In 1592 the face of theatre changed forever. From the death of Julius Caesar and its wide political ramifications, to the love between Antony and Cleopatra played out on an epic scale, tragic drama had traditionally been associated with the lives of noble characters drawn from a ruling elite. But the anonymous play The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham enabled playwrights to conceive of the stage as the setting for more intimate, family dramas. Iman Sheeha (University of Warwick), treads the boards of the new domestic tragedies around the turn of the sixteenth century.
The group of plays usually described in criticism, since the nineteenth century, as domestic tragedies appeared between the 1590s and 1620s, distinguishing themselves by placing characters not belonging to the royal and noble classes centre stage and celebrating them as fit subjects of tragedy. The combination of a protagonist’s humble social origins, the home-based setting of events, the personal, intimate and domestic subject matter and the tragic mode of theatrical representation that these plays share was something of a novelty at the end of the sixteenth century. Conventional theory of drama, with its origins in Aristotle, relegated the domestic, the personal and the socially humble to the medium of comedy, reserving the medium of tragedy to the depiction of socially elevated characters and to the representation of affairs of state and political rule. Examples of more traditional tragedies include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. Domestic tragedies shifted the balance, featuring English settings, English men and women, and subject matter that catered to the interests of ordinary men and women in their domestic and intimate lives.
This lecture offers insights into the change that domestic tragedies constituted, drawing on examples from five plays representatives of the genre, the anonymous Arden of Faversham (1592) and A Warning for Fair Women (1599), Thomas Middleton’s A Yorkshire Tragedy (1605), Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603) and Thomas Dekker, John Ford and William Rowley’s The Witch of Edmonton (1621). Key themes discussed are the genre’s departure from convention, representations of the domestic, of gender, and the use these plays make of the contemporary commonplace analogy between household and state to reflect on topics of a political nature.
This podcast was recorded during the series Late Summer Lectures in 2017. Listen to other lectures from the series here: