Treason by Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare's England.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. x + 234 pp. index. bibl. $39.95. ISBN: 0-8014-4428-4.
Rebecca Lemon's Treason by Words addresses, first, how treason was defined when most believed England and its monarch were threatened by enemies without and within. Second, it addresses the legality of the means used to combat treason. Lemon's New Historicist approach to these problems puts them in a troubling contemporary light.
She begins this analysis with Henry VIII's 1534 statute that defined as treason any language that limited or threatened the king's majesty. Henry's redefinition was challenged immediately and the succeeding hundred years saw it modified, ignored, reinstated (by Elizabeth) and expanded (by James). Lemon claims that resistance to this definition created a prolonged controversy that substantially expanded the space for personal liberty. Her analyses of works by Shakespeare, Donne, and Jonson illustrate this claim. Before addressing Shakespeare, however, Lemon turns her attention to John Hayward's prose history, The First Part of the Life and Raigne of King Henrie IV (1599). Lemon points out that the arguments in favor of Richard II's deposition that Hayward puts into the mouth of the Archbishop of Canterbury echo the arguments for Elizabeth's deposition. Lemon indicates how the controversy surrounding Hayward's subsequent prosecution produced competing definitions of treason and sovereignty.
In chapter 3 Lemon places Shakespeare's Richard II in the context of Hayward's Henrie IV and his subsequent prosecution. Her analysis of Richard II is one of the highlights of the book. She marshals an enormous amount of data to argue that Richard, by defining treason so broadly, provokes resistance that qualifies as treason even by older definitions. Thus Shakespeare, she says, comments on the paradox of sovereign power undermining itself through definitions of treason aimed at making that sovereignty more secure.
While Lemon's analysis of Richard II is convincing and sometimes brilliant, her analysis of Macbeth in chapter 4 seems more problematic. Lemon begins this chapter by analyzing a selection of scaffold speeches and comparing them to the speech of the condemned Thane of Cawdor, whose execution opens Macbeth. She then argues that such speeches, including Cawdor's, were highly formulaic and possibly insincere. Cawdor's speech is reported by Malcolm, and the crux of her argument is that, throughout the play, Malcolm's lines are duplicitous: she even suggests that Malcolm's report of Cawdor's scaffold speech may be entirely fictitious. Lemon thus claims that Malcolm is a traitor too, that he is attempting to usurp the throne: "he [Malcolm] treasonously attacks a legitimate [!] monarch" (99). Malcolm, she says, has learned that "the successful king combines the attributes of monarch and traitor, negotiating between legitimacy and fabrication in order to establish his rule" and that Malcolm's duplicitous behavior stems from his witnessing Cawdor's scaffold speech, even though she had previously suggested that the speech was never given (103). Lemon seems to impute treason to any use of language that was not transparent and truthful.
After this excursion into radical revisionism, Lemon returns to more secure ground when she places Donne's Pseudo-Martyr (1610) in the context of the 1606 law requiring all citizens over the age of eighteen to take an Oath of Allegiance. Lemon proceeds to show that the oath provoked challenges from both moderate Catholics and moderate Protestants. Into this controversy came John Donne's Pseudo-Martyr, a prose tract that encouraged Catholics to take the oath of allegiance. Lemon shows that Donne distinguished between obedience and mere submission, a distinction not found in James's own defense of the oath. Lemon cogently explicates Donne's arguments to show that he wished to lead his reader to a Protestant definition of conscience--that is, a conscience ultimately responsible to divine grace--but, Lemon says, Donne smuggled a Trojan horse into King James's camp. For Donne's definition of conscience can also forbid taking the oath. Donne's theology seals off the individual conscience from James's absolutist claims. Again Lemon shows that an attempt to buttress a radical definition of treason actually provides a space for liberty of conscience.
Lemon concludes her study with a penetrating analysis of Ben Jonson's Catiline. She shows that the Catilinian conspiracy had obvious parallels to post-Gunpowder Plot England. The conspiracy was overthrown by Cicero, who, as consul, acted extralegally by having the conspirators summarily executed. Catiline is thus usually seen as an endorsement of James's emergency powers, but Lemon's reading finds a good deal more irony and ambiguity in the play. Lemon argues that Jonson, like Donne, undermines the "simplistic dichotomy" between the ruler's will and the good of the nation. Lemon concludes the chapter by claiming that post-Gunpowder Plot England was wracked by public debate among both Catholics and Protestants about the legal parameters of treason. Despite James's continual assertions of absolute power, he faced challenges from not only radical Jesuits but also from Protestant and Catholic "middlegrounders" (159).
In a somber afterword Lemon claims that her study illustrates "the danger the law itself poses as a mechanism for increasing state authority in a time of emergency" (163). Lemon adds that threatened states simply cannot distinguish between necessary and oppressive strategies for dealing with treason. That task, she says, falls to the arts. Lemon's book provides valuable New Historical leverage on how early modern English writers dealt with the problem of treason and tyranny, a problem becoming familiar again.
JOHN D. SCHAEFFER
Northern Illinois University
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|Author:||Schaeffer, John D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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