Vindice and Hippolito, brothers, plot revenge against the Duke and his family. The lecherous Duke poisoned (and diddled, the implication is) Vindice’s girlfriend some time back, and in fact the play starts with Vindice addressing her skull in Hamlet fashion. V and H’s father was also sapped of his finances by the Duke (somehow), so there’s a lot to be vengeful about. H is an attendant in the Duke’s court. The Duke’s son and heir Lussurio appeals to H to find him a man of doubtful character to perpetrate an unnamed scheme. Ah, the perfect way to insinuate V into the court so he can seek his revenge! H recommends V (in disguise), and he’s accepted. It turns out that L has been wooing H and V’s sister Castiza, and his scheme is to have V be a bawd to coerce her into letting L diddle her. If her resolve is too strong, V is to appeal to his mother, Gratiana. Of course this infuriates V, who must nevertheless go along with it or be discovered. He decides it’s a good way to test his sister’s chastity and his mother’s honor. Castiza passes with flying colors, rebuffing all his appeals. Mom proves less resolved when tempted with money and vows to change Castiza’s mind.
Meanwhile, the Duchess, who is ticked off at the Duke for sending her youngest son (not his) off to prison for raping one Antonio’s wife, approaches the Duke’s bastard son Spurio and convinces him to have a vaguely incestuous affair with her. Vindice figures this out and lets Lussurio know. Furious, Lussurio heads off to the Duke and Duchess’s bed chamber to kill Spurio, but the Duke himself is in there and is understandably angry and unwilling to listen to reason. He sends Lussurio immediately off to prison but changes his mind when appealed to by some nobles and sends an order to have him released.
The Duke’s two other sons now plot to get Lussurio killed so that they can be next in line for the Dukedom. They deliver a message to the prison to go ahead and off their brother. Of course, Lussurio has been released, and the guards mistake the order to be for the death of the youngest son, whom they dispatch without delay, to the later chagrin of the two brothers, who were plotting to get the youngest son out of prison.
Now, Vindice hatches a plot to kill the Duke wherein he organizes a supposed meeting between the Duke and Castiza (I think) for a quickie. He’s set up the skull as part of a dummy, putting poison around the mouth. Apparently, it’s dark, as the Duke falls for this, kisses the skull, starts to die, and is stabbed a couple of times during his death throes. Just before he finally kicks off, the Duchess and bastard Spurio enter (oblivious of the event that’s just transpired) and kiss, talk bad about the Duke, etc., sending him off in grand fashion.
Lussurio’s out of prison and consulting with Hippolito about Vindice (called Piato), who he thinks led him intentionally to attack the Duke. L wants V dead over this and suddenly remembers that H had a brother who might just be perfect for the job. This complicates things a little for Vindice, who’s restricted by the laws of nature and can’t be two places at once or kill himself and remain alive to report it. H and V figure out finally that they can accomplish this by taking the king’s newly dead body, cloaking it in the clothes V wore when he was pretending to be Piato, and stab the body. When it’s discovered that it’s in fact the Duke, the assumption will be that Piato killed the Duke and ran off, covering him in his own cloak to buy some time.
In the meantime, H and V and Castiza and Gratiana are all reconciled, get things straightened out, etc. (Gratiana’s only a woman, after all, and was weak).
The Duke’s body is discovered and Lussurio starts doing Dukely things, issuing orders, etc., with the counsel of some nobles. A mask of revengers revelling in response to the Duke’s death enters and stabs Lussurio and the nobles. The older of the remaining brothers kills the younger (to prevent his own murder for the throne), and the bastard kills the older. A noble responds by killing the bastard, leaving nobody to rule the Dukedom. Lussurioso’s still barely kicking, and V confesses in a whisper that he killed the Duke, whereupon L dies.
Antonio (whose wife the youngest son raped) is apparently next in line, and he takes over. H and V are pretty pleased about their scheme and confess to him that they killed the Duke. Of course they think he’ll be pleased because his wife’s rape has been avenged and he’s now risen to power, but he’s having none of it and sends them off to prison.
I was prompted to reread this play upon reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, in which he gives a similar synopsis of a play (I believe a real one) by Wharfinger entitled The Courier’s Tragedy. I read The Revenger’s Tragedy years ago in school as a model of the revenge tragedy genre, of which perhaps the most widely known specimen is Hamlet.
I’m eager to read more of the old drama and have begun another play that I’ll finish up tomorrow and probably summarize in a few days. Reading Renaissance drama (in particular) seems to keep me on my toes, perhaps because I have to pay very close attention to the language in order even to follow the basic plot; lazy reading just doesn’t cut it as it might for more natural or comfortable genres.