Crime and Context in The Unnatural Tragedy
Lisa Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Hopkins, Lisa. "Crime and Context in The Unnatural Tragedy." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 6.1-12 <URL:

  1. The version of Margaret Cavendish's play The Unnatural Tragedy that appears on the Chadwyck-Healey Literature Online database has a curious feature: at the beginning of the text, under "play details," it says "Genre: Farce." The first-time reader may well be surprised, for this is at odds not only with the play's title but with the immediately following Prologue (written by William Cavendish), which begins,

    A tragedy I usher in to day,
    All mirth is banish'd in this Serious Play;
    The Prologue does, however, go on to announce that
    Yet sad contentment may She to you bring,
    In pleas'd Expressions of each sev'ral thing.
    Our Poetress is confident, no Fears,
    Though 'gainst her Sex the Tragick Buskins wears,
    But you will like it, some few howers spent,
    She'l know your Censure by your hands what's meant.

    The suggestion that Margaret Cavendish's wearing of "the Tragick Buskins" is "against her Sex" is particularly interesting. Of the very few plays already written by women in English, Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam and Mary Sidney Herbert's translation The Tragedie of Antonie were tragedies; Lady Mary Wroth's Love's Victory was a comedy, and so too was The Concealed Fancies, written by Margaret Cavendish's stepdaughters Lady Jane Cavendish and Lady Elizabeth Brackley. William Cavendish's confident identification of tragedy as a non-female mode might perhaps allude to the generic association between comedy and women which has led Linda Bamber to see Renaissance drama in terms of "comic women, tragic men." This association had not, though, gone entirely unchallenged, for the later part of the period had seen an astonishing burgeoning of eponymous female tragic heroes, including Cary's Mariam, Webster's Duchess of Malfi and Vittoria Corombona, Middleton's Bianca and Beatrice-Joanna, and, most importantly for my purposes, Ford's Annabella, Penthea and Calantha. Tragedy, therefore, was not a genre quite so inimical to women, either as authors or as subjects, as William Cavendish seeks to suggest. Equally, however, it might well look like a nod to his comedy-writing daughters, who, if their character Lady Tranquillity is indeed a portrait of Margaret Cavendish (see Cerasano and Wynne-Davies 129), seem to have been on rather strained terms with their stepmother. This literary self-consciousness is typical of the writing of all the Cavendish family, as in Newcastle's own The Humorous Lovers where Sir Anthony Altalk's mistress is playing the Princess Panthea in A King and No King; here, it is the key to the meaning of the play.

  2. The Unnatural Tragedy, despite the Chadwyck-Healey labelling of it, certainly is a tragedy. It is, moreover, one clearly and closely based on John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. The debt to Ford is obvious. Cavendish's play, like Ford's, centres on a brother and sister who are the only children of an elderly father who desires to see them settled before he dies (I. i). The brother, however, can think of no one but his sister, and is undeterred by any religious considerations because he, like Ford's Giovanni, is sceptical about an afterlife:

    I would not live there for all the World, for to be so restrain'd: for it is said, that Italian men are so jealous of their wives, as they are jealous of their Brothers, Fathers, and Sons.
    They are so: for they are wise, and know Nature made all in common, and to a general use: for particular Laws were made by Men, not by Nature.
    They were made by the Gods, Brother.
    What Gods Sister, old men with long beards?
                                                           (II. xii)

    It is even suggested that the reason for Frere's atheism may be the same as Giovanni's: Frere insists "Sister, be not deceiv'd with empty words, and vainer tales, made only at the first to keep the ignorant vulgar sort in awe" (IV, xxvi). The wording of this points unmistakably towards the Machiavellian attitude of which the most famous exponent was Christopher Marlowe, who also seems to be directly alluded to in Ford's Bonaventure's condemnation of "wits that presumed / On wit too much, by striving how to prove / There was no God" (I.i.4-6). Similarly, the first Virgin declares that "If you condemn Homer for making men to speak so, you may condemn him much more for making the Gods to speak after that manner: for he hath made the Gods to speak so, as to call one another dogs, and the like names" (II.xiii). This brings us very close to the accusation that Marlowe was a member of the Ralegh circle and that the most spectacular manifestation of its atheism was to say "God" backwards, i.e. as "dog."

  3. It is notable that the play does not entirely dissociate itself from Frere's view. His teasing question "What Gods Sister, old men with long beards?" prises apart one of the most riddled and mystified distinctions in Renaissance drama, that between classical and Christian eschatology. The same phenomenon occurs in a scene between the two gentlemen early in the play:

    2 Gent.
    Because it is thought, or rather believ'd, that women have no rational souls, being created out of man, and not from Jove, as man was.
    1 Gent.
    If Jove hath not given them rational souls, I am sure Nature hath given them beautiful bodies, with which Jove is enamour'd, or else the Poets lye.

    The second gentleman is referring to the Christian myth, but the first gentleman twists this to refer to the plethora of classical stories about amorous Jove. As at Bolsover Castle where Christian Heaven and classical Elysium are teasingly presented as alternatives to each other, the play is well aware of both possibilities. There is, in general, little sign of any real interest in religion in the work of either Margaret Cavendish or her husband, and it is certainly impossible to associate either securely with any particular sect or position; though Newcastle was sometimes labelled a Catholic, that was, as far as his political and military opponents were concerned, simply a catch-all insult. It is of a piece with this apparent general indifference that there seems to be little religious feeling in this play: there are clearly reasons why Frere's actions are not a good idea, but, in line with I think is the overriding ethos of the play, they are social rather than religious reasons.

  4. The sister, however, thinks very differently. She does believe in God, and when she therefore resists her brother's advances (as Annabella, in Ford's play, eventually does Giovanni's), Frere first rapes and then kills her -- and also the unborn child which we presume her to be carrying -- before committing suicide. On seeing the dead bodies, the elderly father falls down dead, as Florio does in 'Tis Pity, and the young woman who is in love with the brother, even though her father, in typical Ford manner, has given her entirely free choice in her affections, also drops dead on the spot, as Calantha in Ford's The Broken Heart does on hearing, among other things, of the death of her lover. More minor details also recall Ford: Cavendish's play opens in Venice, and Ford's Soranzo is first encountered reading Sannazaro's Encomium on that city; and the brother's friend directly echoes Ford's Florio when he says "losers may have leave to talk" (I.i). The language of Ford's play is also echoed in an exchange in the subplot between Madam Bonit and her maid Joan:

    No truly: for I had rather be bury'd in silent misery, and to be forgotten of mankind, than to live to be pity'd.
    Then I would, if I were you, make him a Scorn to all the World, by cuckolding him.
    Heaven forbid that I should stain that which gave me a Reputation, my Birth, and Family, or defame my self, or trouble my conscience, by turning a whore for revenge.
                                                                                          (I. xiv)

    Here the words "pity" and "whore" resonate sharply within a few lines of each other. Finally, Frere's speculation that people in the future might "count me as a Saint, and offer at my Shrine" (V. xxxiv) recalls the apotheoses of love in another Ford play, Love's Sacrifice.

  5. Although so many of the details are the same in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and The Unnatural Tragedy, however, the overall effect of the two plays is quite different. In Ford's play, both brother and sister are initially equally committed to the incest, although Annabella eventually draws back from it. In Cavendish's, Soeur's attitude differs throughout from Frere's. Whereas he thinks only of her beauty, she is constantly mindful of the public and social context of her life, even when she is speaking her last words:

    Death, thou art my grief, Reprieve, and wilt unlade my Soul from heavy thoughts that miserable life throws on, and sinks me to the Earth. Brother farewel, may all your crimes be buried in my grave, and may my shame and yours be never known.
                                                                     (V. lxiv)

    And indeed her wish is granted: her death remains mysterious and the reasons for it unclear, unlike the Ford play where the full story is out in the open by the end. A similar underlining of the extent to which women's lots are imbricated in the domestic sphere is effected by the way in which the advent of the new Madam Malateste proves to mean a reorganisation of the entire household.

  6. However, the effect of Cavendish's play as a whole is to suggest that it is not simply because she is a woman that Soeur is different from Frere, because not all women are the same. The play begins by positing a sharp distinction between different types of women, when Frere's friend explains that he wants to stay in Italy because "though the sober and chaste women are kept up here in Italy, yet the wild and wanton are let loose to take their liberty," which he thinks is a good thing because otherwise "how should a man know whether women will, or will not, having all sober faces, and demure countenances, coy carriages, and denying words?" (I. i). The debates of the Sociable Virgins reinforce this point, and they themselves further apply the same principle to men:

    4 Virgin.
    Why we are not Fools, we are capable of Knowledge, we only want Experience and Education, to make us as wise as men.
    But women are uncapable of publick Imployments.
    1 Virgin.
    Some, we will grant are, so are some men: for some are neither made by Heaven, Nature, nor Education, fit to be States-Men.
                                                                                                  (II. x)

    To this end, Cavendish herself includes very different types of women, and one of the ways in which she achieves this seems to me to be by drawing not only on Ford but also on another play which I have, I believe, lately identified as one of Ford's sources, the anonymous early Jacobean tragedy The Fair Maid of Bristow. In this, the virtuous and longsuffering heroine Annabel does whatever her husband requires of her without complaint, even offering to die in his place, while the ruthless courtesan Florence flits from man to man, abandoning them as soon as they run into trouble. The uncomplaining Annabel shares little with Ford's Annabella except her name, and what Ford has taken from the play is primarily the details of the subplot, in which Challenger, like Richardetto in 'Tis Pity, disguises himself as an Italian doctor; Annabel does, though, closely foreshadow Cavendish's similarly longsuffering Madam Bonit, while Madam Malateste's shrewish behaviour is not dissimilar to Florence's. It is notable that although both Ford and Cavendish seem to have turned to The Fair Maid of Bristow, they took very different things from it, with Ford concentrating on the experiences of a male character and Cavendish on that of a female.

  7. It is also notable that Cavendish in The Unnatural Tragedy supplies what Ford in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore pointedly does not, an explanation -- and a socially-based one at that -- of how the incest came to arise: Frere explains that "I never saw her since I was a little boy, and she a very child, I being kept strictly at School, and from thence to the University" (I. i). Though this possibility is hinted at in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, where Annabella initially fails to recognise Giovanni, it is never confirmed or developed. Its inclusion, however, invites us to read Cavendish's play in terms of what is now known as genetic sexual attraction, a phenomenon encountered when those who are related by blood are brought up separately and are subsequently attracted to one another. Once again, Cavendish focuses on the wider context, and one which would be particularly resonant in terms of the fragmented and separated families produced by the Civil War.

  8. This would have been a consideration at the forefront of Cavendish's concerns, for not only are the things which Cavendish's play finds tragic very different from those presented as such in Ford, but at the close of The Unnatural Tragedy an epilogue, also by William Cavendish, declares,

    Our Poetress hath done her part, and you
    To make it sadder, know this Story's true

    I should say at the outset that I am not currently able to verify this claim, but I do want to explore some of the ways in which The Unnatural Tragedy does demonstrably register an interest in real-life events. In the first place, it intersects interestingly with aspects of the history of the Cavendish family itself. The supposed murder victim in The Fair Maid of Bristow is called Sentloe, and this was the name of the third husband of Bess of Hardwick, maternal grandmother of William Cavendish, Margaret's husband, and founder of the family fortunes. At the close of the play, Soeur's husband Monsieur Marry says of Frere, "He said he had such a pain on his left side, as he could not sit on his horse, but must be forced to return home again" (V. lxv). An agonising pain in the side was well known to afflict both Arbella Stuart, William Cavendish's cousin, and her aunt Mary, Queen of Scots, and it is now recognised as one of the symptoms of the hereditary diseasse porphyria, from which both they and many other members of the Stuart family and its descendants suffered. Another of the symptoms of porphyria was temporary bouts of insanity, and one might well be tempted to read Frere's behaviour in such terms.

  9. Closer to home, the Cavendish household itself seems to be reflected. Madam Malateste inveighs,

    Fie upon it, I hate such an old-fashiond House; wherefore pray pull it down, and build another more fashionable, as that there may be a Bell-view and Pergalus round the outside of the House, also Arched Gates, Pillars and Pilasters, and carved Frontispeeces, with Antick Imagery, also I would have all the lower rooms vaulted, and the upper rooms flatroof'd, painted and gilded, and the Planchers checker'd and inlaid with silver, the Stair-case to be large and winding, the steps broad and low, as shallow; then to take in two or three Fields about your House to make large Gardens, wherein you may plant Groves of Mirtle; as also to make Walks of green Turf, and those to be hanging and shelving, as if they hung by Geometry; also Fountains and Water-works, and those Water-works to imitate those Birds in Winter, that only sing in Summer.
                                                                                            (IV. xxvii)

    The accuracy of the description of Bolsover here is almost uncanny, from the garden around it to the flat-roofed, painted, and gilded upper rooms. There is surely also a direct defence of William Cavendish's much-maligned conduct in the Civil War in the First Virgin's remark that "in the Combat of Eloquence I shall do like to a valiant man in a battel; for though he wins not the Victory, yet he proves not a Coward; so though I should not get the victory of Wit or Eloquence, yet I shall not prove my self a fool" (II. xiii).

  10. The Civil War is certainly recalled elsewhere in the play. There is a bitter double entendre in the Fourth Virgin's remark that "I am sure Homer was out, or else Noble Persons were not so well bred in his time as they are now in our time...indeed true Valour is Civil" (II. xiii), and a savage reflection on the causes of the war in the debate about Alexander and Caesar:

    Ladies, by your leave you are unlearned, otherwise you would find that there have been Princes since their times, as Heroical and Generous as they were.
    2 Virgin.
    No, no, there have been none that had so noble souls as they had: for Princes since their days have been rul'd, check'd and aw'd by their petty Favourites.
                                                                                                (II. xiii)

    Equally pointed, in view of the causes and events of the Civil War, is the discussion of the role of ceremony in keeping kings alive:

    1 Virgin.
    It must needs: for when Princes throw off Ceremony, they throw off Royalty; for Ceremony makes a King like a God.
    2 Virgin.
    Then if I were a King, or had a Royal Power, I would create such Ceremonies, as I would be Deify'd, and so worship'd, ador'd, and pray'd to whilst I live.
    1 Virgin.
    So would I, rather than to be Sainted or pray'd to when I were dead.
                                                                                                  (II. xiii)

    Charles I had indeed been revered virtually as a saint by many Royalists after his execution, but Margaret Cavendish, whose own brother Sir Charles Lucas had also died a martyr to the Royalist cause, must surely have felt that it would have been more productive if the necessity for both martyrdoms had been obviated in the first place. This was, I think, undoubtedly thew view of her husband, for Newcastle's receipt of the dedication of Ford's The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck, in 1634, seems unequivocally to associate him with that play's clear issuing of a warning to tyrannical and overbearing kings (represented there by James IV of Scotland) who pay insufficient heed to the judicious advice of their noblemen.

  11. More directly relevant to the play itself, though, is the Third Virgin's attack on the veracity of Camden:

    But by your leave, let me tell you, that Chronologers do not only new dress truth, but falsifie her, as may be seen in our later Chronologers, such Writers as Camden, and the like: for they have written not only partially, but falsly: As for particular Families some Camden hath mistaken, and some of Antient Descent he hath not mention'd, and some he hath falsly mention'd, to their prejudice, and some so slightly, as with an undervaluing, as if they were not worth the mention, which is far worse than if he should rail or disclaime against them
                                                                                               (II. xiii)

    Again, however, the private is seen in terms of the public context, for it is not only Camden whose authority as a historian is questioned by the Sociable Virgins, for the Third Virgin is doubtful of the authenticity of historiography in general:

    Now you talk of Speeches and Orations, it seems very strange to me to read the Speeches that Chronologers write down to be related, as from the mouths of those that spoke them, especially those that are spoken in Mutinies, and to a tumultuous multitude, wherein is nothing but distraction...As for Example; when Tacitus set down the Speeches of some persons at such times
                                                                                                          (II. xiii)

    This is clearly a wide-ranging reflection on the general verisimilitude of histories of war, which are, as Cavendish would be well aware, overwhelmingly male-authored.

  12. So, of course, was 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. It is not only in this, though, that the reasons for its differences from Cavendish's play can be found. Ford wrote a private, coterie play; it does borrow from The Fair Maid of Bristow, but that allusion is never flagged up, and it is indeed a speciality of Ford's to refuse to make public key elements which lie behind his works, as in the dedication to 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, which speaks teasingly but obscurely of the "particular engagement" between Ford and the dedicatee, John Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough. Cavendish, by contrast, makes plain both her debt to Ford and the ways in which her play reflects on her own family, and in so doing she asks us to consider not only her story but the ways in which she tells it and the social background of the events it relates, so that events are seen to mean not only in themselves but in relation to their context. And this, ultimately, is the real point of Cavendish's play, which to Ford's reticence opposes a deliberate foregrounding of debts and analogues in order to make the point that the construction of meaning is no isolated phenomenon, but is, inevitably, a product of the social circumstances of the author.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).