Chapter Four | Conclusion
The Twilight of the Revengers: Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
From its origins, revenge tragedy is a self-doubting, conflicted, mocking genre, much like its principal characters. And, of course, the longer the genre continues, the more intense and foregrounded this theme becomes. Looking at Jacobean revenge tragedy shows that the role of revenger is becoming more difficult, more self-aware, more compromised. Bowers and Prosser see a simplified schema of increasing disapproval of revenge as the seventeenth century progresses, but I do not think matters are that simple; if simple disapproval were the reaction, the genre would have died out, and it did not. Instead, revenge becomes increasingly contested, increasingly problematic, difficult, and unsatisfying. In this chapter, I will examine the difficulties revengers face in four plays: The Atheist's Tragedy, The Second Maiden's Tragedy, The Changeling, and The Revengers Tragedy. Each shows a different place in which the genre of revenge tragedy dead-ends. The ghosts in these plays are less horrifying in themselves as supernatural figures than they are simple embodiments of victimhood.
My argument is not that revenge tragedy was a dead or dying genre; revenge tragedies continued to be written, performed, and enjoyed until the closing of the theaters in 1642. But the first half of the seventeenth century shows those playwrights who are interested in questions about their genre exploring the limits of revenge tragedy, seeing just what point it is beyond which this genre cannot take us.
The world of Cyril Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy is a corrupt and animalistic one; metaphors of money and exchange dominate everyone's thinking, even the noble and heroic Charlemont: "Sir, I will take your friendship up at use. / And fear not that your profits shall be small; / Your interest shall exceed your principal" (Atheist 1.2.147-49). Commercial and sexual language prevail. The world of the play is diseased, corrupt, and morbid, a fact which Tourneur emphasizes throughout, most spectacularly (in both the literal and figurative sense of the word) by having his virtuous hero and heroine compose themselves for sleep in a graveyard: "They lie down with either of them a death's head for a pillow" (Atheist 4.3.sd). It is not, in this play, the ghost that is horrifying; it would be more accurate to say that the play is horrifying because the ghost is not. A mere spectral visitation cannot best the corrupt society the play depicts.
The essential darkness of the world of the play is clearest in the intersection of its two registers of language: sex and money. The two categories are enmeshed and inseparable. The two women of the play, Levidulcia and Castabella, are diametrically opposed in their relationships to their sexuality, as their allegorical names suggest, but they are also, albeit in radically different ways, too much in circulation.
Levidulcia circulates herself; a married woman, she is eager to cuckold her husband with anyone she can seduce, both the willing Sebastian and the hapless Fresco, who truly is a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time:
Ho! Sebastian! Gone? Has set my blood a-boiling I' my veins, and now, like water poured upon the ground that mixes itself with every moisture it meets, I could clasp with any man.
O Fresco, art thou come?
If t'other fail, then thou art entertained.
Lust is a spirit which whosoe'er doth raise,
The next man that encounters boldly lays.
Levidulcia's metaphor also debases the spiritual register of the supernatural in the A plot1; instead of the virtuous and murdered Montferrers, her spirit is carnally material, an indiscriminate bodily hunger.
Levidulcia's language, like her actions, cleaves always to the economy of sexual exchange. All signifiers are reinterpreted by this system:
FRESCO. Your ladyship has made me blush.
LEVIDULCIA. That shows th'art full o'lusty blood and thou knowest not how to use it.
Levidulcia reenacts in microcosm the play's own use of language. Just as no one within the play is free from metaphors of financial exchange, no one who comes into Levidulcia's orbit can resist metaphors of sexual exchange.
Levidulcia's indiscriminate sexual circulation is tied back to the dominant metaphor of money through Cataplasma. Cataplasma makes her money from sexual exchange:
BELFOREST. Is not thy mistress a good wench?
FRESCO. How means your lordship that? A wench o' the trade?
BELFOREST. Yes faith, Fresco, e'en a wench o' the trade.
FRESCO. O no, my lord. Those falling diseases cause baldness, and my mistress recovers the loss of hair, for she is a periwig maker.
BELFOREST. And nothing else?
FRESCO. Sells falls and tires and bodies for ladies, or so.
BELFOREST. So, sir, and she helps my lady to falls and bodies now and then, does she not?
FRESCO. At her ladyship's pleasure, my lord.
BELFOREST. Her pleasure, you rogue? You are the pander to her pleasure, you varlet, are you not? You know the conveyances between Sebastian and my wife. ... quickly tell the truth.
FRESCO. O yes!
Cataplasma's ostensible source of income is in making wigs for those who have lost their hair to venereal disease; her true profession is bawd, specifically enabling Levidulcia's illicit circulation. The financial and the sexual commingle; Cataplasma's two jobs are joined together like a Möbius strip.
Levidulcia's step-daughter, Castabella, is her opposite. Her name means "chaste and beautiful," and also puns on "castellum," making her a "beautiful fortress." Whereas the sexually active Levidulcia controls her own body and chooses to enter promiscuously into circulation, the virgin Castabella is treated by the male characters as a signifier for the real commodity: her chastity.
Castabella and Charlemont cannot entirely escape this language; Castabella says their kiss is meant to be:
Of love, importing by the joining of
Our mutual and incorporated breaths
That we should breathe but one contracted life.
The financial metaphor is present, ineradicable, but Charlemont and Castabella are not controlled by it. They even turn it against itself, as Castabella does when she believes Charlemont to be dead: "be not displeased if on / The altar of his tomb I sacrifice / My tears. They are the jewels of my love / Dissolved into grief" (Atheist 3.1.57-60). Castabella and Charlemont are trapped within this economic register, but they can use it to express ideas that run counter to the avarice that pervades the play. It is among the opponents to their marriage that the language of finance and exchange becomes the governing trope.
The idea of Castabella as commodity surfaces immediately after Charlemont's departure. Charlemont has asked the Puritan Languebeau Snuffe to guard Castabella, but Snuffe encounters the atheist villain D'Amville. D'Amville in fact enters just as Charlemont exits. There is no breathing space before the wolves begin to gather, and, to emphasize the pervasive corruption of the play's world, it is the man Charlemont trusted who begins the process of commodifying Castabella:
LANGUEBEAU. She's like your diamond, a temptation in every man's eye, yet not yielding to any light impression herself.
D'AMVILLE. The praise is hers, but the comparison your own.
LANGUEBEAU. You shall forgive me that, sir.
D'AMVILLE. I will not do so much at your request as forgive you it. I will only give you it, sir. By--you will make me swear.
LANGUEBEAU. O, by no means! Profane not your lips with the foulness of that sin. I will rather take it. To save your oath, you shall lose your ring.--Verily, my lord, my praise came short of her worth. She exceeds a jewel. This is but only for ornament, she both for ornament and use.
D'AMVILLE. Yet unprofitably kept without use.
The Puritan is proved no better than the atheist, and no less materially minded. He himself makes the terms of his betrayal explicit:
Charlemont, thy gratuity and my promises were both but words, and both like words shall vanish into air.
For thy poor empty hand I must be mute;
This gives me feeling of a better suit.
Snuffe barters Castabella for a diamond and enters into the plot to wed her to D'Amville's elder son Rousard. The religious man is the most ready to be corrupted.
D'Amville's motivations are specifically monetary and specifically framed in monetary terms:
This Castabella is a wealthy heir,
And by her marriage with my elder son
My house is honoured and my state increased.
This work alone deserves my industry,
But if it prosper, thou shalt see my brain
Make this but an induction to a point
So full of profitable policy
That it would make the soul of honesty
Ambitious to turn villain.
The desire for wealth is conflated with the desire for honor, and the language of monetary gain contaminates all, so that the plot is said to "prosper," and the "profitable policy" will turn out to be murder. The world of the play is a corrupted, venal world, in which the strongest register of speech is the commercial. D'Amville's schemes rob Charlemont of Castabella and of his inheritance together; as Castabella tells Charlemont: "he that dispossessed my love of you / Hath disinherited you of possession" (Atheist 3.1.122-23). Nothing can be separated out from matters of material wealth.
Those are certainly the terms by which Belforest and Levidulcia view the question of Castabella's marriage:
LEVIDULCIA. How wouldst thou call the child
That being raised with cost and tenderness
To full ability of body and means
Denies relief unto the parents who
Bestowed that bringing up?
LEVIDULCIA. Then Castabella is unnatural.
Nature, the loving mother of us all,
Brought forth a woman for her own relief,
By generation to revive her age,
Which, now that thou hast ability and means
Presented, most unkindly dost deny.
There is an extra irony here in that Levidulcia is not Castabella's mother; she describes herself as "mother i'law," saying "if she were my very flesh and blood, / I could advise no better for her good" (Atheist 1.4.92-94). If there is any community of women in this play at all, it is between Levidulcia, Cataplasma, and Soquette, united in what one might call the black-market trade in women's bodies. Castabella's value as a commodity in the licit market of marriage denies her access to the dubious, transgressive power these women have. Levidulcia sees Castabella as a commodity just as much as D'Amville does.
Belforest enacts the standard tyrannical father: "I charge / Thee by my blessing and th'authority / I have to claim th'obedience, marry him" (Atheist 1.4.111-13). The only objector--the only person who does not see Castabella as a commodity--is D'Amville's younger son Sebastian, he who is in the market for Levidulcia's wares. He cries "A rape!" (Atheist 1.4.116), and brings the discussion firmly back to personal terms: "what is't but a rape to force a wench to marry, since it forces her to lie with him she would not?" (Atheist 1.4.119-20). But Sebastian is overruled by Snuffe, Belforest, and D'Amville in turn, who call him "unsanctified," "uncivil and profane," "disobedient" and "rude" (Atheist 1.4.121, 124, 125, 126), turning the terms back to filial duty and the sanctity of marriage, which this wedding is itself making a mockery of. Sebastian recognizes the irony in cursing his brother to be a cuckold; moreover, he too thinks in fiscal terms: "May his appetite move thy desire to another man, so he shall help to make himself cuckold. And let that man be one that he pays wages to, so thou shalt profit by him thou hatest" (Atheist 1.4.131-33). Sex and finance are again elided.
The hollowness of the marriage is made explicit by the fact that Rousard, who is ill with some unspecified but probably venereal disease, is impotent, unable to make profit of the commodity he has bought. Castabella has no use-value--ironically confirming D'Amville's assessment: "unprofitably kept without use" (Atheist 1.2.189). She is nothing but a token for the abstract commodity of her chastity, which remains valuable only so long as it is not in circulation; once one man has it--once Castabella is no longer virgin--her chastity is no longer a transferrable item, as Levidulcia's example demonstrates.
But as of yet, with her married to the impotent Rousard, she is still a desirable commodity, still a token in the exchanges between men. D'Amville's overriding ambition is both to enrich his house and ensure its continuation: "To leave a state / To the succession of my proper blood" (Atheist 4.2.31-32). Recognizing that Rousard cannot and Sebastian will not further his plans, he hits upon a new scheme:
O pity that the profitable end
Of such a prosp'rous murder should be lost!
Nature forbid. I hope I have a body
That will not suffer me to lose my labour
For want of issue yet. But then 't must be
A bastard. Tush, they only father bastards
That father other men's begettings. ...
Be it mine own, let it come whence it will.
That D'Amville should consider taking a new wife is not surprising; the telltale detail here is that he hits on Castabella as his choice. She is still floating in the economy of the play, the commodity which D'Amville has bought but been unable to use.
Here again, the registers of sex and money overlap. In attempting to seduce Castabella, D'Amville boasts that he is:
such a man as can return
Thy entertainment with as prodigal
A body as the covetous desire
Of woman ever was delighted with
And the keystone of his reasoning makes the intersection explicit: "All the purposes of man / Aim but at one of these two ends, pleasure / Or profit, and in this one sweet conjunction / Of our loves they both will meet" (Atheist 4.3.111-14). D'Amville sees no difference between sex and money.
But the play repudiates this mingling of languages. Castabella rejects D'Amville and is rescued by Charlemont. In the next scene, the B plot comes to a blood-boltered end, proving that Levidulcia's circulation is no more viable than D'Amville's greed. Both D'Amville's sons die before the end of the play, and the wealth and honor for which he schemed and murdered all goes to Charlemont, as Castabella tells him:
With all the titles due to me increase
The wealth and honour of my Charlemont.
Lord of Montferrers, Lord D'Amville, Belforest,
And for a close to make up all the rest
The lord of Castabella. Now at last
Enjoy the full possession of my love,
As clear and pure as my first chastity.
And Charlemont, unlike the other men in the play, values Castabella over the wealth she brings him.
The world of The Atheist's Tragedy is corrupt and avaricious, a world in which financial transactions and sexual encounters are described in the same register. It is a world in which materiality is paramount, and thus the horror that the play generates is a function of the triumph of materiality, as Charlemont and Castabella are dragged down, and in the middle acts it looks as if D'Amville will triumph. D'Amville, like Edmund in King Lear, justifies his villainy with arguments from nature:
Borachio, thou art read
In Nature and her large philosophy.
Observ'st thou not the very self same course
Of revolution both in man and beast?
D'Amville is amoral, materialistic, Machiavellian, a charismatic villain in the tradition of Iago and Richard III. The materiality which surrounds him like a miasma extends into the metatheatrical space of the theater itself. D'Amville treats people like puppets; he is specifically paralleled with the playwright, as are revengers such as Hieronimo, Titus, Hamlet, Vindice.
Moreover, the B plot centers around another amoral "stage-manager": Levidulcia, who creates an extempore skit to avert her husband's suspicions (Atheist 2.5). Both Levidulcia and D'Amville reap the crop of their sowing through the failure of their theatrical fictions to stay cleanly metatheatrical. Neither of them is actually the playwright; neither of them is able to maintain control over the stories they engineer. They are also intensely metatheatrical characters; D'Amville gloats in his atheism, Machiavellianism, and villainy, and Levidulcia, as William E. Gruber points out, is a deliberate use of the boy actor against the female character. Moreover, her death then turns that back on itself: "The effect is at once shocking and counterfeit, as if Tourneur, rather than comply with the customary formal and psychological requirements for dramatic closure, coldly and precisely mocks them" (Gruber 202). Tourneur uses the metatheatricality of Levidulcia's character first against itself, and then against the audience.
And there are moments when the characters debate the interpretation of their theatrical surroundings. After Borachio and D'Amville murder Montferrers, their gloating is interrupted by a crash of thunder:
BORACHIO. 'Tis a fearful noise.
D'AMVILLE. 'Tis a brave noise, and methinks graces our
Accomplished project as a peal of ordnance
Does a triumph; it speaks encouragement.
Now Nature shows thee how it favoured our
The specific language, "a peal of ordnance" and "performance," highlight the artificiality of the moment: two actors discussing the correct interpretation of a shaken piece of metal.
A similar debate occurs in the fourth act, when D'Amville takes Castabella to the cemetery to proposition her. They argue over the significance of their setting:
CASTABELLA. The poison of
Your breath, evaporated from so foul a soul,
Infects the air more than the damps that rise
From bodies but half rotten in their graves.
D'AMVILLE. Kiss me. I warrant thee my breath is sweet.
These dead men's bones lie here of purpose to
Invite us to supply the number of
And Castabella, mere moments later, cries out for a thunderbolt, surely reminding the audience of the thunder in Act II (Atheist 4.3.163-65). The fictionality of the stage is a contested quality.
The play's shifting use of metatheatricality is most easily observed by the varying ghosts and pseudo-ghosts it puts on the stage. The genuine ghost is Montferrers, brother of D'Amville and father of Charlemont. Having been murdered for his estate by D'Amville and Borachio, he appears to Charlemont first in a dream:
Return to France, for thy old father's dead
And thou by murder disinherited.
Attend with patience the success of things,
But leave revenge unto the King of kings.
For once in the long and gory history of revenge tragedy (both Prosser and the editors of the New Mermaids edition tag The Atheist's Tragedy as unique in this regard), the precepts of Christian behavior are explicitly enunciated on stage and the revenger exhorted to follow them.
Montferrers's message is simple; his status as a theatrical device is not. The play uses the convention of the ghost to remind the audience of its own artificiality. Montferrers first appears to Charlemont in a dream, specifically not visible to anyone else on stage:
CHARLEMONT. Soldier, saw'st
No apparition of a man?
MUSKETEER. You dream,
Sir, I saw nothing.
But then, because Charlemont doubts that he should obey the ghost's behest, the ghost comes back, and this time the musketeer proves its reality: "Nor stand, nor fall? Nay, then the Devil's dam / Has broke her husband's head, for sure it is a spirit. / I shot it through, and yet it will not fall" (Atheist 2.6.64-66). The ghost of Montferrers is both a ghost who appears in a dream, as in Cymbeline or Richard III, and a ghost who appears in the waking world, as in Hamlet. Moreover, the ghost will appear to Charlemont a third time, in the tidiest imaginable inversion of the standard function of the ghost in revenge tragedy:
CHARLEMONT. Revenge, to thee I'll dedicate this work.
MONTFERRERS. Hold, Charlemont!
Let Him revenge my murder and thy wrongs
To whom the justice of revenge belongs.
Unlike other revenge tragedy ghosts, who appear to exhort the revengers to bloodshed and murder, Montferrers appears specifically to dissuade Charlemont from the project of revenge. The personification of Revenge in Charlemont's speech can be read as an allusion to The Spanish Tragedy, which makes Montferrers's intervention even more pointed. In condemning that conceptualization of revenge, Montferrers condemns not merely the action, but also the genre of revenge.
And the relationship between ghost and revenger is only the beginning of the changes the play rings on the trope of haunting. The middle acts of the play are full of metatheatrical moments of "haunting." D'Amville has declared Charlemont dead, so that when he, Charlemont, returns and finds Castabella weeping over his grave, she thinks he is a ghost:
CHARLEMONT. Within this habit which thy misinformed
Conceit takes only for a shape live both
The soul and body of thy Charlemont.
CASTABELLA. I feel a substance warm and soft and moist,
Subject to the capacity of sense
CHARLEMONT. Which spirits are not, for their essence is
Above the nature and the order of
Those elements whereof our senses are
This exchange, with its pedantic little discourse on spirits, serves both to prove that Charlemont is not a ghost and to remind the audience that the actor playing Montferrers is not one, either.
Tourneur does not stop there. The next variation comes with the entrance of D'Amville, who "counterfeits to take him for a ghost" (Atheist 3.1.sd):
D'AMVILLE. What art thou? Stay! Assist my troubled sense.
My apprehension will distract me. Stay!
SEBASTIAN. What art thou? Speak!
CHARLEMONT. The spirit of Charlemont.
D'AMVILLE. O stay. Compose me. I dissolve.
LANGUEBEAU. No, 'tis profane. Spirits are invisible. 'Tis the fiend I' th' likeness of Charlemont. I will have no conversation with Satan.
SEBASTIAN. The spirit of Charlemont? I'll try that.
'Fore God, thou sayest true; th'art all spirit.
Sebastian's pun on the double meaning of "spirit"--ghost and courage (with a potential third bawdy meaning)--highlights the ambiguity of ghosts in this play, as does the fact that the genuine ghost of Montferrers will enter seven lines later to rebuke his son. The boundary between ghosts and living people becomes increasingly muddied.
In the fourth act, Languebeau Snuffe, bringing Soquette to that ever-popular make-out spot, the graveyard of St. Winifred's church (Winifred herself being a saint noted for rising from the dead), insists on disguising himself as Montferrers's ghost:
LANGUEBEAU. This disguise is for security sake, wench. There's a talk, thou know'st, that the ghost of old Montferrers walks. In this church he was buried. Now if any stranger fall upon us before our business be ended, in this disguise I shall be taken for that ghost and never be called to examination, I warrant thee. Thus we shall 'scape both prevention and discovery. How do I look in this habit, wench?
SOQUETTE. So like a ghost that, notwithstanding I have some foreknowledge of you, you make my hair stand almost on end.
It is impossible, of course, to know whether Soquette's response ought to be taken at face-value. But whether Soquette is being ironic or not, considering the difficulty Snuffe has with the beard that is part of his disguise (Atheist 4.3.68-70), it is clear that the play is making an ironic comment on the costuming of ghosts. One wonders whether Snuffe's costume was like or unlike the costume of the actor playing Montferrers's ghost.
Here then, we have a play with a real ghost and another character dressing up as that ghost. Moreover, the disguise, the signifier of false ghosthood, is remarkably slippery; Snuffe leaves it behind when he and Soquette flee from Charlemont, and Charlemont puts it on to frighten D'Amville away from Castabella, although he claims to be the Devil rather than anyone's ghost (Atheist 4.3.175). In the same scene, Charlemont has killed Borachio, and Snuffe will very shortly mistake the body for Soquette:
Verily thou liest in a fine premeditate readiness for the purpose. Come, kiss me, sweet Soquette.--Now purity defend me from the sin of Sodom! This is a creature of the masculine gender.--Verily the man is blasted.--Yea, cold and stiff!
Thus, having already seen a real ghost (Montferrers) and a mistaken ghost (Charlemont), we now have a pretend ghost (Snuffe and Charlemont in Snuffe's Montferrers costume) and a dead body with no ghost at all (Borachio)--a dead body, moreover, which has somehow gotten substituted into the fornicative equations which are motivation for both Snuffe and D'Amville in this scene, so that it becomes possible to mistake, however briefly, a dead man for a living woman. The categories of "living" and "dead," which looked so simple when Borachio and D'Amville murdered Montferrers, are now entangled both with each other and with the question of sexuality, so that the upshot of this scene is Charlemont and Castabella discovered sleeping chastely with skulls for pillows. Sex is replaced by death, as it is in the B plot with the deaths of Belforest, Sebastian, and Levidulcia. Only Charlemont and Castabella, due to their purity, can replace the signified (death) with the signifiers (skulls and sleep2).
And Tourneur still isn't done with the ghost. Frightened by Charlemont in Snuffe's Montferrers costume, D'Amville has begun to hallucinate:
Yonder's the ghost of old Montferrers in
A long white sheet, climbing yond' lofty mountain
To complain to Heav'n of me. Montferrers!
'Pox o' fearfulness. 'Tis nothing but
A fair white cloud.
And when Snuffe enters shrieking of murder, D'Amville jumps to a mistaken, but not unfounded, conclusion: "the ghost of old Montferrers haunts me" (Atheist 4.3.246-47). But it is perfectly clear that in fact the ghost of Montferrers does not at this time appear on stage. Having been to a production of Hamlet (American Players Theatre, July 1, 2003) in which the Ghost's second "appearance" consisted of the Ghost's lines being read over the public-address system and Hamlet's reaction to thin air, without the Ghost actually appearing onstage or anywhere in the theater, I can testify that the effect on an audience of this maneuver would be deeply disconcerting. The audience of The Atheist's Tragedy knows that it is possible for Montferrers's ghost to appear literally, and to be visible to some but not others; the fact that D'Amville seems to be able to see it (possibly staring out over the audience as he speaks), while they cannot, momentarily opens up the question of fiction and reality, denying the audience the safety represented by the containment of the stage. Even when D'Amville recants, dismissing the "ghost" as a cloud, the audience will remain unsettled. The idea of the ghost in this play is disconcertingly free-ranging.
Again, the characters enter into a metatheatrical debate, about a question at this point exercising the audience's minds as much as their own:
D'AMVILLE. Hark thee--sawest thou not a ghost?
LANGUEBEAU. A ghost? Where, my lord? ...
D'AMVILLE. Here I' th' churchyard.
LANGUEBEAU. Tush, tush, their walking spirits are mere imaginary fables. There's no such thing in rerum natura.
Snuffe, secure in the knowledge of the availability of his own costume to any intending murderer, asserts the Protestant rationalist position with confidence. The audience already knows both that the play contains a real ghost and that Snuffe is untrustworthy and a hypocrite, so that while D'Amville is momentarily comforted, the audience is not.
The final spurt of ghostly activity in the play does not help; like the first, it is framed as a dream. D'Amville falls asleep gloating over his gold, and Montferrers appears to him:
D'Amville, with all thy wisdom th'art a fool,
Not like those fools that we term innocents,
But a most wretched miserable fool,
Which instantly, to the confusion of
Thy projects, with despair thou shalt behold.
Like the ghosts in Richard III, Montferrers here fills a prophetic role, predicting the villain's imminent catastrophe. And like those ghosts, he is contained in this instance by the structure of the dream, which D'Amville castigates as "foolish" (Atheist 5.1.32) immediately before its prediction begins to come true.
This pattern echoes the pattern of the play as a whole: beginning with the transgressive and subversive (D'Amville and Borachio's privileging of nature over religion), becoming wilder and wilder, and in the fifth act packing everything neatly back into the social box out of which it exploded. His dream-prophecy to D'Amville is Montferrers's last appearance. Levidulcia, the transgressive woman, and Belforest, Castabella's financially ambitious father, are already dead, as is D'Amville's murderous henchman Borachio. Mere moments after D'Amville wakes up, Rousard, his diseased son, and Sebastian, his philandering son, will also be dead. The action moves to a court of law, itself emblematic of order and social authority, where Snuffe is discredited and sent back to his candles, and Cataplasma, Fresco, and Soquette are roundly condemned and punished. D'Amville's villainy undoes him, while Charlemont and Castabella triumph. We end with the closural gesture of comedy, as Charlemont and Castabella plan to be wed before the mass funeral.
The play does a good deal of violence to itself to contain its subversion. The cheerfully lascivious bawdry of the B plot results in gory and terrible death, not merely for Levidulcia and Belforest, but also for Sebastian, arguably the most sympathetic character in the play. Sebastian is the only one to protest Castabella's forced marriage to Rousard, and, despite taking strongly after D'Amville in his obsession with money, he uses the thousand crowns D'Amville gives him to get Charlemont out of jail. He has two long solo speeches reviling his father's evil, and aside from his lecherous tendencies, is brave, honest, and loyal. But for his lechery he dies.
The punishment meted out to the bawds is severe enough to please Shakespeare's Angelo (Atheist 5.2.30-41). Transgression must not merely be stopped; it must be retroactively condemned. Gruber remarks about Levidulcia's death, "Theatergoers are taught first to want to see Levidulcia die; and then they are taught, as theatergoers, that they ought not to have wanted that" (Gruber 206). In microcosm, Levidulcia's death reflects the action of the B plot as a whole. We are encouraged to like characters such as Sebastian, and then reminded that we ought not to like them. This pattern has been a part of revenge tragedy throughout, as I argued about The Spanish Tragedy, but Tourneur uses it more subtly here, displacing it from the revenger--for while Charlemont is noble and good, it is arguable whether he is theatrically very likable--onto the secondary characters. Charlemont remains admirable throughout; the ambiguity and ethical disjunct ambush us out of the middle of a comedy plot.
The most dramatic example of containment in the final act is D'Amville's death, as he goes to decapitate Charlemont and instead brains himself with the axe. Moreover, he lives long enough to renounce his atheism:
But Nature is a fool. There is a power
Above her that hath overthrown the pride
Of all my projects and posterity.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The lust of death commits a rape upon me,
As I would ha' done on Castabella.
If not exactly repentant, D'Amville at least dies clearly admitting that he was wrong. And in a gesture of thematic tidiness, the conflation of death and sex returns again, but this time D'Amville is its victim.
The Atheist's Tragedy, like The Second Maiden's Tragedy, and unlike the vast majority of revenge tragedies, ends with a reaffirmation of the social order which is contested and inverted throughout the play's action. In this sense the A plot in particular is liminal rather than liminoid, as D'Amville follows in the footsteps of that other great ritually defeated villain, Richard III (Morris and Gill point out that, like Richard III, D'Amville is also a clear descendant of the morality Vice [Atheist xxviii-xxix]). The B plot, while Rabelaisian in many senses of the word, cannot disassociate itself from the A plot, and thus is dragged down into darkness with the play's central force and energy, its villain.
The Second Maiden's Tragedy, registered in 1611 and the work of, most likely, either Thomas Middleton or Cyril Tourneur, shares a number of characteristics with The Atheist's Tragedy, including the distinct A and B plots and a concern with religion. The Second Maiden's Tragedy (which was christened thus by the Master of Revels in default of an actual title) has two separate but linked plots. The A plot concerns Govianus, the rightful king, his usurper the Tyrant, and the woman they both love: the Lady. The B plot focuses on Govanius's brother Anselmus, his Wife, and his friend Votarius, whom Anselmus incites to corrupt the Wife. Thus the A and B plots reverse each other, as the Lady remains true to Govanius, and the Wife both betrays and is betrayed by her husband. The Lady, preferring death to dishonor, follows in the footsteps (as Lancashire points out) of the early Christian martyr Sophronia, as well as the Roman Virginia and the English Matilda, while the Wife is a creature out of the fabliaux or novelle.
After the Lady's suicide, the Tyrant, who becomes steadily more and more insane as the play progresses and his court disintegrates around him, exhumes her body and brings it back to court. Her ghost appears to Govianus, asking him to return her body to its tomb; Govianus conflates this with revenge on the Tyrant and manages both by a stratagem similar to Vindice's in The Revengers Tragedy: when the Tyrant demands an artist to paint the corpse's face, Govianus shows up in disguise and paints the corpse with poison. The necrophiliac Tyrant kisses the corpse and dies, just as his courtiers burst in to depose him and beg Govianus to return. Govianus has the Lady's corpse crowned as his queen before returning her to her tomb and, as with Charlemont in The Atheist's Tragedy, ends the play on the whole happier than not.
The B plot, again like the B plot in The Atheist's Tragedy, does not work out so happily. The Wife and Votarius are betrayed by the Wife's maidservent Leonella. The catastrophe becomes a confused and contaminated play-within-a-play, as Leonella's treachery turns the intended fiction created by the Wife and Votarius into reality. Leonella brings her paramour Bellarius to the upper stage, where he can watch. Anselmus locks himself in a closet to observe. Votarius breaks in; the Wife wounds him with the sword; he dies. Anselmus bursts out of the closet and murders Leonella. Bellarius jumps down to avenge her; he and Anselmus fight, and the Wife kills herself by deliberately running between their swords. Bellarius and Anselmus mortally wound each other, Anselmus apparently dies, stupidly singing his wife's praises ... and just then Govianus walks in, looking for Anselmus to get his help with his own revenge schemes. Bellarius tells him the story and dies; Anselmus, not quite dead yet, curses his wife and then dies. The B plot ends in best Jacobean tragedy fashion, with a pile of corpses on the stage.
Most criticism on The Second Maiden's Tragedy has focused on making these two apparently unrelated plots connect to each other. Anne Lancashire observes that "Anselmus is the antithesis of Govianus" (2ndM 45), and that both he and Votarius partake of the Tyrant's nature in their sensuality and obsession with material bodies (2ndM 46). The Wife, "as her name suggests, is the fallible counterpart of the Lady" (2ndM 46). David M. Bergeron argues that the two plots are linked by "the anonymous dramatist's recurrent use of the language and images of the theater" (Bergeron 173), and although his attempts to prove the metatheatricality of the A plot are much less convincing than his efforts with the B plot, it is nevertheless true that both A and B plots are carefully constructed around tableaux and performances. Richard Levin argues at length for the thematic unity of the play, pointing out the interdependency between the two plots created and highlighted by the use of sexual puns, among other linguistic tricks (Levin 229-230). Thus, the B plot echoes and distorts the A plot, principally by the shift in the nature of its sexual politics.
The Second Maiden's Tragedy takes place in a world in which misogyny is virulent and endemic. The male characters automatically assume that women are and want to be unfaithful. Anselmus does so throughout--"O, what a lazy virtue / Is chastity in a woman if no sin / Should lay temptation to't" (2ndM 1.2.37-39)--but the Lady's father Helvetius advances the same belief as an argument for why she should become the Tyrant's mistress:
He commends him to thee
With more than the humility of a servant,
That since thou wilt not yield to be his queen,
Be yet his mistress; he shall be content
With that or nothing; he shall ask no more.
And with what easiness is that performed,
Most of your women know. Having a husband,
That kindness costs thee nothing; y'ave that in
All over and above to your first bargain,
And that's a brave advantage for a woman
If she be wise, as I suspect not thee.
Even Govianus believes that the Lady will choose the Tyrant over him:
O, she's a woman, and her eye will stand
Upon advancement, never weary yonder;
But when she turns her head by chance and sees
The fortunes that are my companions,
She'll snatch her eyes off, and repent the looking.
The Lady's defiance of Govianus's and the Tyrant's expectations both demonstrates the play's idealization of her and suggests that the male characters' generalizations are not to be trusted. Both the Lady and the Wife, however, are boxed in by the misogyny of their world; both of them suffer from and die of the relentless efforts of the male characters to make them behave in the way that misogyny predicts.
This world is an intrinsically corrupt one; the male characters localize this corruption in women, but the play itself seems less convinced. Critics tend to read with the men, as Levin asserts that Anselmus's second, vindictive epitaph on his wife is "clearly ... the epitaph she really deserves" (Levin 229). But the Wife is not unfaithful until Anselmus essentially pushes her into Votarius's arms--in her first appearance she demonstrates real concern for her husband's state of mind and desire for him:
persuade him, good sir
To fall into life's happiness again
And leave the desolate path. I want his company.
He walks at midnight in thick shady woods
Where scarce the moon is starlight. I have watched him
In silver nights when all the earth was dressed
Up like a virgin in white innocent beams;
Stood in my window, cold and thinly clad,
T'observe him through the bounty of the moon
That liberally bestowed her graces on me.
And when the morning dew began to fall,
Then was my time to weep. 'Has lost his kindness
Forgot the way of wedlock, and become
A stranger to the joys and rites of love.
He's not so good as a lord ought to be;
Pray tell him so from me, sir.
She is not eager to find a lover, merely to have her husband back. The Lady, dramatically incorruptible, is the exact antithesis of everything the male characters say women are.
The play's third female character, Leonella, is the exception. Leonella is venal, malicious, treacherous, and lustful, and herself has several of the most misogynistic and bawdy lines: "Faith, from a woman a thing's quickly slipped" (2ndM 2.2.176). But Leonella and her lover Bellarius are, as Lancashire points out, partly "personifications of the revenge and mischief they themselves discuss at I.ii.328" (Lancashire 47). Furthermore, Leonella is very similar to Levidulcia in The Atheist's Tragedy, whom William E. Gruber analyzes as a character as much artificial as mimetic. Leonella, like Levidulcia, is a caricature of a woman being played by a boy; like Levidulcia, she has moments alone on stage when she can, in effect, wink at the audience. The line I quoted above is one such moment. Thus, while Leonella's function may be, as Gruber argues of Levidulcia's, largely a reinforcement of the endemic misogyny, the fact that the "woman" expressing this misogyny is in fact a boy, as much undercuts as reinforces the ideology she/he promulgates. Moreover, as Susan Zimmerman points out, the use of male actors for female roles meant that "no female figure in an early modern play could be represented as unproblematically gendered, nor could the representation of erotic desire be unproblematically differentiated by sex" (Zimmerman 221). The play's concern is thus less with womanhood itself as with the representation of womanhood, specifically the representation of women by men, whether the male characters or the boy-actors playing the women.
Misogynistic rhetoric is put into the mouths of repellent and unsympathetic characters: Helvetius, Sophonirus, Leonella, Anselmus. The A plot simply refuses their definitions, as the Lady remains honorable and true, killing herself rather than taking a path the Tyrant believes all women are inclined to:
Nothing hurt thee but want of women's counsel.
Hadst thou but asked th' opinion of most ladies,
Thou'dst never come to this! They would have told thee
How dear a treasure life and youth had been.
'Tis that they fear to lose; the very name
Can make more gaudy tremblers in a minute
Than heaven or sin or hell: those are last thought on.
We know that there are women at court like this. Sophonirus's wife is one:
I have a wife; would she were so preferred!
I could be but her subject; so I'm now.
I allow her her one friend, to stop her mouth
And keep her quiet; give him his table free,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Marry, his lodging he pays dearly for;
He gets me all my children; there I save by't.
But she is clearly and explicitly no worse than her husband, and she does not appear on stage. In the A plot, corrupt and lustful women remain hearsay only.
Matters in the B plot are more shadowy, but it is again very clear that the Wife is no worse than Anselmus or Votarius. She succumbs to temptation, but she does not initiate it, and she is more faithful to Votarius than he, in his jealousy, is to her. Votarius's jealous railing is in fact undercut at the height of its rhetoric: "This lady will be served like a great woman, / With more attendants, I perceive, than one" (2ndM 2.2.103-04). Not only is he wrong about the Wife, but the play's "great woman" is the Lady, who refuses to have any "attendant" save Govianus.
Just as pervasive as the rhetoric of misogyny in the play are the terrible effects that rhetoric has, and in this lies the play's clearest indictment of its characters' beliefs. The B plot springs entirely out of Anselmus's misogynistic inability to leave well enough alone; as Votarius says (for once putting blame where it belongs):
Man in these days
Is not content to have his lady honest,
And so rest pleased with her without more toil,
But he must have her tried, forsooth, and tempted,
And when she proves a quean then he lies quiet,
Like one that has a watch of curious making,
Thinking to be more cunning than the workman,
Never gives over tamp'ring with the wheels
Till either spring be weakened, balance bowed,
Or some wrong pin put in, and so spoils all.
There would be no B plot without the motivation of misogyny, and the fact that all five characters end up dead suggests that they, at least, would have been better off without.
Both more dreadful and more subtle is the progress of the A plot, which springs first to last out of the Tyrant's inability to believe that the Lady means it when she says no to him. Moreover, horror in The Second Maiden's Tragedy, welling from the simple fountain of necrophilia, is the result of taking this stance to its logical conclusion.
The Lady refuses the Tyrant with a perfect lack of ambiguity in her first appearance:
'Tis not titles
Nor all the bastard honours of this frame
That I am taken with. I come not hither
To please the eye of glory, but of goodness,
And that concerns not you, sir; you're for greatness.
I dare not deal with you. I have found my match,
And I will never loose him.
Like Othello, The Second Maiden's Tragedy begins as if it were the fifth act of some other, comic play; the Lady defies the Tyrant, and Govianus declares the world well lost for love: "If there be man / Above a king in fortunes, read my story / And you shall find him! Farewell, poor kingdom" (2ndM 1.1.131-33). But the Tyrant cannot comprehend that he is beaten and refuses to allow the story to close.
The Tyrant's aims grow steadily more and more debased as they are thwarted. First he imagines he has won the Lady for his wife himself. When that proves not to be the case, he sends her father to woo her on his behalf, but Helvetius is instead converted to the side of good.3 Nothing deterred, the Tyrant throws Helvetius in jail and sends Sophonirus, who promises to use witchcraft to win the Lady. With him, since "Speech may do much, but wealth's a greater charm" (2ndM 2.3.110), a jewel. Moreover, he no longer seeks her for his wife, but merely for his mistress. And, although the Tyrant rejected the use of force in Act I, by Act II, he has tired of such restraint:
Call forth those resolute fellows whom our clemency
Saved from a death of shame in time of war,
For field offences. Give 'em charge from us
They arm themselves with speed, beset the house
Of Govianus round, that if thou fail'st
Or stay'st beyond the time thou leav'st with them,
They may with violence break in themselves
And seize on her for our use.
And just in case the audience might be exerting itself to find an innocent meaning for the word "use," Sophonirus makes all plain:
They're not so saucy
To seize on her for their own, I hope,
As there are many knaves will begin first
And bring their lords the bottom. I have been served so
A hundred times myself, by a scurvy page
That I kept once;
But my wife loved him, and I could not help it.
The Tyrant's demands of the Lady become steadily less and less involved with her self while remaining fixated on her body: from desiring her whole-hearted acceptance of their marriage to demanding her body, without regard to her as a subject. The more she asserts her autonomy and selfhood, the more the Tyrant objectifies her.
This paradox reaches its crux in the wake of the Lady's suicide, the ultimate act of self-determination. As Sara Eaton points out, the Lady's death does not end the male characters' fascination with her body (Eaton, "2ndM," 69). The self is entirely absent now, only the body remains, literally an object. But the Tyrant's determination to possess the body is, if anything, more fevered than ever: "Death nor the marble prison my love sleeps in / Shall keep her body locked up from mine arms; / I must not be so cozened" (2ndM 4.2.48-50). The Tyrant is clearly going mad in acts IV and V; the form his madness takes is this obsession with the Lady's body as a substitute for her self, a direction in which he was headed before her suicide.
The grave-robbing scene, with its jokes on Petrarchanism--"By th' mass, thou'rt cold indeed! Beshrew thee for't! / Unkind to thine own blood? Hard-hearted lady!" (2ndM 4.3.92-93)--and on court fashion--"She's only pale, the colour of the court / And most attractive; mistresses most strive for't / And their lascivious servants best affect it" (2ndM 4.3.64-66)--demonstrates whence springs this horrific objectification of the Lady. Court manners and courtly love have combined to erect a completely opaque ideology of femininity in front of the literal female body (which in this system, the play suggests, may as well be dead, for it makes no difference to the rhetoric). The gruesome horror of this scene, and of the subsequent act, lies in the Tyrant's ability to map this construction of womanhood onto a corpse; there are disjunctions, but they are only sufficient to jar and repulse the audience, not to disrupt the structure of signification itself.
The Tyrant's projection of this style of womanhood onto the Lady's corpse reaches its height with the determination to have the corpse's face painted--a determination which is also, with dark irony, the Tyrant's downfall. "I can see nothing to be mended in thee / But the too constant paleness of thy cheek," he says to the corpse (2ndM 5.2.27-28). The standard of femininity espoused by the male characters throughout the play, which the Lady steadfastly rejects throughout the first three acts, is at last imposed upon her corpse, in a clever inversion of Hamlet: "Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come" (Ham. 5.1.178-89). In the Lady's case, it is not that cosmetics will not save her from the grave; it is that the grave will not save her from cosmetics.
Next to the Tyrant's necrophiliac idolatry of the Lady's corpse, the Lady's ghost is but a pale horror. The play itself recognizes and uses this; having witnessed the Tyrant's grave-robbing, we are as delighted as Govianus is to see the Lady's ghost:
I take delight
To have my breast shake and my hair stand stiff.
If this be horror, let it never die!
Came all the pains of hell in that shape to me,
I should endure 'em smiling. Keep me still
In terror, I beseech thee. I'd not change
This fever for felicity of man
Or all the pleasures of ten thousand ages.
Govianus's love for the Lady's spirit is as extreme as the Tyrant's obsession with her body, which, as Zimmerman points out, makes the distinction between the two men disquietingly unclear: "Govianus's attachment to a spirit he envisages in material terms and to whom he has an overtly sensual devotion compromises his outrage at the Tyrant's necrophilia" (Zimmerman 228). Govianus's idea of happily-ever-after is to join the Lady in her haunting: "I'll make myself / Over to death too, and we'll walk together / Like loving spirits. I prithee let's do so" (2ndM 4.4.81-83). Alone among the fictional protagonists in this study, Govianus demonstrates the psychological reaction which Gillian Bennett discusses in Alas, Poor Ghost!:
Those of us who have suffered a deep loss must find ourselves chilled by Erich Lindemann's words when he states that successful "grief work" will end in "emancipation from the bondage to the deceased" (1944, 143). Grievers do not consider their love to be bondage nor feel that they need to be "emancipated."
Other revenge tragedies, notably Hamlet and George Chapman's The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, use a model which does equate a continuing connection between the dead and the living as bondage. And most characters in revenge tragedies fear ghosts and wish to be rid of them. Only Govianus reacts as the widowed women in Bennett's study do, with love and gratitude.
This difference in reaction helps explain why Govianus is not terribly interested in revenge. But Govianus's inaction stems also from a general malaise, a lack of affect, noticeable throughout much of The Second Maiden's Tragedy. Frank Howson remarks: "Yet the influence of mental integrity, or rather, the lack of it, seems to make this most macabre of plays less horrible for the participants, and perhaps more horrible for the spectator" (Howson 7). Govianus's pseudo-Stoic outlook makes him distressingly uninterested in his own wrongs. If he can have the Lady, he has no interest in his usurped kingdom (following David Wilbern's argument about Lavinia as a metonym for Rome, it is very easy to see that the Lady is a metonym for the kingdom in the play), and after the Lady's suicide, he is far more glad that she has escaped the Tyrant by her death than concerned about exacting revenge:
Faith, she told me
Her everlasting sleep would bring me joy,
Yet I was still unwilling to believe her,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Fountain of weeping honour, I will kiss thee
After death's marble lip. Thou'rt cold enough
To lie entombed now by my father's side.
Without offence in kindred there I'll place thee,
With one I loved the dearest next to thee.
Help me to mourn, all that love chastity
As he has been throughout, Govianus is passive, accepting of his fate; the Tyrant seems to disappear entirely from his thoughts. His abstaining from revenge is not, as it is with Charlemont, a matter of moral principle, but simply a lack of initiative. In Act IV, he comes to the Lady's tomb to grieve, not to swear vengeance. It is only the appearance of her ghost that stirs him to action.
The Lady, like Govianus, is uninterested in revenge. What preoccupies the ghost is the disposal of her body--harking again back to the classical tradition.4 She doubles roles as a Ghost and a Messenger, revealing to Govianus the fate of her body:
LADY. I am now at court
In his own private chamber. There he woos me
And plies his suit to me with as serious pains
As if the short flame of mortality
Were lighted up again in my cold breast;
Folds me within his arms and often sets
A sinful kiss upon my senseless lip;
Weeps when he sees the paleness of my cheek,
And will send privately for a hand of art
That may dissemble life upon my face
To please his lustful eye.
GOVIANUS. O piteous wrongs!
Inhuman injuries without grace or mercy!
LADY. I leave 'em to thy thought, dearest of men.
My rest is lost; thou must restore't again.
She wants her body restored to her tomb; other actions she leaves entirely to Govianus's discretion. And Govianus's immediate response is as focused as the Lady's desires: "Her body I will place in her first rest, / Or in th' attempt lock death into my breast" (2ndM 4.4.89-90). Revenge seems to be the farthest thing from his mind.
The A plot is here interrupted for the catastrophe of the B plot, which features, rather than a man with motive for revenge who does not act, a pair of revengers who have no specified motive. Votarius and Bellarius hate each other, but the play explicitly refuses ever to say why. Their vengeful hatred for each other leads to the five-body bloodbath, over which Govianus says: "Is death so long a-coming to mankind / It must be met half ways?" (2ndM 5.1.181-82). It looks, in other words, as if Govianus is going to follow Charlemont's path and practice Christian restraint in the face of provocation. But his final speech shows us otherwise:
The body of my love is still at court;
I am not well to think on't. The poor spirit
Was with me once again about it, troth;
And I can put it off no more, for shame,
Though I desire to have it haunt me still
And never to give over, 'tis so pleasing.
I must to court; I've plighted my faith to't;
'T'as opened me the way to the revenge.
Here for the first time Govianus speaks of revenge. Like Hamlet, he is a reluctant revenger, but his reluctance seems to stem only from his gothic pleasure in being haunted by his beloved. And there is a distinctly fuzzy logical jump from "The body of my love is still at court" to "'T'as opened me the way to the revenge." At this moment, the play seems to falter in its internal consistency, as it conflates reparation of the wrong done the Lady's corpse with revenge for that wrong. It retreats into the safety of convention; Govianus undertakes revenge in a spirit of dutifulness, not to the Lady, but to the genre he inhabits.
He continues to have scruples even as he acts:
A religious trembling shakes me by the hand
And bids me put by such unhallowed business,
But revenge calls for't, and it must go forward.
'Tis time the spirit of my love took rest;
Poor soul, 'tis weary, much abused and toiled.
But by never examining its own logical fallacy--the assertion that killing the Tyrant is the only way to restore the Lady's body to her tomb--the play contrives to make Govianus's revenge seem both justified and impeccably right; as he says to the Lady's ghost when it enters again:
The deed's done,
Thou queen of spirits; he has his end upon him.
Thy body shall return to rise again,
For thy abuser falls, and has no pow'r
To vex thee farther now.
The ghost rejoices, Govianus rejoices, and the nobles burst in to beg Govianus to reclaim the throne. And he does, making him one of the few revengers--if not the only one--to survive the working out of his revenge. Insofar as any revenge tragedy can end happily, this one does; the quagmire in which most revengers become mired is in this play displaced entirely onto the B plot. One may doubt, on his past showing, that Govianus will make a good king, but The Second Maiden's Tragedy, unlike Titus Andronicus or King Lear, does not encourage these doubts. Govianus ends the play in uncontested control of his government, with his Lady's body being properly returned to its rest. Unlike other revengers, Govianus is not a force of chaos and dissolution; those negative energies belong to the Tyrant, and with the Tyrant's death, order and harmony are restored. Like Richard III, the Tyrant becomes an isolatable locus of evil; as he is purged, so evil is purged with him.
The Second Maiden's Tragedy is thus anomalous. Govianus has all the markers of a standard revenger: he achieves his revenge through subterfuge; it is a highly personal revenge (unlike Richmond's martial slaying of Richard III); he expresses several times a desire to join his Lady in death. Yet the play chooses to ignore its own signposting; alone of the revengers in this study, Govianus emerges from his despair almost entirely unscathed. The play's ghost, rather than being a harbinger of destruction, manifests in order to protest category violation and to impel its resolution. The Second Maiden's Tragedy begins as a comedy, and in certain restricted senses it ends as one as well. The quasi-apotheosis of the Lady and Govianus's return to the throne give the surface impression that the abject, represented by the Tyrant, has actually been excised. But because Govianus, unlike Charlemont, has participated in the state of abjection that is revenge, this final harmony is a false one. The play vacillates between damnation and redemption, and in the end gains neither.
In Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling, both ghost and revenger are relegated to the edges of the play. The central action and the central horror of the play focus around Beatrice-Joanna's moral corruption by the forces of obsession and De Flores. Sara Eaton argues that "contemporary expectations for Senecan conventions are distinctive in this play's dramatic structure primarily because they matter so little" (Eaton, "B-J," 276). Tomazo, who speaks the rhetoric of revenge with bravura passion, spends the entire play, as it were, behind the fair. He stalks around swearing revenge on his brother's killer, but never suspects either Beatrice-Joanna or De Flores, and when he finally tumbles to the truth, it is only to burst in on a group of people staring dismally down at their corpses. The revenger here is almost entirely incidental to the action of the play, and the fact that he exists at all seems designed to call attention to that fact, to point out to us how much more horrifying Beatrice-Joanna's descent into hell is than the staid old forms of revenge tragedy.
Much criticism of The Changeling focuses on either villifying or exculpating Beatrice-Joanna. George Walton Williams, in his introduction to the Regents edition, condemns her (Changeling xix). Williams buys into the play's own rhetoric of misogyny, which I will argue--as I argued about The Atheist's Tragedy and The Second Maiden's Tragedy--is a rhetoric imposed on the women of the play rather than springing from their immorality.
Eaton goes to the opposite extreme, defining Beatrice-Joanna as a victim of Courtly Love rhetoric (her capitals). She makes Alsemero and De Flores the villains of the play, and Beatrice-Joanna merely the Sedgwickian apex of the triangle, a victim rather than an agent. Ironically, since Eaton's project is to demonstrate that "the rhetorical unity of the play ... amounts to the silencing of Beatrice-Joanna" (Eaton, "B-J," 277), she herself denies Beatrice-Joanna the agency that theatrical speech represents, performing in her argument what she identifies as the agenda of the play.
I would argue that the horror of The Changeling lies in the balance between Williams's and Eaton's positions. Beatrice-Joanna is neither a hypocritical monster nor an innocent victim; Rosslyn describes her aptly as "a character who does not recognise her own evil deed slowly discovering that action is intrinsically formative" (Rosslyn 6). The source of horror is in Beatrice-Joanna's downfall and destruction, in the incremental steps by which she goes from willful innocent to depraved murderess.
Also, as with The Atheist's Tragedy, much of the horror of The Changeling is generated by the conditions of existence under which its characters operate. Beatrice-Joanna makes bad decisions, but those decisions are made inevitable by the world in which she lives and how that world has shaped her. In this way, The Changeling is more like older revenge tragedies than its dismissive treatment of Tomazo would suggest; McMillin points out that, in The Spanish Tragedy, saying Hieronimo is obsessed or mad implies "that he could have acted in some normal and approvable manner" (McMillin 40), when in fact the conditions of his existence make that impossible. It is this same cruel inevitability which marks The Changeling; Beatrice-Joanna's story is a tragedy not because she acts immorally, but because she has no chance to act in any other way; as Jones argues, "the only real freedom she is allowed is to be immoral and dishonest" (Jones 52-3). She is trapped by the world in which she lives.
Alicant, as represented in the play, is a world obsessed by appearances. The characters debate endlessly the relationship between outward seeming and inward truth, and character after character takes on the eponymous role of changeling to demonstrate the disjunct between seeming and truth which their society seems to be able neither to ignore nor to reconcile with. And although more than one critic has fallen into the tempting trap of reading Alsemero as the play's hero--Rosslyn dismisses him as simply "the virtuous husband" (Rosslyn 6) and Williams patently regards him as a man more sinned against than sinning--the opening scene makes it clear that he is nothing of the sort, precisely because he is our first spokesman for the dangerous over-valuation of physical appearance. Jones points out "that he is trapped is true, but that he had to be is false" (Jones 51). Alsemero makes his choices with his eyes open.
"'Twas in the temple where I first beheld her / And now again the same" (Changeling 1.1.1-2), Alsemero tells us to open the play, and the verb "beheld" locates the basis for his love for Beatrice-Joanna. This idea of "love at first sight" in itself is no more than a cliché of romantic comedy, as Shakespeare's mockery of it in A Midsummer Night's Dream points out. But Middleton and Rowley, by taking that cliché seriously, demonstrate its dangers:
ALSEMERO. I love you dearly.
BEATRICE. Be better advis'd, sir.
Our eyes are sentinels unto our judgments
And should give certain judgment what they see,
But they are rash sometimes and tell us wonders
Of common things, which when our judgments find,
They can then check the eyes and call them blind.
ALSEMERO. But I am further, lady; yesterday
Was mine eyes' employment, and hither now
They brought my judgment where are both agreed.
The language of defense and fortification in Beatrice-Joanna's speech is another warning, one which Alsemero disregards. He loves her before he speaks with her; he loves her based on her physical beauty alone.
The folly of this position is proved by Isabella in the B plot when Antonio fails to penetrate her disguise as a madwoman:
ISABELLA. Have I put on this habit of a frantic
With love as full of fury to beguile
The nimble eye of watchful jealousy,
And am I thus rewarded?
ANTONIO. Ha, dearest beauty.
ISABELLA. No, I have no beauty now,
Nor never had, but what was in my garments.
Isabella's portrayal of a madwoman demonstrates what "love" such as that claimed by Antonio, Franciscus, Alsemero, and Alonzo in fact is: an infatuation with perceived beauty. And the unreliability of outward signs is proved in a different register by Beatrice-Joanna's ruse, as she observes and then fakes the effects of Alsemero's glass M.
Another demonstration of Alsemero's unsuitability for the hero's role is that he is no less ready to kill Alonzo for Beatrice-Joanna than De Flores is. He proposes to do so in a duel, "the honorablest piece 'bout man" (Changeling 2.2.27), but he, just as surely as De Flores, would expect to be rewarded with Beatrice-Joanna's body for his action. Alsemero would act openly where De Flores acts clandestinely, but that is the only difference between them. Except perhaps for Isabella--who seems to preserve her chastity more out of irritation at the mistrustful, misogynistic fools around her than any particular moral conviction--The Changeling has no heroic characters.
Heroless Alicant is a nightmare world, where claustrophobia presses heavily upon women and other categories of the disempowered (madmen, murder victims). Edward Jones argues that the idea of being trapped unifies the action and thematics of the play (Jones 47). Beatrice-Joanna is trapped by her father's wishes: "And his blessing / Is only mine as I regard his name; / Else it goes from me and turns head against me, / Transform'd into a curse" (Changeling 2.1.20-23) and more subtly by the persistent association of her body with the fortress of Alicant. Isabella is quite literally trapped by her husband's jealousy:
ISABELLA. Whence have you commission
To fetter the doors against me? If you
Keep me in a cage, pray whistle to me.
Let me be doing something.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Is it your master's pleasure or your own
To keep me in this pinfold?
LOLLIO. 'Tis for my master's pleasure, lest being taken in another man's corn, you might be pounded in another place.
They are both women who cannot get out; Isabella's situation is a literal reflection of the constraints placed on Beatrice-Joanna by her social position, her father's wishes, and the unobtainability of her own desire. As Cristina Malcolmson points out, the first two scenes of the play "unmask not only the authoritarian use of power by father and husband, they define this power as the capacity of men to control the sexuality of women" (Malcolmson 326). The control of women's sexuality in the play is literalized as the confinement of their bodies, their imprisonment in madhouse and citadel. The image pattern of confinement also colors Alonzo's fate: after his murder, he is presumed to have fled Alicant, when in fact he has not left--and cannot leave. The dead body is like a woman, a correspondence intensified by the imagistic overtones of rape in the circumstances of his murder.
Alicant is a stage-location defined by pervasive claustrophobia. Jones demonstrates the way in which the action of the play becomes steadily more and more circumscribed, until ultimately Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores meet their ends in "the close confines of a closet" (Jones 49). Only in the first scene of the play are we in the open; thereafter, we, like the characters, are confined to the madhouse or the citadel of Alicant, which Vermandero's description links inextricably with the female body, specifically that of Beatrice-Joanna: "our citadels / Are plac'd conspicuous to outward view / On promonts' tops, but within are secrets" (Changeling 1.1.159-61). Moreover, the spaces we see within the citadel get more and more confined, so that Alonzo dies in a space so narrow: "we shall never pass well with our weapons, but they'll trouble us" (Changeling 3.1.6-7) and Alsemero's closet becomes the most important location in the last two acts of the play.
If the women in the play are imprisoned, then the men are fools, wasting their freedom by refusing to escape. This folly is most obvious in the B plot, as Antonio and Franciscus devote their energies to getting into the madhouse which Isabella cannot leave. But the literality of the B plot is again a reflection of the darker metaphors of the A plot. Jones points out that Alsemero explicitly rejects his opportunity to escape Alicant (Jones 47). Alsemero's conversation with Jasperino in the first scene emphasizes how easy it would be for him to leave:
JASPERINO. Oh, sir, are you here? Come, the wind's fair with you;
Y'are like to have a swift and pleasant passage.
ALSEMERO. Sure y'are deceived, friend; 'tis contrary
In my best judgment.
JASPERINO. What, for Malta?
If you could buy a gale amongst the witches,
They could not serve you such a lucky pennyworth
As comes o' God's name.
BEATRICE. For my fear's sake
I prithee make away with all speed possible;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
DE FLORES. You must fly too, then.
DE FLORES. I'll not stir a foot else.
In all three cases (and in the case of Isabella and Alibius's madhouse) the woman is associated with the location that imprisons her. Alicant is always described in highly feminized terms, and the penetration of Antonio and Franciscus into the inner chambers of the madhouse spatially figures the penetration of Isabella's body they hope to achieve. Malcolmson points out the pervasive imagery of penetration and invasion (Malcolmson 329). Although her argument is not sufficiently sensitive to the different valences of the different locations and invasions of the play, Malcolmson is right to suggest that the play's dominant trope is penetration: penetration of the citadel, the madhouse, the female body, and ultimately penetration of the mystery surrounding Beatrice-Joanna, as the wounds which De Flores inflicts literally opens her body for inspection. Burks argues that death makes Beatrice-Joanna's body "readable" and "straightforward" (Burks 782). Although, as I will argue below, I consider the ending of the play more complicated and sophisticated than Burks does, her point here about "the visible signs of his [De Flores's] violation" is cogent and important (Burks 781). Beatrice-Joanna's body is the ultimate site (and sight) of the truth behind the appearances which obsess the play.
This is a world defined by interior spaces, and a world in which death is associated with straitly confined spaces. De Flores kills Alonzo, as mentioned above, in an excruciatingly narrow passage, kills Diaphanta in her chamber, and mortally wounds Beatrice-Joanna in Alsemero's closet, though he brings her out onto the stage to die. One reason the play horrifies is the increasing claustrophobia it generates, as the space in which the characters can move, both literal and figurative, becomes smaller and smaller and darker and darker as the play progresses.
Another way the play achieves horror is by the resonances between its A and B plots. One example is Alsemero, at the end of the play, declaring that he will be Beatrice-Joanna's "keeper" as he locks her in his closet (Changeling 5.3.88)--a clear echo of Alibius, the keeper of madmen, trying to be Isabella's keeper as well; both attempts to "keep" women are ironic failures: Alibius's because Isabella does not need keeping and because in fact, while he can keep her in, he cannot keep the gallants out; Alsemero's because it is too late to "keep" Beatrice-Joanna. The reflection of each situation in the other heightens the irony of each and makes the tragic plot that much more bitter.
A more intricate example begins with Alibius and Lollio's fabliau-worthy discussion of rings:
ALIBIUS. I would wear my ring on my own finger;
While it is borrowed it is none of mine
But his that useth it.
LOLLIO. You must keep it on still then; if it but lie by, one or other will be thrusting into't.
Ha! what's that
Threw sparkles in my eye? Oh, 'tis a diamond
He wears upon his finger; it was well found,
This will approve the work. What, so fast on?
Not part in death? I'll take a speedy course then;
Finger and all shall off.
This is a gruesome literalization of Alibius's metaphor for cuckoldry. The ring is one Vermandero made Beatrice-Joanna send Alonzo (Changeling 3.4.34), and De Flores, who forces the ring from Alonzo's body, will also force her chastity from Beatrice-Joanna's body.
Pentzell points out the ways in which the two plots contaminate each other, not merely with language, but also with tone and register (Pentzell 14). The evocation of horror in The Changeling is achieved partly through comedy, as it is in Seneca and in other early modern revenge tragedies. And at the same time that the play rejects revenge tragedy as its defining genre, it uses both the rejection and the remnant of revenge tragedy itself to heighten the sense of despair and disintegration which marks the trajectory of the plot.
Alonzo's ghost appears on-stage twice, the first time in the dumb-show procession of Beatrice-Joanna's wedding: "De Flores after all, smiling at the accident. Alonzo's Ghost appears to De Flores in the midst of his smile, startles him, showing him the hand whose finger he had cut off. They pass over in great solemnity" (Changeling 3.4.sd). The second appearance is as De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna plot the murder of Diaphanta:
DE FLORES. Ha! What art thou that tak'st away the light
'Twixt that star and me? I dread thee not.
'Twas but a mist of conscience; all's clear again.
BEATRICE. Who's that, De Flores? Bless me! It slides by;
Some ill thing haunts the house; 't has left behind it
A shivering sweat upon me. I'm afraid now.
The ghost does not speak, nor does it have any effect on the action. De Flores refuses to interpret what he sees--a significant lapse in a play so obsessed with sight and interpretation--and Beatrice-Joanna does not even see the ghost itself clearly, much less its meaning. The ghost seems one more gothic curlicue, a fillip thrown in to excite the jaded palate of its Jacobean audience.
But arguments about works of art based on their supposed "decadence" tend to miss the point. While the ghost itself is a relatively ineffectual presence, the conventions of revenge tragedy hold true in linking it inextricably to the revenger. And Tomazo may not take successful action in this play, but that does not mean he is unimportant. In general, revenge tragedies do not heroicize action for action's sake, as the example of Hamlet shows very clearly. Thus, the fact that the silent ghost is linked to a very vocal brother means that when Tomazo speaks, he has generic and narratological weight behind him.
Tomazo is very obtrusively mentioned in the preparations for bringing Alonzo on stage:
DE FLORES. Signor Alonzo de Piracquo, lady,
Sole brother to Tomazo de Piracquo--
BEATRICE. Slave, when wilt make an end?
DE FLORES. Too soon I shall.
BEATRICE. What all this while of him?
DE FLORES. The said Alonzo
With the foresaid Tomazoľ
BEATRICE. Yet again?
DE FLORES. Is new alighted.
BEATRICE. Vengeance strike the news!
De Flores cannot seem to mention Alonzo without mentioning Tomazo, and this conversation is hedged around with other unpleasant bits of foreshadowing: Beatrice-Joanna demanding, "When wilt make an end?" and De Flores's response, "Too soon I shall," both take on a double-meaning after he murders Alonzo for her, and her reaction to Alonzo's arrival, calling upon vengeance, proves to have an ironic function as a marker of genre.
The yoking together of Alonzo and Tomazo becomes even more pronounced after Alonzo's murder, as every time De Flores sees Tomazo, he finds himself thinking about Alonzo: "this man's not for my company; / I smell his brother's blood when I come near him" (Changeling 4.2.41-42). Tomazo takes on the full function of haunting; De Flores cannot ignore or dismiss him as he can the ghost itself. Tomazo seems to embody what little conscience De Flores has: "Methinks I am now again a-killing on him, / He brings it so fresh to me" (Changeling 4.2.45-46). "Him" in line 45 refers to Alonzo, while "he" in line 46 refers to Tomazo; the confusion of pronouns signals the conflation occurring between the two brothers. De Flores, who murders Piracquo unprovoked and without remorse, cannot even return a blow against Tomazo: "I cannot strike; I see his brother's wounds / Fresh bleeding in his eye as in a crystal" (Changeling 5.2.32-33). Tomazo's presence in the play invokes the bloody specter both of his dead brother and of the genre he represents.
But that genre, which is comforting in its familiarity, if in nothing else, is not allowed to shape the action of the play. Tomazo is too late; his revenge is superfluous to the mutually destructive passion of Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores. The interpretive strategy Tomazo represents is ultimately, despite tantalizing hints of its fulfillment, useless:
Lie dead before me. I can exact no more,
Unless my soul were loose and could o'ertake
Those black fugitives, that are fled from thence,
To take a second vengeance
Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores have literally gone beyond the reach of revenge. The presence of Tomazo in the play highlights the ways in which revenge tragedy, as a genre, is inadequate to the story Middleton and Rowley are telling. From being a genre which denies containment, it itself has become a rejected container.
The play ends, as Burks points out, as "the family reconstitutes itself as a male circle, no longer vulnerable to the vagaries of women" (Burks 782). Burks sees the manifest peculiarities of this ending as a problem with the play, interpreting its unsatisfactoriness as evidence that Middleton and Rowley were retreating from an unpalatable position, desiring to "to reconcile the dangerous issues the play has addressed" (Burks 782). But while Burks is absolutely right, both that the play ends with a reaffirmation of the bonds between men and that the ending is strange, stiff, and clearly not "happy," she makes the critical misstep that Pentzell warns against, dismissing as incompetent craftsmanship what can equally persuasively--more persuasively considering the high degree of art and artifice The Changeling exhibits--be read as a deliberate strategy.
Cristina Malcolmson also reads the end of the play as a reimposition of patriarchy, arguing that De Flores acts as the playwrights' proxy, "the means by which the play reinstates the proper balance between female weakness and male rule" (Malcolmson 337-38). Opposed to this view is Mohammad Kowsar's, suggesting that the ending of the play is mere "lip service ... to the altogether unconvincing morality of the fathers" (Kowsar 162-63). Kowsar argues that the ending is deliberately unsatisfactory, that the disquiet with which it leaves us is intended, the final step in a deconstruction of patriarchal beliefs about women. Kowsar's argument seems slightly too facile, a little too glib about applying twentieth-century feminist politics to a seventeenth-century play, while Malcolmson's, like Burks's seems too willing to accept the idea that surviving the play is the same as being validated by it. Pentzell points out that the end of the play is not incommensurate with what has gone before it (Pentzell 12): the point of Mannerism is to keep us off-balance, to force us constantly to renegotiate our relationship with the stage. Thus, we can see the jarring quality of the final scene as an intentional refusal of generic compliance, a rejection of the conventional harmonies of closure.
Unlike some of the other plays in this study, such as The Spanish Tragedy or Hamlet, The Changeling offers the form of consolation and return to order and normality. But when compared to plays such as The Atheist's Tragedy or even The Second Maiden's Tragedy, it is clear that it deliberately offers nothing more than the form. Middleton and Rowley have structured a happy ending without providing any content to make it convincing. The formal gesture of recapitulation provides a rote recitation of all the characters who have been changelings in the play, a didactic summing up which, as Pentzell points out, is grotesquely undercut by the fact that there are still two dead bodies on the stage.
Isabella (the only woman left alive) and Alibius make the closural gesture appropriate to the comedic B plot:
ISABELLA. You are a jealous coxcomb, keep schools of folly,
And teach your scholars how to break your own head.
ALIBIUS. I see all apparent, wife, and will change now
Into a better husband, and never keep
Scholars that shall be wiser than myself.
Alsemero makes the last attempt at community in the play:
Sir, you have yet a son's duty living,
Please you accept it; let that your sorrow,
As it goes from your eye, go from your heart;
Man and his sorrow at the grave must part.
As closural gestures go, this one rivals the end of King Lear for nihilism and despair. The only comfort Alsemero can offer is the shadow of impending death. And the barrenness of the family he and Vermandero can create is something which the examples of The Spanish Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy suggest the playwrights were deploying intentionally. Alsemero and Vermandero can create a community, limping and bitter as it may be, but they cannot create a community that will outlast them.
The "bad" characters are punished at the end of The Changeling, but there is no balancing reward for those who are "good," i.e., those who have not transgressed the narrow social mores of Alicant. Although The Changeling holds itself aloof from revenge tragedy, it shares the bleak transgressive spirit of the best plays of the genre.
Like Titus Andronicus, The Revengers Tragedy has no ghosts, but I would like to suggest that these two absences stem from radically different causes. Arthur Lindley argues that the absence of a ghost emerges from the absence of the past: "Uncommonly among revenge tragedy villains, the Duke is not a usurper. He is the real, fraudulent thing, and no one in the play can remember what came before him" (Lindley 52-53). In The Revengers Tragedy we find a world that has already suffered the moral corruption and exhaustion that is the trajectory of most revenge tragedies; the hot imperative of the ghost, that haunting demanding presence, has been reduced to the bare skull of Vindice's beloved, Gloriana. Just as Yorick is the residue of the Father in Hamlet, so here Gloriana is the residue of the revenge tragedy genre. Stallybrass argues for ambivalence and category violation in the gestural trope of the kiss:
The splitting of the kiss into the sign of transcendent immateriality and the sign of corrupting flesh parallels the ambivalence of consumption itself. For in the play, consumption points both toward the consuming away for the body, and towards its grotesque increase.
The play is at once represented by the sybaritic overindulgence of the Duke's court and troped by the bare, minimalist presence of Gloriana's skull. What Stallybrass's argument shows us is that the court and the skull are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin. The play does not so much record category violation as it denies that life and death were distinct categories in the first place.
Moreover, Stallybrass points out that the play inverts the traditional associations of the Bakhtinian classical and grotesque bodies, and moreover, that the classical body, rather than a sign of superiority, becomes "a purely defensive posture. Not to be eaten, not to be entered: these are the tropes of negation which organize Vindice's resistance to the court" (Stallybrass 214). Therefore, the skull is also the sign of the classical body--a sign that one can only achieve that inviolable stasis in death--and the court's overindulgence takes on a Swiftian cast: not the celebration of the body that Bakhtin describes, but revulsion at the body's excesses. Lindley argues that the court is really Bakhtin's lower bodily stratum, "a grotesque, horrifically comic degradation of the political sphere--Bakhtin's 'official feast'--to the bodily realities, living and mostly dead, that underlie it" (Lindley 45). Again, skull and court are seeming opposites which turn into each other at the slightest provocation.
The skull is also the locus of the play's metatheatrical self-awareness. William L. Stull suggests a generic history for the skull, from The Spanish Tragedy, through Hamlet and Hoffman (Stull 42), which one need not entirely accept in order to recognize the generic phenomenon to which it points: revengers, as a breed, have a great fondness for gruesome keepsakes. The skull is a quote from Hamlet (hardly the only one in the play), but instead of a philosophical memento mori, Gloriana's skull is a gruesomely practical memento mori, intended not merely to make the characters and the audience remember death and the dead, but to make them remember this particular dead woman and her particular death: "thou sallow picture of my poisoned love" (TRT 1.1.14). Moreover, as Lawrence J. Ross argues in his introduction to the Regents edition of the play, the skull "stands, of course, for all the betrayed women of the play" and also for the mortality that awaits all the characters (TRT xxvii). The skull tropes the results of the court's frenetic depravity, both as the memorial of a victim and as the token of the end to which they will all come. Lindley points out the inexorable connection of sex to death in the world of the play, describing Vindice as "Death's pimp" (Lindley 50). The skull is emblematic of the savage, self-consuming world the play depicts.
This combination of decadence and erosion is also shown in the plot. The Revengers Tragedy dispenses with the doubt and angst and uncertainty that makes most of the action of revenge tragedies like The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet. When the play begins, Vindice already knows who murdered Gloriana, and he already knows exactly what to do about it. Moreover, as Frank Howson observes: "If Vendice becomes mad during the course of his vengeance, he is far from being well-balanced at the start" (Howson 2). There is no need to worry about Vindice's mental health, as we worry about Hamlet's and Hieronimo's; it is already too late. The play presents the unfolding of Vindice's revenge, in all its baroque grotesquerie, and, starkly, nothing more. Wigler's formulation--"it [the play] mixes terrifying violence and outrageous farce so subtly that the violence is often uproariously funny and the comedy is frequently nauseating" (Wigler 217)--makes it clear just how heavy and pervasive the influence of Seneca is, so that scenes such as the Duke's fatally mistaking Gloriana's skull for a living woman make us shiver and giggle at the same time. And like Seneca's plays, The Revengers Tragedy embraces a nihilistic, existentialist world-view which posits the existence of nothing greater than the petty and sordid actions of its own characters.
Vindice is a revenger corrupted; he proves himself no better than his enemy when he undertakes to corrupt his sister Castiza to further his plot. This is a fallen world, and the characters are not merely fallible mortals, but persons fallen like Lucifer. Milton's Satan, with his "better to reign in Hell" (PL 1.263), voices a sentiment with which the Duke's court would heartily agree.
The play makes no bones about the nature of its characters. Vindice's opening speech reveals the Duke's family to us:
Duke! royal lecher! Go, gray-hair'd adultery,
And thou his son, as impious steep'd as he,
And thou his bastard true-begot in evil,
And thou his duchess that will do with devil
The irony here is a cynical one. We may believe Vindice to be indulging in hyperbole, as revengers are wont to do, but he is not. The Duke, the Duchess, Lussurioso, Spurio--and the Duchess's three sons who do not appear here--are exactly as evil as Vindice tells us they are. As Ross points out, the court is represented as a "procession of Vices" (TRT xxvii); taking this idea one step further, one could argue that the entire play (save only the virtuous Castiza) represents a collection of Vices seeking to destroy each other to gain uncontested dominion of the stage.
Vindice, like Richard in Richard III, serves as his own prologue; like Richard, he reveals himself freely to the audience, so that even as we are wondering about the trustworthiness of his observations, we are learning that Vindice himself is as wrapped about with evil as those he declares his enemies:
Vengeance, thou murder's quit-rent, and whereby
Thou show'st thyself tenant to Tragedy,
O keep thy day, hour, minute, I beseech,
For those thou has determin'd. Hum! who e'er knew
Murder unpaid? faith, give Revenge her due,
Sh'as kept touch hitherto. --Be merry, merry;
Advance thee, O thou terror to fat folks,
To have their costly three-pil'd flesh worn off
As bare as this--for banquets, ease, and laughter
Can make great men, as greatness goes by clay,
But wise men little are more great than they!
Vindice plots his revenge without apology--in fact, with a kind of grisly glee. He does not care if the audience sympathizes with him or not; "Advance thee, O thou terror to fat folks," I read as him displaying the skull full-face to the audience, the "fat folks" whom he mocks.
Vindice's habit of carrying the skull with him is self-consciously morbid, itself a performance of the role of revenger; Vindice the character is also Vindice the actor, even before he assumes the guise of Piato. And the skull, not merely as the victim's skull, but also quite specifically as a quote from Hamlet, serves as a metonym for the genre of revenge tragedy. Vindice carries with him the tradition from which he springs, a tradition which he both mocks and follows.
The Revengers Tragedy presents the mechanism of revenge--that brutal engine that flattens everything in its path in Hamlet--as a tired piece of clockwork being wound up one last time. As Prosser remarks, "In the tangle of perhaps thirteen different revenge actions launched ... several are immediately forgotten and at least five have no motivation whatsoever" (Prosser 38), and Howson points out that each member of the ducal family is plotting the deaths of at least two of the others (Howson 4). Vindice's outrage over the death of Gloriana pales beside the audience's appalled observation of the amoral evil of the Youngest Son and the petty murderousness of Ambitioso and Supervacuo.
Yet the engine of revenge, for all its perfunctoriness, is also in this play even more unstoppable than it is in Hamlet. The Revengers Tragedy cannot stop grinding forward even when the revenge has been achieved. Having killed the Duke, his ostensible target, Vindice says to Hippolito: "The dukedom wants a head, though yet unknown: / As fast as they peep up, let's cut 'em down" (TRT 3.5.219-20). Once started, Vindice apparently sees no reason to stop. All actions in the play are motivated either by revenge or lust, and the actions taken because of lust are the motives for revenge. Lindley argues: "Revenge becomes simply another unchecked appetite, expressed in the same carnal terms as other court appetites" (Lindley 52). Sexual lust and blood-lust are inextricably intertwined, feeding uneasily into one another; Vindice's revenge on the Duke is as much metaphorical rape as it is literal murder.
Like the other Jacobean plays discussed in this chapter, The Revengers Tragedy uses a harsh rhetoric of misogyny; Vindice complains:
Were't not for gold and women, there would be no damnation;
Hell would look like a lord's great kitchen without fire in't
But 'twas decreed before the world began,
That they should be the hooks to catch at men.
Chastity is conceived of as a commodity, equivalent with gold. Lussurioso's designs on Castiza are explicitly conceived in terms of putting her in circulation:
Enter upon the portion of her soul,
Her honor, which she calls her chastity,
And bring it into expense; for honesty
Is like a stock of money laid to sleep,
Which ne'er so little broke, does never keep.
This is language strikingly reminiscent of The Atheist's Tragedy, although by and large the characters in The Revengers Tragedy are not concerned with money, except insofar as it aids them to their goals. But the economic register of chastity is something Castiza (the only chaste and living woman in the play) recognizes for herself:
How hardly shall that maiden be beset
Whose only fortunes are her constant thoughts,
That has no other child's-part but her honor,
That keeps her low and empty in estate.
Maids and their honors are like poor beginners;
Were not sin rich, there would be fewer sinners.
Why had not virtue a revenue? Well,
I know the cause: 'twould have impoverish'd hell.
The world of the play exerts tremendous pressure on women to commodify themselves, as Gratiana's fall demonstrates. Vindice's persistent assault on her probity displays in microcosm the weight of cultural expectations dragging women down. Misogyny is a condition of existence within the world of this play, not a condition of the play itself.
The virulence of the misogyny is balanced by the vigor and clarity of the women's responses. Against Gratiana and the always already corrupted Duchess are set Castiza, Antonio's lady, and Gloriana herself. Gloriana and Antonio's lady both die rather than commodify their honor, and Castiza is one of the few women in revenge tragedy given a definitive and unambiguous action. When Vindice tries to corrupt her, she boxes his ears (TRT 2.1).
Antonio's lady, though nameless and dead, offers the clearest rubric for how the audience should position themselves. The Youngest Son, both in actions and rhetoric, simply takes the misogyny expressed by the male characters to its logical conclusion. His explanation of his motives for raping her is perfectly chilling:
SECOND JUDGE. Confess, my lord,
What mov'd you to it?
YOUNGEST SON. Why, flesh and blood, my lord.
What should move men unto a woman else?
And he goes to his death asserting: "My fault was sweet sport, which the world approves; / I die for that which every woman loves" (TRT 3.4.78-79). He recognizes no wrong in what he has done, nor that the lady herself has any subject-position worth the mention.
The lady, on the other hand, like the Lady in The Second Maiden's Tragedy, asserts her subject-position in the only way the society of the play allows her, the complete refusal to allow her body to be an item of exchange: she commits suicide. The parallels with the Roman Lucretia are obvious, but the change rung on that old theme by the play makes of it not a moral exemplar so much as a despairing comment on the court:
Last reveling night,
When torchlight made an artificial noon
About the court, some courtiers in the masque,
Putting on better faces than their own
(Being full of fraud and flattery), amongst whom
The duchess' youngest son (that moth to honor)
Fill'd up a room; and with long lust to eat
Into my wearing, amongst all the ladies
Singled out that dear form, who ever liv'd
As cold in lust as she is now in death
(Which that step-duchess' monster knew too well);
And therefore in the height of all the revels,
When music was heard loudest, courtiers busiest,
And ladies great with laughter--O vicious minute!
Unfit but for relation to be spoke of--
Then with a face more impudent than his vizard
He harried her amidst a throng of panders,
That live upon damnation of both kinds,
And fed the ravenous vulture of his lust.
This set-piece echoes both Castiza's predicament (which frames this scene, 1.3 being Lussurioso's hiring of Piato and 1.5 being Vindice's assault upon the honor of his mother and sister) and Hamlet's warning to Ophelia: "Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny" (Ham. 3.1.136-37). Only in this case, the violence done is not to the lady's reputation, but to her body. Moreover, the setting of the rape makes it clear that the court itself--this "throng of panders"--is an accessory in the rape.
Although it articulates and condemns this state of affairs, The Revengers Tragedy does not challenge the nature of the double-bind in which women find themselves; it does not offer an alternative to Lucretia. Women are trapped, pursued either to death or into a sterile chastity like Castiza's. Unlike Castabella, Castiza has no Charlemont, no third alternative.
The worst thing about the misogyny recorded in the play is its defeatist nature. Knowing that the women are wronged merely increases our sense of horror and helplessness on behalf of Castiza, of Antonio's lady, and of Gloriana. Revenge tragedies, the records of inevitable and tragic actions, take no comfort in knowledge, for it changes nothing. Likewise, metatheatricality, which is in theory a liberating opportunity, in revenge tragedy--and in The Revengers Tragedy especially--merely emphasizes the characters' imprisonment. Their metatheatrical awareness--the fact that Lussurioso notices Vindice's aside, even though he cannot hear it (TRT 1.3.125); the characters' propensity for quoting each other, as Vindice quotes Gratiana in 2.2; the references to the audience; even Vindice's joke about "yon silver ceiling" (TRT 3.5.3)--does not give them any metatheatrical options. They are condemned to play out the action of their narrative.
Horror in The Revengers Tragedy is not supernatural. As with the other plays discussed in this chapter, and as with Seneca's Thyestes, the supernatural, the dead, serve only to foreground the true source of horror: the evil within the characters themselves. Horror comes from the utter and abysmal failure of community, in The Revengers Tragedy represented by the "ravenous vultures" of the court, the incestuous viciousness of the ducal family, and Vindice's destruction of his own family, corrupting his mother and leading his brother to execution.
Stull argues, with rousing and loaded language, that The Revengers Tragedy is "Tourneur's revolt against the revenge play genre" (Stull 39). This argument, while not wrong about much of the functioning of The Revengers Tragedy, ignores the ways in which it is the culmination of the genre rather than a rebellion against it. The Revengers Tragedy certainly marks the apotheosis of the self-mocking strand in revenge tragedy, but that tendency has been there all along. These plays are conflicted, metatheatrical, always turning back upon themselves. They never allow their audiences to rest comfortably, either on the moral high ground or in the security of a straightforward reaction. Their horror is as much based in psychology and existential doubt as it is in manifestations of the supernatural or in diabolical and grotesque murders. Therein lies the genre's strength.
1. I use the terms "A plot" and "B plot" rather than "plot and "subplot" because in The Atheist's Tragedy (as in The Second Maiden's Tragedy and The Changeling) the two plot strands have little if any connection on the literal level, and while the B plot is definitely secondary to the A plot, it does not have a close enough relationship to it to merit the modifier "sub-".
2. Bram Dijkstra has a section in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture on "Dead Ladies and the Fetish of Sleep" in which he explores the eroticized conflation in late nineteenth-century British and European art between sleep and death, what he calls the "sleep-death equation" (Dijkstra 60). Although the valences and significance of the sleep-death equation in Tourneur are different, and far more ironic and self-aware, than those of the painters Dijkstra discusses, the comparison is useful for pointing out the deep-rootedness of the symbolism involved.
3. Lancashire points out that while this moment is implausible from a realistic standpoint, it fits cleanly into the tradition of saints' lives:
the Jacobean audience would have been familiar not only with this particular story itself but also with martyrs' and saints' lives in general and thus with the individual elements to be expected in works within the genre and which, also found in S.M.T., have heretofore been considered by scholars merely to be marks of the play's sensationalism and lack of 'realism'.
As with those in other Jacobean plays, these characters are not meant to be veristic.
4. Zimmerman remarks that "The Lady's overvaluation of her corpse unavoidably evokes the Catholic fixation with materiality so inimical to reformists," (Zimmerman 229). Like those of other early modern ghosts, her motives are overdetermined.
Chapter Four | Conclusion
© Sarah Monette 2004 Feel free to link to this academic trial-by-ordeal, but please do not reproduce it without permission.