Female Heroism in Heywood’s Tragic Farce of Adultery

A Woman Killed with Kindness
  • Theresia de Vroom


I will begin this paper with two reasonably reliable critics of Thomas Hey wood’s play, A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603). The first is the anonymous author of the “blurb” on the back of the New Mermaid’s edition of the play who describes A Woman Killed with Kindness as follows: “The play is notable for the restraint with which Heywood deals with his theme, and for the spirit of reconciliation, rather than violence, in which tragedy ends.”1 The second is my eight-year-old son, who, on seeing a copy of the play on my desk, read its title aloud and said quite matter-of-factly, “That’s impossible!” The argument I will advance is that while the former view is the one most commonly held by critics, that the play’s end is a model of forgiveness, restraint, and reconciliation, it is the latter view that should concern feminist readings of the play. If it is essentially impossible to “kill with kindness,” if the play’s title can be read ironically or even parodically, then the play’s subject might also be read in a different light.2 The figure of the adulterous wife may be tragic, immoral, even sinful, given the cultural, social, and religious context in which the play was written, but the act of adultery by this married woman, punished by her husband’s “kindness,” is at the same time more complex. In A Woman Killed with Kindness, Anne’s adultery is crucial to defining and defending her fledgling heroism and it is key to understanding the tragedy of the heroine of the subplot, the hapless Susan.3 Against a comic backdrop that mocks the masculine and patriarchal world on which this marriage is necessarily based, a brief vision of female heroism emerges, a heroism that quite radically suggests that “kindness” is really cruelty and that adultery is a flawed but singularly feminine act of heroism.


Card Game Wife Beating Sexual Infidelity Anonymous Author Feminine Noun 
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  1. 1.
    All quotations are taken from Thomas Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, New Mermaid Edition (London: A. & C. Black, 1985). The editor, Brian Scobie, may have made this unattributed comment. There are various arguments that defend the play on grounds that it is both instructive and cautionary. L. Bromley, for example, argues that, “Heywood intended to dramatize a code of gentlemanly behavior for an emerging middle-class audience eager for guidance in the business of living” (260). M. Doran sees Frankford’s punishment as enacting what would be expected of a rational and constant husband (143); N. Gutierrez (“The Irresolution of Melodrama”) sees Frankford as “able to control his grief and passion with reason,” although she judges the oppressive treatment of women by patriarchy and not “Frankford’s self-restraint and non-violence … unusual responses to a wife’s infidelity,” as undercutting the resolution at the end of the play (277).Google Scholar
  2. 12.
    There are two other dramatic predecessors in which comic depictions of adultery exist. There is the N-Town Woman Taken in Adultery, in which Christ asks the audience to remember mercy and forgiveness: “Whoso aske mercy, he xal haue grace” (1.38), and further says that anyone truly contrite like the woman caught in adultery, is “better loue[d]” than all other sinners (11. 289, 291). [The N-Town Play: Cotton MS Vespasian D.8. Ed. Stephen Spector. 2 vols. EETS, s.s. 11–12 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991)]. There is also the Tudor piece by John Heywood, Johan, Johan (printed in 1533), in which adultery is both unrepentant and unpunished. [John Heywood, Johan, Johan. In The Plays of John Heywood. Ed. Richard Axton and Peter Happé (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1991)]. See H. Norland on this play and its relation to French and English farce.Google Scholar

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© Naomi Conn Liebler 2002

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  • Theresia de Vroom

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