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The Collation

Interview and excerpt: Joseph Mansky, Libels and Theater in Shakespeare’s England: Publics, Politics, Performance

At the Folger, we are proud to sponsor research inquiry within a vibrant and intellectually generous community. Periodically, as that research is published, we circle back to talk with recent authors to showcase the role of collections-based inquiry on their methods and arguments. Today, we pose a series of questions to 2019-2020 short-term fellow Joseph Mansky, followed by an excerpt from his new book Libels and Theater in Shakespeare’s England: Publics, Politics, Performance (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

Dr. Mansky is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the journals Huntington Library Quarterly, Review of English Studies, Journal of Legal History, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, PMLA, ELH, Renaissance Drama, Shakespeare Quarterly, and Milton Studies.


When you started this research project, how much clarity did you have about what you were looking for, both in terms of number of examples and specific materials?

Not nearly as much as I thought I had! It was really Shakespeare who gave me the idea for the project. In the fourth act of Titus Andronicus, the persecuted Andronici launch scraps of seditious writing into the sky, and in the next scene the emperor, Saturninus, rails against their “libeling.” I couldn’t find much about this moment in the scholarship on the play, so I wanted to figure out what exactly was going on. What was a libel in Shakespeare’s England, and what about libeling would make him want to represent it onstage? I quickly discovered that this was a much more complicated question than I had anticipated. Take just two of the most notorious Elizabethan libels: the Dutch Church libel, a fifty-three-line xenophobic complaint in rhymed iambic pentameter posted on a churchyard wall in 1593, and Leicester’s Commonwealth, a 200-page Catholic dialogue (and diatribe) printed abroad in 1584 and subsequently smuggled into England. Ingenious critics devised all sorts of means to broadcast their defamatory complaints. It was only by reading many, many libels—and, just as importantly, contemporary writings about libel—that I came to understand how the libel crystallized early modern anxieties about the public circulation of political talk. I think this is what Shakespeare—and Heywood and Jonson and other early modern playwrights—show us in their scenes of libel: a viral medium in the making.

Once you started working with the Folger collections, did your research questions change? Did your assumptions about what arguments were going to be supported by the evidence change?

By the time I arrived at the Folger in 2019, I had a pretty good sense of what I wanted to say about Shakespeare’s theater. But I hadn’t quite figured out how to chart the circulation of libels themselves. Two Folger manuscripts, one of which I’d first come across years before, showed me a way forward. MS X.d.634 is an early Stuart verse libel followed by two remarkable and highly unusual notes in the scribe’s hand that document its dissemination. And MS G.b.11 is a scribal copy of Leicester’s Commonwealth preceded by a poem to the reader that reflects on the “news” contained within. I’d already developed a metafictional reading of Leicester’s Commonwealth: it is a libel about reading (and sharing and discussing) libels. But the Folger manuscripts suggested how scribal traces of circulation might bridge the gap between representations of libel—in polemic, on the stage—and the networks of readers and writers and spectators and talkers who made up the plural publics of early modernity.

Early modern handwritten document
An early Stuart verse libel titled “The state of the lande as it was in the latter end of our Late Quenes gouernement,” reportedly “lett fall to the Kinge in the cocke pitt.” Beneath the poem the copyist added a pointed warning: “Sir I pray you lett not this or the other be shewed but to discrete frendes for that it is not knowne by whome they wer made or howe they will bee taken.”
(Folger MS X.d.634)

What couldn’t you find that you expected to find? Can you give us examples?

I don’t know that I expected to find this, but I certainly hoped I would: a clear definition of libel from the Elizabethan courts. Legal historians have long traced the origins of the English law of libel to Sir Edward Coke’s 1605 report De libellis famosis. But what did the law look like in the final decades of the previous century? I soon found out why I couldn’t find the answer in the legal archive: because there wasn’t one. The law of libel was still very much in flux in the early 1600s, let alone in the sixteenth century. Coke himself, I discovered in the course of my research, cribbed his 1605 definition of libel from a 1594 English legal manual that in turn adapted a 1590 Roman law tract. But religious minorities, hungry commoners, and resentful neighbors did not stay to hear what the lawyers and judges had to say. Nor, I’m happy to say, did Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights. My aim in the book is to interweave literary, legal, social, cultural, and political history to tell the story of the early modern (especially late Elizabethan) libel.

handwritten early modern document
Two images from a scribal copy of Leicester’s Commonwealth. On the left, a poem to the reader advertising the “notable talke herin taught” framed by two Latin warnings: “Non est bonum ludere cum sanctis” (“It is not good to trifle with holy matters”) and “Vir sapit qui pauca loquitur” (“The man is wise who speaks little”). On the right, a marginal note glossing an Elizabethan statute against defamation as “the lawe against talkinge.”
(Folger MS G.b.11)

In what ways did the Folger scholarly community advance your work?

I cannot say enough about the generosity of the Folger community. Heather Wolfe (Curator of Manuscripts) taught me how to read secretary hand back in 2014 at the Mellon Summer Institute in English Paleography. Amanda Herbert (then Associate Director for Fellowships) kindly discussed publication paths during my fellowship in 2019. And Meaghan J. Brown (then Digital Production Editor) lent her expertise to an article I was writing on the circulation of Leicester’s Commonwealth. And that’s just the staff! From advice on knotty transcription problems to wide-ranging conversations about all things early modern, I learned so much from my fellow Folger fellows.

What advice do you have for early career scholars working at the Folger or peer collections?

Go to tea! You never know what new idea or promising archive you might discover in conversation over tea and cookies. The librarians are a tremendous resource—they know so, so much about the collections and the early modern period. Don’t be afraid to call up anything and everything that catches your interest, even if it doesn’t seem especially relevant at the time: archives are places of fortuitous discovery. And you might even want to descend into the bowels of the library (at least that’s where these materials were kept before the renovation) to dust off the microfilm from time to time.


Below find an excerpt from the Introduction to Dr. Mansky’s book Libels and Theater in Shakespeare’s England: Publics, Politics, Performance (Cambridge University Press, 2023), pp.5-7, 8.

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. They were multiply mobile, crossing not just media but also class, confessional, and topographical lines.1 That mobility is encoded in the vocabulary of libeling. Scattered, dispersed, spread, cast, blown, thrown: libels were understood to be a centrifugal force in early modern society and politics. They were slight objects—etymologically little books, often mere scraps of paper—easily spread and easily concealed. Unmoored from their authors, they circulated like leaves in the wind or projectiles launched into the sky. Any points of origin remain elusive: they seem almost self-propagating in their anonymous, viral diffusion. Libels reached popular audiences not through the efforts of their individual authors but through highly permeable and variously public circuits of communication.

This book locates the theater in that tangled, multimedia web of defamatory discourse. Exploring the contact zones between plays and libels, I at once build on and seek to reorient the recent surge of scholarship on the theater and its publics. I share scholars’ vision of the theater as a metropolitan institution that initiated playgoers into new types of communal thinking. Yet the focus on London’s commercial theater risks leaving out the host of provincial playmakers who made their own forays onto the literal and metaphorical stages of their communities. And it risks overcorrecting the Habermasian emphasis on print by anchoring theatrical publics too firmly in a single institution.2 Savvy libelers drew on the resources of performance in all sorts of places and in all sorts of ways. Provincial tenants lampooned their landlords on a makeshift stage. Anonymous poets interlaced their defamatory verses with dramatic allusions and pinned them to walls and posts. Local troublemakers declaimed scurrilous texts with sweeping, theatrical gestures before crowds of commoners. Sectarian polemicists borrowed the rollicking style of the stage. In this book, I argue that theater and theatricality played a central role in making the publics of libel.

Of special importance was the self-reflexive tendency that I identified above. As [Michael] Warner defines them, publics require both “active uptake” and some degree of “self-understanding.”3 In other words, an association of strangers becomes a public when its members understand themselves as such—when they take up and recirculate some kind of shared experience, idea, or discourse. The early moderns attributed a similar effect to libels. It is telling that two of the words most often used to describe their dissemination were “scattered” and “dispersed.” Magistrates imagine towns, cities, and even the entire country filled with libels “scattered abroade” and “scattered in publique places,” “disperste in all places,” and “dispersed through this realm.”4 The libels conjure a public coalescing around everyday encounters with scraps of seditious text. Anyone could take up, read, hear, repeat, perform, interpret, or repurpose a libel.

It was this active uptake too that brought theater in contact with libel. Legal accounts of libel, efforts to regulate the stage, and plays themselves all tend to implicate the audience in the act of libel. Antitheatricalists maintained that the theater was a hotbed of libeling in large part due to the activity of its popular playgoers. The law held copyists and, in some cases, even listeners culpable for publishing libels. And plays from the university drama Club Law to Jonson’s Poetaster hinged on their audiences’ complicity in the scene of libel. On- and offstage, those scenes tended toward the metadramatic: they staged the kinds of uptake that they asked of their audiences. We see readers talking libelously about libels, libelers sending their texts out to interested parties and indiscriminate publics, spectators laughing or crying or seething at public pitches. These scenes cultivated the self-understanding that separates a public from a crowd or a readership. At stake was not just the content of the speech but also the act of interpretation.

Yet we overlook the seditious cast of that discourse at our peril. It is the generative irony of the early modern public sphere that its critical conversations launched in no small part from the vitriol and violence of libels.

  1. I borrow the concept of “multiply moving” media from Patricia Fumerton, The Broadside Ballad in Early Modern England: Moving Media, Tactical Publics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 33–40.
  2. For recent correctives to this tendency, see Katrin Beushausen, Theatre and the English Public from Reformation to Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); and Fumerton, Broadside Ballad.
  3. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 88.
  4. TNA, SP 12/179, fol. 92r; J. Alan B. Somerset, ed., REED: Shropshire, 2 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 1:123; TNA, SP 12/275, fol. 229r; Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, eds., Tudor Royal Proclamations, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964–69), 3:15.

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