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For Ernst Kantorowicz, the declaration "the King is dead, long live the King" is an especially succinct articulation of "the politico-ecclesiological theory of the corpus mysticum.1 For Thomas P. Anderson, the declaration is an especially fruitful articulation of the logic of trauma, of the experience of devastating loss or violation that returns to haunt its survivor. Anderson's book surveys an impressive array of dramatic and poetic texts that deal with fallen monarchs and that, he explains, are marked by their attempts to represent as well as surmount "a traumatic past that insistently presses its claim on the present" (1).
The achievements, as well as implications, of this effort are considerable. First, Anderson's method represents a fresh approach to historicist readings of early modern literature and that literature's engagement with the past. Whereas most historicist criticism looks at the period's historiographic impulses in order to determine a text's sociopolitical intentions, Anderson's gaze is more distinctly psychoanalytic: he is concerned with how a text registers conflicting desires to recall historical events, as well as to move beyond them. In so doing, Anderson says, texts reveal the way "artistic mediation repeatedly fails to compensate" for losses endured in the wake of religious change and royal death (3).
Even more compellingly, Anderson's methodology generates a series of original, illuminating comparisons. Chapter 2, "Reading Martyred History in Titus Andronicus," places Shakespeare's early revenge play beside several martyrologies from John Foxe's vast compendium. Cynthia Marshall juxtaposed these two texts in her 2002 Shattering of the Self (albeit in different chapters), and it is surprising that her work is not cited here. But Anderson's work is striking, as he offers a multitiered assessment of how Shakespeare and Foxe both resolve crises of representation occasioned by Reformation debates over the Last Supper. Titus, Anderson argues, seeks to collapse word and deed according to a sacramental aesthetic that the iconoclastic Foxe is at pains to dismantle; in its violence, the play bears witness to how "the Reformation presses its claim on the narrative of a Roman legacy that informs the structure of power in Elizabethan culture" (39).
Anderson's ability to construct this kind of layered argument is evident in other chapters. His work on Richard II is quite provocative, as he introduces a fresh topical referent—the execution of Mary Queen of Scots—to explore a play perennially [End Page 487] linked to the Essex rebellion. The trial and sentencing of Mary are not, for Anderson, simply additional historical realities against which to measure Shakespeare's play; rather, these events are the source of Richard and Bolingbroke's involvement in "cover-ups that promise to render as non-events their encounters with death" (57). These cover-ups, according to Anderson, are accomplished in the characters' own accounts of personal and national history, which he reads as efforts to "commemorate the past in order to move beyond it" (66). In the following chapter, such efforts are contrasted with the activities of Marlowe's Edward II, a play that does not disavow the past's claims on the present but instead "examines those claims directly in its paradoxical representation of the king's rape and violent death" (93). In Edward's tortured cry, Anderson hears "the lingering echo of the king's dying scream [that] is evidence of a past that continues to exact revenge" (114).
Anderson deals provocatively with the revenge of the past. He also works specifically with plays of revenge, connecting this genre and its portrayals of excessive brutality to the reoriented place of the dead in post-Reformation England. His argument is essentially a functionalist one, and despite its several striking observations, it is the book's least original chapter. Anderson cites scholars such as Michael Neill and Peter Marshall, but his own governing claim that revenge plays "compensate for, even as they repeat, the traumatic loss of the place of the dead" (127) does not significantly advance their scholarship. The chapter's real value...