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"Black Legends and the Invention of Europe" (NEH Fellowship, 2016-2017)
This project re-assesses the impact that licencing has had on the composition of early modern literature. Without a licence from a noble patron, players were subject to the Act for the Punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars. Yet this document is also open to forgery and counterfeiting, as detailed in the so-called cony-catching pamphlets; for example the ‘freshwater mariner’ is famed for ‘run[ning] about the country with a counterfeit licence, feigning either shipwreck or spoil by pirates’ (Greene, The Groundwork of Cony-Catching). Therefore the document designed to control an itinerant population actually becomes the means of criminality, due to the potential duplicity of hand-written documents. Despite the turn towards cultural materialism in early modern studies, the material traces of licencing have yet to be studied in depth. This becomes even more surprising due to the metaphorical richness of ‘licence’ which early modern authors frequently made use of, as when Sir Toby Belch calls on Sir Andrew Aguecheek to ‘taunt him with the licence of ink’ (Twelfth Night, 3.2.42). Therefore this study examines how authors worked through the layers of anxiety and ambivalence created by a document with which they would have been intimately familiar. Forged documents of authority are a staple in the plots of early modern drama, from Hamlet to Bartholomew Fair, drawing attention to the period’s dual understanding of the ‘counterfeit’. In excavating the realities of counterfeit licences alongside their literary manifestations, I reveal the power of the licence for counterfeiters of all stripes, Shakespeare included.