The tyrannous and bloody act is done,
The most arch deed of piteous massacre
That ever yet this land was guilty of.
Dighton and Forrest, who I did suborn
To do this piece of ruthless butchery.Richard III IV.iii.1–5
The criminal act of “suborning perjury” now frequently appears in headlines, and it probably won’t be disappearing soon. The verb “suborn,” however, hasn’t become any more familiar to my eye. It’s still Latinate legalese, no more colloquial than sua sponte.
I recently came across the Shakespeare passage above, and it caught my attention because it’s not perjury being suborned, but “ruthless butchery.” Can we suborn any kind of crime, or even other non-criminal acts? Time to put some of those lexicographical muscles to work.
My first hunch was that “suborn” had something to do with “ornamenting” or “dressing up” misleading language—the Latin verb ornare is a buzzword of ancient rhetorical theorists in discussions of decorating speech with literary figures appropriate to its content. But this chiefly rhetorical understanding of “ornamentation” didn’t quite make sense for something like “ruthless butchery.” On top of that problem, here Shakespeare suborns people (“who”), not actions. Rather than “decorate,” he “incites” or even “commands” when he suborns.
Turning to the classical period, this notion of suborning a person (rather than an action) dominates among Roman authors. Early Latin examples suggest an original meaning removed from the strictly legal context we use today, and it means something more like “to equip” or “to supply” a person with an instrument. In one Ciceronian speech (Phil. 13.32), we find pecunia Brutum subornastis (“You supplied Brutus with money”), and in one of Seneca’s Epistulae Morales (24.5), he writes of a homo non eruditus nec ullis praeceptis contra mortem aut dolorem subornatus (“a man neither learned nor supplied with any teachings to defend against death and pain”).
Sometimes, we might supply a person not with “money” or “teachings” but instead with an actual “ornament.” I like one example from Petronius (36.2), where we find a leporem … pinnis subornatus—a “rabbit decked out with feathers”—at Trimalchio’s feast. (ut Pegasus videretur, he continues. This avian bunny is supposed to look like Pegasus, apparently?) To ornament a person or a thing, of course, might verge into deception. Just as one suborns a rabbit with a feathery costume, one might suborn a person with a disguise, and this deceitful kind of “ornamenting,” it seems, draws us closer to our English criminal idiom.
Even Cicero, who writes well before Petronius, uses subornare to denote this sort of “dressing up” a person for the purposes of deception: he accuses someone of having “suborned a false witness” (Falsum subornavit testem Roscius, Q. Rosc. 51). But it’s still not exactly suborning the perjury itself, but instead suborning (“gussying up”? “preparing”?) a person to provide it.
The OED reports that this original, ancient meaning of disguising or preparing a person in order to commit criminal acts persists even in contemporary culinary writing. One can dress up a false witness (falsus testis) in the garb of truth-telling, and perhaps Shakespeare could disguise murderers with a smile before committing “ruthless butchery.” (In that sense, one might suborn an assassin or an Iago but not, say, a Michael Myers.) To “suborn” isn’t just to “recruit,” but maybe something like “to clothe in disarming kindness” or “to bedeck with false innocence.”
In a way, then, our contemporary formula of “suborning perjury” reminds me of the ill-chosen vagueness in the passive voice: “mistakes were made,” “the victim was shot.” Who are the actors? Who agreed to butcher? Which witness agreed to lie? Viewed through that grammatical lens, our current idiom for suborning an act rather than a person elides the crime’s conspiratorial dimension. As the Bard would remind us, your dirty work doesn’t just “get suborned.” You have to find someone to do it.