The Culture of Slander in Early Modern England

M. Lindsay Kaplan, The Culture of Slander in Early Modern England
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), xii + 148 pp., ISBN
The scope of this short, cogently argued book is more limited that its title
might suggest. Rather than exploring the significance of slander in the
culture of early modern England, and the flood of litigation it triggered,
Lindsay Kaplan argues that ‘slander provides a model crucial for the
analysis of power relations between poets and state’ (p. 1). A rather
combative Introduction sets out the limitations of ‘censorship’ as the
paradigm governing these relations, and proposes slander as a more
rewarding means of understanding them. Chapter 1 analyses the legal
framework, noting that ‘slander’ was defined in terms of its effects rather
than its truth or falsity, and surveys royal fears of the slanderous nature of
contemporary satire, which led to the Bishop’s Ban of 1599. The book’s
central thesis is that poets found a way to circumvent this ban. Reversing
the claim that they slandered the state, they presented poets and princes as
allies in the task of exposing and punishing vice. It was not the poet who
was guilty of slander, but those denouncing him as libellous and
seditious. Kaplan pursues this thesis by examining three texts, Spenser’s
Faerie Queene, Jonson’s Poetaster and Shakespeare’s Measure for
Measure. Jonson’s play, she observes, lashes out at the vices and folly of
poetasters while defending the true poet as a moral judge, called to
expose the faults of both subjects and lesser magistrates. This defence of
the poet’s public calling was undermined, however, by Jonson’s failure to
sustain a clear distinction between attacking vices and individuals. His
‘Apologetical Dialogue’ insisted that he had named no names, yet this
play triggered complaints from those who felt targeted, and his response
made it plain that the play was in part an act of vengeance against those
he saw as his persecutors. The Poetaster was as much feud as moral
satire. Finding the moral centre of Measure for Measure presents a far
greater challenge. Kaplan centres her analysis on the behaviour of Lucio
and the Duke, and the relationship between them. The Duke, she notes,
punishes Lucio ostensibly for fornication but really for slandering him;
and yet the Duke himself, both in his own persona and in disguise as Friar
Lodowick, slanders most of the other characters, and indeed most of the
population of Vienna, in the course of machinations designed to bolster
his authority rather than eradicate vice. His own record in government is
dubious, as he acknowledges, and his choice of Angelo equally so,
intended partly to see whether power corrupts, partly to divert public
hostility should Angelo remain true to his charge and impose a regime of
moral repression. The ‘message’ of the pay has remained elusive. While
the Duke triumphs, it is less clear that he has won or deserved respect.
For Kaplan the message is that slander was a two-edged weapon; Lucio is
punished by the victor, but the play calls into question the state’s own use
of public slander and humiliation, and thus its own moral authority. For
Jonson, the poet is the ally of the good ruler; for Shakespeare, a
potentially rival arbiter. In a brief conclusion, Kaplan links these texts to
the work of historians such as Pauline Croft and Alastair Bellamy, who
have explored the proliferation of political libels under the early Stuarts,
and their effect in helping to politicize the nation and undermine the
authority of the Stuart regime.
Scholars would be unwise to dismiss the importance of censorship,
broadly conceived, in shaping what poets and playwrights wrote.
Whatever the limitations and inner divisions of the Renaissance state,
writers were well aware of limits to what was permissable, and generally
sought to operate within them. Kaplan’s book, which begins by arguing
that the concept of censorship serves to ‘distort our understanding” (p. 1),
ends more emolliently by offering censorship and slander as
complementary tools of analysis. On that basis, this thoughtful and
thought-provoking book deserves a warm welcome.
Bernard Capp
University of Warwick