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Arbie's Unoriginally Titled Book Blog

It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.

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Four Revenge Tragedies, Maus (Ed.)

Four Revenge Tragedies: The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger's Tragedy, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, and The Atheist's Tragedy - Cyril Tourneur, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Middleton, George Chapman, Katharine Eisaman Maus

New material under the last two bold headings!


The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Kyd


This play gets mentioned in the Introductions to numerous later plays because it is considered the first Revenge Tragedy of the era's drama - and, let's face it, the Elisabethan-Jacobean era was the Golden Age of English Drama. So when people talk about Titus Andronicus or Hamlet or Webster's Duchess of Malfi or The White Devil, this play tends to get discussed, too. That being so, I desired to read it specifically even more than I just generally want to explore the work of Shakespeare's (near) contemporaries.

All those scholars are not wrong; this play springs numerous of the themes and tropes of Revenge Tragedy on its audiences, fully formed. It clearly influenced Hamlet and MacBeth directly in terms of plot and character points as well as being the archetype of a new genre. The surprising thing was just how good it is. Particularly early on, the descriptive aspects of the writing are really good (though Shakespeare did it better, later). The depth of character isn't on a par with Shakespeare, either, but still, this play deserves to be read and performed on its own merits. Well done, Oxford Drama, for making it readily available.


The Revenger's Tragedy


Who wrote this? Nobody knows for sure. Thomas Middleton seems to be supplanting Cyril Turneur as the scholarly consensus for most likely author - but you won't be learning anything about that debate from this volume, unfortunately.


This was the first non-Shakespearean play of the era that I ever saw performed - it seemed to gain considerable traction in performance in the 1990s, because I saw another performance of it later in the decade. The first was the work of the drama dept. at my undergrad Uni. The second was a touring professional production at the Theatre Royal, Bath. The former was better than the latter, which used the conceit of Prohibition gangsters for its costuming. All the men were dressed in virtually identical suits and hats and it was next to impossible to follow the plot because the characters were not sufficiently visually differentiated.


Reading the play makes this easier, the opposite of what I find with Shakespeare's plays. It seems like Shakespeare had more skill at working people's names and relations with each other into speech, a huge advantage when the cast of characters is bigger even than the number of players in the troupe, as was usually the case back then. Just one more reason why the Bard was better than the rest.


Anyway, whilst clearly a Revenge Tragedy (see title!), displaying most of the tropes and moral implications of the genre, two are conspicuous by their absence: a ghost and a play-within-a-play. The absence of the former can be understood from the plot. The inciting crime is a rape rather than a murder, so there is no unquiet dead spirit to demand vengence from the living. As for the lack of a play-within-a-play, well, there's no doubt who the perpetrator is and so no need for subterfuge to reveal the guilty party.

The editor suggests that this play satirises the genre. I'm not really seeing it except in-so-far as the all the major characters are archetypes rather than individuals (even to the extent of having names that, translated from Latin, tell you exactly what they typify). The moral subtext seems to be the same as other plays of the same ilk: Earthly justice has gone astray and the Revenger must go outside the law to get...revenge. In doing so (and eventually succeeding), the Revenger invariably, directly or indirectly, causes a final act bloodbath that destroys the corrupt ruling regime, allowing a just ruler to take over. Unfortunately the Revenger also pays the price of taking the law into his own hands and is also killed. Hence his Tragedy brings everything back into moral balance.


The Revenge of Bussy d'Ambois


...who is, amusingly, dead before the play starts...his death is the one to be revenged. This play only loosely fits the genre and is more a meditation on what defines nobility (actions vs. birth) couched in terms of Classical Roman and Greek models and arguments that the author was no doubt steeped in, being an influential translator of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey into English. There is little action by standards of the genre and I just ambled through it waiting for it to stop. An obvious Lady MacBeth-lite and other clear Shakespeare "homages" didn't help. Disappointing.


The Atheist's Tragedy


There's a lot going on in this play and some good Shakespearean banter and wordplay and yet I didn't think it was all that great. The Introduction to this volume suggested that this and The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois were to some extent subverting or commenting on the standard Revenge Drama formula. I didn't really see that with Bussy D'Ambois but here it's unmistakeable.

The motivation for revenge doesn't occur until the end of the second Act and when the inevitable ghost turns up, it tells the hero <i>not</i> to revenge his death - instead observe and leave it to Providence. This sets up the basic hero-villain contrast: God-fearing vs. atheist. Events then proceed to bring the death or downfall of all the morally corrupt characters and the saving of the remaining moral ones. The atheist even appears to undergo a dying breathe conversion. Then the moral - leave revenge to God - is, as if not obvious enough already, openly stated in a last scene speech.


This creates serious problems of dramatic construction; the hero is now entirely passive, never driving events forward but instead just being carried like luggage through the play until vindicated by the dying confession of the villain. Hence this being the Atheist's Tragedy - it's not a revenge tragedy at all, since no revenge is taken and the person with the motive for revenge survives the play. Instead the villain dies knowing that his machinations and murders have failed, his children are dead and it was all for nothing. Compare this with the internal conflict of a proper Revenger, knowing that unless he takes (immoral) action the villains win but knowing that his own soul is in peril if he does act. The idea is that God's order is corrupted and the Revenger will restore it to health with his own sacrifice. Is he performing God's will or not? Is he damned as well as dead at the end or not? And the bloody crisis occurs late in the final Act, giving the audience a cathartic denouement. All of this makes for greater drama than, "Leave it to God and do nothing."


Turneur's motivations in the play seem to be simply to spell out his own religious convictions; not only is his take on revenge hammered home like a six inch nail, his views on the Puritan movement are made explicit, too, though it's not obvious if Turneur was Catholic or Protestant from the play. One can hardly expect a Renaissance dramatist to be pro-Puritan since they believed just about every form of entertainment was a sin and wanted to close the theatres, so the Puritan here is portrayed as a charleton hypocrite who aids adultery for preferment. About as subtle as the rest of the play...but Turneur is also missing a serious function of drama (and forms of fiction in general) that the Greeks thoroughly understood; that it offers a way for the audience to benefit emotionally from the satisfaction of seeing socially unacceptable actions that they might fantasise about played out so they don't have to do it for real. Renaissance drama looked directly back to the Greeks in this regard and not only offered this type of safe outlet for desires that in reality would have unpredictable but certainly catastrophic consequences, but actually showed those consequences, too. Hence Turneur, I think, failed to deeply understand the true function and moral implications of the form he was clearly critiquing. This also suggests to me that he was not likely to be the author of The Revenger's Tragedy unless you buy that the intention was to be deliberately over-the-top in order to satirise the genre.


All of that said, the play is not terrible (there are worse by Shakespeare) and its inclusion here is entirely justified by the light thrown on true Revenge Tragedy by its contrasts with it. It's not a famous play, even excluding the Bard from consideration. This is no doubt partly because it cannot be Bowdlerised - there would be nothing left. One of the characters shows all the hallmarks of syphilis and dies from his disease. The plot revolves heavily around adultery and the sexual innuendoes would pile up to the theatre roof. Hence during the period when that type of censorship was considered necessary, this play would have been dropped entirely. (Middleton suffered the same fate.) Unfortunately, it is only in the last thirty years or so that a strong effort to reconsider the value of these forgotten works has taken place. Hence restoring such a play to ready availability is additionally useful and another good reason for inclusion.


Volume as a Whole


Between the Introduction and the examples set by the four chosen plays, the book meets its goals admirably, I think. It illustrates the formula, concerns and aims of the genre and makes available high quality material most of which wasn't easily obtainable to a non-scholarly audience prior. The two best are The Spanish Tragedy and The Revenger's Tragedy. The inclusion of the former, as the progenitor of the whole genre, is particularly welcome. Anyone interested in the English Renaissance dramatic output beyond solely Shakespeare would probably benefit from this book if there's even one play in it they aren't already familiar with.