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Abstract

Prison scenes and references to incarceration are ubiquitous in early modern drama, ranging from the Counter-scene in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of his Humour, to Hamlet’s famous statement that ‘Denmark’s a prison’. This article considers the reason for the early modern obsession with incarceration, providing a survey of the influence of contemporary prison legislation and conditions on city comedies; the use of chronicles and martyrologies in the writing of history plays; and the linguistic traces of prison literature and literary tropes of imprisonment. In doing so, it demonstrates that many of the recurring features in those plays deemed to be influenced by contemporary London prisons – including the representation of the prison as corrupt and variable in its administration, as unjust or lacking in power – have analogues in earlier literary and historical works.