In Thomas Heywood's Apology for Actors (1612), which contributes to the lively debate over the theater in Renaissance England, two murderous wives make cameo appearances. Against claims that the theater displays and corrupts women, Heywood argues that the theater is instead an arena in which criminal women can be found out and controlled. For Heywood, to imagine women as theatergoers and spectators is to imagine them as adulterous and murderous wives, waiting to be discovered. Arguing that plays are not only morally instructive, but have been "the discoverers of many notorious murders," Heywood offers two "domestike and home-borne" examples of the "education" of murderous wives.

In one, for instance, a woman who sees an unusual murder enacted on stage-a nail driven through the victim's skull--confesses to killing her husband in a similar way. As Heywood remarks approvingly: "This being publickly confest, she was arraigned, condemned, adjudged, and burned." In defending the theater as a means of, rather than an obstacle to, social control, Heywood employs the figure of the murderous wife as a representative of the social disorder that the theater can suppress by exposing. In his narrative, women are spectators and spectacles, agents of violent action and objects of control, murderers and wives. In this essay, I am interested in the cultural conditions peculiar to early modern England that enabled writers like Heywood to use the figure of the murderous wife as the embodiment of such irreconcilable contradictions.