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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 8



Whilst the historical origins of the Inns of Court remain notoriously elusive, the close bond between the Inns’ activities and the foundations of early modern English drama are well documented. Often collectively referred to as ‘the third University of England,’ the collective London Inns (Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple) had, by the Elizabethan period, grown in both stature and members.1

As sites of organised legal training, these institutions provided students of the law with an educational community and places of residence and, whilst the quality of that legal education has been reflected on with some cynicism, the Inns were the ‘literary centre of England’ for the bulk of Elizabethan period.2 Indeed, to Adam Wigfall Green, it was the very lassitude of the common law curriculum of the Inns of Court which stimulated writing, as the sites became a focal point for ‘poets, dramatists, and many of the juvenilia.’3 He further recognises that the Inns ‘provided a better background for literature than did the great universities, which were for a long time confined to Latin and Greek mathematics.’4 In order to underscore his ←131 | 132→point, Wigfall Green goes on to note the cluster of notable minds which passed through the Inns’ various halls during their educative years: from Sir Thomas More and Sir Philip Sidney to Ben Jonson and Francis Bacon. So too does Shakespeare retain a connection, with his Comedy of Errors reported as first being presented to the assemblage...

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