Theses Doctoral

True and Home-Born: Domesticating Tragedy on the Early Modern English Stage

Bengtsson, Frederick

"True and Home-Born" intervenes in critical debates about early modern domestic tragedy, arguing that--far from being a form concerned exclusively with moral admonition or the domestic sphere--it is a centrally important site for dramatic experimentation and theorization at a key moment in England's evolving theatrical culture. Encompassing texts such as Arden of Faversham (1592), A Warning for Fair Women (1599), and A Woman Killed with Kindness (1607), the term groups plays that share an interest in "ordinary," nonaristocratic life, dramatize domestic events of a sensational and violent nature, and stage detailed and accurate representations of household settings and domestic ideology. While domestic tragedy has a significant forty-year theatrical history--comparable to the early modern revenge tragedy--and is associated with prominent dramatists such as Thomas Heywood, John Ford, and William Shakespeare, these plays continue to be regarded as marginal dramatic texts, mainly of interest as archives of early modern domestic ideology and experience. I argue, in contrast, that domestic tragedies represent a key strand in the development of English tragic drama. Their heightened reflexivity about their dramatic and tragic form suggests a deep and abiding interest in dramatic and theatrical matters: in how drama creates verisimilitude, how it represents "truth," and how it imagines and participates in a new, native, and national theatrical culture.
The first half of "True and Home-Born" focuses on a number of plays traditionally identified as domestic tragedies, showing that their interests are not confined to the household, but extend to the dramatic and theatrical implications of faithfully recreating the reality of domestic experience on stage. Heywood and Shakespeare, I suggest, are particularly attuned to these implications, and develop and critique a form of theatrical verisimilitude in their respective engagements with the form. In the second half, I suggest that the subgenre's boundaries are more permeable than previous criticism has allowed. By considering both the revenge tragedy and history play subgenres in terms of the domestic, I show the extent to which domestic tragedy was fully imbricated in the period's dramatic traditions and theatrical culture. The revenge tragedies of Thomas Kyd and Shakespeare, I argue, turn to the household as a site in which to imagine a new form of revenge drama that differs from its classical forebears and is thus suited to the English stage. Finally, I contend that in a group of historical dramas that I call the "British history plays," focused on historical events set in ancient Britain, the domestic sphere becomes central to the staging of history, offering early modern historical dramatists a means of bridging the gap between ancient past and early modern present.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Howard, Jean E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 15, 2014