London, 1592-93. Plague ravaged the city. Unemployment spiked. Angry apprentices took to the streets. To stem the spread of disease and unrest, the authorities shut down the theaters for over a year. Popular resentment soon turned to an all-too-familiar scapegoat: immigrants. The primary targets were Dutch and French refugees from the European wars of religion. In April 1593, libels threatening violence against strangers started to appear on doors and posts across London. Few of these libels have survived, but the most vicious one of all—in the words of the Privy Council, the one that “doth exceed the rest in lewdness”—has come down to us intact. Posted on the wall of the Dutch churchyard in Broadstreet Ward on May 5, the so-called Dutch Church libel issued a chilling threat: “We’ll cut your throats, in your temples praying.”
Its vicious xenophobia, though, is not why the Dutch Church libel has entered the annals of the Elizabethan stage. The poem repeatedly alludes to the plays of Christopher Marlowe, including The Jew of Malta, The Massacre at Paris, and Tamburlaine the Great. Before the month was out, Marlowe was hauled before the Privy Council and his sometime roommate, Thomas Kyd, was arrested and likely tortured. Kyd was eventually freed, but perhaps left a broken man. Marlowe was released on his own recognizance, but ten days later he died from a knife to the eye at the age of twenty-nine.
Scholars have tried for decades to piece together a coherent story. Was Marlowe’s death a political assassination, or was he the unfortunate casualty of a barroom brawl? Was the libel an inside job cooked up to incriminate him, or just part of the wave of xenophobic rage sweeping the city? Personally, I’m more inclined to see the events of 1593 as a tragic coincidence rather than a sinister conspiracy. But what we can say for sure is that a single scrap of xenophobic verse set off a chain of events that swept two of England’s leading playwrights up in the swirl of sedition and scandal.
The fallout of the Dutch Church libel vividly illustrates the subject of my new book, Libels and Theater in Shakespeare’s England. Ranging from London to Westmorland, I explore the theater’s remarkable affinity for libel. Then as now, the word “libel” generally referred to written defamation. Yet few libels remained in writing alone. Their lifecycles took them across the early modern media: speech, manuscript, print, performance. The tenants of Kendal donned their landlords’ clothes and sent the greedy lords to hell on a makeshift stage. The Dutch Church libeler punctuated an anti-immigrant screed with allusions to Marlowe’s blood-soaked drama. A shopkeeper in Somerset recited a libelous ballad with sweeping, theatrical gestures, “much like a player.” Puritans and Anglicans and Catholics viciously mocked one another “in the style of the stage.” And professional playwrights, not least of all William Shakespeare, probed (and sometimes practiced) the politics of libel themselves.
These scenes of libel give us a glimpse of a viral medium in the making. My book shows that our present-day preoccupation with free speech and fake news has a long literary history. Like social media today, libels gave ordinary people a public platform to criticize the ruling classes. But also like social media, the discourse they disseminated was often vicious and vitriolic, a volatile cocktail of rumors, threats, and populist grievance. Debate and defamation, free speech and fake news, went hand in hand.
This paradox runs through the representations of libel on the early modern stage. Shakespeare, Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, and other playwrights dramatized the viral media of their moment, from the surge of sectarian petitioning in the early 1590s to the eruption of xenophobic threats in 1593 to the maelstrom of news, rumor, and satire unleashed by the fall of the Earl of Essex in 1599. Together, their plays chart a late Elizabethan public sphere animated by forces that remain uncannily familiar: partisanship and populism, misinformation and sectarian strife, proto-celebrity and political demagoguery. I don’t think the early moderns could resolve these tensions any more than we can today. But they have left us ample food for thought in our own post-truth partisan age.