True Crime Dramas on the Elizabethan Stage

Dr Subha Mukherji, Director of Studies in English at Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge, looks at the complex relationship between law and the theatre in Shakespearean England.

The place: Smithfield, London The time: 1573

People climbed up onto the roofs of their houses, hung onto the gutters, balanced on window sills. Others broke onto the battlements of St Bartholomew’s church, and climbed up onto the steeple. Far below them, the whole of Smithfield was crammed with people, the crowd lining the streets all the way to Newgate prison.

Suddenly, a wordless roar came from the direction of Newgate. People in the upper rooms of houses, desperate to see all they could, ripped out the window frames from their joists, throwing them down into the streets. The shouting grew louder. Others in the houses, too far from the windows to get a view, started to kick and punch at the walls, breaking through the thin plaster to peer through the holes.

“Murder, whoredom and adultery”

They were there to watch a hanging: the beautiful Anne Sanders, her lover George Browne, her friend Mrs Drury, and Mrs Drury’s servant ‘Trusty’ Roger, were all condemned to death for the murder of Anne Sanders‚Äô husband. It had been a sensational trial from first to last, and it wasn‚Äôt forgotten quickly. Some ten years later, a playwright, hunting round for a plot for his new play, decided to write a true-crime drama for London‚Äôs stages‚Ķ

The play A Warning to Fair Women, by an anonymous author, was based on the true story of the murder of George Sanders. The play retells the whole story, from Anne Sanders’ first meeting with George Browne to the murder itself, ending with the final execution of the guilty parties. A sensational story like this was sure to make good theatre, and it looked as though the author was onto a sure thing.

“Drama was the target of unceasing attack…” But the author had a problem. From the 1550s, drama was the target of unceasing attack from Puritans, who associated theatre with immorality. Philip Stubbes‚Äôs An Anatomy of Abuses (1584), one of the most outspoken anti-theatrical works, claimed that plays cause ‚Äòwhoredom and uncleanness‚Äô.

He argued that drama showed nothing but ‘glancing of wanton eyes’, ‘kissing’ and ‘wanton gestures’: the audience were only there to see a bit of soft porn before picking someone up for a one-night stand: ‘every one brings another homeward’. What the audience saw on stage, Stubbes claimed, influenced their behaviour – usually for the worse. Stubbes wasn’t alone: this argument was a familiar Elizabethan attitude to the theatre.

Showing real-life adultery and murder in a play could make it an easy target for Puritans concerned about the bad influence of the theatre: would watching sex and murder onstage encourage other people to follow George Browne and Anne Sanders’ example?

However, at the same time these reformers understood that drama could teach ‚Äì especially, they felt, ‘common’, uneducated people. One reformer explained that he had written a play rather than preaching a sermon because ‘Into the common people things sooner enter by the eyes, than by the ears: remembering more better that they see than that they hear.’ That is, people learn by seeing, not by hearing.

“I see the ghost of my husband…” Defenders of the drama used this idea to claim that theatre had a moral power. Heywood, an actor himself, tells the story of how theatre had revealed a murder in his Apology for Actors (1612). A group of actors were performing a play about a woman who had ‘secretly murdered her husband’, when the performance was suddently interrupted by a commotion in the audience: a woman suddenly ‘screeched and cried out ‚ÄúOh my husband, my husband! I see the ghost of my husband ‚Ķ threatening and menacing me.‚Äù ‘ The woman in the audience then confessed that she had murdered her husband many years ago, but until seeing the play, she had concealed it.

This type of story was used to show the moral force of drama: by showing evil deeds in their true light, sinners could be brought to repent, and others warned against crime.

The author of A Warning for Fair Women needed to ensure that his true crime drama was perceived to teach a moral lesson, and that the audience didn’t see it as an encouragement to violence and crime

Then as today, showing true crime in the theatre could be controversial – especially when the crime was seduction, adultery and murder. What was to say that people wouldn’t be encouraged to violence by watching it on stage? The author had to ensure that the play was understood in the right way.

“Comedies were particularly corrupt” A Warning to Fair Women begins with an ‘Induction’, an introduction to the play, which tells the audience the play’s genre. Puritan critics felt that comedies were particularly corrupt: Stubbes described the plots of comedies as nothing but ‘love, bawdry, cosenage, flattery, whoredom, adultery’. However, even Stubbes admitted that tragedies had the potential to be morally improving: ‘some kind of plays, tragedies and interludes, in their own nature are very honest’.

In the Induction, a character representing Tragedy, with a whip and a knife in her hands, chases characters representing Comedy and History off the stage. Comedy attacks the morality of Tragedy, claiming that tragedies show nothing but ‘blood and murder’ (69). Tragedy defends herself indignantly, claiming that Comedy is ‘slight and childish’ (42), fit only to ‘tickle shallow injudicial ears’ (41). Tragedy tells the audience clearly that this will be a moral play, which will bring ‘tears out of the strictest eyes’ (46) and flatters the audience about their good taste in choosing to watch Tragedy rather than Comedy.

Using this Induction, the author is encouraging his audience to understand the play as he wants them to – not as a comedy about two lovers, but as a serious play that will teach them a moral lesson.

When it came to showing seduction and murder, the author was on difficult ground. How could he show a murder, while ensuring that people wouldn‚Äôt be encouraged to violence themselves?The author addressed the problem by showing any particularly sexual or bloody moments as an ‘allegorical dumb show’. A dumb show was the Elizabethan term for a mime, where all the actions are acted out in silence. This show was allegorical, because abstract ideas, such as ‘lust’ and ‘murder’, are represented as characters.

These dumb shows combine allegorical with real characters, in order to show us clearly what motivates Anne Sanders and her lover George Browne. It is Lust, not Love, that brings Browne and Anne together: the stage direction reads “drama offers the audience God’s view of the world”

Enter Lust bringing forth Browne and Roger at one end, Mistress Sanders and Mistress Drurie at the other, they offering cheerfully to meet and embrace.

Similarly, Lust drives Browne on to commit the murder (which is represented by cutting down a tree):

Lust brings the Axe to Browne … whereupon he roughly and suddenly hews down the tree, and then they run together and embrace.

Puritans stressed that God alone could see into human motives, but on stage, motivations such as Lust can be clearly revealed to the audience. In this dumb show, the audience can straddle the divine and human vantage points: drama offers the audience God’s view of the world.

We’ve already seen how the author chose to mediate seduction and murder through the use of the allegorical dumb show: now lets turn to what the play leaves out.Significantly, A Warning to Fair Womeny omits two episodes mentioned in the play’s source, an account of the murders written just after the trial. This pamphlet includes details of Anne’s pregnancy, which perhaps provoked the murder, and tells the fascinating episode of Mr Mell, chaplain in the prison where Anne is taken, who falls in love with Anne, resorts to bribery to rescue her and is spectacularly punished.

“…a horror of sin should appear…” Both these events would make exciting theatre, so why did the author deliberately leave them out? The problem is precisely that they are too dramatic. Puritan critics were always aware that, although showing evil on stage might be intended to teach a moral lesson, there was the danger that the audience might be carried away by their involvement with the story. As one author wrote
When the ‚Ķ sins of men are being ‚Ķ shown in action, as though before our eyes … yet some dread of divine judgement and of a horror of sin should appear in them: no exultant delight in crime or shameless insolence should be displayed

The author is concerned that the inclusion of particularly dramatic episodes might cause the audience to forget the central moral message of the play.

The debate over the morality of the theatre lasted throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as reformers and pamphleteers argued whether drama could have an educational value, or whether it was an irredeemably corrupting influence. We’ve seen how one anonymous author was influenced by this debate as he wrote A Warning to Fair Women, using a variety of strategies to ensure that this drama, at least, would be seen as moral warning, not as encouragement to sin.