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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
October 2023
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Book description

In the first comprehensive history of libels in Elizabethan England, Joseph Mansky traces the crime across law, literature, and culture, outlining a viral and often virulent media ecosystem. During the 1590s, a series of crises – simmering xenophobia, years of dearth and hunger, surges of religious persecution – sparked an extraordinary explosion of libeling. The same years also saw the first appearances of libels on London stages. Defamatory, seditious texts were launched into the sky, cast in windows, recited in court, read from pulpits, and seized by informers. Avatars of sedition, libels nonetheless empowered ordinary people to pass judgment on the most controversial issues and persons of the day. They were marked by mobility, swirling across the early modern media and across class, confessional, and geographical lines. Ranging from Shakespearean drama to provincial pageantry, this book charts a public sphere poised between debate and defamation, between free speech and fake news.


‘This important book recovers the forgotten history of a genre that was central to the social and political life of early modern England: the libel, Joseph Mansky shows, circulated through provinces, city streets, alehouses, and playhouses as a public-making document, binding together strangers even as it set them at odds with each other. Mansky's book is as essential to scholars of early modern literature as it is to anyone interested in the conflicts that shape our public spheres today.'

Matthew Hunter - Texas Tech University

‘Libels and Theater in Shakespeare's England convincingly argues that libel was the axis on which the early modern public sphere spun. Joseph Mansky offers an absorbing history of libel, probes the gaps between legal codes and actual practice, and nests compelling readings of famous, infamous, obscure, and lost plays within vividly recreated flashpoints of English politics from 1590 to 1620. Impressively researched and studded with new discoveries, Libels and Theater is an elegantly written, deeply engaging book that represents the best of our discipline's fusion of literary studies, history, and law.'

Jeffrey Doty - University of North Texas

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