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History plays, Catholic polemics and the staging of political economy in Elizabethan England

The image of the projector (now, entrepreneur) has attracted critical attention in the history of science, mercantilism and political economy. This character, like the ‘puritan’ discussed in Chapter 2, is often associated with Ben Jonson’s city comedies, written in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. This chapter reveals that pioneers of commercial plays active from the 1580s in fact used history plays to explore the abuse of royal prerogative and other corrupt behaviours soon associated with the projector. These earlier plays exposed proto-projectors' vices and their abuse of royal power more clearly than Jonson did. Their depictions were indeed as unforgiving as Catholic attacks upon the Elizabethan regime. The Elizabethan history plays even invited the audience to detect corruptions and condemn the underlying appetite for power, profit and sex in ways anticipating the participatory politics on the eve of the Civil Wars. Far from being invented singlehandedly by Jonson, Elizabethan theatres and print industry first provided a platform for creative practices of stereotyping – collective search for an emerging pattern of problematic behaviour, and identification of causes using existing assumptions. Only then did a character-based stereotype of the projector come to be elaborated by a literary genius: Jonson.

But what is a Projector? …

Why, one that projects ways to enrich men, or to make ’hem great, by suites, by marriages, by undertakings[.]

Ben Jonson, The Devil Is an Ass (1:7, 9–12)1

The stereotype of the projector played a leading role in the politics and political imaginary of the early Stuart period and beyond. As a literary character, it reached full expression first in the plays of Ben Jonson, most notably The Devil Is an Ass (first performed in 1616). Political and economic historians have shown that, in real life, projectors such as Giles Mompesson and William Anys often enjoyed close ties with the successive royal courts of James I and Charles I, and procured numerous grants for monopolies and other privileges that proved highly controversial. Such men, and the character they embodied, were the villains in Parliamentary debates of 1601, 1621 and 1624.2 When Charles I’s personal rule finally collapsed and gave rise to the Long Parliament that opened in November 1640, its members swiftly condemned ‘all Projectors and Monopolists whatsoever; ... or that do receive, or lately have received, any Benefit from any Monopoly or Project’.3 The accusations against those projectors and monopolists working for the king and his evil counsellors were central to the political thinking of those who took up arms against the king. Such accusations even fed into the emergence of the Leveller ideology. Projectors and the wrongs perpetrated by them fuelled the constitutional crisis of the mid-century.4

Existing accounts (my own included) have tended to trace the figure of the projector back to Jonson’s Devil Is an Ass quoted at the beginning of this chapter.5 As we shall see, however, monopolies and other forms of legal and economic policy proved highly controversial by the late 1570s, just at a time when commercial theatres began flourishing in London. Though rarely noted by scholars, texts and performances under Elizabeth addressed these issues head on, in effect offering penetrating accounts of projectors and their vices before the invention of the term. To demonstrate, this chapter concentrates on three Elizabethan history plays that deal most extensively with proto-projectors: George Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra (printed 1578), Thomas of Woodstock (composed by an anonymous author, 1591–5?) and Thomas Heywood’s First and Second Parts of King Edward IV (printed 1599).

Some readers might suppose that in order to avoid censorship and punishments plays like these avoided obvious allusion to present politics. This chapter shows the direct opposite was the case: analyses contained in these plays were so politically trenchant as to be comparable to the critique of the Elizabethan regime penned by its sworn enemies: persecuted Catholic minorities. These plays were in some respects even more radical than Catholic writings, especially in highlighting the monarch’s culpability, and in stressing the capacity of humbler men and women to judge such matters of state. By the time the Long Parliament condemned ‘all Projectors and Monopolists’, humbler members of society had indeed adopted the stereotype to question royal policies, just as it had been acted out in Elizabethan plays. Catholic polemics, I argue, can serve as a fresh parameter for evaluating the Elizabethan plays, their latent radicalism and the projector stereotype subsequently elaborated by Jonson.

Revisiting these Elizabethan history plays in context is a timely exercise. While historians studying post-Reformation politics and social relations have taken plays very seriously, there have been fewer comparable reappraisals by scholars interested in early modern economy and state formation.6 The early modern concept of ‘projecting’ is now attracting critical attention from across disciplines, including political and legal historians, and historians of the financial and scientific revolutions.7 Yet few accounts have gone further to trace precursors of the character of the projector. Economic criticism has thriven among literary scholars, but these studies rarely link these history plays explicitly with the rise of controversial projects in the period.8 By revisiting the Elizabethan history plays we can learn more about the shaping and reshaping of norms, expectations, suspicion and anxieties, something so foundational to economic as well as religious and political relationships.

The main purpose of this chapter, then, is to improve our empirical knowledge about early modern projects and earlier discourses about them. At the same time, this chapter also paves the ground for the next one, co-authored with Peter Lake. While this chapter delineates the political concerns and discursive materials from which the figure of the projector emerged, the next chapter explores the very process of literary construction in the plays of Ben Jonson and other texts of the early Stuart period. They can be read as a pair, two halves of a larger cumulative argument about the origins, construction and deployment of a stereotype in early modern England. These chapters thereby contribute to illuminate how a powerful new, character-based, heuristic stereotype came to emerge from existing practices of stereotyping, the collective effort to discover problematic behaviour and characterise it based on widely held assumptions.

Socioeconomic context and its moral consequences

Before turning to the plays, we need to sketch the socioeconomic conditions and attendant cultural contradictions, broad contexts that shaped both projectors’ activities and the terms of praise and blame out of which that stereotype was subsequently made.

Let us start with how things were supposed to work. In 1578 Ferdinando Pulton, a lawyer attached to Lincoln’s Inn, published An abstract of all the penal statutes then in force. Penal statutes were a body of laws dealing mostly with social and economic issues, under which a convicted offender was to pay a penalty to the Crown. Pulton explained that ‘our Princes’ had developed these legal codes ‘with a fatherly care’ so that subjects ‘would do the parts of good Children, and obediently observe those ordinances’. The volume showed magistrates and the population ‘how to rule, and how to obey’.9

Reality was far from such paternalistic ideals because of a series of social and economic dislocations. In the second half of the century England’s population grew from 3.1 to 4.2 million. Meanwhile a steady inflow of American silver triggered rapid inflation without a matching rise in real wages.10 Rural inhabitants were hit especially hard, and many younger siblings left their homes to search for opportunities, giving rise to vagrancy, the wandering of the able poor ‘with no settled habitation, occupation or obvious means of support’.11

Economic and social polarisation followed.12 While a huge number of poor people and labourers suffered from stagnant wages and rising prices, more prosperous groups, including ‘middling sorts of people’, benefited from greater disposable income and trading activities. Houses of local notables became larger, and increasingly were fitted with plaster ceilings, glazed windows and fireplaces with chimneys for increased comfort. Coal consumption grew nationally. The import of wine, currants, raisins, spices increased. Alehouses grew in number too, where those better off enjoyed drinks and showed off their wealth; these sometimes provided lodging for wandering migrants. The sheer scale of commercialisation also led to a steep rise in civil litigation relating to debts and contracts.13

At a more modest social level, a vibrant trade in consumer items like linen napkins, gloves, buttons and lace developed thanks in part to extensive and expanding networks of peddlers crisscrossing markets, inns and alehouses. Carried in the peddlers’ sacks were also cheap print, including one-sheet ballads and short pamphlets of various sorts. Indeed, the number of printed books and pamphlets grew: according to the English Short Title Catalogue, 1,607 titles appeared during the 1550s including reprints and new editions. The number grew to 2,087 for the 1570s, and 3,030 for the 1590s.14

Contemporary observers were not necessarily aware of structural causes for these changes, as we now are. They instead focused on people’s greed, covetousness, envy and pride. Thus there were two distinct, but related, exhortations about the threat of the tramping poor, the sturdy beggar and the masterless youths on one hand, and corrupt influences of luxury, lust and conspicuous consumption on the other. Yet there were simultaneously more celebratory accounts of the burgeoning prosperity of England, with commentators like William Harrison viewing material wealth and splendour as a sign of national glory and divine blessing.15

Nowhere were these contradictions starker than in London, the prime example and engine of the changes surveyed above. Between 1520 and 1600 its population jumped from 55,000 to a staggering 200,000.16 Luxury and exotic goods flooded into London which boasted the Royal Exchange, newly established in 1565. However, London was also a site of great poverty, exacerbated by the mass migration from the provinces. In fact, the number of those punished as vagrants in London’s Bridewell prison rose from 84 for 1559–60, to 188 for 1576–7, and 504 for 1600–1, at a rate greater than the growth in London’s population.17 Thus London was alternately celebrated as the new Troy, the jewel in the crown of an England endowed with unprecedented levels of wealth, and vilified as an epitome of corruption, disorder and ill-gotten wealth, with its alleyways awash with poverty, deprivation, bought sex, theft and criminality.18

The commercial theatre was integral to this development. London’s first ‘public amphitheatre’, the Red Lion, opened in 1567, followed by a second permanent public playhouse, The Theatre, in 1576. One estimate suggests that at least 50 million visits to playhouses were made between 1565 and 1642 (when Parliament closed all the theatres), some enjoying plays for as little as a penny a visit.19 These plays circulated not only as performances, but also as printed pamphlets. Theatres’ influence also reached beyond the metropolis, thanks to many touring companies, with the leading company of the time The Queen’s Men operating throughout its history without a permanent London base.20 Critics saw the thriving theatre as an epitome of corruption, a place where a socially and sexually mixed audience could watch depraved stories of lust, tyranny and various sorts of moral deviance and crime acted out before them. By contrast, its defenders promoted it as a school of virtue where precisely such behaviours could be exposed as the crimes and sins that they were. Elizabethan plays and theatres thus embodied both the rapid commercialisation and underlying contradictions of the period.

Elizabethan state and its critics

The onset of inflation, commercialisation and social dislocation was ‘matched in scale and pace by state formation, the extension of royal policy through law into communities’.21 We thus return to Pulton’s world, in which Parliament and the Privy Council passed statutes and proclamations often with utopian aspirations. Sumptuary laws and related royal proclamations were passed to restrict popular consumption of expensive clothing. The Statute of Artificers of 1562 was meant to control the labour market and wage rates. Because these measures did not bring expected results, more legislation followed. An act of 1571 set penal measures against vagrants, and also required a compulsory levy at the parish level for local poor relief. An act of 1576 then ordered houses of correction to be established in every county for vagabonds, ready to set them and other ‘idle poor’ to work on weaving, rope-making and other forms of labour.22 The same regulatory impulse came to invade the sphere of religion, as a series of recusancy statutes were passed in order to enforce regular church attendance on recalcitrant Catholics and to impose a variety of fines and mulcts upon defaulters (on this see Chapter 4).

Parliaments regularly updated these statutes, and royal proclamations called for their stricter enforcement, to accomplish which the Elizabethan regime had perforce to rely on private individuals and licensed commissioners acting as informers. A great deal of discretionary power was placed in their hands. They were expected to support local under-sheriffs and bailiffs in disciplining the idle poor and vagrants, judiciously administering penal laws and punishment. In return for upholding social order, these willing collaborators and informers were promised a proportion of the fine levied from convicted offenders. This was a dangerous arrangement: the delegated authority became a hotbed for blackmail, extortion and corruption, the opposite of Pulton’s paternalistic ideal.23

These problems grew worse as the reign went on. Admittedly, the new book of customs passed in Mary’s reign created some extra revenues. Yet neither customs rates nor assessments for the subsidy rose to keep up with inflation.24 This meant that much of the nation’s new wealth was not available to the government as a source of tax revenue. The resulting fiscal pressure got worse after 1585 owing to the war with Spain, which put unprecedented demands on royal finance, at least by Elizabethan standards. Desperate to fund the war, with the inflation diminishing the value of fixed revenues, the Crown turned to the delegated powers of the prerogative, and again to informants. Penal statutes became a source of extra-Parliamentary revenue, and their number grew to such an extent that, by 1603, Pulton’s An abstract had been through at least eight editions.25 Elizabeth’s government also resorted to various sorts of patent and monopoly, which enabled courtiers to collect fees from those engaging in areas of economic activity that had not been touched by previous regulations.

These patents and monopolies authorised by the Crown turned out to be just as controversial. A good example are the patents to discover ‘concealed crown lands’. These grants authorised patentees to search for lands owned by the Crown, most often seized from the monasteries, that had then passed inadvertently or covertly into the hands of private landowners. If Crown ownership could once be proved, the owner of such ‘concealed crown lands’ had to pay rents to the Crown retrospectively, or face confiscation. Ostensibly a way to increase the estate (and ensuing revenues) of the Crown, the discovering of the concealed lands became a cheaper way of rewarding royal servants. Unsurprisingly, the activity led to all sorts of abuse because patentees (and their syndicates) were again entitled to a slice of the profits. Anyone threatened with such proceedings also had every incentive to pay bribes to have the problem go away.26 Sometimes a single enterprising individual could be involved in many of these activities in pursuit of power and profit, as exemplified by Sir Arthur Heveningham of Norfolk. Men like Heveningham procured controversial (but lucrative) patents and used their local standing to support other patentees and suppress dissent while denying accusations of corruption.27 John Shakespeare, the father of William, was pestered by informers, and by the 1580s had his reputation and credit ruined because of costly lawsuits.28 Pulton’s An abstract was in fact managed through a monopolistic patent, which was in turn disputed by several claimants. Even the ideal message of law and harmonious order was subject to the controversial delegation of royal authority.29

These situations attracted criticisms in Parliament and elsewhere. Yet, in order to put theatre plays in proper context, we must take a look at the most uncompromising of these critiques, which came from dissident Catholics. These can be found throughout the reign, starting in the 1570s with the Treatise of treasons (1572), going through Leicester’s commonwealth of 1584 and culminating in clandestine publications written in response to the anti-Catholic proclamation of 1591, including A humble supplication and the series of tracts attacking William Cecil.30 Catholic tracts are important as a benchmark because Catholics were especially vulnerable to the machinations of the Elizabethan regime as the recusancy laws and related proclamations exposed them to the hostile attentions of spies, informers and legal officers, sometimes leading them to imprisonment, torture and execution. Crucially, not only did Catholic authors lament severe persecutions meted out on fellow believers, they also argued that the Catholic experience was only a more extreme form of the wrongs done to the queen’s subjects at large.

For example, in 1591 at the height of dearth and high prices exacerbated by the machinations of informers and commissioners, Robert Southwell, an English-born Jesuit missionary, sent a long letter to Antwerp, reporting the condition of English subjects. ‘It is straunge’, he observed, ‘to see how God maketh the whole realme to tast[e] of the same scourage that Catholikes are wronged with’.31 The queen was being misled by her corrupt advisers; law was bent to favour the powerful. New taxes and fines were introduced to enrich the few. Poor tenants, by contrast, were undone by ruthless landowners. Trades and livelihoods were obstructed by new monopolies. The general suffering was such, argued Southwell, that there were reasons for the regime to ‘make so many outcryes against Catholiks’ to flare up ‘imaginary feares of a few disarmed priests’ and thereby ‘draw men’s considerations [away] from greater miseries and general calamities that hang daily over the whole realme’. England was no better than a tyranny led by evil counsellors.32

The idea that English subjects had been oppressed as heavily as a religious minority belonged to a current of Catholic polemics against Elizabeth and her counsellors such as Cecil, Leicester and Walsingham, something that was dispersed as manuscripts, printed on the Continent and smuggled across the English Channel. Such views were damaging to the legitimacy of the Protestant monarchy, and the regime accordingly did what it could to repudiate them and suppress their circulation.33 We might therefore assume that these condemnations came mainly from oppressed individuals like Southwell and their collaborators. Surprisingly, however, judgements as critical as these were also made available to a broader audience through commercial plays, especially history plays as discussed below.

Abusing the royal authority in the king’s absence

George Whetstone’s The right excellent and famous historye, of Promos and Cassandra was published in 1578, the year in which Pulton’s collection of penal statutes appeared.34 Like other history plays Promos and Cassandra takes place in a real-life setting, and uses it to explore the corruptibility of power. In doing so, it suggests striking parallels between the staged past and the present, far beyond what was afforded by the image of harmonious social order. While the play is conventionally studied as a source for Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, surprisingly little has been made of it in relation to wider questions about delegated authority and projecting.35 In a broad survey of political communication, Barbara J. Shapiro concluded of early modern dramas that ‘it was often unclear what the message was other than the obvious message that tyranny was to be condemned as were evil advisors and corrupt courts’.36 We shall see that the plays discussed below went far beyond the obvious. Promos and Cassandra, for one, offered a vivid reconstruction of the machinations of the early modern state, and did so well before Jonson wrote about projectors, and also before the grievances attendant upon monopolists and patentees reached a climax in the 1590s.

Set in an imaginary town in Hungary, the play’s story unfolds around the fate of a ‘young Gentleman named Andrugio’ (sig. [A iv]) who sleeps with his future wife before marriage. In the king’s absence, the magistrate Promos revives a dormant statute against adultery and, under this law, Andrugio is sentenced to death. Andrugio’s sister Cassandra – ‘a very virtuous, and beautiful gentlewoman’ (sig. [A iv]) – steps in to win Promos’s leniency and save Andrugio. However, this attempt to save her brother’s life goes wrong when Promos is so taken by Cassandra’s beauty that he seduces her in return for commuting Andrugio’s sentence. The ironies here are considerable and highly topical for the early modern audience since in the opening scene, Promos tasks himself ‘to reform abuse’ in the king’s absence (sig. [A ivv]) and does so by reviving a forgotten law against adultery. Alleging abuses and proposing to discover and ‘reform’ them were paradigmatic methods for promoting projects in post-Reformation England.37 Many of the monopolies and patents discussed above were in fact justified on this ground. This reforming rhetoric remained prominent and problematic under the early Stuarts too, as summed up by a satirical pamphlet against projectors: ‘he ... search[es] out the abuses of every Place, Profession, and Mystery whatsoever, next his greatest study is to propose the faire outside of a reformation’.38 The play explores how Promos’s ‘faire outside of a reformation’ lent itself to the gratification of his own lusts, a problem of pretended reformation that would continue to plague English society in coming decades.

But this is just the beginning of the chain of sins, a downward spiral of lust, corruption and murder upon which Promos is now launched. Having slept with Cassandra, Promos realises that saving Andrugio’s life could undermine his reputation as an even-handed doer of justice (sig. e ii). But sending him to the gallows would be to break the promise he has made to Cassandra. Here, in the crucial monologue that opens Act 4, Scene 2, Promos comes up with a series of self-serving excuses: it was the ‘rage of love’ that drove him to swear an oath to win her over – ‘Well, what I said, then lover-like I said’. Now what Promos calls ‘the game’ takes a different turn; he becomes more concerned with his own reputation as a deputy: ‘Now reason says, unto thy credit look:/And having well, the circumstances weighed, /I find I must, unswear the oath I took’ to Cassandra. He then shows a momentary gnawing of conscience: ‘but double wrong, I so should do Cassandra’ – by raping her and still sending her brother to the gallows. Even so, Promos persuades himself that, as the king’s deputy, in effect the bearer of princely power, he can transcend ordinary moral standards: ‘my might, commandeth right … And thus shall rule, conceal my filthy deed’ (sig. e ii). Here the play reveals a wrongdoer’s psychological operation: the abuse of royal authority was justified by a series of self-serving reasonings.

Nor does the rot stop with Promos. From the outset, his subordinates are presented as ‘parasites’ and ‘promoters’, profiting as Promos does from the privatised regulation of markets and social order. Promos’s man Phallax is described as a ‘pettifogger’ (sig. B iii), a derogatory term for the humbler law officers who played a critical role in these controversial exercises in the ‘discovery’ and ‘reformation’ of abuses. Phallax declares his intent: ‘promote all faults, up into my office,/Then turn me loose, the offenders to fleece’ (sig. [C iv]). Thus when the prostitute Lamia is presented to him by his underlings, Rapax and Gripax, Phallax sends them away with the words ‘myself will search her faults if any be’ (sig. [D iv]). At that point, he lets Lamia off in return for her sexual favours, explaining that ‘(through love) this grace the Judge [i.e. Phallax] doth show’. Thus, ‘love with love ought to be answered’ (sig. [D iv]). Phallax thus extracts Lamia’s sexual favour; Lamia would thenceforth be allowed to carry on with her brothel while all the others are shut down, thus achieving a de facto monopoly over prostitution in town. Being sent away from the scene, Gripax grudgingly makes the point: ‘In such shares as this, henceforth I will begin,/For all is his, in his claws, that cometh in’ (sig. [D iv]).

Monopolies and other projects caused much harm precisely through this kind of shady transaction. Parliament passed an act to ‘redress disorders in common informers upon penal statutes’ in 1576, just two years before the publication of the play. It set penalties on financial settlements reached between parties without the prior consent of the court, an indication of the pervasive reliance upon, and problems caused by, men like Phallax. Complaints about ‘promoters’ reached the Privy Council too.39 A manuscript proposal submitted three decades later to Sir Julius Caesar is pertinent here as it describes the broader legal chicanery of which an informal settlement (or ‘composition’) was a part.40 According to this proposal, offenders like Lamia first strike a deal with officers like Phallax under which the officers proceed to file a lawsuit against the offender before a given court, but they do so deliberately upon weak grounds and do not submit evidence or take any further action. Such a tactical procedure could delay or even prevent future bona fide lawsuits from being considered by that court. Colluding with promoters (as Lamia did) therefore became something of an insurance, whereby the supposed promoters of reformation were turned into agents for evasion. The proposal submitted in 1607 to Caesar was designed to prevent problems of this kind. Instances of these collusions were arguably hard to detect, let alone to eradicate. As the Jesuit Robert Southwell put it, ‘in the lawes there is no justice used, sutes being more caryed with favour then right, and rather overruled by authoritie then law … al things being governed by bribes and partialitie’.41 The problems persisted up to the eve of the Civil Wars.42 Promos and Cassandra is significant on this count because, as early as 1578, we see the playwright staging the underlying problem for all to see.

Lamia continues her business uninterrupted, entertaining Phallax’s friends at her brothel; impressed with her ‘success’, Lamia’s male servant Rosko decides to emulate her, battening off one Grimball who lusts after Lamia’s maid (sigs [f iiv–f iiiv]). Thus corruption spreads down through the food chain of enforcement, in the end enveloping even the humble companion of a brothel keeper, a process that Promos and Cassandra lays bare while locating the source of the problem in the precarious symbiosis involving public authority, law officers and their private collaborators. The play thus cloaks in the story of sexual predations a fundamental problem of early modern governance, something that attracted Catholic condemnations, troubled the Elizabethan Privy Council and exercised statesmen like Caesar under James I.

Tyranny and fiscal exaction

In Promos and Cassandra, the corruption starts because the king is absent. The wrongs perpetrated by Promos, Phallax and the like are redressed and the upright social order restored when the king Corvinus and his judicious adviser Ulrico return to the city (sig. [I iv]). In contrast, the Elizabethan England denounced by Catholic dissidents was governed in the presence of the monarch and her advisers and courtiers. The anonymous play Thomas of Woodstock, published in the first half of the 1590s, engaged head on with the issue: it offers an uncompromising analysis of tyranny and fiscal exaction on a par with Catholic critiques of the Elizabethan regime.43 We now explore these radical elements that would later characterise the projector stereotype and its appropriations.

Set in Richard II’s reign, Thomas of Woodstock draws on the well-known trope of a king surrounded by evil counsellors – in this case Bagot, Bushy, Greene and the master manipulator Sir Robert Tresilian. Tresilian is described as ‘that sly machiavel’ (1:1, 63), just as Cecil was accused by Catholics of practising Machiavellian manipulations.44 The others are young men, favourites of the equally young king, who curry favour by playing on his susceptibility for conspicuous consumption. Set against these flatterers are the king’s uncles, who represent a more virtuous older generation. Chief amongst them is the main protagonist Thomas of Woodstock. Woodstock is a plain, virtuous statesman capable of sympathising with the plight of commoners. A stark contrast is drawn throughout the play between Woodstock and the king’s (mostly young) evil counsellors.

A central marker of this difference is conspicuous consumption, something that was currently spreading outside the theatre as discussed above. Richard is in his early twenties and marries Anne early in the play (1:3). The wedding is extravagant and marked by sumptuous dress. Even Woodstock is forced to put on elaborate garb which, he bitterly complains, departs from his usual plain style (1:3, 83–4). He prefers plain dress because sartorial extravagance could require him to ‘raise new rents’, ‘[u]ndo my poor tenants’, dismiss servants and ‘sell more land’ and even ‘lordships’ (1:3, 104–7). His plain style thus reveals acute awareness of adverse consequences of conspicuous consumption. The play shows that what Woodstock refuses to do to his tenants and servants, is done by the king and corrupt counsellors to the entire kingdom.

Prospects of discords and disturbances are visible from the beginning. We learn that ‘[t]he commons murmur ’gainst the dissolute king’ (1:1, 157). One reason was that he has been resorting to forced loans to fund his and his flatterers’ extravagance (1:3, 146–7). To ease fiscal burden upon ‘the needy commons’, the virtuous Woodstock proposes to distribute the ‘rich and wealthy prize’ recently won on the high seas by the Lord Admiral (1:3, 143). Richard has already given it all away to his minions, however. Woodstock and the uncles are enraged; Woodstock dismisses Richard’s minions as mere ‘cankers’ eating away the fruits of hard-won military victory (1:3, 155). This scene carried a clear resonance when it was staged in the 1590s. Contemporary Catholic polemics repeatedly condemned the Privy Councillors for sheer ‘opulence’ and wasteful consumption.45 They indeed charged Cecil and his underlings with siphoning off money and getting spectacularly rich while oppressing the public and defrauding the monarch. One author sarcastically remarked that if the money levied from poor subjects failed to fill ‘the Queenes cofers’, then ‘the Lord Trecherer [sic] I trust ca[n] give her majestie and the realme good accomptes of them’.46 By staging fourteenth-century corruption, the play thus provided commentaries on corrupt councillors that echoed uncompromising critiques of the Elizabethan regime at the time.

Richard defies his enraged uncles by appointing his favourites, Greene and Bagot, respectively as Lord Chancellor and Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal (1:3, 181–8). In the next scene, the king assembles his newly reconstituted council with Tresilian. Richard annuls the statutes introduced under the Protectorate (2:2, 184–5) and dissolves Parliament (2:2, 213). He also passes orders to enlarge Westminster Hall ‘only [to] serve us for a dining-room’, to ‘have money to buy new suits’ and ‘devise some new’ fashion (2:2, 196, 201–2, 206, 208).

Because of this orgy of opulence and conspicuous consumption the realm is plunged into a downward spiral of increasing oppression, corruption and tyranny. Desperate for money, and having denied themselves the traditional source of supply by closing Parliament, the king and his minions resort to prerogative power in order to squeeze more revenue from the subjects. Tresilian puts forward a scheme for ‘blank charters’, a device forcing subjects to subscribe their names to a blank parchment, with the amount of their ‘voluntary loan’ to be subsequently decided at the royal pleasure. ‘O strange, unheard-of vile taxation’ (3:2, 67) is the comment of one of the royal uncles on this practice. Catholic polemics at the time in fact argued that Elizabeth’s councillors had imposed upon English subjects ‘great & grieveous exactions’ including ‘[f]orced benevolences’ with ‘huge masses of mony [being] raised by privy seales’, that is, by means not approved by Parliament.47 The search for extra-Parliamentary revenues continued well into the reign of Charles I, giving rise to a large number of projects based on monopolistic patents.48 The play thus paralleled Catholic critique in showing how parasitical flatterers could abuse the king’s authority to introduce arbitrary fiscal imposition without Parliamentary approval. Uncannily, it anticipated the fiscal exploitation of prerogative power that fuelled the constitutional crisis of the 1640s.

In Thomas of Woodstock, the people’s response to such fiscal exactions is extremely adverse but the play shows how even dissent could be turned into yet another source of royal revenue, not to mention allowing corrupt agents of the regime to line their pockets in the process. Authorised by the Privy Council, and under Tresilian’s direction, Nimble, Fleming and Crosby are sent to the market town of Dunstable in Bedfordshire to collect subscriptions to the blank charters (3:3). There, they discover that ‘there are strange songs and libels, cast about the marketplace against my Lord Tresilian and the rest of the King’s young councillors’ (3:3, 27–30). Nimble immediately comes up with a scheme to turn this situation into ready cash. They should, he suggests, ‘shadow [i.e. conceal] ourselves and write down their speeches’ (3:3, 40). Three local men, Farmer, Cowtail and Butcher, are returning from a market, gossiping about the king’s new councillors occupying ‘honester men’s places’, and about ‘strange tidings’ about new taxes (3:3, 70, 56). Apprehended, they are first forced to sign and seal a charter and then arrested for libel as ‘privy whisperers’ speaking against royal councillors (3:3, 102–55).

What happens next captures how subjects could use songs to criticise tyranny. A schoolmaster enters, reciting to a servant two songs of his own making: if ‘well searched’ they are ‘little better than libels’, but their meaning, he explains, is well concealed (3:3, 166–8). The two songs are thinly disguised criticisms of Tresilian, other advisers and the blank charter, and yet both end in ‘God bless my Lord Tresilian’, a phrase that could be quoted if questioned about the song and its intent. They are presently arrested ‘for most shameful treason’ by Nimble and Ignorance, who are listening to the songs (3:3, 215–25). Nimble then proceeds to arrest for ‘whistling treason’ anyone reciting the same popular refrain, with or without libellous intent (3:3, 240–3).

The scene thus vividly portrays the mechanisms by which popular dissent was produced and covertly disseminated via songs, a key medium through which the projector stereotype was later appropriated in order to denounce corruption, as we shall see below.49 The arrests of the schoolmaster and others for ‘whistling treason’ also highlight how the royal authority could be locally mobilised in most extreme and absurd ways to suppress signs of dissent and to squeeze fines upon the slightest of allegations. As Catholic writers argued, ‘leuetenants and justices of shire’ and their subordinates (like Ignorance) were ‘so servilely subject that they go at every pursevant’s commaundement to assist them and serve them in their offices’.50 This was exactly what the play reveals on stage. The play’s audience is told that in the end 13,000 blank charters have been signed and returned (3:3, 277–8), with 700 arrests having been made in the process (4:3, 8–10). True to the image of the greedy stateman, Tresilian later orders the money raised to be locked in ‘my study’ (4:1, 3–4).

Staging a monarchical breakdown

The discussion in the two preceding sections establishes, firstly, that the practices being exposed on stage bear a remarkable resemblance to some of the practices indulged by a variety of informers, intelligencers and flatterers working under Elizabeth and profiting from her royal authority. Even Tresilian’s blank charters can be compared to the forced loans to which the Elizabethan regime resorted between 1588 and 1591 and again in 1597 in order to raise funds for the war effort during the 1590s.51 Secondly, and equally crucially, we now know that these plays contained critical commentaries as pointed as those penned by dissident Catholics facing the threat of capture and execution. Remarkably, however, some of the Elizabethan history plays went further than the Catholic tracts, revealing the monarch’s culpability and highlighting popular agency. These two elements are important because they later characterised the projector stereotype and its mobilisation.

As for the monarch’s responsibility, the Catholic critique of the Elizabethan regime remained largely contained within what one might term the evil-counsellor mode, with the notable exceptions of Cardinal Allen’s Admonition to the nobility and people of England (1588) – expressly written to accompany the Armada – and certain Latin tracts like Nicholas Sander’s De origine (1585), which addressed mostly Continental audiences.52 For the most part, the blame for the misgovernment of the country was placed on an evil clique amongst the queen’s councillors – initially William Cecil and Nicholas Bacon, then the Earl of Leicester and his minions, and by the 1590s Cecil again, this time aided and abetted by his son, Robert. Accordingly, the queen herself was pictured as an innocent, if credulous, victim of those she trusted most.53

We can fully appreciate the explosiveness of Thomas of Woodstock in this context. In the play, rather than being seduced or simply misled by his evil counsellors, Richard is shown as repeatedly and enthusiastically acceding to, and at crucial moments, personally participating in, the most corrupt and reprehensible of his councillors’ schemes. Thus, when Tresilian first proposes the blank charters, Richard moves ‘to applaud thy wit’ since, as he sees immediately, the scheme is a way to ‘fill up our treasury,/Opening the chests of hoarding cormorants/That laugh to see their kingly sovereign lack’ (3:1, 7–10). Again, when Tresilian and Greene come up with the dastardly plot to invite Woodstock to a court entertainment, capture him on the spot, send him to Calais and have him murdered there, Richard not only endorses the plan, but insists that he himself take a personal part in the masque under the cover of which the duke, his uncle, is to be abducted (4:1, 83–113). The young king is fully on board with fiscal exaction, and the kidnap and the killing of his virtuous uncle.

Thomas of Woodstock of course never addressed the present as did the Catholic tracts. For all its contemporary references, the play was simply staging ‘history’, leaving the application to the present entirely up to the judgement, courage and acumen of its audiences.54 Having said that, it leaves its audience in no doubt that corruption, misgovernment and tyranny can emanate quite as much from the monarch as they do from evil counsellors. On this count, the play went much further than the bulk of the Catholic tracts which only allowed themselves tangentially, via hints and historical parallels, to implicate the queen in the persecution pursued by her councillors. Even the Grand Remonstrance of 1641 stopped short of attacking Charles I himself, focusing instead on his evil counsellors and those monopolists and projectors around them who collectively supported his personal rule without Parliaments. It was only after the king’s execution in 1649 that apologists for the regicide came to highlight Charles’s responsibility in the fiscal exaction and political oppressions.55 Thomas of Woodstock is thus at once fascinating and disturbing: already in the 1590s it explored a downward spiral of arbitrary government, fiscal exactions and civil war, a dystopian scenario unfolding outside the theatre half a century later, in which projectors would play a pivotal role.

Highlighting popular political agency

Thomas of Woodstock was exceptional in depicting the tyrannical exercises of power plunging a nation into a civil war. Yet other history plays also went further than Catholic tracts in portraying the capacity of humble inhabitants to judge royal policies and political economy in ways that anticipated the participatory politics on the eve of the Civil Wars. Such elements of popular agency featured prominently in Thomas Heywood’s The First and Second Parts of Edward IV (printed 1599), a play that went into six editions during his lifetime (1575–1641).56

Like Thomas of Woodstock, this play also revolves around a king over-confident in extending his prerogative power. Edward IV falls in love with Jane, the wife of London goldsmith Matthew Shore, and takes her to his court as a concubine. Jane then enters the stage ‘ladylike attired, divers supplications in her hand ... and attended on by many suitors’ (1:22). Here, she encounters one master Rufford, a proto-projector who requests a licence to export corn. Rufford approaches Jane and asks ‘Mistress I fear you have forgot my suit?’ She replies sternly: ‘O, ‘tis for a licence to transport corn/From this land, and lead to foreign realms,/I had your bill, but I have torn your bill’ (1:22, 61–4). Notice that sending corn abroad was a highly sensitive topic in the 1590s, a time of severe dearth in England as is well documented by social and economic historians.57 In fact, in 1595, 1596, 1597 and 1598, Elizabeth’s government issued orders and proclamations designed to ensure stable provision of grain, preventing grains from being hoarded, exported or processed into starch (which was used during washing to keep ruffs and linen cloths crisp). One proclamation even prohibited the feeding of dogs with grain.58 Given these developments, Jane’s response takes on an added significance. Having torn up Rufford’s bill, Jane declares: ‘And ‘twere no shame I think, to tear your ears,/That care not how you wound the commonwealth./The poor must starve for food to fill your purse’ (1:22, 65–7).

Jane’s confident pronouncement against the proto-projector is hardly surprising given what we now know about gender in the period. Conduct books often depicted wives as deputy magistrates in the governing of households, capable of instructing children and servants, managing estates and family businesses. Plays such as The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Roaring Girl and Swetnam the Woman Hater highlighted female agency in setting things right.59 Such depictions were rooted in contemporary realities. Labouring women’s legal testimonies suggest that their role combined ‘production and consumption, and involved the protection of household assets as well as the generation of income’, as Alexandra Shepard puts it. Women’s household responsibilities were so significant that these ‘validated their public interventions’ during the Civil Wars, including petitioning Parliament and even criticising the emerging republican regime for some of its actions.60 Women were involved also in the world of patenting and projecting. Some women in London and its suburbs earned a living by knitting stockings, making bone lace, making buttons and weaving points. They became involved in the production, overseen by projectors, of commodities that were relatively new to England and hence left untouched by guild regulations.61 More dubious still, daughters of influential writers sometimes filed applications for patents to publish their fathers’ books without necessarily completing the process – a tactical move that could help them (much like informers) to extract financial compensation from stationers anxious to continue their business undisturbed. Jane Yetsweirt, a widow of one of the patentees for Pulton’s book of statutes, mobilised her contacts to claim her share in the publishing business, tactically drawing attention to ‘her poverty, sex, and widowhood’.62 The First and Second Parts of Edward IV is thus addressing an audience living in a dynamic society where women’s seemingly ‘domestic’ activities interacted with exercises of royal patents, entrepreneurship and guild regulations. The play’s audience is thus invited to learn that the wife of a London goldsmith is fully capable of passing just censure upon Rufford the proto-projector. What Shepard calls the ‘moral authority’ of early modern women encompassed grave matters of political economy.63

The kind of political literacy displayed by Jane is not unique to urban middling sorts. A surprising critique also comes in the same play from a humbler rural inhabitant, John Hobs a tanner of Tamworth. In an early scene, Hobs by chance meets the king Edward, who was travelling in disguise. Hobs falls into amicable conversation with him without knowing his true identity. The king, presenting himself as ‘Ned’, the confidant of the monarch, then suggests the tanner come to the royal court one day. Hobs shows no interest, to which the king gives a striking reply: ‘Hast thou no suit, touching thy trade? To transport hides, or sell leather only in a certain circuit? ... To have letters patents’? (1:13, 72–4).

This is a significant scene in that it confronted the explosive question of royal patents, something that was drawing increasing public attention by the time the play appeared in 1599. Under Elizabeth’s reign, patents began to be granted in large numbers in order to regulate particular industries promoting technology transfer from the Continent. By the end of the 1590s, at least 86 patents had been granted, many with exclusive privileges to import, produce, sell or issue licences.64 One of these grants, for collecting customs on imported sweet wine, was given in 1589 to Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex, a rising favourite of Elizabeth. Grants like this one turned out to be deeply controversial as discussed above. Parliaments of the period did highlight related grievances, denouncing patentees (in general terms) as ‘bloodsuckers of the commonwealth’.65 Yet Members of Parliament could hardly deny that the queen was entitled to use her prerogative power and grant patents for rewarding her loyal subjects. Catholic dissidents were more vocal. In 1591, Southwell referred to the monopolies on wine, starch and playing cards and declared that ‘[t]here were never such devises heard of to get monye in England as are now ryfe’.66 It is no accident that Thirsk called the period a ‘scandalous phase’ of projecting.67

The First and Second Parts of Edward IV puts on stage this highly sensitive topic, which Members of Parliament discussed with hesitation and Catholic polemics denounced. Being asked whether he would like to have a patent, Hobs the tanner responds with a rustic, yet sharp, criticism of the practice:

I like not those patten[t]s! Sirrah, they that have them do as the priests did in old time: buy and sell the sins of the people. So they make the King believe they mend what’s amiss, and, for money, they make the thing worse than it is. (1:13, 75–9, italics added)

Promos and Cassandra only lightly alluded to the reformation of alleged abuses, as discussed earlier in this chapter. In Edward IV, the tanner roundly condemns both monopolies and the pretended reformation of market abuses (‘make the King believe they mend what’s amiss’). The king then draws a lesson from the encounter: ‘I see plain men, by observation … Do gather knowledge; and the meanest life,/Proportioned with content sufficiency,/Is merrier than the mighty state of kings’ (1:13, 98–102). Given the controversies around patents and monopolies, the tanner could appear both wiser and merrier than what Catholics viewed as a despotic government led by evil advisers.

Jane Shore and John Hobs – a goldsmith’s wife and a rustic tanner – were not exceptional. Thomas of Woodstock portrayed the schoolmaster coming up with rhymes criticising the blank charter as discussed earlier. In Promos and Cassandra, we find humbler actors drawing on familiar principles to pass judgement comparable to that of wise rulers. The general theme is encapsulated by the king’s statement on magistrates’ exercise of power: ‘If they their rule by conscience measure not,/The poore mans ryght is overcome by might’ (sig. H ii). Cassandra, the ‘gentle women’, understood how this can happen. As she tells the king, she was forced to choose between ‘Two evils’ – either ‘To see my brother put to death’, or ‘graunt his [Promos’s] lewed request’. Then Promos broke the promise and arranged to kill her brother Andrugio ‘with the spoyle of my good name’ (sig. [k iv]–k ii). Accordingly, the king orders Promos to marry Cassandra (to save her reputation) and be executed the next day. This royal intervention is commended by a clown: ‘happy he ... Who checks the rytch, that wrong by might,/And helpes the poore, vnto his right’ (sig. K iii). The same theme is echoed by Andrugio who narrowly escaped the gallows thanks to a relenting jailer: in his view, Promos ‘maintained wrongs by might’, his ‘rule’ being ‘tyranny indeed’ (sig. [L 1v]). The underlying warning against might determining what is right and wrong was something repeated in advice manuals like Myrroure for magistrates (1559).68 The play picks up this familiar theme and puts it into the mouths of the king; the clown, called ‘such dunghill churles’ (sig. [K iiiiv]); and the young victim of Promos’s exactions.

The play even invites the audience to exercise similar critical scrutiny themselves. Theatre studies suggest that early modern theatregoers were not just passive; the audience were as visible to the players as the players were to the audience. Performers often directly addressed and made eye contact with the audience, reminding that they shared common knowledge about the world off-stage.69 Promos and Cassandra made a similar move towards the end. While Promos narrowly escapes the gallows after Cassandra pleas for leniency, Phallax is banished from the city of Julio. He leaves the stage unrepentant: ‘the best is, flattrers lyve everie where ... Yes, yes Phallax, knoweth whether to go’. His evocative farewell words might as well be directed to the audience: ‘flattrers loves as lyfe, to join with lyers’. With this ends Part 2, Act 4 (sig. L iii). Where might these liars be found, flattering the rich and absolving the powerful of their corruptions? The closing lines are skilfully crafted to invite just such a question, encouraging the audience to look for similar corruptions in everyday life. Only then does the play proceed to the final Act 5, which rounds up the story with Promos saved from death in the final minutes.

Appealing to fears and prejudices

Elizabethan history plays thus staged in commercial theatres and made available via print what Elizabethan Parliaments only cautiously debated inside the chamber and what Catholics condemned in underground prints and letters. These plays even suggested that humbler sorts of people (including their audiences) were capable of passing their own judgements on these highly sensitive matters, contradictions at the heart of the emerging political economy of early modern England.

This is exactly what we find in subsequent decades. In about 1640, the London woodturner Nehemiah Wallington recorded in his diary that ‘[a]s wee in great misery in regard of the Church So we were in greate misery in regard of our Corrupted Judges ... As also projectors with their Letter pattens for all Stabel Commodities: As also Shipp mony & new corporations even to the undoing of many thousands.’70 The woodturner considered projectors seeking patents to be a part of the larger misgovernment under Charles I. Equally crucially, the damages inflicted by projectors were considered real, as had been shown earlier by Promos and Cassandra and Thomas of Woodstock. This raises an important question about the political implications of these plays: did they serve as an ideal nursery of civic participatory politics? Walter Cohen once went so far as to argue that plays, especially those actually performed in public, ‘automatically converted a heterogeneous and, it seems, largely popular audience into judges of national issues, a position from which most of its members were excluded in the world of political affairs’.71 Can we agree with this view, and suppose that these history plays offered ‘shrewd political instruction in the machinations of governors and superiors’, thereby ‘teaching intelligent mistrust’ of the powerful as Chris Fitter has recently put it?72 It is true that playwrights and defenders of the theatre expected plays to have didactic functions: to teach their audiences to love virtue and detest vices, to detect signs of tyranny and dangerous ambitions. Upon closer scrutiny, however, we find the plays under consideration appealing to familiar fears and prejudices while developing penetrating accounts of misgovernment.

In Promos and Cassandra the serial perversion of power linking Promos, Phallax and Lamia is couched in familiar themes of lust and greed, as discussed in ‘Abusing the royal authority in the king’s absence’ above. Having slept with Phallax, Lamia alone is allowed to run a brothel in town, to ‘set my Toyes to sale’. Having established a de facto monopoly over prostitution, she declares ‘[a]t hyest rate, my Toyes I value must’ (sig. H iii). The ‘raising of prices as they please’ was one of the most common yet serious charges laid against monopolists in the period.73 Perversion of this kind in reality owed much to the government’s increasing debts, its fiscal arrangements and structural dependence upon officers like Promos and Phallax. Even so, the play’s audience is induced to consider this complex issue in terms of personal appetite for money and sex. This is what psychologists would now call attribution bias.74 In the play the root cause of corruption is attributed instead to well-understood themes of lust and greed, with an alluring scene of Lamia’s brothel, where customers were welcomed by two prostitutes ‘bravely apparelled’.75

The spectre of popery and Catholic invasions were also invoked to incite familiar anxieties, as we can see in Thomas of Woodstock. After Woodstock is dismissed from his position as regent, the king and his young advisers go on to devise a new attire, one that is heavily influenced by Catholic countries and their products: ‘French hose [i.e. leg covering], Italian cloaks and Spanish hats’, complete with ‘Polonian shoes with peaks a handful long,/Tied to their knees with chains of pearl and gold’ (2:3, 91–3). Later in the play, as Richard plans to abduct and kill his uncle Thomas, he tells his flatterers to ‘send unto the King of France for aid’, presumably military aid, in case ‘the commons should rebel against us’, and proposes to relinquish the Continental forts of Guynes and Calais to the French (4:1, 120–4). These were variations on a familiar theme. The Spanish Armada was defeated only in 1588; the threat of Catholic invasion was all too real. Against this backdrop numerous pamphlets and playbooks of the period also warned against the danger of popery and Catholic influence – sometimes with erudition, sometimes with hostile laughter that appealed to paid audiences. As the Jesuit missionary Southwell complained, ‘many poore printers and needy libellers make the best part of their living by our slaunders’, with plays ‘spiced with some quipp or jest against [Catholic] religion’.76 Into this hostility towards popery and foreign influence partly fuelled by huckster writers, Thomas of Woodstock skilfully weaves the dramatic, highly topical, account of tyranny and misgovernment.

In short, the plays under consideration exposed delicate issues of royal policy and political economy, both by revealing perversions of justice and righteous rule, and by anchoring those stories onto everyday points of reference including deeply held fears about lust, greed, false religion and armed invasion, which were fully compatible with the commercial imperatives of the emerging theatre and print industries. Put differently, these plays were politically explosive in at least two ways: first, they encouraged popular judgement upon delicate issues of royal policy and political economy, and second, such judgement was driven partly by appeals to familiar fears and emotions. In fact, contemporary critics of the theatre denounced such plays precisely for these reasons. One such critic, Henry Crosse, highlighted how plays might ‘breede contempt’ of the powerful:

[W]hen the faults and scandalls of great men, as Magistrates, Ministers, and such as hold publike places, shall be openly acted and objected to the sences, or faigned to bee replenished with vice and passion, it must needes breed disobedience[.]77

Such popular engagement was deemed dangerous because plays directly appealed to emotions in the audience. According to Stephen Gosson, one of the most uncompromising critics of Renaissance theatre, plays were politically dangerous because they ‘stirre vp affections, and affections are naturally planted in that part of the minde that is common to us with brute beastes’. Actors and playwrights ‘studie to make our affections ouerflow, whereby they draw the bridle from that parte of the mind, that should ever be curbed … which is manifest treason to our soules’.78

The Elizabethan history plays could be politically explosive, then, not so much because they fostered popular rational scrutiny of political authority or taught ‘intelligent mistrust’ (pace Fitter). Plays like these were considered dangerous because plotlines and actions were often designed to ‘stirre up affections’, in the process encouraging political engagements driven by stereotypical understanding of otherwise intricate matters of state.

Upon this precarious mixture depended the subsequent social circulation of the projector stereotype. A satirical Christmas carol circulating on the eve of the Civil War suggested that projectors build their fortunes and then ‘jet in dancing and whooring’, reminiscent of Promos and Phallax whom Whetstone depicted as driven by monetary greed as well as by sexual desire (see Chapter 4 for further discussion of this carol). As a Protestant reformer, John Dury found out to his frustration that would-be reformers like himself became a target of ‘worldly mens derision & contempt’, too often dismissed as ‘a subtill projector & practitioner’, or worse ‘an inconsiderate & presumptuous foole’.79 The figure of the projector could serve as a heuristic device for detecting what the Jesuit missionary Southwell earlier called ‘greater miseries’, identifying abusers and calling for reform. We find this in Wallington’s diary and in the Commons’s denunciations of monopolists and projectors. Yet at the same time, the projector stereotype also helped stir up suspicion and fuel existing prejudices, as indicated by the satirical carol and Dury’s remark. In the Elizabethan history plays we already find both potentials for radical reform, and dangerous perils, stemming from civic participatory politics facilitated by the vibrant print and theatre industries. The Elizabethan history plays discussed here remind us that the projector stereotype did not emerge through idealised public uses of reason. Rather, the new stereotype that fuelled the constitutional crisis grew out of earlier, discursive practices that were driven by commercial imperatives and accompanied by a wider range of stereotypes about sexual excess, wasteful consumption and popery. Literary scholars have recently suggested that early modern plays helped cultivated their audience’s ‘emotional habitus’. The emotional habitus cultivated by the Elizabethan history plays, I suggest, had explosive political and economic repercussions throughout the seventeenth century.80


The powerful stereotype of the projector was never invented singlehandedly by Jonson. Rather, the thriving commercial theatres and printing industry under Elizabeth first provided a platform for creative practices of stereotyping – a collective search for an emerging pattern of problematic behaviour – and the identification of its causes based on an existing body of assumptions. Only then did a character-based stereotype of the projector come to be elaborated by a literary genius in the shape of Jonson. In revealing corruptions, these earlier texts turn out to be as uncompromising and politically explosive as Catholic attacks upon the Elizabethan regime.

This chapter establishes that the Elizabethan history plays discussed above are significant for studies of the early modern state and economy in general, and studies of projects and monopolies in particular. Three features stand out. Firstly, these texts adeptly exploited historical settings and exposed the mechanics of royal authority for all to see, especially how easily royal power could be abused when it is delegated down the social hierarchy in order to raise taxes and implement social and economic policies. These plays presented real-time reconstruction of the social and psychological processes involved that stirred up Parliamentary debates and exercised the Privy Council. Secondly, these history plays demonstrated that not only lesser officers but also corrupt royal advisers and even monarchs themselves could become complicit in the abuse of power if left unchecked. When that happens, as shown in Thomas of Woodstock, royal policies could disrupt everyday life, causing uprisings and even civil wars. Thirdly, and most importantly, the history plays under consideration indicated that humbler women and men could competently detect and pass judgement upon the perversion of royal authority (both at the top and down the social ladder). In endowing significant political agency on humbler sorts of people, the Elizabethan history plays discussed here may be considered more radical than the Catholic polemics. Yet I have also suggested that the kind of mixed-gender participatory politics staged by the plays cannot be celebrated as the politics of radical and rational critique. If we are to suggest that Elizabethan history plays highlighted aspects of popular political agency, then it was more like bounded political competence, a kind of emotional habitus fuelled by fear and prejudice as much as by normative expectations about right and reason. The subsequent condemnation of projectors and the unfolding of the constitutional crisis ‘marked an intensification and appropriation of inherited discourse and practice rather than a sudden discontinuity’, an inheritance which should now include Elizabethan history plays.81

Having established how politically dangerous these Elizabethan discourses were, we can now begin to explore, in Chapter 4, how Jonson’s plays brought humorous elements to the fore, and thereby contained some of the more radical qualities prominent in the earlier writings – what Tim Harris in Chapter 1 calls anxiety displacement. Paradoxically, by developing the character of the projector, Jonson’s plays also made it much easier for the broader population to identify and talk about the widespread problem via an identifiable perpetrator, thus paving the way for further reappropriation of the image and the escalation of stereotyping. In Chapter 4, we shall examine his plays as a key element in this dialectical process.

Recurring references to plays are given within the main text in parentheses. I thank Yuichi Tsukada, Genji Yasuhira, Maho Ikeda and the audience at the Huntington Library and the Historians’ Workshop, Tokyo, for feedback. I owe special debts to Peter Lake for encouragement and suggestions. The idea for this chapter took shape when I held a postdoctoral position for Subha Mukherji’s ‘Crossroads of Knowledge’ project in Cambridge, funded by the European Research Council (FP7/2007–2013) / ERC grant agreement no. 617849. I thank her for inspiration.


1 Ben Jonson, The Cambridge edition of the works of Ben Jonson, vol. 4, ed. David Bevington et al. (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 508–9.
2 Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris (eds), The House of Commons,1604–1629 (6 vols, Cambridge, 2010), vol. 5, p. 350; Thomas Cogswell, ‘“In the power of the state”: Mr Anys’s project and the tobacco colonies, 1626–1628’, English Historical Review, 123 (2008), 35–64. For background see Linda Levy Peck, Court patronage and corruption in early modern England (London, 1990).
3 Journals of the House of Commons, vol. 2, p. 24.
4 Noah Millstone, Manuscript circulation and the invention of politics in early Stuart England (Cambridge, 2016), pp. 312–15; Alan Craig Houston, ‘“A way of settlement”: the Levellers, monopolies and the public interest’, History of Political Thought, 14 (1993), 381–420, pp. 385–7, 397–401; Koji Yamamoto, Taming capitalism before its triumph: public service, distrust, and ‘projecting’ in early modern England (Oxford, 2018), pp. 98–9.
5 J. M. Treadwell, ‘Jonathan Swift: the satirist as projector’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 17 (1975), 439–60, at p. 441; J. R. Ratcliff, ‘Art to cheat the common-weale: inventors, projectors, and patentees in English satire, ca. 1630–70’, Technology and Culture, 53 (2012), 337–65, at p. 343; Yamamoto, Taming capitalism, p. 82. The concept of ‘project’ and its rich connotations have been traced much further back in relation to alchemy, geometry, invention and international confessional conflict. See Vera Keller and Ted McCormick, ‘Towards a history of projects’, Early Science and Medicine, 21 (2016), 423–44, at pp. 426–33; Yamamoto, Taming capitalism, pp. 3–6.
6 See Peter Lake, How Shakespeare put politics on the stage: power and succession in the history plays (New Haven, CT, 2016); Peter Lake, Hamlet’s choice: religion and resistance in Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies (New Haven, CT, 2020); Susan D. Amussen and David E. Underdown, Gender, culture and politics in England, 1560–1640: turning the world upside down (London, 2017), ch. 3; Andy Wood, ‘Brave minds and hard hands: work, drama, and social relations in the hungry 1590s’, in Chris Fitter (ed.), Shakespeare and the politics of commoners: digesting the new social history (Oxford, 2017), pp. 84–101.
7 Keller and McCormick, ‘Towards a history of projects’, pp. 424–6; Yamamoto, Taming capitalism, pp. 11–19.
8 This chapter therefore complements Valerie Forman, Tragicomic redemptions: global economics and the early modern English stage (Philadelphia, PA, 2008); Aaron Kitch, Political economy and the states of literature in early modern England (Aldershot, 2009); Stephen Deng, Coinage and state formation in early modern English literature (Basingstoke, 2011); David Landreth, The face of Mammon: the matter of money in English Renaissance literature (Oxford, 2012); András Kiséry, Hamlet’s moment: drama and political knowledge in early modern England (Oxford, 2016). See also the editorial introductions to Woodstock and Edward IV cited below.
9 Ferdinando Pulton, An abstract of all the penal statutes (1578), [sigs] A iii, A iiii.
10 Jane Whittle, ‘Land and people’, in Keith Wrightson (ed.), A social history of England, 1500–1750 (Manchester, 2017), pp. 152–73, at pp. 160, 166.
11 Oxford English Dictionary, ‘vagrancy’, n. 2.b. See also Steve Hindle, The state and social change in early modern England, c. 1550–1640 (Basingstoke, 2000), p. 4; Paul Slack, Poverty and policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1988), p. 93.
12 This and the following paragraphs owe much to Craig Muldrew, The economy of obligation: the culture of credit and social relations in early modern England (Basingstoke, 1998), pp. 18–21.
13 See C. W. Brooks, Pettyfoggers and vipers of the commonwealth: the ‘lower branch’ of the legal profession in early modern England (Cambridge, 1986), p. 51.
14 British Library, English Short Title Catalogue Online, http://estc.bl.uk (accessed 25 November 2020). Figures are obtained by Advanced Search using date ranges of ‘1550->1559’, ‘1570->1579’, and ‘1590->1599’.
15 William Harrison, The description of England, ed. Georges Edelen (Ithaca, NY, 1968), pp. 46, 272, 284. See also the works cited in note 18 below.
16 Hindle, The state and social change, p. 41.
17 Ian Archer, The pursuit of stability: social relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, 1991), p. 239.
18 Paul Slack, ‘Perceptions of the metropolis in seventeenth-century England’, in Peter Burke, Brian Howard Harrison and Paul Slack (eds), Civil histories: essays presented to Sir Keith Thomas (Oxford, 2000), pp. 161–80, at pp. 162–4; Peter Lake, ‘From Troynouvant to Heliogabalus’s Rome and back: “order” and its others in the London of John Stow’, in J. F. Merritt (ed.), Imagining early modern London: perceptions and portrayals of the city from Stow to Strype, 1598–1720 (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 217–49, at p. 223.
19 Muldrew, Economy of obligation, p. 20.
20 Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean, The Queen’s Men and their plays (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 50, 65, 67, 170–88.
21 Malcolm Gaskill, ‘Little commonwealths II: communities’, in Wrightson (ed.), Social history, p. 91.
22 Slack, Poverty and policy, pp. 124–5.
23 M. W. Beresford, ‘The common informer, the penal statutes and economic regulation’, Economic History Review, new series, 10 (19), 221–38. See also John Strype, Annals of the Reformation (4 vols, Oxford, 1824), vol. 2, pt 1, pp. 313–4.
24 Conrad Russell, The causes of the English Civil War (Oxford, 1990), pp. 169, 172–4.
25 Beresford, ‘Common informer’, p. 222.
26 C. J. Kitching, ‘The quest for concealed lands in the reign of Elizabeth I’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 24 (1974), 63–78, esp. pp. 69–71.
27 A. Hassell Smith, County and court: government and politics in Norfolk, 1558–1603 (Oxford, 1974), pp. 251–3, 261, 264, 275–6.
28 Glyn Parry and Cathryn Enis, Shakespeare before Shakespeare: Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire, and the Elizabethan state (Oxford, 2020), pp. 18–19, 87, 90, 95, 103, 108–14.
29 Helen Smith, Grossly material things: women and book production in early modern England (Oxford, 2012), pp. 141–3.
30 Thomas H. Clancy, Papist pamphleteers: the Allen-Persons party and the political thought of the Counter-Reformation in England, 1572–1615 (Chicago, 1964); Peter J. Holmes, Resistance and compromise: the political thought of the Elizabethan Catholics (Cambridge, 1982); Peter Lake, Bad Queen Bess? Libels, secret histories, and the politics of publicity in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Oxford, 2016).
31 Robert Southwell to Richard Verstegan, December 1591, in Anthony G. Petti (ed.), The letters and despatches of Richard Verstegan (London, 1959), p. 11 (hereafter cited as ‘Southwell to Verstegan’).
32 ‘Southwell to Verstegan’, p. 15. See also [Richard Verstegan], A declaration of the trve cavses of the great trovbles (1592), esp. p. 56. For in-depth accounts of the Catholic writings discussed in this chapter, see Lake, Bad Queen Bess, esp. ch. 14.
33 On the circulation of Catholic polemics, see Nancy Pollard Brown, ‘Paperchase: the dissemination of Catholic texts in Elizabethan England’, English Manuscript Studies, 1100–1700, 1 (1989), 120–43; Smith, Grossly material things, pp. 83–4. Key moments in Elizabethan politics unfolded in response to Catholic polemics against them. See Lake, Bad Queen Bess, pp. 89–93, 112–15, 155–232, 254–6, 312–21, 329–33, 410–11, 417–67.
34 George Whetstone, Promos and Cassandra (Edinburgh, 1910), no pagination. I have used the Tudor Facsimile Texts edition. I eagerly await a critical edition of this fascinating work.
35 Charles T. Prouty, ‘George Whetstone and the sources of Measure for Measure’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1964), 131–45; Peter Lake with Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s lewd hat: Protestants, papists and players in post-Reformation England (New Haven, CT, 2002), pp. 701–11; John C. Higgins, ‘Justice, mercy, and dialectical genres in Measure for Measure and Promos and Cassandra’, English Literary Renaissance, 42 (2012), 258–93.
36 Barbara J. Shapiro, Political communication and political culture in England, 1558–1688 (Stanford, CA, 2012), p. 132.
37 Yamamoto, Taming capitalism, pp. 70–2.
38 Thomas Brugis, The discovery of a proiector [1640?], sig. B 2.
39 18 Eliz.1 c. 5. See Statutes of the Realm, vol. 4, pt 1, p. 616; The National Archives, PC 2/11 fol. 129, 9 January 1577.
40 British Library (BL), Lansdowne MS 168/9, fol. 73, D. Hilles to Sir Julius Caesar concerning a project for levying penalties upon penal statutes, 4 May 1607.
41 ‘Southwell to Verstegan’, p. 11. See also [Verstegan], A declaration, p. 59.
42 Samuel Rawson Gardiner (ed.), The constitutional documents of the puritan revolution, 1625–1660, 3rd edn (Oxford, 1906), pp. 206–7 (articles 43, 47).
43 I have used Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge (eds), Thomas of Woodstock, or King Richard the Second, Part One (Manchester, 2002). The work only survives as a manuscript with no clear dating. Here I follow the majority of scholars who have dated its writing to the first half of the 1590s, including the editors of the 2002 Revels Edition that I have used. For an alternative dating, see Macd. P. Jackson, ‘Shakespeare’s Richard II and the anonymous Thomas of Woodstock’, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 14 (2001), 17–65.
44 [Verstegan], A declaration, p. 53. See also Lake, Bad Queen Bess, pp. 343, 349, 358; Clancy, Papist pamphleteers, pp. 167–77.
45 [Verstegan], A declaration, p. 55. See also Lake, Bad Queen Bess, pp. 79–80, 121–2, 137.
46 [Verstegan], A declaration, p. 60. See also ‘Southwell to Verstegan’, p. 14.
47 [Verstegan], A declaration, p. 60. See also Clancy, Papist pamphleteers, pp. 29–30.
48 Russell, Causes, pp. 175–8; see also Paul Slack, Invention of improvement: information and material progress in seventeenth-century England (Oxford, 2015), pp. 59–61; Yamamoto, Taming capitalism, pp. 73–7.
49 For rhymes against ‘projectors’ disseminated in manuscripts, see Thomas Cogswell, ‘“The symptomes and vapors of a diseased time”: the Earl of Clare and early Stuart manuscript culture’, Review of English Studies, new series, 57 (2006), 310–36.
50 ‘Southwell to Verstegan’, pp. 8, 12–3, at p. 13. See also [Verstegan], A declaration, p. 56.
51 Michael J. Braddick, The nerves of state: taxation and the financing of the English state, 1558–1714 (Manchester, 1996), pp. 85–6. On how loans were ‘requested’, see Richard Cust, The forced loan and English politics, 1626–1628 (Oxford, 1987), pp. 31–5.
52 Clancy, Papist pamphleteers, pp. 16, 51–5; Holmes, Resistance and compromise, pp. 26–30, 135, 141–2, 152–60; Lake, Bad Queen Bess, pp. 144–5, 150, 257–8, 266–70, 273, 279, 305–7, 394–400.
53 Lake, Bad Queen Bess, pp. 72–8, 108, 126, 133, 136–8, 373–5.
54 Note that the play presents no clear victor and cannot be said to endorse outright resistance as a legitimate response to tyranny.
55 Gardiner (ed.), Constitutional documents, pp. 206–7; Thomas Cogswell, ‘An accursed family: the Scottish crisis and the creation of the Black Legend of the House of Stuart, 1650–1652’, audio recording, Distinguished Fellow Lecture, Huntington Library, 2015, https://archive.org/details/podcast_early-modern-history_an-accursed-family-scotti_1000428156795 (accessed 2 December 2020).
56 I have used Thomas Heywood, The First and Second Parts of King Edward IV, ed. Richard Rowland (Manchester, 2005).
57 Slack, Poverty and policy, pp. 48–50; John Walter, Crowds and popular politics in early modern England (Manchester, 2006), pp. 68, 74.
58 A new charge giuen by the queenes commandement; Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, Tudor royal proclamations, vol. 3 (New Haven, CT, 1969), pp. 165–6, 169–72, 183–5, 193–5 (references to dogs on pp. 194–5).
59 See, for example, Amussen and Underdown, Gender, pp. 92–6, 98–100, 102.
60 Eleanor Hubbard, City women: money, sex, and the social order in early modern London (Oxford, 2012), pp. 113–14; Alexandra Shepard, ‘Provision, household management and the moral authority of wives and mothers in early modern England’, in Michael J. Braddick and Phil Withington (eds), Popular culture and political agency in early modern England and Ireland: essays in honour of John Walter (Manchester, 2017), pp. 73–89, at p. 84; Ann Hughes, Gender and the English Revolution (Abingdon, 2012), pp. 44–9, 54–61, 139, at p. 139.
61 Hubbard, City women, p. 198; Natasha Korda, Labors lost: women’s work and the early modern English stage (Philadelphia, PA, 2011), pp. 20–5.
62 Smith, Grossly material things, pp. 141–3, 146.
63 Gendered accounts of political economy and projecting are emerging. Exciting new works include Misha Ewen, ‘Women investors and the Virginia Company in the early seventeenth century’, Historical Journal, 62 (2019), 853–74; Mabel Winter, Banking, projecting and politicking in early modern England: the rise and fall of Thompson and Company 1671‒1678 (Cham, 2022); Evan Bourke, ‘“I would not have taken her for his sister”: financial hardship and women’s reputations in the Hartlib circle’, Seventeenth Century, 37 (2022), 47–64. These case studies can be paired profitably with an astute historiographical critique offered by Jane Whittle, ‘A critique of approaches to “domestic work”: women, work and the pre-industrial economy’, Past & Present, 243 (2019), 35–70.
64 Yamamoto, Taming capitalism, p. 51 (n. 92).
65 T. E. Hartley (ed.), Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I (3 vols, London, 1995), vol. 3, pp. 370–8, at p. 375.
66 ‘Southwell to Verstegan’, p. 12.
67 Joan Thirsk, Economic policy and projects: the development of a consumer society in early modern England (Oxford, 1978), pp. 62–3; Yamamoto, Taming capitalism, pp. 70–3.
68 A myrroure for magistrates (1559), sig. [H iiiv].
69 Penelope Woods, ‘Skilful spectatorship? Doing (or being) audience at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’, Shakespeare Studies, 43 (2015), 99–113, at p. 100; Evelyn Tribble, ‘Affective contagion on the early modern stage’, in Amanda Bailey and Mario DiGangi (eds), Affect theory and early modern texts: politics, ecologies, and form (New York, 2017), pp. 195–212, at pp. 204–5.
70 BL, Add. MS 21935, Nehemiah Wallington’s diary, fol. 127.
71 Walter Cohen, Drama of a nation: public theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca, NY, 1985), p. 183.
72 Chris Fitter, ‘Introduction: rethinking Shakespeare in the social depth of politics’, in Fitter (ed.), Shakespeare and the politics of commoners, pp. 1–39, at p. 34.
73 See David Harris Sacks, ‘The greed of Judas: avarice, monopoly, and the moral economy in England, ca. 1350–ca. 1600’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 28 (1998), 263–307.
74 See D. T. Gilbert and P. S. Malone, ‘The correspondence bias’, Psychological Bulletin, 117 (1995), 21–38; Miles Hewstone, Mark Rubin and Hazel Willis, ‘Intergroup bias’, Annual Review of Psychology, 53 (2002), 575–604.
75 On the notable absence of ‘constitutional arguments’ and ‘institutional solutions’ in early modern dramas, see Shapiro, Political communication, pp. 134–5. On the entanglement of sexual and economic corruptions, see also William Cavert’s discussion in Chapter 8.
76 Lake with Questier, The Antichrist’s lewd hat, pp. 94–9, 349–51; George Peele, The troublesome reign of John, King of England, ed. Charles R. Forker (Manchester, 2011), pp. 61, 133, 179, 271–2; ‘Southwell to Verstegan’, pp. 4–5 (quotation).
77 Henry Crosse, Vertues common-wealth (1603), sig. P3–[P3v].
78 Stephen Gosson, Playes confuted in fiue actions (1582), sig. f–[fv].
79 Hartlib Papers, HP 1/9/5A, John Dury to ?, 31 March 1634, www.dhi.ac.uk/hartlib (accessed 15 May 2021).
80 Ross Knecht, ‘Emotional labour: Hamlet’, in Katharine A. Craik (ed.), Shakespeare and emotion (Cambridge, 2020), pp. 167–80, at pp. 174–5; Tribble, ‘Affective contagion’, pp. 195–6; Yamamoto, Taming capitalism, esp. pp. 104, 125, 194–209.
81 Phil Withington, ‘An “Aristotelian moment”: democracy in early modern England’, in Braddick and Withington (eds), Popular culture and political agency, pp. 203–22, at pp. 221–2.
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