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Thomas Rist, Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England (Ashgate, 2008)

Thomas Rist, Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England. Farnham: Ashgate, 2008. 176pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6152-8. £50.

Reviewed by Stevie Simkin

[1]  Thomas Rist’s Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England is as particular and precise as its carefully worded title suggests: as is now de rigeur in critical theory, the traditional term, with its blithe self-assuredness, is supplanted by something more tentative and provisional; in the same way that terms such as sexuality and feminism are routinely replaced by their plural forms, the epithet  ‘Reformation England’ is discarded in favour of something more transitional, perhaps more transitive: Rist sifts through his evidence gathered from the terrain of an England caught between Catholicism and Protestantism, and takes nothing for granted as he turns a quizzical eye on the received wisdom about the revenge tragedy genre as one that demonized the ‘Babylon of Catholicism’ and critiqued its rituals and traditions.

[2]  Rist has clearly read widely and deeply in the fields of religious and social history as well as literary studies, and he usefully re-animates a number of previous critics into a cut and thrust dialogue. The thick web of references that underpin his challenges and assertions is more conspicuous on account of the decision to use footnotes rather than endnotes, and this, along with the publisher’s choice of a font only slightly smaller than that used for the body of the text results in a number of pages seeming bottom-heavy. While Rist’s work is impressive for the depth and range of its research, the format draws the reader’s eye from text to footnote and back again, which can impact on the fluency of his thesis. It is hampered further, in places, by a certain inelegance. This, from an otherwise intriguing reading of The Spanish Tragedy, is indicative of an occasionally prolix style:

Being even highlighted by the bloody handkerchief, in The Spanish Tragedy funereal remembrance marks the dramatic transitions of ‘destiny’ from Andrea, to Horatio, to Hieronimo, and thence to the Portugese Viceroy and King of Spain’ (40).

In a study as dense as this one, the occasional awkwardness of the prose is a distraction.

[3]  Rist shows an understandable impatience with the totalizing approach of his predecessors’ attempts to read the revenge tragedy genre in relation to the seismic shifts that were taking place in the religious ideologies of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. However, the sustained attacks on Ronald Broude’s work eventually seem a little overwrought:  he pinpoints Broude’s ‘Vindicta Filia Temporis: Three English Forerunners of the Elizabethan Revenge Play’, published in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology (vol. 72, 489-502) in 1973, as the foundation stone for a generation of scholarship insisting on the anti-Catholicism of revenge tragedy, and repeatedly returns to Broude’s essay in order to tar later critics with a ‘Broudian’ brush.  For this reader, the insistence on Broudian wrongheadedness eventually becomes wearing.  After all, in an era of criticism yet to be rocked by the kind of pluralizing and politicizing I referred to in my opening paragraph, it is perhaps not surprising to find Broude espousing views that might have been more in line with the historiography, not to mention the literary criticism, of the early 1970s. On the other hand, Rist is right to take more recent criticism to task for having unquestioningly adopted Broude’s model.

[4]  Rist frequently recasts scenes from his chosen plays in his determination to focus attention on the key issues he wishes to illuminate, sometimes rendering them startlingly fresh in the process: this is particularly noticeable when he scrutinizes the more familiar texts such as Titus Andronicus and, in particular, Hamlet, where the familiar debates about interiority, and the dichotomy between inward emotion and exterior demeanour are set to one side in order to consider what the text might reveal about the rites of remembering the dead. Hamlet, of course, is littered with bodies, and with trains of mourners and sad remembrance: from the restless ghost of Old Hamlet, via Polonius – mourned in very different ways by his two children – to the flower-strewn death of Ophelia and her own maimed burial rites, and the play’s close that sees Hamlet’s body processed from the stage. Familiar speeches and exchanges – Laertes’ challenge to the priest over his sister’s internment, ‘What ceremony else?’ (5.1.205), as well as Hamlet’s musings on Yorick’s skull – seem new- minted. If I have reservations about the book’s methodology, in particular its insistently argumentative tone, it is impossible to deny the power of some of the re-readings of individual plays and scenes that Rist provides. The scene that precedes the off-stage rape of Lavinia by Chiron and Demetrius in Titus Andronicus, for instance, has received close attention from a number of feminist scholars, preoccupied with the sexual imagery of the site of Bassianus’ makeshift burial, the ‘subtle hole / Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briars / Upon whose leaves are drops of new-shed blood’ (2.3.198-200), and with the implication of Tamora in the violence against Lavinia. Rist reconfigures the scene to draw attention to the disturbing religious overtones in the staging of ‘the rape of living and dead within this site’ (52), and darkens the tone of Shakespeare’s hellish scene still further. Similarly, Titus’ revenge on the men who raped his daughter is rendered more shocking when Rist points out that, by making their mother ‘swallow her increase’, Titus denies Chiron and Demetrius ’any rite of remembrance’ and thus turns ‘Tamora into their “unhallowed/damned” grave’ (53).

[5]  Elsewhere, Rist sheds new light on some non-Shakespearean revenge tragedies of the period, including The Spanish Tragedy, The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, Antonio’s Revenge, and The Revenger’s Tragedy (for the record, Rist sides with the Middletonians in terms of the debate over the play’s authorship).  The Italian settings for Webster’s plays provide Rist with rich pickings, and he offers some excellent commentary on those wonderfully elaborate dying speeches Webster bestows on characters such as Flamineo: ‘My liver’s par-boiled like Scotch holy-bread; There’s a plumber laying pipes in my guts; it scalds’ (5.6.141-2). Even after centuries of criticism, meanwhile, The Revenger’s Tragedy remains a conundrum, a tonally dissonant, apparently flippant and cynical exercise in the genre.  Although Rist does not cite Jonathan Dollimore, the conclusions he reaches in his study of this endlessly puzzling play are strikingly similar: in Radical Tragedy (1984, 3rd edition 2010), Dollimore reads it as a radical text parodying the idea of providential justice; Rist concludes that the play ‘mocks remembrances of the dead, presenting a parody of a genre in which … remembrance gives rise to revenge’ (104).

[6]  Rist’s study is resolutely historicist, and there is little or no consideration given to contemporary understandings of the issues revenge tragedies touch upon. Just once, Rist notes a modern response to early modern barbarism, noting how ‘Students often respond loosely to the “yuk-factor”’ in Titus’s detailing of his intended revenge against Tamora’s two sons, but he quickly redirects the reader’s attention away from the frisson of the encounter between the present and the alien past, instead elaborating on the Ovidian strain in Titus’s actions (53). This is not in itself a problem: the importance of trying to understand four hundred year old plays on their own terms is not to be underestimated (and neither is its difficulty). The impetus to revenge, however, is clearly fundamental and transhistorical, even if its precise incarnations are culturally specific, and that tension reveals a crucial point about the complexity of negotiating between text and context. For instance, it would probably not surprise anyone to learn that a spate of revenge-themed popular films came out of Hollywood within a couple of years of the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, with four taking up residence simultaneously in the box office Top Ten in April 2004. However, to reverse Rist’s priorities and read, say, Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004) purely as an exercise in post-9/11 wish-fulfillment (US ex-Black Ops agent infiltrates enemy territory to restore law and order) would be to ignore the way it represents different forms of religious belief – from the Solus Christus Protestant faith of the hero to the Santeria-inflected idolatry of the Mexicans.  In turn, these representations feed into the film’s precise definition of the racial Other, revealing still more about post-9/11 paranoia. To isolate one issue at the expense of all others can be a problematic strategy.

[7]  In what is unmistakably and defiantly a mono-graph, Rist has made a conscious choice to cut away the issues extraneous to his analysis, and in so doing he reveals some of the tightly woven religious controversies of the day in great detail. The readings of individual scenes are pin-sharp and nuanced, and the treatment of the religious context constitutes a major step forward in our understanding of these plays and their audiences.  However, for this reader, a question mark still hovers over the methodology: revenge tragedies, navigating as they so often do the borderlands of social taboo,  are remarkably rich documents that not only open up a wide range of debates  –  religious, political, social and interpersonal – but reveal how profoundly interconnected all those issues are.  In a study this focused, a perspective on the bigger picture runs the risk of being lost completely.

University of Winchester, Jan 2010

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