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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: December ::
Re: Penalty for Murder
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.2234  Tuesday, 5 December 2000

[1]     From:   Pat Dolan <
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        Date:   Monday, 4 Dec 2000 10:02:44 -0600
        Subj:   RE: SHK 11.2228 Re: Penalty for Murder

[2]     From:   Manuela Rossini <
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        Date:   Monday, 04 Dec 2000 17:49:12 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.2213 Penalty for Murder


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Pat Dolan <
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Date:           Monday, 4 Dec 2000 10:02:44 -0600
Subject: 11.2228 Re: Penalty for Murder
Comment:        RE: SHK 11.2228 Re: Penalty for Murder

Frances Dolan (no relation) has something about women's executions in
her book on female criminality. Women who killed their husbands were
executed for petty treason rather than homicide. I believe that meant
burning rather than hanging, but dial her name into the MLA and find
out.

Cheers,
Pat

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Manuela Rossini <
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Date:           Monday, 04 Dec 2000 17:49:12 +0100
Subject: 11.2213 Penalty for Murder
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.2213 Penalty for Murder

Dear David Siar:

I cannot give a direct answer to your colleague's question but I would
like to frame the issue by the gender-specific attitude and handling of
adultery.  The historian Keith Thomas, in his discussion of the "double
standard" from the Middle Ages to the 20th c., mentions that adulterous
wives were sometimes put to death in Anglo-Saxon times. He refers to
G.E. Howard's A HISTORY OF MATRIMONIAL INSTITUTIONS, 1904: 35-36. As to
later periods, Thomas makes a number of observations on divorce
regulations in relation to the commitment of adultery: Based on the idea
that men had property in women, adultery on the part of the husband was
no valid cause for divorce by Act of Parliament until 1857(!).
Furthermore, while an unfaithful wife lost all her property and access
to the children, no such deprivation was in store for an adulterous
husband. Similarly, husband-killing (petty treason, treated like high
treason) was considered a far more serious crime than wife-killing
(petty tyranny).

From what I know about the Swiss context after the Reformation,
Protestant governments (in Basel, Zurich and even in Calvin's Geneva)
pushed capital punishment for adultery (in accordance with the Old
Testament) and there are documents that such executions did indeed take
place after a person was convicted of the "crime" for the fifth time.

To try to answer or, at least suggest an answer then: Given the above
"structure of feeling", the tenacity of the double standard, and the
obsession with family honour and purity of blood in the early modern
period, I am tempted to answer the question "what punishment someone
living in early Jacobean England might expect to receive for murdering
his adulterous wife" as follows: NONE! But then, in contrast to the
Middles Ages, the monopoly of the state did not let murderers (of any
kind and for whatever reason) get away without (capital?) punishment.
However, the betrayed husband could certainly plead "mitigating
circumstances".  Heywood's A WOMAN KILLED WITH KINDNESS suggests that
murdering your wife subito when caught in flagranti would have been more
"normal":

        Frankford:      I will retire awhile into my study,
                        And thou shalt hear thy sentence presently
        Anne:           'Tis welcome, be it death. ...
                        ...
        Frankford:      ...
                        With patience hear me. I'll not martyr thee,
                        Nor mark thee for a strumpet, but with usuage
                        Of more humility torment thy soul,
                        And kill thee, even with kindness.
                        ...
                        ... - woman, hear thy judgment ...

Whether Frankford would have been punished for killing her less "kindly"
is, unfortunately, not indicated, but the rhetoric of the scene clearly
marks the betrayed husband as an omnipotent judge or absolutist king who
could take lives or provide pardon. Well, this is literary "evidence" -
I'm sure some SHAKSPERians can adduce the legal documents.

Cheers,
Manuela Rossini
University of Basel
 

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