Penguin Classics is to be commended for publishing these plays from the Jacobean period (1603-1625). I enjoyed all three and ranked the collection as four stars.
Revenge tragedies were popular in the late 1500s and early 1600s in much the way that action thrillers are today. The editor, Gamini Salgado, considers these three plays to be outstanding examples of the revenge genre. Salgado argues that in The Revenger's Tragedy and The Changeling the dramatist is most interested in the effect of violence on the moral stature of the characters while in The White Devil violent action is more emblematic of the moral corruption of society. Two plays have settings in Italy, and the other Spain; all three dramas reflect early sixteenth century English misconceptions and prejudices regarding other European countries. Salgado discusses each play in detail in a forty page introduction.
The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) - The plot is not unduly complex. Vindice desires revenge for the poisoning death of his betrothed, Gloriana, by the lustful, aging Duke. Vindice is perhaps obsessive; he has retained Gloriana's skull and sometimes speaks directly to her. We learn of a murder, a rape leading to a suicide, and yet another aggressive seduction (or rape, if need be) that is in the planning stage. So ends Act 1. Revenge and mayhem follow.
In disguise Vindice provokes discord between his enemies and leads them to plot against each other. (This ruse reminds me of Malevole's subterfuge in John Marston's play, The Malcontent.) A poisoned skull, a mistaken execution, and a murderous banquet highlight the later acts. The play concludes with an ironic twist, possibly added as a moral lesson, or simply to surprise the audience.
Scholars disagree on the authorship. Hats off to either Cyril Tourneur, or Thomas Middleton, or whoever may have authored this fascinating tragedy. Five stars.
The White Devil (1612) - Despite John Webster's reputed dark and dismal view of human nature, I found The White Devil to be considerably less gruesome and less shocking than Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. There are some poisonings, stabbings, and stranglings, especially in the final act, but what makes Webster's play truly memorable is the continuous intrigue, deceit, and betrayals. Webster adapted to the stage an actual murderous event that occurred in Italy a few decades earlier. Paolo Giordano, Duke of Brachiano, and the beautiful Vittoria Corombona, as well as others in this play are not entirely fictional.
The second act presents the initial murders - the poisoning of Isabella, wife to Brachiano, and the killing of Camillo, husband to Vittoria - in two dumb (silent) shows representing conjurer's images of the actual murders. Plots and counterplots compete in the following acts, resulting in the deaths of nearly all key characters in the final act. Most die loquaciously, expositing on their guilt and thoughts of divine punishment. Four stars.
The Changeling (1622) - Thomas Middleton authored the tragic plot while William Rowley created the comic scenes. What makes The Changeling unique is the tight coupling of the comic and tragic story lines. The two plots occasionally converge, but more importantly Rowley's comic plot echoes and reinforces Middleton's tragic story.
In the Jacobean period a changeling was a fickle person, one without a moral compass. The Dramatis Personae indicates that Antonio, a love-struck fellow that imitated a fool to gain admittance to an asylum to become close to the young wife of an older doctor, was the changeling. Many readers, however, are more likely to conclude that the actual changeling was Beatrice, a beautiful young woman that becomes involved in murder and adultery (the order is correct, murder first and adultery later). Four stars.