Domestic Tragedy in the Renaissance

Mask of Tragedy

Both the play entitled A Woman Killed with Kindness, written by Thomas Heywood, and the play Arden of Faversham, a work of unknown authorship, are two stories that tackle the less grandiose views of how tragedy functioned during the Renaissance. Each play focuses on the domestic sphere, telling of the destruction of relationships as they unfold within the space of a home rather than the conventional setting of tragedy within the royal and noble realms of society.

Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness tells two stories centered around the lives and virtue of two women, Anne Frankford and Susan Mountford. Anne’s husband Master Frankford invites another man named Wendoll into their home; Wendoll woos Anna into committing adultery and they are caught. Susan Mountford’s brother Charles tries to prostitute her to Sir Francis Acton as an act of repaying debt. Anne dies of her own hand, rather than that of her husband who elects to ostracize her. Susan holds tightly to her virtue and ends up marrying Acton instead of being his prostitute to reunite him with her brother.

Arden of Faversham also tackles the theme of adultery in the home. Alice and a man named Mosby commit adultery behind the back of Alice’s husband, Arden. They elect to hire murderers to rid themselves of Arden so that they can continue their affair. The conspirators are all punished and sentenced to death for Arden’s murder, and the play ends tragically as anticipated by the tumultuous start. Both A Woman Killed with Kindness and Arden of Faversham are set up to follow a tragic trajectory as it unfolds within the domestic sphere, in order to show that tragedy can be found even in ‘low’ places.

Domestic Tragedy as a Separate Genre

Tragedy: a play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal or disastrous conclusion. (OED).

To first understand how A Woman Killed with Kindness and Arden of Faversham function as domestic tragedies, the idea of domesticizing tragedy must be distinguished from the greater conventions of the tragic genre within the drama of the period. In the conventions of the Renaissance and inherited classical traditions, this sorrowful work took place amongst the noblest of characters to be portrayed on the stage. “For the 1650s dictionary-writer Thomas Blount, tragedy was a ‘lofty kind of poetry’, one that featured ‘exilements, murders, matters of grief, etc.”; in a tragedy, he writes, ‘the greatest parts of the actors [ie., the characters] are kings and noble persons’, and whereas the subject matter of comedy was often fictional, ‘of a tragedy it is commonly true and once really performed’” (Munro). Tragedies conventionally showed the corruption of leadership of kings and noblemen reaching too high and too far, and they often retell true stories of monarchs of antiquity. Lucy Munro identifies in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Tragedy that the trick of tragedy is to hold onto enough of the common tropes and conventions of the genre to still be received as such.

Domestic tragedies, however, take up these tropes in a different sphere of life to be depicted on the stage. They are concerned not with the affairs of the nobility, but with the affairs and structure of authority within the home. As a king and other leaders are symbolic representations of God’s authority over his people on Earth, so too is the man a spokesperson for God’s authority in his household. Domestic tragedies take up the theme of the corruption of passion within the home, and are “by nature didactic, aimed at a middle-class audience with an interest in moral and theological instruction that was elsewhere satisfied by sermons” (Bromley 261). According to Catherine Richardson, domestic tragedies frequently take up the themes ranging from a vengeful or adulterous spouse, a traitorous servant, and other such instances of discord within the minor gentry to explore what happens when loyalty on a smaller scale disintegrates. Domestic tragedies place the eye of scrutiny on a smaller scale than common conventions of tragedy, utilizing the everyday man as the judge and sinner.

A Woman Killed with Kindness

A Woman Killed With KindnessA Woman Killed with Kindness by Thomas Heywood is set up to enact a conflict of authority within the space of the home, but it does so by subverting the expectations of tragedy. The story opens with a prologue that announces the play as taking place in a lower sphere than commonly expected of tragedies. The prologue plays off classical tragedy’s conventional use of a chorus figure invoking divinity, and the play opens with the announcement to the audience:

Look for no glorious state, our muse is bent
Upon a barren subject, a bare scene. (Heywood Prologue 3 – 4).

The play has two contrasting plot threads taking place with lower-born characters within the space of a home, and it is centered on the relationship of women to male authority. Anne Frankford is the fallen female figure who commits adultery with a man named Wendoll and thus disrupts the fabric of her home and family. It is up to Master Frankford to restore stability in his home. Anne is contrasted by Susan Mountford, who maintains her virtue despite the dominating force of her brother who tries to force her to be prostituted to repay a debt and restore stability to his life. “Both plot lines, then, revolve around triangles: wife, husband, and friend/seducer in the main plot; brother, sister, and enemy/husband in the subplot. In one, a woman divides the men; in the other, she brings them together” (Dolan IX). The passions and virtues of each of the women are set up as the means to both destroy and rebuild domestic stability in each plot of the play, and it takes a decisive male hand to reassert authority.

Anne is a figure of uncontrolled passions, seen in both how she falls to Wendoll’s charms and her intense reaction to her husband’s kinder choice of her punishment for her sin of adultery. Laura Bromley writes that “[feelings] are the worst possible guide to behavior precisely because they are so likely to be in need of moderation. Moreover, feelings were not openly expressed in the family at this time. As Lawrence Stone explains, domestic relations were based on authority rather than affection. Affection was not considered a prerequisite for marriage, and relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children were characterized by psychological distance and coolness” (Bromley 266). Anne is too full of feelings and passions to be a stable figure in the home. Her passions get consumed by Wendoll, and the balance of authority in the Frankford home is disrupted. Frankford chooses a kinder punishment than one would expect of a tragedy for his straying wife, choosing to ostracize her for upsetting the balance of her duties as wife and mother. Anne is to model what happens when disobedience occurs in the home; her husband’s hand while firm is kind to her sin. Anne, however, cannot bear living with her own passionate guilt, and chooses to starve herself to death to purify herself. Anne proclaims:

So to my deathbed, for from this sad hour
I never will nor eat, nor drink, nor taste
Of any cates that may preserve my life.
I never will nor smile, nor sleep, nor rest,
But when my tears have washed my black soul white,
Sweet Saviour, to thy hands I yield my sprite.         (Heywood XVI 100 – 105)

Anne’s surfeit of passions are the true tragedy of the play because her passions disrupt the order of her home when she commits adultery, and they rob her of her life because she is too full of them to not feel plagued by her sin. She chooses to starve herself of all ways of dying, never putting anything into her body again because she does not deserve life.

Susan’s portion of the story comes not to a tragic end to restore order in the home but rather ends with her marriage to Sir Francis Acton. Marriage thus both comprises the framework of domestic order and the means by which it can crumble. Sir Charles Mountford has been trying to prostitute his sister to Acton to repay a long debt and feud, but Susan’s beauty takes Sir Francis Acton aback. He comments after she runs away from him and Malby talking of revenge, saying:

She was an angel in a mortal’s shape…
How now, Frank, turned fool
Or madman, whether? By no! master of
My perfect senses and directest wits.
Then why should I be in this violent humour
Of passion and of love, and with a person
So different every way, and so opposed
In all contractions and still warring actions?
Fie, Fie, how I dispute against my soul.
Come, come, I’ll gain her, or in her fair quest
Purchase my soul free and immortal rest. (Heywood VII 99, 104 – 113)

Francis’s passions, unlike Anne’s, are what solve this conflict and restore order to their home. He is overcome by Susan’s beauty, and their marriage resolves and restores order between himself and Sir Charles. It is the moderation and correct channeling of emotions that restores order in both plots of AWoman Killed with Kindness. “Anne uses the life that Frankford has spared to repent of her sin, so he can freely restore her, in name, to her place in the family. The sanctity of the institution of marriage is reaffirmed. The reconciliation of the men, Sir Charles and Sir Francis, has resulted in another marriage, that of Susan and Anne’s brother, an alliance that advanced the family’s standing through Susan’s rank and honor” (Bromley 268). Passion is the true threat to domestic order in this play, and the cause of Anne’s tragic end.

Arden of Faversham

In the play Arden of Faversham, adultery is again a threat to the authority and stability of the domestic space. The Arden of Favershamprotagonist Arden’s wife Alice has been having an affair with a man of a lower class named Mosby, and rather than risk Arden’s punishment coming down on them, the two lovers plot to have Arden killed. Much of the play involves the convoluted scheming to try to arrange Arden’s death failing again and again, and it leads to the degradation of the passion between Alice and Mosby themselves when rumors and continued failings to murder Arden keep chipping away at their passions. Alice quarrels with Mosby, saying “I pray thee, Mosbie, let our springtime wither; / Our harvest else will yield but loathsome weeds. / Forget, I pray thee, what hath passed betwixt us” (Arden Act III.v 66 – 68). She is rightfully predicting that their relationship will only sow more ruin amongst the society that they inhabit, but in the end the lovers make up and their passionate fire regrows.

Through a collaborative effort Arden is finally killed, and the lovers and their conspirators are caught and executed for their deeds. The mayor brings Alice before her husband’s bloody corpse to try to impress upon her the horror of her crime and inspire her to repentance. Alice looks on her husband’s corpse, and the sight transfers her passions back to Arden again as she mourns his death. Alice says to his dead, bleeding body:

Would my death save thine, thou shouldst not die.
Rise up, sweet Arden, and enjoy thy love,
and frown not on me when we meet in heaven:
In heaven I’ll love thee, though on earth I did not. (Arden V.iii 8 – 11).

Alice begs for his forgiveness, and hopes that her love will be enough to grant her that repentance. Her love and her passions are what caused the entire mess to unfold, and she goes to her execution expecting that her husband will be there to accept her love in the afterlife. “The linking of marriage and murder in Arden of Faversham… more often than not through the provocation of adultery, enables the dramatist to juxtapose the emotional imperatives of passion and the communal judgments embodied in religion and the law” (Lieblein 181). Passion both can build the domestic union of marriage, but it has equal power to destroy it. The play ends with the death of Arden and the deaths of all that had a hand in killing the innocent man; order is thus restored by eliminating the problems entirely.


Both A Woman Killed with Kindness and Arden of Faversham are successful tragedies because they show the degradation of order by an excess of passion, as much as tragedies taking place in the setting of a courtly atmosphere. Confining the tragic tales to the domestic space and the more common, middle class life does not take away from their didactic effect. These plays provide a warning about the conflict of passion and authority of the male in his own home. Enforcing the established power structure is just as important to the maintenance of the peaceful everyday home as it is to kingdoms and rulers. “The sources of domestic plays tend to stress man’s potential sinfulness and a providential design which uncovers and punishes offenders” (Lieblein 182).

A Woman Killed with Kindness and Arden of Faversham are both tragic in how they illustrate the instability of authority as it appears in the domestic space. They utilize the sin of adultery to illustrate the destructive nature of unbridled passions in the home; it is the duty of the male patriarchal figure to restore order and reaffirm his authority. By figuring both of these plays around the destruction of women protagonists, it is shown that the stability of the domestic sphere depends as much on a firm patriarch as it does on a reliable matriarch. Authority in the home is, albeit based on unequally distributed power, a partnership, and each of these plays warn of what happens when one partner strays. The endings are both as tragic as any royal tragedy, with death as the final closure for the surfeit of emotions and passions that led to their downfall.

Works Cited

Bromley, Laura G. “Domestic Conduct in A Woman Killed with Kindness.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 26.2 (1986): 259-76. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jun. 2014.

Floyd-Wilson, Mary. “Chapter 14: Arden of Faversham: Tragic Action at a Distance.” The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy. By Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. N. pag. Print.

Heywood, Thomas, Brian W. M. Scobie, and Frances E. Dolan. A Woman Killed with Kindness. London: Methuen Drama, 2012. Print.

Lieblein, Leanore. “The Context of Murder in English Domestic Plays, 1590-1610.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 23.2 (1983): 181-96. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jun. 2014.

Munro, Lucy. “Chapter 7: Tragic Forms.” The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy. By Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. N. pag. Print.

Richardson, Catherine. “Chapter 2: Tragedy, Family, and Household.” The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy. By Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. N. pag. Print.

“tragedy, n.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 20 June 2014 <>.

Unknown. Arden of Faversham. Ed. Ronald Bayne, Rev. N.p.: Balefire, 2012. Kindle.

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  1. Onita Krebs

    I read A Woman Killed with Kindness for my Renaissance tragedy module and I imagine it can either be taken as promoting or satirising the role of women and marriage as commodity.

  2. Aside from Macbeth, Arden of Faversham is my favorite play! Me thinks a woman wrote it; hence, the author’s name: anonymous.

  3. I am definitely a romantic and somewhat of a sucker for works like Heywood’s play, but I could not put the play down. What a tremendous work. Looking up Arden of Faversham as we speak. Thanks for the great thesis.

  4. Woman Killed with Kindness strength lies in its ambiguous morality; are we meant to take it seriously?

  5. RossieSettle

    Arden of Faversham was a great introduction to my violence and representation course, providing a clear insight into the sphere of private/domestic violence and its impact on the wider world.

  6. Doesn’t “A Woman Killed with Kindness” remind us of Shakespeare’s best work and of Alcestis by Euripides?

    • Shannon

      Better than Shakespeare at points. “O God, that it were possible / To undo things done, to call back yesterday…”

    • Pete Larson

      I would say when Shakespeare meets Tennessee Williams. Heavy on the stomach but had a good time reading it.

  7. This was an interesting piece into life during the English Renaissance.

  8. Thomas Heywood play is surprisingly complex if you ask me.

    • Lewandowski

      Structurally speaking, this play is confusing. Comedies stereotypically end in weddings, tragedies in death. This play has both. Tell me, how am I supposed to take that?

  9. Never heard about these plays but this was an informative read.

    • Arden of Faversham is an interesting look at what people were doing contemporary to Shakespeare. You should read it.

  10. Gritaeyu

    Logical and scholarly work

  11. Emily Deibler

    Great work dissecting domestic tragedies. I like the point that tragedies in the domestic sphere can be just as gripping as ones involving princes and kings. In a way, the themes have the potential to resonate more with the theatre-going Renaissance audience because the “normal” characters’ circumstances are closer to the non-royal individuals’ struggles.

  12. Indeed, much of theater in the 17th Century was poetry, typically written in blank verse (Shakespeare, Johnson, et al.).

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