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About this text

  • Title: The Whore of Babylon: Biblical Allusion
  • Author: Tara Pederen
  • Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
  • Coordinating editor: Brett Greatley-Hirsch
  • Research assistants: Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Vanessa Rapatz, Keri Wolfe, Barbara Zimbalit

  • Copyright Vanessa Rapatz, Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Keri Wolfe, and Barbara Zimbalit. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Tara Pederen
    Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Whore of Babylon: Biblical Allusion

    The Woman and the Serpent: Biblical Allusion in The Whore of Babylon

    Tara E. Pedersen

    1The New Testament's final book, the heavily symbolic and apocalyptic text of Revelation, is the source of the most prominent biblical allusion in this play, and by invoking this narrative, Dekker perhaps suggests that the conflicts examined in his work – including conflicts between warring nations, doctrinal positions, and gendered bodies – are not merely extreme but also monstrous and apocalypse-inducing in nature. Most prominently, the play draws its title from Revelation chapter 17, in which we are introduced to Babylon's scarlet whore who rides a seven-headed beast and who carries in her hand a golden cup brimming with "the abomination and filthiness of her fornication" (Rev. 17:4). This figure, acting in concert with the lust-filled kings of the earth, is described as waging war against the Lamb and drinking the blood of Christian martyrs before her downfall in chapter 18. Throughout this play, Dekker invokes the language and imagery of Revelation as a whole (most frequently chapter 17); however, the book of Revelation is not the only source of biblical allusions in the text. Dekker's work often demonstrates the Bible's self-referential quality. For example, midway though the play, Titania claims that "Euery Peeres birth stickes a new starre in heauen, / But falling by Luciferan insolence, / With him a new constellation drops from thence" (TLN 1909-11). With these words, Titania arguably alludes to Revelation 9:1 in which John the Revelator describes witnessing "a star fall from heaven unto the earth." At the same time, however, Titania specifically connects the falling star with Lucifer, and in so doing, she may hearken back to Isaiah 14:12 (which describes Lucifer – the morning star – as fallen) or Luke 10:18 (which depicts Satan's fall from heaven). As this passage illustrates, Dekker's text demonstrates an intimate familiarity with the way that Revelation invokes and makes use of that which precedes it.

    In addition to these two types of allusions, The Whore of Babylon also reveals a preoccupation with Biblical tales that feature women as critical participants. Aside from the scarlet whore, you will find references to the story of Jezebel (the infamous queen of I and II Kings), the words of Solomon's beloved, and the Genesis narrative. Significantly, the tale of Eve and the serpent is invoked early in Dekker's text as the Empress, in signature Bv, directs the three kings to creep like serpents and "lick the dust" that Titania treads upon as they tempt her to join forces with them. In making this statement, the Empress arguably places her associates in the role of the serpent enticing a vulnerable Eve. However, as we continue reading, we see that the question of how to allegorize the figures before us becomes increasingly complex. The Empress may initially identify her allies as snakes, but (as the Third King claims) there are "Faiery Adders" (TLN 2155) waiting to attack the Empress as well. In fact, serpents frequently appear in the rhetoric of both sides, and in the text's final moments, the Empress may simultaneously become both a sucking adder herself and the snake's victim as she claims: "Earth, Ile sucke all thy venome to my breast, / It cannot hurt me so as doe my sonnes" (TLN 2853-54). The seeming obsession with casting the opposition in the role of the snake is perhaps most understandable when we consider that in Genesis 3:15, God claims that Eve and her children will ultimately and triumphantly bruise the serpent's head. The question of who is positioned as the bruised snake, and by implication who plays a triumphant Eve, runs throughout this play; even as the Empress is subdued, Dekker seems to leave us without a definitive answer.