Treason by Words

Treason by Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare's England

Rebecca Lemon
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Treason by Words
    Book Description:

    Under the Tudor monarchy, English law expanded to include the category of "treason by words." Rebecca Lemon investigates this remarkable phrase both as a legal charge and as a cultural event. English citizens, she shows, expressed competing notions of treason in opposition to the growing absolutism of the monarchy. Lemon explores the complex participation of texts by John Donne, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare in the legal and political controversies marking the Earl of Essex's 1601 rebellion and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

    Lemon suggests that the articulation of diverse ideas about treason within literary and polemical texts produced increasingly fractured conceptions of the crime of treason itself. Further, literary texts, in representing issues familiar from political polemic, helped to foster more free, less ideologically rigid, responses to the crisis of treason. As a result, such works of imagination bolstered an emerging discourse on subjects' rights. Treason by Words offers an original theory of the role of dissent and rebellion during a period of burgeoning sovereign power.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6226-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Sovereignty, Treason Law, and the Political Imagination in Early Modern England
    (pp. 1-22)

    The discovery of the treasonous Gunpowder Plot depended on a letter. An anonymous note, delivered at night to William Parker, Lord Monteagle, attempted to warn him away from the Parliament building: its cellar was stocked with gunpowder ready to be ignited once the king and his councilors entered on November 5, 1605. Monteagle, however, could not decipher the letter, nor could the secretary of state Robert Cecil, the earl of Salisbury. Only King James, as the story goes, could discover the treasonous event it foretold:

    After the reading of it, the king made a pause, and then reading it again,...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Treason of Hayward’s Henry IV
    (pp. 23-51)

    Conveyed to the Tower in 1600 for writing an allegedly seditious history of Richard II, four years later the writer and lawyer John Hayward found employment as a history tutor to King James’s son. He wrote about one of his conversations with Prince Henry, noting how he cautioned the prince against history writing; he told him that

    men might safely write of others in maner of a tale, but in maner of a History, safely they could not: because, albeit they should write of men long since dead, and whose posteritie is cleane worne out; yet some alive, finding themselves...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Resistance in Richard II
    (pp. 52-78)

    Queen Elizabeth’s famous remark, invoked at the end of the last chapter, brings us to the era’s fullest examination of the deposed medieval king: Shakespeare’s Richard II. This play appeared in an atmosphere where politic histories on Richard II were far from neutral, even before February 7, 1601, the night when the earl of Essex’s allies commissioned a performance of “King Henry the Fourth and of the killing of Richard the Second, played by the Lord Chamberlain’s players.”¹ The rebels’ precise relation to Shakespeare’s play remains elusive: while the scholarship of Leeds Barroll and Blair Worden has helped to turn...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Scaffolds of Treason in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
    (pp. 79-106)

    The threat posed by the Essex Rebellion prompted no new legislation, no draconian measures. Instead, rather than function as a triumph for Elizabeth, the prosecution of Essex’s treason proved to be one of the more traumatic moments of her reign. The period after the rebellion produced neither a literature of condemnation nor of celebration of treason—which was Elizabeth’s focus during the two years leading up to the rebellion—but rather tragic accounts of the earl’s fall.¹ Mourned as one whose “excellent parts were so great,” the earl seemed a victim of his enemies at court: “the envy which attends...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Donne’s Pseudo-Martyr and Post—Gunpowder Plot Law
    (pp. 107-136)

    Having investigated, in the previous chapter, Malcolm’s pragmatic sovereignty in his fight against demonic treason in Macbeth, this chapter turns to King James’s own response to treason in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. Here, James’s own form of pragmatic sovereignty emerges, and to questionable effect. Amid scaffold speakers, criminal investigations, and the atmosphere of “fog and filthy air” characteristic of treason, James conducted the opening session of Parliament that had been the target of the Gunpowder plotters.

    This 1606 meeting naturally provoked fears among the king’s Catholic allies, as suggested in a letter by the Venetian ambassador to England,...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Treason and Emergency Power in Jonson’s Catiline
    (pp. 137-160)

    The previous chapter traced the philosophical and religious issues raised by King James’s post–Gunpowder Plot policy on the oath of allegiance, focusing on John Donne’s defense of the right of conscience in his polemical Pseudo-Martyr. In this chapter I examine a related right at stake in the oath crisis and the post–Gunpowder Plot era more generally: the rule of law in relation to the king’s emergency power. The ideological debate around questions of wartime power, familiar as we shall see from 1606 and 1610 Parliaments, drives Ben Jonson’s 1611 Roman play, Catiline. In the contentious environment of post–...

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 161-164)

    The question of whether laws should fall silent in war is an urgent one. States tend to define or redefine themselves in moments of crisis, when wartime leaders may invoke discretionary powers to suspend certain laws and liberties. In the name of necessity and the common good, such leaders may temporarily violate constitutional principles or common law traditions. But emergency actions produce long-term effects. In distinguishing between principles fundamental to the survival of the state and contingent practices that can be deferred temporarily, leaders face a thorny question: what laws and liberties can be revoked in an effort to preserve...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 165-202)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 203-222)
  13. Index
    (pp. 223-234)