Jacobean Tragedy and "Civil Disobedience": Thoreau's Bedfellows

Alicia Young '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Henry David Thoreau's "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" argues against a government that restricts its citizens, suggesting that the people of Massachusetts would be better off without a government than with a restrictive one. Poetic quotations punctuate the essay strategic points, always standing separately but relevantly next to Thoreau's arguments.

The first quotation comes from Charle Wolfe's (1791-1823) poem "The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna":

Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts--a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment, though it may be,

"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where out hero was buried." [p. 2]

Thoreau refers next to Shakespeare's King John, when the Cardinal Pandolf tries to persuade Louis the Dauphin not to attack Rome. Louis refuses to submit, saying that he is no other man's tool (Act V, Scene ii):

A very few--as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men--serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be "clay," and "stop a hole to keep the wind away," but leave that office to his dust at least:

"I am too high born to be propertied, To be a second at control, Or useful serving-man and instrument To any sovereign state throughout the world." [p. 2]

Another verse comes from Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy(1607), a play where the Duke's son attempts to rape a virtuous woman, and the woman's death prompts her betrothed to swear revenge on the Duke's family:

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.

In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does anyone think that Massachusetts does exactly what is right at the present crisis?

"A drab of stat, a cloth-o'-silver slut, To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the dirt." [p.3]

The final quotation comes from the second act of George Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (1594), yet another Jacobean tragedy:

I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State governments, and the spirit of the people to discover a pretext for conformity.

"We must affect our country as our parents, And if at any time we alienate Out love or industry from doing it honor, We must respect effects and teach the soul Matter of conscience and religion, And not desire of rule or benefit." [p. 10]


1. How do these verse quotations add or detract from Thoreau's argument? What do they do for his rhetorical style?

2. Thoreau's contemporary readers would have been familiar with the tragedies written during King James I's rule. What kinds of associations would Thoreau's readers make with that period in history? How would those associations apply to the situation in Massachusetts that Thoreau attacks?

3. How does Thoreau's use of quotations differ from Michel de Montaigne's? How does it differ from Samuel Johnson's?

4. The first three quotations appear within the first three pages of the text, but the fourth does not show up until the tenth page. Why do you think Thoreau spaced the quotations in this manner? What does he accomplish in doing so?

5. Do you think Thoreau's use of verse quotations would be more or less effective in a speech as opposed to a written essay?

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Last modified 21 March 2005