``Dying well'': Theatrical justice in English Renaissance society and drama

Date of Completion

January 1991


Theater|Literature, English




Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century public executions were both dramatic and theatrical. But while the drama of these spectacles was inherent in the confrontation with death, their theatricality was deliberately contrived by the authorities to illustrate the consequences of anti-social behavior. Early modern public executions were staged as real-life morality plays in which God, through his earthly agents the monarch and his or her magistrates, punished sinners and set a salutary example for those who might be tempted to emulate them.^ The very theatricality that made executions such effective cautionary lessons, however, also tended to undermine their authority. The deliberately staged nature of the public execution inevitably drew attention to the fact that human agents, not God, controlled the spectacle. Furthermore, the conduct of many religious martyrs executed amid the turmoil of the English Reformation made it clear that it was possible for the state's victims to seize control of the ritual and rewrite its script.^ This study examines the treatment of these paradoxes in five English plays written between the late 1580s and the early 1630s: Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1588), Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (c. 1592), William Shakespeare' s Measure for Measure (1604), John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1611), and John Ford's Perkin Warbeck (c. 1625-32). Each of these plays exploits metaphors of theatrical punishment to question the morality of contemporary spectacles of judicial violence.^ The playwrights' critiques of the theatre of public justice are not unequivocally satiric, however; all accepted on some level the necessity of punishment to preserve public order, and all appreciated the execution's symbolic power. Through complex re-examinations of authority their plays confront the dual recognition that public punishment was both necessary and corruptible: players caught in dramas of execution both affirm and subvert the roles that have been scripted for them. In both playing and rewriting their parts they challenge the unproblematic facade authority seeks to present. ^