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.