“Sudden Deaths”: Regicide, Theatricality, and Anti-Absolutism in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy


The staging of regicide in the early modern English theaters was commonplace by 1611, when Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy was first performed. Subsequently, The Maid’s Tragedy has been read both as anti-Jacobean and as deeply royalist, a critical problem exemplified in the play’s concluding warning to both would-be regicides and the “lustful kings” against whom they might act (MT 5.3.293). Its performance history reflects this paradox, as it was both played and banned on the Restoration stage before being given a revised final act that turned its tragedy into tragicomedy. The play’s performative elements emphasize the dangers of both tyranny and absolutism through a trajectory of escalating violence that can only culminate in the King’s death. In the scenes that follow the King’s demise, the play reinforces his culpability through the use of his blood as a literal trace of his corruptive influence as it is passed from his killer to the remaining members of the court until each individual tainted by his misrule has died or promised death. By focusing the audience’s attention on disorder, violence, and the dissemination of violence, Beaumont and Fletcher underscore the necessity of the King’s death to the restoration of order. However, the play also reminds its audience that this order is regulated by the relationship of obligation and obedience between sovereign and subjects, and that blind adherence to absolutism can be as dangerous to the health of the nation as tyranny. The play’s conclusion encourages its audience to recognize both the possibility of regulatory regicide, and their responsibility as citizens to approve or censure their monarch.

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Copyright © 2013 UTA Department of English & Davey Hubay | d(h)sign. This article first appeared in Early Modern Studies Journal 5 (2013): 57-76.

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