An Englishman’s Home is His Castle? Shakespeare’s Violent Homes
In Woody Allen’s Amazon Prime series, Crisis in Six Scenes, his character Sidney suffers a home invasion. Sidney complains:
‘This is my home, this is my castle, you’re going into the moat!’
Allen is drawing on an Elizabethan proverb that still resonates today:
This proverb encapsulated the ideal of a home as a bedrock of the state, ruled over by the (male) householder, and protected from dangers outside.
As the proverb gained in popularity in the legal manuals and sermons of late Elizabethan England, a new genre was emerging in the playhouses: a group of plays which staged tragic events in the homes of ordinary men and women, often based on recent, local, and grisly true crimes. These plays – which have since been described as ‘domestic tragedies’ – explored the paradox of the proverb: ‘home’ should be the place where we are safest, a defensible ‘castle’, but when things go wrong, home can become the place where we are most vulnerable.
In Shakespeare’s England, there was a real anxiety that the idealised home could become violent: an anxiety that writers repeatedly displaced onto the world beyond the home. In his ‘Description of England’, contained in Holinshed’s famous Chronicles, William Harrison complains about beggars, comparing those who are found ‘gadding’ about the countryside in order to beg with ‘thieves, robbers, despisers of all laws, and enemies to the commonwealth’. He suggests that the homeless are the major threat to the security of the home. Yet the crimes of which the beggars are accused – theft, rape, and murder – could just as easily occur within the four walls of a house.
In his sensational language about the ‘despisers of all laws’ who roam the highways, Harrison’s rhetoric is strikingly similar to that used in the press about violence, and especially violence against women, today. ‘Stranger danger’ has become a shorthand that obscures the prevalence of domestic violence. Similarly, the image of a rapist lurking in a dark alley can distract attention from the fact that the majority of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and that victims are often raped in their homes.
The same was true in early modern England. Domestic tragedies challenge Harrison’s insistence that violence only exists outside the home, placing the home’s vulnerability centre stage. Yet these plays represent the main threats to domestic security as female sexuality. Domestic tragedies stage powerful women who commit adultery, and even murder. In so doing, they reinforce the anxieties of early modern culture, suggesting that an autonomous woman is also a dangerous woman.
In Othello, Shakespeare does something different. Led astray by the misogynist and racist language of his friend Iago, Othello becomes convinced that his wife Desdemona is committing adultery. Iago becomes a mouthpiece for contemporary anxieties about female sexuality – but, unlike the heroines of other domestic tragedies, Desdemona is innocent of the crime of which she is accused.
It is Othello, and not Desdemona, who is a threat to the security of his home: because he believes his wife to be adulterous, he kills her. Shakespeare exposes the dangers inherent to the ideal that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’: because of Othello’s authority as householder, visitors from Venice do not interfere, even when he publicly strikes and humiliates Desdemona. They will not disturb the privacy of the marital bedchamber until the servant Emilia screams that she has discovered his wife’s murdered body. The unwillingness of outsiders to interfere in the idealised sphere of the castle-home proves fatal to Desdemona.
My new book Shakespeare’s Domestic Tragedies explores how Shakespeare draws on cultural conversations about domestic violence on the page, stage, and street, to create new versions of domestic tragedy. In Othello, Shakespeare draws on the genre of domestic tragedy in order to challenge the stereotype of the adulterous wife. Male violence stemming from the suspicion of female sexuality is shown to be more destructive to domestic security than female sexuality itself: a message that still resonates today.