The Revenger’s Tragedy appeared after the two most popular revenge plays in English Renaissance drama. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1585-1589) was the first, and the second was William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603). Both of these plays would have been familiar to audiences and to playwrights of the time, including the likely author of The Revenger’s Tragedy, Thomas Middleton. (For some time, it was believed that Cyril Tourneur was the play’s author, but scholars now believe it was written by Middleton.) The Revenger’s Tragedy might be called the perfect revenge play, but some exploration of why Vendice does not seem as real as Kyd’s Hieronimo or Shakespeare’s Hamlet is needed.
In The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronimo vows not to bury the body of his murdered son until he discovers the identities of his murderers. He tries to be just and not to act rashly. For this, Hieronimo is rebuked for his delay by Bel-Imperia, whose lover was killed by the same men. Hieronimo and Bel-Imperia kill the two murderers at a masque, and Bel-Imperia then kills herself. Hieronimo is somewhat unsatisfying as a revenger: He is neither unfeeling nor violent by nature. Sometimes he seems mad. As a killer, he lacks verve.
Hamlet is also an inept revenger. He spends a good part of the play attempting to verify the story told to him by his father’s ghost. Hamlet’s demeanor, like that of Hieronimo, can also be frustrating for an audience expecting a more exuberant killer.
There is no indication that Vendice experiences any kind of self-doubt. Rather, he presents himself as a most able revenger whose resolve never wavers. His brother, Hippolito, acts in unison with Vendice and shares Vendice’s conviction that the Duke and his family are too corrupt to be saved. Presumably, Antonio, whose wife was raped by the Duchess’s...
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