Treasonous Silence: The Tragedy of Philotas and Legal Epistemology [with illustrations]


  • This essay benefited from generous audiences at the University of Tulsa, Farleigh Dickinson University, the University of North Texas, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and meetings of the Renaissance Society of America and the Shakespeare Association of America. I thank the Department of English at the University of North Texas for covering the cost of reproducing images from rare books held at the British Library and the Glasgow University Library.


Since the nineteenth century, Samuel Daniel's play, The Tragedy of Philotas (1605), has been read almost exclusively in the context of the Essex affair. This essay insists on the interpretive limitations of this context, especially its inability to account for the specific type of treason Philotas commits. Philotas is convicted of treason not for an action or an utterance, but for his silence. He fails to pass on crucial information concerning a plot to murder Alexander, for which he becomes implicated in the conspiracy. While this has little to do with Essex's openly displayed act of rebellion, it does speak to a much larger legal-epistemological crux in Renaissance England: the problem of how to identify and prosecute a crime that could be committed in a conceptual space prior to action and prior to language, a problem that I term “treasonous silence.” (K. C.)