In 1607, The Revenger’s Tragedy was entered in the Stationers’ Register along with a play by Thomas Middleton, A Trick to Catch the Old One, and it was printed shortly afterwards. It’s thus an early example of Jacobean tragedy. It can also be classed as revenge tragedy, sharing a category with earlier revenge plays including Hamlet and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.

The “revenger” of the title is Vindice, who plots to kill the Duke, a “parched and juiceless luxor” (I.i.9), in revenge for the murder by poison of Vindice’s “betrothed lady” (I.i.16) some nine years earlier. The Duke’s death is quite easily brought about. Vindice’s brother, Hippolito, is an attendant on Lussurioso, the Duke’s equally lecherous son and heir. Hippolito introduces Vindice (in disguise) to his employer as somebody prepared to undertake sordid, covert tasks: “A man that were for evil only good” (I.i.79). Vindice tells the heir that he has previously been a pander, a role which suits Lussurioso’s purposes perfectly.

It also suits the Duke’s, who asks Vindice to procure a young woman for him. Vindice agrees, and tricks the Duke into kissing the skull of his dead love, which has been coated with poison. (It behaves more like acid, eating away the Duke’s lips.) As the Duke dies, Vindice tells him that his Duchess is in an adulterous relationship with his bastard son, Spurio, and tries to force him to watch them together. So much for the main revenge plot. There’s a lot more going on, however.

Before the disguised Vindice comes to the Duke’s attention, Lussurioso too has set him the task of setting him up with a young woman for whom “I am past my depth in lust” (I.iii.90) but who has properly rejected his advances. The woman he is plotting against is Castiza, the sister of Vindice and Hippolito. Lussurioso is amused that, by introducing him to the supposed pander, Hippolito will unwittingly be instrumental in his own sister’s seduction. Of course, he doesn’t know that the man he’s asking to do his dirty work is another brother of his target.

Vindice is appalled by Lussurioso’s villainy but confident that Castiza will successfully resist his attack. Lussurioso tells him that, if the young woman refuses to yield, he should work on her mother, Gratiana, instead. Vindice’s confidence in his mother’s steadfast virtue proves less well founded than that in his sister’s. Gratiana eventually agrees to try to persuade her daughter that it will be in her interest to give in to the Duke’s son.

Some years ago, I read a commentary on the play — unfortunately, I didn’t think of making a note of where it was — which asked why Vindice persists in trying to overcome Gratiana’s resolve once it’s clear to him that she is weakening. Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to backpedal before he gets to the point of compromising his mother’s duty to her daughter?

One important reason why Vindice presses on is that he has sworn to do so. Lussurio required an oath from him and he gave it, something he quickly regretted:

      Swear me to foul my sister!
Sword, I durst make a promise of him to thee,
Thou shalt dis-heir him, it shall be thine honour; (I.iii.174—6)

It might seem surprising that a man who is willing to commit several murders for the purpose of revenge should balk at breaking his oath but it is that apparent inconsistency that is at the root of the drama. Vindice doesn’t hesitate to trick an old lecher into kissing a poisoned skull, nor later to run through the new Duke with his sword while his victim supposes he’s watching a dumb-show at a celebratory meal, but he wavers at the prospect of deviating from the action (dishonourable as it is) that he has sworn to take.

I was a villain not to be forsworn,
To this our lecherous hope, the Duke’s son;
For lawyers, merchants, some divines, and all
Count beneficial perjury a sin small.
It shall go hard yet, but I’ll guard her honour
And keep the posts sure. (II.ii.100–05)

Subsequently, in his own person, his oath to Lussurioso now fully renounced, he persuades his mother to repent her previous attempts at undermining Castiza. Gratiana is distraught when her daughter tells her that those attempts have succeeded after all, and that she is now “content” (IV.iv.101) to accept advancement and wealth as the mistress of the Duke’s son. But Castiza quickly admits that this is not true: “I did but this to try you” (IV.iv.148). So the subplot, at least, ends without tragedy.

And, perhaps surprisingly, the subplot seems to be the more significant part of the story. In the final scene, when Vindice and his unfortunate brother are being led away to be summarily put to death for killing the old Duke — they killed the young one too, but managed to deflect the blame in that case — Vindice sums the situation up:

      We have enough
I’faith, we’re well, our mother turned, our sister true,
We die after a nest of dukes. — Adieu. (V.iii.132–4)

The risks arising from binding obligations undertaken by promises, covenants and contracts is a recurring — though not particularly common — theme in the dramatic writing of this period and earlier. When I wrote about Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus last year, I suggested that its hero may ultimately have been forced to recognize that his contract with the devil was more effective and more enforceable than his studies had suggested it might be.

There may be a closer parallel between The Revenger’s Tragedy and a different play, the revenge tragedy that towers over all others. I believe that Hamlet’s delays and hesitations in avenging the murder of his father arise from the prince’s having got himself into a similar bind to Vindice’s. Hamlet needs to reconcile two incompatible obligations: his sworn commitment to the “ghost” to take revenge for the murder and usurpation, and the need to avoid damning his own soul in the process. I’ll save that argument to make on another occasion: it needs a post all to itself.

It seems to me that both The Revenger’s Tragedy and Doctor Faustus (and, if I’m right, Hamlet too) show signs of an anxiety on the part of their different authors about the kinds of problems one might get oneself into simply by making promises or entering agreements; and I’d like to suggest that there’s a good reason for that. Many of the significant legal and political thinkers of the period (and slightly later) based their theories of law and obligation on what they saw as a universal obligation to be bound by one’s agreements.

Thinkers like Hugo Grotius, John Selden, Thomas Hobbes and their many followers variously saw that obligation as fundamental to systems of natural law, the laws of nations and other bodies of law. That, too, is a big and controversial subject that I hope to return to, though it’s not suitable for this particular newsletter.

Edition: Quotations are from Three Jacobean Tragedies ed. Gāmini Salgādo (Penguin Classics, 1965 revised 1969), in which the play is attributed to Cyril Tourneur.

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