'Noble being Base': Heads, Coins and Rebellion in The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1602)

Jenny Emma Sager


This article offers a new reading of the Jacobean play The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1602) by exploring the play’s use of setting, imagery and motif. The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt explores the confrontation between secular and divine authority, and the problems posed through the monarch’s two bodies: the body politic and the body natural. These ideological debates are reflected in the play’s use of language, which seeks to interlink the motifs of heads and coins, through the central setting of the play, the Tower of London. These motifs demonstrate the ability of both the rebel and the monarch to assume the authority of God.  So just as an assayer is able to calculate the worth and value of a coin, in accordance with a certain standard of purity, so the act of execution, or more specifically the act of beheading, demonstrates an individual’s ability to assay the worth and value of a human being, according to a certain standard of loyalty. The protagonists of this play face two systems of evaluation, as their outward form, or stamp, is compared to their intrinsic value.  In this way, the play constantly questions who is the more authentic authority to assay value and meaning: God or the monarch.


early modern drama; Tower of London; economic criticism

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