- Murder in Shakespeare’s England
"For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/ With most miraculous organ" (Hamlet, Act ii. Sc. 2). Although the serious study of crime as a social and cultural phenomenon is relatively recent, historians have come to rely on its silver-tongued eloquence. Murder, its investigation, the testimony of witnesses and suspects, and depositions, provide scholars with a rich range of evidence that illuminates not only the dark troubled corners the killers of yesteryear inhabited, but also reveals the deeper anatomy of life in the past. Vanessa McMahon's slightly mistitled Murder in Shakespeare's England is a impressive addition to the literature of "history from crime."1 The book is not in fact about murder in Shakespeare's time, for the author reaches considerably beyond the span of the bard's life and most evidence dates from after his death in 1616.
Like other historians who have turned their attention to crime, McMahon cares little about the dastardly deed itself. She prudently eschews attempting any "abstract decisions about guilt and innocence" as "irrelevant," preferring to use murder (and all the vast documentation that accompanies it) to reveal "what it was like to live in the past, what it was like to be male or female, and the kinds of difference other categories, like age, religion, social status and ethnicity, really had on everyday life." (xxv) She, therefore, employs murder—in the historical forms of criminal investigations and murder narratives—as a vade mecum to late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English society. While some scholars have raised objections to using the extraordinary to explain the ordinary, the method is by now so well-established that there seems little need to rehash the arguments for and against. However, it does seem legitimate to query: what's new here? What can yet another study of crime in England tell us that we don't already know about crime or about early modern English society? First, few studies of crime have so painstakingly and creatively exploited such a formidable range of printed and archival materials. Sessions papers, indictments, depositions, and a rich pamphlet literature allow McMahon to measure reality (such as frequency of particular crimes and the social identity of their perpetrators) against perceptions and to assess the role crime played in and on the imagination. Her contrapuntal handling of sources endows the study with persuasiveness and immediacy, while rooting it firmly in a unique time and place. This is important, because so much about crime patterns seems depressingly persistent. In the United States, for instance, in the closing decade of the twentieth century, we know that "males are overwhelmingly the victims and perpetrators of violence... and six out of every ten women murdered in the United State are killed by someone they know, about half of them by a spouse or an intimate acquaintance."2 Little on the surface distinguishes those depressing statistics from the experience of sixteenth and seventeenth- century England.
Yet statistics are often illusory, or misleading, as McMahon recognizes. Not the numbers but the effect of murder on social perceptions and, conversely, social perceptions on the understanding of murder and murderers, is her focus. Nonetheless, she considers whether early modern people really were more violent than we are today. Over twenty years ago, Lawrence Stone famously suggested [End Page 1209] that early modern homicide rates were "five to ten times higher than those today."3 McMahon (rightly) voices the skepticism that many scholars have raised about his numbers, but additionally argues that numbers alone are not enough for "[h]omicide had a greater impact, in terms of notoriety and of terror, than bare statistics allow." (198). Here McMahon pursues a rather different line of investigation than many scholars who have devoted themselves to the historical study of crime. She fixes on group psychology, especially fear: how particular fears—of disorderly society, of strangers, of witches, of papists, of bastardy, of foreigners—crystallized the image of the "usual suspects" and conjured in peoples' minds those horrible forms that shook...