Playing with the dead in THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY | Tanya Pollard

Red Bull's livestreamed benefit reading will premiere LIVE at 7:30 PM EDT on Monday, September 14. A recording of the livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EDT on Friday, September 18 – then it disappears. GET DETAILS


The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606) opens with a man talking to a skull. Like Hamlet, he is grieving, angry, and seeking revenge for a fatal poisoning at court, but the skull takes on a new and expanded role. As Vindice reflects on his lost love Gloriana, killed by the lustful Duke, he becomes a kind of necromancer, conjuring back a ghostly presence who will pursue revenge from beyond the grave. Gloriana is not the only dead woman whose remains haunt the play. While Vindice plots against the Duke, the court is thrown into upheaval by the death of Lord Antonio’s wife, who kills herself after being raped by the Duchess’s youngest son. The subsequent arrest, imprisonment, revenge, and infighting derail the court’s chain of succession, and set the stage for a complete overhaul of power. Although Gloriana only appears as a skull, and Antonio’s unnamed wife doesn’t appear onstage at all, these women spur the play’s action. As Vindice plots his revenge, he finds himself working collaboratively with the dead as well as the living.

Working with ghosts is the essence of revenge tragedy. Hamlet takes his mandate from his murdered father, and Thomas Kyd’s popular Spanish Tragedy (1587) opens with a ghost petitioning for vengeance. Like other early modern plays, they responded to recently unearthed texts by Seneca and Euripides, whose influential tragedies similarly showcased the demands of the dead. Middleton, a promiscuous collaborator who wrote with many playwrights and playing companies, reveled in both reviving and parodying the genre, which had already aged into cliché. Like Vindice, he takes to his project with glee, verve, and wit. Also like Vindice, he’s smitten with his ghosts, even while adopting a cynical, jaundiced stance towards them.


The play borrows freely from its contemporaries as well as its predecessors. Along with a lecherous Duke, resentful Duchess, and abused women, it features a corrupt court teeming with power-play between ambitious siblings, and a poor but honest family trying to resist the moral decay around them. Vindice himself draws on two of the period’s popular stage types, the melancholy malcontent and the city comedy wit. These figures typically specialize in plotting elaborate scenarios, and Vindice is acutely theatrical: he wears costumes, prepares props, stages a rendezvous for the Duke, and dances in a court masque. But as with all live theater, his performances depend on other players. As his casting extends beyond Gloriana and his brother Hippolito to include unwitting members of the court, his schemes take some unpredictable turns.


Jesse Berger’s adaptation builds on the play’s strategy of collaborating with both the dead and the living. The script incorporates resonant lines from other early modern writers, and the performance is similarly haunted with echoes. The play’s original production, by the King’s Men, would have evoked memories of the same company’s previous plays such as Hamlet, in which the same actor would have addressed the same skull. Similarly, the Red Bull’s production recalls its own past by bringing back actors familiar from the company’s other shows, including their 2005 staging of this play. As we watch remotely from our separate spaces, their performances will conjure the memories of live productions in full playhouses, where we hope we’ll all meet again in person soon.

Tanya Pollard

Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY


TANYA POLLARD, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Tanya Pollard is a professor of English at Brooklyn College and at the CUNY Graduate Center. She researches Shakespeare, theater, and performance.


She speaks frequently to public audiences with actors, directors, and playwrights about theater in performance. She serves on the Council of Scholars for Theatre for a New Audience, and has appeared in conversation with Ethan Hawke in PBS’s Shakespeare Uncovered: Macbeth and Christopher Plummer in Shakespeare Uncovered: King Lear. Her books include Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages (2017); Shakespeare's Theater (2003), and Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England (2005).




For complete details about Red Bull Theater's livestreamed benefit reading on Monday, September 14, VISIT HERE.

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