General Introduction

Frances E. Dolan

1Thomas Dekker's play, The Whore of Babylon, begins with the unlamented death of a queen of Fairyland. Her hearse is greeted with the awakening of Truth, "joy," "astonishment," illumination (signaled by ripping blindfolds away), and new clothes. This unnamed queen, who had reigned for "Fiue Summers" (TLN 110), is clearly Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I's half-sister, who was the queen of England from 1553 to 1558. The play also refers to her as one of a "paire of Queenes" who descends from Elfiline or Henry VII (TLN 388; see The Wars of the Roses and the History of Fairyland) and describes her brief reign as those disastrous "Marianaes daies" (C2v). Since the play soundlessly depicts this queen's funeral in the opening Dumb Show, and does not clearly identify her, it might be easy to miss this episode and skim over its implications. The play rapidly moves on to its central conflict between two other female rulers, Titania, queen of Fairyland, and the Empress of Babylon. But by beginning as it does, the play reminds us that queens, no matter how powerful, can die. Subjects, no matter how apparently loyal, can rejoice, rather than mourn, over such deaths and shake off whatever influence their former sovereign exercised. When we first meet the Empress, she laments her loss of power, describing her "true Soueraignty" as a coin whose stamp is "clipt, abas'd" (TLN 76); her signet is "now counterfeit" (TLN 89); "Our Image, which (like Romane Caesars) stamp'd / In gold, through the whole earth did currant passe; / Is now blanch'd copper, or but guilded brasse" (TLN 95-97). All coins were stamped with the image of the ruling sovereign. By starting with Mary's funeral and then the Empress's lament, the play reminds us that any sovereign could wind up a fading stamp on a devalued currency.

The play stages the conflict between Titania (whom the "lectori" identifies as "our late Queene") and the Empress (or "the Purple Whore of Roome") as a high stakes confrontation between two sovereigns and between the opposing religions and empires they represent. The conflict is somewhat one-sided in that the Empress wants to regain the power she once had in Fairyland, while Titania disclaims any desire to encroach on the Babylonian empire or even to make an alliance with one of the kingly suitors the Empress dispatches to seduce her. The plot is a series of emissaries from the Empress to Titania as the Empress sends suitors, priests, assassins, texts and finally a flotilla of galleons (or the Spanish Armada) to subdue Titania and reclaim Fairyland. Titania and her fairies win, but not so decisively that one cannot imagine Whore of Babylon II: The Empress Strikes Back.

The play's starkly opposed "teams" and its morally freighted landscape – Fairyland vs. Babylon – were created by an event that had happened 70 years earlier. In 1534, the English Parliament acknowledged King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the newly formed Church of England. The Reformation extended and consolidated the sovereign's power and justified the seizure of the Church's considerable properties in England (monasteries and convents), which the King then redistributed as it served his own interests. Whereas English subjects had formerly acknowledged the Pope as their Spiritual head, they were now informed that they owed both spiritual and political allegiance to one person, their sovereign. The multiple loyalties and transnational affiliations that had once characterized everyone's identity were now repudiated as divisive. Henry VIII had complex reasons for initiating this split, which gained particular urgency for him because the Pope refused to grant him a divorce from his first wife so that he could marry a second, Anne Boleyn, who would be the mother of the future queen Elizabeth I. But this shift in England also participated in larger movements across Europe as members of the Catholic church derided its corruption, challenged its theology, and demanded change.

The sweeping changes that followed as a result of these "protests" have come to be called the Reformation and the adherents of the newly reformed faith "protestants." Adherents of the two faiths disagreed about the liturgy and the sacraments, the role of images in worship, the meaning of the Eucharist (did it actually become Christ's body or did it just represent that body?), access to the Bible (which Protestants insisted should be translated into vernacular languages and placed in believers' own hands), the value of extra-scriptural custom (which Catholics valued and Protestants disdained), and the structure of the institutional church (which, in Catholicism, granted more authority to priests and relied on an elaborate hierarchy of pope, bishops, cardinals, and priests). The Whore of Babylon obscures most of these doctrinal disputes. It insists that Babylon and Fairyland are utterly different, and that Fairyland is clearly morally superior, but it does not explain exactly why.

5Since it was assumed that salvation and damnation depended on these differences, people were willing to kill and to die for them. Yet it is also true that the Reformation did not mark a clean and decisive shift from one clearly defined set of beliefs and practices to another. It remained the case that these Christians were more alike than they were different. Furthermore, many people's beliefs were eclectic, confused, and unstable. In ways they might not fully recognize and could not defend doctrinally, people combined Catholic, Protestant, and pagan beliefs and practices, reaching for any object, prayer, or ritual from their repertoire that promised to help them in times of crisis. Some also converted from one confessional affiliation to another and back again.

This uncertainty was compounded by the vicissitudes of English history. After Henry VIII died, he was succeeded by his young son, Edward VI (1547-1553), who sustained the commitment to Reformation and a Church of England. But when Edward died, he was succeeded by his half sister, Mary Tudor, Henry's daughter by his first wife, Katherine. Like her mother, Mary Tudor was staunchly Catholic. The link between her father's rejection of her mother and the Reformation perhaps made her even more determined to return England to an allegiance to the Pope and the "old faith." Cementing her alliance with Catholicism, Mary married Philip II, the King of Spain. During her brief reign, she burned some unrelenting Protestants as heretics (who were then revered by other Protestants as martyrs) and compelled others to flee into exile. This earned her the nickname "bloody Mary," despite the fact that her successor, Elizabeth I, was responsible for the deaths of many Catholic priests in her turn.

It is Mary whose death launches The Whore of Babylon. Everything about Mary Tudor complicates the simple oppositions on which the play depends. In the play, several different binaries overlap, sometimes reinforcing one another and sometimes at odds: Catholic / Protestant; Babylon (Spain, France, Modern Italy) / Fairyland (England); Women / Men; Queens / Kings. English but Catholic, Mary Tudor does not line up neatly with one side or the other. Kidnapping Time and baffling Truth, she interrupts the forward expansion of Protestantism that the play presents as "history." Because of the way her reign interrupted the process of "reforming England" it was possible to say at the beginning of her half-sister Elizabeth's reign that "those that sing there the holy Hymnes, as yet / Have not their voices cleere, the streame of ceremony / Is scarcely settled" (TLN 286-87; see Music in The Whore of Babylon). It would be Elizabeth's task to "settle" questions of doctrine and ceremony, as she did in a series of compromises that have become known as the Elizabethan Settlement.

The play blurs its own stark oppositions in other ways as well. The play assigns the first Cardinal an eloquent description of the plenty, power, and influence the clergy had before the Reformation. Surveying Fairyland, the Cardinal sees a desacralized world without reverence or distinction. "Why were our gardens Eden? why our bowers / Built like to those in Paradise? [...] because the Law most mysticall, / Was not made common" (TLN 238-41). By this account, the Reformation has made everything and everyone debased. His claim that "now our very graues / Cannot saue dead mens bones from shame and bruzes" (TLN 249-50) was literally true. In the massive transfer of land and wealth that accompanied the Reformation, deconsecrated spaces sometimes suffered vandalism that could include removing human remains from charnel houses, mixing them together and dumping them unceremoniously. While The Whore of Babylon is often viewed as crudely, even cartoonishly anti-Catholic, the Cardinal's lament might have appealed to some English viewers or readers who had reservations about iconoclasm and violent upheaval. They might feel that the Cardinal's rage had some justification; they might feel a little thrill at the description of Protestant ministers as usurpers: "those that fill our roomes" (TLN 267), a "faggot band" (TLN 276) and "Fairie whales" (TLN 290). Similarly, Campeius' extended diatribe about the devaluation of scholarship and scholars in post-Reformation England might evoke some sympathy (TLN 1016-174). When Paridel asks an Albanois to consider whether he would kill his father in order to save everyone else he loves, he justifies parricide and regicide in terms that anticipate the defenses of regicide that were raised during the 1640's, leading up to the execution of King Charles I in 1649 (TLN 1679-714).

Dekker's decision to depict the pope as a woman further blurs the distinction between the two sides, as several critics have noted. Many detractors of the Roman Catholic church figured it, verbally and visually, as the Whore of Babylon described in the Book of Revelations (see The Woman and the Serpent). Dekker draws on that tradition by depicting the Holy Roman Empire as Babylon and defaming its head, the Empress, as a Whore. But, in Dekker's play, the Whore of Babylon is not just the Church in the abstract but the pope himself. Common parlance dwelt on the supposed centrality of the pope in Roman Catholicism, blaming him for the assumed disloyalty of Catholic subjects, and labelling the religion "popery" and its adherents "papists." Pope Paul V fanned anti-papal feeling by issuing a papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis, in 1570, denouncing Elizabeth I as a heretic, denying her claim to her throne and absolving her subjects of their allegiance to her. The play refers to this as "A wild beast, a mad bull, a bull that roares, / To fright allegiance from true subiects bosoms" (TLN 1820-21). This papal decree was widely seen as promoting not only disobedience but regicide; it was also suspected that the pope would extend pardons for crimes committed against the English sovereign. On the surface, making the Pope an Empress seems to serve the project of discrediting him and Catholicism and robbing him of any advantage over Titania and her Fairyland; it also corresponds to a long-standing, if illogical, practice of denouncing the male-dominated Catholic church as the regiment of bossy women. Here the head of the Catholic church is "that bad woman, Babilons proud Queene" (TLN 358); "that mannish woman-Diuell, / That lustfull bloudie Queene of Babylon" (TLN 2390-91). Yet, like the celebration of the death of the former queen of Fairyland, the feminization of the Empress sometimes works in the play to discredit all queens. So, too, does the depiction of Titania as embattled, coquettish, and indecisive.

10In the showdown between the rival queens, The Whore of Babylon shores up the gender hierarchy threatened by Catholicism by militarizing the winning queen. Titania says "Your Queene will to the field, It shall be said, / Once souldiers to their Captaine had a Maide" (TLN 2629-30). Time urges Truth: "Goe (thou most God-like maide) & buckle on / The brest-plates fetcht from thine own Armoury, / Let euery souldier weare one" (TLN 2643-45). Titania boasts that she's "borne a souldier by the fathers side" (TLN 2749). In this version of the Beria or Tilbury battle field, women are so at home in the English camp that the queen prefers it to the court, women beg to be "prest" (TLN 2599), meaning both pressed or impressed into military service and sexually "pressed"; and a male baby, destined to be a warrior, is born in the camp as a kind of mascot (TLN 2771-72; see The Legacy of Tilbury).

The emphasis on Titania's militarism and manliness reveals the dilemmas and confusions created by making the two opponents female. We can also see this in the floating and bewildering references to maternity in the play (see Buccola). In the preface to readers of the printed play, or the "lectori," the playwright describes himself as like a beautiful mother who endures "throwes" to be "delivered" of an infant who is then "spoyld by ill nurses" (TLN 0.078-80). The printer is thus like the wet nurse who can deform and degrade the child or text through malicious or inadequate nurture. The Second King refers to the Empress as an "aged mother" (TLN 495) with "sacred breasts" (TLN 492); after being baffled by Titania's repulse, the Third King suggests that they "flie to our Empres bosome, [and] there sucke treason" (TLN 634). The first Cardinal advises the Empress that she has been too lenient, like a young mother, and should undertake "sharp chastizment, leaue the Mother / And be the steptdame" (TLN 1261-62). While the Empress is described as a mother who is, if anything, overindulgent, Campeius complains about Titania as a bad mother who "hangs / Her owne brats at her backe, to teach them [to] begge, / And in her lap sets strangers" (TLN 1130-32). The Third King advises him to retaliate against this bad mother: "now thou hast suckt a dam / Drie and vnholsome, kicke her sides" (TLN 1154-55). In the showdown at sea between Babylon and Fairyland, both sides are described as maternal. The Babylonian galleons "feele euen child-birth panges / Till their great bellies be deliuered / On the soft Faiery shoares" (TLN 2253-55); "the windes haue got the sailes with childe, / With such big bellies, all the linnen's gone" (TLN 2404-5). Titania warns the souldiers "those roaring Whales came with deuouring wombes / To swallow vp your kingdomes" (TLN 2786-87). But Fairyland, too, has ships whose "wombes are ful / Of noble spirits" (TLN 2574-75). The feminization of both sides, then, blurs the distinction between them in bewildering ways. The playwright, Titania, the Empress, and the ships are all mothers, but they are mothers who seem powerless to do good, likely to do harm.

The Prologue explains that the central confrontation is between a Dragon and a Dove. At first, it is evident that Titania is the gentle Dove and the Empress the dangerous, fire-breathing dragon. Yet Titania's councilor, Florimell, advises her that she must "Be (as the Serpent,) wise then, tho a Doue" (TLN 567). One of the Empress's supporters, the Third King, vows that he will "in a Doue-like shape rauen vpon Doues" (TLN 652) and conspirators against Titania (Campeius, Paridel, and Lupus) appear "like doves" even though they are predators (TLN 1349). If everyone looks like a dove how can one tell the difference? (see Costume and Disguise [[ edition links should not have query or fragment parts ]]") One might expect at first glance that the play's constant references to birds and serpents would sort out by team mascots, with the Doves or Fairies referring to birds, including their hero, the admiral Sir Francis Drake (TLN 2409), and the Dragons or Babylonians referring to serpents. But both sides share the same patterns of imagery; for instance, each team views members of the other as serpents in the garden, snakes who slip off their skins (TLN 1813), "adders i'th highest grasse" (TLN 1080; see The Woman and the Serpent).

The opposition between good and bad queens, doves and dragons belies, then, a fundamental uncertainty about who is who. This uncertainty echoes the confusion, after the Reformation, regarding who was truly English, who was loyal, how you could tell, and whom you should fear. The Empress describes Fairyland or England as "impregnable" (TLN 171), a fantasy about the island that we find also in John of Gaunt's famous speech about "this sceptered isle, / [...] This fortress built by nature for herself" in Shakespeare's Richard II (Internet Shakespeare EditionsTLN 681-85). In each case, this fantasy ignores a history of conquests, Roman and Norman, as well as the haunting possibility of being "vndermine[d]" (TLN 1389) from within. Titania imagines that this natural resource must be conserved and fortified with "wooden walles" against "forraine wild-fire balles" (TLN 413-14). But how "forraine" is the Catholic threat to England?

While the Empress is certain that Titania's "Fairies hearts, / Lie in inchanted towers (impregnable) / No engine scales them" (TLN 170-72) the play relies on a series of more vexed and interesting images to describe the human heart and its loyalties. For Campeius, for example, national affiliation is a burdensome external carapace, rather than what lies within it: "this Tortois shell / (My countrey) lies so heauy on my backe, / Pressing my worth downe, that I slowly creep / Through base and slimie waies" (TLN 1125-28). Dissolving monasteries and making it a felony to be a Catholic priest, the English authorities forced young men who wanted to do so to study abroad and to return only in disguise. Didn't this process itself promote a disjunction between what lies within and the shell or tower that contains it? Conduct books enjoined good women to act as if they bore their households on their backs so that they carried domestic protection, authorization, and restriction with them everywhere. National identity might be understood in similar terms, as a mobile and defining enclosure. For Campeius, though, the tortoise shell of national affiliation is extraneous and onerous. Its weight leaves him empty, encumbered yet unattached. The play also mentions "fugitiues / Whose heartes are Babylonized" (TLN 1296-97). This is an even more disturbing image of the relationship between subject and nation, for it suggests that no matter how you look or what you carry you might be internally "babylonized." The word also acknowledges that the creation of a Church of England might not alter one's loyalties overnight. No matter what the official policy, no matter how high the walls around one's country or one's heart, one might be "babylonized" from within, or one might remain babylonized even after one has been pronounced a fairy.

15In another provocative image for interiority (and its instability), Paridel tries to convince Titania that he is an empty container that can be repacked: "i'me not vnlike / A casket wherein papers stuft with danger, / Haue close beene lockt, but those tane out, the chest / Serues to good vse, so may my loyall brest" (TLN 2072-75). The Reformation assumed that such a re-stuffing could be accomplished. Yet, in the play, Paridel is lying. When he is alone he claims that he simply cannot rethink his plan to assassinate Titania: "on leaues eternall / Vowes haue I writ so deepe, so bound them vp, / So texted them in characters capitall, / I cannot race them but I blot my name / Out of the booke of sence" (TLN 2507-11). He is not a casket but a text; as such, he cannot be revised, only erased. To counter the unsettling images of babylonized hearts, stuft caskets, and texted vows, the play insists that there is such a thing as an innate, unchanging, loyalty or what might now be called patriotism. Titania boasts: "No brest heere wants fires. / Twas kindled in their cradles, strength, courage, zeale" (TLN 2739-40). Yet, as Ellen Mackay argues, fire is so consistently linked with Catholicism and Babylon in the play that fairy patriotism becomes associated with the water isolating and protecting Fairyland rather than with fire. In addition, hope must rest on babies such as the tiny warrior Beria, who are not required to switch allegiances once they are long out of their cradles, as so many English people had been. But such stout assertions in the play coexist with more disturbing images of hollow cores, divided loyalties, and illegible interiors.

It would be hard enough to recount the history of religious struggle in England from Mary Tudor up to 1607, when the play was produced. But the play does not attempt a linear narrative. Instead, it overlays two distinct periods one on top of another. It is a history of both Elizabeth's reign and, to a lesser extent, James'. It is simultaneously historical, allegorical, and fantastical. When the play was first produced, Elizabeth I, who had reigned from 1558 to 1603, had been dead for four years. The play includes numerous episodes from her life: the presentation of a Bible to her during her coronation entry into London; Parry's pardoned attempt on her life; Edmund Campion; the Papal Bull; the attempt on her life by her physician, Dr. Lopez; attempts to poison her gloves and bridle and to shoot and stab her; the launching of the Spanish Armada against her; and her speech to the troops at Tilbury (see Plots on the Queen's Life; The Spanish Armada; and The Legacy of Tilbury). It assumes viewers know her story but it also includes glosses to insure that readers will grasp the references.

At the same time that the play is a retelling of Elizabeth's reign, casting her as the stalwart defender of English Protestantism, it is also a product of its moment. Upon Elizabeth's death, her cousin, James Stuart, King of Scotland, ascended the English throne. The play's prophecy of a "second Phoenix [...] of larger wing" (TLN 1477) had already been fulfilled; James was that second Phoenix and had already risen. In 1613 Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII or All Is True praised James in similar terms, assigning to Cranmer at Elizabeth I's christening a prediction that when the "Mayden Phoenix" dies her ashes will create "another Heyre / As great in admiration as her selfe" (Internet Shakespeare EditionsTLN 3411-13). In 1605, James discovered an alleged Catholic plot against him, quickly named the Powder or Gunpowder Plot because barrels of gunpowder were supposedly found hidden in the basement of a building next to the Houses of Parliament. Allegedly, the plan had been to blow up the building, assassinating James and numerous other powerful people in the kingdom, with some vague hope of placing a Catholic on the throne. Nine men were convicted of treason for their roles in this plot; they were all executed horribly, disemboweled and dismembered before crowds. Titania's objection to gory executions could be an implied critique of James' punishment of the plotters: "Let death be sent, but sent in such a shape, / As may not be too frightfull. Alacke! what glorie / Is it to buffet wretches bound in giues?" (TLN 2033-35). What glory, indeed. For centuries, the day on which the plot was uncovered and thwarted, November 5, was celebrated as a national holiday. As Jonathan Gil Harris argues, "The Whore of Babylon, almost in spite of itself, thus performs a significant blurring of the distinction between the 'treasonable' poison of infiltration and the 'necessary' poison of state-sanctioned violence" (73).

The Whore of Babylon makes various references to the Gunpowder Plot, still fresh in the audience's mind. These include the discussion of Satyran with his "traynes" (as lines of gunpowder were called); and the description of priests as "these fire-workes" whom the Empress can "like instruments of musicke play [...] and then hang them by" (TLN 1321-24) and who will act as "Moles" who "worke under ground, and vndermine [their] countrey" (TLN 1388-89). Just as James had been praised for his miraculous discovery of the plot before it unfolded, Titania intuits that an assassin plans to kill her; the knowledge "came vnto me strangely" (TLN 1953). Thus Titania is mostly a figure for Elizabeth but occasionally seems to figure James as well. As Jean E. Howard points out, in The Whore of Babylon, Dekker capitalizes "on a burst of anti-Catholic sentiment to comment on the contemporary scene through the screen of nostalgia and historical displacement" (52).

The play's layered, shifting topicality extends beyond Titania. The Empress seems to resemble Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland, rival claimant to the English throne, and figurehead for various plots against Elizabeth, when Titania insists: "I seeke no fall of hirs, my Spirit wades, / In Clearer streames; her bloud I would not shed / [...] / Tho mine shee would let forth, I know not why, / Only through rancke lust after Souereigntie" (TLN 365-69). After decades of delay, Elizabeth ordered Mary's execution in 1587 and then disclaimed responsibility after Mary was dead. Her claim that she did not seek Mary's fall was important in her negotiations with Mary's son, James, and the process by which James succeeded Elizabeth. When Titania hesitates to sign a death warrant, this could be a warrant for the execution of the Earl of Norfolk in 1572, Mary Stuart in 1587, or the Earl of Essex in 1601. Each was an ambitious aristocrat whom Elizabeth ultimately had executed for treason. It is also possible to imagine the unnamed traitor here as all and none of these particular people (see Dekker's Allegory and The Warrant Scene).

20This warrant is one of many important texts in the play. Both Titania and the Empress rely on the written word to communicate across distance, to impose their power across vast kingdoms, and to display their religious identities. When we first see Titania in the opening Dumb Show, Time and Truth give her a Book that she kisses and displays. Some accounts of Elizabeth's entry into London for her coronation claimed that she was offered an English translation of the Bible, and kissed it. The play amplifies Titania's association with the Bible through (somewhat obscure) references to "a booke" Truth has written, "Which she calles holy Spels" or Gospels (TLN 133-34) and "those christal / Faire, double-leaued doores, where light comes forth / To cheere the world" which Fidelio warns Titania will "neuer to open more" should she marry one of the Catholic Kings (TLN 531-33). In Fairyland, they make the Bible accessible to everyone; in Babylon, we're told, they lock it up tight. These differing attitudes toward "a book" constitute the only substantive difference posited between the values of Fairyland and of Babylon.

Whereas the Bible is a terrain of struggle here, other texts are the weapons. The Empress issues "large pattents to kill Kings and Queens" (TLN 644), a bull, and an edict regarding the Armada; she sends as her emissaries priestly "Spiders" whose "venemous bags" are stuffed "with scandales, libels, treasons" (TLN 1352-54). One such, Campeius, is himself a text – "on his forehead, / Our Queene [meaning the Empress here] hath set her marke" (TLN 1040-41) – and suffuses his body into textual missiles against Titania: "Ile write in gall and poison gainst my nurce / This Fairie land, for not rewarding merit" (TLN 1139-40); "Her heart – her very heart – / Would it were dried to dust, to strew vpon / Th'inuenomed paper vpon which Ile write" (TLN 1156-58). But this reliance on writing also works against the Babylonian conspirators: an incriminating letter proves Ropus' guilt (TLN 2017) even to the too trusting Titania; a letter from Cardinal Como to Paridel is similarly damning evidence (TLN 2531-35). The Whore of Babylon, then, is a printed text that casts doubt on texts as uncontrollable, incriminating, and dangerous. It is also a play that casts doubt on representation as pernicious. A wax image of Titania is crafted so that she can be injured through sympathetic magic, wasting away as the image rots, suffering pain as pins are thrust into it (TLN 1194-1201). The reference to satirists, "some of them in places as big as this, and before a thousand people," who "rip vp the bowels of vice in such a beastly manner" would seem to refer to plays in public theatres. The consequence of these plays, though, is "that (like women at an Execution, that can endure to see men quartred alive) the beholders learne more villany then they knew before" (TLN 792-96). Representations are powerful, the play tells us, but their effects are destructive more often than not.