Forensics in early modern drama

Reading Sharon Howard’s post on forensics in early modern crime cases and Chris Williams’s comments on it, I was scraping my brain for early modern plays that feature what we would now call forensic methods of crime solving. Strange that I never pondered this before, fan as I am of Waking the Dead, Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse and even the Midsummer Murders. At first I thought that no Holmesian deduction based on cigarette stubs or muddy shoes can be found in any of the plays I read. In Hamlet, the prince who according to Lorna Hutson can be compared to a detective, uses theatrical techniques rather than forensics to “catch the conscience of the king”. The same goes for the cases Heywood mentions in which the theatre solved crimes.

But then I thought of the anonymous domestic tragedy Arden of Faversham (1591), in which Alice Arden murders her husband. The murder is discovered by Arden’s friend Master Franklin, who finds his body in the snow-covered fields behind the Abbey of Faversham. He is sure that Arden must have been murdered in his own house, for he has followed the tracks in the snow, and has found rushes from the house on Arden’s body:

I feare me he was murthred in this house.
And carried to the fields, for from that place,
Backwards and forwards may you see,
The print of many feete within the snow,
And looke about this chamber where we are,
And you shall finde part of his giltles bloode,
For in his slipshoe did I finde some rushes.
Which argueth he was murthred in this roome.

These forensic deductions, however, fail to impress Mistress Arden, who claims the blood they find in her house is really spilled wine. It is only when she is confronted with her husband’s body, which starts to bleed afresh when she arrives, that she confesses to her crime.

In Holinshed’s chronicles, one of the sources for the play, it is the mayor of Faversham who does the detective work. He even orders everyone to remain within the house, like a true Hercule Poirot:

Then the maior commanded euerie man to staie, and herewith appointed some to go about, & to come in at the inner side of the house through the garden as the waie laie, to the place where maister Ardens dead bodie did lie; who all the waie as they came, perceiued footings still before them in the snow: and so it appeared plainlie that he was brought along that waie from the house through the garden, and so into the field where he laie. […] Then they examined hir seruants, and in the examination, by reason of a peece of his heare and bloud found neere to the house in the waie, by the which they caried him foorth, and likewise by the knife with which she had thrust him into the brest, and the clout wherewith they wiped the bloud awaie which they found in the tub, into the which the same were throwen; they all confessed the matter, and hir selfe beholding hir husbands bloud, said; Oh the bloud of God helpe, for this bloud haue I shed.

The final conviction, then, is not exclusively based on the forensic material, but on Mistress Arden’s confession at the sight of her husband’s blood. But in both texts, the detective work that leads to the discovery of the murderers is very graphically described in what we would consider to be forensic detail.

I am sure there are more early modern plays in which forensics play a role in a crime plot – I’m going to mull over it this weekend. Let me know if you can think of any!


3 thoughts on “Forensics in early modern drama

  1. Not a play, but a pamphlet (which I forgot about when I posted earlier), The bloody murtherer:

    “he made strange of it, and seem’d to be much troubled at it: but going with the townsmen to the place where his mother lay dead, by her was found several footsteps, and measuring the feet of them that were present, they found those footsteps to fit the feet of Henry Jones, and suspecting him to be concerned, they charged him with the murther…”

  2. Pingback: Early Modern Notes » AHA presentation (plus extras)

  3. Pingback: Early Modern Notes » AHA presentation (plus extras)

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