Demotic Voices and Popular Complaint in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England

David Cressy


Though Shakespeare’s creations are said to be infused by the structures of popular culture, it remains uncertain how closely his characters echo the phrases of everyday speech. The text alone cannot tell us how Shakespeare’s contemporaries talked, or what commoners said of each other or of those in authority above them. Fortunately alternative and complementary sources exist that yield informal and unscripted utterances by ordinary men and women in Elizabethan and early Stuart England. Court reports, depositions, and examinations by magistrates preserve versions of scandalous and transgressive words that were never intended to be recorded. These include the gendered language of insult, expressions of social complaint, and verbal challenges to royal authority. Despite problems of mediation, ventriloquism, and scribal processing, of the sort familiar to literary scholars, these archival traces reveal a vigorous vein of plebeian speech, that can be compared to the ‘speeches’ of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Abundant examples illuminate the popular discursive culture of Shakespeare’s age and environment, and suggest the possibility of building towards a new corpus of demotic and non-literary text that can be compared to the language of the plays.


Defamation; Insults; Language; Sedition; Shakespeare

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