Black humor and cynicism

Since Shakespeare is basically the only English-language playwright from the Renaissance that is performed with any frequency in our day, we tend to assume he’s the universal prototype of the outlooks and attitudes of the era. But you get a very different picture when you expand your circle of dramatists. Shakespeare may have been the best poet of the bunch, but there was a lot happening on the stage that was definitely not Shakespeare.

I mentioned Beaumont’s meta-theatrical satire The Knight of the Burning Pestle previously. Recently I’ve been reading some of the revenge tragedies of the period, including Beaumont and Fletcher and Thomas Middleton. What’s particularly noticeable is their cynicism about power and the court. In The Maid’s Tragedy, the king forces a young courtier to marry his mistress, so she can be safely available, and there will be a convenient excuse should she get pregnant. In The Revenger’s Tragedy, a powerful Duke, his son, and the Duchess are all sexually predatory, and those who do not wield power have little recourse.

The latter play has some spectacularly twisted events that result in on-stage spectacle that provided Middleton’s audience with much to discuss between acts. Vindice, the protagonist of the play, has kept the skull of his fiancée every since she was poisoned by the Duke for resisting his advances. He is also forced to attempt to talk his own sister into prostituting herself to the Duke’s son. He gets revenge on the Duke by dressing up the skull with a wig and poisoned makeup and presenting it as a woman willing to bed the Duke. Before the Duke dies from the poison, Vindice cuts off his eyelids to force him to watch the Duchess having sex with the Duke’s illegitimate son.

Middleton also portrays the courtiers who surround the Duke as women who are willing to sell their bodies for the right amount of cash, and as men who will say ridiculous things to flatter the monarch, and who are willing to literally stab each other when the opportunity for advancement arises, though they are so incompetent that they miss the warning signs that they are next to be eliminated, sort of the Three Stooges of assassins. Despite the comic moments, the play is a tragedy, since Vindice can not survive once he has royal blood on his hands, and pays the price for his revenge, even if he is essentially an agent of justice. This is the final irony in Middleton’s play, because, despite his bloody deeds, you’re pretty much rooting for Vindice, and to have him succeed in ridding the kingdom of the evil Duke and his vile family only to be executed by the man he brings to the throne lets you know that Jacobean England was more about power than justice.


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