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  • Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England
  • Heather Hirschfeld
Thomas Rist . Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008. x + 166 pp. index. bibl. $89.95. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6152-8.

Thomas Rist's Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England offers a focused reevaluation of English revenge tragedy in light of Reformation challenges to traditional observances for the dead. Well versed in recent scholarship on the complexity of religious change in early modern England, Rist demonstrates the centrality of commemorative ritual in shaping the concerns of revenge tragedy as well as the genre's unique ability to dramatize contemporary controversies surrounding that ritual. In so doing he contests standard critical assumptions about the genre's Protestant bias (according to which heroic, Reform-minded revengers triumph over Catholic villains).

Such a realignment is salutary, and Rist's introduction makes the case for it (though it turns Ronald Broude into too much of a whipping boy) with an efficient survey of the historiographic terrain as well as the doctrinal and practical stakes of Protestant attacks on Roman Catholic or "popish" beliefs about the relation between the dead and the living. Rist is especially effective in discussing English theologians' attempts to stipulate formulas for "measured" grief that would serve as a godly antidote to the excesses of Catholic attachments to the dead. Revenge tragedy, Rist proposes, "rooted in the culture of traditional memorials," is a throwback to these efforts, embedding in its vengeful claims and strategies alternative prescriptions for appropriate remembrance and alternative assessments of mourning's efficacy (17).

The analyses of plays that follow, while supplemented by rich contextual material and punctuated by sensitive local insights, are governed by a stiff hermeneutic principle dedicated to labeling characters or activities as either "Reformed" or "traditional." Unaided by the clotted prose, which can verge on the ungrammatical —"Dramatized revenge combining hitherto with funerary remembrance, this [revenge] seemingly bears on our study" is a particularly painful example (107) —the results are solid if predictable. The first chapter, on Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, claims that the plays endorse the efficacy of traditional, extensive mourning ritual: Hieronimo and Isabella, the protagonists of The Spanish Tragedy, preserve in their flamboyant demands for and attempts at revenge the "passionate remembrance" associated with Catholic ritual (38); Titus Andronicus's antagonists, Tamora and Aaron, represent a Protestant rigorism opposed by Titus in his commitment to elaborate funeral rites; and Hamlet maintains an ideal of "maximized mourning" that governs not only his sartorial choices but also his revenge efforts. In contrast to these three tragedies, John Marston's Antonio's Revenge is shown to be conflicted about mourning ritual: the hero and the villain share an attachment to excess that suggests that Marston —who later became a minister —was "torn between, indeed confused by, opposing styles of Christianity" and advocated in his play a [End Page 1403] doctrinal position that would "maintain catholic, but not Roman Catholic, remembrance" (95, 89). The last chapter considers four Jacobean tragedies and the sectarian implications of their revenge programs. The Revenger's Tragedy, a hyperbolic compendium of revenge motifs, is explained as a parodic exercise in which the "integrity of traditional valuing [of memorials] is ironically compromised" (99) and Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy, in which a violated ghost discourages revenge, is shown to be "so mired in competing ironies that true remembrance of the dead seems undistinguishable from false" (120). In John Webster's The White Devil and Duchess of Malfi, whose anti-Italian biases Rist refuses to equate with an unadulterated dismissal of Catholic rites, revenge and remembrance are privileged as a means of rescuing destroyed reputations and asserting female autonomy.

All these conclusions are useful and productive, and they are buttressed by compelling close observations and the inclusion of fascinating source material. The Marston chapter in particular, in which Rist introduces the literal place of the stage —the playhouse at St. Paul's Cathedral —into the hermeneutic equation, provides a particularly fresh blending of context and meaning. But given...


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pp. 1403-1404
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Archived 2009
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