Heywood: A Woman Killed with Kindness

September 16, 2020

A Woman Killed with Kindness
Thomas Heywood
(Applause, 1967) [1603]
65 p.

Thomas Heywood was a somewhat younger contemporary of Shakespeare who had a long and successful career writing for the London stage. He claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a maine finger” in writing over 200 plays, but the one that has survived into anthologies of the period is this one, A Woman Killed with Kindness, a so-called “domestic tragedy”. (We have seen another example of this genre before, in Arden of Faversham.)

**

The main thread of the play is about a woman tempted into an infidelity who, when her deed is discovered, is unexpectedly forgiven by her husband, but who is nonetheless consumed with guilt and (spoiler alert) dies. A secondary plot concerns a man who commits murder but is then ransomed by a man desperately in love with his (the murderer’s) sister. The only way the killer can conceive to repay this debt is to offer his sister to the man as a prostitute — an offer she fights to resist.

It is, therefore, a play very much concerned with the demands of conscience, and in particular with what happens to conscience when one is forgiven or otherwise evades punishment. Theories of punishment are various, but the leading thread in the Western tradition is that punishment is first and foremost retributive — the punishment is not imposed on the wrongdoer as something alien to him, but rather the punishment is what he deserves; it is what is due to him in justice, and to deny it upsets the moral order and, paradoxically perhaps, insults the wrongdoer’s dignity as a free, responsible being.

The play endorses this view of punishment. When she succumbs to temptation and is unfaithful to her husband, our adulteress stops and, in what I think would be a dramatically effective move in the playhouse, addressed the audience directly:

O women, women, you that have yet kept
Your holy matrimonial vow unstained,
Make me your instance. When you tread awry,
Your sins like mine will on your conscience lie.
(Sc. 13)

She is burdened by the weight of what she has done. Her husband responds with leniency, so she undertakes to punish herself, voluntarily starving herself. Her death is the endpoint of the downward spiral she enters, and afterwards her sister-in-law attributes her demise precisely to the mercy shown her:

All we that can plead interest in her grief,
Bestow upon her body funeral tears.
Brother, had you with threats and usage bad
Punished her sin, the grief of her offence
Had not with such true sorrow touched her heart.

And the woman’s husband concurs:

I see it had not; therefore on her grave
I will bestow this funeral epitaph,
Which on her marble tomb shall be engraved,
In golden letters shall these words be filled:
“Here lies she whom her husband’s kindness killed.”
(Sc. 18)

This raises all kinds of difficult questions. The harmonization of justice and mercy has been a preoccupation of Christian moralists down the centuries. When Jesus showed mercy to the woman at the well he prevented her being stoned, but we are not led to believe that she then went to another well and threw herself in. We can at least say this: for mercy to be just, the weight of the sin cannot be downplayed. Grace ought not to be made cheap. One must stand condemned before one can be ransomed. The play is putting its fingers on that tough knot where conscience, justice, and forgiveness tangle together.

The verse of A Woman Killed with Kindness is not particularly excellent, but it does have its moments. There is a nice scene, for instance, in which the characters are discussing card games and, according to this volume’s notes, engaging simultaneously in a long sequence of puns about adultery. I also noted, which may be of interest to collectors of the provenance of proverbs, that the saying “When the cat’s away the mouse may play” occurs in this play — though I’ve no reason to think it originated here.

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