Ann C. Christensen is a professor of English at the University of Houston. She is the author of Separation Scenes: Domestic Drama in Early Modern England (Nebraska, 2017) and the editor of A Warning for Fair Women: Adultery and Murder in Shakespeare’s Theater (Nebraska, 2021), published this month in the Early Modern Cultural Studies Series.
Genre: True Crime and Domestic Tragedy
A Warning for Fair Women is one of a small handful of plays performed on the early modern London stage that modern scholars classify as “domestic tragedy” for their common treatment of family and/or marriage in crises that end in tragic ways (usually including adultery and death, often by murder). An early, influential critic to consider how this genre appealed to London playgoers was Louis B. Wright, whose Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935) emphasized the bourgeois or “middling sort” aspects of character, setting, and plot. Another scholar who attended to the genre was H. H. Adams, whose English Domestic or Homiletic Tragedy: 1575–1642 (1943) argued that such plays were basically versified sermons for husbands and wives. Indeed, this admonitory and didactic mode was common in ballad titles from the period as well: “A warning to wanton wives” (1564), “A warning to all maids that brews their own bane,” and “A warning for widows that aged be” (1565), to name a few. Along with middle-class values and an instructional tone, the use of realistic details also typifies domestic tragedy, as when the Sanders boy and his school chum, Harry, toss a coin on the stoop (sc. 17), and when Beane fantasizes about bringing home the delicacy of calf ’s head from London (sc. 6). Other domestic tragedies give elaborate stage directions about such homey activities as meals—specifying the use of candles, napkins, and even crumbs. Another important generic distinction is the self-conscious reductio n in tragic scale, offering likewise, as one critic suggests, “some significant reflection on [the theatrical tradition].” Holbrook supports this claim by noting the frequency with which these tragedies openly admit their distinction from the usual tragic fare—the fall of the great: “‘look for no glorious state,’ declares the prologue to A Woman Killed with Kindness, ‘our Muse is bent / Upon a barren subject, a bare scene’” (86). Arden’s epilogue presents a similar metatheatrical disclaimer, calling the preceding performance a “naked tragedy” conveying “simple truth” that “needs no other points of glozing stuff,” statements that draw attention to the artlessness of the piece, relative to “high” tragedy (ep. 14, 17–18). The epilogue to A Warning in a similar vein proclaims itself a “true and home-borne Tragedy” (000).
A Warning, like Arden of Faversham, uses a prologue and epilogue to proclaim its middling-sort concerns and familiar city sites, while Elizabethan tragedies more commonly focused on historical kings and queens and ancient or distant empires, as in Shakespeare’s Roman Titus Andronicus and Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great and Edward II. No royalty appear in A Warning, though members of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council take part in the investigative and judiciary phases, aided by local magistrates and jailers. Showing the distinction between this play and other tragedies, the character of Tragedy tells viewers to “look for no glorious state” (epilogue). After Tragedy successfully eliminates the competition from Comedy and History in the opening induction, she turns to the spectators to announce: “My scene is London, native and your own, / I sigh to think, my subject too well known” (000). This statement does two things: it places the setting for the action in the immediate location of the theater itself—in England’s capital, a city that was home to an expanding population and a thriving commercial theater industry—and it acknowledges that the story to be performed was already familiar to this audience. Tragedy argues that her kind of play is new, mocking the usual suspects of revenge tragedies—choruses, ghost, and tyrants. Gurr explains this “new form” as “a drama documentary,” noting, for instance, that Melpomene avers the story is “not ‘fained’ [or invented] but ‘true.’”
Taken together these elements—nonaristocratic, bourgeois characters, small-scale domestic (or private) settings, and contemporary, “realistic” touches—are generally agreed to constitute domestic tragedy, and readers will note these elements at work in A Warning. Although modern playgoers tend to think of plays within distinct genres or categories, and although the hybrid category “tragicomedy” did not come into practice until arguably 1606 with George Wilkins’s and Shakespeare’s Pericles, it is important to remember that no play was purely tragedy or comedy. Elizabethan playwrights blended styles, tones, and moods, as evidenced in a title like Marlowe’s history play published the same year as A Warning: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. This wording suggests the audience can feel sorry for the death of even a “troublesome” king and that a “proud” man’s fall can still be tragic. A Warning for its part mingles moods when it juxtaposes an everyday, realistic setting, such as a woman sitting on her doorstep, with the elevated, romantic rhetoric of the captain who courts her there, or when a highly stylized and ritualistic “bloody banquet” immediately precedes a jovial farewell after a normal meal.
Beginning in the 1980s English domestic tragedy and the history of domesticity in general have received extensive critical attention, most notably from feminist scholars who usefully complicate both the ideas of domesticity and of genre, acknowledging, for example, the limited scope for middling-sort women in public life on the one hand, yet their relatively greater authority in their households, on the other, and also expanding what counts as tragic. Paramount in this discussion and evident in the genre is that Englishwomen’s legal status—in potestate maritorum—placed them under the absolute power of their husbands, yet their actual lived experience placed them in charge of the personnel and materiel of their households. Additionally, the presence of servants and other social groups crucially shape this class of play, as Lena Cowen Orlin and others observe, reminding us that households, not individuals or even families, were the units that were taxed in this period.