Cyril Tourneur Tourneur, Cyril - Essay


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.

Principal Works

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

T. S. Eliot (essay date 1930)

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...

(The entire section is 3729 words.)

Una Ellis-Fermor (essay date 1936)

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...

(The entire section is 6777 words.)

Kenneth N. Cameron (essay date 1940)

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...

(The entire section is 2835 words.)

Harold Jenkins (essay date 1941)

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...

(The entire section is 6517 words.)

Henry Hitch Adams (essay date 1949)

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...

(The entire section is 5961 words.)

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1954)

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...

(The entire section is 4302 words.)

Inga-Stina Ekeblad (essay date 1959)

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...

(The entire section is 5390 words.)

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1960)

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...

(The entire section is 8896 words.)

Howard Pearce (essay date 1976)

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 entire section is 7769 words.)

R. J. Kaufmann (essay date 1986)

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.]


(The entire section is 9536 words.)

John S. Wilks (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 11268 words.)

Karen Robertson (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 7815 words.)

Karin S. Coddon (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 7382 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 532 words.)