The Fatal Contract

"The Fatal Contract: A French Tragedy" is a Caroline era stage play, written by William Heminges. [Carol A. Morley, ed., "The Plays and Poems of William Heminge", Madison, NJ, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006.] [William Heminges, "The Fatal Contract", Anne Elizabeth Chard Hargrove, ed., Kalamazoo, MI, Medieval Institute Publications, University of Michigan Press, 1978.] The play has been regarded as one of the most extreme of the revenge tragedies or "tragedies of blood," like "The Spanish Tragedy" and "Titus Andronicus", that constitute a distinctive sub-genre of English Renaissance theatre. In this "most graphic Caroline revenge tragedy...Heminges tops his predecessors' grotesque art by creating a female character, Chrotilda, who disguises herself as a black Moorish eunuch" and "instigates most of the play's murder and mayhem." [Virginia Mason, "Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800",Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005; pp. 121-2.]

Performance and publication

"The Fatal Contract" was most likely written in the 1638–39 period, and was acted, probably in the latter year, by Queen Henrietta's Men at the Salisbury Court Theatre. Heminges's primary source for plot materials was the "General Inventory of the History of France" by Jean de Serres, published in English in 1607. [Mason, p. 121.] The play was first printed in 1653, in a quarto issued by the actor turned stationer Andrew Pennycuicke. (The edition's preface is co-signed by "A. T.," thought to be Anthony Turner.) The booksellers dedicated the play to the Earl and Countess of Nottingham. The prefatory matter in that edition indicates that Heminges was deceased by 1653. A second edition followed in 1661 from bookseller Richard Gammon.

During the Restoration, Elkanah Settle adapted Heminges's play into his "Love and Revenge" (1675). The original 1653 text was reprinted in 1687 under the alternative title "The Eunuch".

hakespearean influence

Among the writers of the later Jacobean and the Caroline eras, Heminges was perhaps the one most deeply influenced by the works of Shakespeare. "The Fatal Contract" is thick with borrowings from Shakespeare's works. [Joseph Quincy Adams, Jr., "William Heminges and Shakespeare," "Modern Philology", Vol. 12 No. 1 (May 1914), pp. 51-64.] The play shows particularly intense linkages with "Hamlet", "Othello", and "King Lear", and commonalities with other works in Shakespeare's canon.


"By 1638 the disguised Moor had become a theatrical convention." [Mason, p. 122.] Richard Brome's "The English Moor" (c. 1637), almost contemporaneous with Heminges's play, is a noteworthy example.


"The Fatal Contract" is set in the earliest period of the French monarchy. Childerick is king; Fredigond, his wife and queen, is the play's villainess; Clotair and Clovis are their sons. In the play's backstory, Clotair raped Chrotilda, the sister of two young noblemen named Lamot and Dumain (the play's virtuous characters). One of their relatives mistakenly killed the queen's brother Clodimer in revenge, thinking him the rapist; Fredigond is now quietly and systematically exterminating the members of Chrotilda's family. In a macabre touch, the queen maintains a group protrait of the family; she paints in the members — grandmother, parents, infant child — as she kills them off. (In a sudden frenzy of rage, Fredigond stabs the painting.) The queen is assisted in her villainy by a Moorish eunuch called, with brutal literateness, Castrato. Childerick dies; Lamot and Dumain are blamed for the death, but manage to escape.

The prince Clovis is in love with Aphelia, and she with him; but his elder brother, and now king, Clotair is envious. Castrato helps Clotair plan Aphelia's rape. Clovis intercepts his brother; as they fight, Castrato raises an alarm and their mother Fredigond arrives. Rather than trying to stop the fight, she eggs them on. Clotair stabs Clovis, who is carried off, presumably dead.

Ferdigond and her lover Landrey are in her chamber; Castrato sets the room on fire, but the queen disguises her lover as the ghost of Clovis. Fredigond plans to rule the kingdom with Landrey once Clotair, Clovis, and Aphelia are dead. She wants Clotair to execute Aphelia, to placate Clovis's "ghost." Clotair initially falls for the trick, but Castrato, who is busily manipulating the other characters ("on all sides the eunuch will play foul"), informs him of the queen's intentions. Clotair responds by marrying Aphelia instead of killing her.

Lamot, disguised as a surgeon, has discovered that the wounded Clovis is still alive. Clovis masquerades as the ghost of his father Childerick, and terrifies the queen into admitting that she poisoned her husband. Clovis turns Fredigond and Landrey over to Castrato, who starves the imprisoned queen and her paramour, then poisons them. Landrey tries to escape with a concealed dagger; but in his weakened state he is unable to evade Castrato, who trips him, sits on him, and stabs him.

Castrato has convinced Clotair that Aphelia has been unfaithful to him; Clotair binds his wife and Castrato tortures her (he "sears her breast"). Castrato displays the corpses of Fredigond and Landrey, and Clotair understands that Aphelia is innocent and that he has been abused. Clotair stabs Castrato, who, dying, reveals her true identity as Chrotilda. Lamot and Dumain break into the castle with a party of supporters. The play's conclusion indicates that Clotair, Aphelia, and Chrotilda will die and that Clovis will inherit the throne.

The play's verbal echoes of Shakespeare are too numerous to detail. One example may stand for the rest: for Clotair's "And rise black vengeance from the depth of hell," compare Othello's "Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!" in "Othello", III,3,447. For Fredigond stabbing her portrait, compare Lucrece attacking a portrait with her nails in "The Rape of Lucrece", lines 1562-68; rage and a rape context are common to both. Stabbed portraits also can be found in the plays "The Noble Spanish Soldier" (printed 1634) and James Shirley's "The Traitor" (acted 1631, printed 1635). [Fredson Bowers, "The Stabbing of a Portrait in Elizabethan Tragedy," "Modern Language Notes", Vol. 47 No. 6 (June 1932), pp. 378-85.]


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