Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

'Noble Being Base': Heads, Coins and Rebellion in the Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt (C. 1602)

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

'Noble Being Base': Heads, Coins and Rebellion in the Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt (C. 1602)

Article excerpt

This article examines a lesser-known play, The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt, which, in a trend initiated by David Bevington, and expanded upon by Judith D. Spikes and Julia Gasper, has been read primarily for its topical link to the Essex Rebellion.1 It is the contention of this article that the play should instead be considered for its broader ruminations on the power of the monarchy and the ability of rebels to usurp royal authority through the metaphoric associations of coins and heads, both of which have prominent connection to the main setting of the play: the Tower of London.

Thomas Dekker and John Webster's early Jacobean history play depicts the story of Lady Jane's nine day reign, Mary's succession to the throne, the Spanish marriage, and the rebellion of Sir Thomas Wyatt.2 This article will draw attention to one potentially incendiary aspect of the play: whereby the definitions of monarch and rebel become increasingly liminal, as it becomes progressively more difficult to distinguish those who are 'noble' from those are 'base' (5.2.10). In this play, the semiotics of the head functions as the preeminent sign of political power and also powerlessness. Severed heads signify both the validity and illegitimacy of Mary and Jane's rival claims to the throne of England. The play offers two outcomes for these rival Queens, as defined by two kinds of severed head: one metaphorical, the other literal. The head of one of these Queens will grace the coinage of the kingdom, confirming her status as monarch and signifying their preeminent power and authority, the other's will be gruesomely 'severed' from their body, confirming her status as a rebel and signifying their ultimate defeat and powerlessness (5.2.186). Thus by the end of the play, Mary's 'stately head' becomes a synecdoche for her power and authority, while Jane and her followers end up 'loosing [their] head[s]' (3.1.9; 4.4.38). The term 'crown' experiences a similar slippage between its metaphorical and literal meaning throughout the play. The 'Crown of England' provides an obvious synecdoche for royal power but it also carries more problematic connotations (5.1.27). The term 'crown' is used to refer to the 'light crowns', the counterfeit coins in circulation during the mid-Tudor crisis, which ultimately undermined royal authority and, simultaneously, to the 'crowns that with blood are double guilt', referring to the brutal violence of armed rebellions (4.1.15). By examining the play in these terms, I hope to demonstrate more generally that many compelling arguments and critical opportunities emerge if we take The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt seriously in terms of its use of setting, language and imagery, which theoretically is to insist that the work be read as a nuanced piece of political drama, as opposed to reading it via the simplistic minutiae of one-to-one political allegory.

The only serious academic study of early modern dramatic representations of the Tower of London is Kristen Dieter's The Tower of London in English Renaissance Drama (2008), which interprets the Tower as an unstable icon that can represent both royal power and non-royal resistance.3 But Dieter's new historicist stance, which proffers a rather dogmatic reading of Michel Foucault's work on the 'the new history', belies many of the complexities of early modern history. Dieter's account of The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt focuses on the 'discourse' of 'death and physicality'. Offering a close analysis of the play, Dieter observes that Jane Grey and Guilford 'evoke the Dance of Death', as they reflect on their own mortality during their imprisonment in the Tower.4 Although the setting of the Tower, as a place of incarceration, does offer protagonists the opportunity to contemplate their own mortality and the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures and ambition, this is only one of the Tower's symbolic functions in the play.

In the popular imagination, the Tower has a reputation as a gloomy and forbidding fortress, a place of torture and execution. …

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