'Lamentable and True': Remediations of True Crime in Domestic Tragedies

Melissa Rohrer


The phrase "if it bleeds, it leads," was as true in early modern England as it is today, and—in many plays adapted from murder narratives—the domestic tragedy genre catered to audiences' desires for authentic stories of violent, true crime.  Though these domestic murder tragedies traded on growing interests in authenticity and fact in early modern culture (Barbara Shapiro, A Culture of Fact; Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact), they were adapted through the non-factual genres of drama and poetry.  These plays, therefore, highlight a tension between the "authenticity" of true crime and the inventive nature of theater.  I argue in this essay that the desire to adapt such narratives into drama ushered in a new kind of dramatic storytelling: the concept "based on a true story."  Though fidelity to accepted facts was greatly valued in early murder plays, such as Arden of Faversham, these plays nevertheless relied on speculation and invention to adequately dramatize the characters involved, and the addition of fabricated elements to truth-based stories changed the ways in which these stories came to be "known."  The interplay of differing perspectives and sympathetic connections, only available through speculative invention, allowed these narratives to act as a kind of alternative truth—one not based on the concept of fidelity to "reality."  In this paper, I examine two domestic crime adaptations, Arden of Faversham and The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, and I argue that, as fictional elements became increasingly acceptable in reality-based plays, playwrights would eventually modify the meaning of "truth" in true drama.


domestic tragedy, crime, adaptation, Arden of Faversham, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage

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