I was inspired to write this post after reading Brad Friedman’s own post on Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse (1961) at his wonderful blog: ahsweetmysteryblog. In his post he comments on the reoccurrence of allusions to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1611/1623) in Christie’s work, popping up not only in The Pale Horse, but also in By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968), Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), The Hollow (1946) and A Caribbean Mystery (1964). This reminded me of my own researches I did into Christie a few years ago and came across the idea of Christie being influenced or aligning herself with attitudes voiced in Greek and Jacobean tragedy, Macbeth being an example of such a text. Marty Knepper writes that:
‘In several cases, these literary references connect Christie’s own explorations of the nature of evil and justice in the late novels with two periods in which writers created chilling plays about evil and its consequences: ancient Greece and Jacobean England’ (Knepper, 2005: para 29).
As part of the Tuesday Night Bloggers I have already written a piece on my blog about Miss Marple and classical allusions and therefore Greek Tragedy, so this piece is going to focus purely on the role of Jacobean tragedy in Christie’s novels.
Initially forging a link between esteemed “classic” literature and popular detective fiction may seem a little farfetched but firstly, Lesky Albin (1967) suggests that ‘one of [tragedy’s] components is the “need to explain”’ (Albin, 1967: 10), a component which is crucial to any of the revelation scenes in Christie’s novels. Moreover, Poirot who is rather a rationalist, is always trying to explain or find reasons for certain events or actions. Albin goes onto say that:
‘One working definition of tragedy … could be that it constitutes the dramatic expression of an enquiry into suffering…For tragedy, while representing an instance of suffering in dramatic form, always asks why it has occurred’ (Albin, 1967: 10).
Again the question of ‘why’ is fundamental to the investigations Poirot, Miss Marple and Christie’s other detectives undertake.
Here of course I have been discussing tragedy in more general terms but Jacobean tragedy has certain distinctive features of its own in regards to its’ views on evil, justice and life in general. Overall, Jacobean tragedy presents a cynical and pessimistic view on life and humanity and T. F. Wharton (1988) asserts that ‘the Jacobean enquirer tends to expect to find the worst in human nature’ (Wharton, 1988: 4). Does that remind you of anyone? Miss Marple to me seems a perfect embodiment of Wharton’s statement with her mind being likened to ‘a sink’ in A Murder is Announced (1950) and described as ‘know[ing] more about… human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known,’ in The Moving Finger (1942). Additionally in her own words in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) she says ‘I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it.’
Miss Marple also has a definite and uncompromising view on justice and evil. For example, in ‘A Christmas Tragedy’ (1932) she says ‘I have never regretted my part in bringing that man to justice. I’ve no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment’ and this is a viewpoint many Jacobean play characters would have agreed with, though they would much prefer executing the justice themselves in as violent a manner as possible. Irving Ribner (1962), whilst discussing the work of Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton, writes that:
‘There is never any question of the reality of evil or of its absolute distinction from good. Nor is there any doubt of the punishment the sinner must suffer inevitably in a world governed by an inexorable force of divine retribution’ (Ribner, 1962: 9).
Both Miss Marple and Poirot increasingly through the Christie canon hold a similar view to this, with their notions of good and evil being black and white, which is also evidenced in Christie’s use of biblical references and allusions. This is epitomised in Nemesis (1971) when Amos 5 v4 is included, ‘But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ Moreover, the quote from ‘A Christmas Tragedy,’ also parallels the idea in Jacobean tragedy that wrong doers should be punished for their crimes (such as in Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606)) and again in Nemesis there is the strong suggestion that such punishment is inevitable, though the inevitability is coming from the detective, as opposed to ‘divine retribution’.
[Spoiler!!! About Curtain] Furthermore, Poirot takes these beliefs to their Jacobean extreme in Curtain (1975) executing his own form of justice on the killer, knowing the law will be unlikely to touch them and like in so many Jacobean revenge tragedies (a subgenre all of their own nearly), he also dies, arguably as a consequence of his actions. Tying in to this, Wharton (1988) says:
‘the boldest of these plays [Jacobean], make their protagonists ask whether, if there is nothing truly stable about their own identity, that means they are capable of committing all evil, at will. They ask whether what is called conscience will be a sufficient deterrent to committing such evils … All these plays ask, how real is the virtue in other people; and, again, experimental proof is directly sought…’ (Wharton, 1988: 3).
I’m not saying Poirot is ‘capable of committing all evil, at will,’ but his actions in Curtain clearly show that he is capable of killing someone and that his conscience is unable to stop him doing so, as it is his conscience which convinced him that if he does not do this, the killer will keep on killing and the fact he goes through with it can be seen as ‘experimental proof’.
[End of Curtains Spoiler]
[N. B. There are potential minor spoilers below for the following Christie books: Curtain, Towards Zero (1944) and Five Little Pigs (1942). I don’t say who the killer is or how the murder was done but some of my comments touch on motivations and structures of the crimes.]
Specific tragedies from the Jacobean era are also referenced directly in the novels of
Christie. I have already mentioned those which allude to Macbeth, but John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1614) is also included in Sleeping Murder (1976), where the closing lines of this very play sparks off an investigation into a cold case of murder. Othello (1604), another play by Shakespeare is also frequently referred to in Christie’s books directly and indirectly. Directly in Curtain, there is a copy of the play left for Hastings, but indirectly I also think there is a definite Iago
figure, which makes this a more psychologically complex novel. Endless Night (1967) also includes a direct reference to Othello when the narrator says how they played the role of Desdemona’s father as a child. In Five Little Pigs, Othello is also directly referenced when a character says:
“Juliet singles out Romeo. Desdemona claims Othello. They have no doubts, the young, no fear, no pride.”
Thwarted and damage love/romance is central to this mystery and sexual revenge is a key component. This fits in with Jacobean tragedy, especially revenge tragedies, as sexually fuelled revenge features a lot, such as in The Changeling (1622) by Thomas Middleton and John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1629-1633). Furthermore, Towards Zero can be interpreted as a thwarted attempt at a murder motivated by sexual revenge, which in a Jacobean tragedy would no doubt have succeeded (although probably would still involved the death of the revenger).
[Save to resume reading if you were avoiding spoilers]
So that was a brief look at the connections between Christie and Jacobean tragedy. I hope it has been useful and helped you look at the texts in a different light and if nothing else it puts pains to the idea that Christie writes “cozy” mysteries, because as we have seen, quite a number of Christie novels have a much darker side to them. If you know of any other Jacobean plays which are directly or indirectly referenced in Christie’s books do let me know.
Albin, L. (1967). Greek Tragedy. 2nd ed. London: Ernest Benn Limited.
Knepper, Marty S., ‘The Curtain Falls: Agatha Christie’s Last Novels’, Clues, 23 (2005), 69 – 85
Ribner, I. (1962). Jacobean Tragedy. London: Ebenezer Baylis and Son LTD.
Wharton, T. F. (1988). Moral Experiment in Jacobean Drama. London: Macmillan Press.