A Woman Killed with Kindness

by Thomas Heywood

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Critical Evaluation

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A Woman Killed with Kindness is commonly regarded as the best of the domestic tragedies of its time. Domestic tragedies are so called because of their treatment of the lives of ordinary people rather than of royalty. The conflicts in a domestic tragedy may bring down the head of a household but never a head of state. The family struggle in King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), with its ensuing horrors, may suggest some great breach in nature, but the ordinariness of life in the domestic tragedies works against grand, cosmic interpretations. The simple, direct language of the domestic tragedy contrasts with the grandiloquent rhetoric of Renaissance tragedies involving royalty or other larger-than-life figures.

Thomas Heywood did not invent the plots of A Woman Killed with Kindness. The subplot featuring Sir Francis Acton and Sir Charles Mountford has been traced to an Italian source that evolved through several versions and appeared in William Painter’s popular collection of stories The Palace of Pleasure, the first edition of which appeared in 1566. Painter summarized the story this way: “A gentleman of Siena, called Anselmo Salimbene, curteously and gently delivereth his enemy from death. The condemned party seeing the kinde parte of Salimbene, rendreth into his hands his sister Angelica, with whom he was in love, which gratitude and curtesie, Salimbene well markinge, moved in conscience, would not abuse her, but for recompence tooke her to his Wife.” As for the main plot, several sources have been suggested, especially several other stories from Painter’s collection.

Critical judgments on A Woman Killed with Kindness vary widely. Some critics charge that the two plots fail to come together in any unity and that both plots are improbable and sentimental. Frankford, moreover, is a despicable man among a cast of unconvincing characters. These are major criticisms, but the play’s supporters argue passionately for it as a tragic masterpiece. They assert that both plots are set in motion in the first scene and run parallel, and that Wendoll joins the two plots by playing a crucial role in each.

Furthermore, structural parallels appear in the scenes that counterpoint masters and servants. The servants’ dancing party in the second scene follows the opening wedding feast, and the two lighthearted celebrations set a mood that contrasts with the events that follow, serving as an emotional foil to the tragedy. The masters debate intensely the virtues of their hawks and hounds and the country people quarrel amiably over the dances they will perform. Supporters of Heywood’s dramatic techniques cite more instances of contrasts and parallels. In the seventeenth and final scene, for instance, Frankford and Anne’s reunion parallels the reunion scene of the subplot and differs from it in being a reunion only in death. In this final scene, only one figure from the wedding party is absent: Wendoll, the villain. Only one person, Susan, appears who was not at the wedding, and she represents the virtue that the weak Anne lacked. Admirers of the play point also to the contrasts between paired characters as a unifying device: Susan and Anne, Frankford and Acton, and Acton and Wendoll. All of these patterns provide evidence of Heywood’s careful craftsmanship.

Sentimentality is the most difficult charge against which to defend A Woman Killed with Kindness . Even the play’s admirers generally concede the weaknesses of the subplot, in which the characters lack the complexity that would generate the audience’s sympathy for their plights. Attacks on the main plot center on Anne. Her qualities as the perfect wife are never demonstrated, only stated; she never earns, in the audience’s eyes,...

(This entire section contains 931 words.)

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the virtue attributed to her that makes her fall into sin pathetic. Her death is sentimental rather than tragic.

Domestic tragedies such as A Woman Killed with Kindness avoid affairs of court and focus on the lives of ordinary people. Heywood stresses this feature when he opens his prologue with the remark, “Look for no glorious state, our Muse is bent/ Upon a barren subject, a bare scene.” This strain in domestic tragedy reflects the influence of fifteenth century morality plays, which introduced ordinary people as suitable subjects for serious theater. The best-known morality play, Everyman, an anonymous play whose earliest extant version dates from 1508, is no more than a parade of allegorical figures. Everyman, however, represents all humanity rather than a courtly elite, and the gritty realism that pervades his story agrees with the settings in domestic tragedy.

The strong didactic strain of the morality plays also appears in the domestic dramas. In both types of plays, there are lessons for all to learn about good and evil. A Woman Killed with Kindness dramatizes Christian teachings about sin, repentance, and forgiveness, and Frankford alludes several times to the biblical story of Judas. For instance, Frankford’s reference to “that Judas that hath borne my purse,/ And sold me for a sin . . .” refers to John 13:29 and to Matthew 27:3-4. Later, when Frankford discovers the sinners, he says, “Go, to thy friend/ A Judas; pray, pray, lest I live to see/ Thee Judas-like, hang’d on an elder tree,” a passage alluding to Matthew 27:5.

Other biblical references include Frankford’s remark about the book of life (the record of those who shall live eternally) with sources in Philippians 4:3 and Revelation 20:12. Sir Charles also refers to “a huge beam/ In the world’s eye,” which is drawn from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:3. These biblical references, along with the many proverbial expressions (the title, for example) all contribute to making the play a text of moral instruction.