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About this text

  • Title: The Whore of Babylon: Dekker's Allegory
  • Author: Natalie Grand
  • 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: Natalie Grand
    Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Whore of Babylon: Dekker's Allegory

    Dekker's Allegory: The Alteration of Historical and Literary Sources

    Natalie Grand

    Reading Allegorically

    1Since The Whore of Babylon is an allegory – that is, a literary work which tells a literal story and a metaphorical story simultaneously – much of the pleasure of the play depends on the reader's or viewer's ability to attach meaning to its references. However, to be satisfied with a single historical referent for a character or image (i.e. A stands for B) is often to truncate the meaning of this intricate and multivalent text. For example, when Titania the Fairie Queene balks at signing the death warrant of one who has plotted against her, is the plotter meant to be Mary Queen of Scots or the Earl of Essex? Both names have been advanced by critics (see The Warrant Scene) and both male and female pronouns occur in the passage, but the warrant scene may be more fascinating and trenchant if the reader considers it as commenting, not on one particular execution, but on the political and ethical burden the Queen bears in every such case – whether she faces a death warrant for her royal cousin, her ambitious favorite, or her physician. The more possible explanations a reader can bring to bear upon the text, the richer The Whore of Babylon becomes.

    Readers and audiences will discover three types of characterization occurring simultaneously in The Whore of Babylon. Time, Truth, and Plaine-dealing are speaking personifications of abstract ideas – they could easily have stepped out of a medieval morality play, and as such are not meant to be treated as human agents. On the other hand, characters like Ropus and Paridel are meant to represent particular human beings with unique and notorious histories; the reader/viewer is supposed to recognize them immediately as actual plotters against the Queen's life who were executed for high treason. Occupying a middle ground between these extremes of representation – the allegorical and the journalistic – are characters like Titania and the Empress, who combine an allegorical dimension with a recognizable humanity; Titania is both a specific portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth I (as Dekker proclaims in his "Lectori") and a personification of the one true church.

    The Whore of Babylon contains elements of a history play, particularly in its focus on the testing of the monarch and the various challenges to her reign, but the play's history is always subservient to its political/religious allegory. Dekker consciously manipulates his characters and tampers with the historical timeline when it suits the play; Dekker confesses as much in an unapologetic letter to his readers that accompanies the published text: "And whereas I may, (by some more curio[u]s in censure, then sound in iudgement) be Critically taxed, that I falsifie the account of time, and set not down Occurrents, according to their true succession, let such (that are so nice of stomach) know, that I write as a Poet, not as an Historian, and that these two doe not liue vnder one law" ("Lectori," TLN 0.061-66). Re-ordering events is simply part of Dekker's poetic mission.

    How, exactly, does Dekker manipulate his source material for allegorical purposes? He alters the historical record by changing the names, nationalities, and motivations of some characters, and by shifting the order of events; he borrows from literary sources like Spenser and Shakespeare, but often rewrites what he borrows; he frequently combines several historical figures into one composite character; he will even switch the gender of a character to make an allegorical point.

    Altering the Historical Record

    5The fluid timeline of The Whore of Babylon suggests that events scattered across Elizabeth I's forty-four-year reign happen rapidly, nearly simultaneously, and out of chronological order. For example, Dekker introduces the Lopez Plot, in which the Queen's physician (here called Ropus) is accused of attempting to poison Elizabeth, before the Parry Plot, in which Dr. William Parry (here called Paridel) plans to assassinate the Queen, yet in reality, the Parry Plot preceded the Lopez Plot by nine years (see Plots on the Queen's Life). Why make the change? The Parry Plot implicated several high-ranking officials of the Roman Catholic Church in an assassination conspiracy; William Parry even wrote to the Pope in 1582 with an offer to slay the English queen. The Parry plot thus does more than the Lopez plot to demonize the play's principal villain, the Roman Catholic Church; therefore Paridel's scheme gets a fuller, more prominent dramatization.

    In another alteration of the historical record, Dekker reshapes a couple of notorious incidents from 1578 and 1580 into the episode of the Conjurer who is hired by the Third King (probably Spain) to hex Titania. By making the scheme of Spanish origin, the play contends that only a foreigner would conspire against the Queen's life – an idealized but false picture of English loyalty. There were actually incidents where Englishmen made wax images of Queen Elizabeth with the intent to do her harm; like voodoo dolls, these wax figures would be pierced with pins or pigs' bristles (supposedly to inflict pain on Elizabeth) and then be buried in a foul location like a dunghill (supposedly to make Elizabeth ill). Laws were passed making it illegal to make a wax image of the Queen, not because of peril from foreign magicians and their evil spells, but because of the perceived danger from her own subjects. In The Whore of Babylon, however, Dekker reshapes the incident with the Conjurer to make what was homegrown English mischief into a demonic Spanish plot. He wants to present an image of English society united under their queen; only foreigners and English Catholics (who are corruptible because their allegiance belongs to the Pope rather than the Queen) would ever plot against Titania (for an opposing view, see Plots on the Queen's Life).

    In a similar vein, Dekker gives Campeius (a figure of the Jesuit scholar Edmund Campion) personal and rather petty motivations for his resistance to Titania's rule; rather than being aflame with religious zeal for Catholicism, Campeius is portrayed as a disappointed office-seeker who resents Titania because she denied his suit (TLN 888-91). He is then easily seduced to the service of Babylon. "I am nail'd downe by wilfull beggerie" (TLN 1122), Campeius tells the Third King (probably Spain); "[...] 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). The Third King wins Campeius's allegiance to the Empress not through theological argument but with the promise of riches and preferment: "Shee [the Empress] with her owne hand / Will fil thee wine out of a golden bowle. / There's Angels to conduct thee," the King says, giving Campeius money for his voyage to Babylon (TLN 1170-72). Dekker's reductive portrait of Campeius ignores the Jesuit's religious convictions and instead makes him preoccupied with accumulating wealth and status.

    Dekker's most obvious manipulation of the timeline occurs when he places England's defeat of the Spanish Armada at the climax of his play, even though it happened in 1588 and many other events he dramatizes occurred afterwards (see The Spanish Armada of 1588). As a theater showman, Dekker knows that nothing can trump the patriotic appeal of a besieged England bravely facing the mighty Armada, nor can Titania attain a loftier moment than when she leads her people into battle. Dekker saves that event for last, so he can end his play with Titania's triumph. Susan Krantz suggests that by concluding with a celebration of Titania's military victory, The Whore of Babylon subtly criticizes the current king, James I, and his tendency to seek accommodation rather than confrontation with Catholic countries like Spain. Furthermore, Krantz sees the play as happily anticipating the day when James's heir, the militant Protestant Prince Henry, would take the throne and correct his father's mistakes. In that case, The Whore of Babylon would be a more optimistic work than it is generally perceived to be, for it would represent more than an exercise in nostalgia. The play's pro-Henrician element, Krantz writes, "supplies, not simply a negative reaction to Jacobean pacifism, but a positive militant corrective in the heir apparent" (272).

    Borrowing from Literary Sources

    Dekker's allegory borrows heavily from the Bible. He is particularly indebted to the New Testament book of Revelation for the characters of the Whore of Babylon herself (the Empress) and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Titania) (see The Woman and the Serpent). But Dekker also borrows from the most famous allegory of his day, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and from Shakespeare's play about a fairy queen, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dekker's notion of England as a Fairyland ruled by an endangered Fairie Queene comes straight from Spenser, and Spenserian language (for example, "Albany" as a name for Scotland) occurs throughout the text. However, when Dekker named his Fairie Queene, he did not use Spenser's name for her, Gloriana; instead he borrowed the name Titania from Shakespeare's Dream. This is peculiar, because Spenser's Gloriana is an avowed allegorical representation of Elizabeth, while Shakespeare's Titania is not. Since Shakespeare's Titania is put under a spell and then falls in love with a man who has the head of a jackass, it was probably in Shakespeare's best interest that his Titania did not become too closely identified with Queen Elizabeth. Also, throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania is outmaneuvered by her more powerful husband, Oberon, who uses magic to make her tractable. No male succeeded in mastering Elizabeth I, and her depiction as a virgin queen (and therefore free of any man's control) was a key element of her public persona especially later in her reign. Dekker accepts that popular belief in The Whore of Babylon; he even dramatizes it in the scene where Titania rejects her royal suitors (TLN 588-671). His Titania, like the late queen of famous memory, is wooed by many foreign princes but rejects them all: there is no Oberon in her story.

    Creating Composite Characters

    10Although some of Dekker's characters clearly correspond to one particular historical figure – Ropus for Dr. Lopez, for example, or Campeius for the executed Jesuit scholar Edmund Campion – others are composite figures who combine attributes of more than one individual. For example, Titania's suitors, the three Kings from Catholic countries, are all composite representations. The First (French) King is a composite of Charles IX, the Duke of Anjou, and the Duke of Alencon, all of whom sought to marry Elizabeth. The Second King, who represents the Holy Roman Empire, is a composite of the Archduke Ferdinand and the Archduke Charles. The Third King, who represents Spain and sends the Armada against England, would seem to be a simple one-to-one correspondence to Elizabeth's would-be nemesis, Phillip II. However, several scholars have suggested that the Third king's behavior also strongly suggests Don Pedro de Zuniga, the Spanish ambassador in London. Don Pedro breached diplomatic ethics by continually plotting against the life of his hostess; hatching plots against the Fairie Queene is also a favorite pastime of Dekker's Third King.

    Similarly, the four "councellors" who advise Titania may well be composite figures. It is possible to identify three of them (Fideli, Florimell, and Elfiron) with a particular historical figure at the time of the Armada battle, because of textual evidence in a late scene; there Titania gives Fideli command of the navy, makes Florimell "Lieuetenant Generall" of the army, and chooses Elfiron as her bodyguard (TLN 2611-14). These roles were historically filled by Charles Howard, Lord Howard of Effingham and 1st Earl of Nottingham, who commanded the English fleet in 1588; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who had command of the English ground troops at Tilbury; and the Queen's cousin Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, whom Elizabeth named "Governor of the army for the defence and surety of our own Royal Person" at Tilbury. The fourth advisor, Parthenophil, is not given a specific task in that scene; by default, he is generally identified with Lord Burghley, since Burghley was so significant in setting policy that it is impossible to imagine him being absent from the ranks of the Queen's most trusted advisors. Still, these identifications drawn from one scene should not be regarded as fixed throughout the play; Elizabeth reigned for more than forty years and had many trusted advisors. In the case of Fideli and Parthenophil, the identification seems particularly fluid: Fideli, who often takes the lead in discussions with the Queen, frequently resembles Burghley more than Howard, while Parthenophil presses some issues that are associated with Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster. As for Florimell, although the character is consistently identified with Leicester's positions, the advisor continues to appear in the play in scenes dealing with events that occurred well after the historical Leicester's death in 1588. Perhaps Florimell could be considered a composite of Elizabeth's "favorites" – Leicester in earlier years, the Earl of Essex in the later scenes.

    The Empress of Babylon clearly represents the Pope, but which Pope? Nine different men held that office during Elizabeth's reign. Perhaps the best explanation is that the Empress represents the idea of "the Pope" in the abstract and at any time can imitate the historical action of any one of the Popes; or she can generate her own speech and action which is not necessarily based on anything any real Pope ever did. Titania herself might represent more than Elizabeth I; the many references to the Gunpowder Plot, for example (an event which occurred after Elizabeth's death), may mean that at some points in the play, Titania represents James I. This would suggest that, at one level of the allegory, the idea of "the Pope" (or the Roman Catholic Church) is opposed by "the English monarch" (here called Titania and representing English Protestantism, or what Dekker would call "the True Church").

    Reversing Gender

    Dekker may present nine different Popes in one composite character, but not one of those nine male Popes is represented as a man on stage. They become instead the Empress, a woman. Is this gender alteration only a convenience to allow Dekker to more easily identify the Pope (and his church) with the Whore of Babylon character from Revelation? Perhaps. However, Dekker may also be suggesting that the position of a head of state is beyond gender distinctions: that is, that male rulers and female rulers behave in the same way, and ruler, not male or female, is the dominant term. The action of The Whore of Babylon, as both Jean E. Howard and Eve Rachele Sanders have observed, pushes the character of Titania to ever more ruthless and aggressive behavior. She begins the play as the very definition of a noble lady: generous, kind, mild-mannered, and non-violent. In her first appearance, Titania tells her counselors that even though the Empress is plotting against her life, she will not retaliate in kind:

    I seeke no fall of hirs, my spirit wades,
    In Clearer streames; her bloud I would not shed,
    to gaine that triple wreath that binds her head,
    Tho mine shee would let forth, I know not why,
    Only through rancke lust after Souereigntie.
    (TLN 365-69)

    Yet, by the play's conclusion, Titania has been transformed into a warrior who travels to the battlefield to exhort her troops. Far from finding military life alien to her nature, or its violence troubling to her spirit, Titania declares, "Trust me, I like the martiall life so well, / I could change Courts to campes" (TLN 2731-32). In fact, she sees the warrior role as the essence of leadership: "Me thinkes it best becomes a Prince to march thus, between guns and drummes" (TLN 2733-34). Rather than presenting Titania as diminished ethically, the play applauds the Fairie Queene's transformation into a military leader who will shed blood to protect herself and her realm. She is never more inspiring than when she joins her soldiers as their Captain (see The Legacy of Tilbury). Dekker's endorsement of her as a "Prince," however, further blurs gender distinctions, just as Titania's embrace of war blurs the distinction between her and the Empress.

    15Another notable gender reversal is the character of Florimell, which corresponds to Elizabeth's favorite, the Earl of Leicester (and possibly Essex, as discussed above). Florimell is the name of a character in Spenser's Faerie Queene, but Spenser's Florimell is not a man, but a beautiful woman who must constantly flee from sexual predators. Since Spenser's Florimell normally relies on others to rescue her, Dekker might be implying that Leicester depends on his powerful patron, Queen Elizabeth, to rescue him from the consequences of his actions. A different interpretation of Florimell concentrates on Florimell's actions at the end of Book IV of The Faerie Queene. In this section, Florimell returns from the sea to the land to comfort her true love Marinell, who is dying. Florimell's presence restores Marinell to health. Perhaps Dekker is suggesting that Leicester had a similar power to "revive" Elizabeth and, by his presence at court, renew her interest in life.