's temptation and Vindice's triumphant acceptance of death. The play presents one miracle: the preservation of the chastity of one woman in this Italian court. The daughter who has successfully withstood the blandishments of a witty tongue, subsequently tests the restoration of Gratiana. The daughter deliberately disguises herself as willing to submit to seduction, and the mother, tested a second time, proves true.34 In the fallen world of the court, one woman withstands temptation and maintains the crystal tower of virgin honor. Castiza's resistance to the serpent's tongue of both her mother and brother provides us with the image of an Eve who this time resists the temptation of the devil. In a postlapsarian world we have had an image of female heroism that could have saved humanity from the processes of time. Vindice, in his final words, summarizes his triumphs:

                                                                                                    We have enough,
I'faith, we're well: our mother turn'd, our sister true,
We die after a nest of dukes-adieu.


Vindice has witnessed the miracle of his sister's defense of her chastity through a number of tests, and has executed fitting justice on a nest of dukes. His life has reached its apotheosis. He has seen enough. Through the bones and dead bodies of chaste women he has discovered the possibility of the existence of honor in the female. He has seen or participated in the elevation of feminine emblems of virtue in a corrupt and fallen world. Female characters have passed beyond the virgin limits of the self to become emblems of virtue. It is important to acknowledge the valorizing implicit in representations labelled as feminine—Chastity, Grace, Truth, Justice—yet we need to go further and recognize that the valorizing of particular abstract qualities through their representation in feminine bodies still rests on a system of oppositions which entraps both men and women. From one perspective, femininity is used to represent that which is condemned, in this case sexuality. Vindice, in his attempt to resist the sexual economy of the court and restore a set of traditional values,35 uses the feminine to represent virtues. From neither perspective is the trap of binary opposition transformed.36 Vindice's final resolution—that death is more satisfactory than survival—asserts his triumph but also describes a world of rigid abstractions that can be maintained more readily by the dead than by the living. Though Castiza and Gratiana, the two female family members, do live on to uphold family honor in the world, the emphasis of the final scene lies on Vindice's welcoming of death. Not only has Vindice executed justice on the ducal family, but he has discovered the virtue inherent in death. Taught by the bones of dead, chaste women, he recognizes that entirely secure emblems of Virtue are to be found only in the grave. Having triumphed in justice, and witnessed a miracle of chastity, he welcomes the embrace of death. We acknowledge his triumphant cleansing of the court of a nest of dukes, with its sinister overtones of a nest of snakes, but hesitate before the lesson such a system of honor inculcates. The bones of chaste ladies make explicit the deadliness of the system of virtue which the entire play upholds. Caught within those oppositions, and unable to solve the paradox of honor that resides in that frail case, the human frame, Vindice welcomes death with his “adieu.” Yet the penultimate reference to “our mother turn'd, our sister true” reaffirms the potential of feminine agency and evokes the living embodiment of chastity who has withstood the assaults and temptations of the masculine eros.


  1. Quotations from The Revenger's Tragedy refer to the Regents Renaissance Drama edition by Lawrence Ross (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966) and are cited parenthetically.

  2. Hartsock defines the masculine eros in Chapters 7 and 8 of Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism. She describes the masculine eros as one in which the three aspects of eros-the search for reciprocal fusion with another, sensuality and bodily concerns, and creativity and generation-all point toward death. See in particular 167-168.

  3. A number of critics have developed H. H. Adams's argument that the play illustrates Vindice's moral deterioration. See, for example, Ross, in his introduction to the play, who sees corruption in Vindice's acceptance of Lussurioso's gold, for “‘Honesty’ is always poor,” (xxiv) and Peter B. Murray, who sees the taking of gold as “a symbol of Vindice's moral poisoning” (192).

  4. See Eleanor Prosser for an extreme version of such arguments.

  5. Consider the extraordinary death of Cambises, or the ax that falls on the false executioner in The Atheist's Tragedy. See Thomas Beard's The Theatre of God's Iudgements (1597) for extensive examples.

  6. See James Brundage, 141-148, in particular 147.

  7. Note that the Duke's confession confirms Vindice's accusation of murder. Two witnesses to the murder, required in English law, have been presented.

  8. See, for example, the progression of the Country Girl in Middleton's Michaelmas Term.

  9. Gordon Braden discusses the appeal of Senecan stoicism to an aristocracy feeling a constriction of its power (76-77).

  10. See Marina Warner for a discussion of the traditional vesting of abstract virtues in feminine form.

  11. Marjorie Garber discusses memento mori figures in Shakespeare's plays.

  12. In Act Four, Vindice, no longer disguised, offers Lussurioso a conceit, repeatedly described as something drawn, depicted. “I have a conceit a-coming in picture upon this. I draw it myself” (4.2.77-78). Lussurioso, confronted with the motto of the emblem—“A usuring father to be boiling in hell, and his son and heir with a whore dancing over him” (4.2.85)—fails to acknowledge the pertinence of the device. The scene makes overt Vindice's talent in the picturing of devices.

  13. J. A. Sharpe notes but does not analyze the low incidence of rape prosecutions in Elizabethan England (49, 170). J. B. Post analyzes the Statute of Rapes 1382 in which “The emphasis of the law of rape was thus drawn away from the actual or potential plight of the victim of a sexual assault, and placed upon the unacceptability of an accomplished elopement, or an abduction to which the victim became reconciled” (25). See E. W. Ives for further developments of laws against abduction. See Guido Ruggiero for an analysis of the treatment of rape as a petty crime in Renaissance Venice, 1338-1358. The English Law Reports do not, in the sixteenth century, report rape as a felony, though rape of another man's wife may appear as a trespass case, misuse of another's property. Rape is probably also disguised in those records as assault. (Computer index of the English Law Reports by the Anglo-American Legal Project. Unpublished. I am grateful to Sarah Cox-Byrne, Vassar College Library, for access to this material.)

  14. See Suzanne Gossett's discussion of a trial for rape in “‘Best Men are Molded out of Faults’: Marrying the Rapist in Jacobean Drama.” For an analysis of the criminal behavior of the upper classes in the fourteenth century, see Barbara Hanawalt. For associated material on Elizabethan female criminals, see Carol Z. Weiner. See also Otten's discussion of sexual crime, in this collection.

  15. For further discussion of the idea that lust signifies the tyrant, see the essay by Carole Levin in this collection.

  16. See Jerome's praise of Lucrece in Against Jovinian (342).

  17. For discussion of the representations of Lucrece, see Ian Donaldson, The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformations.

  18. See the central scene of Botticelli's The Tragedy of Lucretia, Fig. 10 in Donaldson, for such a moment.

  19. This quibble bears an odd resemblance to one of Donne's Paradoxes on Virginity, “That Virginity is a Vertue,” though Donne urges marriage, while Lussurioso argues for prostitution. Donne, arguing against the medieval ideal of virginity, wittily restricts that virtue to a temporal span. According to Donne, it is to be regarded as a virtue in women between the ages of twelve and thirty and after that is to be seen as Avarice and as Sloth, comparable to that of a farmer who fails to harvest a crop when the fruit is fully ripe. See also Juliet Dusinberre's discussion of this paradox, 41-45.

  20. Vindice's reluctance to swear to reveal all to Lussurioso (1.3.159-162) and “Now must I blister my soul: be forsworn, / Or shame the woman that receiv'd me first. / I will be true;” (2.2.36-38) make clear the seriousness with which he takes vows.

  21. Stephanie Jed in Chaste Thinking makes a fascinating analysis of the humanistic traditions of categorization which insist on the abstraction of figures from their context. See Chapters 1 and 2. Castiza's violation of decorum resists that process of containment.

  22. See Note 3. See also Ornstein, 109.

  23. See Roland Frye for an extensive discussion of the figure of the skull (205-253). See also Stephen Greenblatt's analysis of the anamorphic figure in Holbein's The Ambassadors (17-21).

  24. See, for one example, “Death and the Maiden” c. 1517, by Hans Baldung Grien, (c. 1485-1545) in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. I thank Paul Russell for this reference.

  25. For a discussion of this problem, see Philip Edwards 43-52.

  26. Consider the particulars of the execution of Balthazar Gérard, assassin of William of Orange. He was flogged, his skin cut with split quills and then soaked in salt water, vinegar, and brandy. The next morning he was racked and then skinned with red-hot pincers (Froude 15).

  27. For example, the flaying of Sisamnes in Preston's Cambises.

  28. The use of craft by the revenger may not necessarily signal corruption. For a discussion of the use of fraud for the maintenance of justice, see Jane Aptekar 7.

  29. For analysis of the emblem, see Fritz Saxl 197-222. See also Marina Warner 315-322. In her coronation procession through the City of London, Elizabeth was greeted by a pageant: “In the middle betwene the sayde hylles, was made artificiallye one hollowe place or cave, with doore and locke enclosed, oute of the whiche, a lyttle before the Queene's hyghnes commynge thither, issued one personage whose name was Tyme, apparaylled as an olde man with a Sythe in his hande, havynge wynges artificiallye made, leadinge a personage of lesser stature then himselfe, whiche was fynely and well apparaylled, all cladde in whyte silke, and directlye over her head was set her name and tytle in latin and Englyshe, Temporis filia, the daughter of Tyme. Which two so appoynted, went forwarde, toward the South syde of the pageant. And on her brest was written her propre name, whiche was Veritas, Trueth who helde a booke in her hande upon the which was written, Verbum veritatis, the worde of trueth” (The Quenes maiesties passage, Sig. Ciii r/v).

  30. See the 21 examples given for the first two meanings of the word revenge in the OED (1st ed.). In one of the examples, revenge and justice are equated. Nine of the examples either place revenge in negative contexts or explicitly condemn it.

  31. “Nine years” is a common phrase for a long time, rather than a literal nine years. See Othello, “I would have him nine years a-killing” (4.1.178). I am grateful to S. F. Johnson for this point.

  32. See Warner's discussion of “Nuda Veritas,” Chapter XIII of Monuments and Maidens, 295-328.

  33. Frye has an illustration of a watch made in the shape of a skull (Fig. VI.2, 211).

  34. Curiously, Vindice's disguise as pander has been subjected to extreme moral condemnation by critics, while Castiza's disguise has not.

  35. Vindice's complaints about the deterioration of the court relate to a medieval tradition of complaint and satire. See John Peter 264.

  36. This is a central strand of contemporary feminist criticism. See Toril Moi's discussion in “Feminist, Female, and Feminine,” particularly 127.

Works Cited

Adams, H. H. “Cyril Tourneur on Revenge.” JEGP 48 (1949): 72-87.

Aptekar, Jane. Icons of Justice. New York: Columbia UP, 1969.

Aquinas, Part II-II, Q, 64, Art. 5. Summa Theologica. (1925 trans). Ethical Issues in Death and Dying. Ed. Tom Beauchamp and Seymour Perlin. New York: Prentice Hall, 1978, pp. 102-105.

Bacon, Francis. “Of Revenge.” Essays, Advancement of Learning, New Atlantis, and Other Pieces. Ed. Richard Foster Jones. New York: Odyssey, 1937. pp. 13-14.

Beard, Thomas. The Theatre of Gods Iudgements. London, 1597.

Braden, Gordon. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Broude, Ronald. “Four Forms of Vengeance in Titus Andronicus.JEGP 78 (1980): 494-507.

“Vindicta Filia Temporis: Three English Forerunners of the Elizabethan Revenge Play.” JEGP 71 (1973): 489-502.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Brundage, James. “Rape and Seduction in Medieval Canon Law.” Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Ed. Vern Bullough and James Brundage. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1982, pp. 141-148.

Cockburn, J. S. “The Nature and Incidence of Crime in England 1559-1625: A Preliminary Survey.” Crime in England, 1550-1800. Ed. J. S. Cockburn. Princeton Princeton, UP, 1977, pp. 49-71.

Donaldson, Ian. The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and its Transformations. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

Donne, John. “That Virginity is a Vertue.” Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. Ed. John Hayward. London: Nonesuch, 1929, pp. 346-349.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Edwards, Philip. “Tragic Balance in ‘Hamlet.’” Shakespeare Survey 36 (1983): 43-52.

Foakes, R. A., ed. The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966.

Froude, J. S. The Reign of Elizabeth, Part VI. Vol 11 of History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada. 12 vols. 1826-70. New York: AMS, 1969.

Frye, Roland. The Renaissance Hamlet. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984.

Garber, Marjorie. “‘Remember me’”: memento mori figures in Shakespeare's plays.” Renaissance Drama ns. Ed. Alan Dessen. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1981, pp. 3-23.

Gossett, Suzanne. “‘Best Men are Molded out of Faults’: Marrying the Rapist in Jacobean Drama.” English Literary Renaissance 14 (1984): 305-327.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Hanawalt, Barbara. “Fur Collar Crime: The Pattern of Crime Among the Fourteenth Century English Nobility.” J Social History 8 (1974/75): 1-17.

Hartsock, Nancy. Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1985.

Ives, E. W. “‘Agaynst taking awaye of Women’: the Inception and Operation of the Abduction Act of 1487.” Wealth and Power in Tudor England. Ed. E. W. Ives, R. J. Knecht and J. J. Scarisbrick. London: Athlone, 1978, pp. 21-44.

James, Mervyn. “English politics and the concept of honour, 1485-1642.” Society, Politics and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Jed, Stephanie. Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Jerome. Against Jovinian. Trans. A. G. Rigg. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson. New York: Norton, 1989, pp. 328-342.

Moi, Toril. “Feminist, Female, Feminine.” The Feminist Reader. Ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore. New York: Blackwell, 1989, pp. 117-132.

Murray, Peter B. A Study of Cyril Tourneur. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1964.

Ornstein, Robert. The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1966.

Peter, John. Complaint and Satire in Early English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.

Pitt-Rivers, Julian. “Honour and Social Status.” Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society. Ed. Jean Peristiany. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966, pp. 21-77.

Post, J. B. “Sir Thomas West and the Statute of Rapes, 1382.” Institute of Historical Research Bulletin 53 (1980): 24-30.

Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. 2nd Ed. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1971.

The Quenes Maiesties Passage through the Citie of London to Westminster the Day before her Coronacion. Ed. James M. Osborn. New Haven: Yale UP, 1960.

Robertson, Karen. “Antonio's Revenge: The Tyrant, the Stoic, and the Passionate Man.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England IV. Ed. Paul Werstine. New York: AMS, 1989, pp. 91-106.

Ruggiero, Guido. “Sexual Criminality in the Early Renaissance: Venice 1338-1358.” J Social History 8 (1974/75): 18-37.

Saxl, Fritz. “Veritas Filia Temporis.” Philosophy and History: Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer. Ed. Raymond Klibansky and H. J. Patton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936, pp. 197-222.

Schulenburg, Jane Tibbetts. “The Heroics of Virginity: Brides of Christ and Sacrificial Mutilation.” Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Ed. Mary Beth Rose. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986, pp. 29-72.

Sharp, J. A. Crime in Early Modern England 1550-1750. London: Longman, 1984.

Tourneur, Cyril. The Revenger's Tragedy. Ed. Lawrence Ross. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1966.

Warner, Marina. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. New York: Atheneum, 1985.

Weiner, Carol Z. “Sex Roles and Crime in Late Elizabethan Hertfordshire.” J Social History 8 (1974/75): 38-60.

Wilson, Elkin Calhoun. England's Eliza. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1939.

Karin S. Coddon (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “‘For Show or Useless Property’: Necrophilia in The Revenger's Tragedy,” in ELH: English Language History, Vol. 61, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 71-88.

[In the following essay, Coddon maintains that in The Revenger's Tragedy Tourneur uses necrophilia and the eroticization of death to satirize and examine traditional and contemporary scientific understandings of the human body.]

Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me,
Your tongue's like poison.

—The Cure

The intersection of death and the erotic throughout Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy is a virtual commonplace of the genre; from Hamlet's leap into Ophelia's grave to the perversities of Tourneur and Middleton, the body of death is at least symbolically conflated with the body of desire. Indeed, while granting that theatrical personae as yet do not “go so far as making love to the corpse,” Philippe Aries notes “an almost imperceptible shift [in early modern England and France] from familiarity with the dead to macabre eroticism.”1 Yet in Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), the eroticized body of death is more than a symbolic presence or moody memento mori: Gloriana's skull is a prop endowed with remarkable spectacular and material efficacy. Peter Stallybrass's argument that death removes Gloriana from the corrupting realm of sexual desire is doubly belied by Vindice's notably prurient obsession with the skull of his nine-years-dead betrothed and by his all but literal prostitution of the skull in pursuit of revenge against the lecherous Duke.2 I suggest that this latter machination constitutes the play's emblematic moment: a savage literalization of the conventional love/death conjunction as the Duke kisses—and “like a slobbering Dutchman,” at that—the skull's poisoned maw.

Without denying the rather obvious connotations of patriarchal anxiety about female sexuality—or falling into the tempting though anachronistic trap of having Tourneur “have read” Freud or Bataille (to paraphrase Baudrillard), I would like to claim that necrophilia in The Revenger's Tragedy serves at once to parody and to interrogate contemporary, increasingly scientistic notions of the body. The constitution of the body as the object of scientific enquiry—perhaps most strikingly though not exclusively demonstrated in the relatively recent phenomenon of public dissection—is brutally travestied in Tourneur's insistent displacement of an “objective” knowledge of the body by spectacular, defiantly perverse desire. Necrophilia yokes together science and seduction; discipline does not replace the unruly erotic but instead precariously displaces it in the elision of the body by the cold medium of the scientific gaze.3 Tourneur's play does not simply eroticize “the idea of death”—it does not disembody death by rendering it into a discourse as does that paradigm of proto-modern subjectivity, Hamlet; rather, the play theatricalizes death in the specific, material dead body. Gloriana's skull becomes perversely seductive, in Baudrillard's sense of the term, playing alternately at being pure referent and pure signifier, the revenger's “form and cause” at once conjoined and confounded: “Every interpretative discourse … wants to get beyond appearances: this is its illusion and fraud. But getting beyond appearances is an impossible task: inevitably every discourse is revealed in its appearance, and is hence subject to the stakes imposed by seduction, and consequently to its own failure as discourse.4 The Jacobean spectacle, situated as it is in a liminal position between the emblematic and mimetic—between theatricality and interpretation—undermines its own ostensible truth value by foregrounding the instability yet opacity of appearances. Confounded as well in the play's erotics of death is the distinction between an emergent scientism and the repressed, residual otherness of the transgressive corporeality identified with madness, witchcraft, and necromancy.

Even among the grotesqueries of Jacobean theatre, The Revenger's Tragedy is notably macabre; it is small wonder that Eliot singled it out for its “cynicism … loathing and disgust of humanity.”5 Yet the morbid interest in the corporeality of death and decomposition that so distinguishes Jacobean tragedy is at least as residual as emergent, given what Lynn White has called a pervasive “socially manifested necrophilia” of the fifteenth century.6 As Foucault, Aries, and others have remarked upon, the Cimitiere des Innocents, Danse Macabre, and artes moriendi are cultural productions of late fourteenth and early fifteenth century Europe, phenomena that have been attributed, alternately though not exclusively, to a burgeoning humanism, the lingering psychic, social, and economic effects of the Black Death, and an ecclesiastical interest in promoting anxiety about death and hence the economic and political well-being of church bureaucrats.7 Literary treatments of Eros/Thanatos tend to be more decorous in the Middle Ages than in Jacobean tragedy, if not terribly less frequent; the intertwining of love and death figures prominently in the Tristan tales, and Mallory's Morte d'Arthur features a number of implicit and explicit necrophiliac episodes.8 In fact, in the fifteenth century occured the most notorious documented case of necrophilia in early modern Europe, that of Gilles de Rais, a French nobleman who had fought alongside Jeanne d'Arc, and who was to become the inspiration for the fictive Bluebeard. After Jeanne's capture and execution, Gilles evidently retired to his castle, where he proceeded to seduce, murder and mutilate scores of young boys, not only copulating with the corpses but preserving various body parts for posterity. Upon his arrest, Gilles confessed to his crimes, his pre-execution repentance likely of greater edification to the Church than to the soul of the necrophile himself, for “[Gilles's] confession, repentance, and resignation were acclaimed as an elaborate example of Christian penance.”9

Yet despite these fifteenth-century analogs, death, and dead bodies, seemed to retain a kind of quotidian respect due the inexplicable if not the magical; it was seldom the focus of derisive parody such as one finds in Tourneur, Webster, and Middleton. Compared to post-Reformation Europe, a relative tolerance for the magical seems at least partly responsible for the “familiarity” with death that Aries notes about the late Middle Ages. Unlike the lofty ritual of public anatomy, in which an audience of cowed, reverent observers watched an expert dissector anatomize, analyze, and label the dead body, popular practices well into the seventeenth century treated of the corpse in every-day, efficacious terms; various parts and fluids of the corpse were commonly assumed to have medicinal value—“the perspiration of corpses is good for hemorrhoids and tumors, and the hand of a cadaver applied to a diseased area can heal, as in the case of a woman suffering from dropsy who rubbed her abdomen with the still-warm hand of a corpse.”10 As late as the Restoration, so lofty a personage as the ailing Charles I of England “drank a potion … containing forty-two drops of extract of human skull.”11

One is tempted, perhaps, to concur with Giovanna Ferrari's claim that the practice of anatomy descends from traditional, popular pharmaceuticals of the dead body.12 Yet the relation between popular practice and science in the early modern period is less one of integration than of cooptation. By 1604 in England, it was a felony “to take up a dead body in whole or part for magical purposes.”13 Anatomy and dissection were the territory of the specialist; for the non-specialist, traffic with the dead body constituted necromancy, witchcraft. Although in France, desecration of the corpse could serve as an act, however unsanctioned, of religious sedition, for the most part in early modern Europe, licit contact with the dead body was expressly limited to men of science.14

I agree with Francis Barker that the rise of the “science” of anatomy in early modern Europe is very much bound up in an ideological re/formation of the subject that entailed an elision of the body.15 For Foucault, these strategies focus “on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its foes, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls … ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines.16 Strikingly, these “anatomo-politics of the body” were applied to the dead as well as the living.17 That artists like Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Vesalius partook in the discipline of anatomy along with physicians, humanists, and even noble amateurs suggests slippages between object and representation, ostensible referent and simulacrum.18 It seems no cultural accident that the popularity of the trompe l'oeil in early modern Europe roughly coincides with the radical anti-mimesis of Jacobean tragedy.19 For while the trompe l'oeil seems at first to be simulation at its most diabolical, it “does not attempt to confuse itself with the real. Fully aware of play and artifice, it produces a simulacrum by mimicking the third dimension, and by mimicking and surpassing the effect of the real, radically questioning the principle of reality.”20 On a certain level, then, the trompe l'oeil, like Jacobean tragedy, parodies and even resists the emergent proto-empirical discourses that are predicated on the assumption of access to knowledge via the “objectivity” of bodies and equally stable subjectivity of the humanist subject. Spectacular representation becomes the site of radical contradiction, in which the unstable play of signifier and referent foregrounds its attempts—almost literally—to deceive the eye, the objectifying, diagnostic eye of discipline as well as the “I” that discipline homologously constitutes.

“The king is a thing—of nothing,” Hamlet utters paradoxically; as I have argued elsewhere, this intersection of madness with the paradox of the dead body disrupts the ideological conflation of the sovereign's mystic corpus and the subject's docile and obedient inwardness.21 For the corpse is at once a thing, materially present yet marked by the absolute absence of subjectivity—and no-thing, a signifier severed from its referent, its “owner.” According to emergent scientism, to be a “thing” and a “thing of nothing” is redundant. Hence the hegemonic co-optation of the body is as mystified as the colonization of “savages” in the New World, both imperative and necessary for the primacy and sustenance of European rationality. And, as with the violence of imperialistic conquest, the more obnoxious aspects of conquest of the body were often viewed as the unpleasant but unavoidable “dirty work” justified by the rationality, even the nobility, of the end. Leonardo, though an experienced dissector, granted that “though you have a love of such things you will perhaps be hindered by your stomach; and if that does not impede you, you will perhaps be impeded by the fear of living through the night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses fearful to behold.”22 Alissandro Benedetti, a learned Italian Renaissance doctor and author of a 1502 treatise on anatomy, refers to dissection in a tellingly oxymoronic phrase as “a horrifying task, an object worthy of a special theatrical presentation.”23 In his treatise on urn excavations, Sir Thomas Browne seems to justify his own scientific necromancy on grounds that cremated remains, unlike buried corpses, cannot be desecrated: “To be gnaw'd out of our graves, to have our souls made drinking bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials.”24

Interestingly, the category of gender was pointedly not elided in anatomy; rather, dissection of the female corpse offered the possibility of an ultimate, literal penetration, surveillance, and disciplining of female sexuality. Leonardo urged that “three [anatomies] need to be made of a woman, in whom there is great mystery on account of her uterus and its fetus” (in fact, he did dissect the body of a pregnant woman).25 Contemporary illustrations of dissection are likewise, and tellingly, gendered. The frontispiece for Vesalius's Fabrica (1543) and Epitome (1543) features a woodcut depicting the pubic anatomy of a female: surrounded by a crowd of avid observers, the anatomist has opened up the corpse's abdominal cavity, toward which he gestures. But the woman's body is, significantly, facing the viewer of the illustration, legs slightly spread, bare breasts evident above the huge gaping hole that is the rest of her torso.26 Similarly, a woodcut from Jacob Rueff's De conceptu et generations hominus (1554) shows a (presumably) living, naked woman with her abdomen—from her vaginal lips to just beneath her breasts—completely opened up, her reproductive organs once again directly facing the reader's eye.27 Illustrations of the dissection of male corpses typically present the body laid in horizontal (that is, left to right) position; even Rembrandt's Anatomy of Dr. Joan Deyman, in which the male body is facing the spectator of the painting, depicts the corpse with his groin area discreetly covered. The convergence of science with a means of absolute, violent control and containment of female sexuality is hardly arbitrary; for with the emergence of rationalist, empirical discourse comes an explicit irrationalization of the female body.28 The scientistic paradigm aspires to universalize the Other as object; hence the female corpse is doubly objectified, the disciplinary intervention serving to expose the biological, “natural” bases for gender.

While the skull of Gloriana in Tourneur's play literally lacks a body, it does not, as I have already suggested, lack a sexuality. Her mutilated state certainly evokes contemporary depictions of anatomized female corpses, and while her sexual organs have presumably long turned to dust, the fact that the skull kills with its “lips” suggests the vagina dentata, even without an actual vagina. Yet Gloriana's skull, and its function in the play, is not so easily reduced to simple imagings of misogyny. For the skull is gendered only because we are told so; it obviously bears no visible mark of its sex. Indeed, when Vindice, in act 3, scene 5 enters “with the skull of his love dressed up in tires,” the skull's gendering is clearly a contrivance. The dead body, far from fixing gender categories (as it does in anatomy), here emblematizes the material contingency of gender. The play's relentless confusion of identity with disguise and thus of the referent with radically unstable signifiers, in which not even the skull, a “thing of nothing,” can be identified outside of the duplicity of theatricality, overturns the very epistemological and ideological bases for power/knowledge.

In fact, Vindice's characteristic, quasi-prurient misogyny subverts itself throughout the play by its association of vile female sexuality with artifice and disguise—de/vices that wholly construct (and deconstruct) this most decentered of Jacobean revengers. By his own admission, “My life's unnatural to me, e'en compelled, As if I lived now when I should be dead.”29 The conflation of the “unnatural” or artificial with life is striking; if a corpse is a body without subjectivity, then Vindice is on a certain level “dead.” Indeed, his assumption of the role of Revenger, of Piato the bawd, and even of his “actual self” after the Duke's murder is not fundamentally different from Gloriana's skull dressed up in tires. To an extent, then, the profound sexual nausea of the play may be seen to derive not only from the destabilized discourse of misogyny, but also from the fact that in this “unnatural” realm, all the players are vampires and necrophiles. In his opening speech, Vindice remarks of the Duke, “Oh that marrowless age / Would stuff the hollow bones with damned desires, / And 'stead of heat kindle infernal fires of a dry duke, / A parched and juiceless luxor” (1.1.5-9). The Duke is characterized not only as impotent, but as having “hollow bones”—a figuring of death that prepares for the transition to Vindice's address to Gloriana:

Thou shallow 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 filled out
Those 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.


The address to Gloriana, like the spectacle itself, is marked by semiotic instability. The skull is initially described as a “picture,” an “ornament,” a “shell” of the dead woman. Yet the living Gloriana can be characterized only in terms of the artifice and ornamentation employed by other ladies as a substitute for “natural” beauty: her eyes were like “two heaven-pointed diamonds,” and a few lines later, Vindice remarks “Thee when thou were apparelled in thy flesh, the old duke poisoned” (1.1.31-32; emphasis added). If living flesh is but the “apparel” for dead bones, then the skull must be the referent, not merely the relic; yet its referentiality is problematized by the visual absence of anything distinctively “Gloriana” about it. The body thus evades discipline by resisting a stable semiotic character: the will to knowledge can occupy the status only of a perverse and displaced voyeurism. It is interesting to consider Tourneur's own “anatomo-politics” in light of Derrida's commentary on Artaud's “theatre of cruelty”:

Evil, pollution, resides in the critical or the clinical: it is to have one's speech and body become works, objects which can be offered up to the furtive haste of the commentator because they are supine. For, by definition, the only thing that is not subject to commentary is the life of the body, the living flesh whose integrity, opposed to evil and death, is maintained by the theater.30

In the theatre of Tourneur if not that of Artaud, the matter is complicated further by a parodic confusion—both discursive and spectacular—of the semiotics of the dead body.

Thus, too, the play's immediate and persistent, morbid foregrounding of the skull—and of Vindice's eroticized attachment to it—displaces the “disinterested,” disciplinary gaze of anatomy with a transgressive voyeurism—displaces the scientist with the necrophile, so to speak. The repulsiveness explained away in the name of science by Leonardo, Benedetti, and even Browne becomes itself the object of desire. Moreover, the play's subversive slippages between the body of death and the body of desire are perhaps better historicized than psychoanalyzed. The humanistic valorization of the body (a valorization that in many ways enabled the co-optation of the corpse in the pursuit of higher knowledge), as well as the post-Reformation sanction of conjugal life, cannot be taken to suggest simply a cultural shift away from medieval contemptus mundi and toward an enlightened and affirmative embracing of the sexual body. In her discussion of Holbein's harrowingly realistic The Body of Dead Christ in the Tomb, Julia Kristeva provocatively poses the question: “Did the Reformation influence such a concept of death [as Holbein's], and more specifically, such an emphasis on Christ's death at the expense of any allusion to the Redemption and Ressurection?”31 The Reformation's simultaneous privilege of inwardness and denial of individual agency vis-a-vis salvation may well have provoked greater anxiety about death; the prominence of the “food for worms” topos, emphasizing the decomposition and putrefaction of the corpse, is scarcely less morbid than the medieval Dance of Death.32 As for the living, sexual body, Lawrence Stone suggests that for most early modern English women and men, intercourse likely exposed them to flesh that must have appeared well on the way to putrefaction:

Both sexes suffered long periods of crippling illness which incapacitated them for months or years. Even when relatively well, they often suffered from disorders which made sex painful to them or unpleasant to their partners. Women suffered from a whole series of gynaecological disorders, particularly leucherrhoea, but also vaginal ulcers, tumours, inflammations and haemorrhages which often made sexual intercourse disagreeable, painful, or impossible. Both sexes must very often have had bad breath from the rotting teeth and constant stomach disorders which can be documented from many sources, while superating ulcers, excema, scabs, running sores and other nauseating skin disorders were extremely common, and often lasted for years.33

Stone's catalogue of “nauseating” physical ailments comes dangerously close to absolutizing cultural norms, but it is equally misguided to assume that because of the commonness of such complaints, the average Elizabethan or Jacobean paid them no heed. Most important to attend to, I believe, is that for many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women and men, sexual intercourse was accompanied by pointedly un-romanticized assumptions about the body of desire that would likely strike the twentieth century Western sensibility as revolting.

This is not to suggest, however, that Vindice's obsession with Gloriana's skull might have been taken by a Jacobean audience as naturalistic, much less normative. When Hippolito enters after the opening soliloquy, and asks his brother rhetorically, “Still sighing o'er Death's vizard?” (1.1.49), the effect is to underscore Vindice's perversity. “Sighing,” of course, has sexual connotations; and “Death's vizard” is yet another startlingly ambiguous phrase, seeming to contradict Vindice's prior characterization of Gloriana's flesh as the mask. For the skull marks not the limit or antithesis of corporeal desire but is rather its object. Hippolito has sought out Vindice to play the role of “base-coined pandar” (1.1.80), spurring Vindice's remark, “I wonder how ill-featured, vile proportioned / That one should be, if she were made for woman, / Whom at the insurrection of his lust / He would refuse for once: heart, I think none; / Next to a skull, though more unsound than one, / Each face he meets he strongly dotes upon” (1.1.86-89). The syntax is peculiar: does “Next to a skull” refer to the precedent “He” or following “Each face”? The ambiguity is intriguing, for the skull may be seen as simultaneously the boundary and the culmination of desire, the site where licit and illicit desires becomes mutually indistinguishable. Lust does not “disguise itself” as necrophilia so much as necrophilia disguises itself as lust, Vindice seems to imply, both in the aforementioned lines and in his contradictory expressions of derision of lechery and erotic attachment to Gloriana in “her” present state. But as I have already suggested, Vindice no less than the skull functions more as prop, as a “thing of nothing,” than as an agent. He agrees to “put on that knave” (the role of bawd; 1.1.92) right away, the elision of “the role of,” or “the disguise of” “that knave” justified by his ensuing remark, “For to be honest is not to be i' the world” (1.1.94). Charles and Elaine Hallett have observed that “Vindice's journey is a journey into madness in the sense that he creates an alter-ego and loses all grip on himself. Eventually, there is no longer a real Vindice; he has entered so far into deceit that he is the man he pretends to be. To put on the role of Vindice again is to put on a new disguise.”34 But I would question the Halletts' assumption that “a real Vindice,” an originally centered subject, is available anywhere in the play.35 By his own definition, “to be honest is not to be i' the world”—“the world” being the realm of Jacobean theatrical representation, which in its radical anti-mimesis anticipates Artaud (or, at least, Derrida's reading of Artaud) in “announc[ing] the limit of representation.”36 For no “real Vindice” is possible in the play, not only in the banal sense that theatrical personae are by definition roles and not “subjectivities,” but also, and more provocatively, because the absence of honesty (a claim to authentic subjectivity) in the play's world parodically reduces the dramatis personae to the level of props, deconstructing the precarious distinction between the “dead” body as object and the animate one, with illusions of its own autonomous subjectivity, as agent or even actor.37 The opening scene closes with Vindice's aside, “I'll quickly turn into another” (1.1.134), but the collapse of boundaries between subject and object has already been put forth as a given of the play. The subsequent theatricalization of disguise is a savage self-parody that seems to acknowledge that the dismantling of the illusion of “honesty”—or mimesis—makes representation a metaphysical impossibility. And in the absence of metaphysics this theater can proffer only the arbitrary materiality of bodies stripped even of the ostensibly stable semiotic distinctions between living and dead.

Thus, when Vindice appears in his disguise, his question to Hippolito—“What brother, am I far enough from myself?” (1.3.1)—underscores not only the infinite substitutability of “subjectivity,” but on a practical, spectacular level, functions to inform the audience that this disguised figure is indeed the same “character” introduced in scene 1, act 1, given that the actor obviously has been physically “translated.” Yet if Vindice's “life is unnatural to [him],” the “self” to which he refers is no less an artifice than this late guise of Piato the bawd. Similarly, Vindice's invocation of “Impudence, Thou goddess of the palace” (1.3.5-6), to “Strike thou mine forehead into dauntless marble, Mine eyes steady sapphires” (1.3.8-9), seems to echo his opening meditation on Gloriana's skull—“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” (1.1.19-22). The mask that Vindice has put on is strikingly similar to that which “apparelled [Gloriana] in [her] flesh.” With no stable semiotic to mark off natural from unnatural, life from death, the ontological status of playing is itself thrown into question in a far more radical way than one finds in the typical “world-as-stage” topos. Again, the characters function as virtual props; thus the spectators, situated in the position of viewing the prurient machinations less of mimetic characters than of objects, are themselves inscribed as voyeuristic necrophiles.

When Vindice announces himself to Lussurioso as “A bone setter … A bawd, my lord, One that sets bones together” (1.3.42-44), he foreshadows the sexual assignation he will arrange between the Duke and Gloriana's skull: the “setting together” of “hollow bones” with the “the bony lady.” Yet as go-between, the bawd is doubly implicated—indeed, is situated between the dead bones. Vindice's proclamation upon Lussurioso's exit—“Now let me burst, I've eaten noble poison!” (1.3.170)—aligns him (as has the sapphire-eyed figure) not only with the poisoned Gloriana, but also with the lecherous Duke, who will literally eat poison in the upshot of Vindice's revenge. The wholesale instability of Vindice's identity accounts for the play's somewhat solipsistic quality; on a symbolic level, he is both Gloriana and her ravisher, for on a semiotic and hence epistemological level the play makes it impossible to distinguish him, whose “life's unnatural,” from the “hollow bones” and “bony lady.” If the construction of subjectivity functions to establish boundaries between identity and difference, Self and Other, then the refusal of subjectivity and parodic embrace of objectification and disguise produce an anarchy in which identity is radically interchangeable. Hence the following scene's perverse disclosure of the rape and suicide (by poison) of Antonio's wife not only mirrors the “main plot,” but rehearses and duplicates it. Once again, the effect is that of the trompe l'oeil, wherein the seeming exactitude of mimesis actually serves to render imitation itself static and artificial: the parodic precision of the duplication of the Vindice-Gloriana-Duke triad is in fact the very antithesis of verisimilitude. To use Baudrillard's terminology, the scene is a simulacrum of the third order, in that it mimics a prior model that has no epistemological foundation itself—they are signs referring to and interacting only with other signs, all of them “variables.38 Antonio displays the dead body of his raped wife: “Behold my lords / A sight that strikes man out of me” (1.4.4-5). In turn, the lords praise the object set forth for their perusal: Piero cries, “That virtuous lady!” while Hippolito extols “The blush of many women, whose chaste presence / Would e'en call shame up to their cheeks / And make pale wanton sinners have good colours” (6-9). The paens to the woman's corpse—“Precedent for wives” (1.4.6)—seem to imply that the emblematic desirable female body is a dead one, spectacularly displayed to appraising, evaluating male gazes.39 Antonio's narration of the events leading to his wife's suicide significantly confuses the objectified but living female body with the object that is the eroticized body of death: “The duchess's younger son … Singled out that dear form, who ever lived as cold in lust as she is now in death” (1.4.32-36). That the woman's death makes her all the more “wondrous,” an “empress,” even (49-50), is not to say that she is removed from the realm of sexuality; for the spectacular display of her dead body rather undercuts the conventional and disembodying tributes to her chastity.40 Antonio's claim that “this is my comfort gentlemen, and I joy / In this one happiness above the rest, / Which will be called a miracle at last, / That being an old man I'd a wife so chaste” (1.4.75-78) is one of the play's more incongruous speeches, for the conventional misogyny of the sentiment is ironized not only by the voyeurism incited by her corpse's display, but the erotic investment of Vindice's lust for revenge that frames the Antonio subplot.

Similarly, the disguised Vindice's attempt to procure his sister for Lussurioso, and seduction of his mother to consent to the pandering, is on the level of signification no less perverse and even incestuous than Spurio's liaison with his stepmother. For despite Vindice's declared intention merely to test the ladies' virtue, disguise and dissimulation so subsume any essential referentiality that there is only signification; the play precludes any stable spectacular or semiotic criteria by which to distinguish unnaturally-disguised (and -minded) “Piato” from Vindice, whose “life is unnatural.” “Piato's” mastery of the very discourses of sensuality that Vindice ostensibly loathes, and the persistence with which he employs it to Gratiana and Castiza, indicts language itself as but a habit that aptly is put on. The boundaries by which kinship bonds are constructed (and incest forbidden) are disclosed as contingent, dependent on a stable semiosis that exists nowhere in the world of the play—just as distinctions between necromancy (with its evocations of necrophilia) and science, madness and sanity, are debunked as binarisms themselves violently imposed in the process of constructing early modern subjectivity. For, as Foucault has compellingly shown, the incitements of distinct categories of sexuality were bound up in the development of the disciplines (not the least of which is self-discipline).41 The play's semiotic anarchy effects and virtually promotes the proliferation of illicit sexualities in excess of any subject's “intentions.”

So, too, Vindice's exhortation to Lussurioso to murder the Duke and Duchess in bed “doubled, when they're heaped” (2.3.4) conflates the spectacle of voyeurism with evocations of incestuous oedipal desire and necrophilia. For Vindice has urged Lussurioso (who expects to find Spurio with the Duchess) to “take 'em twisted” (2.3.2), in a bitterly literal pun on the conventional Elizabethan/Jacobean “orgasm as death” metaphor, literal not the least because such a murder would provide a grotesque spectacle of sex and death intertwined. That Vindice is not particularly concerned that the Duke and not Spurio was discovered “heaped” with the Duchess (2.3.32-34) underscores the mad semiosis of necrophilic desire in excess of the object or referent (ostensibly, revenge against the Duke). Vindice shrugs off the missed opportunity: “Would he [Lussurioso] had killed him, 'twould have eased our swords” (2.3.34). What is constantly being provoked and incited in the play is not justice or even spectacle per se: it is the desire to present spectacularly the coupling of the quick and the dead, a desire that implicates not only Vindice but the audience as well.42

Thus the play's pivotal scene, act 3, scene 5, is remarkable both for its relative prematurity, given revenge tragedy conventions, and for the vehemence with which it parodies the genre's, and the culture's, own governing symbolics of death. Romeo and Juliet's final moments in Capulet's tomb, Hamlet and Laertes' fight in Ophelia's grave, these staged conjunctions of Eros and Thanatos are decorous because desire remains in the realm of the symbolic and metaphorical. That is, it was for the audiences to accept the premise that these scenes take place in tombs and graveyards, given the relative austerity of Elizabethan and Jacobean scenic design. Vindice bounds onstage with the exclamation “Oh sweet, delectable, rare, happy, ravishing!” (3.5.1), directly following the prurient remarks of the Duke's Younger Son condemned to die for the rape of Antonio's wife: “My fault was sweet sport which the world approves; I die for that which every woman loves” (3.4.78). The slippage between lust and the ecstasy of violence is parodically foregrounded; when Hippolito asks his brother the cause of his ecstatic mood, Vindice replies, “Oh 'tis able / To make a man spring up and knock his forehead / Against yon silver ceiling” (3.5.2-4), an idiom with overt erotic connotations. Indeed, Vindice is almost too overcome to share with Hippolito the cause for “the violence of my joy” (3.5.27)—a phrase that mockingly recalls the throes of Petrarchan love such as one finds in Romeo and Juliet. When Hippolito persists in asking about the identity of the lady Vindice has procured for the Duke, Vindice responds, “Oh at that word I'm lost again, you cannot find me yet, I'm in a throng of happy apprehensions” (3.5.28-30), as though it is Vindice and not the Duke who anticipates a tryst. He runs off-stage to fetch the “lady,” returning shortly with “the skull of his love dressed up in tires.” Even the generally amenable Hippolito seems shocked: “Why brother, brother” (3.5.49). But Vindice persists in his lascivious panderer's discourse: “Art thou beguiled now? Tut a lady can / At such, all hid, beguile a wiser man. / Have I not fitted the old surfeiter / With a quaint piece of beauty?” (3.5.50-54). The bawdy pun on “quaint,” like Vindice's simultaneous sexual revulsion and sexual fascination with Gloriana's remains, once again yokes together the ostensibly disembodied skull with the sexual body of desire. Even the play's most celebrated set speech, which seems to begin as a somewhat conventional, if eloquent, meditation on mortality and corporeality, concludes with an acknowledgment of semiotic confusion in place of any concrete point of reference.

And now methinks I could e'en chide myself
For doting on her beauty, though her death
Shall be revenged after no common action.
Does the silkworm expend her yellow labours
For thee? For thee does she undo herself?
Are lordships sold to maintain ladyships
For the poor benefit of a bewitching minute?
Why does yon fellow falsify highways
And put his life between the judge's lips
To refine such a thing, keeps horses and men
To beat their valours for her?
Surely we're all mad people and they,
Whom we think are, are not; we mistake those.
'Tis we are mad in sense, they but in clothes.


Alas, poor Gloriana; yet Vindice's reflections on the decomposition of his lost love and the treacherous, because transitory, nature of female desirability are problematized by the conclusion that semiosis is irrational, and the “sane” man madder than the lunatic, a distinction that Hippolito reminds him is moot anyway, given that they “in clothes too” (their disguises) are mad, their identities effaced. Moreover, the temporal ambiguity of the speech's opening lines—for it is most unclear how long Vindice has ceased to “dote … on her beauty” or if he has ceased to dote at all—further compounds the confusion.

Just as confused is the ensuing apostrophe to Gloriana: Vindice no sooner bids “Thou may'st lie chaste now” (3.5.89) than he pictures the skull's presence “at revels, forgetful feasts and unclean brothels” (3.5.90-91), a peculiar imagined situation of the virtuous lady's skull in the very spaces of lechery. Readdressing Hippolito, Vindice turns to his “tragic business”:

I have not fashioned this only for show
Or useless property, no—it shall bear a part
E'en in its own revenge. This very skull,
Whose mistress the duke poisoned with this drug,
The mortal curse of the earth, shall be revenged
In the like strain and kiss his lips to death.


The sexual puns continue, with Hippolito “applaud[ing] … The quaintness of the malice” (3.5.107-8), and Vindice replying, “So 'tis laid on” (3.5.109). But what is interesting as well is Vindice's justification of the ruse in the name of theatrical efficacy—“I have not fashioned this only for show / Or Useless property” (3.5.99-100)—a theatrical efficacy the play itself has resoundingly deconstructed, replacing it with a prurient spectacle that traffics chiefly in the titillation of its spectators via representation of overtly decentered, semiotically unreadable objects of transgressive desire. Indeed, on a certain level, the whole of The Revenger's Tragedy is given over to “show and useless property”—props, things of nothing, theatrically manipulable but inherently meaningless. What if, the play seems to be brutally suggesting, the body itself were no more than a prop? Bodies of desire, bodies of death, the bodies of actual actors playing roles that have no ultimate reference to subjectivity—the enabling distinctions that divide mind from corporeality, licit from illicit desires, subjects from objects, are disintegrated.

Hence the brutality of the Duke's murder must be viewed from the perspective not of the “ethics of revenge,” but rather of the excesses of spectacular desire that cannot but convert law into license, discipline into a violent affirmation of the transgressiveness of body-politics. The Duke's teeth and tongue are eaten away after his kiss with Gloriana—“'Twill teach you to kiss closer, Not like a slobbering Dutchman,” scoffs Vindice (3.5.161-62). Vindice's simplistic comment, “When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good” (3.5.198), is patently ironic, for both the sadistic spectacle and the Revenger's obvious lust in torturing the Duke belie any generic notion of Old Testament-style vengeful justice. Vindice's ostensible raison d'etre—vengeance for Gloriana's death—has been served, and yet his conclusion of the scene by urging his brother, “As fast as they peep up let's cut 'em down” (3.5.210), marks not an ethical critique of revenge so much as the radical estrangement of signifier from referent. Gloriana has been avenged, Vindice has fulfilled his dramatic and ethical “purpose,” and yet the play's own inexorable, even tyrannical, logic subsumes its supposed premises. Though two full acts follow the Duke's murder, their narrative purpose is radically superfluous. In act 4, scene 2, Vindice “becomes himself” again, only to be commissioned by Lussurioso to kill “Piato”; that he “accomplishes” this deed by disguising the Duke's corpse in “Piato's” garb is less ironic than brutally parodic, identity being as unstable and contingent for the dead as for the living. Likewise, Vindice's ostensible hubris in blurting out to Antonio his and Hippolito's murderous deeds signifies not tragic pride so much as the impossibility of subjectivity: “'Tis time to die when we are ourselves our foes,” Vindice proclaims (5.3.110), adding shortly thereafter that the “dead” Piato “was a witch” (5.3.119). Any criteria—ethical, semiotic, or spectacular—by which subjects can be named, distinguished not only from one another but from the materiality of objects, of props, have been exploded.

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba? The play profoundly travesties the illusion of actors embodying agents, or theater holding up a (rational) mirror to nature, or spectacular experience as possible locus of knowledge. Against the body of death as the site of stable referentiality, the desexualized object of disciplinary inquiry and the Other of the disembodied proto-humanist subject, The Revenger's Tragedy subversively proffers the dead body as a fetishized prop on which not reason but madness inscribes itself, the transgressive limit of desire that cannot itself be limited, neither a body of pain nor of pleasure, but one of infinite utility. In its savage parody of the scientized body, the play spectacularly confounds the transgressive and the legitimized body, desire and discipline—the very boundaries that would construct and define subject and object for early modern European epistemology.

In postmodern America, when one hears 1992 Los Angeles likened to 1991 Kuwait or Iraq, when the political inscription of “anarchy,” “lawlessness,” and violence is questioned, when violence against bodies of color is justified in the name of “due process” and “law”—that is, “the biological existence of a [white] population,” small wonder that many of us, within and without the academy, prefer to speak abstractly about the “ethical anarchy” of Jacobean tragedy, conveniently invoking the trope of “historical difference” to sidestep an active engagement of readings of the past with lived experience in the present.43 As historically situated readers, we dare not constitute history, either overtly or tacitly, as merely part of the body of knowledge—pun intended—that designates a discipline and a profession. Where was your body the night Rodney King's was being beaten? Where was mine? What does either question have to do with Cyril Tourneur's play? I would hope that these are questions those of us who grapple with history will continue to consider.44


  1. Philippe Aries, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 376

  2. Peter Stallybrass, “Reading the Body: The Revenger's Tragedy and the Jacobean Theater of Consumption,” Renaissance Drama 18 (1987): 129-32.

  3. See Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body (London: Methuen, 1984), 80.

  4. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, trans. Jacques Morrain and Charles Levin, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1989), 150.

  5. T. S. Eliot, Essays on Elizabethan Drama (New York: Harvest Books, 1932, 1960), 120.

  6. Lynn White, Jr., “Death and the Devil,” in The Darker Vision of the Renaissance, ed. Robert Kinsman (Univ. of California Press, 1974), 31.

  7. For discussion of humanism see Donald Howard, “Renaissance World-Alienation,” in Darker Vision (note 6), 47-76; for black death see White (note 6), 30-32; and for church bureaucracy see Aries (note 1), 298.

  8. See, for example, book 6, chapter 17 of Morte d'Arthur. I am grateful to Elizabeth Bryan for this reference, as well as for pointing out the frequent intersection of spectacles of torture and death with the erotic in Medieval “virgin martyrs” accounts.

  9. Vern L. Bullough, Sexual Variance in Society and History (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976), 401.

  10. Aries (note 1), 357.

  11. Aries, 358.

  12. Giovanna Ferrari, “Public Anatomy Lessons and the Carnival: The Anatomy Theatre of Bologna,” Past & Present 117 (November 1987): 100-101.

  13. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), 443.

  14. Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975), 179.

  15. Barker (note 3), 73-80.

  16. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 139.

  17. Foucault (note 16), 139.

  18. Aries (note 1), 368-70.

  19. See Baudrillard (note 4), 155-59.

  20. Baudrillard, 156.

  21. Karin S. Coddon, “‘Suche Strange Desygns’: Madness, Subjectivity and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture,” Renaissance Drama 20 (1989): 67-68.

  22. Kenneth D. Keele, Leonardo da Vinci's Elements of the Science of Man (New York: Academic Press, 1983), 197.

  23. Quoted in Ferrari (note 12), 57.

  24. Sir Thomas Browne, Hypdriotaphia or Urne-Burial, in The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964), 155.

  25. Keele (note 22), 197.

  26. William S. Hecksher, Rembrandt's Anatomy of Dr. Nicholas Tulp: An Iconological Study (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1958), fig. 54.

  27. Marcie Frank, “The Camera and the Speculum: David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers,PMLA 106 (1991): 459-70 (fig. 468).

  28. See Foucault (note 16), 104.

  29. Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), ed. Brain Gibbons (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 1.1.119-20. All further references will be cited in the text.

  30. Jacques Derrida, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), 183.

  31. Julia Kristeva, “Holbein's Dead Christ,” trans. Leon S. Roudiez, in Fragments for A History of the Human Body, ed. Michel Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi (New York: Zone, 1989), 252.

  32. Arnold Stein, The House of Death (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986), 13.

  33. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage 1500-1800, abridged edition (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1979), 306.

  34. Charles and Elaine Hallet, The Revenger's Madness (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1980), 239.

  35. See, for example, Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1985), 31.

  36. Derrida (note 30), 234.

  37. By “honesty,” I refer not only to the modern definition of “truthfulness,” but also, and perhaps chiefly, to the sense of authenticity invoked by Hamlet when he tells Horatio, “Touching this vision here [the spectre of King Hamlet] / It is an honest ghost” (Hamlet, ed. T. S. B. Spence [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980], 1.5.143-44; emphasis added).

  38. Baudrillard (note 4), 135.

  39. See Barker (note 3) on Andrew Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress”: “The text exhibits, and even in its brutal way—within the economy of violence and the imago of the fragmented body discloses within the conventional lyricism—celebrates the body of the beloved in public view. … It is still there to be seen, and is acknowledged openly as the object and site of desire” (89).

  40. Here I disagree with Stallybrass's (note 2) claim that the raped body of Lady Antonio is not “sexualized. … In the silence of death, Lady Antonio is made to speak only of religion and virtue, to speak as a ‘precedent for wives’” (130). Rather, I believe that the spectacular display of her body invokes and invites desire, not unlike Marvell's “Coy Mistress;” see Barker (note 39).

  41. Foucault (note 16), 17-35.

  42. See Aries (note 1), 377.

  43. Foucault (note 16), 137.

  44. I am grateful to Elizabeth Bryan, Louis Montrose, and Don Wayne for their interest and valuable suggestions concerning this project. Renie Henchy was an attentive and scrupulous reader; finally, for his sustaining dialogue and advice, I wish to thank Tom Harshman.