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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 10



If closet drama presents us with a method of play text circulation which was of little consequence to the Master of the Revels (and therefore largely unacknowledged by commonly posited models of censorship), drama which was produced for the public stage was the primary concern of Tilney, his predecessors and his successors. The increasing encroachment of the Master of the Revels over London (and then the kingdom’s) playhouses is well established (even if his influence, activities, and acuity has been hotly debated). It is therefore no surprise that the history of the Revels Office is peppered with the Elizabethan authorities’ role in suppressing and punishing playwrights for producing politically sensitive, potentially seditious, or allegedly slanderous dramas. Of course, as Janet Clare and Andrew Hadfield have demonstrated, the editorial role of the Master of the Revels is broadly untraceable, with original manuscripts often long lost. As a consequence, some of the most telling and informative moments of censorship of slanderous material are those celebrated cases which reached the stage and, due to the alleged offence or possible sedition they precipitated, caused the gears of Elizabethan authority to rumble into action. No stranger to controversy, despite his illustrious career as a court dramatist and subsequent favourite of James I, Ben Jonson provides not one but several of the most notorious instances of dramatic suppression.

As Sharpe and Lake term him a, ‘courtly artist’ who nevertheless held ‘serious misgivings about courtiers, courtly culture and even kings,’ Jonson was a stalwart...

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