Metropolitan Tragedy: Genre, Justice, and the City in Early Modern England by Marissa Greenberg (review)
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Reviewed by
Marissa Greenberg. Metropolitan Tragedy: Genre, Justice, and the City in Early Modern England. University of Toronto Press. xvi, 232. $65.00

Marissa Greenberg's study of various late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English dramatic tragedies brings attention to the city as a place of tragedy and to tragedy as an exploration of anxieties about urban justice and injustice. The book is welcome for its innovative approaches to an appealing variety of early modern texts and contexts, as well as for its founding intention: to demonstrate that the contradictory and fraught early modern metropolis was as likely to be perceived as tragic as it was comic.

The introduction to Metropolitan Tragedy works from the recognition that early moderns often envisioned the city in tragic terms "because justice is enforced in the metropolis." Greenberg argues rightly that early moderns perceived many kinds of suffering as tragic, including the suffering of the justly condemned. The author intriguingly develops the insights [End Page 166] of several earlier studies on the ideological force of place in London to structure her argument in terms of the "placelessness," "over-placedness," or "recalcitrance" of sites of metropolitan justice. Chapter one then provides an examination of two late Elizabethan domestic tragedies, the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women and Robert Yarington's Two Lamentable Tragedies. Greenberg argues that these two plays respond to a labyrinthine London, filled with secret spaces fit only for crime, by generating, respectively, a placeless sense of "spatial legibility" and a perception of a "self-policing metropolis."

The second chapter offers an insightful assessment of the significance of performative representations of return and inescapable violence in Shakespeare's revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. For Greenberg, such recursive movement can be understood to frustrate the play's ostensible celebration of the translatio of metropolitan triumph and authority from Rome to London. In addition, the chapter compellingly argues that the play's complex movements demonstrate the uncertainty of tragedy's emotional effect, both on stage and in the streets of the metropolis in which response to the seemingly clear procedures of justice might be highly variable. Chapter three offers a reading of Philip Massinger's tyrant tragedy The Roman Actor in terms of its revelation of the perceptibility of tyrants as tragedians and tragedy itself as tyrannical. The author analyses the likeness of classical descriptions of tyranny to English understanding of catharsis as "presumptive violence" over conscience. For Greenberg, The Roman Actor's meta-theatricality, combined with its emphasis on the urban setting for punishment, serves to reveal the urban injustice of tyranny as a theatrical phenomenon and so destabilizes the authority of both tragic theory and absolutist practice.

The final chapter offers a fascinatingly contextualized reading of Milton's closet drama Samson Agonistes. The chapter opens with an exploration of the ways in which sounds, particularly music, were perceived to either regulate or disorder passions, with the "measuring" effect ultimately understood to depend on "right hearing." Right hearing as a foundation for spiritual growth and compassion was especially challenged in the city, and even more so during times of chaos such as London's Great Fire of 1666. The chapter's main claim is that Milton uses the contrary responses of the characters who hear the sounds of Samson's destruction of the Temple to sustain rather than to resolve discord, and thus to insist on the importance and difficulty of right hearing and compassion.

Readers of Metropolitan Tragedy may wish that it were more consistently able to explain why its primary texts explore socio-political and theatrical phenomena of and about, rather than simply set in, the city. While analyses do account for seemingly gratuitous textual details, those analyses do not consistently explain why audiences or readers would experience textual moments of urbanity synecdochally, as parts actively [End Page 167] representative of larger wholes. An example appears in chapter one, which will trigger some resistance to its generalization that "Domestic tragedy takes London as a principal location" when Greenberg herself acknowledges that several well-known domestic tragedies do not make London a primary setting. Consequently, the meaning of Greenberg's titular adjective "metropolitan" does not cohere well through the study, and the...


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