Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part Two > Thomas Heywood > The Murder Plays
  Early attempts at realistic treatment Changes in the social system and their effect on the Drama  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

IV. Thomas Heywood.

§ 11. The Murder Plays.

The currents which united in the flow of Elizabethan domestic drama were of various origin: perhaps the largest in volume was that which set in earliest, and which cannot be more succinctly described than as that of the murder plays. The earliest of these and the most effective—inasmuch as in no other Elizabethan drama has realism of treatment so completely matched the terrors of incident and situation—was Arden of Feversham, published in 1592, but probably brought on the stage some six or seven years earlier; 52  one of the latest of the series was A Yorkshire Tragedy, acted and printed in 1608, and founded on a ballad commemorating a murder committed in 1604. This is also, in its way, a remarkably powerful piece; but, unlike Arden, it is tinged with the sentimentality which had become almost inseparable from domestic drama. 53  The intervening murder plays include, with A warning for Faire Women (printed in 1599) 54 —a notable play of its kind, in which Shakespeare has been confidently, but on no satisfactory grounds, held to have had “at least a finger”—a number of pieces which have perished, and in which, among other dramatists, Chettle, Day, Haughton, Dekker, Jonson and Samuel Rowley were in various combinations concerned. 55  To these should be added, as rather later in date than the above-mentioned group, the extremely interesting Witch of Edmonton (printed in 1658, but probably acted in 1621 or soon afterwards), which was at first attributed to “Dekker, Ford, Rowley, etc.,” and in which the hands of the first two of the authors named can almost certainly be recognised. 56  All these murder plays are, in their surroundings, confined to English middle class life; but this fact, of course does not exclude the influence either of the Italian domestic tragedies of real life which have been described as “more horrible than anything in Ford or Webster,” 57  or of Italian and other foreign fiction.   20

Note 52. See Vol. V, Chap. X. [ back ]
Note 53. See Vol. V, Chap. X. [ back ]
Note 54. Rptd. in The School of Shakspere, ed. Simpson, R., vol. II, 1878. [ back ]
Note 55. Chettle and Day wrote Black Bateman of the North (1598); Day and Haughton, Cox of Collumpton (for date, cf. Greg, Henslowe’ Diary, vol. II, p. 207) and Thomas Merry, or Beech’ Tragedy (1599?). This seems to have been combined with an Italian version of the story of the Babes in the Wood (which, apparently had been dramatised by Chettle and Day as The Italian Tragedy, printed 1605, and thought by Greg (u.s. p. 210) to have possibly been indentical with The Orphans’ Tragedy) into a play printed in 1601 under the title of Two Lamentable Tragedies, as by an unknown, and possibly fictitious, Robert Yarington (rptd. in Old Plays, ed. Bullen, A. H., vol. IV, 1882). Dekker and Jonson wrote Page of Playmouth (1599), as to the subject of which cf. “Dramaticus” in Shakespeare Society Papers, vol. II (S. S. Publ. 1845); and Samuel Rowley The Bristow Tragedy (1602), the identification of which with the comedy The Faire Maide of Bristow is more than doubtful. [ back ]
Note 56. See below, Chap. VIII. [ back ]
Note 57. Cf. Smith, P. L., Life of Sir Henry Wotton (1907), vol. I, p. 22. [ back ]

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