Eileen Allman. Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1999. 212pp. ISBN 0 87413 698 9.

Ayanna Thompson
Harvard University

Thompson, Ayanna. "Review of Eileen Allman, Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 14.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-1/revthom.htm>.

  1. A well-researched genre, the early modern revenge tragedy has been the subject of many scholarly books, ranging from such classics as Fredson Bowers' Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy and Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge to more contemporary works like Charles and Elaine Hallet's The Revenger's Madness and Harry Keyishian's The Shapes of Revenge. Into this crowded field Eileen Allman carves out a small niche with an intense examination of four revenge tragedies in Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue.

  2. A self-professed cultural materialist with a new critic's belief in focused close readings, Allman focuses on four plays written between 1610-1613 -- The Maid's Tragedy, The Second Maid's Tragedy, Valentinian, and The Duchess of Malfi -- in order to explore how "Jacobean revenge tragedy spoke to the cultural moment... when James's struggles with Parliament over absolute authority made tyranny an inflammatory subject"(34). Organized into six chapters, Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue begins by "exploring the way these plays translate political debate into sexual terms" (34). Allman argues that "because both [the tyrant and revenger] adhere to a concept of maleness that requires them to declare victory by unmanning and feminizing an opponent, the revenger's triumph does not constitute change but rather reiterates the sexual binarism that initiated the conflict" (35).

  3. By her fourth chapter, Allman begins to focus in on the virtuous aspects of revenge by analyzing characters like Affranius (in Valentinian) and Govianus (in The Second Maid's Tragedy), who "do not accept the imprisoningly misogynistic terms of the tyrant's and revenger's definition of maleness... [thereby] break[ing] the self-perpetuating cycle of endless, futile male rivalry" (35). Allman then focuses on the plays' "androgynous" heroines, analyzing how they reintroduce "into the political world the religious discourse that supersedes and empowers maleness" (35). By "vowing obedience to divine law alone and to men only when they obey it, [the heroines] contradict the presumption of male dominance and female subjection" (35). Allman concludes with a detailed examination of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, which, although not strictly speaking a revenge tragedy, adheres to many of the revenge tragedy tenets she has traced throughout her work: an absolutist and misogynistic ideology, androgynous figures who admit an admiration for women, and a woman who also functions in an androgynous role.

  4. In Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue Allman serves as an excellent promoter for these lesser-known Jacobean dramas, managing to fit much into her economical volume of 190 pages. Her writing is most convincing, however, when she sticks close to the texts. Her readings of specific passages from The Maid's Tragedy, The Second Maid's Tragedy, Valentinian, and The Duchess of Malfi are always compelling and often surprising and enlightening. Allman's close readings support the most engaging aspect of her book -- the idea that the power of tyranny is broken when men share leadership with women, allowing both to embrace community, family, and state. Allman argues that ultimately the texts do not support characters like Maximus, Melantius, or even Evadne because their desire for absolute political power reveals itself to be a tyrannical and emasculating force.

  5. But while Allman's readings are compelling, her desire to tie them to an exact historical moment is troubling. If Allman were truly devoted to demonstrating that revenge tragedies from 1610-1613 were inextricably linked with James's absolutist leanings, why does she not analyze other revenge tragedies from that time period: Chapman's The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (c. 1609) and Tourneur's The Atheist Tragedy (c. 1610)? How exactly do they fit into her paradigm? What is even more puzzling, however, is the fact that Allman does not address earlier revenge tragedies, like Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1594), Marston's Antonio's Revenge (1600), Shakespeare's Hamlet (1601), and The Revenger's Tragedy (1606), which also have "self-authorizing tyrants" (37). In fact, The Revenger's Tragedy and Hamlet loom large in the background of Allman's text, being mentioned about a dozen times each, but they never make it into the foreground of her analysis because they do not fit into her historical paradigm. What would it mean if similar absolutist portrayals were occurring during Elizabeth's reign? It is not clear to me that Allman would have to forego her conclusions about the Jacobean longing for an androgynous and virtuous rule, but she disavows these possibilities by not addressing the genre as a whole.

  6. In the end, I felt that Allman's assertions were thought provoking but not quite convincing. I was particularly taken with chapters 4 and 5, which examined the "androgynous" heroes and heroines of these dramas, but the larger historical claims in her conclusions were a bit hollow. A larger project, embracing both the genre as a whole and the voluminous bibliography of criticism, would have rounded out her ideas nicely. But while Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Politics of Virtue is a clear and concise work, it is not quite pithy enough to make it fully convincing.

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).