A Woman Killed with Kindness, easily Thomas Heywood’s most successful play, is also perhaps one of the most polarizing of its time in terms of critical appraisal. While some critics attack its simplicity (Ornstein), others elevate this feature of the play, claiming that its straightforward setup is an inherent part of its intended allegorical nature (Bowers). Written by a playwright who himself proclaimed his affinity for didacticism and moral instruction, the play is utterly saturated with literary references, invoking elements along a spectrum ranging from biblical parables to contemporary plays (Wright 637). The effect of this constant reference to popular culture – and its occasional comparison to biblical or culturally constructed moral norms – is to emphasize the play itself as an intentional guide or index of the moral acceptability of each allusion. Following this premise, it becomes clear that A Woman Killed with Kindness is not only allegorical in nature, but it is also “meta-allegorical” – that is to say, it contains a multitude of moral allegories and then uses them to refer to its own action.
The idea that A Woman Killed served as a didactic social guide is by no means original. Probably the most notable champion of this argument is Laura G. Bromley, who emphasizes the play’s instructive depiction of domestic affairs in her essay, “Domestic Conduct in A Woman Killed With Kindness,” (Bromley). David Atkinson analyzes the main plot of the play to conclude that it “depends upon the Christian ethic of forgiveness,” in considering the consequences of domestic transgressions (27). However, both analyses may suffer a fatal flaw in that they effectively limit Heywood’s theoretical “didactic audience” to men. Although Bromley, Atkinson, and others indicate that the primary audience would be the middle class, they fail to acknowledge the impact that the play could have had directly on women. If this is the case – that the play is so named because it is actually about Alice and her real world counterparts – then as a whole, A Woman Killed with Kindness seems to pose the question that Frankford contemplates in scene viii: “Man, woman, what thing mortal can we trust…?” (viii.79).
Biblical Context and Cultural Norms
Bromley observes that there is a modern “dilemma” for critics of A Woman Killed: “Either Heywood is a misogynist who espouses reprehensible standards of inequality between the sexes, or Frankford does not speak for Heywood,” (260). On the surface, this seems like a valid dichotomy. At least from our modern perspective, a glance at Frankford’s punishment of Anne or even the most cursory analysis of Heywood’s portrayal of both of the play’s women suggests a serious disconnect from what we would consider realistic (and much less “kind”) treatment. However, Bromley argues that our standpoint renders these criticisms unfair: “What we need to do is consider Heywood’s play and his view of women in the correct context and remind ourselves that Frankford’s behavior was not unusual or cruel in his time but was, in fact, kind,” (260). To determine whether or not this judgment holds, we needn’t produce irrefutable proof of specific historical instances; in an appropriate consideration of dramatic license, we must simply establish an idea of the general cultural climate regarding adultery, which inevitably includes biblical doctrine.
Although the bible mentions adultery many times, there are several passages that seem to have risen to an authoritative status. The seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” (Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18) of course would have been practically ubiquitous as a result of church instruction. Another common proverb is found in Matthew 5:28: “But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Notably, this is precisely what Wendoll seems to do in scene vi: “I am a villain if I apprehend / But such a thought; then to attempt the deed – / Slave, thou art damned without redemption!” (vi.1-3). It is not a stretch by any means to assume that any Jacobean audience would recognize that Wendoll’s mere contemplation of adultery has already constituted a sin. This would undoubtedly have added dramatic effect in a play that has already employed extensive imagery involving heaven and hell. It also serves to bolster the foreshadowing; once we know Wendoll has already sinned, we can easily deduce that he will follow through. In this paradigm, Wendoll is not truly “the devil” (as Nicholas claims quite hyperbolically in iv.86) but merely a sinner whose first sin leads inevitably to more.
Another example is Matthew 5:32: “But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” This verse is relevant for two reasons. First, it establishes that, in the case of adultery, it would be acceptable (within Christian teaching) for Frankford to simply divorce Anne. Second, it demonstrates the inferiority of the wife to the husband in biblical doctrine as it applies to adultery. Although Jesus excuses an adulteress in John 8:1-11, it is true that several verses in the Old Testament call for the mandatory death of those involved in adultery, including the specific yet graphic provision in Leviticus 21:9: “And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.”
In Elizabethan society, the most appropriate punishment for adultery seemed to have been divorce (Johnson 55). It would seem that, for many, capital punishment was not considered prudent: “To condemn adulterers to death or to impose stringent penalties… was too severe for a society that tolerated mistresses; such penalties would vest too much power in ecclesiastical authorities,” (Greaves 236). Based on this assessment, it would seem that Frankford’s “kindness” is indeed a product of significant dramatic license.
In Bowers’s essay, “A Woman Killed With Kindness: Plausibility on a Smaller Scale,” he makes the case that the play will work allegorically, provided the parallels are not overly ambitious. The play’s prologue, of course, attempts not only to encourage the audience to think small, but also to foster “gentle thoughts” toward it (0.13). Bowers does attempt to take the prologue seriously: “This is domestic tragedy: “daytime drama” in modern parlance and, as a consequence, the issues are pedestrian, the emotional responses simplistic… I intend to investigate [the play’s] plausibility as tragic drama by focusing on [its] peculiar felicity of ‘smallness,'” (294-95).
He goes on to provide simplistic analogues for the play’s main characters and events; for example, he argues that the Frankfords represent “the Puritan view of marriage as a simple and honorable association between man and woman,” (296). By the end of the play, however, both they and Wendoll “lay blame on themselves and lose: Anne starves herself, Wendoll undertakes embittered exile, Frankford brands himself a wife-killer. It is superficial to blame Wendoll objectively as the lusting stage villain, Anne as the flimsily incontinent wife, or Frankford as the raging cuckold,” (305-306).
A much different path is taken by Paula McQuade, who assumes Heywood’s role to be much more the critic than the guide. In her essay “A Labyrinth of Sin: Marriage and Moral Capacity in Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness,” she suggests that “Heywood intends Anne’s lack of agency to reflect the loss of autonomy demanded of women in marriage,” (McQuade 233). She further proposes that Frankford may actually foster romantic feelings for Wendoll, explaining: “To affirm his homosocial relationship with Wendoll, Frankford instructs Anne to treat Wendoll as another self during his absence,” (243). Any adherence to the advice of the play’s prologue would seem to rule out these interpretations. Indeed, if we consider Bowers’s reading, it is obvious that the two are incompatible; however, McQuade still does propose a promising allegorical framework for the play at large: “Critics who argue for the didacticism of A Woman Killed with Kindness are correct, but they have misjudged the nature of the lesson. Heywood did intend his tragedy to educate its spectators, but what he wanted to teach was not the simple, general lesson that one should avoid adultery… but, rather, a more subtle casuistical lesson concerning both the difficulty and necessity of making judicious moral choices in complex cases of conscience,” (234).
Although not exactly simplistic, this explanation would fill in several convenient gaps. Chiefly, it would “level the playing field” among the play’s characters – that is, instead of any one character serving as an incarnation of “good” (such as Anne) or “evil” (such as Wendoll), all the main characters could be seen as having faced a moral dilemma and, lacking the moral instruction that could have been provided by, say, a play, having each made the wrong choice. Anne should have realized that committing adultery was the opposite of honoring her husband’s wishes, but she chose to anyway. Wendoll should have trusted his initial instincts and limited his sin to that of “committing adultery in his heart,” but he chose to yield to the forces of sin. Frankford should have forgiven Anne – which probably would have saved her life – but he chose to exact a revenge that he consciously intends to be worse than death: to “torment thy soul,” (xiii.155). The combination of these decisions caused a chain of sinful events that finally culminated in the play’s tragedy.
The Play as an Ethical Roadmap for the Jacobean Middle Class
If we can establish as our premise that Heywood did intend A Woman Killed to be didactic, it would immediately follow that the play would target the middle class. Not only are the main characters of the play members of the bourgeoisie, but the middle class was also a chunk of the dramatic audience that was “eager for guidance in the business of living,” (Bromley 260). Wright suggests, “Since one of the strongholds of middle-class solidarity rests upon the integrity of the family, Heywood is particularly sensitive to its importance and to the wickedness of any attacks upon it,” (643). Bromley compares the play to early Elizabethan “gentleman books,” which outlined the proper virtues and behavior for any middle-class male in domestic life (262). This comparison fits well except that it renders the role of Anne to be static and graceless; if we assume that the main characters of the play are judged by and suffer according to their poor choices, Anne’s position would be unaccounted for. While the play may incorporate elements of “gentleman books” (along with any early Elizabethan morality play), if we consider it to be first and foremost a domestic tragedy, then the picture is incomplete without also conceding that the play must also be directed toward middle class wives who would consider cheating on their husbands. Another of Bromley’s points makes more sense if this concession is made, but still fails to capture Heywood’s intended effect: “The moderation of emotion does in fact lead to stability and order in both plots of [the play],” (268). Bromley is suggesting that Heywood meant to entreat that his audience embrace “the triumph of moderation over passion,” which does seem to be one of the playwright’s messages. However, it makes much more sense to assume that Heywood meant to convey this message by illustrating the consequences of ignoring it. Through the self-destructive actions of his characters, Heywood warns that the wrong thing done for the right reasons can kill, regardless of one’s gender or status.
Atkinson, David. “An Approach to the Main Plot of Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness.” English Studies. 70.1 (February 1989): 15-27. Print.
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Bromley, Laura G. “Domestic Conduct in A Woman Killed with Kindness.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 26.2 (1986): 259-76. Print.
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Johnson, Marilyn L. Images of Women in the Works of Thomas Heywood. Salzburg, Austria: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universitat Salzburg, 1974. Print.
King James Bible. Web.
McQuade, Paula. “‘A Labyrinth of Sin’: Marriage and Moral Capacity in Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness.” Modern Philology. 98.2 (2000): 231-50. Print.
Ornstein, Robert. “Bourgeois Morality and Dramatic Convention in A Woman Killed with Kindness.” English Renaissance Drama: Essays in Honor of Madeleine Doran & Mark Eccles. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976. Print.
Wright, Louis B. Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England. 1st ed. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1935. 637-43. Print.