Crime detection and ghosts

Starting from Hamlet, Sharon Howard’s Early Modern Notes yesterday discussed ghosts, crime detection and providence. As a researcher of revenge on the early modern stage, I cannot resist adding some reflections here.

Interestingly in the context of Sharon’s discussion of ghosts and their relation to the detection of crimes, proponents of the public theatre used the argument of crime detection to defend the theatre against contemporary accusations of immorality. Thomas Heywood in his Apology for Actors (1612) counters such accusations by stressing the moral efficacy of the theatre. One of the arguments he puts forward is that the stage can function as the means to discover a murder. Interestingly, like Sharon’s ghosts, the theatre is represented as the instrument to revive cold cases – unresolved crimes.

Heywood proffers a “home-born truth” of such a discovery. It all happened when the Earl of Sussex’s players were performing the History of Friar Francis in Norfolk. The actors performed a scene in which an adulterous wife who secretly murdered her husband is haunted by his ghost who keeps appearing before her in “most horrid and fearefull shapes.”

As this was acted, a townes-woman (till then of good estimation and report) finding her conscience (at this presentment) extremely troubled, suddenly skritched and cryed out Oh my husband, my husband! I see the ghost of my husband fiercely threatening and menacing me.

The woman then confesses to the murder of her husband, which took place years earlier, was apprehended, brought before the Justices, and condemned. Among Heywood’s other evidence is a similar case in Amsterdam, where a woman confessed to driving a nail into her husband’s skull. In the first case, the appearance of a ghost on stage triggers the apparition of the ghost of her husband before the mind’s eye of the murderous wife. In the second case, it is the similarity in the M.O. that triggers the confession: Heywood states that it is “out of the trouble of her afflicted conscience” that she confesses.

Catherine Belsey has remarked that it is worth noting that two of the three cases Heywood mentions concern women who confess their crimes (The Subject of Tragedy, 137) and Frances Dolan also notes that women function in this tale both as spectators and spectacles, as agents of violence and as objects of control (Dangerous familiars, 21). Does the drama specifically reveal the workings of female inwardness, and the secrets of women? Hamlet, on the other hand famously uses the dramatic medium to “catch the conscience of the King,” although he cannot resist pricking Gertrude’s conscience in her closet.

To underscore that the ghost in revenge tragedy had by 1642 become a real stock character, I end with this funny quotation from Andromana, written by a J. S., in which Plangus reveals his cunning plan of revenge:

But I will be reveng’d, and thus I begin, Inophilus, He draws [to commit suicide]
Be sure when I am dead to meet my ghost,
And do as that instructs thee; ’twill tell all the particulars
Of my revenge, who must dye first, who last, and
What way too; I have my lesson perfect.


One thought on “Crime detection and ghosts

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