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...
(The entire section is 931 words.)