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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 7



Slander and sedition intersected with drama in a number of interesting ways. As in our introduction to the law courts, it is worth considering a number of them.

Each of the above find expression in the records, which suggests that any understanding of how drama and slander operated must perforce be multifaceted. It is unlikely that any single model of how the two operated can account for every scenario.

Given the high number of slander and defamation suits in the early modern law courts, and the strategies commonly employed amongst both litigants and lawmen in condemning and defending libellous language, it is no surprise that the politically charged arena of the stage – bolstered as it was by the dramatic output of the Inns of Court – was intertwined with legal developments. Both the felonies and tort of slander, in handwritten, spoken, and printed forms were public dramas played out with remarkable frequency in the law courts. It is therefore understandable that the dramatic possibilities of slanderers’ actions provided material suitable irresistible to writers.

Perhaps the most commonly analysed intersection of early modern drama and slanderous discourse is that recognised by M. Lindsay Kaplan in her Culture of Slander in Early Modern England: that is, the role of the state censor in suppressing and editing plays. Certainly, this seems to be a well-trodden path in the academic study of theatrical defamation. In his overview of recent study in the area, Andrew Hadfield recognises the ‘productive and...

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