ABSTRACT

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “conspiracy” thus: “A combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose; an agreement between two or more persons to do something criminal, illegal, or reprehensible (especially in relation to treason, sedition, or murder); a plot.” Although the first citations of the word are from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the phenomenon of conspiracy is as old as (if not older than) recorded history. If we turn to ancient literature, we see that it abounds with examples of conspiracies. II Samuel, for instance, depicts the conspiracy that Absalom and Ahithophel organize to drive King David out of power. Herodotus launches his History with the story of Candaules’ unnamed wife, her lover Gyges, and their plot to kill Candaules, the ruler of Sardis, and assume his rule. Thucydides, in his account of the Peloponnesian War, devotes ample space to the accusations that Alcibiades and his friends conspired to disfigure the Athenian Hermae statues. Cicero’s orations against Cataline detail the conspiracy that Cataline spearheads against the Roman people. And, of course, Suetonius (among many others) explores the most famous ancient conspiracy-that of Gaius Cassius, Marcus, and Decimus Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. Each of these examples conforms to the OED’s definition of “conspiracy.” Similarly, from Chaucer’s time to our own such conspiracies have remained a consistent phenomenon. As one critic notes, “[c]ourt dockets are replete with indictments for various sorts of criminal conspiracy such as bribery, racketeering, price fixing, and drug trafficking. Co-conspirators, indicted and unindicted, are commonplace. The political record also contains major conspiracies”—the most famous of which include the assassinations of leaders like Tsar Alexander II and Archduke Ferdinand, and the coup d’etats of Napoleon III, Mussolini, and Franco (Pipes 20-21). Similarly, literature abounds with conspiracies. One needs only to point to one example-the conspiracy of the Macbeths to kill King Duncan and seize his

throne-to show how common conspiracy narratives (i.e., narratives that depict a genuine conspiracy) are in literature.