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About this text

  • Title: The Whore of Babylon: The Warrant Scene
  • Author: Vanessa Rapatz
  • 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: Vanessa Rapatz
    Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Whore of Babylon: The Warrant Scene

    The Warrant Scene

    Vanessa Raptz

    1While The Whore of Babylon clearly draws on historical events during the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I, its highly allegorical structure often makes such events and particular historical characters difficult for historians and modern audiences to identify definitively. Some allegorical figures correspond easily to Elizabeth's councilors, and events like the Spanish Armada seem obvious; however, there are moments of slippage throughout the play where such characters and events seem to blur together (see Dekker's Allegory). The scene in which Titania is urged to sign the death warrant of an unnamed individual (TLN 1875-1915) is a prime example of an episode in which characters and events converge in a way that may confuse modern audiences, but that also draws attention to larger themes of sovereignty and literacy that permeate the play.

    One of the first questions that the warrant scene raises is which historical figure is being condemned to death by Titania's signature. While Elizabeth had several people executed during her reign, three people stand out as plausible candidates because, in each case, there is an assumption that she was reluctant to sign the death warrant. The main contenders are Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, a nobleman tried and sentenced for treason in 1572; Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's cousin who, after decades of wavering, was put to death in 1587; and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, one of Elizabeth's favorites who held several positions in court, but who was ultimately executed for treason in 1601. As with other historical events alluded to in this play, the dates of these executions do little to clarify the identity of the accused individual.

    The debate over which of these figures the scene represents most often centers on the blurring of the party's gender based on apparent pronoun inconsistencies in the text. When Fideli first responds to Titania's inquiry as to "the cause" for her signature, he claims that the convicted subject is "The Moone" that "Hath from her siluer bow shot pitchy clowds" (TLN 1879-80), but just moments later Florimel insists, "You must not (cause hee's noble) spare his blood" (TLN 1893). Because of the scene's initial use of feminine pronouns and a female moon figure, many assume that Mary Queen of Scots is the subject and that the pronoun switch was either a mistake or another author's insertion. Others have suggested that this speech actually alludes to both Mary Queen of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk, with Mary as "Moon" and Norfolk as the "noble" man whose blood must not be spared. Norfolk was executed because of his suspected involvement in a plot that would have wed him to Mary, after which the two planned to claim the English throne.

    While the suggestion of a switch in the moon speech might seem more likely than an outside insertion or authorial error, Julia Gasper puts forth another explanation for the pronoun shift, arguing that, metaphorically, the moon, like the Empress of Babylon, could easily represent a male figure, specifically Essex. In fact, she claims "some obscurity may be deliberate, because the subject of Essex was still a risky topic when the play was written" (Gasper 90). For many of Dekker's contemporaries, Essex remained a powerful emblem of Protestant leadership even after he was executed for treason. Just as Elizabeth may have hesitated to sign his death warrant, the public too wavered in its support of her action. Essex, in fact, could be a far better fit for the moon metaphor, especially with his position in the court and status as one of Elizabeth's favorites. Mary, on the other hand, did not "borrow light" from Elizabeth, as the moon does from the sun, or use her connections to elevate her own position as Fideli suggests of the subject in question. Furthermore, while Mary, as a queen, could be seen as one of Elizabeth's "Peeres, " the reference to the accused as both a child and a "Luciferan" subject problematizes an easy correlation between the Scottish queen and the referent in this scene. For, as many pointed out, including Mary herself, she was not Elizabeth's subject but a sovereign in her own right.

    5Regardless of the condemned individual's true identity, this scene brings up larger issues in its representation of a female ruler, and Titania's hesitation and eventual act of signing the document reinscribe the gendered ambiguity of the warrant's subject onto this Fairyland sovereign herself. The warrant scene is set amid a series of plots against Titania's life that expose her vulnerability; her hesitation to strike down "the children / Whom we have nourisht at our princely breast" (TLN 1888-89) for their treason seems to play into a fundamental suspicion of the inadequacy of female sovereignty that followed Elizabeth throughout her reign. Yet, that Titania signs the document and actively and violently commands "Giue me the Axe" (TLN 1912) as she does so, reminds the audience of Elizabeth's use of complexly gendered imagery to blur the maternal and martial in her self-representations (see The Legacy of Tilbury). This blending is further illustrated when, after signing the warrant, Titania confesses "so little we in blood delight, / That doing this worke, we wish we could not write" (TLN 1913-14). Eve Sanders focuses on this loaded response in her discussion of the play's staging of gender and literacy to argue that "The Whore of Babylon presents the danger inherent in writing [a clearly gendered occupation] as one of unchecked female power" (176). Titania's ability to kill one of the children she has maternally "nourisht," according to Sanders, "sets political authority in opposition to female nature and recasts the warning against the abuses of writing in general as a cautionary admonition against women's use of the pen in particular" (180). This threat of female authority becomes even more apparent if one notes the mirroring of Titania's powerful penmanship in the figure of the Empress of Babylon who uses her unchecked power to sign her own documents of death and destruction.

    The warrant scene, with its ambiguous pronouns and gender blending, simultaneously casts Elizabeth via Titania as a vulnerable woman and a powerful sovereign. And while the literacy and power of a female to rule are clearly critiqued in this passage it is interesting to note that the scene ends with Titania's reproof of her male councilors for their lack of care with her person; she is surprised to find that not one of her men is armed, leaving her vulnerable to the very types of attack she is supposedly warding off by signing death warrants. The scene following the warrant scene affirms Titania's intelligence and her "hand." When a man her councilors refer to as a "silly gentleman" (TLN 1933) unsuccessfully attempts to assassinate her, Titania claims that she had foreknowledge of the plot, which "came unto me strangely: from a window, [...] Twa's told me, and I tried if he durst doo't" (TLN 1953-55). Her seemingly supernatural insight leads her physician to praise her "lucky hand" (TLN 1958), the same hand with which just moments earlier she has signed a death warrant. The scene leaves the audience with a strange mixture of praise for and critique of the central monarch figure. And ultimately, like the play's conclusion, it leaves the resolution of its broader themes open to interpretation and perhaps also to the hopes of a new Protestant future where the relationship between sovereignty and literacy could be stabilized. A critique of Elizabeth's rule, then, would be an admonishment to James I.