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Slander and Sedition in Elizabethan Law, Speech, and Writing

Steven Veerapen

The Elizabethan era is generally understood to coincide with the blossoming of English language – it was the age of Shakespeare, Sidney, and Marlowe. Yet it is known also as a period of brutality and repression: saying or writing anything against the state, the queen, or its governors might result in hanging, fines, or the loss of limbs. Defaming neighbours could and frequently did result in a day in court, with slander emerging as a byword for unacceptable speech and writing.

Academic interest has long been divided into studies which focus on the power relations underpinning literary production, the ways in which authorities sought to suppress and censor transgressive material, or the role slander played in religious polemic. This book will explore the legal backdrop which helped and hindered the production and curtailment of slanderous and seditious material across multiple sites. In so doing, it will seek to uncover exactly how slander and sedition were defined, regulated, punished, and, ultimately, negotiated by those who grappled over control of discourse.

Through examination of the legal, theatrical, and religious conditions of the age of Elizabeth, this study will provide an explanation of the rise of the flagrantly slanderous political discourses of the seventeenth century.

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Chapter 1



One would like to think that, even in the Elizabethan period, the law provided clarity in its pursuit of justice. To do so would, unfortunately, be to embrace idealism. Based on precedent, English common law was an amorphous beast, constantly evolving as cases arose; and, in terms of slander, arose they did – with alarming frequency. To illustrate something of the complexity of slander suits, it is instructive to consider a number of potential scenarios:

Even the consideration of these manifold scenarios is problematic. What if the nefarious John was of a far lower rank than Robert? What if he was of a higher rank? What if, in the scenarios involving words against the Queen, he spoke them during a heated political climate, or wrote them and circulated them under a pseudonym? Further, depending on the courtroom in which he found himself and the laws or legislation under which he was tried he might find himself defending or mitigating the words he expressed; the intent behind them; the situation in which he ←32 | 33→expressed them; the real-world effects of them claimed by his accusers; or he might be denied defence completely. Intent, audience, and effect were determined by trial or prior investigation, again depending on the court involved – and which of the three would be given the most attention depended on the laws under which the alleged slanderer was tried. The clarity we like to associate with legal process suddenly becomes rather clouded. And yet scenarios similar to...

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