Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550 - 1700
Even now in the mass media, women are often portrayed as murderers in their own homes, although in reality women are much more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than the perpetrators. Looking back at images of violence in the popular culture of early modern England, we find similar misperceptions. The specter of the murderer loomed most vividly not in the stranger, but in the familiar; and not in the master, husband, or father, but in the servant, wife, or mother. A gripping exploration of seventeenth-century accounts of domestic murder in fact and fiction, this book is the first to ask why.
Frances E. Dolan examines stories ranging from the profoundly disturbing to the comically macabre: of husband murder (legally defined as "petty treason"), wife murder (or "petty tyranny"), infanticide, and witchcraft. She surveys trial transcripts, confessions, and gallows speeches, as well as pamphlets, ballads, popular plays based on notorious crimes, and such well-known works as The Tempest, Othello, Macbeth, and The Winter's Tale. Citing contemporary analogies between the politics of household and commonwealth, she shows how both legal and literary narratives attempt to restore the order threatened by insubordinate dependents. Representations of women who plot to kill their husbands, masters, children, and neighbors, she finds, articulate fears of women's sexual appetites and capacities for violence, as well as anxieties about the perils of intimacy and the instability of class and gender positions. In an epilogue, Dolan envisions literary history itself as a battle to the death among generic intimates. The novel is cast in this drama as the rebellious off-spring of pamphlet and ballad, a ruthless heir that flourished through its readiness to devour its parents.
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