“I depart laughing”: Living Death in the “The Lady’s Tragedy”

Few plays explore the rich dramatic potential of living death as explicitly as Thomas Middleton’s The Lady’s Tragedy (or, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, as the play is sometimes known), a tragedy that in the first three acts alone presents suicide, grave-robbing, defiled corpses, and ghosts. Middleton did *not* do these things by halves.

Act 3 scene 1 in particular, though, demonstrates perfectly the ways in which the nuanced interplay between life and death can speak to the deeper thematic concerns of a play while simultaneously developing characterisation and presenting dynamic and exciting performance opportunities. In this scene, Sophonirus, a slimy courtier representing the interests of a tyrant named, ah, the Tyrant, has been sent as ambassador to win the affections of a woman named, erm, the Lady on the Tyrant’s behalf. The Lady, however, refuses the Tyrant’s proposition, her lover Govianus [1] stabs Sophonirus (then faints), and the Lady takes her own life in order to escape the pursuing Tyrant forever and remain spiritually pure.

Critics tend to view the Lady’s death in the name of her spiritual wellbeing as the virtuous culmination of “a Jacobean saint’s life” [2]. Her virgin victory is, however, emphatically undermined by the simultaneous onstage presence of Sophonirus, whose freshly-dead corpse constitutes a sizable elephant in the room. Before his death, Sophonirus functions as the catalyst for the Lady’s decision to take her own life, and represents the moral depravity of the Tyrant’s court: he would happily subject his wife, were she “so preferred” by the Tyrant (1.1.35), to sexual objectification if there were any chance that they would both be “made by’t” (2.3.75), while the precious jewel which he bears as a gift for the Lady serves as objective correlative to the materialism against which the Lady defines her spiritual “treasure” (3.1.77). The moment, however, that the Lady’s lover Govianus mortally wounds Sophonirus, the comically depraved figure takes on a far more subversive role as his self-fashioning in death scene darkly mirrors the Lady’s in her imminent suicide. This results in a sense within the scene that Middleton juxtaposed conceptions of “good” and “bad” deaths in order to problematise notions of death-oriented self-fashioning rather than celebrate them.

To Sophonirus, death is an opportunity to establish how he wishes to be be remembered, to fashion what might be called his commemorative identity – even in the face of an uncertain afterlife. Although his being stabbed certainly brings about “an end” (3.1.32), he is – impressively! – able to defer this end for fifty-one lines so that he may, quite literally, have the last laugh at the expense of his enemies:

How quickly now my death will be revenged,
Before the King’s first sleep. I depart laughing

To think upon the deed.

[He dies]

‘Tis thy banquet.
Down, villain, to thy everlasting weeping,
That canst rejoice so in the rape of virtue
And sing light tunes in tempests when near shipwrecked,
And have no plank to save us.

(3.1.49-55) [3]

Sophonirus’ dying thoughts are entirely egocentric, and emphasise “only the dying subjectivity itself” rather than any consideration of a spiritual afterlife [4]. The apparent ease with which he takes some measure of control in his own destruction, singing “light tunes in tempests” (3.1.54) not only mimics the defiant early modern criminals discussed by Ralph Houlbrooke, who planned their dying performance, “seeking at all costs to appear cheerful and debonair” [5], but also anticipates the virtuous Lady’s attempts at enacting that same control over her death later in the scene.

The transgressive potency of his self-fashioning is only emphasised by Govianus’ futile attempt to transpose Sophonirus’ laughter with weeping – Govianus’ verbal assault on the corpse cannot, by his own admission, have any influence upon the soul of his enemy. If, as he accepts, the Lady has “no way to scape [her enemies] but in soul” (3.1.83) and we are therefore to read the Lady’s death as a removal from objectification which relies on the separation of body and soul and is worthy of “Eternal praise” (3.1.179), then we must also view Sophonirus’ death in those same terms. While one might construe the courtier’s ignoble fate as emphasising the Lady’s spiritual triumph, the fact that both figures enjoy the same freedom to self-fashion regardless of their respective Christian virtues creates an uneasy association between the two that persists, embodied by Sophonirus’ corpse on the periphery, through the remainder of the scene.

There is, moreover, an intriguing semantic connection between the laughing courtier and the Lady – who, in her own words “scorns death / As much as great men fear it” (3.1.161-2). Sophonirus’ name closely resembles that of Sophronia, who is named in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as one of the early Christian martyrs who circumvented rape through committing suicide. Foxe represented the resistance of these martyrs “as part of the long and ultimately victorious struggle of the Protestant church against Catholic persecution” [6], and Anne Lancashire cites the story of Sophronia as one of Middleton’s primary sources for the Lady’s story [7]. That her name should be echoed by Sophonirus, however, rather than the Lady herself (who remains nameless throughout) attaches to the courtier a peculiar semantic resonance by which he resembles nothing less than a martyr for depravity – one who tarnishes the Lady’s own martyrdom by enacting what Middleton’s Christian audience would have considered a “bad” death glorifying everything which the Lady opposes.

The suggestion of a thematic and morally transgressive correlation between Sophonirus and the Lady becomes all the more apparent once the Lady has taken her own life, as the scene requires that, for however brief a moment, the bodies of Sophonirus and the Lady, both dead characters played by living, breathing actors, lie alongside that of the Lady’s “fearful master” Govianus, who has fainted. In this fleeting instant Middleton creates a tableau of living death within which, as far as his audience are concerned, there is very little visually different between the three bodies. But rather than being hindered by the use of living actors to play dead bodies – what Susan Zimmerman describes as theatre’s “failure to represent the corpse” [8] – the scene seems to exploit this problematic theatrical convention, at once “aggressively meta-theatrical and sensational”, capitalising on the “symbolic potential” of the dead body [9]. While the events prior to this tableau leave the audience in no doubt that the Lady in life occupied a moral position superior to both Sophonirus and the “poor-spirited” Govianus (3.1.151), by visually levelling the “good” and “bad”, the alive and the dead, Middleton symbolically deconstructs the distinctions between these dichotomies. In doing so, he gives his audience cause to question whether or not she has gained anything by it in death.

In The Maiden’s Tragedy, though, the spiritual destination is only half of the story, and the dead inevitably suffer bodily and commemorative re-fashioning regardless of the strength of their subjective will. This fact is aptly demonstrated when Govianus subsequently manipulates the dead Sophonirus, re-fashioning his corpse in a manner similar to Hamlet’s appropriation of Polonius’ “guts” in Elsinore (3.4.202). By placing Sophonirus “Against the door” so that when the Tyrant’s soldiers “rush in”, “Blinded with fury” and with their “ungoverned weapons” drawn, they will believe that they are responsible for his death (3.1.181-3), Govianus successfully places his “lord All-Ass” (3.1.189) into the midst of an entirely new narrative in which his “prattling” was the reason for the Lady’s death: “All your intents he revealed largely to her”, reveals Govianus, “And she was troubled with a foolish pride / To stand upon her honour, and so died” (3.1.216-219).

Not only, then, is Sophonirus blamed for “his own folly” in standing too near the door (3.1.191), but he is also branded a traitor by the Tyrant’s men despite his final thoughts having been of the King: “We have done the King good service to kill him”, says the First Fellow (3.1.223). This exchange involving the Tyrant’s armed guards, Govianus, and Sophonirus’ corpse, while relatively brief, nevertheless situates the scene firmly within the contest of the conventional post-Reformation distrust of “the materiality of the body, and – at the most profound and originary level – the materiality of the corpse” [10]. By acknowledging the corpse as something which might be “reinscribed”, to borrow Zimmerman’s term, Middleton evokes a theological tension that colours our understanding of the final moments of the scene which see Govianus carry the Lady’s corpse away.

As “honest and religious” as the Lady is (3.1.239), and despite her dying wish to be free from physical constraints, the fate of Sophonirus’ corpse indicates that she is no less vulnerable than he to posthumous bodily re-fashioning, and anticipates her disinterment by the Tyrant in the second half of the play.

For more on self-fashioning in early modern death scenes and public executions, why not read this article about Anne Boleyn’s last dying speech? It’s got puns!


[1] The exact nature of the relationship between Govianus and the Lady is unclear, as Anne Lancashire has observed. Although the Lady is referred to in a song as Govianus’ “wife”, she is also apparently free to marry the Tyrant, and the play repeatedly insists upon her virginity (4.4.117; 4.5.26; 3.1.176). I subscribe to Anne Lancashire’s view that probably “we are to consider them as betrothed to one another” (see [2], 267, n.2).

[2] Lancashire, Anne. “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy: A Jacobean Saint’s Life”. The Review of English Studies, 25/99 (August, 1974). 267-279. 279.

[3] Middleton, Thomas, The Lady’s Tragedy: Parallel Texts, ed. Julia Briggs, in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Words, eds. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2010 [first published 2007]), 839-906. All citations taken from this edition.

[4] Barker, Roberta. “‘Another Voyage’: Death as a Social Performance in the Major Tragedies of John Webster”. Early Theatre 8/2 (2005). 35-56. 45.

[5] Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480-1750 (Oxford: OUP 1998), 188.

[6] Briggs, Julia. Introduction to Thomas Middleton. The Lady’s Tragedy: Parallel Texts ed. Julia Briggs. Thomas Middleton: The Collected Words eds. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2010 [first published 2007]). 833-838. 836.

[7] Lancashire, 271-2.

[8] Zimmerman, The Early Modern Corpse and Shakespeare’s Theatre (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 106, 13.

[9] Ibid., 13.

[10] Zimmerman. “Animating Matter: The Corpse as Idol in The Second Maiden’s Tragedy”. Renaissance Drama: Performing Affect New Series 31 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2002). 215-245. 216.

Featured image credit: Peter Viney’s Blog (https://peterviney.wordpress.com/stage/the-changeling/)

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