Law and Justice
Law and Justice
The intertwined concerns of human law and providential justice figure prominently in Shakespeare's dramas, regardless of genre, and have elicited considerable critical commentary in the late twentieth century. Legal conflict frequently appears in the comedies, romances, and problem plays, often leading to formal or mock trials of thematic significance. The use and abuse of law also abounds in the histories, and emerges in the tragedies, where the transcendental forces of justice dictate the outcome of human disputes. Overall, the sheer weight and diversity of legal terminology in Shakespeare's works has resulted in multiple lines of scholarly research on the topic. Commentators have considered allusions to the contractual obligations of marriage in the comedies; to the legalities of property, authority, and succession in the histories; and to the fallibility of worldly judgment in the problem plays and tragedies. This last subject, critics note, has tended to summarize Shakespeare's principal interest in human law as a flawed reflection of divine justice, which may only be redeemed when tempered with mercy.
Trials provide the centerpiece of any discussion of law in Shakespeare's dramas. This is no more apparent than in The Merchant of Venice, a work frequently cited by critics for its legal implications. Particular interest has tended to center on Antonio's trial, prompted as it is by Shylock's vengeful demand for a pound of flesh in exchange for the merchant's unpaid debt. In discussing the play, many critics have emphasized the legal acumen of (in the guise of the male law clerk, Balthasar) and the dynamics of courtroom persuasion featured in her often-quoted mercy and justice speech. Jay L. Halio (1993) represents such commentators, who laud Shakespeare's skillful dramaturgical use of the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice to demonstrate the theme of vengeance thwarted and justice achieved through mercy. Daniel Kornstein (1993) offers a complementary view of the play, seeing The Merchant of Venice as a legal parable that hinges on the subject of rigid versus flexible interpretations of law. Stephen A. Cohen (1994) considers the cultural contexts of this drama by focusing on the ideological threat that Shylock, as an outsider, presents to the aristocratic authority of Venice and by studying the use of law as a tool of social oppression.
Other formal and quasi-trials are represented elsewhere in the comedies, romances, and problem plays. Measure for Measure, among the problem plays, offers a legal framework and, according to John D. Eure (1975), expresses Shakespeare's statement on the limitations and competence of law. Employing an abstruse edict that invokes the death penalty for fornication, Measure for Measure dramatizes the folly of legal systems that seek to adjudicate human imperfections. The formal trial of Hermione in Act III of The Winter's Tale represents a similar treatment of the legal motif in Shakespearean drama. David M. Bergeron (1984) argues that the trial highlights the forces of irrationality, jealousy, and caprice that operate in any practical system of laws, and which may align to hinder justice.
While several of the darker implications of the law raised by the comedies and problem plays are resolved in some fashion within these dramas, Shakespeare's histories and tragedies offer a more critical vision of worldly justice. The question of legitimate authority and legal succession lie at the heart of most of the histories, which tend to display brutal miscarriages of justice and bold abuses of law. The plays of the Henriad contain numerous examples, as does Richard III, a drama that William C. (1992) claims encapsulates the relationship between law, succession, ritual, and hypocrisy. Carroll examines Richard's murderous violation of Natural Law in his attempt to win succession to the English throne. Obeying "the form of law" in word but not action, Richard demonstrates the susceptibility of legal authority to betrayal and treachery.
Critics have also noted that transgressions of Natural Law and their consequences are well-illustrated in the tragedies, principally King Lear. Janet M. Green (1995) views King Lear as both Shakespeare's recapitulation of the faults of the Jacobean legal system and his evocation of divine justice in the mode of Christian Last Judgment. Similarly, R. S. White (1996) provides a detailed study of the dramatic encounter between Natural Law and the corruption of worldly authority in King Lear. Among the other plays featuring similar themes, Hamlet and Macbeth generally draw the attention of critics interested in the interplay of justice, revenge, and the dynamics of violent political succession.
John D. Eure (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Legal Process: Four Essays," in Virginia Law Review, Vol. 61, No. 2, March, 1975, pp. 402-33.
[In the following excerpt, Eure surveys themes of justice and law in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, and King Lear.]
The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is the one Shakespearean play that, for better or worse, has come to the attention of nearly every lawyer, and especially every lawyer who writes about Shakespeare and the law.22 In dealing with the familiar plot of this play, lawyers have understandably tended to emphasize that portion revolving around the trial of Antonio. This selective emphasis has caused most lawyer-critics, I think, to misinterpret the role of law in the play. It is perfectly valid to concentrate on the play's legal aspect, but in order to appraise it clearly, one must read the legal values expressed in terms of the larger scheme of the play.
Before examining the trial, it will be useful to look briefly at the contrasting characterizations of Shylock and Antonio. To a twentieth century audience, the insistence on Shylock's Jewishness is extremely unsettling, and may make the play unperformable in the terms in which Shakespeare wrote it. The Elizabethans, however, saw in Shylock a type of grotesque...
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Law In Comedy And Romance: Trials, Marriage, And Merciful Justice
David M. Bergeron (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Hermione's Trial in 'The Winter's Tale'," in Essays in Theatre, Vol. 3, No. 1, November, 1984, pp. 3-12.
[In the following essay, Bergeron argues that Hermione's trial in The Winter's Tale reflects a triumph of rationality over passion.]
When Leontes and the others gather in the final scene of The Winter's Tale before the statue of Hermione, Paulina instructs them:
It is requir'd
You do awake your faith. Then all stand still:
Or—those that think it is unlawful business
I am about, let them depart.
In a moment the music sounds and the statue moves. Puzzling, perhaps, is Paulina's word "unlawful". Robert Uphaus has argued that this word is appropriate because The Winter's Tale creates much "unlawful business;" it is "Shakespeare's most defiant romance."2 The play continually violates our expectations. The most explicit example of defiance comes in Hermione's trial in Act III, a scene that in many ways is the obverse of the play's final restoration scene. The actual trial in Act III counters the trial of faith in the last scene, each producing its own special sense of wonder and the unexpected. My focus will be on Hermione's defense of herself in the trial,...
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Law In The Histories: Property And Succession
W. F. Bolton (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Ricardian Law Reports and Richard II," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. XX, 1988, pp. 53-65.
[In the following essay, Bolton considers the place of property law in Richard IL]
The events in Richard II took place in 1398 and 1399. Just about two centuries later, Shakespeare wrote his play. Two hundred years after that, Shakespeare's editor Edmund Malone surmised that Shakespeare had undergone legal training, for even Malone—a practicing lawyer—needed to "brush up his black-letter law," as he put it, to understand some of Shakespeare's allusions.1 Now, another two centuries along, we too can best understand some of the allusions in Richard II if we look at the old law books. They enable us to place the trial by combat in its correct context, to grasp some other legalisms scattered in the play, and to trace a central legal motif of plot and metaphor.
The black-letter law books included not only the legal documents of Shakespeare's own day, but also the sixteenth-century editions of medieval law reports, called Year Books.2 The Year Books report proceedings before the King's Bench and the Court of Common Pleas. The manuscript reports were kept from about 1278 until 1535, and published from about 1483. Among those who took an...
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King Lear: Divine Judgment And Natural Law
Janet M. Green (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: "Earthly Doom and Heavenly Thunder: Judgement in King Lear," in University of Dayton Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 63-71.
[In the following essay, Green discusses the workings of legal and divine judgment in King Lear.]
In King Lear (1605-1606) Shakespeare refers to the law and to judgment, both secular and divine, again and again, heightening the pressure and force of the tragic outcome. The repeated legal situations, rather than offering hope of a fair judicial decision or a merciful reprieve, intensify and mirror the characters' experiences of heavenly wrath, human cruelty, and hopeless pain.
It is illuminating to recapitulate as much as possible the ways in which Shakespeare's audience might have perceived these situations, concentrating on what Shakespeare might reasonably have expected the ordinary playgoer to know and understand. Almost certainly this ordinary playgoer had not read all the contemporary materials which modern critics have perused—nor, one suspects, had Shakespeare—yet we can posit a certain community of knowledge of some legal situations and terms that occur and re-occur in Lear. These can be grouped under two kinds of judgment: secular doom and divine thunder—Jacobean law courts and the Christian Last Judgment.1
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Anderson, Linda. A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare's Comedies. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987, 195 p.
Explores the subject of justifiable revenge for "wrongs there is no law to remedy" in Shakespearean comedy.
Boris, Edna Zwick. Shakespeare 's English Kings, the People, and the Law: A Study in the Relationship between the Tudor Constitution and the English History Plays. Cranbury, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 1978, 261 p.
Investigates late sixteenth-century English constitutional law as it applies to Shakespeare's two historical tetralogies and King John.
Buckley, G. T. "Was Edmund Guilty of Capital Treason?" Shakespeare Quarterly 23, No. 1 (Winter 1972): 87-94.
Suggests that King Lear's Edmund may not have been guilty of the charges of high treason brought by Albany, according to English common law.
Carroll, William C. " 'The Form of Law': Ritual and Succession in Richard III." In True Rites and Maimed Rites:. Titual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, edited by Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, pp. 203-19. University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Explores Richard Ill's transgression of the "form of law" in his...
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