Nothing screams 21st century quite like sex, revenge, intrigue, disguise, and deception, right?
Wrong. Well, at least when it comes to The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton, since this play was written in the 17th century. Still, all these years later this story has all the things we've come to know and love in Hollywood blockbusters—well, except a happy ending, that is.
The Revenger's Tragedy tells the story of Vindice, who's trying to get revenge on the man who poisoned his fiancée nine years ago. Along the way, there are so many plots, subplots, and sub-sub-sub plots that the side switches in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 will seem like mere child's play. And that's not the only thing it has in common with the modern-day Pirates franchise. This play also has skulls, creepy dark places, and a healthy dose of corny humor on top of all the bones.
That said, The Revenger's Tragedy features inventive and stomach-turning violence that would leave the Pirates marketing team quivering. In its obsession with revenge and its over-the-top violence, this play's probably more Quentin Tarantino than Gore Verbinski. So consider yourselves warned, Shmoopers.
The play is part of a genre called revenge tragedy (shocking given the title, we know), which is full of pretty crazy stuff: secret crimes, bitter enemies, over the top gore, ghosts, decadent party scenes, black humor, grim endings, and more. Hamlet is part of the genre—but believe us when we say that Hamlet is the classy version. The Revenger's Tragedy is like Hamlet's pop culture cousin. So read on. And watch your back.
Ever been wronged? Maybe your brother ate all the marshmallows out of your Lucky Charms, your mom agreed to let your sister have the car for the weekend, or your leader poisoned your fiancée when she refused to sleep with him… Okay, that last one probably hasn't happened to you (fingers crossed), but it has happened to Vindice, the main character in The Revenger's Tragedy, and his desire for revenge is what sets the plot in motion.
We can't say we blame the guy for being pretty bitter—the Duke was majorly out of line on a number of levels—but we can blame Vindice for letting this get the best of him. See, he starts out on pretty high moral ground, but as his obsession with revenge lands on new and less-terrible targets, Vindice stops looking quite so good.
We don't want to spoil anything here (though we'll happily do so throughout the rest of the learning guide), but suffice it to say that this is a cautionary tale about the role revenge takes on the revenger. By the time you're done reading it, we're betting you'll be pretty inclined to forgive and forget. After all, the next time it's your turn with the car, you can drive to the supermarket and buy all the sugary cereal you want and then eat it all before you get home—no revenge needed.
Mad About Masques
Want to know more about the fancy court costume parties called masques (like the one at the end of the play)? This site is here to help. Not quite so many deaths in the normal version…
Think The Revenger's Tragedy is morbid? Take a look at some of the art in this tradition—you ain't seen nothing yet.
We just think this guy is too creepy and cool not to include.
Christopher Eccleston as Vindice
There's no way the film version of the play isn't on the R-rated side, so consider yourself warned. Fun fact: It's a modernized version of the original play.
Revenge Tragedy Recently
Revenge tragedies have been all the rage on the 21st century stage, and here's an article to prove it. Warning: Some of what's described in this article is almost as violent and over the top as The Revenger's Tragedy itself.
Shmoop Gets Revenge… Er, We Mean Talks About Revenge
For a Shmoopy take on revenge in Shakespeare, see this link. How much of it applies to The Revenger's Tragedy, too? You decide.
More Where That Came From
Do you think The Revenger's Tragedy just might be making fun of the revenge tragedy genre? If you do, you're not alone. Check out this podcast to explore this possibility, as well as learn about other works in the genre.
Want to know what all those revengers are dancing to? It might have been something like this music from the era. That's some crazy harpsichord.
By the Same Author
Here's the cover page for another of Middleton's works
Get Your Creep On with Hans Holbein
Can't you see the characters in Revenger's Tragedy hanging these on their walls? We can.