Imaginary Betrayals: Subjectivity and the Discourses of Treason in Early Modern England

Imaginary Betrayals: Subjectivity and the Discourses of Treason in Early Modern England

Imaginary Betrayals: Subjectivity and the Discourses of Treason in Early Modern England

Imaginary Betrayals: Subjectivity and the Discourses of Treason in Early Modern England


In 1352 King Edward III had expanded the legal definition of treason to include the act of imagining the death of the king, opening up the category of "constructive" treason, in which even a subject's thoughts might become the basis for prosecution. By the sixteenth century, treason was perceived as an increasingly serious threat and policed with a new urgency. Referring to the extensive early modern literature on the subject of treason, Imaginary Betrayals reveals how and to what extent ideas of proof and grounds for conviction were subject to prosecutorial construction during the Tudor period. Karen Cunningham looks at contemporary records of three prominent cases in order to demonstrate the degree to which the imagination was used to prove treason: the 1542 attainder of Katherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, charged with having had sexual relations with two men before her marriage; the 1586 case of Anthony Babington and twelve confederates, accused of plotting with the Spanish to invade England and assassinate Elizabeth; and the prosecution in the same year of Mary, Queen of Scots, indicted for conspiring with Babington to engineer her own accession to the throne.

Linking the inventiveness of the accusations and decisions in these cases to the production of contemporary playtexts by Udall, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kyd, Imaginary Betrayals demonstrates how the emerging, flexible discourses of treason participate in defining both individual subjectivity and the legitimate Tudor state. Concerned with competing representations of self and nationhood, Imaginary Betrayals explores the implications of legal and literary representations in which female sexuality, male friendship, or private letters are converted into the signs of treacherous imaginations.


Think not the King doth banish thee,
But thou the King…


Whether we look to government records, to legal histories, or to theatrical representations, we find ample evidence that treason was perceived as an increasingly serious threat, policed with a new urgency, and publicized with fresh intensity during the sixteenth century. To ensure that trials would gather attention, the Crown convened open arraignments, offered evidence into the record even when the accused had pled guilty, employed circuit judges and preachers to provide official accounts of traitors’ misdeeds and convictions, and published pamphlets. In explaining these events, scholars have tended to identify treason more with a political than with a cultural story. The discursive energies of the cultural story, however, are my interest. In discourses of treason, elusive, troublesome conceptions of gender, affiliation, and homeland were repeatedly argued. And although prosecutors attempted to establish a definitive point of view—in Pierre Bourdieu’s formulation, “to impose a universally recognized principle of knowledge on the social world” —they did not necessarily succeed. What we find is that in legal proceedings and in dramatic writings, flexible forms of “imaginary practices” (a phrase adopted from treason prosecutions) were continuously contested. Instead of being dominated by one voice and perspective, the trial genre is characterized by disagreement and dispute. Because these legal discourses were widely circulated and consumed through all levels of society, treason trials provide us with an important site for analyzing the volatile discursive relations among the Crown, subjects, and writers for the stage in early modern England. Both the legal and the literary disciplines are devoted to representing ways of “knowing” the English subject, and both claim to represent the truth about that inscrutable figure. Nicholas Udall, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Kyd, to name only a few, employ elements of contempo-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.