WhenCrimewatch first aired on the BBC in the mid 1980s, its presenter Nick Ross promised: ‘This is about real-life crime, not the stuff of fiction.’ Nowadays the distinction is rather less clear, and our screens are filled with true crime dramas that seem to offer both. They are essentially factual – ‘based on real events’ – but they have the feel of fiction. The story has been shaped and tweaked; the scene is drizzled with meticulous period detail; there is a cliffhanger at the end of each episode. The crime is typically murder, usually serial, preferably home grown. British true crime tends to be about British killers – Ian Brady (See No Evil), John Christie (Rillington Place), the Wests (Fred and Rose), Dennis Nilsen (Des), Jeremy Bamber (White House Farm), Harold Shipman (Doctor Death) – while American true crime favours American atrocities. I don’t see my preference for the British product as some kind of weird patriotism. It’s written into the genre, because the chief frisson of true crime is not suspense but recognition – the everyday landscapes where murder happens, the flowery wallpaper spattered with blood.

It is often assumed that these ‘docu-dramas’ are a new phenomenon, a modern hybrid. Those with long memories cite Richard Brooks’s 1967 film In Cold Blood as a prototype. Based on Truman Capote’s account of a quadruple murder in rural Kansas, the film was shot in vérité black and white and used the actual locations where the killings took place. But the true crime genre has a much longer lineage. More than four centuries ago a series of plays closely based on real murder cases appeared on the London stage. Their literary quality is variable – they tend to melodrama and moralising, and indeed to misogyny (they often feature murderous wives) – but some are written with real skill and bite. About a dozen are recorded in the years either side of 1600. A few made it into print: Arden of Faversham (1592), A Warning for Fair Woman (1599), A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608), all of uncertain authorship. Others are known only by their titles, though their contents can be partly reconstructed when the title refers to a criminal case known from other sources. Among these lost works is a play called Page of Plymouth, an early and seemingly uncharacteristic outing by Ben Jonson.

Arden, probably first performed around 1590, is the earliest true crime play on record. It dramatises the violent death of a Kentish landowner, Thomas Arden, in 1551. He was stabbed and bludgeoned in his own parlour during a game of ‘tables’ or backgammon. His killers were in the pay of his wife, Alice, who was adulterously involved with a tailor called Mosby. The title page of the 1592 quarto trails the sensational storyline and the lessons to be learned from it:

The lamentable and true tragedie of M[aster] Arden of Feversham in Kent. Who was most wickedlye murdered, by the meanes of his disloyall and wanton wyfe, who for the love she bare to one Mosbie, hyred two desperat ruffins, Blackwill and Shakbag, to kill him. Wherin is shewed the great malice and discimulation of a wicked woman, the unsatiable desire of filthie lust and shamefull end of all murderers.

It is a powerful play, more subtle and more sociological in its inquiry than the blurb suggests. The tension builds slowly towards the moment of mayhem in the parlour, and the characters are convincing: bluff, avaricious husband; brooding, dissatisfied wife; resentful tailor; hard-bitten hitmen; servants trapped as accomplices. We even get some low-tech forensics: the body is dumped in nearby common land, but an observant neighbour spots a discrepancy – ‘I fear me he was murdered in this house/And carried to the fields …/For in his slipshoe did I find some rushes.’

Arden belongs to a time when scripts were often collaborative. The 2016 New Oxford Shakespeare argues that it was in part written by the up-and-coming Shakespeare. Other writers proposed include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd and, most recently, Thomas Watson. According to a contemporary account of his death in 1593, Marlowe himself was knifed while playing backgammon. I have sometimes wondered if this detail, not found in the coroner’s report, was an embroidery inspired by Arden – or, more sinister, was borrowed by his killers, both as an appropriately theatrical quote and on the practical grounds that a man seated at his game, hemmed in by others, is a conveniently disadvantaged victim.

The play’s influence on the mode of Marlowe’s murder is speculation, but its theatrical influence is demonstrable. Most of the true crime plays of the 1590s follow the Arden template. They use real names and locations; their settings are domestic and broadly middle class; they are presented as a moral lesson or warning, as the crime leads inexorably to discovery, arraignment and execution. (In Arden the executions are only reported, but later plays have the culprits hanged onstage.) Arden’s mix of murder and marital breakdown also remained popular: two of the follow-ups – the anonymous Warning for Fair Women and the lost Page of Plymouth – are about husbands murdered by adulterous wives, and in the later Yorkshire Tragedy a husband runs amok, killing two of his children and wounding his wife.

I read these Elizabethan murder plays with the same guilty pleasure that I watch their modern counterparts, but their fondness for the ‘wicked wife’ stereotype is hard to enjoy. It runs counter to the actuality of domestic violence in this period. The records are patchy, but statistical analysis of marital homicides suggests that in around two-thirds of cases the husband was the perpetrator. The crime writers accurately reflected the patriarchal assumptions of their society, but didn’t see it as their business to challenge them. In the law courts a woman convicted of killing her husband was deemed guilty of ‘petty treason’, and in some cases on record (Alice Arden is one) her punishment was to be burned at the stake – a fate that links her with another misogynist construct, the witch.

The Arden murder was a case forty years old, but increasingly the emphasis was on topicality. On 6 September 1602, William Haughton received an advance for a play about the killing of a Lincolnshire vicar just eight days earlier. With this move towards currency comes a change of source material. The Arden authors took their story from the respectable pages of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, but the sources for later plays are journalistic: news pamphlets, chapbooks, ballads. One can see the rise of true crime drama as a commercially driven move to annex this terrain of cheap popular print. The pamphlets and the plays have virtually indistinguishable title pages: the same key words – ‘true’, ‘lamentable’, ‘unnatural’, ‘bloody’ – and the same combination of the lurid and the moralistic. Some of the pamphlets have gruesome woodcut illustrations: a further spur to dramatisation.

For the first time, the playhouses were putting ‘news’ onstage. There was a precedent in the established genre of history plays, but now the events were contemporary and the protagonists ordinary people rather than bygone kings. In this sense the crime drama has analogies with another new theatrical fashion: the ‘humours comedy’ of the mid 1590s – George Chapman’s An Humorous Days Mirth (1597) and Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (1598) are well-known examples – and the slicker, smuttier ‘city comedies’ of Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, John Marston et al, which follow slightly later. Like the crime dramas, they focus on domestic lives in revealing states of disruption.

The two genres almost merge in one play – a ‘true’ city comedy explicitly based on current events. This was Chapman’s The Old Joiner of Aldgate, briefly performed by the Children of St Paul’s in early 1603. The play is lost but it led to a libel suit in the Court of High Commission from which some information emerges. The real-life protagonists ‘personated’ onstage were a London barber-surgeon, John Howe; his teenage daughter, Agnes, about to receive an inheritance from her aunt; and various suitors competing for her hand, among them a bookbinder named Flaskett. It was Flaskett who commissioned the play, to expose Howe’s underhand dealings. He provided Chapman with the ‘plott’, the court heard. It was ‘contryved to resemble and publish [Howe’s] practize with several sutors to bestow her in marriage’. Howe himself is the eponymous ‘old joiner’, in the jocular sense of a marriage-broker. It was further alleged that Flaskett intended the play to put pressure on Agnes, hoping she would ‘conclude a match with [him] rather than to suffer her name to be so traduced in every playhouse’. This unconventional wooing tactic impressed neither Agnes, who married someone else, nor the court, which found in favour of Howe. Chapman was apparently not deemed culpable: he was just a playmaker plying his trade. He was paid 20 marks (£6 13s 4d) for the play, somewhat above the going rate.

Chapman’s Old Joiner is a one-off, but its stated aim is remarkably similar to that of the crime dramas: to ‘resemble and publish’ real events onstage. The comedy writers also shared with the crime writers a belief in the efficacy of direct, non-poetic language. To ‘show an image of the times’, Jonson said, comedy must speak a ‘language such as men do use’. The crime writers similarly stress the importance of a plain style suitable for reportage. The epilogue at the end of Arden reads:

We hope you’le pardon this naked tragedy,
Wherin no filèd points are foisted in
To make it gratious to the eare or eye,
For simple truth is gratious enough
And needes no other points of glozing stuff.

(To ‘gloze’, cognate with ‘gloss’, means ‘to veil with specious comments; to palliate; to explain away’.) The author of A Warning for Fair Women also asks the audience to ‘beare with this true and home-borne tragedie’. He has described it, he claims, just as it happened – to ‘adde or else diminish aught’ would be an ‘error’. In Two Lamentable Tragedies (1601) the personified figure of Truth introduces the action: if ‘truth were false’, she says, this would be ‘but a tale’, but ‘truth doth not faine’. This is the basic working principle of Elizabethan crime drama: the ‘truth’ of what happened, conveyed in a bare, unadorned, unfeigned style – no ‘glozing stuff’.

AWarning for Fair Women has a particular interest because it was performed by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It is the earliest of four crime dramas associated with the company. The date of its first performance is guesswork, perhaps c.1594-95; it is sometimes claimed as an early work by Thomas Heywood. The title page of the quarto outlines the case – ‘The most tragicall and lamentable murther of Master George Sanders of London, Marchant, nigh Shooters Hill, consented unto by his own wife’ – and says that the play has been ‘lately diverse times acted’ by the Chamberlain’s Men. It was published near the end of 1599 (at some point after its registration at Stationers’ Hall on 17 November), so ‘lately’ probably means A Warning had been playing at the newly built Globe, which opened its doors that summer – a crowd pleaser in that all-important first season in Southwark, cheek by jowl with their chief competitors, the Admiral’s Men, at the Rose.

The author of A Warning was familiar with Shakespeare’s work – there are some close echoes of Richard III – and Shakespeare was familiar with A Warning. One speech in particular lit a spark that carries over into Hamlet, on which he was working in 1599. Three characters are conversing on the subject of ‘murder will out’, and one of them tells a story about a woman of King’s Lynn who confessed to having killed her husband when she saw a play about a similar crime:

Sitting to behold a tragedy …
Acted by players travelling that way,
Wherein a woman that had murtherd hers
Was ever haunted with her husband’s ghost …
She was so mooved with the sight thereof,
As she cried out, the play was made by her,
And openly confesst her husband’s murder.

This colourful theatrical anecdote is widely seen as the source of Hamlet’s stratagem to ‘catch the conscience’ of Claudius by putting on a play ‘something like the murther of my father’. ‘I have heard,’ Hamlet says,

That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been strook so to the soul, that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions,
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak.

His words are an efficient paraphrase of the story in A Warning. He calls his play ‘The Mousetrap’, but we have already been told it’s an adaptation of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, of which he says: ‘This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna … The story is extant’ – it is, in other words, a (fictional) true crime drama. Hamlet has earlier described the players as ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of our time’, stressing the aspect of contemporary reportage claimed by crime dramas like A Warning.

The company’s later true crime productions are more problematic. In late 1604 – now in their elevated status as the King’s Men – they put on The Tragedy of Gowrie, a dramatisation of the attempted assassination of King James by John Ruthven, earl of Gowrie, in 1600. It was doubtless based on the official account, The Earle of Gowries conspiracie against the Kings Maiestie of Scotland. James encouraged frequent reprints of this pamphlet, and ‘Gowrie Day’ (5 August) was celebrated; his survival of the attack was spun as an example of his divinely protected kingship. The play must have seemed like a good idea – true crime with a royal twist – but it soon ran into difficulties. In a letter dated 18 December 1604, John Chamberlain wrote:

The tragedie of Gowrie with all the action and actors hath ben twise represented by the Kings players, with exceding concourse of all sortes of people, but whether the matter or manner be not well handled, or that yt be thought unfit that princes should be plaide on the stage in theyre life time, I heare that some great counsaillors are much displeased with yt: and so is thought shalbe forbidden.

Nothing further is heard, and no text survives: it seems probable that, as Chamberlain predicted, the play was suppressed. Perhaps it departed from the official line (‘the matter … not well handled’); perhaps a documentary-style staging of the story in a public playhouse was deemed ‘unfit’. There is no reason to think Shakespeare was involved in the writing of Gowrie, but it is argued by James Shapiro and others that aspects of the lost play resurface in Macbeth (1606), where the theme of Scottish regicide is pushed back to the 11th century, and its topical parallels with the Gunpowder Plot expressed more fitly because more fictionally.

In June 1605, a few months after the Gowrie debacle, a news pamphlet went on sale at Nathaniel Butter’s bookshop in St Paul’s Churchyard. Two Most Unnaturall and Bloodie Murthers contained a chilling account of a ‘Yorkshire gentleman’, Walter Calverley, who bankrupted himself with riotous living and, unhinged by fantasies and ‘frantic from strong liquors’, killed two of his children. The King’s Men put on two productions based on this story: The Miseries of Enforced Marriage by the hack author and brothel-keeper George Wilkins, published in 1607; and A Yorkshire Tragedy, published in 1608. The title page of the Yorkshire Tragedy claims it was ‘written by W. Shakspeare’, but its publisher, Thomas Pavier, was notoriously cavalier in his attributions; it is now tentatively assigned to Thomas Middleton. These plays differ widely in tone and treatment. Wilkins’s contribution is an episodic sprawl full of atmospheric ‘low life’ scenes. Calverley (renamed Scarborrow) spirals down into debauchery and despair: the narrative seems to be leading to the killings but is abruptly headed off into a makeshift happy ending. It is entirely fictionalised: a tragicomic riff on the Calverley story. A Yorkshire Tragedy, by contrast, is short and terse. No names are used: the speech headings are just ‘Husband’, ‘Wife’, ‘Servant’ and so on. Some of its wording comes direct from the Butter pamphlet, but the story is compressed into a dark, claustrophobic parable.

In these twinned plays by the leading troupe of the day we see the faltering of the true crime drama in the early Jacobean period. The Calverley story – prime violent material – is handed over to two different authors: one produces a picaresque fiction, the other a dour mini-drama full of tragic emotion but drained of the specificity and documentary detail which are the distinguishing feature of true crime. Perhaps the official displeasure at Gowrie made the company nervous. Or perhaps it’s just that theatrical fashions changed fast, and early Jacobean audiences preferred topicality in the form of satirical social realism. They wanted modern foibles urbanely anatomised rather than modern murders slashingly re-enacted. Murder itself never goes out of style, but fictional domestic tragedies such as Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, also published in 1607, became the preferred mode. The Miseries and A Yorkshire Tragedy are the last of the early true crime plays.

The first true crime craze – the distant antecedent of our own docu-drama craze – proved to be an essentially Elizabethan phenomenon. I would place its high-water mark in the year 1599, when A Warning for Fair Women was staged at the Globe. Over at the Rose, a hundred yards away down Maiden Lane, three new murder plays were commissioned by the Lord Admiral’s Men. The first of these was Page of Plymouth by Jonson and Dekker, unfortunately never printed. It was yet another husband-murder, so directly competitive with A Warning. From the account books of Philip Henslowe, the owner of the Rose, we learn that the authors received £4 each for the play in late August 1599. On 12 September Henslowe disbursed a further £10 ‘to bye wemen gownes for page of plemoth’, suggesting that performance was imminent (and also showing that more money was spent on the play’s costumes than on its script).

The next two plays reveal a new trend – more downmarket, more brutal, more gratuitous. They were the work of two rising stars in the Admiral’s stable, John Day and William Haughton; the latter had recently written a lively comedy, Englishmen for My Money. Their first offering was about a Devon family called Cox (Henslowe calls the play ‘Cox of Collumpton’, but the family was more probably from Colyton, near Exeter, where various Coxes are recorded in the parish register). This play is also lost, but it was seen at the Rose in early 1600 by the astrologer-physician Simon Forman. His brief account of it, found among his manuscripts at the Bodleian, reveals a farrago of greed and gore: pure pulp melodrama. It begins with John Cox shooting ‘an arrowe thorow his unkells head to have his land’. After Cox’s death the next generation proved no less avaricious. The eldest son, Henry, was drowned by his brothers, John and Peter, so they could get at his inheritance, but when they ‘sat upon the division of the landes’ they were confronted with ‘the sight of a bear’, which they take to be a ‘sprite’. (This reprises a scene featuring a bear in the popular comedy Mucedorus; a ‘beare skin’ is listed among the props of the Admiral’s Men.) Terrified by this apparition, John stabbed himself, while Peter ‘fell out of his wits and was lyed in a darke house & beat out his braines against a post’.

Having​ completed this eventful script at the end of November, Day and Haughton immediately started on another, which Henslowe calls ‘Beech’s Tragedy’. It was completed by January 1600, when he paid seven shillings to license it with the Master of Revels. It is the only one of these Rose murder plays to survive, and is found, probably in abbreviated form, in a composite work published in 1601 as Two Lamentable Tragedies (the other play is a fictional murder story set in Italy). The title page attributes this quarto to one Robert Yarington, otherwise unknown as an author. He was probably only the copyist – a Robert Yarington is recorded as a member of the Scriveners’ Company in 1603, and had a brother, John, who was also a scrivener (i.e. professional scribe) – though his role may well have extended to the abridging and interweaving of the two playscripts. (John had been apprenticed to Francis Kyd, father of the dramatist Thomas Kyd, which offers a faint literary backdrop to Robert’s activities.) The use of his name on the title page may suggest the publication was piratical.

Obscured under a bland composite title, Beech’s Tragedy is virtually unknown – which is a pity, as it’s a real cracker. (Emma Whipday’s stripped-down ‘historical staging’ of it can be seen on YouTube.) Its subject is a double murder, committed by an alehouse-keeper, Thomas Merry, on 23 August 1594. The victims were Robert Beech, a chandler, and his servant Thomas Winchester. Merry was hanged at Smithfield on 6 September, along with his sister Rachel, convicted as an accessory. The authors’ source was a news pamphlet, A true discourse of a most cruell and barbarous murther comitted by one Thomas Merrey, entered on the Stationers’ Register less than a week after the murder was committed. Five ballads on the subject are also listed in the register. As none of these earlier sources is now extant, Beech’s Tragedy is the only account we have of the crime. In this documentary role it acquits itself remarkably well – it is one of the most densely circumstanced of the Elizabethan crime dramas.

For the spectators at the Rose this murder is close both in time and place. It is a notorious local event which ‘most here present know’. The scene-of-crime topography in and around Thames Street – directly across the river from the Rose – is insistently detailed. One of the murders is committed at Merry’s alehouse, which is called the Bull and was probably on Bull Wharf, east of Queenhithe; the other at Beech’s shop on Lambert Hill. Merry’s servant, Harry, absconds in fear and spends the night in a hayloft in Three Cranes Yard, while Merry takes Beech’s dismembered body across the river to the Paris Gardens and dumps it in a ditch. On this errand he would have landed on the South Bank at the Falcon stairs, as many of the audience had done on their way to the Rose. Then as now, this stress on the everyday familiarity of the settings is at the heart of the true crime genre.

The play’s predominant mood is bleak, seedy and sardonic. Business is bad at the alehouse; the murder of Beech is little more than a whim of envy. Its motive is to steal a ‘score of pounds’ from a richer neighbour, but when the deed is done and the purse is opened, there is only small change – ‘heres ten groates, heres something for my paine’. The killings are graphic: the murder weapon is a hammer. The stage direction for the killing of Beech’s servant reads: ‘When the boy goeth into the shoppe Merrie striketh six blowes on his head & with the seventh leaves the hammer sticking in his head.’ Improbably the boy lingers on; his later appearance, brought on in a chair with the hammer still embedded in his skull, strikes a note of Ortonesque black comedy. Even at its most violent, the dialogue is terse and downbeat. Here are Merry and his sister contemplating Beech’s corpse in the shuttered alehouse:

Rachel: Oh can you finde in hart to cut and carve
His stone-colde flesh … ?
Merry: Aye, marry, can I – fetch the chopping knife.

The body is butchered onstage: ‘Ile cut him peece-meale: first his head and legs.’ This is deliberately lurid, but also authentic. It correctly depicts the aftermath of murder – particularly a murder in a crowded urban setting – as a series of pressingly practical problems. In her book The Devil You Know, the forensic psychiatrist Gwen Adshead records a session with a serial killer in Broadmoor whom she calls Tony.* He had ‘decapitated his first victim, sawing his head off with a kitchen knife’, which led to much public speculation about ‘the killer’s monstrous mind and what it all meant’, but as she soon learned,

the rationale was quite prosaic. After choking the blue-eyed boy to death in his flat Tony had quickly worked out the head was the heaviest part of the body: ‘like a bowling ball’. He found he could fit the body into a duffel bag and the head into a separate bag, in order to get down the stairs and hide the remains in the woods at the back of the house.

This grisly Elizabethan melodrama is definitely not the best play written in 1599 – it has Hamlet among its competitors – but it is arguably a minor classic of the true crime genre. A further twist is that a few months before it was performed, one of its authors had himself been on a murder rap. On 6 June 1599, John Day fought with a fellow writer, Henry Porter, and wounded him in the ‘left breast’ with his rapier; Porter died the following day. Day was arrested and charged – with ‘malice aforethought’ he had ‘feloniously killed and murdered the said Henry Porter’ – but was acquitted by the jury at Southwark Assizes on a plea of self-defence. It’s the unspoken backstory of Beech’s Tragedy, direct from the mean streets of the Bankside. It adds a further shade of noir to this relic from the Rose’s true crime repertoire.

Listen to Charles Nicholl discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.

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