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Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700.

Elizabethan and Jacobean readers were almost as addicted to stories of violent crime as people in late twentieth-century America. Dolan's excellent book investigates the often complex relationships between "literary" and "historical" treatments of crime in a way that provides a model of interdisciplinary scholarship. Her chosen texts are ones which narrate crimes committed by "dangerous familiars" within the family: murders of wives by husbands, of husbands by wives, of children by parents. An additional chapter suggests some connections between these and the even more popular witchcraft narratives, the witch being in effect the "outsider within" the family or community. Dolan ranges across canonical works like The Tempest, Othello, and Macbeth, lesser-known plays like Arden of Faversham and Elizabeth Cary's Tragedie of Mariam, all the way to the accounts of sensational murders churned out by London printers.

Historians and literary scholars alike will benefit from Dolan's astute analysis of both the literary and the non-literary plots. She argues that the popularity of this literature reflects anxieties generated by the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century "crisis of order." The book's earlier chapters are anchored in the concept of petty treason, the legal doctrine under which subordinates (like wives) who killed superiors (like husbands) were guilty not merely of murder, but of a form of treason, and were therefore burnt at the stake rather than hanged. Her narratives invariably stress that petty treason satanically disrupts the natural order of sexual, familial, and hierarchical relationships. In Arden of Faversham the murderous wife invents a story of abuse to justify killing her husband and marrying their steward: a classic case of the inversion narrative, and also a double case of petty treason, by servant as well as wife. In The Tempest, Dolan points out, Caliban is involved in a petty treason plot. The concept could also be turned around, however, by husbands intent on refuting accusations of abuse - as it was by the infamous Earl of Castlehaven, who accused his wife, son, and servants of petty treason when they denounced him for his sexual crimes.

In this as in so much else, Dolan rightly notes, the middle years of the seventeenth century were the great watershed. The ultimate treason - the execution of the king/father - had been enacted without society falling apart, and after 1660 popular narratives are more likely to be about husbands killing their wives than wives their husbands. The fears of rebellious subordinates, the association of assertive women with "betrayal, adultery, and violence" (113), were temporarily replaced (until after the 1688 revolution) by parallel fears of tyrannical abuse by husbands and of arbitrary government by monarchs. In the end, as both women and servants were brought under greater control in the eighteenth century, whatever fears of "dangerous familiars" still existed lost most of their political meaning.

Dolan's later chapters, showing her characteristic sensitivity to language and historical context, are based on the same careful balancing of canonical and non-canonical texts. In her examination of child murder, she makes much use of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale (a case of abandonment with infanticidal intentions), in which Leontes' suspicions of his wife are based on a combination of all the usual threats to order: the witch, the traitor, the adulterous, disobedient wife. In the book's final chapter she goes further in stressing the comic quality of witchcraft plays like Heywood and Brome's Late Lancashire Witches, in a manner that does not seem entirely convincing. Laughter is often a way of masking deeper anxieties, and the dangerous possibilities of the inversion depicted in the play were certainly not taken lightly in 1634. Once again, though, she is right about the mid-century watershed: with the Restoration came the beginning of that gradual decline in the intensity of fears of witches and other criminal or assertive women that continued into the eighteenth century. On this, Dolan's epilogue provides a fitting, perceptive, conclusion.

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Author:Underdown, David
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Previous Article:Hunters and Poachers: A Social and Cultural History of Unlawful Hunting in England, 1485-1640.
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