Seeing and Interpreting the Ghosts in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy

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The Revenger’s Tragedy

The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), which is sometimes attributed to Cyril Tourneur and sometimes to Thomas Middleton (McAlindon 135), is the best example of a case where the role of the ghost is taken over by a skull. “Ghosts and skeletons are not so far apart, after all, one being the spiritual and one the material remains of the deceased” (Hallet and Hallet 228). It has already been noticed that the skull plays a significant role in Hamlet and in The Atheist’s Tragedy as well. Once Hamlet encountered both Death’s spiritual form, the Ghost, and its material form, the skull, he was able to realize and accept the full meaning of Death. In The Revenger’s Tragedy the ghost itself is redundant. There is no need to inform the revenger, who is well acquainted with the murderous deed done to his betrothed. The skull of his fiancé “can serve as much the same purpose as did the earliest ghost… Besides keeping the offense fresh in Vindice’s mind, the skull gives him authority to revenge that offense” (Hallet and Hallet 229). It can be argued that the authority that people might have seen as coming from behind the grave, from the world of the deceased, only mirrors Vindice’s inner feelings and wishes coming “from interaction with [the skull]… In the ultimate sense, Vindice’s authority for the deed comes only from his own will” (Hallet and Hallet 230). This alteration from ghosts to skulls and the doubts on authority might have been caused by the shift towards the Protestant point of view, where there is no real connection with the world of the dead, except an imagined one.

More than justification for revenge the skull of Gloriana makes Vindice come to terms with mortality. At the very end of the play, when Vindice and his brother are sentenced to death: “Lay hands upon those villains” (5.3.121), he is not as much afraid of dying as surprised by the reaction to his ‘good deeds’: “How? On us?” (5.3.121). Wherever he thinks his authority to revenge originates from, Vindice feels justified, and is ready as “those who reveal their own crimes [to] face the consequences” (McAlindon 147): “’Tis time to die when we are ourselves our foes” (5.3.109). Since the beginning he was dealing with Death, and death breeds death. The skull of his beloved, the “shell of death” (1.1.15) represents then “not just the dead lady, but Death itself” (Mercer 93). Skulls in general, and not only in Hamlet and The Revenger’s Tragedy, “[were] to remind man not of the futility of life but of the inevitability and the meaning of death” (Prosser 222).

Vindice as a revenger hides every hideous deed under the cloak of a supposedly justifiable act of revenge. His ‘beloved skull’ that is portrayed as his love memento is used as an instrument of Death. Not only does Vindice paint ‘her’, but he also makes her meet the Duke, who is responsible for her death. As if Vindice brought his beloved to life in order to let her die again. The Revenger’s Tragedy seems to be not as much an alteration as a parody of revenge tragedy.

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