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Welcome to Episode 152 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

Walking across London Bridge seems like a merry trip for many, or perhaps even a dismissable part of the daily commute if you live in London today, and while travel across the bridge was a normal occurrence for William Shakespeare, as well, what was decidedly different for him is that it often featured heads of executed traitors displayed on the Southgate of London Bridge. Along with severed heads on display, public hangings, disembowelment, and even burning at the stake were very much forms of public entertainment in Shakespeare’s lifetime, drawing crowds who often walked great distances to attend these events. We can see the culture of public executions echoed in Shakespeare’s plays, and those of his contemporaries, and how they choose to display–or avoid–the presentation of death on stage. Here today to take us into the culture of early modern england and help us understand the reasons, methods, and place of public execution and why Shakespeare may have chosen to handle death the way he did in his works, is our guest Murat Ogutcu.

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Murat Öğütcü received his PhD degree from High jit-Seh Peh Hacettepe University, Turkey, in 2016. From August 2012 to January 2013, he was a visiting scholar at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has been the Head of the Department of Western Languages and Literatures at Munzur University, Turkey, from 2016 onwards. He is a researcher at the AHRC-funded project “Medieval and Early Modern Orients” that aims to contribute to our understanding of the medieval and early modern encounters between England and the Islamic Worlds. He has written book chapters and articles on his research interests that include early modern studies, Shakespeare, and cultural studies. His recent essays include “Masculine Dreams: Henry V and the Jacobean Politics of Court Performance,” “Of Fathers and Sons: Inter-Generational and Intrafamilial Loyalties and Conflict in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan History Plays,” “Von Freunden und Fraktionen: Die Historiendramen von Shakespeare [Of Friends and Factions: Shakespeare’s History Plays],” “Julius Caesar: Tyrannicide Made Unpopular,” “Public Execution and Justice On/Off the Elizabethan Stage,” “Shakespeare in Animation,” “Early Modern English Historiography: Providentialism versus New History,” “Comedy and Fun: Is Shakespeare Funny?,” “A Tale of Two Nations: Chaucer, Henryson, Shakespeare, Troilus and Criseyde,” “The ‘Gothic’ in Hamlet,” and “Teaching Shakespeare Digitally: The Turkish Experience.”

Learn more about Murat and his work here:

Öğütcü, Murat. “Public Execution and Justice on/off the Elizabethan Stage: Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy.” Mediterranean Journal of Humanities 6.2 (2016): 361–379. https://doi.org/10.13114/MJH.2016.304

In this episode, I’ll be asking Murat Öğütcü about :

  • Not all executions were done publicly. We can mention Anne Boleyn, or even Robert Devereaux executed in England in 1601, when William Shakepseare was 37, that death was done privately in the Tower of London. Murat, we can see that not everyone sentenced to capital punishment in Shakespeare’s lifetime was killed openly in the public square, so how was the location determined?
  • Shakespeare’s plays depict eye gouging, decapitation, being buried alive, and other forms of pretty dramatic deaths which seem at first like exaggerated ways to kill someone for the sake of performance, but Murat, were public executions in Shakespeare’s England just as dramatic? What were some of the ways people were publicly executed under Elizabeth I?
  • When it comes to staging these kinds of public executions in his plays, for Shakespeare, there is a theme for these public hangings or deaths by execution to take place off stage. Murat, was the theater technology not available for Shakespeare to be able to stage these types of complicated death scenes like hanging or decapitation, or was there a political reason Shakepseare might have chosen not to show executions?

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Subscribe to our email community and get a copy of the ebook, Public Executions in Early Modern England completely free. It includes archival images, paintings, information about public executions, and more! Use this form to sign up and immediately download the ebook.

    The common executioner,

    Whose heart th' accustom'd sight of death makes hard,

    Falls not the axe upon the humbled neck

    But first begs pardon.

     

    Silvius

    As You Like It (III.5)

    witch feeding familiars 1604

    Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew | Smithfield 1546 | Public Domain | Image Source

    Executions were a form of Entertainment

    Public executions were considered a form of entertainment. It was perhaps not considered on the same level as amusement, but it definitely drew a crowd and was designed to be a spectacle. Murat explains,

    Creates a catharsis in the audience (Pity and relief at not being the ones executed) the proximity of the raised scaffold and that of the thrust stage naturally created a shared audienceship that competed with each other for attention. Compared to reality shows or apocalyptic movies. BOth audiences were very noisy and reacted to the shows they were watching. Both executions and theater were for public consumption. Printed versions of the executions could be bought afterwards. Depending on where you were living, you had to spend at least half an hour walking to see public executions (weekly or every two weeks) people literally flocked to the executions. The drama of executions on stage like Shakespeare’s merge spaces associated with the past present theater and history. It was a mashup of reality. Contrary to the real science of execution, the theater could control the reactions more and avoid political response.

    From thence unto the place of execution:

    The witch in Smithfield shall be burn'd to ashes,

    And you three shall be strangled on the gallows.

    Henry VI

    Henry VI Part II (II.3)

    william strachey mermaid tavern group

    Smithfield Agas Map | 1561 | Image used under CCBYA4.0

    Executions were Held at Specific Locations

    Not all executions were done publicly. We can mention Anne Boleyn, or even Robert Devereaux executed in England in 1601, when William Shakepseare was 37, that death was done privately in the Tower of London. The location where you were executed after a death sentence was determined, in part, by your status, but also by the depravity of your crimes. Murat explains, 

    The location was determined by the status of the person being killed and their crime. Multiple sets of relationships. Not the same as rich vs poor or man vs commoner. Society was [hierarchical], regulated, calculated, and there was a time, quality, and quantity that defined the relationship between the wrongdoer and the wrong. Sometimes private executions were done, avoiding the verbal and physical violence of the spectators, mostly they were politically oriented where the state wanted to avoid the response or pushback from the audience (treason or succession). The concealment of these executions could sometimes make the political response of the public worse. The public could make things up.

    The city of Tyburn marked on a map with a symbol of a hanging gallows | from John Rocque's map of London, Westminster and Southwark (1746) | Public Domain | Image Source 

    Two locations known for being the site of executions happening as often as (and sometimes even more frequently than) once week was Smithfield, Tyburn, and the Tower of London. The Tower of London was reserved for high ranking political criminals, whereas other crimes of lower rank and status had specific spots in England set aside for this purpose.Murat explains that each location had a specific kind of execution with which it was associated:

    Apart from the Tower of London, the two most important places [outside of the Tower of London] were Smithfield [was for] quartering and burning and Tyburn (Hyde park) was for hanging.

    Related Episode

    Belong to the gallows, and be hanged, ye rogue!

    Porter

    Henry VIII (V.4)

    Southampton portrait wriothesley

    Old Newgate Prison, which was replaced in the 18th century | Public Domain | Image Source 

    Executions were Brutal and often Grotesque

    When you were convicted of a capital crime in Shakespeare’s lifetime, confinement in a prison often precipitated your execution. Prisons like Old Newgate Prison, were populated with people serving sentences or awaiting death. Examining the history of public executions, the deaths when the time arrived, were just as gruesome as some of the deaths we learn about in Shakespeare’s plays. Murat explains, 

    Traitors to the monarch were hanged, drawn and quartered, elevated by a rope to suffocate, disemboweled and castracted, mutilated, and cut up into parts which were distributed around the country. Religious criminals were burned at the stake, to clean out heresy and mimic burning in Hell. God’s mercy vs God’s wrath, shaking basis of religious defenders. Particular, religious dissenters like Catholics and especially Puritans considered themselves as martyrs, and considered their deaths murders. Nonreligious offenders would be hanged at Tyburn tree. Dozens of people simultaneously.

    Another Episode You Might Enjoy 

    Why, madam, that is to the Isle of Man;

    There to be used according to your state.

     

    Sir John Stanley

    Henry VI Part II (II.4)

    Map of the Isle of Man | Author Eric Gaba | May 2007 | Image used under CCBYA3.0

    Public Executions on Stage 

    When it comes to staging these kinds of public executions in his plays, for Shakespeare, there is a theme for these public hangings or deaths by execution to take place off stage. Murat suggests that choice seems to be artistic license by Shakespeare since contemporaries to Shakespeare like Kyd do show hangings in their plays. 

    Murat shares that, 

    The technology was there [to show elaborate deaths on stage]. Temporary constructions or using the trap door [could facilitate these spectacles]. The reasons for not staging public executions [are not known]. Most of the scandal mongering pamphlets for people executed in Shakespear’s lifetime, wrote about the backstory of the people, not exactly what happened to kill them. Or perhaps the death was too obvious for the audience. For Shakespeare, it was likely a dramaturgical issue.

    Murat’s work draws attention to a class distinction that determines specifically how someone might die for their crimes. In his paper, Public Execution and Justice on/off the Elizabethan Stage: Shakespeare's First Tetralogy Murat draws attention to Eleanor, wife of Humphrey of Gloucester , who, after being accused of witchcraft in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 specifically because she was “more nobly born.” Murat, explains why crimes like witchcraft did not have the same punishment universally:

    Beheading of nobility was considered a privilege (less pain). Keep a distance between nobility and commoners. Proximity would create questioning of distinctions between class, extend to question the distinction between the subjects and royalty. Carefully laid out rules. Nobility were not just people, how the royalty could benefit from the noble death was taken into consideration. Essex, leaders were executed, but others were fine to reintegrate them into the system. An act of mercy shown to others could lower social pressure. Rebelling nobility could be maintained by restricting their financial means as an alternative to capital punishments. Just for being a noble, you could avoid punishment by claiming to be pregnant. Sorceress 1593 claimed pregnancy. Ps51 claimed that chapter, saved Ben Jonson 1598, [after he was found guilty of] killing Gabriel Spenser in a duel. 

    Books & Resources Murat Öğütcü Recommends

    Get the History Guide For This Episode

    Subscribe to our email community and get a copy of the ebook, Public Executions in Early Modern England completely free. It includes archival images, paintings, information about public executions, and more! Use this form to sign up and immediately download the ebook.

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