Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Follow the Money": Sex, Murder, Print, and Domestic Tragedy

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Follow the Money": Sex, Murder, Print, and Domestic Tragedy

Article excerpt

"FOLLOW the money," said the whistle-blower who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein unravel the Watergate story--or at least he did so in the movie version, All the President's Men. And the nickname the reporters gave to the tipster (eventually revealed as FBI official Mark Felt) displays, no doubt unintentionally, how readily transgressions become sexualized. "Deep Throat" took his code name from a notorious pornographic movie named for the sex act it celebrated.

In this essay I "follow the money" through a cluster of plays about transgressions performed and printed between about 1590 and 1607, plays since the nineteenth century usually called by the name "domestic." All of these plays share a concern with wealth and social mobility, most of them are based on true stories about murder, and most proclaim themselves "tragedy" on their title pages. The earliest, Arden of Faversham (printed in 1592), sexualizes transgressive social mobility. Female sexual avidity becomes a screen narrative that largely effaces what could have been a story of how Thomas Arden rose in the world by gaining new wealth. Arden scarcely speaks of money. A decade later, money becomes more speakable in tragic plays about nonaristocratic life. Female sexual avidity seems less necessary as a substitute threat to obscure anxiety about social mobility. But as money becomes more speakable, women lose their voices. Instead of powerful, murderous Alice Arden, we find versions of Griselda such as the wife in A Yorkshire Tragedy and Anne Frankford in Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness (printed 1607).

Definitions of domestic tragedy have been as fluid as the term has been persistent. (1) Moreover, the meaning of the word "tragedy" on a title page is in flux in the 1590s and the early years of the next century. I accept the judgment of writers since Collier that there are meaningful connections among the group of plays called "domestic." What can we infer from the fact that playwrights and printers present some of these plays as tragedies, and not others? Can this apparent anomaly illuminate changes in the marketing implications of generic categories in the years between Arden (first printed in 1592) at one end of the series and A Woman Killed With Kindness, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (both printed 1607), and A Yorkshire Tragedy (printed 1608)? That genre matters to these plays is suggested by the way some of them--Two Lamentable Tragedies, A Yorkshire Tragedy--make the promise of a generically defined experience virtually the whole of their titles. A Warning for Fair Women makes an elaborate, extensive debate among Comedy, History, and Tragedy both its prologue and its choruses. A curious foregrounding of the generic as well as the homiletic is part of the way these plays both use morality-play techniques to assert meaning and simultaneously evade closure. The way these plays both deploy and repress issues of wealth, social mobility, and female sexuality is linked to evolving meanings for the word "tragedy" on title pages.

I

Theatrical tragedies printed in the early 1590s are often plays about heroic social mobility. The two parts of Tamburlaine (1590, reprinted 1592) virtually define glamorous but destructive rising in the world; so do the anonymous The True Tragedy of Richard III (printed 1594) and Shakespeare's play about that monarch (performed earlier, but not printed until 1597). Even The Spanish Tragedy (first printed 1592) represents anxieties about social mobility as Horatio, son of legal official Hieronimo, becomes embroiled in the marital and dynastic ambitions of Spain and Portugal. Unlike these, the story of Arden of Faversham is "but a private matter, and therefore as it were impertinent to this history," as Holinshed says in apparent apology for including the story of Arden's murder in his chronicle. (2) Leah Cowen Orlin's research shows that despite Arden's relatively modest circumstances, his "private" story exemplifies the social mobility, and attendant social disruptions, enabled by the dissolution of the monasteries. …

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