Rebecca Lemon. Treason by Words: Literature, Law and Rebellion in Shakespeare's England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. ix + 234 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-4428-9.
Reviewed by Louis Knafla (Department of History, University of Calgary)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2007)
The Politics of Masked Dissent
One would not necessarily connect the Essex Rebellion of 1601 with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, apart from the hysteria and panic they provoked in the London metropolis and the ensuing trials that captured the public's imagination. Rebecca Lemon uses these two events to explore the role of words that were written about them in contributing to contemporary discussions of sovereignty, allegiance, conscience, and law. Viewing treason trials as interpretive events where judges and jurors examined the intention of the alleged traitor, a textual examination of the discourse finds that in both events dramatists, pamphleteers, lawyers, and historians developed multiple conceptions of "discursive treason" that varied from ungodly rebellion to a legitimate response to tyranny.
After an introductory chapter that summarizes the themes of the book, Lemon focuses her work on John Hayward's Henry IV, William Shakespeare's Richard II and Macbeth, John Donne's Pseudo-Martyr, and Ben Jonson's Catiline. These authors, however, form merely the last parts of the chapters. The focus is on exploring the event, the political and religious contexts, the writings that informed the public sphere, and then the role of the featured literary figure. Assuming with modern scholarship that this was a period lacking a broad consensus on the nature of kingship, its powers and limitations, Lemon explores the interpretive struggles between the irrational language and actions of alleged traitors and their compatriots.
Hayward was condemned by the Crown for both his 1599 best-selling history play of Henry IV and the deposition of Richard II, which linked Hayward to the Earl of Essex's alleged treason in Ireland in 1600, and was sent to the Tower for writing seditious history. In chapter 2, Lemon views this text as loyal to the monarch. While condemned due its association with the Essex Rebellion, its various readings were constricted by the state to mean that writing about deposition and murder signaled seditious desire. Thus the state, by fixing the meaning of the text, "precipitates treason" and converts readers to rebels (p. 25). Hayward's examiners, Chief Justice John Popham and Attorney-General Edward Coke, challenged his method of writing history. Lemon argues that the text, dedicated to and performed before Essex, rehearses contemporary resistance theory found in works of both Protestant and Catholic writers. Written for Essex as a military hero while he was still esteemed, the text mirrors Hayward the civilian lawyer exploring definitions of sovereignty that were being scripted by the Continental legal humanists of the era. Thus his detention was the result of the events of 1600-01 that made the words of a royalist seditious speech.
Shakespeare's 1595 Richard II engages treason and sovereignty by depicting two kings who were both traitors and monarchs. In chapter 3, Lemon argues that Shakespeare's portraits reveal the cost of political chaos for moderates who tried to navigate between competing versions of sovereignty and obedience. Presaging the debates in Hayward, Shakespeare portrays Richard II as a lawless monarch, a tyrant who, through an extension of the royal prerogative, creates the opportunity for resistance, deposition, and civil war. Written a year after Robert Person's Conference, Shakespeare utilizes his argument that a coronation oath is a binding contract between monarch and people, giving them the right of deposition despite its horror as "Christological martyrdom" (p. 57). Characters use guarded speech in planning their rebellion, using the economic language of commerce and contract. Thus Lemon argues that the events of 1600-01 were equally responsible for the interrogation of Shakespeare's company if this play was indeed the one commissioned by Essex's allies the night before their revolt.
The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot provoked both royal triumph and debate on the limits of the royal prerogative. In chapter 4, Lemon posits that Shakespeare's 1606 Macbeth, seen as a royal play, undermined the rhetoric of divine right sovereignty through Malcolm while staging forms of sovereignty familiar to Essex's followers. Whereas Essex's Catholic followers had expected James to relax the recusancy laws for their loyalty, his failure to do so brought their opposition which resulted in part with the Gunpowder Plot. Macbeth was performed for Queen Anne as a celebration of her husband's exposure of the plot, of sovereign power, and of the execution of traitors. Lemon argues that the scaffold speeches use duplicitous language that joins lawful king to tyrant, one learning deception and the traitor's art from the other. She also explores them to expose the riddles and show how audiences saw them as fiction. Donne's 1611 polemic of the Pseudo-Martyr is seen as forming a debate on James's 1606 oath of allegiance. In chapter 5, Lemon interprets this text as a defense of the subject's right of conscience against the government's policies on recusancy. The oath of allegiance enacted by James's Parliament in May 1606, which raised literary warfare across the Continent, has been interpreted as regulating Catholics and embodying a theory of absolute monarchy. Lemon, however, sees the literary and polemical literature not as political chaos, but as extending public debate beyond the monarchy. While the literature generated by the state used James's claim to have discovered the conspiracy to plead his divine godliness, that of Donne modified submission to the monarch with "the sovereignty of one's own conscience" (p. 112). Donne urged Catholics to take the oath, separating spiritual from temporal authority. This "sovereignty of the mind" (p. 126) separates Catholics from their pope as well as undermining an individuals' blind obedience to the king.
Jonson's 1611 play of Catiline considers the government's application of emergency powers to monitor potentially treasonous acts. In chapter 6, Lemon shows the ways in which this work exposes the relationship of sovereignty to treason, exposing the threat of treason to the rights of subjects. Jonson, who converted to Catholicism in 1598 and dined with the Gunpowder conspirators, reconverted to the Anglican Church in 1610. His play on treason (a box office flop) revolved around Cicero's exposure of Catiline's treason against the Roman Republic as a celebration of James's defeat of the Gunpowder plotters. While many writers challenged the extension of absolute power from war to peace, Catiline's claim to undertake treason in the name of liberty leads Jonson to explore the ramifications of using the ends to justify the means. According to Lemon, this forces the audience "to think through the issues of law, conscience, and necessity" (p. 157) in James's exercise of power. Like Donne, Jonson challenged royal support based on sovereignty by divine right.
The conjunction of law and literature does not always make an easy marriage. Like the historical and legal sides of legal history, it is often difficult to bring the research methodology and theory of both disciplines to bear on a subject. Lemon, however, is largely successful in bridging this gap and producing a book that is informative and intellectually challenging on both fronts. For the early modern historian, there will be some misgivings. For example, who represents the "state"? Did Popham and Coke interrogate according to the will of the monarch or of certain political and religious interests?
While the historical background is well developed, too often older works are used where more modern studies would have been relevant. For example, as the writings of King James are central, the collected essays that examine his writings would have been useful. The same could be said for recent work on the examinations of Hayward and Essex. With reference to literary studies, the author could have benefited from recent essays on John Donne, and a recent study of literature and the state. In the broader sphere, one could look more closely at how the themes of the plays worked with their audiences. Finally, while perhaps too late for this book, as the writings of Catholic priests are important here, readers should see the recent study of priests and the Gunpowder Plot.
The book closes with a rather strange four-page afterword on the late chief justice William Rehnquist's views on liberty and wartime powers. More appropriate would have been an afterword on this subject in the early modern era. The text is ably documented, and there is a useful bibliography of printed primary and secondary materials. In spite of these reservations, this is a book to be read and appreciated for the insights it provides into the murky world of late Elizabethan and Jacobean politics, religion and culture.
. Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier, eds., Royal Subjects: Essays on the Writings of James VI and I (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).
. Allen D. Boyer, Sir Edward Coke and the Elizabethan Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 273-88. See John Cramsie, "Review of Allen D. Boyer, Sir Edward Coke and the Elizabethan Age," H-Albion, H-Net Reviews, March, 2004; http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=257171081146925.
. On John Donne, see David Colclough, ed., John Donne's Professional Lives (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2003). For a recent study of literature and the state, see Andrew McRae, Literature, Satire and the Early Stuart State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). See Jason Peacey, "Review of Andrew McRae, Literature, Satire and the Early Stuart State," H-Albion, H-Net Reviews, June, 2005; http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path+245991122322357.
. This is referred to from time to time, and could have been expanded with the kind of analysis done by Lawrence Manley, Literature and Culture in Early Modern London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
. Alice Hogge, God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot (New York: Harper Collins, 2005).
. Such as Ian Hunter and David Saunders, eds., Natural Law and Civil Society: Moral Right and State Authority in Early Modern Political Thought (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).
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Louis Knafla. Review of Lemon, Rebecca, Treason by Words: Literature, Law and Rebellion in Shakespeare's England.
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