By Sara Read
The ongoing explosive storyline between Helen and Rob Titchener being played out on the BBC Radio 4 show, The Archers has attracted a lot of attention. The plot is one of domestic abuse by coercive and controlling behaviour, which culminated in Helen stabbing Rob in Sunday night’s episode (3.4.16 available on Listen Again here). If you’re not familiar with the story so far, you can catch up here. Listeners have been spellbound by the plot which has been played out slowly to match the reality of the build-up of this abuse in as close to a real-life timeframe a possible.
Reactions to the plot have been mixed with some commentators noting how it has served to raise awareness of both the topic and the UK laws which have been recently updated to include controlling and coercive behaviours alongside physical violence. And another positive aspect of the story is the founding of a fund to raise money for Refuge in Helen’s name (the fund stood at £92,000 on Monday 4.4.16).
One argument against such storylines is that domestic violence should not be used as popular entertainment, but throughout the history of literature, of course, domestic violence has featured as a theme. Indeed as the plot drew to its climax on Sunday evening the journalist Jane Merrick from the Independent newspaper tweeted that the thunderclap inserted at that moment was ‘very Shakespearean’.
Interestingly in light of this, one example of historical literature that tells the story of domestic violence by verbal abuse initially then extreme physical violence, is the short play A Yorkshire Tragedy published in 1608 and initially attributed to William Shakespeare himself. It is now thought to be part of the Thomas Middleton canon. A transcription can be read here. The play dramatises the real-life story of ‘Walter Calverley’s murderous attack on his wife and children on 23 April 1605, which left his two eldest sons dead and his wife injured’, as Lisa Hopkins explains.
The play does not name the characters, referring to them by their roles alone. It begins with the ‘wife’ describing how her husband terrifies her with his words and body language long before he became physically violent too:
His fortunes cannot answer his expense.
He sits and sullenly locks up his arms,
Forgetting Heaven looks downward, which makes him
Appear so dreadful, that he frights my heart; 
Returning home from having lost all their money, the substantial sum of 500 angels, gambling, the husband verbally abuses his wife, blaming her for his actions:
A vengeance strip thee naked, thou art cause,
Effect, quality, property, thou, thou, thou!
In the course of his accusations, the husband claims his three sons are all bastards begotten adulterously by his ‘strumpet’ wife. As now, the husband’s behaviour to his wife was not deemed acceptable in the seventeenth century and in the play four gentlemen remonstrate with him, eventually drawing their swords against him. The husband is injured but the fourth gentleman explains that their intention was not to kill him but to get him to change his ways:
Alas, that hate should bring us to our grave!
You see my sword’s not thirsty for your life.
I am sorrier for your wound than yourself.
Y’are of a virtuous house: show virtuous deeds;
‘Tis not your honour, ’tis your folly bleeds.
Much good has been expected in your life:
Cancel not all men’s hopes. You have a wife
Kind and obedient: heap not wrongful shame
On her, your posterity. Let only sin be sore,
And by this fall, rise never to fall more.
And so I leave you.
This intervention inevitably makes things worse for the wife and her husband vows to extract his revenge for his humiliation upon her. The play depicts the husband’s dominant behaviour in detail, such as when their young son unwisely complains that he has no room to play with his spinning top because ‘you take up all the room with your wide legs’. For this comment the child is picked up and murdered by his father. In the next scene, the wife is asleep in bed while the maid cares for their toddler child. The maid tells the infant, ‘sorrow makes thy mother sleep’. On seeing the man carry his bleeding, stabbed eldest son, the maid screams out, but husband shouts that he will break her neck:
I’ll break your clamour with your neck downstairs:
Tumble, tumble, headlong!
[Throws her down.]
So, the surest way to charm a woman’s tongue
Is break her neck:
In an incredible intensifying of the brutality, the couple’s next son is murdered in his mother’s arms. She is also badly injured in the struggle. The boys have died because their being reduced to beggary would bring the husband shame. In his murderous rage, the husband refuses to see that his gambling and high living have cost them the family fortune, brought to him through his wife’s generous dowry.
The wife faints at the horror, and the husband then sets off to seek out their youngest child, a baby out at a wetnurse:
My horse stands ready saddled; away, away!
Now to my brat at nurse, my sucking beggar:
Finding the carnage and assuming the wife is dead, the Master of the college enters the room and hears her breathe and sends for medical help: ‘Surgeons, surgeons! She recovers life!’ The master is ready to raise the town against the murdering husband, and he is soon apprehended having not reached his baby. He is brought to face charges at his house and his weak battered wife is carried out on a chair to see him. He is amazed to see that she is still alive, having left her bleeding and, as he thought, dying. The wife explains that his previous words and other humiliations have injured her far more than the physical injuries from which she is still bleeding heavily:
Tut, far greater wounds did my breast feel:
Unkindness strikes a deeper wound than steel.
You have been still unkind to me.
‘Still’ here means always and ‘unkind’ means unnatural as the husband has not behaved appropriately to his wife for the duration of their marriage. Like many women nowadays who withdraw charges against their violent partners, the wife is ready to forgive her husband, despite the horror of seeing their two boys lying dead before them. Even upon learning that her baby is safe, the wife instead claims that she would rather have clemency for her husband:
Dearer than all is my poor husband’s life.
Heaven give my body strength, which yet is faint
With much expense of blood, and I will kneel,
Sue for his life, number up all my friends
To plead for pardon my dear husband’s life.
The husband acknowledges that he will be hanged for his heinous crimes, but hopes other husbands will learn from his example:
Let every father look into my deeds,
And then their heirs may prosper while mine bleeds.
This sentiment perhaps sums up the impetus for staging this bloody story: not for entertainment alone but like a morality tale from the previous era, to act as a lesson. The husband receives the punishment due to him as a wife-beater and child-murderer. Perhaps this too, ultimately, is what The Archers will achieve with its storyline: a raised awareness, that the perpetrators of these acts can and will be punished.
Dr Sara Read is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. She recently published a popular history of women’s lives in the seventeenth century: Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives 1540 – 1714 (Pen and Sword, 2015).
 ‘A Yorkshire Tragedy and Middleton’s Tragic Aesthetic ‘ on Early Modern Literary Studies (8.3) 2003 <https://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/08-3/hopkyork.html>
Image: Illustration of the play A Yorkshire Tragedy, from The Works of William Shakespear. Volume the Sixth. The first illustrated edition of the plays, Nicholas Rowe, 1709; Wikimedia Commons.