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  • Two Lamentable Tragedies and True Crime Publics in Early Modern Domestic Tragedy
  • Sheila Coursey (bio)

Reading the early critical history of Two Lamentable Tragedies (c.1601) is a fairly entertaining journey of creative editorial insults. R.A. Law labeled the play as "gruesome and crude beyond redemption," while W. W. Greg condemned it as an "extraordinary wooden bombast of grotesque commonplace."1 Perhaps because of this early disparagement, Two Lamentable Tragedies remains one of the least-read early modern domestic tragedies, or plays that dramatize popular contemporary events within a bourgeois household.2 Two Lamentable Tragedies resembles many early modern domestic tragedies like Arden of Faversham (c. 1592), A Warning for Fair Women (1599), or A Yorkshire Tragedy (c. 1608) in that it stages a dramatic adaptation of a true-crime narrative, a domestic news story already circulating within the public sphere.3 The play depicts the 1594 murder of chandler Robert Beech by his neighbor Thomas Merry. After killing Beech in his own home, Thomas is driven by paranoia into further acts of onstage violence; he kills Beech's apprentice Winchester to silence him and then dismembers Beech's corpse, scattering the parts around London. Thomas's sister Rachel struggles with her role as an unwilling accomplice, and Thomas's servant Harry Williams ultimately rebels against his master, confessing to the authorities and condemning Thomas and Rachel to a final onstage execution. While these events are narrated by the allegorical figures of Truth, Avarice, and Homicide, the play also contains a near-Dickensian cast of peripheral Londoners who [End Page 263] investigate Beech's disappearance: Beech's near-deaf landlord Loney, a pair of wisecracking watermen, three neighbors who take on the part of amateur detectives, a gentleman, and a particularly intelligent spaniel.4

Greg and Law's denunciation of both the content and form of Two Lamentable Tragedies partially echoes many of the denunciations and negotiations featured in early modern crime writing and theatre, often mixing the lure of the "grotesque commonplace" with preemptive defenses against possible accusations that their works were both morally and aesthetically distasteful. Holinshed, when adding the story of Alice Arden's murder of her husband to his Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587) notes that the "horribleness" of Arden's murder overrides the impulse that "otherwise may seem to be but a private matter, and therefore, as it were, impertinent to this history."5 Lena Cowen Orlin has framed Holinshed's gestures as an attempt to maintain "the traditional hierarchical distinction between the public and domestic sphere," a distinction that domestic tragedy 'impertinently' transgressed in the late sixteenth century.6

In performance, domestic tragedies often acknowledged this "impertinence" in the prologue or induction by drawing attention to the truth of their narrative while simultaneously framing this 'truth' as a kind of collective mourning rather than a public dissection. For example, A Warning for Fair Women opens with the allegorical narrator Tragedy noting to the audience that:

My Scene is London, native and your own,I sigh to think my subject too well known,I am not feigned: many now in this round,Once to behold me in sad teares were drowned


This rhetoric of overwhelming tears and lamentation is echoed in The Yorkshire Tragedy, which advertises itself on its title page as "not so New as Lamentable and true," and most rigorously in Two Lamentable Tragedies, where Truth, Homicide and Avarice struggle for control over the stage. Truth banishes Homicide and Avarice as "sad, greedie, gaping, hungrie Canibals,/ That joy to practice other's miseries," turning to solicit the audience to "prepare your teare bedecked eyes . . . Truth rues to tell the truth of these laments" (A3r).8 The hyperbolic lament [End Page 264] of Truth presents tears as the counterbalance to the uncomfortable possibility that the audience, too, are the "sad, greedie, gaping, hungrie Canibals" that flock to the theatre to see the miseries of others.

This essay argues that despite its formal shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, Two Lamentable Tragedies offers a new mode of framing the relationship between domestic tragedies and their audiences. Over the course of the play, Beech's murder is solved, and...


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