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  • Imaginary Betrayals: Subjectivity and the Discourses of Treason in Early Modern England
  • Nigel Smith
Karen Cunningham . Imaginary Betrayals: Subjectivity and the Discourses of Treason in Early Modern England.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. viii + 216. index. bibl. $22.50. ISBN:0–8122–3640–8.

Our fascination with the urge to do someone in, and the means of achieving that end, maintain our interest in English Renaissance tragedy. Was it the transformation of legal definition in the course of the sixteenth century that enabled assassins to be given personal moral responsibility that inspired the playwrights, as Martin Wiggins suggested in Journeymen in Murder: The Assassin in English Renaissance Drama (1991)? Was it the relationship between the logics of dramatic plotting and developing theories of law and their application that inspired Lorna Hutson's now well-established and ongoing investigation into the relationship between law and literature in early modern England?

Karen Cunningham's Imaginary Betrayals belongs to this group of studies. Her interest is in the standing of the very trial documents in which the record of treason is kept. Treason pushes all categories to the limits; traitors "call into question pre-existing frames of reference," working "to undercut the ostensible monovocality of a discourse of nationhood." Furthermore, "treason is a discursive category in which certain cultural anxieties emerge into visibility and language, engage with diverse and unpredictable forms of maintenance and resistance." Famously, treason was defined as "imagining the death of the King" by a statute of the reign of Edward III, and in the marital crises of Henry VIII's reign, this was extended to encompass deeds, written, and even spoken words that involved harming the king or his marriage. The king and his advisers thus created a new terror by which subjectivity and state security were mutually defined, and this mutuality, Karen Cunningham argues, was reinforced by Protestant ideologies of a truth that was uncomplicatedly present in speech, a true record of inner intentions. A final chapter explores the letters of Mary Queen of Scots that were used to incriminate her, with a dramatic counterpart in the crucial correspondence of Kyd's The [End Page 645] Spanish Tragedy. The letter is, like other evidence in an investigation, open to different, conflicting interpretations; and like any other piece of evidence, it may be wrong or counterfeited.

The value of Cunningham's study is her demonstration of these new definitions at work in a number of related fields. First is legal rhetoric, as viewed in the growing literature on the law and the legal profession. Then comes a patient reading of the trial of Katherine Howard: her conviction necessitated the negative use of feminine gender categories and the charges that she was a loose woman before she married the king and was therefore unsuitable to be queen; indeed, she had to go. If Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister shows how these gender and property categories were sustained in the drama, it is in the trial of Imogen in Cymbeline that legal proof is exposed as feigned. The Babington Plot of 1586 explores treason in respect of the Roman Catholic "outs" of Elizabeth's reign, whose actions were in their terms not treason but a higher loyalty to an older and truer order for England. Marlowe may have been one of the spies used by Walsingham to infiltrate the conspirators. Cunningham reads the legal terms of the plotters' incrimination as a competition for the meaning of traditional male privileges, located in the discourses of chivalry and courtliness. These shifting turns of identity and nationhood are then seen to map onto both Tamburlaine, Part 1 and Edward II: they are thus the productive motors of the drama .

Trials involve discourse, and so necessarily strictly legal discourse and less-specialized vocabularies interact. Cunningham is especially good at showing how this happens, and how it is part of a long process: the applied history of the common law across many generations. The value of her study is in precisely such attention to the narrative contained in the legal records. Particularly strong is the explanation of why appeals to God or a human collectivity, such as a town, occur at a...


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