A Yorkshire Tragedy and Middleton's Tragic Aesthetic
Lisa Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Hopkins, Lisa. "A Yorkshire Tragedy and Middleton's Tragic Aesthetic." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 2.1-15 <URL:

  1. Short, fragmented, and anonymously published, A Yorkshire Tragedy is yet not without a certain esprit de corps. It is in fact in many ways at pains to proclaim its affiliations with other plays of the same genre. Like A Woman Killed with Kindness, its miscreant is sent to York for justice; like Arden of Faversham, it refers to a local legend that the murder has resulted in an indelible and still visible blood stain, when the Wife declares,

    Murder has took this chamber with full hands
    And will ne'er out as long as the house stands. (vii.39-40)

    Both A Yorkshire Tragedy and Arden of Faversham also share the same dark joke about the Earl of Leicester, when the Husband says to the maid,

    Are you gossiping, prating, sturdy quean?
    I'll break your clamour with your neck! Downstairs,
    Tumble, tumble, headlong. Throws her down.
    So, the surest way to charm a woman's tongue
    Is break her neck; a politician did it.

    There is no allusion to Leicester in the source pamphlet, [1] but A Yorkshire Tragedy thus echoes almost directly Shakebag's boast in Arden of Faversham that

    The widow Chambley in her husband's days I kept;
    And now he's dead she is grown so stout
    She will not know her old companions.
    I came hither thinking to have had
    Harbour as I was wont,
    And she was ready to thrust me out at doors.
    But whether she would or no I got me up,
    And as she followed me I spurn'd her down the stairs
    And broke her neck, and cut her tapster's throat;
    And now I am going to fling them in the Thames. (XV, 1-10)

    And not long after its original composition, there accrued even stronger links with George Wilkins' Miseries of Enforced Marriage, which was based on the same story.

  2. One of the most remarkable features of A Yorkshire Tragedy, however, is that unlike other domestic tragedies which loudly proclaim their particularity (and hence their grounding in truth), this play contains no names and no pack-drill. Although the title announces that it is set in Yorkshire, the setting is very lightly sketched. The only real sense of provinciality comes in the casual stage direction "[Enter SAM] furnished with things from London" (i.15 s.d.). The Wife's journey to London and back is hardly registered, and no one is surprised to encounter the Master of an Oxbridge college on the doorstep. Indeed the degree of anonymity seems to be deliberately tantalising, since we hear much about how important locally this family is - one of the Gentlemen, for instance, refers to "Thy father's and forefathers' worthy honours, / Which were our country monuments, our grace" (ii. 136-7) - but it is never named. Only the application of independent external knowledge can enable a reader to discover that it is based on the true story of Walter Calverley's murderous attack on his wife and children on 23 April 1605, which left his two eldest sons dead and his wife injured. He himself was apprehended whilst on his way to try to kill the youngest child, who was at nurse a few miles away, and died under the peine forte et dure at York on 5 August 1605. The play omits the details of his death and refers to him throughout only as Husband. Similarly in George Wilkins' The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (1607), which is also based on the story of the Calverleys (although it has a happy ending), the husband is rechristened Scarborrow and his wife becomes Katherine Baxter, names with no known historical basis, though Scarborrow was presumably suggested by the Yorkshire connection.

  3. One could readily understand why the family which had suffered such a tragedy might not wish it to be publicised, but in fact that was already past praying for in the events of the Calverley case. The play was based upon a pamphlet published in the same year which had already blazed forth the identities and whereabouts of the parties involved: it is titled

    Two most vnnaturall and bloodie Murthers: The one by Maister Cauerley, a Yorkeshire Gentleman, practised upon his wife, and committed vppon his two Children, the three and twentie of Aprill 1605. The other, by Mistris Browne, and her seruant Peter, vpon her husband, who were executed in Lent last past at Bury in Suffolke. 1605.

    The name "Cauerley," appearing in print three or four times the size of that used for "Browne" and in the centre of the page, is the obvious focus for the eye. And in fact the Calverley family do not seem to have been particularly anxious to suppress or conceal the memory of events, because when the surviving child, Henry, had a family of his own, he gave to his eldest son the name of Walter, the same as that of his murderous father and slaughtered brother.

  4. What then was the reason for the silence of the play on this score? I would like to suggest that the reasons for it may lie in a connection which has not, to my knowledge, been noticed before, between A Yorkshire Tragedy and Henry IV, Part One. It is well known that when Shakespeare's play was first acted, the character whom we now know as Falstaff was named Oldcastle, and that Lord Cobham, a descendant of the wife of the historical Sir John Oldcastle, took offence at what he saw as this travestying of the reputation of a previous holder of his title. [2] A collaboration of Drayton, Munday, Richard Hathway and Robert Wilson tried to make amends for this with their True and Honorable Historie, of the life of Sir John Oldcastle, the good Lord Cobham; the second part of this is lost, but the first was printed in 1600 by Thomas Pavier, who in 1608 was also to print A Yorkshire Tragedy. William Lord Cobham died in 1597, but Philippa Brooke, the injured wife of Walter Calverley and mother of the two dead children, was the daughter of his son and heir Henry Brooke, the next Lord Cobham, and the play seems notably careful in its treatment of her. As Leanore Lieblein observes, the play differs from the pamphlet in making no reference to any provocation by the wife (194), and much is made in the play of the splendour of the wife's ancestry. The Husband insists to the Wife that he wants "Money, money, money; and thou must supply me" (ii. 57) as though it was obvious that she had access to means; the quite unbiased First Gentleman demands, "Yourself to stain the honour of your wife, / Nobly descended?" (ii.106-7) and repeats "Thy virtuous wife, right honourably allied" (ii.148).

  5. What we see and hear of the Wife's family certainly bears out these observations. The servant informs the Husband of how "my mistress was met by the way by them who were sent for her up to London by her honourable uncle, your worship's late guardian" (ii.118-9), and the Wife's account of the uncle invests him with almost supernatural wisdom, insight and authority:

    At first sight
    Mine uncle could run o'er his prodigal life
    As perfectly as if his serious eye
    Had numbered all his follies;
    Knew of his mortgaged lands, his friends in bonds,
    Himself withered with debts.

    There is an interesting parallel here with Beatrice-Joanna's similar willingness to credit Alsemero with near-omnipotence as she ponders the presumed impossibility of deceiving him on their wedding-night:

    Never was bride so fearfully distressed.
    The more I think upon th'ensuing night,
    And whom I am to cope with in embraces -
    One who's ennobled both in blood and mind,
    So clear in understanding (that's my plague now),
    Before whose judgement will my fault appear
    Like malefactors' crimes before tribunals
    (There is no hiding on't) - the more I dive
    Into my own distress.

    Beatrice is mistaken about Alsemero; it is in fact possible to trick him. In the Wife's case, however, the faith is justified, because the Uncle does indeed prove to be able to provide a solution to her problems:

    He's ready to prefer him to some office
    And place at court, a good and sure relief
    To all his stooping fortunes.

    In fact, Elizabeth Brooke, sister of Philippa Brooke's father Henry, had married Sir Robert Cecil, who would indeed be a powerful relation to have, so it is unsurprising that in A Yorkshire Tragedy the Wife's uncle is depicted as being able readily to dispense offices at court. Along with the intensity of the Husband's fear of beggary, this reflection on the control of patronage at court is one of the play's sharpest departures from the realm of abstract morality to that of the political and social.

  6. Middleton seems to have been well aware of the Oldcastle / Falstaff furore, since the 1604 poem Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinarie, now often attributed to him, shows a clear awareness of the identification. [3] As noted above, and indeed as the importance attached to the figure of the Uncle suggests, the Lord Cobham who seems to have taken offence at the portrayal of Oldcastle was dead by the time of the composition and peformance of A Yorkshire Tragedy, and so would have been unable to protest about the mention of members of his family on this occasion. However the playwright's motive for silence may in any case have been not that he feared to give offence, but that he was making a sardonic joke about the impossibility of anonymity or protective disguises in such a situation. The fact that the name "Oldcastle" was no longer spoken on the stage did not mean that people did not remember that it once had been; indeed one might well think that the conspicuous references simply to "Sir John" in Henry V, together with Fluellen's improbable assertion that he has forgotten the knight's name (4.7.45), look like a joke about precisely this, while the adoption of the name "Brook" as an alias in another Falstaff play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, similarly seems to glance at the continuing memory of Cobham and his relations. (And could there conceivably a crack about Oldcastle when Ilford in George Wilkins' The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, also based on the misfortunes of the Calverley family, refers to his father as "the olde ladde," echoing the description in Henry IV, Part One of Falstaff as "my old lad of the castle" (I.ii.41-2)? It does seem as though the purse-taking episode in that play, of which there is no hint in either the source pamphlet or in A Yorkshire Tragedy, may conceivably recall the similar adventures of Falstaff and Hal at Gadshill.) Equally the fact that the name "Calverley" is never spoken surely did not mean that nobody in the audience was able to identify the real events on which the play was based. Rather, both omissions may rather be thought to bear testimony to the power of plays to engage people's minds and to suggest parallels to them. And examining this phenomenon, I think, is in fact the larger project of A Yorkshire Tragedy. The play is a sustained investigation of the moral and affective power of drama, though I do not think it is always comfortable in this rôle.

  7. Everything that we know about Thomas Middleton suggests that he was a Puritan, and in many of his plays he seems to take positive delight in chronicling the misfortunes of Catholics or those identified with Catholic families, such as Frances Howard, scion of the traditionally Catholic Howard family, who is identifiable as his target in plays as otherwise diverse as The Witch, The Changeling, and Hengist, King of Kent. [4] One would expect that the Catholic Calverleys would similarly be grist to his mill. And yet there is something distinctly odd about his treatment of religion in this play. As Frances Dolan points out, "All popular accounts of the Calverley case neglect to mention the family's recusancy and the toll it had taken on the estate" (154 n. 75) - Walter Calverley's great-uncle, Edmund Calverley, for instance, had been ordained at Rheims and was subsequently imprisoned on his return to England and eventually exiled (Anstruther 62) - and A Yorkshire Tragedy is no exception: there is no reference at all to the Calverleys' traditional Catholicism. Moreover, without any hint of such a thing in the source, and in despite of the known Catholicism of the family, the author of A Yorkshire Tragedy conjures up for Walter Calverley's younger brother a promising potential career as a preacher. The Master warns the husband that

    Your brother, a man who profited in his divine employments, might have made ten thousand souls fit for heaven, now by your careless courses cast in prison, which you must answer for. And assure your spirit it will come home at length.

    There is no mention of the brother's vocation in the pamphlet; all we are told there is that the Master warns the Husband

    what judgement by God should fal upon him, for suffering his brother to spend the glory of his youth, which is the time young men of hope should seeke for preferment in prison by his meanes, and did so harrow up his soule with his invincible arguments, that in that minute he made him looke backe into the error of his life, which scarce ever in his life hee had done before this instant.

    In the play, however, extraordinary importance is attached to the rôle and power of preaching. Protestantism promoted unmediated commerce between man and his God, but the Master here places a quasi-Catholic value on the importance of an intermediary, albeit an exhortatory cleric rather than an intercessory saint. This is not incompatible with Protestantism, but it is certainly a very long way from its extremer wings, such as predestinarian Calvinism.

  8. Moreover, Middleton puts the information about the brother's vocation into the mouth of the (unidentified) Master of the college, who himself is effectively preaching to Calverley and who does succeed in making quite an impact on the latter's soul:

    Sir, you have much wrought with me; I feel you in my soul. You are your art's master. I never had sense till now; your syllables have cleft me. Both for your words and pains I thank you. I cannot but acknowledge grievous wrongs done to my brother, mighty, mighty, mighty wrongs. Within there!

    This is fully in line with the emphasis placed by both the universities upon preaching, as Middleton would have been well aware from his own years at Queen's College, Oxford. Preaching seems therefore to be presented as an effective means of reaching people - and yet moments later Calverley has relapsed and is indeed in a worse spiritual state than previously, since he has now despaired:

    Mine and my father's and my forefathers', generations, generations. Down goes the house of us; down, down it sinks. Now is the name a beggar, begs in me. That name, which hundreds of years has made this shire famous, in me and my posterity runs out.

    Despite the hopes earlier held out to him by the Wife, the Husband can now envisage no alternative to ruin and to the ultimate terror of beggary which, he later says, was the "thing I feared. / O, 'twas the enemy my eyes so bleared!" (x.45-6). Moreover, the effect of the Master's adjurations seems in fact to be that Calverley has abandoned any thoughts of Christianity at all, since he immediately invokes the conspicuously pagan concept of Fate:

    My children's blood shall spin into your faces;
    You shall see how confidently we scorn beggary!

    He repeats the idea when he cries "Fates, I'll not leave you one to trample one!" (v.46), and proceeds almost immediately after his conversation with the Master to embark on the first of his murderous attacks, followed in rapid succession by the others. Moreover, the play seems more generally uneasy about Protestantism, or at least about some manifestations of it. The first scene even contains an anti-Puritan crack - "Neither of either, as the Puritan bawd says" (i.11) - though this whole scene, like the last one, may perpaps be by a different author from the main body of the play.

  9. As always in Middleton's tragic drama, then, change, and the need for change, are the most pressing concerns - but how is that change to be effected, if preaching, which ought to be and seems able to bring it about, proves actually to make matters worse, and if there is no suggestion in the play, as there is explicitly is in the pamphlet, that God himself may intervene in human behaviour, as he is said to do in the pamphlet by bringing down Calverley's horse? One answer is that change can be effected through drama, which has a more longlasting and direct effect on the soul than preaching. This certainly seems to be suggested by the overt theatricality of many of the most crucial and transformative moments in Middleton's tragedies - Beatrice-Joanna's change of feeling for De Flores in The Changeling, for instance, which is immediately preceded by the blatantly unrealistic device of the dumb-show, or Bianca's analogous revulsion of feeling in Women Beware Women, framed by the mini-drama of the game of chess. Episodes such as these suggest that we are innately performative creatures and that attempts to influence our behaviour must take account of that.

  10. A Yorkshire Tragedy goes even further than this by deliberately and repeatedly referring to a still older and more direct dramatic style, the religious drama of the Mystery plays (one cycle of which had of course been staged in York). The play itself imitates the techniques of the mysteries. The first edition announced it as "ALL'S ONE, OR, One of the four Plays in one, called A Yorkshire Tragedy, as it was played by the King's Majesty's Players." The dramatic part which is both freestanding and also an integral part of a whole, and the mystical overtones of the multipart unity, are reminiscent of both the structure and mood of the mysteries, and the play's use of generic rather than specific character-names also recalls the traditional practice of pre-Reformation drama, as the editors observe: "The designation of characters by type-names from Scene ii onwards is in the morality tradition; cf. The Disobedient Child (1560), in which the characters are named Husband, Wife, Son, etc." (ii.0.1, note). (Falstaff too was of course clearly related to the Morality tradition, since he is so reminiscent of the figure of the Vice.) The murder of a son by a father is also directly reminiscent of the popular Mystery episode of Abraham and Isaac, and indeed Middleton seems almost to be afraid that the parallel here will be too insistent, since he suppresses the Wife's savagely ironic remark in the pamphlet that "wee live like Abraham and Sarah" (100). The strongly-stressed motif of the Husband effectively destroying the life of his brother is also reminiscent of the Cain story, and indeed A. C. Cawley has commented that "I see no essential difference between the Towneley Murder of Abel and, say, A Yorkshire Tragedy" (159).

  11. Other features also point squarely in the direction of the past:

    A Yorkshire Tragedy…is a play of the soul's damnation…This kind of play, which dramatizes the ultimate Christian tragedy, also belongs to a tradition - one of teaching by negative example. Already established in the Cain, Herod and Judgement plays of the fifteenth-century Catholic biblical cycles, this tradition re-emerged in sixteenth-century Protestant moral plays such as W. Wager's Enough Is as Good as a Feast (c. 1570). The full flowering of the tradition is found in Doctor Faustus.
                                                                              (Introduction, 16)

    This draws on those aspects of the mystery plays which had proved compatible with Protestantism, and Protestant ideas are also clearly at work elsewhere in the play. Since scene i, where the only hint of anything analogous to the Clare Harcop story occurs, is probably not by Middleton, he seems to have suppressed all the business of the pre-contract with another woman so prominent in the source and in the Wilkins play, perhaps because this would have drawn unwelcome attention to the current state of disarray of the laws and practices governing marriage (this is something that is very insistently highlighted in Wilkins). A Protestant sensibility seems also clearly evident in the depiction of the Son, who with suitable rationality and lack of superstition declares that "I fear no vizards nor bugbears" (iv.95), and with proper respect for learning demands when he has been injured, "How shall I learn now my head's broke?" (iv.104).

  12. It is, however, notable that the Son is wrong not to fear and would find thoughts of God more spiritually beneficial than thoughts of learning at this juncture, so that Protestantism here proves to be of little more avail than it does in the preaching of the Master or the faith of the imprisoned brother. Equally, other features of the play do seem much more conspicuously Catholic in their sensibility. The improbable saintliness of the wife has been much commented on:

    her behaviour goes beyond the bounds of credibility in the final scene…We must either accept the Wife's behaviour as a miracle of forgiveness or suppose that she concentrates her emotions on her husband in order to suppress an unbearable sorrow for her dead children. But neither the miraculous nor the psychological explanation is really convincing.
                                                                              (Introduction, p. 20)

    A more convincing, albeit extradiegetic, explanation may be found in a desire on the part of the playwright not to offend the Cobham family and perhaps to compensate for the injury to their feelings done by previous dramatists, but it may equally arise because Middleton was indeed acutely aware of a dramatic model in which actual saintliness was a factor. The editors even suggest that in the last scene there may be "a covert allusion to the Virgin Mary; cf. the Husband's apparent references to seven sacraments…The possibility therefore exists that the author of Scene x had Catholic sympathies" (x.71, note). Though Middleton himself may well not have been the author of this scene, and need not even necessarily have engaged in particularly close collaboration with its author, it is nevertheless notable that it can coexist quite comfortably with the rest of the play.

  13. It is also notable that A Yorkshire Tragedy takes the idea of diabolic possession very seriously. The Wife says that the Husband is

    so much unlike
    Himself at first, as if some vexed spirit
    Had got his form upon him.

    And the Servingman assures the Wife, "If he should not now be kind to you and love you and cherish you up, I should think the devil himself kept open house in him" (iii.24-6). Later, another Servant (or perhaps it is the same?), declares when he is unable to restrain the murderous Husband that "Nay, then the devil wrestles; I am thrown" (v.40).

  14. A Yorkshire Tragedy is in this directly at odds with militant Protestant doctrine as currently being loudly and clearly propagated by the influential divine Samuel Harsnett.[5] It has recently been pointed out that Shakespeare in King Lear was directly responding to Harsnett, and King Lear in turn was to be acted in Yorkshire by recusant players in 1610, and may well have been influenced by A Yorkshire Tragedy. [6] There seems, therefore, to be a considerable degree of religious confusion at work, as there undoubtedly is too in the play's slur on the famously Protestant Leicester. And it might perhaps be worth remembering that Oldcastle / Falstaff too was a conspicuously conflicted figure: though he was a Lollard martyr and most of the writing subsequently associated with him has a markedly anti-Catholic tone, [7] Kristen Poole has pointed to the ways in which the qualities often associated with Puritans become, in Falstaff, transmuted into their own apparent antitheses (Poole 54).

  15. If theology is in a state of confusion, however, the power of dramatic example remains as strong here as elsewhere in Middleton, and indeed action is conceived of in inherently performative terms. The Husband declares, "My glory 'tis to have my action known" (viii.31), and the Knight laments that "Never was act played more unnaturally" (ix.26). It is also notable that it is only after events have become thus overtly theatricalised that the Husband becomes rational:

    Thou hast given mine eyes
    Seven wounds apiece; now glides the devil from me,
    Departs at every joint, heaves up my nails.
    O, catch him new torments that were ne'er invented;
    Bind him one thousand more, you blessed angels,
    In that pit bottomless. Let him not rise
    To make men act unnatural tragedies

    The husband associates theatre with the devil, as indeed is the case in the various anecdotes about productions of Doctor Faustus during which the devil himself is supposed to have materialised on stage; [8] but the stage can equally be seen as acting as a kind of devil-trap, and its affective power, moreover, is undoubted, as we see when the Husband says,

    Let every father look into my deeds,
    And then their heirs may prosper while mine bleeds.

    Theatre, it seems, will work as an example and deterrent where preaching has conspicuously failed. For all Middleton's Puritan sensibilities and his awareness of Puritan unease about drama, then, this play clearly demonstrates his urgent recognition of the need to use the techniques of drama rather than preaching to affect human behaviour. Drama may not tell the truth - it may, for instance, turn a martyred Oldcastle into a reprehensible Falstaff - but the lies that it tells may well be longer-lived than the truth, and will work more directly on the human soul.


1. No one seems to have taken seriously the recent suggestion in the (Oxfordian) Edward de Vere Newsletter 21 (November 1990), 1, that the play preceded the pamphlet. Viviana Comensoli notes the existence of the possibility, but does not indicate whether or not she accepts it (98).

2. On the subsequent spate of plays satirising the Cobhams, see for instance Duncan-Jones, 90.

3. See Taylor 86, n. 5.

4. See Heinemann 178-9; Malcolmson 325-6 and 333-9; Middleton, The Witch, xv-xix, xxii; Simmons 155-65; Lindley 67, 78-9, 114-5, and 120-1; Lancashire 163-169; Bromham and Bruzzi; and Ioppolo.

5. See Brownlow. Brownlow speculates that Harsnett obtained a Book of Miracles from Sir Robert Cecil, who was Philippa Brooke's uncle by marriage (22).

6. See the note on v.35 of Cawley's and Gaines Revels edition, and also Duncan-Jones, 212 (though Duncan-Jones attributes A Yorkshire Tragedy to Shakespeare).

7. See Corbin and Sedge, introduction, 16 and 31.

8. See Chambers, III, 423-4.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).