Early Modern Drama and the Meaning of Horror

Picture this: a dark wizard has just banished you from the 21st century, and after hurtling through time and space for a while, you have woken up in London, in 1614. While you are confident that someone will be along to rescue you shortly, you need to find something to pass the time. In early modern England, what is a horror fan like yourself to do?

You’re in luck. In 1614 you are just in time to catch the first performance of one of the era’s most deliciously macabre tragedies: John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. [1] Based on the true story of Giovana d’Aragona, a noblewoman who was executed after marrying below her status, Malfi is a psychologically intense and spectacularly violent play that is set apart by Webster’s beautiful but grotesque verse. Malfi belongs to the genre of revenge tragedy, which typically features murder, ghosts, taboo behaviours like cannibalism or incest, and mounts to a frenzied violent climax. This genre has lots in common with modern horror.

For reasons that I hope will become clear, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact moment of inception for the horror genre as we know it today. Nonetheless, I am wary of anachronism. John Webster and his contemporaries were not writing for the horror genre. Why then do I believe they have a place on Horror Obsessive? It seems that part of the mission of this essay is to justify my own impulse to write it. As a fan of both Jacobean revenge tragedies and modern horror movies/TV, I want to explore the connections between the two, and in doing so I might uncover something about the “horror” in Horror Obsessive.

Arguably, some components of the horror genre—death, gore, the supernatural, etc—have been so consistently present in Western arts and literature throughout history that they are immune to anachronism. Gore is gore, right? The question is, if we find all the paraphernalia of the horror genre in proto-horror literature, then what does it mean to call it “proto-horror”? What is the genre for, and what happens to the genre when it is stretched across vastly different historical contexts?

The obscene

Musicians play on the candle-lit stage of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse—a faithful recreation of the Blackfriars Theatre, located in central London.

Webster wrote Malfi to be performed at an indoor theatre called Blackfriars, after finding that his work was too esoteric for the mainstream Shakespeare-loving outdoor theatre crowds. It was more expensive to watch a play at an indoor theatre; the audiences were, therefore, wealthier and their tastes more particular. They liked their comedies satirical and their tragedies emotionally complex, the gorier and bawdier the better. These audiences loved Webster and his preoccupation with the obscene (the word obscene literally means “off-stage”, as “scene” comes from the Greek for “stage”—it refers to things that are too ill-omened to be put into a theatre). 

I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play

Have by the very cunning of the scene

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaimed their malefactions.

—Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Hamlet [2]

The audience and the actors being so close to each other in the indoor theatres gave the performances a heightened degree of intimacy. The Duchess and Antonio’s romance, therefore, was perfectly suited to the indoor stage, and the fact that spying and eavesdropping are so important to the plot of Malfi is no coincidence. Physical proximity to the actors also makes the audience privy to their most perverse thoughts, and more complicit in their actions. An advantage to being indoors was being able to utilise darkness in a way that the outdoor theatres could not. The dungeon setting in Malfi is highly significant; these scenes in Malfi take the metaphorical darkness of the text and make it a physical reality. 

Flesh and blood

There is an argument to be made that the horror genre is not defined by its components, but rather by the effect these components have on the audience. Simply put, horror is something that scares you in the same way that comedy is something that makes you laugh. In a 1991 article titled Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess Linda Williams named horror, melodrama, and pornography as the three “gross” genres, because each genre is in pursuit of bodily reactions from the audience. [3] We use the corporeal terms “blood-curdling” and “bone-chilling”; a good horror movie might make the hairs on your neck stand up, or make you scream out loud. At the top of this essay I might, therefore, have been too quick to say that “gore is gore” because, although blood and guts have always pretty much looked the same when they are spilled across a stage or a screen, maybe gore is not defined by what it looks like but by what it means to an audience.

“Is man no more than this?” Asks King Lear, beholding the almost-naked body of Edgar, before tearing at his own clothes. [4] “This is flesh and blood, sir,” says The Duchess, courting her soon-to-be lover. The human body is invaluable in the narrative opportunities it provides. All the things it can do…or have done to it. Moreover, I think that our bodies frighten us. This was even more true in the 17th century when they didn’t have modern medicine to explain all the various oozing that the human body does. These fears had (maybe still have) an element of misogyny to them; in Malfi, Ferdinand describes the female body as “a bark / Made of so slight weak bullrush” i.e., a poorly constructed vessel that was bound to let in water. The female body was particularly fearful to men who thought it was inexplicable and unreliable. 

Having said this, early modern audiences may have been less squeamish at the sight of blood than we are. From antiquity to 19th century Europe, blood (including menstrual blood) was consumed or bathed in for its supposed healing properties. [5] Nowadays we are so uptight as to use blue instead of red in sanitary pad commercials. Moreover, if you lived in London in 1614, it is likely that you would see real horrors in your everyday life. Anyone who has seen BBC’s Gunpowder will know of the kind of gruesome public executions that took place in Jacobean England. Beheadings, hangings, disembowelment…and even if you weren’t in the crowd for them, you may not have been able to escape the hollow gaze of the severed heads atop Westminster Hall. 

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is well known for its relentless savagery, including scenes of cannibalism and sexual assault…there is a particularly shocking moment where Titus cuts off his own hand on stage. [6] 21st Century theatre has seen gory adaptation after gory adaptation, each sparking the same conversation about violence in art. What does it say about us when we seek out ways to make the atrocities of Titus more atrocious? One thing I took away from the research for this essay is that the desire to indulge in the carnivalesque is something that modern horror fans share with people and societies across all of history. The concept of “catharsis” is older than Christianity. This is why the lengthy and contentious moral debate about violence in entertainment is of no interest to this essay. For what it’s worth, it’s clear to me that at least part of the appeal of staging Titus (or indeed Malfi, which has had its fair share of blood-soaked adaptations in recent years) is the opportunity to make a big mess on the stage. Theatre is, after all, about play. 

Lavinia screams silently as blood pours from her mouth and arms
Titus (1999)

Shakespeare’s King Lear has something of a fixation on our corporeal forms, what with the graphically violent blinding of Gloucester, the repeated references to Lear’s aging body, and the shedding of clothes to reveal the skin beneath. In Edmund’s famous speech about the stigma of bastardy he makes reference to his “dimensions” and “shape.” The reason for this is that the human body is a great equaliser. King Lear is not unique in expressing this theme:

For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart!

Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!

When that this body did contain a spirit,

A kingdom for it was too small a bound;

But now two paces of the vilest earth

Is room enough.

—Prince Hal, Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One [7]

I can’t help but speculate that John Webster might also have been a fan of Henry IV Part One (a new edition had been printed in 1613, around the time that Webster was writing Malfi). The above dialogue is echoed twice in Malfi. “Thou art a box of worm-seed,” says Bosola to The Duchess, as she is approaching execution; later, “much you had of land and rent / Your length in clay now competent.”

Lear, a man accustomed to wealth and power, must reckon with the fact that he is made of the same stuff as everyone else—and this stuff is falling apart. Aging is one of those bodily processes that we find most frightening (utilised most disturbingly in The Shining) because it reminds us of our inevitable decay. Clare Gittings wrote that in the early modern period “the problem of death” moved from a collective to an individualistic one, where the emphasis was on the immediate family of the deceased. [8] As with many things in newly-Prostetant England, grieving was less and less a communal activity, and increasingly something that was done in private. The result was an increasing anxiety surrounding death. Gittings cites “the growth in the use of coffins at burials” between the 16th and 17th centuries as evidence of the growing fears about decomposition. 

Death, then and now

The dramatic significance of death is that it is a sudden and absolute separation. But how strong is our distinction between living and dead, really? The public displays of mourning following Elizabeth II’s death demonstrated en masse that this distinction was not clearly marked at the moment of physical death. Would the tradition of lying in state have any significance if we were fully committed to the belief that physical death marks an outright end to a person? 

I will concede that Elizabeth II was a particularly unusual case. The English Reformation marked a turning point in common attitudes toward death. In Medieval eschatology the living are able to shorten a dead person’s stay in purgatory through prayer—this allowed for the link between living and dead to be maintained, and would have provided comfort to the bereaved. Removing purgatory from the canon put an end to this, and Clare Gittings wrote that “from the Reformation onwards, the funeral ritual was stripped of any eschatological purposes, but simply served to dispose of the corpse”. [9] The rituals of mourning were truncated, and the distinction between living and dead became more pronounced.

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;

To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot…

—Claudio, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure[10]

Which is scarier—that the dead could rise again, or that death might actually be the final, irrevocable end? There are horror stories about loved ones dying, and horror stories about them returning. Perhaps the real fear of, say, zombies and ghosts, is that your loved ones could become not quite themselves. Body horror in zombie movies certainly exploits our fear of decay and illness (returning to my point about aging) and it is unbearable to think of watching a loved one’s body fall apart. As for ghosts—they are there, but not quite there. I am reminded of King Lear, and the sadness of Cordelia witnessing her father lose his rational faculties. 

The central generic image of the corpse reminds the viewer of extinction. Anxiety arises, thereafter, from the conceptualisation of the ‘un-dead’, which resists the notion of finality and demonstrates the perpetual agonies of a non-corporeal or sub-human existence.

—Paul Wells[11]

Religion and superstition

The ways that religion appears in horror might be separated into these categories: the horror of extreme religious practices or religious hypocrisy, the horror of divine punishment, and the horror of non-belief. 

Of the three, the first is probably the most common in modern horror. In the 16th/17th century, it’s not that there weren’t people who mistrusted the Church, it’s just that they were not at liberty to say so. The only way to criticise hypocrisy in religious figures in the early modern stage was to make them Catholic; one only needs to look at Malfi’s villainous Cardinal to determine the popular contemporary feelings about Catholicism. Following the Reformation, England was officially Protestant, and Catholics were feared and persecuted. Less than a decade before Webster wrote Malfi, Catholic conspirators had made an attempt on the King’s life in the Gunpowder Plot. The Cardinal is a womaniser and a murderer—he kills his lover by having her kiss a poisoned Bible. The defective religious figure later became a trope of the Gothic genre (e.g. Joseph in Wuthering Heights).

The horror of divine punishment can be seen in Dante’s Inferno (14th century) which contains detailed descriptions of Hell. Today we are (generally) more secular and less god-fearing than in the medieval and early modern periods, so the horror of divine punishment would be a less effective way to frighten modern audiences. Of course, stories like Twin Peaks certainly use a kind of damnation (the Black Lodge) to evoke fear. The 20th century saw the rise of UFO lore, and I would argue that this is the fear of a higher power, repackaged. Stories of abduction and alien infiltrators frighten us by suggesting that we might be at the mercy of something we cannot see or understand—something of greater intelligence that appears from the sky. The X-Files takes this idea very seriously, even arguing that “what we call God is only alien,” and frightening us with visions of an apocalypse brought about by these god-like extraterrestrials. [12]

Another example of the horror of divine punishment comes from the ending of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. [13] The story of Faust and Mephistopheles was a popular German folk story at the time. As in Marlowe’s play, Faust summons Mephistopheles, a representative of the Devil, while experimenting with magic; he makes a deal with the Devil promising his soul in return for knowledge and power. At the end of the play, Faustus does not repent and is dragged to Hell. Part of the fun of staging plays such as Dr. Faustus is creating illusions on stage so that the audience might believe they are witnessing real magic. The thrill of the theatre is “to wonder at unlawful things” (Faustus). In fact, in 1632 William Prynne claimed that during one performance of Faustus actual devils appeared on stage.

People of early modern England were highly superstitious. In 1555, a peasant was hanged and dismembered as punishment for donning a devil costume and parading in public demanding money from others lest he drag them out of their beds at night. [14] And it was put down to demonic possession when a young woman called Anne Gunter (who later confessed she had been acting) began regurgitating pins out of her nose and mouth. This case attracted the interest of the King himself. [15] An influential source for Jacobean playwrights was James I’s 1597 treatise on witchcraft, Daemonologie. The King was a full believer in magic, and he was not alone; you might even pass on the streets of 1614 London, some practitioners of dark magic, alchemy, and the occult. Magic appeared in a great number of early modern plays, as a comedic device (e.g. A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or one of fear (e.g. The Tempest) and it was an effective way for playwrights to introduce spectacle into their work.


Horror stories have monsters. Not universally, nor exclusively, but mostly they do. The monster is either an expression of Evil, or it is a test for human nature (e.g. “how much are you willing to endure for your survival?” And “are you really a good person?”). The monster challenges the status quo in order to frighten us with how fragile the status quo is. For example, when Norman Bates kills his mother he challenges the familial bond that many believe to be sacred. They may represent a primordial world of instinct and physical imperative, where rational man is no longer king—for example, the loss of rational faculties and the fearful natural world in King Lear. Or, as with Hal 9000, they may show that man is no longer king because of an even greater intelligence. The monster is sometimes a punishment for sexual practices—bloodlines and society aside, the monsters of Malfi are essentially out to punish The Duchess for having sex, or at least Ferdinand is: “she’s loose i’th’hilts, / Grown a notorious strumpet.”

In the modern era, monsters are frequently related to prejudice. This is an exciting direction that modern horror is taking—Gothic novels were home to the outcast and the disenfranchised, but were limited to allegory. Jordan Peele explores the monstrosity of racism, but it needn’t be abstract, because the monsters in Get Out are blatantly the white characters. Unfortunately, this kind of monster can also be written from the side of the oppressors: the Kindred, from an episode of The X-Files called “Gender Bender,” are a murderous sex-changing race of aliens, and presumably a projection of cis-hetero fears in the face of the sexually ambiguous queer liberation movement that caught mainstream attention at the end of the 20th Century. “Monster is to ‘normality’ as homosexual is to heterosexual.” [16]

Historically, the Duchess of Malfi and her brothers were the children of an illegitimate child of King Ferdinand I of Naples. He was a real-life monster. If an enemy of his died, he would have their body embalmed, dressed up, and put on display in a private museum—a perverse Madame Tussaud’s. If he suspected someone of plotting against him, he would take them on a tour of his corpse collection to scare them off. This awful story reminds me of a scene in Malfi where Ferdinand presents the Duchess with wax figures of her (seemingly) slaughtered husband and children. 

Ferdinand strokes the cheek of a wax figure of his dead nephew
Ferdinand presents The Duchess with wax figures of her husband and child.

The “perverse and turbulent” Prince Ferdinand, filled with rage and shame, and sinful desires, eventually succumbs to an illness known as lycanthropia. King James I wrote about lycanthropia in Daemonologie; it is a condition where the patient believes they have turned into a wolf. James I and Webster had only an early modern understanding of psychiatric conditions, of course, but even today portrayals of Ferdinand’s lycanthropia are often equal parts frightening and comedic.

In the play, Ferdinand is described as “a deadly cannon that lights ere it smokes”—a cannonball firing from a cannon was often used as a metaphor for the soul leaving the body after death, but the image of a cannon firing prematurely could foreshadow that Ferdinand’s soul leaves his body even before he dies. There are many indications that Ferdinand is lacking some essential human quality, like a soul—his brother calls him “deformed” and “beastly” for example. The lycanthropia might be didactic, an ironic punishment for his predatory nature. Otherwise, it could be a manifestation of shame—he cannot stand to be himself anymore so he becomes a wolf. 

Another, less obviously monstrous, monster of the early modern period was the atheist. In the 16th and 17th centuries, an atheist was a specific category of non-believer with specific immoral and hateful traits. They were often portrayed on-stage (e.g. the eponymous Dr. Faustus, and Aaron of Titus Andronicus) in fact you might think of the early modern atheist as a purely fictive archetype because while there were certainly non-believers, no one at the time would have self-identified as an atheist. This is the kind of monster that upsets the status quo; non-belief was feared because it theoretically gave non-believers permission to act in all kinds of ungodly and upsetting ways.

One of the most popular monsters in modern horror is the human mind. Gothic novels were usually introspective, but “psychological horror” as a subgenre came into its own after Hitchcock’s Psycho. Our definition of “psychological” has been influenced heavily by Freudian theory, which was of course unavailable to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. And yet, Webster’s Ferdinand, a powder-keg of taboo sexual desires, is perhaps a textbook case of Freud’s “return of the repressed.” Moreover, modern audiences can clearly recognise and sympathise with the psychological plight of Macbeth:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight, or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

—Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Macbeth [17]


I am of the opinion that a horror fan who found themself stranded in London, 1614, would be well catered for. But can we technically call The Duchess of Malfi a horror story? 

I began by pointing out that some early modern plays share aesthetics and paraphernalia with modern horror movies. This is a serviceable way to think about genre, and it is certainly interesting to ask why we have been telling stories about ghosts and werewolves for centuries.

Although, the post-Psycho era of modern horror, with its focus on human monsters, bloody violence, and the collapse of the family unit, would seem to have more in common with early modern revenge tragedies than the pre-Psycho era does. [18] The aesthetics have not evolved in a linear fashion—there are re-visitations, rather than continuations. If horror stories are stories that include violence, murder, paranoia, and psychological distress, then yes, Malfi is a horror story.

A counterargument to this is that horror is not about the paraphernalia, but what the paraphernalia do. That is to say, they don’t have to be anything as specific as ghosts and werewolves, so long as they are evoking fear in the audience. I am compelled by what Linda Williams wrote about the “gross” genres, and how horror might be defined by the bodily reaction it produces in the audience—the human body being such a prominent subject of horror that this makes a satisfying circle.

However, the genre is not solipsistic, and the human body is perhaps too individualistic a judge. We could alter the definition to say that horror must express the fears of a society rather than an individual, and this is certainly something I have begun to explore in this essay. The audience for any genre must stand in a certain time and socio-political context. Science fiction, for example, obviously depends on however the audience defines science, and science is notoriously inconstant. People in the early modern period studied magic and necromancy as a science, but I don’t think Dr. Faustus has anything meaningful in common with Star Trek. Likewise, some fears are inconstant. When talking about monsters I said that some kinds of monsters are frightening because they displace man as king. But not everyone believes, or has believed, that man is king, because they believe in god and providence. The most we would be able to say, therefore, is that The Duchess of Malfi is a horror story now and not that it was a horror story then.

The genres of tragedy, comedy, and history were posthumously imposed on Shakespeare’s works. Neither Shakespeare nor his contemporary audience were concerned with these categories. “Revenge tragedy is itself a modern term, coined retroactively in order to make observations about the common usage of revenge plots in early modern drama. Our modern view of the genre can be quite static; any story that does something new must be subverting a pre-existing genre. Within the umbrella of “horror” there exists an infinite possibility for subgenre. Even the “modern” in “modern horror” is ambiguous, because there is pre-Psycho horror and post-Psycho horror, horror made for the cinema and horror made for streaming. These would be hard enough to compare without the added dissonance of 400 years of history and culture. And yet as Horror Obsessive, we clearly agree that grouping these things together is meaningful. Genre does something

Genre is…marketable. Calling Malfi a horror story probably made you more likely to read or watch it, and maybe, as a John Webster super-fan, that’s what I wanted all along. Genres are familiar—if we like one horror movie, we are likely to seek out more, and if we like a genre, then people like us are likely to like it too. 

To answer my question of what happens to genre when it is stretched across vastly different historical contexts. In his 1996 book Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? A.D. Nuttall used a Wittgensteinian analogy to illustrate the bagginess of “tragedy”:

[…] in fact, (Wittgenstein) suggested, the word ‘game’ connotes a sort of family tree, one game linked to the next by one element, another by another, and so on. The case of tragedy, it might be urged, is similar. Greek tragedy, according to this account, may now be seen as great-aunt, say to Elizabethan tragedy (and how much have you in common with your great aunt?). [19]

It can be true that genres evolve and move with the times, and change from things as distinct as revenge tragedies to Gothic novels to post-Psycho horror. And that there are generic commonalities across the history of storytelling. These commonalities emerge by direct influence—as Shakespeare influenced the Romantics, or as Matheson influenced King—or by common inspiration. According to Nuttall’s model of generic genealogy, is The Duchess of Malfi a horror story? No. But it absolutely is related to modern horror.

If you live in or around London, you might catch a play at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for the near-authentic experience. Else, I recommend the 2014 production of The Duchess of Malfi, which is currently available on BBC iPlayer. It remains a favourite of mine.


  1. Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. 1623. Edited by Brian Gibbons, Bloomsbury, London, 2014.
  2. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1603. Edited by T.J.B. Spencer, Introduced by Alan Sinfield, Penguin Classics, London, 2015.
  3. Williams, Linda. Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess. Film Quarterly, vol.44 no.4 (Summer 1991) pp. 2-13. University of California Press
  4. Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1608. Edited by George Hunter, Penguin Books, London, 1972.
  5. Groom, Nick. The Vampire: A New History. 2019. London. Yale University Press.
  6. Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. 1594. Edited by Sonia Massai, Introduction by Jacques Berthoud, Penguin Classics, London, 2015.
  7. Shakespeare, William. Henry IV Part One. 1598. Edited by G.B. Harrison, Penguin Books, London, 1938.
  8. Gittings, Clare. Death, Burial, and the Individual in Early Modern England. Routledge, 1988
  9. ibid.
  10. Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. 1623. Edited by J.M. Nosworthy, Introduction by Julia Briggs, Penguin Classics, London, 2015.
  11. Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. Wallflower Publishing Ltd, London, 2000.
  12. Carter, Chris. Manners, Kim dir. “Requiem”. The X-Files. Season 7, Episode 22, Fox, 2001.
  13. Marlowe, Christopher. Dr Faustus. 1604. Edited by Sylvan Barnet, Signet Classics, 2010.
  14. Katritzky, M. A. Travelers’ tales: magic and superstition on early modern European and London stages. In: Theile, Verena and McCarthy, Andrew D. eds. Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. pp. 217–238.
  15. Shapiro, James. 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. London: Faber & Faber, 2016.
  16. Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1997.
  17. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. 1623. Edited by George Hunter, Introduction by Carol Rutter, Penguin Classics, London, 2015.
  18. Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. Wallflower Publishing Ltd, London, 2000.
  19. Nuttall, A.D. Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? Clarendon Press, 1996.

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Written by Christopher Lieberman

Writer, actor, John Webster appreciator. Talks about The X-Files a lot.

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