Stevie Simkin, ed. Revenge Tragedy. London: Palgrave, 2001.
268 pp. ISBN 0 333 92236 0.
Ayanna Thompson
University of New Mexico

Thompson, Ayanna. "Review of Stevie Simkin, ed., Revenge Tragedy." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 18.1-6 <URL:

  1. Revenge Tragedy, a New Casebook collection edited by Stevie Simkin, presents a variety of recent critical essays about five "representative" revenge tragedies: The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger's Tragedy, The Changeling, The White Devil, and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. These previously published articles, written by such lit-crit luminaries as Michael Neill, Katharine Eisaman Maus, Ania Loomba, and Jonathan Dollimore, are quite enlightening when placed together. The collection is a great asset not only to the examination of the revenge tragedy genre but also to the exploration of late twentieth century critical approaches such as poststructuralism, feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, cultural materialism, and performance theory.

  2. Simkin begins the collection with an older piece by J.W. Lever taken from his 1971 book The Tragedy of State, which eloquently articulates how his approach sets itself against the "old historicist" model of analyzing through character, plot, and the notion of the Elizabethan world order alone. From this essay it is clear how Jonathan Dollimore and other self-proclaimed cultural materialists developed their methodological and political approaches at the feet of Lever. Another gem is Deborah Burks's essay, "'I'll Want My Will Else': The Changeling and Women's Complicity with their Rapists," which demonstrates all of the best aspects of new historicism (thorough and surprising research into medical, legal, and cultural history which supplements insightful close readings of the text) without any of the pitfalls (a disjointed sensibility which borders on the arbitrary, or, worse, the capricious). And yet a mere forty pages later Simkin has the insight to include an excellent critique of new historicism with Susan Wiseman's essay, "'Tis Pity She's a Whore: Representing the Incestuous Body." Utilizing aspects of performance theory to analyze the pregnant body of the incestuous Annabella, Wiseman demonstrates how new historicist techniques can not always illuminate how to "read" a text or a body in a text.

  3. Simkin's hand as an editor is present in helpful and instructive ways in this collection. The introduction is informative and straightforward. But more importantly, his notes at the end of each essay are pithy and thorough. He situates the articles within larger theoretical and methodological discussions, often highlighting any innovative elements within the argument. These summaries will be invaluable for students delving into contemporary criticism for the first time. After having taught a course on revenge tragedies and compiled my own collection of critical essays to supplement the course readings, I know how important this collection is and will be in the classroom.

  4. And yet I have a few reservations about the collection as a whole. First, I was surprised that Simkin did not attempt to define the genre in any comprehensive way. It is unclear how Simkin would limit the parameters of the revenge tragedy genre, if at all. While he lists twenty-five plays (aside from the five treated in the volume) that constitute the genre, he does not explain how or why these plays are grouped together. And more disturbingly, he does not address the fact that this is an area of debate. Even Katharine Eisaman Maus, one of the contributors in the collection, has written, "it is hard to define clearly the limits of the genre" (xxxvi). She also goes on to argue that plays such as The White Devil and 'Tis Pity "display some features of revenge tragedy, but are not usually considered under the rubric." Simkin, of course, includes these two plays as "representative" texts for the revenge tragedy genre, but he does not attempt to justify their inclusion.

  5. In addition, Simkin does not explain how or why the five plays he has selected are "representative" of the genre. Are they representative because they treat a certain set of themes or issues? Are they representative because they span from the Elizabethan to the Caroline periods? Or, are they representative simply because they have been treated to a variety of recent critical approaches? These questions are left disturbingly unanswered in both the introductory remarks and the editorial notes.

  6. Finally, the essays gathered together, while excellent, do not appear to be as "recent" as the collection would have the reader believe. While Christina Luckyj's essay was first published in 1999, most of the other essays were published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, most of the articles seem to swarm around a few seminal texts from the 1980s: Catherine Belsey's The Subject of Tragedy (1985), Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy (1984), and Francis Barker's The Tremulous Private Body (1984). While the original Casebook series was organized to examine criticism throughout history, the New Casebooks are supposed to "bring together the best of contemporary criticism and new critical thinking." How new are cultural materialism and new historicism, for instance? Does it matter that neither essay on The White Devil addresses issues of race in early modern England? This collection unwittingly raises fascinating questions about the state of literary criticism in the early twenty-first century. If our models for modern criticism all stem from the mid-1980s, are we really examining these texts in new ways?

Works Cited

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

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).