Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England

By Anderson, Thomas P. | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England


Anderson, Thomas P., Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England, by Timothy Rist. Aldershot, U.K. and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. Pp. 165. Hardback $89.95.

Reviewer: THOMAS P. ANDERSON

Timothy Rist' s study of Jacobean revenge tragedy moves in two directions. First, the book examines the myriad forms of funerary commemoration that populate revenge tragedies by important early modern dramatists such as Shakespeare, Kyd, Middleton, Webster, and Marston. In Rist' s analysis, the sheer plentitude of forms of commemoration in putatively reformed plays is evidence that the plays enact a Catholic longing. The book's second objective is to "systematically" (2) revise the relatively recent critical trend that argues revenge tragedy, indeed the early modern stage in general, is a reformed genre that both reflects and actively encourages CathoUcism's waning influence in early modem London. Because of the book's strident insistence on the second objective, it risks rendering moot its most insightful observations about the persistence of unreformed funerary ritual and scenes of mourning in revenge tragedy.

With its emphasis on the style of the enacted devotions to the dead, Rist' s book is part of Ashgate' s Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama series that, according to the series editor, focuses on performance "in defiance of theatrical ephemerality." In establishing a performative dimension to Renaissance funerary commemoration, Rist locates an "aesthetics of mourning" unique to Renaissance revenge drama which encourages acts of judgment by theatergoers (15). And, according to Rist, as the early modern spectator sat in judgment on scenes of mourning in the aftermath of violent events on stage, theological considerations determined the gap between the "performative ideal" and the degree to which the acts of mourning were actually reformed (22). Rist estabUshes a conceptual frame in a wide-ranging introduction that touches on many important points in current scholarship on the historical, cultural, and political impact of the Reformation in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Drawing on Frances Yates's influential study of the art of memory, Rist' s central assumption is that death in the period was "remembrance's 'animating impulse'" and that "England's Reformed challenge to Christian 'memoria' was an earthquake" (4, 5).

Arguing that traditional aides-mémoires for the dead - churches and monasteries, including the Blackfriars and the Whitefriars - were increasingly put to theatrical use, Rist' s study contemplates the effect of this transformation on purpose-built playhouses. Chapter 2 of Rist' s book looks at the playhouse at St. Paul's and its production oí Antonio' s Revenge as a model for this blend of theater and religio-politics. This chapter proves to be the book's most interesting section, providing an analysis of how physical space, theatrical performance, and ritual commemoration work together to undermine the sense of reform that putatively characterizes revenge drama. For Rist, St. Paul's embodies "shrouded remembrance," a "contested monument containing subsidiary, contested monuments" that simultaneously bears on the theatricality of the age and the complicated, contradictory processes of remembrances of the dead (77, 76). Performed in a monumental space with conflicted significance, Marston's play, Rist concludes, presents a "divided view of remembrance" that highlights "a development in the emphasis of revenge tragedy and an insight into a divided, Protestant mentality, even as the presentation of mourning in a monument reveals theatre and church entwined" (95).

The other two chapters in Revenge Tragedy and the Drama of Commemoration in Reforming England offer readings of revenge drama that privilege Catholic interpretations of scenes of mourning and commemoration, arguing that overt and covert Catholic affect is the plays' sincere expression of religio-political sensibility. …

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