A Woman Killed with Kindness by Thomas Heywood.

A Woman Killed with Kindness by Thomas Heywood (first performed in 1603) is only my second attempt to read an Elizabethan play not written by William Shakespeare. The first was The Shoemaker's Holiday, a comedy by Thomas Dekker (first performed in 1599); A Woman Killed with Kindness is a tragedy; my first non-Shakespeare Elizabethan tragedy.

As it happens, I do tend to prefer tragedies of all ages. Comedy is often tricky: there seem to be fashions for a start (as Cleo mentioned in my Cymbeline post last week for example, mistaken identity was quite a feature in Shakespeare's, for example, which is not terribly funny now), and often it's important if not imperative to know even a little about the society of the time, as in, for example, Aristophanes. It seems to me that tragedies often deal with more universal themes: humour varies, but suffering is suffering. It was no surprise, then, that I found Heywood's tragedy a little more accessible. 

A Women Killed with Kindness is a domestic tragedy, that is it is concerned with ordinary people, working or middle class rather than the more aristocratic Classical or Neoclassical tragedies (for example, Shakespeare's King Lear would fall into the latter camp, Othello in the former). The plot centres around a newly married couple, Master John and Mistress Anne Frankford. Anne is an excellent wife, beautiful, virtuous, and kind, and John is very much in love with her. However things start to go awry when John takes in Master Wendoll, a new friend, and he is very much taken by Anne. Eventually she succumbs and John of course finds out, but he does not kill her in a jealous rage. She is sent away, and given everything she needs, however guilt consumes her and she stops eating by way of penance.

Meanwhile in a side plot, Anne's brother Sir Francis Acton has an argument with Sir Charles Mountford and kills two of his servants whilst out hunting. He uses his entire fortune to avoid staying in prison and wishes to recoup his money, but must avoid false friends and those who wish to force him into further difficulties. The Actons and the Mountfords eventually reconcile when Sir Francis falls in love with Sir Charles' sister Susan. 

The side plot, though entertaining, isn't the most gripping aspect of the play. Anne, the woman killed with kindness, is an interesting character although she falls from grace remarkably quickly and easily. The concept - the idea that her guilt and her penance were facilitated with the kindness or non-violence of her husband is interesting, making for a more tragic end (I think) than if she were suffocated like the (albeit innocent) Desdemona of Othello, instead of dying more like Penthea of John Ford's The Broken Heart (1633) - self-starvation. Her guilt, clearly consumes her. She is a contrast with Susan Mountford, who basically remains virtuous; the difference in their endings was a warning to all wives. 

I do want to read more plays from the 16th and 17th Century and my motivation I suppose is primarily of curiosity; I want to know for myself why Shakespeare is so very widely read today whilst his contemporaries, Heywood, Dekker, Marlow, Kyd, Massinger (and many more) seem more 'specialist'. Even without that curiosity though A Woman Killed with Kindness is a very good and enjoyable read. It is currently the only Heywood on my list, but that's not to say I won't be on the lookout for more.

This was my eleventh title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - 'Rules' of Writing by Samuel Johnson.

Comments

  1. I've never heard of this one! It sounds fascinating. Thank you for sharing. :)

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    1. I'd never heard of it either (which doesn't mean much as the Renaissance is more or less a blank for me!), just happened to come across Penguin's 'Four English Tragedies' in a second hand book shop. This volume also has Marlowe's Edward II, Webster's The Duchess of Malfy, and Dryden's All for Love, all of which I want to read this year :)

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  2. I haven't heard of this one before either. I think you are spot on in your comments about how tragedy is more accessible to today's readers than comedy. Maybe, if I suddenly become ambitious, I'll include a suit of plays in my Deal Me In roster for next year... :-)

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    1. Glad to hear there'll be a 2017 Deal Me In! It's my favourite - I've read so many more plays, essays, and short stories because of this challenge! :D

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