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Sympathy and Objectification in The Revenge Tragedy Genre

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The genre of revenge tragedy has been both popular and unique in its ability to simultaneously arouse feelings that appear to be unrelated in its audience: vengeance and sympathy. What makes this genre vary from play to play, however, is the author’s ability to either gain the audiences’ identification with the “revenger,” and his actions, or isolate him from readers in doing so. In addition, by keeping an audience either aligned with the protagonist-revenger or by objectifying him, the overall effectiveness of the play is also affected. In analyzing this trend, one can examine two revenge tragedies in which the protagonist’s actions have opposite effects on the audience. In Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, for example, readers see the protagonist immediately wronged and actively seek revenge throughout the play; however in doing so he goes too far and ultimately commits heinous acts that lead to his overall isolation from readers, as by they can no longer sympathize or identify with him as the character he originally was. However, in Thomas Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy, the protagonist, also wronged at the onset, actively seeks revenge throughout the play; yet in staying his personal course of revenge readers are able to identify and sympathize with him until his death in the end. This pattern of either objectification or identification with the revenger-protagonist ultimately proves to be critical in the overall effectiveness of the works as both a revenge play and a tragedy, as garnering these duel emotions from reads proves to be a challenge that is not always met within the genre.

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Though The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Jew of Malta end with two different effects on its readers, both works start out similarly, pursuant to the revenge tragedy form, as the protagonists are wrongly injured by corrupt characters in positions of greater social status. For example, in Malta, the play begins with authorities telling the protagonist, Barabas, that they must seize his money because he is a Jew. As readers at this point in the play, the sympathy is automatically with Barabas, a man having done no harm, yet being taken advantage of by a figure higher up than he. It is hard not to identify with Barabas, who having committed no foul, claims that he simply wants to live in peace and keep his money to provide it for his daughter. Barabas states, “Give us peaceful rule; . . . I have no charge, nor many children, But one sole daughter, whom I hold dear . . . And all I have is hers” (Marlowe I.i. 132-137). Readers are exposed to the original foul against Barabas, as Ferenze, the governor of Malta, says to him,

. . . Jew, like infidels, for through our sufferance of your hateful lives, Who stand accursed in the sight of heaven, These taxes and afflictions are befall’n, And therefore thus we are determined. Read the article of our decrees . . . ‘First. . . each of them to pay one half of his estate. . . Secondly, he that denies to pay shall straight become a Christian. . . Lastly, he that denies this shall absolutely lose all he has’” (Marlowe I.ii. 63-77).

Again, at this point in the play readers witness the protagonist deprived of his money for no warrantable reason, which makes sympathizing with him as the Other quite easy for an audience who likewise has probably felt alienated as an Other himself before as well. Barabas’s poignant reaction to being wronged by these authorities also assists in readers’ identification with him as he cries ,“You have my wealth, the labour of my life, The comfort of mine age, my children’s hope; And therefore ne’er distinguish of the wrong . . . Your extreme right does me exceeding wrong” (Marlowe I.ii. 150-155). At this point in the play, Marlowe has made it quite easy for readers to sympathize and identify with Barabas, a man seemingly robbed by society and a man that readers can likely see themselves in as well.

This sympathy originally garnered for Barabas in turn works to align readers with the notion that Barabas deserves to be avenged for the unwarranted crime against him. Barabas later swears to seek this revenge on Ferenze, the man who took his money, “Whose heart [he] will have,” claiming that he cannot “so soon forget an injury” (Marlowe II.iii. 15-19). At this point in the play, this need to have revenge for the wrongful act readers previously witnessed appears both warranted and just, demonstrating both the sympathy readers have acquired for the injured protagonist and the identification felt in the necessity of a “just” retribution.

Additionally, in Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy readers also see the protagonist immediately victimized in the beginning by a corrupt social force, an act that similarly works to gain the sympathy of readers and as well as their identification with the wronged protagonist. For example, within the first scene of the play readers witness the protagonist, Vindice, longingly speaking to his late wife’s skull as he states the crime against her and promises to make up for it saying,

The old Duke poison’d, Because thy purer part would not consent Unto his palsy-lust; for old men lustful Outbid like their limited performances. Age, as in gold, in lust is covetous. Vengeance, thou Murder’s quit-rent, and whereby Thou show’st thyself tenant to Tragedy . . . Hum, who e’er knew Murder unpaid? Faith, give Revenge her due. . . (Middleton I.i. 32-41).

Through readers learning of the atrocious crime committed against Vindice’s wife for an even more atrocious reason in her failure to consent to his lust for her, Middleton immediately puts readers on the side of the protagonist-revenger, as viewing such a crime committed against the innocent, as in Barabas’s case, makes revenge not a crime, but an act of justice and rightful retribution, again a feeling that is easily identified with as audiences have the tendency to identify with the downtrodden Other—in this case two innocent men wronged by corrupt authoritative figures. Additionally, it is this tendency which goes into making the sympathy for the protagonist-revenger and his future acts a force that, when properly utilized, makes the play effective as a revenge tragedy as well.

As both plays continue, readers remain on the side of the protagonist-revengers and their mission to attain revenge for the suffering they wrongfully incurred. As each play hits its climax, readers eventually experience this shared catharsis in the protagonists’ success in enacting their revenge. For example, in Malta, Barabas coyly arranges a duel in which Ferenze’s son, Lodowick, will meet his death in. Barabas, before the duel, eagerly speaks of his eagerness in “seeing [Lodowick’s] death” and excitedly tells his slave Ithamore about the plans, as Ithamore responds, “As meet they will, and fighting die. Brave sport!” (Marlowe III.i. 31). During the duel itself, Barabas witnesses the death of Lodowick first-hand, sarcastically noting afterwards, “Ay, part ’em now they are dead. Farewell, farewell” (Marlowe III.ii. 9). At this point readers can simultaneously breathe a ‘sigh of relief’ as Barabas has successfully avenged his persecutor. Even after witnessing a character’s death one cannot help but feel that it was justified under the “eye for an eye” mentality present in this genre; again illustrating that the sympathy in the play has remained with the protagonist, because of the notion that ‘justice’ has finally been served after the original act committed against Barabas.

Readers experience this similar catharsis in the justified act of revenge in Revenger’s Tragedy as Vindice also arranges and accomplishes his act of revenge on the Duke in his elaborate scheme in which he poisons him using the very skull of his late wife. Vindice states his plan saying, “This very skull Whose mistress the Duke poison’d with this drug, The mortal curse of the earth, shall be reveng’d In the like strain and kiss his lips to death. As much as the dumb thing can, he shall feel: What fails in poison we’ll supply in steel” (Middleton III.v. 101-107). Even during the act itself, readers remain on Vindice’s side, as an “innocent villain,” as he says to the Duke before his death, “Tis I, ‘tis Vindice, ‘tis I” and “Mark me, Duke” (Middleton III.v. 165,175). The readers’ steadfast sympathy with Vindice at this point in the play makes this act of revenge interpreted as perfectly justifiable under the circumstances of the play and the Duke’s original crime at the beginning. Furthermore, identification with the protagonist-revenger is again not broken with the ‘lex talionis’ mentality that an audience is both capable understanding in the situation, and has more likely than not, used before.

Though both protagonists appear to be successfully avenged after these incidents all while simultaneously holding the sympathy of the reader, the events that occur hereafter serve to highlight the marked differences in the ability of the plays’ audiences to remain identified with the protagonists. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas’s future actions indicate that he had become too wrapped up in the notion of revenge, and in overstepping his boundaries his continued heinous offenses ultimately serve to objectify him in the eyes of readers, as the original sympathy for a once innocent man wronged by a corrupt figure turns to apathy for a sociopath that readers simply can no longer identify with.

For example, Barabas’s first transgression that serves to commence this objectification by readers occurs when he plans to murder his own daughter for her decision to convert to Christianity. It is at this point in the play where readers can no longer sympathize with an innocent victim who simply wants to seek his own form of social justice, and instead begin to see a lone character so obsessed with revenge that it is hard to determine what he is even seeking to accomplish in doing so. Barabas appears to experience no remorse after killing his only daughter, and rather than stopping there, this alienation of him as a character soars even higher with Barabas’s plan to kill again. According to the protagonist, “For he that [converted his daughter] is within my house. What if I murdered him ere Jacomo comes? Now I have such a plot for both their lives . . . One turned my daughter, therefore he shall die; The other knows enough to have my life; Therefore ‘tis not requisite he should live” (Marlowe IV.i. 119-124). Through these lines, it is clear that Barabas is no longer seeking to mitigate his own suffering he originally incurred; rather he has simply taken on a new obsession with killing for any reason he can find. Later in the play, Barabas hatches an additional plan to kill his slave, the slave’s mistress and the mistress’s pimp as well, again illustrating not a sympathetic man that a reader can see himself in, but a blood-hungry sociopath—a man in which readers can no longer identify with—and thus the sympathy originally felt for him ultimately plummets with each subsequent mindless act of murder that Barabas commits.

By the end of the play, Barabas, as with all tragic figures, eventually meets his demise at his own hands as he ends up getting tangled in his own murderous plot, burning to death in the very cauldron he had designed to kill others. By this point in the play, all sympathy for Barabas is lost and his death appears justified and in accordance with his actions and plans previously committed. The eventual death of Barabas, as he dies cursing those around him, screaming “Damned Christians, dogs, and Turkish infidels!” (Marlowe V.v. 85) officially marks the long transition from a man readers could identify and sympathize with—having been victimized by society and by which an act of revenge appeared justified—to a deranged tragic figure that became so obsessed with the idea of revenge that became objectified in the eyes of readers dying as a man who got what he deserved for his. The impossibility to sympathize with Barabas by the end of Malta proves that the play itself, though effective in accomplishing the theme of revenge and one’s fall in seeking it, was not so effective in garnering the sympathy of its audience as the protagonist became completely alienated through this, making him a tragic figure in theory, yet markedly less tragic to readers in practice.

In opposition to this gradual loss of sympathy and eventual objectification of Barabas, the audience of The Revenger’s Tragedy never appears to lose identification with Vindice, as he remains focused on the corrupt Duke and his family and does not appear overstep his boundaries in revenge as Barabas had. After the Duke’s death at the hands of Vindice, his court turns into a circus as his sons, each eager to make their way to the throne by any means possible, prove to exemplify the very corrupt traits that ran in their father, stipulating that perhaps this corrupt force Vindice looked to avenge and eliminate had not in fact been accomplished yet. By the end of the play, with all four of the sons fighting over who will become Duke, a bizarre string of events leads Vindice to complete his revenge, with the help of these doomed sons, as all four end up stabbed fighting for the throne. By the end, with each of the four sons dead, Vindice whispers to Lussuriouso, “. . . ‘twas Vindice murder’d thee — . . . murder’d thy father—and I am he. Tell nobody…” (Middleton V.iii. 74-78). At this point, however, the sympathy is still with Vindice, as the play has nearly reached its conclusion, and he appears to have finally avenged his wife’s murder and eliminate the corrupt courtship that was the cause to it. Unlike Barabas, Vindice did not get carried away and remained focused on the corrupt Italian court, which is the precise reason readers both sympathize and identify with him until the end, as a part of them as human beings additionally wishes to see this corruption eliminated as well. By the end of the play, Vindice realizes he too must die for his actions, but unlike Barabas’s cursing of those around as he died, Vindice realizes that his goal had been accomplished and is accepting of what is to come, stating, “Is there one enemy left alive amongst those? ‘Tis time to die when we are ourselves our foes” (Middleton V.iii. 109-110). Vindice’s valiant death to complete the vengeance he sought after mercilessly the entire play ultimately serves to keep readers aligned with the tragic hero, as sympathy for him and his mission of a ‘just revenge,’ plays to the sympathies of an audience who likewise, wished to see the corrupt Italian court suffer justice. Unlike Marlowe’s Barabas, who took his revenge quite too far, readers sympathize with the death of Vindice, seeing it as a tragic event, rather than a fate that he undoubtedly deserved as Barabas had.

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The genre of revenge tragedy is unique in that it leaves room for a variance in the audience’s acceptance or rejection of a character who must pull off an evil act without also becoming evil himself. As witnessed in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, the protagonist-revenger Barabas fails in doing this, as his obsession with revenge ultimately leads to his complete objectification in the eyes of an audience that was originally aligned with him and his plight. Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, however, proves to accomplish this difficult feat through its own protagonist-revenger, Vindice. Through Vindice’s commitment to avenge his wife’s murder without getting too involved in the corrupt world of Italian politics himself, he not only succeeds in his vengeance, but also remains in favor with the audience, who both sympathize with his suffering and can agree with his “justified act of revenge,” which ultimately makes the play succeed as both a revenge drama and as a tragedy in readers’ shared sympathy for his eventual death. Though the Chinese proverb placed at the beginning of Alan Cox’s Revenger’s Tragedy film, “Let the one who seeks revenge remember to dig two graves,” undoubtedly holds true in both of these plays and in the revenge tragedy genre in general, it remains up to the reader to determine whether or not the revenger deserves to lie in his grave, which, as evidenced by the two places discussed, inevitably leads to this unique variance in character identification that can be found within the revenge tragedy genre itself.

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Sympathy and Objectification in the Revenge Tragedy Genre. (2018, September 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 7, 2023, from
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