‘my Lodging is So Near the Star Chamber that My Pens Shake in My Hand’: Letters, Truth and Lawyers’ Fears

‘my Lodging is So Near the Star Chamber that My Pens Shake in My Hand’: Letters, Truth and... Abstract Letters in early modern England were quotidian, especially amongst Inns of Court men. This article focuses on 1612–13, a year of political crisis leading to the arrest of Thomas Overbury. It considers the fear generated by epistolary practice, and the creation of emotional bonds, in a selection of letters written by legally trained men. Used regularly as proof in legal cases, letters could lead to imprisonment or execution, and their preservation or eradication was vital. The article examines the dramatic representation of letters as part of legal discourse in The White Devil (1612) by John Webster, himself a Middle Temple man. As the article concludes, the context and circumstance of epistolarity are vital to a consideration of their truth. Early modern epistolary exchange between educated men was quotidian. John Donne, in a comment to his friend Henry Wotton, famously shows the affective nature of such exchange, commenting that ‘more than kisses, letters mingle souls’.1 As Donne suggests, such letters work to develop and deepen homosocial friendships – becoming written bonds that enable men to share their thoughts and feelings. The truth of such communication is implicit as the lawyer-poet shares his soul with his correspondent, and his reliance on the liberty of the epistolary mode is clear as he explains that ‘but for these | I could ideate nothing which could please’.2 Written on the assumption that its recipient would entirely understand his situation, Donne’s verse epistle indicates how aspirant Innsmen relied on this affective medium to secure already existing personal relationships. Nowhere were letters more important than amongst those connected to the legal world. The Tudor period had seen the establishment of a governmental and diplomatic bureaucracy that continued to burgeon in the reign of James I, and many men trained in law at the Inns of Court, such as Donne and Wotton, used their legal training in such positions. In this situation, beyond the sustaining of personal relationships, letters also established bonds that worked towards court and diplomatic preferment.3 The ability to communicate affect as a means of persuasion was at the core of the Inns’ curriculum, and linguistic dexterity was valorized as a signifier of success.4 The writing of letters to form and consolidate emotional bonds with other men capitalized on this skill and was an effective means of securing professional and social status. The emotional power of personal letters ensured success when their style was echoed in a professional context. Letter writing, though, was as vexed as it was vital. The blending of affect and political purpose in letters was a commonplace, and recipients of such communications both expected flattery and emotional engagement, and knew not to accept such emotion at face value. The letter was thus not necessarily true, in that it did not always reflect the genuine feeling of the writer. In his seminal work on early modern epistolary culture, Gary Schneider comments that ‘The rhetoric of love and friendship was indeed an expected component of court intercourse.’5 He continues, ‘[L]etters that employed affective rhetoric […] were understood as potential lies by their recipients, yet these letters also took part in the sociotextual milieu of court politics that expected this sort of rhetorical engagement.’6 The interpretation of the connection between the emotion contained in letters and the reality of that emotion was thereby problematic. Equally vexed was the question of the emotion a letter produced in the reader. This area of emotional truth relied on a sympathetic reading by the person for whom it was written, and a further complicating factor was epistolary privacy. As well as conveying the expected emotional content, whether or not that emotion was genuinely felt, letters gave the impression of being a personal communication: a bond between the writer and the recipient. Yet this truth was often in dispute, too. As Judith Rice Henderson notes, the early modern world ‘did not distinguish as insistently as we do between private and public letter-writing, the familiar and the official letter’.7 There could be deliberate or, at least conscious, sharing of letters: recipients reading them aloud to family, faction or a circle of friends, or the writer’s awareness of a secretary who would be privy to apparently private letters. But beyond this, there was the nagging fear of a letter’s interception and, thus, its being read by unintended eyes. We can see this in the use of codes, ciphers and invisible ink, and it is implicit in the common trope of demanding a letter’s eradication after reading.8 Yet at the same time, ‘To burn letters […] might be dangerous. Letters could act as evidence of the truth and be required as such at a later time.’9 Putting one’s hand to a letter was giving testimony – bearing witness to the truth of its contents. To doubts about a letter’s affective veracity, and about who read a letter, was thus added the question of whether that letter were to be kept or destroyed. The use of letters as evidence in both historical and literary legal cases demonstrates how letters were used in a court of law, to condemn a plaintiff or support a defence, and it is important to consider the classical roots of wider parallels made between the establishing of events in a court of law and on stage. Aristotle considered the use of evidence in both situations as a means to convince those listening – a judge and jury, or a theatre audience – and defined two kinds of evidence or proof. One, termed entechnos or artificial, was based in rhetoric and involved the persuasive telling of events to influence those listening. The second, atechnos or inartificial, included witness testimony and oaths as well as written documents.10 The classical debate over the relative power of material evidence and of rhetoric in both legal and dramatic situations was well known to those involved in early modern legal training, and must inform our understanding of the perceived power of letters – which employ the rhetorical and the material, the artificial and the inartificial – to help establish truth. For all the reasons outlined so far, writing such a document was not something to be done heedlessly, even though it was quotidian. Though epistolary testimony was accepted as evidence that could contribute to the discovery of truth, paradoxically the potential for deception inherent in letters meant they were caught up in a contemporary discourse of flattery and corruption. The popularity since the 1590s of Tacitus, historian of Imperial Rome, provided terms for such a discourse, and letters formed part of the evidence for an increasingly Tacitean reading of the early Stuart court.11 Part of their power as evidence lay in emotional terms; the reading of letters could produce fear and distrust, as well as demonstrate and develop affection. The complexity of epistolarity is exemplified in the letters exchanged between aspirant men at a time of great political uncertainty, in 1612–13, when the powerful courtier Sir Thomas Overbury was arrested and imprisoned. This essay asks to what extent letters were believed to be true, and what part they played in a contemporary discourse on epistolary and legal emotion. It examines the correspondence of former Innsmen involved in, or witnesses of, court events, before comparing the political situation with a contemporary representation of the questionable truth of letters in the work of an Innsman playwright closely associated with one of the key figures in the developing court scandal: John Webster of the Middle Temple. Although it is set in Catholic Italy, Webster’s The White Devil, first performed in early 1612, questions epistolary truth in situations also highly suggestive of contemporary English politics. * In May 1612, the powerful Robert Cecil had died. James I took his time choosing a replacement as Secretary of State. The two main factions at court each put forward a candidate. The crypto-Catholic Howards proposed Sir Thomas Lake, who stood initially in opposition to Sir Henry Neville, preferred candidate of the Protestant lords led by the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke. Previously French ambassador, Neville was running with the support of his former secretary, Sir Ralph Winwood. As Neville’s chances of gaining the secretaryship diminished during 1613, Winwood’s appeared to grow. In his regular correspondence with Sir Dudley Carleton, ambassador to Venice, Sir John Chamberlain sent news of the political wrangling. Both men were former members of Gray’s Inn. Chamberlain confided in December 1613 that the exploitation of affective language perhaps did not come readily to Winwood. Chamberlain wrote that, despite people’s expectations of his success, he was unlikely to gain preferment as ‘he is reputed somwhat harsh, and too plain a speaker for the tender eares of this age’.12 The antithesis between the Ambassador’s ‘harsh’ and ‘plain’ speech and the ‘tender eares’ of the Jacobean court demonstrates both Winwood’s perceived lack of verbal sophistication and the extreme sensitivity of those listening. The harshness of honesty is, implicitly, contrasted with the smoother, softer and more sensually appealing qualities of deception, as the vulnerability of the courtiers’ ears is accentuated. Perhaps, too, the punning adjective implies financial transaction, with a quasi-economic benefit being gained by effective rhetoric. Winwood is expected to bend the truth to meet courtly expectations, and appears to have been unwilling or unable to do so. To gain preferment one had to know, and to work within, the rules of the game. Winwood was not an Innsman, and his background did not involve the development of a flexible articulacy through the Inns’ curricular and extra-curricular activities. He was, though, a lawyer, with a degree in Civil Law from Oxford, and he clearly had a realistic expectation of success in his pursuit of the secretaryship by the end of 1613. As Chamberlain told Carleton, many believed this success to be secure because of his closeness to Sir Robert Carr, the King’s favourite and by this point Earl of Somerset: he be by common voyce and opinion already as yt were in possession of the place so much spoken of, and in great favor with the great man [Somerset], and injoyned to attend him (as he doth duly) every day.13 To assure Carleton of the veracity of his report, Chamberlain uses a common rhetorical strategy: the citation of others to corroborate the writer’s opinion. As previously with ‘he is reputed’, Chamberlain does not refer to a specific source, but instead to the ubiquitous ‘common voice and opinion’. His subsequent use of another passive in ‘so much spoken of’ also implies opinions that concur with those of the writer. It evokes conversations as Chamberlain walks in the nave of St Paul’s, the location most often associated with newsgathering. His assertion of inside knowledge in the confirmatory parenthesis is also clearly a method of reassuring Carleton of the truth of his communication. According to the same letter, Winwood believed that his promotion might have been secured when he had been in London a year earlier, ‘but for Sir Thomas Overbury’.14 Trained at the Middle Temple, Overbury was a key figure in the contest. As secretary to Robert Carr he had privileged access, and he wielded a great deal of influence. The Protestant candidates were convinced they had Overbury’s support, and many letters between Neville and Winwood show how hard they worked to consolidate it.15 As the contest continued in 1613, however, the support of Sir Thomas Overbury became considerably less useful. In April, he was arrested and made a close prisoner in the Tower. Ostensibly imprisoned for opposing the King’s instruction to go overseas as an ambassador, many understood that his opposition to Robert Carr’s relationship with Frances Howard might have led to his incarceration. Overnight, the man who had been seen by Neville and Winwood as their champion was excluded from influence. By the end of 1613, as Chamberlain’s letter demonstrated, doubt had been cast on whether they had ever actually had that support. During Winwood’s visit to London in 1612, he had good reason for that belief. His reputation for brusqueness and verbal harshness had already been established, but Carr wrote to reassure him that he could succeed despite this. ‘Do not despair,’ he wrote, ‘though your enemies have objected enough against you […] that you are too violent, which signifies in Court language not malleable to their use.’16 This identification of a distinct ‘[c]ourt language’ shows a contemporary acceptance of the slippery, alternative and deceptive semantics of Jacobean courtiership. The problem with verbal dexterity lay not merely in its lack. Doubts were growing over the moral nature of sophisticated linguistic skill with such potential for deception. Narratives of corruption at the Jacobean court, described in Tacitean terms, were bound up with linguistic deception appearing as truth. From a fear of inadequate verbal ability to language’s ultimate challenge to existential truth, Jacobean correspondents revealed their understanding of both the importance and the potential threat of the written word. Recipient of that loving verse letter from Donne, Sir Henry Wotton was a letter writer who showed an explicit recognition of epistolary danger. Trained at the Middle Temple just before Overbury, Wotton used his linguistic dexterity in diplomatic postings across Europe. His very presence in London in Spring 1613 was the result of a linguistic faux pas which demonstrated his awareness of the dubious nature of diplomatic communication. While posted to Venice, Wotton had famously written in a friend’s commonplace book what, in English, was a humorously punning comment on the language of his chosen career: ‘An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ The pun on ‘lie’, meaning to ‘reside’ in English, was lost completely as he wrote in Latin, where mentiendum does not have the same double meaning. Sparking the King’s anger, Wotton was recalled to London. The difficulty had arisen from one of the letter writer’s greatest fears: that words designed to provoke a specific response in a particular reader should be read, and their intent misunderstood, by a wider, unintended audience. Fear of his letters being read by other eyes than those of his regular correspondent, Edmund Bacon, continued to plague Wotton. In a letter from 7 May 1613, he hid his meaning behind figurative language and wrote of his desire to meet Bacon in person so that they could ‘lay aside […] metaphors’.17 His purpose for writing was to tell Bacon that the latter’s kinsman, Sir Robert Killigrew, had been imprisoned for talking to ‘a close prisoner’ in the Tower: a clear allusion to Sir Thomas Overbury. Wotton could not discuss Overbury openly, but instead used ambiguous pronouns and the semantic field of medicine to give Bacon a rather confusing account of what had happened to the powerful courtier since his arrest just over a fortnight earlier: Of his case whose love drew him to it, I can yet make no judgement; the humour seemeth to be sharp, and there is wisdom enough in those that have the handling of the patient to manage the matter, so that at length his banishment from the Court may be granted as a point of grace. The nature of his alteration was (as you rightly judge it) in the first access somewhat apoplectical, but yet mingled in my opinion with divers properties of a lethargy; whereof we shall discourse more particularly when we meet […].18 Wotton’s praise of ‘those that have the handling of the patient’ is clearly intended to protect him should the letter be opened and the subject matter deciphered. In his desire to meet Bacon and share ideas face to face, the honesty of spoken language is contrasted with the necessarily deceptive written word. The letter to Bacon went on to gloss its own timidity with an explanatory anecdote about Sir Peter Buck, whose rather innocuous letter to a friend about activity at court had led to the writer’s imprisonment and his subsequent trial at the Star Chamber. The letter was used in court as evidence. Apologising that ‘I set down these accidents barely, as you see, without their causes,’ Wotton thus quipped that, ‘[M]y lodging is so near the Star Chamber that my pens shake in my hand.’19 The diplomat had learnt the potential threat the written word posed. Just as Wotton’s recall to London was the result of linguistic misjudgment, epistolary commentators blamed Overbury’s fall on the use of language inappropriate for the situation, linked in their minds to his renowned insolence. Chamberlain, for instance, tells Winwood of his arrest, and explains that the cause ‘was a contemptuous aunswer and refusing of forrain employments offered him in the Kings name’.20 Chamberlain continued to recount how, asked by the King’s representatives – the Earl of Pembroke and the Lord Chancellor – whether he would undertake an embassage to Moscow, Overbury gave a ‘peremptorie and unmannerly aunswer’.21 He was guilty of an act verging on treason, and the means of its committal was linguistic. Wotton was an eye witness of the arrest, and – a little less circumspect than he was to be in his writing a fortnight later – he told Bacon what he had seen of the events, sudden ‘like a stroke of thunder’.22 He began, as Chamberlain, with Overbury’s language: ‘Sir Thomas Overbury refused to be sent abroad, with such terms as were by the Council interpreted pregnant of contempt in a case where the King had opened his will […].’23 Wotton could barely repress his schadenfreude as he contrasted Overbury’s current predicament with the man’s earlier boasting. Again Overbury’s pride was his target, driving him to speak in such a swaggering manner to a fellow Innsman who was struggling to resume his ambassadorial position: Thus you can see the point upon which one hath been committed, standing in the second degree of power in the Court, and conceiving (as himself told me but two hours before) never better than at that present of his own fortunes and ends.24 As Chamberlain used the supporting views of others to create confidence in his veracity, Wotton used another common epistolary strategy, reinforcing the truth of his account by emphasizing his personal observation of events. Finally, Wotton chose to focus on the key court gossip in the aftermath of the arrest: whether or not Robert Carr had been involved. The choice to discuss this in writing was daring, evidence of a less fearful Wotton than the letter of 7 May suggested. He described the full narrative arc of the episode from ‘thunder’ to clearing clouds: Now in this whole matter there is one main and principal doubt, which doth travail all understandings; that is, whether this were done without the participation of my Lord of Rochester? […] These clouds a few days will clear; in the meanwhile I dare pronounce of Sir Thomas Overbury, that he shall return no more to this stage, unless Courts be governed every year by a new philosophy; for our old principles will not bear it.25 Wotton’s letter shows the confidence in which he held his correspondent. Before the case of Sir Peter Buck brought to the forefront of his mind the danger in which he stood, and forced him to be more circumspect, he wrote openly, with a clear relish for the possibility of an ambitious courtier’s fall. As the man concerned was a fellow Templar, Wotton might have been assumed to have formed useful bonds with him, to enhance both of their positions. This personal correspondence, though, shares Wotton’s infectious enjoyment of the irony of events and suggests his dislike of the man. It is tempting to infer that Overbury had not supported his fellow Templar’s quest to return to his post in Venice, or had in some other way refused to help him. As Bacon’s emotional bond with Wotton was close, he would undoubtedly have shared his enjoyment, yet to the outside observer the letter appears to be rather rash. The conjunction of open and affective language and the structuring of a syntactically satisfying tale were typical of early modern Innsmen correspondents. Wotton’s fear was only a part of his emotional relationship with epistolarity; he was unable to be with Bacon, and instead he wished ‘this paper in your hands, to whom I dare communicate the freest of my thoughts’.26 The letter acted as an emotional catalyst, less effective and less secure than face-to-face conversation, but productive of a similar affective outcome. In his discussion of Overbury’s future prospects, Wotton noted his view that ‘he shall return no more to this stage’, making use of the conventional metaphor comparing the political world to the theatre. Both performative contexts presented images of power to a watching public, and in both were shown the fear of epistolarity: the connection between emotion and the language in which it was conveyed, and the vexed relationship between letters and the truth. The last section of this essay looks at these issues in The White Devil, a play stimulated by its immediate political context. John Webster stages legal and quasi-legal situations and explores the ambivalence of epistolary proof. * John Webster was a student at the Middle Temple, entering the Inn in the same year as Sir Thomas Overbury, 1598, and an acquaintance of the man who was to rise and then fall so dramatically at James’s court.27The White Devil, written early in 1612 for The Queen’s Men and performed at The Red Bull, was famously unappreciated by its first audience. Webster lamented this fact in his letter ‘To The Reader’, prefacing the first quarto publication of the play later that same year: it wanted (that which is the only grace and setting-out of a tragedy) a full and understanding auditory; and that since that time I have noted, most of the people that come to that playhouse resemble those ignorant asses (who, visiting stationers’ shops, their use is not to inquire for good books, but new books) […].28 In contrast, The Duchess of Malfi, written a year or so after The White Devil and first performed in early 1614, was well received. Webster turned from his usual company to present this second major tragedy to The King’s Men for their indoor playhouse at Blackfriars. The difference in the likely audience demographic of the two theatres might explain the difference in reception. Although Malfi is usually considered the better constructed of the two plays, The White Devil also shows Webster’s talent as a playwright, his moral ambiguity and his linguistic flair, and would have expected a better response. Perhaps a larger segment of legal men in the audience at the Blackfriars explains Webster’s greater success there, sitting, as the playhouse did, on the fringes of the Inns. There is evidence to show that the smaller, more select indoor theatres, with their higher prices and their often satirical, generically experimental Jacobean output, made them even more popular with the young law students than the larger public theatres of Shoreditch.29 Certainly, The White Devil embodies on stage some of the tensions of epistolarity that were, as we have seen, of concern to this particular audience segment. A key character in the play represents the kind of man with whom Webster must have been very familiar. University educated, and clearly a man who knows the court, Flamineo resembles the aspirant Innsmen this essay considers, and he comments on the need for men to make affective connections with patrons if they are to succeed: ‘Knaves do grow great,’ he states with his usual satirical tone, ‘by being great men’s apes’ (Devil, iv. 2. 247). His reliance on the patronage of his current employer, Brachiano, puts him in the world of the Innsmen at James’s court who witnessed, wrote of, and sometimes acted in, events of state. With characteristic vitriol, after accusing her of giving him a useless university education, Flamineo demands of his mother how he is to escape his reliance on the patronage of such men:  I would fain know where lies the mass of wealth  Which you have hoarded for my maintenance,  That I may bear my beard out of the level  Of my lord’s stirrup. (Devil, i. 2. 311–14) His imagery of service, with his ‘beard’ at the level of his master’s foot, demonstrates Flamineo’s resentment at the social position he occupies, but he has little choice if he is to progress. In the action that follows, his casual misogyny and his desire for preferment are combined in his proffering of his sister, Vittoria, to Brachiano. It is this illicit relationship between Brachiano and Vittoria, of course, that occupies the centre of the play and leads to the staging of Vittoria’s arraignment by Cardinal Montecelso. This legal sequence makes explicit the parallel which Aristotle noted between the production of legal and dramatic evidence, and relies on the production of a letter against Vittoria. Yet the first mention of letters in the play shows their potential to defend someone, and thus establishes their essential ambiguity. Those from Lodovick to Montecelso are presented by the latter as evidence of the former’s good character, representing the man and arguing his innocence of piracy. They stand for their writer, pleading his case in his absence. Montecelso personifies them: ‘I have letters from him, which are suppliant | To work his quick repeal from banishment’ (Devil, ii. 1. 382–83). These are the means used by men desiring preferment and support at court, as in the letters Neville and Winwood sent to Overbury. Demonstrating the likely appeal of the play to such Innsmen engaged in the contemporary legal world, mockery of lawyers and accusations of injustice abound in The White Devil and the legal process is recognized as flawed, but the play still suggests a worldview where justice is seen as venerable. The cynicism is typical of a man trained in the law, whose experience of its vagaries has jaded any youthful idealism. The lawyer presenting the case against Vittoria in the arraignment scene, for instance, reveals himself to be linguistically inept through his inkhorn terms and perverse lexical choices. He opens his case by addressing those who must make judgment:  Most literated judges, please your lordships  So to connive your judgments to the view  Of this debauch’d and diversivolent woman. (Devil, iii. 2. 26–28) His use of ‘diversivolent’ is clearly memorable, and the audience can understand Flamineo’s later frustration at the outcome of the trial, where he blames his sister’s incarceration on ‘Yon diversivolent lawyer’ (Devil, iii. 3. 23) and his linguistic failings. As well as mocking poor linguistic usage, The White Devil shows the potential for effective (and affective) language to persuade. Brachiano’s riposte in his verbal battle with Montecelso uses letter-bearing as a metaphor, exposing thereby a general distrust of those who carried written communications. Comparing high-ranking churchmen to ‘[y]our mercenary post-boys’, Brachiano scornfully comments of those like the Cardinal: ‘Your letters carry truth, but ’tis your guise | To fill your mouths with gross and impudent lies’ (Devil, iii. 2. 169–71). The threat of deceit comes from the circumstance of its delivery: the person bearing the letter. As Wotton feared in his written communication with Edmund Bacon, speaking to someone face to face was always safer than trusting your emotion to the conveyance of others. Even if the letter itself is truthful, the bearers can deceive others by lying about it or communicating its contents inappropriately. As well as this use of epistolarity in metaphorical terms, a key piece of evidence in Vittoria’s trial is a physical letter from Brachiano that has obviously been intercepted or taken afterwards by the authorities. Montecelso presents the material object as evidence or inartificial proof, as in a law court, and, as Brachiano earlier accused, his use of it militates against its essential truth. Through his rhetorical interpretation of its contents for those listening to the arraignment, though, he turns the letter into artificial proof. It is only after he has framed his understanding of it, and manipulated the emotional context, that Montecelso turns from Vittoria to the lords who stand in judgment upon her, and allows – even presses – these others to read:        I will produce a letter  Wherein ’twas plotted, he and you should meet  At an apothecary’s summer-house,  Down by the River Tiber, – view ’t, my lords,  Where after wanton bathing and the heat  Of a lascivious banquet – I pray read it,  I shame to speak the rest. (Devil, iii. 2. 192–98) His establishing of circumstance, the setting by the Tiber and its associations with ‘wanton bathing’ and ‘heat’, adds power to his argument and proof. He clearly has the letter as a hand-held prop on stage, despite his use of the future tense, and the use of this evidence against Vittoria suggests to later audiences a connection between her character and Frances Howard. Though Howard had not in 1612 faced her own trial for the murder of Overbury, three years later her letters would be used in a similar way to condemn her. Vittoria’s response to this epistolary evidence is to argue the partial truth of viewing a letter in isolation; both sides of the dialogue are needed for the full truth. She tells her accuser, ‘You read his hot love to me, but you want | My frosty answer’ (Devil, iii. 2. 201–02), establishing a circumstantial contrast to Montecelso’s evocation of ‘heat’, and using antithesis to reflect both the emotional contrast between the correspondents and the difference in their moral judgment. Brachiano’s desire for her, she implies, might appear acceptable, but, with the misogyny of seventeenth-century moral standards, hers for him would be damning. She is thus keen to defend herself against the accusation that her love was correspondingly ‘hot’. Vittoria has to accept that her defence will not protect her in these legal surroundings and that she has been ‘beggar’d’ (Devil, iii. 2. 212), but at this point Francisco begins to pursue an apparently tangential line of questioning, suggesting that the bearer of such a letter is relevant to the matter. ‘Who brought this letter?’ (Devil, iii. 2. 219), he demands, keen to know the go-between who has furthered the immorality of which she is accused. Her refusal to answer him, ‘I am not compell’d to tell you’ (Devil, iii. 2. 220), prevents his pursuing this line further. That bearers of letters told ‘gross and impudent lies’ (Devil, iii. 2. 171), the belief which underlies Brachiano’s earlier slur against Montecelso, perhaps leads Francisco to desire knowledge of the circumstances. His desire to know who is helping the Duke seduce Vittoria is of course perceptive, and the audience must assume that this pedlar of lies and bearer of letters is the quick-witted and morally flexible aspirant young man: Vittoria’s brother, Flamineo. The conjunction of letters, law, verbal dexterity and aspirant young men in The White Devil emerges from Webster’s own background at the Inns of Court, and similar members of the theatre audience might have shared the play’s fascination with the manipulation of evidence as well as recognition of the importance of law that lies in the background. Vittoria uses her understanding of legal process, and her belief that the law should be fair, to challenge Montecelso. ‘[I]f you be my accuser,’ she demands,  Pray cease to be my judge: come from the bench;  Give in your evidence ’gainst me, and let these  Be moderators. (Devil, iii. 2. 225–28) In order to gain the truth, she argues that a court must conduct itself in a seemly fashion. ‘You have ravished justice’ (Devil, iii. 2. 274) is her conclusion as her prosecutor, not her judge, orders her imprisonment in a house of convertites. The powerful verb, accentuating the femininity, and thus the vulnerability, of Justice, adds weight here, and encourages the audience to reflect on the interaction of linguistic and epistolary proofs that have led to an ambivalent outcome in this quasi-legal emotional space. Her anger and her sense of injustice are palpable, and even though the audience knows she is guilty of the crimes for which she is condemned (we have been a witness in earlier scenes), there is sympathy for her position. She has not been tried fairly. She has a convincing case against the legal process used at her trial. Those accustomed to debating moral points in the moots of the Inns of Court would surely enjoy the moral ambivalence in the presentation of an unfairly condemned guilty party. Webster continues to demand that his audience make judgments of legal process as the play continues. Francisco’s revenge on Vittoria and Brachiano again makes use of a letter, and shows his manipulation of the circumstances of epistolarity. Following his obvious awareness earlier in the play of the importance of letter-bearing, he sends a love note to Vittoria by a servant, and engineers its receipt when it is most likely that Brachiano will see and intercept it. ‘Bear this,’ he tells his man,  To the House of Convertites, and watch your leisure  To give it to the hands of Corombona,  Or to the Matron, when some followers  Of Brachiano may be by. (Devil, iv. 1. 126–30) Brachiano assumes the letter’s truth when he intercepts it. When Brachiano urges Flamineo to ‘Read it, read it’ (Devil, iv. 2. 24), he echoes the Cardinal’s insistence that the lords read the letter at Vittoria’s arraignment; in both, the act of reading is portrayed as a means of accessing truth. Implicitly, it is demonstrated that a letter betrays its writer, or its recipient, because it reveals the truth of their bond, and the reading of it can enact that betrayal. Flamineo’s interpolated criticism throughout the reading mocks its style and at the conclusion he asks his lord to ‘tear it’ (Devil, iv. 2. 40). The tearing up of the letter, like a request to burn it, was of course a way of removing evidence, destroying the potential for the revelation of unpalatable truth. Flamineo ignores the question of its truth and, illustrating that he embodies the corruption of the court, he valorizes verbal dexterity over veracity. Brachiano, though still clearly a part of that corruption, is tricked by Francisco’s creation of epistolary evidence and leaps to the conclusion that the wooing in the lines which he hears read aloud is proof of Vittoria’s betrayal of him. He thus does not join in Flamineo’s urbane mockery of Francisco’s linguistic technique, but instead, like a tragic hero, threatens to ‘cut her into atomies’ (Devil, iv. 2. 41). Webster plays again on the relationship between letter, legal proof and truth, and encourages the audience to question that connection before reaching a conclusion. In the trial of Vittoria, the audience had no doubt of the truth of the letter’s contents, but this time they know that the love claimed by the letter is false, and this encourages a re-evaluation of the nature of epistolary proof. As Brachiano demands a second time that the letter is read and challenges Vittoria to ‘look upon that letter’, he assures her that ‘[t]here are no characters or hieroglyphics’ (Devil, iv. 2. 72–73); the true meaning is not even muddied by the use of secret code to protect the writer. But the apparent truth of the text is in itself deceptive, as everyone realizes except Brachiano. Truth, once again, revolves around the context of the letter. In the trial scene, Vittoria did not dispute the truth of Brachiano’s love for her to which his written communication bore witness. Instead, she argued that his heat was balanced by her frost, and the context changed, even reversed, epistolary semantics. In this later scene, as Brachiano falls prey to epistolary deception, it is again Vittoria who challenges his understanding of the letter as proof of her guilt. Her challenge to his reading contradicts the meaning he has inferred: ‘This is some treacherous plot, my lord’ (Devil, iv. 2. 84). Letters have been assumed to be testimonies of truth by those who intercept them, and thus to be evidence of guilt or innocence. Webster’s use of them in The White Devil argues that an understanding of circumstance and context is vital if a reader is to uncover their truth and reveal what lies behind the Tacitean corruption of a court. Letters can deceive a reader as often as enlighten him, even if they are not explicitly lying, and thus can contribute to that corrupt morality. Lawyers’ fears of what was, after all, a quotidian practice are clear from both historical and staged epistolarity in 1612–13. Textual objects emotionally powerful enough to mingle their writer’s soul with that of his reader, and which could build the relationships vital for professional success, could also be used as legal testimony against them, or against those they loved. Such an object appeared to be a material manifestation of the thoughts and emotions of its writer. A letter had the potential to be true testimony. Those who read it would draw inferences from it – whether or not the reader was the intended recipient with whom the writer had made his bond. However, a cultural understanding was emerging of the multivalency of letters and their consequent potential for linguistic deception, and dramatists such as Webster contributed to that understanding. As Vittoria insists, readers must moderate the evidence that letters appear to present, must avoid being influenced by the false rhetoric of others who would frame them, and must read them as contingent on their circumstance and contexts, else they ‘ravish […] justice’ (Devil, iii. 2. 273). It is understandable that in writing something so vexed and dangerous, Sir Henry Wotton, Middle Templar and diplomat, should fear the legal consequences of epistolary misinterpretation and, from his lodgings beside the Star Chamber, comment to his friend that ‘my pens shake in my hand’.30 Footnotes 1 Poems of John Donne, ed. by Herbert J. C. Grierson, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1912), I (1912), p. 180. 2 Ibid. 3 Will Tosh claims that ‘Making – and making the best of – relationships was a key objective for men at the Inns. This was a belief that ran to the heart of Inns of Court culture.’ As Tosh demonstrates in his work on Anthony Bacon’s role in Elizabethan diplomacy (and in particular in his examination of Bacon’s relationship with fellow Gray’s Inn member Nicolas Trott), success often relied on the bonds that Innsmen established with each other, and on the epistolary manifestation of those bonds. See Will Tosh, Male Friendship and Testimonies of Love in Shakespeare’s England (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 95. 4 Key names on the early modern curriculum, such as Quintilian, taught Innsmen how to enhance the feeling in their letters using enargeia to make them more vivid. Lynn Enterline considers how schoolboys reading texts such as Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata learn the ‘affective efficacy of enargeia’; Lynn Enterline, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom: Rhetoric, Discipline, Emotion (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), p. 110. 5 Gary Schneider, The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing in Early Modern England, 1500–1700 (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2005), p. 102. 6 Ibid. 7 Judith Rice Henderson, ‘On Reading the Rhetoric of the Renaissance Letter’, in Renaissance Rhetorik / Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. by Heinrich F. Plett (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1993), p. 146. 8 James Daybell, discussing the ‘social materiality’ of letter-writing, says of these compound fears, ‘Letter writers were careful what to commit to paper and sought to preserve the integrity of letters through sealing, requests to the reader to burn missives once read and the use of secret codes.’ James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing, 1512–1635 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 10. 9 Muriel St Claire Byrne’s annotation to her edition of The Lisle Letters, 6 vols (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981), V (1981), p. 280. 10 See Kathy Eden, Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 12. 11 The use of Tacitus as a parallel for contemporary politics was stimulated by translations into English by Henry Savile and Richard Grenewey. Related analytic or politic history is discussed in S. L. Goldberg, ‘John Hayward, Politic Historian’, Review of English Studies, 6.23 (1955), 233–44. 12 ‘Chamberlain to Carleton (23 December 1613)’, in The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. by Norman Egbert McClure, 2 vols (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1939), I (1939), p. 493. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid. 15 See letters especially from the summer of 1612 in the Historical Manuscripts Commission’s Report on the Manuscripts of The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, K. G., K. T., Preserved at Montagu House, Whitehall, ed. by R. E. G. Kirk, 3 vols (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1899–1926), I (1899). 16 ‘Rochester to Winwood (7 Dec 1612)’, in Report on the Manuscripts, p. 119. 17 ‘Wotton to Edmund Bacon (7 May 1613)’, in The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, ed. by L. P. Smith, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), II (1907), p. 22. 18 Ibid. 19 Ibid. 20 ‘Chamberlain to Sir Ralph Winwood (6 May 1613)’, in The Letters of John Chamberlain, I (1981), p. 448. 21 Whether the embassage was to Moscow, to France or to Brussels is unclear; Chamberlain and Wotton mention all three places in their accounts. 22 ‘Wotton to Edmund Bacon (22 April 1613)’, in The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, p. 20. 23 Ibid. 24 Ibid. 25 Ibid. 26 Ibid. 27 Webster contributed characters to later editions of Overbury’s popular poem A Wife, and Charles R. Forker suggests that he ‘in effect, became Overbury’s literary executor’, perhaps writing the preface which appeared in the second edition. See Charles R. Forker, Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), p. 122. The record of his having studied at Middle Temple was first discovered by Muriel Bradbrook; see her John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1980), p. 28. 28 ‘To the Reader’, in John Webster, The White Devil, 2nd edn, ed. by John Russell Brown, Revels Student Editions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), p. 2. All references to this work are from this edition and given parenthetically. 29 Lucy Munro discusses the Blackfriars audience in The Children of the Queen’s Revels, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 61. While noting that ‘audiences in indoor theatres such as the Blackfriars and Whitefriars are usually thought to have been more select than those in the amphitheatres’, she nuances the discussion by considering the effect of the sizes of playhouses and the likely costs, before reaching the conclusion that a ‘wealthier clientele is likely therefore to have been a by-product rather than a conscious strategy’. 30 The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, p. 22. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press for the Court of the University of St Andrews. All rights reserved. The University of St Andrews is a charity registered in Scotland: No. SC013532. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Forum for Modern Language Studies Oxford University Press

‘my Lodging is So Near the Star Chamber that My Pens Shake in My Hand’: Letters, Truth and Lawyers’ Fears

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press for the Court of the University of St Andrews. All rights reserved. The University of St Andrews is a charity registered in Scotland: No. SC013532.
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1471-6860
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Abstract

Abstract Letters in early modern England were quotidian, especially amongst Inns of Court men. This article focuses on 1612–13, a year of political crisis leading to the arrest of Thomas Overbury. It considers the fear generated by epistolary practice, and the creation of emotional bonds, in a selection of letters written by legally trained men. Used regularly as proof in legal cases, letters could lead to imprisonment or execution, and their preservation or eradication was vital. The article examines the dramatic representation of letters as part of legal discourse in The White Devil (1612) by John Webster, himself a Middle Temple man. As the article concludes, the context and circumstance of epistolarity are vital to a consideration of their truth. Early modern epistolary exchange between educated men was quotidian. John Donne, in a comment to his friend Henry Wotton, famously shows the affective nature of such exchange, commenting that ‘more than kisses, letters mingle souls’.1 As Donne suggests, such letters work to develop and deepen homosocial friendships – becoming written bonds that enable men to share their thoughts and feelings. The truth of such communication is implicit as the lawyer-poet shares his soul with his correspondent, and his reliance on the liberty of the epistolary mode is clear as he explains that ‘but for these | I could ideate nothing which could please’.2 Written on the assumption that its recipient would entirely understand his situation, Donne’s verse epistle indicates how aspirant Innsmen relied on this affective medium to secure already existing personal relationships. Nowhere were letters more important than amongst those connected to the legal world. The Tudor period had seen the establishment of a governmental and diplomatic bureaucracy that continued to burgeon in the reign of James I, and many men trained in law at the Inns of Court, such as Donne and Wotton, used their legal training in such positions. In this situation, beyond the sustaining of personal relationships, letters also established bonds that worked towards court and diplomatic preferment.3 The ability to communicate affect as a means of persuasion was at the core of the Inns’ curriculum, and linguistic dexterity was valorized as a signifier of success.4 The writing of letters to form and consolidate emotional bonds with other men capitalized on this skill and was an effective means of securing professional and social status. The emotional power of personal letters ensured success when their style was echoed in a professional context. Letter writing, though, was as vexed as it was vital. The blending of affect and political purpose in letters was a commonplace, and recipients of such communications both expected flattery and emotional engagement, and knew not to accept such emotion at face value. The letter was thus not necessarily true, in that it did not always reflect the genuine feeling of the writer. In his seminal work on early modern epistolary culture, Gary Schneider comments that ‘The rhetoric of love and friendship was indeed an expected component of court intercourse.’5 He continues, ‘[L]etters that employed affective rhetoric […] were understood as potential lies by their recipients, yet these letters also took part in the sociotextual milieu of court politics that expected this sort of rhetorical engagement.’6 The interpretation of the connection between the emotion contained in letters and the reality of that emotion was thereby problematic. Equally vexed was the question of the emotion a letter produced in the reader. This area of emotional truth relied on a sympathetic reading by the person for whom it was written, and a further complicating factor was epistolary privacy. As well as conveying the expected emotional content, whether or not that emotion was genuinely felt, letters gave the impression of being a personal communication: a bond between the writer and the recipient. Yet this truth was often in dispute, too. As Judith Rice Henderson notes, the early modern world ‘did not distinguish as insistently as we do between private and public letter-writing, the familiar and the official letter’.7 There could be deliberate or, at least conscious, sharing of letters: recipients reading them aloud to family, faction or a circle of friends, or the writer’s awareness of a secretary who would be privy to apparently private letters. But beyond this, there was the nagging fear of a letter’s interception and, thus, its being read by unintended eyes. We can see this in the use of codes, ciphers and invisible ink, and it is implicit in the common trope of demanding a letter’s eradication after reading.8 Yet at the same time, ‘To burn letters […] might be dangerous. Letters could act as evidence of the truth and be required as such at a later time.’9 Putting one’s hand to a letter was giving testimony – bearing witness to the truth of its contents. To doubts about a letter’s affective veracity, and about who read a letter, was thus added the question of whether that letter were to be kept or destroyed. The use of letters as evidence in both historical and literary legal cases demonstrates how letters were used in a court of law, to condemn a plaintiff or support a defence, and it is important to consider the classical roots of wider parallels made between the establishing of events in a court of law and on stage. Aristotle considered the use of evidence in both situations as a means to convince those listening – a judge and jury, or a theatre audience – and defined two kinds of evidence or proof. One, termed entechnos or artificial, was based in rhetoric and involved the persuasive telling of events to influence those listening. The second, atechnos or inartificial, included witness testimony and oaths as well as written documents.10 The classical debate over the relative power of material evidence and of rhetoric in both legal and dramatic situations was well known to those involved in early modern legal training, and must inform our understanding of the perceived power of letters – which employ the rhetorical and the material, the artificial and the inartificial – to help establish truth. For all the reasons outlined so far, writing such a document was not something to be done heedlessly, even though it was quotidian. Though epistolary testimony was accepted as evidence that could contribute to the discovery of truth, paradoxically the potential for deception inherent in letters meant they were caught up in a contemporary discourse of flattery and corruption. The popularity since the 1590s of Tacitus, historian of Imperial Rome, provided terms for such a discourse, and letters formed part of the evidence for an increasingly Tacitean reading of the early Stuart court.11 Part of their power as evidence lay in emotional terms; the reading of letters could produce fear and distrust, as well as demonstrate and develop affection. The complexity of epistolarity is exemplified in the letters exchanged between aspirant men at a time of great political uncertainty, in 1612–13, when the powerful courtier Sir Thomas Overbury was arrested and imprisoned. This essay asks to what extent letters were believed to be true, and what part they played in a contemporary discourse on epistolary and legal emotion. It examines the correspondence of former Innsmen involved in, or witnesses of, court events, before comparing the political situation with a contemporary representation of the questionable truth of letters in the work of an Innsman playwright closely associated with one of the key figures in the developing court scandal: John Webster of the Middle Temple. Although it is set in Catholic Italy, Webster’s The White Devil, first performed in early 1612, questions epistolary truth in situations also highly suggestive of contemporary English politics. * In May 1612, the powerful Robert Cecil had died. James I took his time choosing a replacement as Secretary of State. The two main factions at court each put forward a candidate. The crypto-Catholic Howards proposed Sir Thomas Lake, who stood initially in opposition to Sir Henry Neville, preferred candidate of the Protestant lords led by the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke. Previously French ambassador, Neville was running with the support of his former secretary, Sir Ralph Winwood. As Neville’s chances of gaining the secretaryship diminished during 1613, Winwood’s appeared to grow. In his regular correspondence with Sir Dudley Carleton, ambassador to Venice, Sir John Chamberlain sent news of the political wrangling. Both men were former members of Gray’s Inn. Chamberlain confided in December 1613 that the exploitation of affective language perhaps did not come readily to Winwood. Chamberlain wrote that, despite people’s expectations of his success, he was unlikely to gain preferment as ‘he is reputed somwhat harsh, and too plain a speaker for the tender eares of this age’.12 The antithesis between the Ambassador’s ‘harsh’ and ‘plain’ speech and the ‘tender eares’ of the Jacobean court demonstrates both Winwood’s perceived lack of verbal sophistication and the extreme sensitivity of those listening. The harshness of honesty is, implicitly, contrasted with the smoother, softer and more sensually appealing qualities of deception, as the vulnerability of the courtiers’ ears is accentuated. Perhaps, too, the punning adjective implies financial transaction, with a quasi-economic benefit being gained by effective rhetoric. Winwood is expected to bend the truth to meet courtly expectations, and appears to have been unwilling or unable to do so. To gain preferment one had to know, and to work within, the rules of the game. Winwood was not an Innsman, and his background did not involve the development of a flexible articulacy through the Inns’ curricular and extra-curricular activities. He was, though, a lawyer, with a degree in Civil Law from Oxford, and he clearly had a realistic expectation of success in his pursuit of the secretaryship by the end of 1613. As Chamberlain told Carleton, many believed this success to be secure because of his closeness to Sir Robert Carr, the King’s favourite and by this point Earl of Somerset: he be by common voyce and opinion already as yt were in possession of the place so much spoken of, and in great favor with the great man [Somerset], and injoyned to attend him (as he doth duly) every day.13 To assure Carleton of the veracity of his report, Chamberlain uses a common rhetorical strategy: the citation of others to corroborate the writer’s opinion. As previously with ‘he is reputed’, Chamberlain does not refer to a specific source, but instead to the ubiquitous ‘common voice and opinion’. His subsequent use of another passive in ‘so much spoken of’ also implies opinions that concur with those of the writer. It evokes conversations as Chamberlain walks in the nave of St Paul’s, the location most often associated with newsgathering. His assertion of inside knowledge in the confirmatory parenthesis is also clearly a method of reassuring Carleton of the truth of his communication. According to the same letter, Winwood believed that his promotion might have been secured when he had been in London a year earlier, ‘but for Sir Thomas Overbury’.14 Trained at the Middle Temple, Overbury was a key figure in the contest. As secretary to Robert Carr he had privileged access, and he wielded a great deal of influence. The Protestant candidates were convinced they had Overbury’s support, and many letters between Neville and Winwood show how hard they worked to consolidate it.15 As the contest continued in 1613, however, the support of Sir Thomas Overbury became considerably less useful. In April, he was arrested and made a close prisoner in the Tower. Ostensibly imprisoned for opposing the King’s instruction to go overseas as an ambassador, many understood that his opposition to Robert Carr’s relationship with Frances Howard might have led to his incarceration. Overnight, the man who had been seen by Neville and Winwood as their champion was excluded from influence. By the end of 1613, as Chamberlain’s letter demonstrated, doubt had been cast on whether they had ever actually had that support. During Winwood’s visit to London in 1612, he had good reason for that belief. His reputation for brusqueness and verbal harshness had already been established, but Carr wrote to reassure him that he could succeed despite this. ‘Do not despair,’ he wrote, ‘though your enemies have objected enough against you […] that you are too violent, which signifies in Court language not malleable to their use.’16 This identification of a distinct ‘[c]ourt language’ shows a contemporary acceptance of the slippery, alternative and deceptive semantics of Jacobean courtiership. The problem with verbal dexterity lay not merely in its lack. Doubts were growing over the moral nature of sophisticated linguistic skill with such potential for deception. Narratives of corruption at the Jacobean court, described in Tacitean terms, were bound up with linguistic deception appearing as truth. From a fear of inadequate verbal ability to language’s ultimate challenge to existential truth, Jacobean correspondents revealed their understanding of both the importance and the potential threat of the written word. Recipient of that loving verse letter from Donne, Sir Henry Wotton was a letter writer who showed an explicit recognition of epistolary danger. Trained at the Middle Temple just before Overbury, Wotton used his linguistic dexterity in diplomatic postings across Europe. His very presence in London in Spring 1613 was the result of a linguistic faux pas which demonstrated his awareness of the dubious nature of diplomatic communication. While posted to Venice, Wotton had famously written in a friend’s commonplace book what, in English, was a humorously punning comment on the language of his chosen career: ‘An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ The pun on ‘lie’, meaning to ‘reside’ in English, was lost completely as he wrote in Latin, where mentiendum does not have the same double meaning. Sparking the King’s anger, Wotton was recalled to London. The difficulty had arisen from one of the letter writer’s greatest fears: that words designed to provoke a specific response in a particular reader should be read, and their intent misunderstood, by a wider, unintended audience. Fear of his letters being read by other eyes than those of his regular correspondent, Edmund Bacon, continued to plague Wotton. In a letter from 7 May 1613, he hid his meaning behind figurative language and wrote of his desire to meet Bacon in person so that they could ‘lay aside […] metaphors’.17 His purpose for writing was to tell Bacon that the latter’s kinsman, Sir Robert Killigrew, had been imprisoned for talking to ‘a close prisoner’ in the Tower: a clear allusion to Sir Thomas Overbury. Wotton could not discuss Overbury openly, but instead used ambiguous pronouns and the semantic field of medicine to give Bacon a rather confusing account of what had happened to the powerful courtier since his arrest just over a fortnight earlier: Of his case whose love drew him to it, I can yet make no judgement; the humour seemeth to be sharp, and there is wisdom enough in those that have the handling of the patient to manage the matter, so that at length his banishment from the Court may be granted as a point of grace. The nature of his alteration was (as you rightly judge it) in the first access somewhat apoplectical, but yet mingled in my opinion with divers properties of a lethargy; whereof we shall discourse more particularly when we meet […].18 Wotton’s praise of ‘those that have the handling of the patient’ is clearly intended to protect him should the letter be opened and the subject matter deciphered. In his desire to meet Bacon and share ideas face to face, the honesty of spoken language is contrasted with the necessarily deceptive written word. The letter to Bacon went on to gloss its own timidity with an explanatory anecdote about Sir Peter Buck, whose rather innocuous letter to a friend about activity at court had led to the writer’s imprisonment and his subsequent trial at the Star Chamber. The letter was used in court as evidence. Apologising that ‘I set down these accidents barely, as you see, without their causes,’ Wotton thus quipped that, ‘[M]y lodging is so near the Star Chamber that my pens shake in my hand.’19 The diplomat had learnt the potential threat the written word posed. Just as Wotton’s recall to London was the result of linguistic misjudgment, epistolary commentators blamed Overbury’s fall on the use of language inappropriate for the situation, linked in their minds to his renowned insolence. Chamberlain, for instance, tells Winwood of his arrest, and explains that the cause ‘was a contemptuous aunswer and refusing of forrain employments offered him in the Kings name’.20 Chamberlain continued to recount how, asked by the King’s representatives – the Earl of Pembroke and the Lord Chancellor – whether he would undertake an embassage to Moscow, Overbury gave a ‘peremptorie and unmannerly aunswer’.21 He was guilty of an act verging on treason, and the means of its committal was linguistic. Wotton was an eye witness of the arrest, and – a little less circumspect than he was to be in his writing a fortnight later – he told Bacon what he had seen of the events, sudden ‘like a stroke of thunder’.22 He began, as Chamberlain, with Overbury’s language: ‘Sir Thomas Overbury refused to be sent abroad, with such terms as were by the Council interpreted pregnant of contempt in a case where the King had opened his will […].’23 Wotton could barely repress his schadenfreude as he contrasted Overbury’s current predicament with the man’s earlier boasting. Again Overbury’s pride was his target, driving him to speak in such a swaggering manner to a fellow Innsman who was struggling to resume his ambassadorial position: Thus you can see the point upon which one hath been committed, standing in the second degree of power in the Court, and conceiving (as himself told me but two hours before) never better than at that present of his own fortunes and ends.24 As Chamberlain used the supporting views of others to create confidence in his veracity, Wotton used another common epistolary strategy, reinforcing the truth of his account by emphasizing his personal observation of events. Finally, Wotton chose to focus on the key court gossip in the aftermath of the arrest: whether or not Robert Carr had been involved. The choice to discuss this in writing was daring, evidence of a less fearful Wotton than the letter of 7 May suggested. He described the full narrative arc of the episode from ‘thunder’ to clearing clouds: Now in this whole matter there is one main and principal doubt, which doth travail all understandings; that is, whether this were done without the participation of my Lord of Rochester? […] These clouds a few days will clear; in the meanwhile I dare pronounce of Sir Thomas Overbury, that he shall return no more to this stage, unless Courts be governed every year by a new philosophy; for our old principles will not bear it.25 Wotton’s letter shows the confidence in which he held his correspondent. Before the case of Sir Peter Buck brought to the forefront of his mind the danger in which he stood, and forced him to be more circumspect, he wrote openly, with a clear relish for the possibility of an ambitious courtier’s fall. As the man concerned was a fellow Templar, Wotton might have been assumed to have formed useful bonds with him, to enhance both of their positions. This personal correspondence, though, shares Wotton’s infectious enjoyment of the irony of events and suggests his dislike of the man. It is tempting to infer that Overbury had not supported his fellow Templar’s quest to return to his post in Venice, or had in some other way refused to help him. As Bacon’s emotional bond with Wotton was close, he would undoubtedly have shared his enjoyment, yet to the outside observer the letter appears to be rather rash. The conjunction of open and affective language and the structuring of a syntactically satisfying tale were typical of early modern Innsmen correspondents. Wotton’s fear was only a part of his emotional relationship with epistolarity; he was unable to be with Bacon, and instead he wished ‘this paper in your hands, to whom I dare communicate the freest of my thoughts’.26 The letter acted as an emotional catalyst, less effective and less secure than face-to-face conversation, but productive of a similar affective outcome. In his discussion of Overbury’s future prospects, Wotton noted his view that ‘he shall return no more to this stage’, making use of the conventional metaphor comparing the political world to the theatre. Both performative contexts presented images of power to a watching public, and in both were shown the fear of epistolarity: the connection between emotion and the language in which it was conveyed, and the vexed relationship between letters and the truth. The last section of this essay looks at these issues in The White Devil, a play stimulated by its immediate political context. John Webster stages legal and quasi-legal situations and explores the ambivalence of epistolary proof. * John Webster was a student at the Middle Temple, entering the Inn in the same year as Sir Thomas Overbury, 1598, and an acquaintance of the man who was to rise and then fall so dramatically at James’s court.27The White Devil, written early in 1612 for The Queen’s Men and performed at The Red Bull, was famously unappreciated by its first audience. Webster lamented this fact in his letter ‘To The Reader’, prefacing the first quarto publication of the play later that same year: it wanted (that which is the only grace and setting-out of a tragedy) a full and understanding auditory; and that since that time I have noted, most of the people that come to that playhouse resemble those ignorant asses (who, visiting stationers’ shops, their use is not to inquire for good books, but new books) […].28 In contrast, The Duchess of Malfi, written a year or so after The White Devil and first performed in early 1614, was well received. Webster turned from his usual company to present this second major tragedy to The King’s Men for their indoor playhouse at Blackfriars. The difference in the likely audience demographic of the two theatres might explain the difference in reception. Although Malfi is usually considered the better constructed of the two plays, The White Devil also shows Webster’s talent as a playwright, his moral ambiguity and his linguistic flair, and would have expected a better response. Perhaps a larger segment of legal men in the audience at the Blackfriars explains Webster’s greater success there, sitting, as the playhouse did, on the fringes of the Inns. There is evidence to show that the smaller, more select indoor theatres, with their higher prices and their often satirical, generically experimental Jacobean output, made them even more popular with the young law students than the larger public theatres of Shoreditch.29 Certainly, The White Devil embodies on stage some of the tensions of epistolarity that were, as we have seen, of concern to this particular audience segment. A key character in the play represents the kind of man with whom Webster must have been very familiar. University educated, and clearly a man who knows the court, Flamineo resembles the aspirant Innsmen this essay considers, and he comments on the need for men to make affective connections with patrons if they are to succeed: ‘Knaves do grow great,’ he states with his usual satirical tone, ‘by being great men’s apes’ (Devil, iv. 2. 247). His reliance on the patronage of his current employer, Brachiano, puts him in the world of the Innsmen at James’s court who witnessed, wrote of, and sometimes acted in, events of state. With characteristic vitriol, after accusing her of giving him a useless university education, Flamineo demands of his mother how he is to escape his reliance on the patronage of such men:  I would fain know where lies the mass of wealth  Which you have hoarded for my maintenance,  That I may bear my beard out of the level  Of my lord’s stirrup. (Devil, i. 2. 311–14) His imagery of service, with his ‘beard’ at the level of his master’s foot, demonstrates Flamineo’s resentment at the social position he occupies, but he has little choice if he is to progress. In the action that follows, his casual misogyny and his desire for preferment are combined in his proffering of his sister, Vittoria, to Brachiano. It is this illicit relationship between Brachiano and Vittoria, of course, that occupies the centre of the play and leads to the staging of Vittoria’s arraignment by Cardinal Montecelso. This legal sequence makes explicit the parallel which Aristotle noted between the production of legal and dramatic evidence, and relies on the production of a letter against Vittoria. Yet the first mention of letters in the play shows their potential to defend someone, and thus establishes their essential ambiguity. Those from Lodovick to Montecelso are presented by the latter as evidence of the former’s good character, representing the man and arguing his innocence of piracy. They stand for their writer, pleading his case in his absence. Montecelso personifies them: ‘I have letters from him, which are suppliant | To work his quick repeal from banishment’ (Devil, ii. 1. 382–83). These are the means used by men desiring preferment and support at court, as in the letters Neville and Winwood sent to Overbury. Demonstrating the likely appeal of the play to such Innsmen engaged in the contemporary legal world, mockery of lawyers and accusations of injustice abound in The White Devil and the legal process is recognized as flawed, but the play still suggests a worldview where justice is seen as venerable. The cynicism is typical of a man trained in the law, whose experience of its vagaries has jaded any youthful idealism. The lawyer presenting the case against Vittoria in the arraignment scene, for instance, reveals himself to be linguistically inept through his inkhorn terms and perverse lexical choices. He opens his case by addressing those who must make judgment:  Most literated judges, please your lordships  So to connive your judgments to the view  Of this debauch’d and diversivolent woman. (Devil, iii. 2. 26–28) His use of ‘diversivolent’ is clearly memorable, and the audience can understand Flamineo’s later frustration at the outcome of the trial, where he blames his sister’s incarceration on ‘Yon diversivolent lawyer’ (Devil, iii. 3. 23) and his linguistic failings. As well as mocking poor linguistic usage, The White Devil shows the potential for effective (and affective) language to persuade. Brachiano’s riposte in his verbal battle with Montecelso uses letter-bearing as a metaphor, exposing thereby a general distrust of those who carried written communications. Comparing high-ranking churchmen to ‘[y]our mercenary post-boys’, Brachiano scornfully comments of those like the Cardinal: ‘Your letters carry truth, but ’tis your guise | To fill your mouths with gross and impudent lies’ (Devil, iii. 2. 169–71). The threat of deceit comes from the circumstance of its delivery: the person bearing the letter. As Wotton feared in his written communication with Edmund Bacon, speaking to someone face to face was always safer than trusting your emotion to the conveyance of others. Even if the letter itself is truthful, the bearers can deceive others by lying about it or communicating its contents inappropriately. As well as this use of epistolarity in metaphorical terms, a key piece of evidence in Vittoria’s trial is a physical letter from Brachiano that has obviously been intercepted or taken afterwards by the authorities. Montecelso presents the material object as evidence or inartificial proof, as in a law court, and, as Brachiano earlier accused, his use of it militates against its essential truth. Through his rhetorical interpretation of its contents for those listening to the arraignment, though, he turns the letter into artificial proof. It is only after he has framed his understanding of it, and manipulated the emotional context, that Montecelso turns from Vittoria to the lords who stand in judgment upon her, and allows – even presses – these others to read:        I will produce a letter  Wherein ’twas plotted, he and you should meet  At an apothecary’s summer-house,  Down by the River Tiber, – view ’t, my lords,  Where after wanton bathing and the heat  Of a lascivious banquet – I pray read it,  I shame to speak the rest. (Devil, iii. 2. 192–98) His establishing of circumstance, the setting by the Tiber and its associations with ‘wanton bathing’ and ‘heat’, adds power to his argument and proof. He clearly has the letter as a hand-held prop on stage, despite his use of the future tense, and the use of this evidence against Vittoria suggests to later audiences a connection between her character and Frances Howard. Though Howard had not in 1612 faced her own trial for the murder of Overbury, three years later her letters would be used in a similar way to condemn her. Vittoria’s response to this epistolary evidence is to argue the partial truth of viewing a letter in isolation; both sides of the dialogue are needed for the full truth. She tells her accuser, ‘You read his hot love to me, but you want | My frosty answer’ (Devil, iii. 2. 201–02), establishing a circumstantial contrast to Montecelso’s evocation of ‘heat’, and using antithesis to reflect both the emotional contrast between the correspondents and the difference in their moral judgment. Brachiano’s desire for her, she implies, might appear acceptable, but, with the misogyny of seventeenth-century moral standards, hers for him would be damning. She is thus keen to defend herself against the accusation that her love was correspondingly ‘hot’. Vittoria has to accept that her defence will not protect her in these legal surroundings and that she has been ‘beggar’d’ (Devil, iii. 2. 212), but at this point Francisco begins to pursue an apparently tangential line of questioning, suggesting that the bearer of such a letter is relevant to the matter. ‘Who brought this letter?’ (Devil, iii. 2. 219), he demands, keen to know the go-between who has furthered the immorality of which she is accused. Her refusal to answer him, ‘I am not compell’d to tell you’ (Devil, iii. 2. 220), prevents his pursuing this line further. That bearers of letters told ‘gross and impudent lies’ (Devil, iii. 2. 171), the belief which underlies Brachiano’s earlier slur against Montecelso, perhaps leads Francisco to desire knowledge of the circumstances. His desire to know who is helping the Duke seduce Vittoria is of course perceptive, and the audience must assume that this pedlar of lies and bearer of letters is the quick-witted and morally flexible aspirant young man: Vittoria’s brother, Flamineo. The conjunction of letters, law, verbal dexterity and aspirant young men in The White Devil emerges from Webster’s own background at the Inns of Court, and similar members of the theatre audience might have shared the play’s fascination with the manipulation of evidence as well as recognition of the importance of law that lies in the background. Vittoria uses her understanding of legal process, and her belief that the law should be fair, to challenge Montecelso. ‘[I]f you be my accuser,’ she demands,  Pray cease to be my judge: come from the bench;  Give in your evidence ’gainst me, and let these  Be moderators. (Devil, iii. 2. 225–28) In order to gain the truth, she argues that a court must conduct itself in a seemly fashion. ‘You have ravished justice’ (Devil, iii. 2. 274) is her conclusion as her prosecutor, not her judge, orders her imprisonment in a house of convertites. The powerful verb, accentuating the femininity, and thus the vulnerability, of Justice, adds weight here, and encourages the audience to reflect on the interaction of linguistic and epistolary proofs that have led to an ambivalent outcome in this quasi-legal emotional space. Her anger and her sense of injustice are palpable, and even though the audience knows she is guilty of the crimes for which she is condemned (we have been a witness in earlier scenes), there is sympathy for her position. She has not been tried fairly. She has a convincing case against the legal process used at her trial. Those accustomed to debating moral points in the moots of the Inns of Court would surely enjoy the moral ambivalence in the presentation of an unfairly condemned guilty party. Webster continues to demand that his audience make judgments of legal process as the play continues. Francisco’s revenge on Vittoria and Brachiano again makes use of a letter, and shows his manipulation of the circumstances of epistolarity. Following his obvious awareness earlier in the play of the importance of letter-bearing, he sends a love note to Vittoria by a servant, and engineers its receipt when it is most likely that Brachiano will see and intercept it. ‘Bear this,’ he tells his man,  To the House of Convertites, and watch your leisure  To give it to the hands of Corombona,  Or to the Matron, when some followers  Of Brachiano may be by. (Devil, iv. 1. 126–30) Brachiano assumes the letter’s truth when he intercepts it. When Brachiano urges Flamineo to ‘Read it, read it’ (Devil, iv. 2. 24), he echoes the Cardinal’s insistence that the lords read the letter at Vittoria’s arraignment; in both, the act of reading is portrayed as a means of accessing truth. Implicitly, it is demonstrated that a letter betrays its writer, or its recipient, because it reveals the truth of their bond, and the reading of it can enact that betrayal. Flamineo’s interpolated criticism throughout the reading mocks its style and at the conclusion he asks his lord to ‘tear it’ (Devil, iv. 2. 40). The tearing up of the letter, like a request to burn it, was of course a way of removing evidence, destroying the potential for the revelation of unpalatable truth. Flamineo ignores the question of its truth and, illustrating that he embodies the corruption of the court, he valorizes verbal dexterity over veracity. Brachiano, though still clearly a part of that corruption, is tricked by Francisco’s creation of epistolary evidence and leaps to the conclusion that the wooing in the lines which he hears read aloud is proof of Vittoria’s betrayal of him. He thus does not join in Flamineo’s urbane mockery of Francisco’s linguistic technique, but instead, like a tragic hero, threatens to ‘cut her into atomies’ (Devil, iv. 2. 41). Webster plays again on the relationship between letter, legal proof and truth, and encourages the audience to question that connection before reaching a conclusion. In the trial of Vittoria, the audience had no doubt of the truth of the letter’s contents, but this time they know that the love claimed by the letter is false, and this encourages a re-evaluation of the nature of epistolary proof. As Brachiano demands a second time that the letter is read and challenges Vittoria to ‘look upon that letter’, he assures her that ‘[t]here are no characters or hieroglyphics’ (Devil, iv. 2. 72–73); the true meaning is not even muddied by the use of secret code to protect the writer. But the apparent truth of the text is in itself deceptive, as everyone realizes except Brachiano. Truth, once again, revolves around the context of the letter. In the trial scene, Vittoria did not dispute the truth of Brachiano’s love for her to which his written communication bore witness. Instead, she argued that his heat was balanced by her frost, and the context changed, even reversed, epistolary semantics. In this later scene, as Brachiano falls prey to epistolary deception, it is again Vittoria who challenges his understanding of the letter as proof of her guilt. Her challenge to his reading contradicts the meaning he has inferred: ‘This is some treacherous plot, my lord’ (Devil, iv. 2. 84). Letters have been assumed to be testimonies of truth by those who intercept them, and thus to be evidence of guilt or innocence. Webster’s use of them in The White Devil argues that an understanding of circumstance and context is vital if a reader is to uncover their truth and reveal what lies behind the Tacitean corruption of a court. Letters can deceive a reader as often as enlighten him, even if they are not explicitly lying, and thus can contribute to that corrupt morality. Lawyers’ fears of what was, after all, a quotidian practice are clear from both historical and staged epistolarity in 1612–13. Textual objects emotionally powerful enough to mingle their writer’s soul with that of his reader, and which could build the relationships vital for professional success, could also be used as legal testimony against them, or against those they loved. Such an object appeared to be a material manifestation of the thoughts and emotions of its writer. A letter had the potential to be true testimony. Those who read it would draw inferences from it – whether or not the reader was the intended recipient with whom the writer had made his bond. However, a cultural understanding was emerging of the multivalency of letters and their consequent potential for linguistic deception, and dramatists such as Webster contributed to that understanding. As Vittoria insists, readers must moderate the evidence that letters appear to present, must avoid being influenced by the false rhetoric of others who would frame them, and must read them as contingent on their circumstance and contexts, else they ‘ravish […] justice’ (Devil, iii. 2. 273). It is understandable that in writing something so vexed and dangerous, Sir Henry Wotton, Middle Templar and diplomat, should fear the legal consequences of epistolary misinterpretation and, from his lodgings beside the Star Chamber, comment to his friend that ‘my pens shake in my hand’.30 Footnotes 1 Poems of John Donne, ed. by Herbert J. C. Grierson, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1912), I (1912), p. 180. 2 Ibid. 3 Will Tosh claims that ‘Making – and making the best of – relationships was a key objective for men at the Inns. This was a belief that ran to the heart of Inns of Court culture.’ As Tosh demonstrates in his work on Anthony Bacon’s role in Elizabethan diplomacy (and in particular in his examination of Bacon’s relationship with fellow Gray’s Inn member Nicolas Trott), success often relied on the bonds that Innsmen established with each other, and on the epistolary manifestation of those bonds. See Will Tosh, Male Friendship and Testimonies of Love in Shakespeare’s England (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 95. 4 Key names on the early modern curriculum, such as Quintilian, taught Innsmen how to enhance the feeling in their letters using enargeia to make them more vivid. Lynn Enterline considers how schoolboys reading texts such as Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata learn the ‘affective efficacy of enargeia’; Lynn Enterline, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom: Rhetoric, Discipline, Emotion (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), p. 110. 5 Gary Schneider, The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing in Early Modern England, 1500–1700 (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2005), p. 102. 6 Ibid. 7 Judith Rice Henderson, ‘On Reading the Rhetoric of the Renaissance Letter’, in Renaissance Rhetorik / Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. by Heinrich F. Plett (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1993), p. 146. 8 James Daybell, discussing the ‘social materiality’ of letter-writing, says of these compound fears, ‘Letter writers were careful what to commit to paper and sought to preserve the integrity of letters through sealing, requests to the reader to burn missives once read and the use of secret codes.’ James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing, 1512–1635 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 10. 9 Muriel St Claire Byrne’s annotation to her edition of The Lisle Letters, 6 vols (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981), V (1981), p. 280. 10 See Kathy Eden, Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 12. 11 The use of Tacitus as a parallel for contemporary politics was stimulated by translations into English by Henry Savile and Richard Grenewey. Related analytic or politic history is discussed in S. L. Goldberg, ‘John Hayward, Politic Historian’, Review of English Studies, 6.23 (1955), 233–44. 12 ‘Chamberlain to Carleton (23 December 1613)’, in The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. by Norman Egbert McClure, 2 vols (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1939), I (1939), p. 493. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid. 15 See letters especially from the summer of 1612 in the Historical Manuscripts Commission’s Report on the Manuscripts of The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, K. G., K. T., Preserved at Montagu House, Whitehall, ed. by R. E. G. Kirk, 3 vols (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1899–1926), I (1899). 16 ‘Rochester to Winwood (7 Dec 1612)’, in Report on the Manuscripts, p. 119. 17 ‘Wotton to Edmund Bacon (7 May 1613)’, in The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, ed. by L. P. Smith, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), II (1907), p. 22. 18 Ibid. 19 Ibid. 20 ‘Chamberlain to Sir Ralph Winwood (6 May 1613)’, in The Letters of John Chamberlain, I (1981), p. 448. 21 Whether the embassage was to Moscow, to France or to Brussels is unclear; Chamberlain and Wotton mention all three places in their accounts. 22 ‘Wotton to Edmund Bacon (22 April 1613)’, in The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, p. 20. 23 Ibid. 24 Ibid. 25 Ibid. 26 Ibid. 27 Webster contributed characters to later editions of Overbury’s popular poem A Wife, and Charles R. Forker suggests that he ‘in effect, became Overbury’s literary executor’, perhaps writing the preface which appeared in the second edition. See Charles R. Forker, Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), p. 122. The record of his having studied at Middle Temple was first discovered by Muriel Bradbrook; see her John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1980), p. 28. 28 ‘To the Reader’, in John Webster, The White Devil, 2nd edn, ed. by John Russell Brown, Revels Student Editions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), p. 2. All references to this work are from this edition and given parenthetically. 29 Lucy Munro discusses the Blackfriars audience in The Children of the Queen’s Revels, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 61. While noting that ‘audiences in indoor theatres such as the Blackfriars and Whitefriars are usually thought to have been more select than those in the amphitheatres’, she nuances the discussion by considering the effect of the sizes of playhouses and the likely costs, before reaching the conclusion that a ‘wealthier clientele is likely therefore to have been a by-product rather than a conscious strategy’. 30 The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, p. 22. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press for the Court of the University of St Andrews. All rights reserved. The University of St Andrews is a charity registered in Scotland: No. SC013532.

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Published: Jan 1, 2018

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