“O die a rare example”: Beheading the Body on the Jacobean Stage
The University of Waikato
Fiona Martin. “‘O die a rare example’: Beheading the Body on the Jacobean Stage.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 8.1-24 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/martodie.html>.
Condemned to death, but
offered ‘grave instructions’ on how to die well, individuals
about to be publicly executed in early modern England also faced the
expectation that they would deliver a final speech from the
scaffold.1 In the theatre too, condemned characters often speak formal last
words before being escorted offstage for execution; audiences
familiar with real-life executions could easily fill in the
imaginative details. Alternatively, a false severed head might be
brought back onstage shortly after the exit of the condemned. In
Dekker and Webster’s Sir Thomas Wyatt, Lady Jane Grey’s
head is brought back and displayed before her husband Guilford, who
awaits his own execution (5.2.149-57). On rare occasions, however,
executions were simulated onstage, such as the judicial hangings of
Lincoln in Munday’s (et al.) Sir Thomas More (2.4.52-70),
and Pedringano in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (3.6.104-05).
Whereas onstage hangings were relatively straightforward to stage,
beheadings posed a greater challenge.2 Margaret Owens notes the existence of four plays associated with the
commercial theatre, in which the stage directions clearly indicate
that an onstage beheading is intended: Marston’s The Insatiate
Countess (first published in 1613), Fletcher and Massinger’s Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt (1619), Dekker and Massinger’s The Virgin Martyr (1620), and Markham and Sampson’s Herod
and Antipater (1622).3 Two characters that ‘die’ in such a manner are the focus of this
paper: Isabella in Countess is condemned for the murder of a
former lover, whilst the statesman Barnavelt is sentenced to death
for treason. Despite the audience’s awareness of the artifice
involved in onstage beheadings, the conjunction of scaffold speech
and severed heads encourages an ambivalent response to the
characters’ fates, for their personal struggles on the scaffold
become inseparable from the realism and immediacy of their physical
Let tame nobility and numbed foolsBy the end of the play, Byron kneels in submission to his fate, lamenting that “Knees bent too late / Stick you in earth like statues” (5.4.255-56). His final lines strike a more reflective note: “Strike, strike, o strike! Fly, fly, commanding soul, / And on thy wings for this thy body’s breath, / Bear the eternal victory of Death” (5.4.260-62).
That apprehend not what they undergo
Be such exemplary and formal sheep.
I will not have him [the Executioner] touch me till I will.
If you will needs rack me beyond my reason,
Hell take me, but I’ll strangle half that’s here
And force the rest to kill me! I’ll leap down
If but once more they tempt me to despair. (5.4.195-202)
… O may bastard-bearing with the pangsRather than bestowing forgiveness, Claridiana berates Abigail, declaring, “I had / rather Chirurgeons’ Hall should beg my dead body for an / anatomy, than thou beg my life” (81-83), alluding to the practice of using the bodies of executed criminals for dissection.16 Duke Amago, aware of the husbands’ innocence but continuing the charade for his own amusement, releases them in the final scene amidst general merriment and the prospect of a banquet. The repeated references to hanging and death in the comic plot have little potency, for the situation is understood from the outset to be artificial. That which is treated facetiously in the subplot, however, is given serious expression in the depiction of the Countess’s tragedy. As I shall discuss later, the juxtaposition of Isabella’s execution scene with the charade of Rogero and Claridiana’s mock condemnations and pardons complicates the spectator’s response to her death, the similar issues of marital infidelity linking the two plots.
of childbirth be doubled to ’em: may they have every twins
and be three weeks in travail between …
may they live to ride in triumph in a dung-cart and be
crowned with all the odious ceremonies belonging to’t:
may the cucking-stool be their recreation, and a dungeon
their dying chamber. (26-34)
Farewell my Isabella. Let thy deathWhereas the scaffold scene begins with Isabella’s fear, denial and defiance, she now moves toward readiness for execution. Her encounter with Roberto is the catalyst for Isabella to transcend the physicality of her body—associated with lustfulness and shame — and to both imagine and accept her separation from it. Her compliance is evidenced in her bestowal of forgiveness upon the executioner and her request for further instructions. The focus turns to the Countess’s hair as the executioner directs her to tie it up. As she obeys, Isabella exclaims,
Ransom thy soul: O die a rare example;
The kiss thou gavest me in the church, here take,
As I leave thee, so thou the world forsake. (5.1.193-96)
O these golden netsLike Atropos poised to cut the ‘thread of life,’ the executioner likewise awaits his moment. In the Countess’s speech there is both a residual vanity and an awareness of its emptiness, as she contemplates the imminent demise of her own physical beauty. In a continuing blazon of her best features, she meditates upon her eyes as she is asked to secure her blindfold. They have been, she says,
That have ensnared so many wanton youths,
Not one but has been held a thread of life
And superstitiously depended on … (5.1.201-204)
… more gazed at than the god of day:Here, death and the blindfold merge, to extinguish the brilliance of her eyes.
Their brightness never could be flattered,
Yet thou commandest a fixèd cloud of lawn
To eclipse eternally these minutes of light. (5.1.210-13)
Lord, I am well prepared:At this point, the executioner strikes.20 In her speech, the physical body is described in terms of earth, death and descent, whilst the spirit is associated with ascension. The Countess balances on the border between presence and absence; she indicates her association with spirit through externalizing and distancing the body as a material object. She does not pray as the axe descends, yet these lines indicate clearly that at the final, crucial moment her concern is for the salvation of her soul. Isabella’s flaws are clearly demonstrated throughout the play—she is fickle, selfish and lustful, her body an instrument of pleasure. Had Roberto not appeared at the scaffold to take his farewell, Isabella’s submission would undoubtedly have been achieved through violent physical coercion, her death perceived by the audience as shameful and demeaning. As it is, her ‘insatiability’ is replaced with humility and penitence, and although her transformation is sudden, it appears to be genuine. Paradoxically, although her initial resistance may be considered a form of defiance against the authority of the church, she finally observes the protocols of execution, not through a formulaic, public acknowledgement of her crime, but through personal confession to Roberto. In the ritual, she ultimately finds meaning relevant to her own experience, thus infusing her final moments with an unexpected dignity.
Murder and Lust, down with my ashes sink,
But like ingrateful seed perish in earth,
That you may never spring against my soul,
Like weeds to choke it in the heavenly harvest;
I fall to rise, mount to thy Maker, spirit,
Leave here thy body, death has her demerit. (5.1.219-25)
One blow, one short peece of an howre do’s thisBarnavelt is an impassioned and persuasive statesman, clearly adept at manipulating others, yet he is also presented as a tired and disillusioned old man who appears genuinely puzzled by the disfavour into which he has fallen. Alone in his study, he dwells on his past glories and begins to despair:
And this cures all: maintaines no more phisitians,
Restores our memories, and ther’s the great cure,
Where, if we stay the fatall Sword of Justice
It moawes the man downe first, and next his fashion,
His living name, his Creadit. (3.4.109-14)
Must all theis glories vanish into darknes?These opposing tensions are transferred to the scaffold, where he assumes the role of tragic actor, vowing, “I shall not play my last Act worst” (5.1.204).
And Barnavelt passe with’em, and glide away
Like a spent Exhalation? I cannot hold,
I am crackt too deepe alredy: what have I don,
I cannot answeare? (4.3.20-24)
Heer’s a Sword would doe a mans head good to be cut of with it,Jonathan Sawday points out the “intersection of the trade of the executioner and the profession of the physician,” both of whom practised their skills upon the “frail human body” (81). Just as the executioner and physician intersect, so do the barber and surgeon, as execution here is ironically perceived as the ultimate form of bloodletting. Leyden describes himself as an “old Cutter,” who has “polld more pates / And neater than a Dicker of your Barbers, / They nere need washing after” (5.2.7-9). As he brandishes his sword, Utricht evokes an image of a dismembered body as he combines the concept of barbering with the biblical metaphor of flesh as grass:24
Cures all rhumes, all Catharrs, Megroomes, virteegoes,
Presto, be gon. (5.2.2-4)
Look on’t, but come not neere it: the very wind on’tUtricht wins at dice, and gloatingly describes how he will perform his office:
Will borrow a leg, or an arme; heer’s touch and take, boyes,
And this shall moaw the head of Monsieur Barnavelt:
Man is but grasse, and hay: I have him here,
And here I have him … (5.2.23-27)
…first, how ile take my leave of him:Utricht alludes to the established rituals associated with public executions: the prisoner giving payment and garments to the executioner, the binding of the eyes of the condemned, and the anticipated recitation of a final prayer. For Utricht, however, these procedures merely represent easily exploitable opportunities for personal gain. Whereas a skilled headsman’s proficiency could promise a quick and uncomplicated beheading—implying at least an element of compassion toward the victim—Utricht’s gallows humour characterizes him as little more than a butcher, whose callousness further compromises Barnavelt’s dignity and strips him of his personal identity by making him just another victim, a “generall game” (5.3.68).
With a few teares to draw more money from him:
Then fold up his braunchd gowne, his hat, his doblet,
And like the devill, cry mine owne: lye there boyes:
Then bind his eyes: last, stir myself up bravely
And in the midle of a whollsome praire
Whip: and hic jacet Barnavelt … (5.2.52-59)
Hang up a hundred Coffins, I dare view’em,Barnavelt throws out a further challenge in the next part of his speech, as he urges the Lords to remember the many services he has rendered to his country. He presents himself not only as a healer who has lovingly bound up the wounds of an orphan-like Holland, providing food and opening up avenues for trade, but as a martyr who has suffered “throaes, and grones,” “dangers,” and “almost gripes of death” to bring glory and prosperity to his country:
And on their heads subscribe a hundred treasons,
It shakes not me: thus dare I smile upon’em
And strongly thus out looke your fellest Justice. (5.3.86-89)
Thinck through whose care, you are a NationBarnavelt’s position is subversive, for he is publicly disputing the justice of the Prince’s sentence. The two Lords’ refutation of this part of Barnavelt’s speech, however, is cast in religious terms rather than political, as they urge him to “Confes, and dye well” (5.3.145). The Advocate maintains his guiltlessness, claiming simply, “I dye for saving this unthanckfull Cuntry” (5.3.149). Admonished that he should “Play not with heaven,” Barnavelt replies, “My Game’s as sure as yours is: / And with more care, and innocence, I play it”; to the executioner he adds, “Take of my doblet: and I prethee fellow, / Strike without feare” (5.3.150-53). From this point to the time of his execution, Barnavelt is compliant, appearing outwardly calm. In an ironic moment, he grants forgiveness to the executioner, unwittingly echoing Utricht’s earlier jests about the healing properties of the sword:
And have a name yet left, a fruitfull Nation,
(Would I could say as thanckfull,) bethinck ye of theis things
And then turne back, and blush, blush for my ruyne. (5.3.94-96, 112-15)
…heer’s my hand: I love thee too; thy phisickThe final part of Barnavelt’s scaffold speech follows the formula whereby the penitent prisoner praises and blesses the sovereign, and he bestows his forgiveness upon all (5.3.169-178). Jan den Tex reports that Oldenbarnevelt’s last words were “Be quick about it, be quick” (688), whilst in the play his final words are abruptly concluded by Utricht’s sudden impatience:
Will quickly purge me from the worldes abuses:
When I speak lowdest, strike. (5.3.155-57)
Honour, and world, I fling ye thus behind me,Utricht’s earlier grotesque imagery of dismemberment is graphically realized as Barnavelt is beheaded onstage, at the same time losing two fingers. This was, in fact, what happened as Oldenbarnevelt was decapitated (den Tex 688), but here the executioner triumphantly asks, “Is it well don mine Heeres?” The first Lord replies, “Somewhat too much: you have strooke his fingers too / But we forgive your haste” (5.3.183-185). In the image of the two fingers, presumably displayed to the audience along with the head, is combined the comic and the tragic: the fingers are unintentionally removed because they have been raised to Barnavelt’s lips in an act of final prayer, but the accident is inseparably associated with the earlier grotesque physicality of the executioners’ black-humoured jokes. This minor blunder is an indication of how any execution was “susceptible to ludicrous and macabre mishaps” (Lacqueur 323), and how the inherent solemnity of the event might be undermined by what Nicholas Brooke describes as “horrid laughter,” in which the “opposites of laughter and tears” could “easily and bewilderingly transpose into each other” (3). The detail of the two fingers, then, invites contradictory responses to Barnavelt’s end on the scaffold, for the incident increases our sympathy at the same time it is likely to prompt spontaneous, if uncomfortable, laughter.
And thus a naked poore-man, kneele to heaven:
Be gratious to me, heare me, strengthen me,
I come, I come: ô gratious heaven: now: now:
Now I present — [Head struck of.] (5.3.179-83)
1I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to the organizers of the 2008 ANZSA Conference for the receipt of a Joyce Williams travel bursary, and also to the University of Waikato for generously providing additional funding. My thanks to those who offered insight and encouragement at the conference, particularly David Carnegie, Bruce Smith, John Hale, Tom Bishop, Aneta Mancewicz, MacDonald Jackson, Laurie Johnson and Darryl Chalk; and to the editors and anonymous readers of this paper. Special thanks to Mark Houlahan and Kirstine Moffat for providing continuous support and for feedback on multiple drafts.
The phrase ‘grave instructions’ is taken from Marston’s Insatiate Countess, 5.1.190. Peter Lake writes that prisoners awaiting execution were instructed as to the appropriate formula for the scaffold speech (xix), whilst Rebecca Lemon observes that the condemned were also offered spiritual guidance from the clergy, for “the confession of sins and the expression of penitence were vital to gaining salvation after death” (90).
2 I am indebted to Margaret Owens’ work, particularly Chapter 5, in which she discusses simulated onstage beheadings. She emphasizes the psychological difference between the two types of execution: “beheading was distinguished from hanging and from other forms of mutilation (quartering, disemboweling, amputation of body parts) as the preferred mode of execution, not so much because it was believed to be more rapid and less painful, but because it was reserved exclusively for the aristocracy” (123). Camille Naish further suggests that decapitation was preferable partially because it “enabled the victim to die without being touched by the headsman” (56). Charles Dale Cannon discusses possible strategies for the staging of hangings in his introduction to A Warning for Fair Women (54-55).
3 Owens 138. Owens notes that an onstage beheading “occurs in the B text of Doctor Faustus (printed 1616), but the date at which that episode was first performed is unknown and remains a matter of considerable debate” (138). She also notes R. B.’s Apius and Virginia (1559-67) as the only extant morality play with an onstage beheading, which makes it a “conspicuous exception to the rule” and reveals “the struggle to reconfigure the theatrical body in the wake of the Reformation” (87). Owens draws attention to the possibility that there may have been onstage beheadings in plays that have been lost, or that they were performed, yet not specified in the stage directions (139). Interestingly, William J. Lawrence had earlier suggested that the “trick” of hanging onstage had been done so often that it had been “quickly perfected,” whereas—up until the first simulated beheading in The Insatiate Countess, somewhere between 1610 and 1613—the players had been “wholly unable to procure the illusion” (241-43).
My discussion here does not include The Virgin Martyr or Herod and Antipater, partially due to considerations of space, but primarily because the execution scenes in these plays lack the complexity and ambiguity of those featured in Countess and Barnavelt. Dekker’s Dorothea is martyred and therefore the focus of audience sympathy, whilst the characters of Herod and Antipater are unabashedly evil and therefore undeserving of spectators’
4 For an alternative viewpoint and a challenge to Foucault, see Lorna Hutson, who focuses on the involvement of the early modern community in dealing with crime, looking at the ‘displaced jury trial’ in Titus Andronicus.
5 Owens argues that Chapman’s play was highly influential, in that echoes of Byron’s “words and gestures figure in almost all succeeding dramatizations of scaffold scenes,” including Countess and Barnavelt (134-35). The scaffold scene was closely modelled on Edward Grimeston’s 1607 translation of Jean de Serres’ work, A General Inventorie of the Historie of France. George Ray, editor of the Garland edition of Chapman’s two-part play, believes it possible that the decapitation was staged, for the theatre company at Blackfriars may have had “the technology for bringing off a beheading and silencing Byron in just the emphatic way Grimeston described the Executioner’s act: ‘he cut off his head, even as he was speaking. The blow was so sodaine, as few men perceived it, the Head leaped from the scaffold to the ground’” (qtd. in Ray 571). See Ray’s Appendix A in Volume 2 for the parallels between Grimeston and Chapman in the scaffold scene (603-05).
6 For summaries of selected accounts of murders and listings of these events recorded in pamphlets, folio sheets and plays, see Joseph H. Marshburn. See also Lake.
7 In discussing the popularity of the Grand-Guignol theatre during the pre-World War II period, John M. Callahan observes that these “horror plays” were “designed to terrorize and amuse” their audiences; I imagine that the ‘murder’ plays appealed to a large proportion of the early modern play-going audience for similar reasons. As Callahan suggests, most people are “vicarious lovers of violence and danger, and the majority of people find the theatrical depiction of violence to be cathartic” (165-67).
8 The phenomenon called cruentation is defined by Malcolm Gaskill as “the ordeal whereby a corpse was supposed to bleed in the presence of the murderer.” He observes that it is both “factually dubious” and “providentially impressive,” and was used to great effect as a stage device (8). Instances of cruentation occur in Richard III (1.2.53-59); Arden of Faversham (16.4-6); A Warning for Fair Women (H1v); and it is referred to in The Insatiate Countess (5.1.7, 24).
9 For a classic study on the role of providence in the ‘murder’ or ‘domestic’ plays, see Henry Hitch Adams.
10 The Sheriff prompts Browne to confess, otherwise he has made “no true contrition”; declining, he is reminded, “Browne, thy soule knowes” (I3v). Karl S. Guthke refers to the tradition that last words were considered truthful and, sometimes, prophetic. See 37-45 for a brief discussion of the relevance of these concepts in relation to Shakespeare’s King John, Richard II, Hamlet, 1 Henry IV, King Lear and Othello.
11 In a diary entry in 1598, Philip Henslowe makes one tantalizing reference to a “frame for the heading in Black Jone,” suggesting that this lost play may have featured an onstage decapitation (Foakes 321).
12 A stage direction in T.B.’s play The Rebellion of Naples, printed in 1649, gives a similar instruction: when Massenello is executed, the text specifies, “He thrusts out his head, and they cut off a false head made of a bladder fill’d with bloud” (73).
13 By “full execution ritual” I refer to the simulated beheading as a conclusion to the scaffold speech. There are no stage directions indicating that drawing and quartering took place onstage, although the head may have been displayed as the finale to the execution. Although the post-decapitation dismembering would have resembled, for example, the mutilation of Beech in Two Lamentable Tragedies, the inclusion of this part of the ritual would have required a specially prepared dummy, making repeated performances of these scenes significantly more difficult.
In regard to staging, I also make the assumption that these beheadings were performed in the English manner, with a block and axe rather than a sword. The latter method, favoured on the continent, required the victim to remain upright in a kneeling position, whilst the headsman struck from behind. The historical figures on whom the Countess and Barnavelt were based were both executed in this fashion. English-style beheadings in the theatre would have been easier to simulate, for the block could be used to obscure crucial stage business, allowing the substitution of a fake head for that of the actor.
14 Giorgio Melchiori, editor of the Revels edition of the play, suggests that Marston “devised the plot and underplot of the play” no later than 1607 or 1608, and that William Barksted and Lewis Machin revised and completed the play, probably in 1608 or 1609 (16-17). He also favours Marston as the author of Isabella’s execution scene (11-12), surmising that it was intended to represent the conclusion of the play. Instead, the final scene (5.2) attempts a resolution of the comic plot, thereby undermining the tragic impact of the Countess’s death. For a full discussion of authorship issues, dates, textual problems and sources, see Melchiori’s introduction.
15 Due to the confusion arising from inconsistencies in the first Quarto regarding characters’ names, editions vary widely, particularly in the designations of the names Rogero, Mizaldus and Guido. For information on the editing issues associated with the various Quartos, see Melchiori’s introduction; see also the brief discussion of the play in Martin Wiggins’s introduction to Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies.
16 Michael Neill points out that dissection was performed upon the corpses of criminals, to deliberately and “disgracefully” expose their bodies to the “prying gaze of the crowd”. This practice not only ensured the “humiliation of the malefactor beyond execution,” but also functioned to enhance “the moral lessons of the whole theatre of punishment” (118).
17 There is a popular tradition that the woman in a fresco by Bernardino Luini is the Countess of Challant. Depicting the beheading of St. Catherine, the image shows the executioner with his sword raised, about to decapitate his victim. Melchiori cites Bandello, one of the original accounts of the Countess’s story: “whoever wishes to see her face pictured to the life, should go to the church of the Monastero Maggiore, and there will see it painted” (qtd. in Melchiori 21). See Sandrina Bandera and Maria Teresa Fiorio for a reproduction of the fresco (205).
18 The humour seems uncharacteristic of Isabella, but the trope of execution as the ultimate form of curative medicine was a commonplace. In the play Sir Thomas More, More jestingly claims, “I come hither only to be let blood: my doctor here tells me it is good for the headache” (5.4.83-84). Executed in 1618, Sir Walter Ralegh ran his finger along the edge of the axe, and observed to the executioner, “This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physitian for all Diseases” (qtd. in Greenblatt 20).
19 Isabella married Roberto whilst still in mourning for her deceased husband, abandoned Roberto for Guido (whom she arranges to have murdered), then displaced Guido with Gniaca. Ironically, when she betrays Guido with Gniaca, Isabella pretends to be repentant, claiming that she wishes to be reconciled with her husband (3.4.126-46).
20 Melchiori includes the word “Strike”, printed in the right-hand margin of the various quartos, as the concluding word of the Countess’s dying speech. He acknowledges the possibility that the word may have been intended to refer to “a ‘noise’ off stage,” but ultimately concludes that “Strike” is “not a stage direction, but the dramatically effective conclusion of Isabella’s speech, addressed to the executioner” (174-75 n226). I have consulted facsimiles of the quartos of 1613, 1616 and 1631, and am not entirely convinced that the word is intended for Isabella; what I consider to be of greater importance, however, is the clear indication in each quarto that the beheading occurs onstage.
21 To avoid confusion, I shall refer to the historical person as Oldenbarnevelt, and to the dramatic character as Barnavelt.
22 For an excellent summary of the play’s action, see the 1922 edition edited by Wilhelmina P. Frijlinck, which also discusses authorship issues, sources and literary perspectives. See John E. Curran for a discussion of the implications of Calvinism and Arminianism to the play.
23 Owens points out that this game “recalls the games that Christ’s torturers conduct in order to decide who will keep the convict’s clothes (the traditional prerogative of the hangman),” thus drawing a parallel between the execution of Barnavelt and the crucifixion of Christ (142).
24 See Isaiah 40.6-8: “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth … but the word of our God shall stand forever”. See also Psalms 103.15: “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth”.
25 Curran argues that, in England, “few would have had cause to identify with or mourn for Barnavelt,” for his “association with Arminianism and opposition to Calvinism would have marked him as among the reprobate” (239). Jan den Tex, however, suggests that opinion in England was divided (692 n2-3).
Adams, Henry Hitch. English Domestic, or Homiletic Tragedy, 1575–1642. New York: B. Blom, 1965. Print.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).