William Shakespeare Law and Justice - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 familiar from the medieval English stage; "Jew" was a moral metaphor embodying attributes contradictory to the Christian view of the universe. Shylock is frequently associated with the devil, a characterization derived directly from the medieval drama.23 In his insistence on judgment according to the strict letter of the law, he represents the law of the Old Testament, the lex talonis, as opposed to the New Law of Christian mercy and forgiveness.24 In terms of the human relationships established in the play, Shylock is deserted first by his servant, Launcelot Gobbo, and then by his daughter Jessica. Antonio, in contrast, is consistently depicted as one who lives to benefit others, and for whose welfare others are solicitous. The opening scene of the play reveals a crowd of friends trying to ease his melancholy. He gives friendship easily, and therefore receives it, as most clearly appears in his relation to Bassanio, for whose happiness he enters the bond with Shylock. Bassanio describes him as

[t]he dearest friend to me, the kindest man,
The best-conditioned and unwearied spirit
In doing courtesies, and one in whom
The ancient Roman honor more appears
Than any that draws breath in Italy.


The contrast between Shylock and Antonio is emphasized by their actions within the explicitly commercial atmosphere of Venice. Shylock, a "breeder of barren metal," lends money for interest. Although the law allowed the charging of interest in Elizabethan England, and the government dealt, as all trading nations must, in international money markets,25 popular sentiment retained the medieval Christian bias against making money by money; usury was evil. The usurious and miserly Shylock, the representative of that part of the commercial community that does not know how to use money for the improvement and enjoyment of life, reacts characteristically when Jessica elopes with a Christian, taking some of the family riches with her:

Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot; and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!


Antonio, the merchant of the play's title, uses his wealth for human ends. He has lent much money to Bassanio already, and he gladly lends more: "My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions." (Li. 138-39) His generosity in often saving debtors from Shylock's forfeitures (III.iii.22-23) exacerbates Shylock's hatred:

I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.


Portia, too, we may note in passing, is characterized partly by her attitude toward money and its use. Her liberality with her great wealth in aid of Bassanio and his friends matches that of Antonio.26 A further, otherworldly, dimension of Portia's character, however, contrasts explicitly with the frequent identification of Shylock with the devil and foreshadows Portia's role as the advocate of mercy. This dimension appears in a description given by Jessica in the scene immediately preceding the trial:

(Bassanio) finds the joys of heaven here on earth,
And if on earth he do not merit it,
In reason he should never come to heaven.
Why, if two gods should play some heavenly match
And on the wager lay two earthly women,
And Portia one, there must be something else
Pawned with the other, for the poor rude world
Hath not her fellow.


This too hurried summary has been designed to point out some of the resonances the principal participants in the trial carry with them into their encounter with the legal process. When Shylock repeatedly demands "the law," "justice" and the penalty set forth in his bond, his demand does not spring from that "impartial conduct of the soul," that "truth and upright innocency" that motivated the Lord Chief Justice [in 2 Henry IV]. It is motivated instead by revenge and hatred. A basic similarity exists, however, between Shylock's claim and the Chief Justice's vision of justice, which was both morally "good" and politically expedient. In 2 Henry IV the "course of law" guards the "peace and safety" of the King and through him the entire social order. In The Merchant of Venice the enforcement of Shylock's claim, too, is insistently connected with the order and stability of the commercial state of Venice:

He plies the Duke at morning and at night,
And doth impeach the freedom of the state
If they deny him justice.


Solanio is certain that the Duke will halt the proceedings, but Antonio, the experienced businessman, replies:

The Duke cannot deny the course of law;
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.


Shylock in the trial repeats the connection:

I have possessed your Grace of what I purpose,
And by our holy Sabbath have I sworn
To have the due and forfeit of my bond.
If you deny it, let the danger light
Upon your charter and your city's freedom!


This "freedom" of contract, the "freedom" to bind oneself irrevocably to the performance of certain conditions, forms the foundation of a successful commercial state. Antonio recognizes that "no lawful means" (IV.i.9) can rescue him from Shylock's clutches. The Duke, presumably the chief judicial figure in the state, is unable to prevent execution, and even Portia, once Antonio confesses the bond, admits Shylock's unchallengeable right to execution of the penalty.

That in the end Shylock's plea to political expediency does not prevail, that his downfall does not "impeach the freedom of the state," summarizes the differing roles of law in 2 Henry IV and The Merchant of Venice. The history is above all a political play, a prologue to Shakespeare's celebration of England's political golden age in Henry V. The paramount importance of establishing a legitimate and lasting rule quite predictably finds partial expression in an idealized vision of human justice. As I [have elsewhere] attempted to suggest, however, even in 2 Henry IV Shakespeare could not participate fully in his intellectual ideal; the emotional core of the play rests in the more humane and down-to-earth world of Falstaff and Shallow. The Merchant of Venice is primarily concerned, not with the health of the state, but with the vitality of relationships between individuals that are at once more personal and more universal than the "state." The basis of the social order celebrated at the end of the play is not political and economic stability, but rather human compassion and love derived from divine love, and for which commerce and wealth, as I have suggested, are only metaphors. Unlike Henry's England, the state Shylock invokes is only a commercial city that commands no emotional allegiance. Similarly, Shylock's appeal to law as the mainstay of that state does not compel concern for the integrity of this commercial city; the continuing commercial viability of Venice is vindicated in the trial, but ultimately other issues command the play's intellectual and dramatic energies.

Still, within the play's own terms, Shylock's political self-justification carries weight. Bassanio offers three times the sum named in the bond, or, in the alternative, the forfeiture of his own life, in exchange for that of Antonio:

If this will not suffice, it must appear
That malice bears down truth. And I beseech you,
Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will.
PORTIA: It must not be. There is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
'Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.


The argument, although persuasive through its own internal logic and a familiar one to all lawyers, must fail to convince us, the audience, as it fails to convince all the trial participants except Shylock. Although Shylock's plea is perhaps "just" within its narrow perception of the economic welfare of the state, a wider sense of justice is terribly offended at his crabbed legality. This wider sense of justice takes into account all of those resonances that the trial participants bring with them into the courtroom.

The problem may be rephrased in another manner. To a certain extent the legal system in The Merchant of Venice, the backbone of the commercial life of the city, does exist in isolation from moral concerns. The bond between Antonio and Shylock, the two men of commerce, typifies the entire structure of that commercial world, and the law is, if you will, the cement that gives the structure form and certainty. The play repeatedly recognizes, in the passages quoted above, the validity of a certain type of appeal for the law's protection, and indeed a necessity that the law respond. But the law as interpreted and enforced by the Duke, and the commercial relationship protected by this law, is simply inadequate to deal with the issues presented in the case of Shylock v. Antonio. Even Portia, disguised as a doctor of laws and armed with the advice of the learned Doctor Bellario, cannot find a legal basis to challenge the enforceability of the bond. The Duke has earlier asked, "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'Ring none?" (IV.i.88) and Shylock's response reveals a chasm between technical legality and morality: "What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?" (IV.i.89) In a narrow legal sense, he does no wrong. Measured by a higher law, however, his ruthlessness renders him liable to a judgment more terrible than any human judge can render. Portia's response to the unimpeachable legality of Shylock's claim is the famous plea for mercy, which focuses in the trial the religious and moral themes that have permeated the play. Even this plea acknowledges that the law, as a system of rules by which the state defines itself, must enforce the bond unless mercy, a higher law, moves the plaintiff to relinquish his claim:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this scept'Red sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though Justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.


The law is here equated, as it was in the exchange between the Lord Chief Justice and Henry V, with earthly order and authority. Mercy belongs to an order apart from and above this merely temporal power. It ties human affairs into the New Law, the Christian ideal of grace by which mortals ultimately hope to be judged. But this is a concept that the human law of commercial Venice evidently cannot comprehend. Perhaps there are sufficient practical reasons embedded in the commercial well-being of the state to preserve this human law for administering mundane affairs. Certainly Antonio seems to feel that the Duke's inability to "deny the course of law" is acceptable for the maintenance of the "trade and profit of the city." But as valid as this law may be in the limited sphere of commercial regulation, it is totally inadequate for dealing with this situation. We cannot escape the conviction that this law ought to have built into it some mechanism for recognizing its own limitations.

Portia's solution, of course, is to go the strictly legalistic Shylock one better and apply the principle of strict construction to his bond. Although the law will allow him to exact his penalty, it will hold him to the express words—"a pound of flesh"—he used in formulating it. In a contest of cleverness, Shylock has been outdone. "For, as thou urgest justice, be assured / Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir'st." (IV.i.313-14) Since Shylock has already refused in open court payment of the principal in lieu of the penalty, he cannot now have even this. Moreover, Shylock's preparations to carve up Antonio have rendered him liable under a statute against the attempted slaying of a citizen.27 This, and the strict construction of the bond, are admittedly pieces of legal sophistry, but they negate a threat to justice that should never have been possible in the first place.

The legal tricks by which Portia rescues Antonio and places Shylock under penalty of death are part of the legal system that has proven inadequate to its task so far. But to the extent that they are legal, they are hardly part of the ordinary working of that system. Neither the Duke nor Antonio saw any way the enforcement of the bond could be forestalled; only these bits of legal arcana rescued from oblivion by Bellario could accomplish this. They are delivered, we must remember, by an impostor whose qualifications are not legal, but nearly heavenly. Portia is the foremost of earthly women, who gives Bassanio the "joys of heaven here on earth." (III.v.69) She pronounces the judgment on Shylock that he richly deserves in terms of a higher moral law, and here the touted ideal of Christian mercy has a chance to display itself. Shylock, genuinely guilty, genuinely needs mercy, and it is given him. "That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit, / I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it." (IV.i.366-67) The Duke also remits the half of Shylock's goods that are forfeit to the state under the statute in exchange for a fine. Portia then asks, "What mercy can you render him, Antonio?" Antonio responds with a proposal that Shylock be given the use of all his money until his death, at which time it will all be conveyed by a deed of gift to Jessica and her husband.28 Shylock is in addition forced to become a Christian, an action that may seem singularly unmerciful to modern audiences brought up in an age of comparative religious toleration. But in the terms of the play, and of Elizabethan morality, Antonio is having supreme mercy on Shylock's soul by giving him a chance for salvation denied him as a Jew, by giving him a chance to escape the devil with whom he has been identified. We may note that the legal system is used to institutionalize this dispensation of mercy. Shylock's future use of his property is to be within the framework of legal trusts, and a deed recorded in court is to insure his testamentary beneficence to his Christian daughter and son-in-law. Portia instructs her clerk to draw up the deed, and immediately following the courtroom scene we see the deed about to be delivered for Shylock's signature.

Shylock has attempted to use the law for evil purposes and has nearly succeeded. When an appeal to a higher, divine law fails, human law is turned on its head through a bit of legal sleight-of-hand to dissipate the threat to Antonio. The higher law of mercy is then immediately applied to resolve the problem of how to punish Shylock, and to provide, through a judicious use of legal forms, for the well-being of Jessica and her husband. Human law alone has proven inadequate to the resolution of this particular disorder in the state. But perhaps the deepest insight that The Merchant of Venice offers from a legal standpoint is that human law is not an independent self-administering system that produces "justice" through some mechanical process. It is rather a tool, limited in scope, but powerful within those limits, which can be used by a variety of persons for a variety of ends. These applications of law have moral content measured by the moral character of those who apply it.

Once already in the play Bassanio has recognized this characteristic of the law—that it is a form capable of lending respectability and authority to virtually any substance:

So may the outward shows be least themselves;
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
But being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?

There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts.

(III.ii.73-77, 81-82)

Bassanio has to choose from three caskets—gold, silver, or lead—the one that contains Portia's likeness in order to win her for his wife, and this prompts his discourse on the frequent discrepancy between appearance and reality. This wider theme finds expression in the character of Shylock (cf. I.iii.93-98), in the whole series of scenes in which Portia's suitors choose caskets, and in the disguising of Portia and Nerissa, and the comic business that generates. In the context of the trial scene a variation on this theme yields the view of law we have been examining. Shylock's manipulation of the forms of strict legality nearly perpetrates gross injustice while the guardian and chief judicial authority of the state, the Duke, looks on helplessly. Antonio uses legal forms to confirm a beneficial distribution of wealth wrongfully gotten. And Portia, the representative of that higher order of justice to which human designs must always, in the end, conform, precipitates conformity in the dramatic present and prevents injustice from occurring in this particular comic environment through her use of a bit of legal sophistry. While the commercial laws of Venice have some outward "mark of virtue," the values that Portia represents transcend the commercial world and the law that supports it. They derive from a system of justice infinitely more comprehensive than human legality, but they must manifest themselves in human affairs through an essentially human response to human needs that is patterned after the divine mercy that has redeemed us though "in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation." Although human law has a proper and necessary function in ordering human society, justice cannot be achieved merely through the mechanical application of the forms of that law; justice derives from the operation of a higher law motivating those who use human law.

Measure for Measure

Of all of Shakespeare's plays, Measure for Measure is the most thoroughly legal in its basic framework and in its concerns. The plot hinges on the sudden revivification, after a lapse of nineteen years, of a law imposing the death penalty on persons convicted of fornication. The sexual offense symbolizes all human imperfection and the particular law to be enforced exemplifies the legal system's all too frequent tendency to over-react in dealing with the constant fact of human imperfection. The play contains many perplexities, some of which may stem from textual imperfection, and it has occasioned much perceptive scholarly debate.29

As was the case with The Merchant of Venice, the legal issues are intricately woven into the entire fabric of the play, so that to separate them necessarily distorts the work. Several themes familiar from The Merchant of Venice reappear. We confront once more the problems of the need for consistency in the law, the role of mercy, and the possibility for humanizing influences in the application of the law. In a sense the play places characters whose concepts of the legal system are as crabbed and distorted as Shylock's in the judge's seat, and dramatizes the learning process that was imposed on Shylock by fiat at the end of the trial scene. While there are similarities between the two plays, Measure for Measure deals with two legal issues in more detail than did The Merchant of Venice: the nature and competence of the law as an institution and the nature of the judge-figure.

A statute imposing the death penalty for fornication may seem absurd to modern audiences,30 but both historical data and intrinsic evidence support the possibility, if not the reasonableness, of the legal situation that obtains in Vienna at the beginning of the play. The control of sexual conduct by civil authority provided a subject for continuing debate in Elizabethan times, and from at least 1550 the Puritan faction of the Anglican church had been advocating the death penalty for fornication and adultery. In fact, in 1650, the Puritan government of the Commonwealth actually put such a law on the books. Before that, the only sexual crimes classified as capital offenses were rape, buggery, and carnal abuse of a female under ten years of age. Other sexual offenses were punished by the Ecclesiastical Courts, usually with fines or public penance.31 When we find young Claudio sentenced to death for impregnating Juliet, we should be aware, as Shakespeare's audience was, that while Claudio's offense was not capital under Elizabethan law, amendment was certainly not unthinkable.

With this background in mind, we may more fruitfully examine the opening legal situation. The play opens as the Duke relinquishes for an indefinite period his control over Vienna to Angelo, an inexperienced young man of, apparently, scrupulously moral character. Old Lord Escalus, appointed second in command, vouches for Angelo's fitness for the office. (I.i.22-24) The power transferred by the Duke seems unlimited:

For you must know, we have with special soul
Elected him our absence to supply,
Lent him our terror, dressed him with our love,
And given his deputation all the organs
Of our own power.


Hold therefore, Angelo:
In our remove be thou at full ourself.
Mortality and mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue and heart.


Your scope is as mine own,
So to enforce or qualify the laws
As to your soul seems good.


Terror—love, mortality—mercy, enforce—qualify: these oppositions suggest a balancing process, a mediation between opposing forces, an avoidance of extremes. To them may be added tongue—heart, a distinction that proves crucial as the play progresses. Angelo is instructed to balance these contending forces "as to [his] soul seems good,"—not to his reason, or to his judgment, but to his soul, an explicit indication that there is a moral dimension in the conduct of government that necessarily derives from the essential nature of the governor. This is not a new concept for Shakespeare; we have met it already in the Lord Chief Justice's assertion that his judgment was guided by the "impartial conduct of [his] soul." (2 Henry IV, V.ii.36)

The Duke, as it turns out, has been concerned that the laws of Vienna have not been enforced:

. . . so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.


He has turned the government over to Angelo at least in part to reestablish the strict rule of law without himself seeming tyrannous or arbitrary. Angelo chooses to revive the long-dormant law against fornication, and to condemn Claudio to death as an example to all of the law's new strictness. But the statute cannot justly be applied to Claudio, if indeed it can be applied justly at all. He and Juliet have entered into a marriage contract that both the church and the state in Elizabethan England recognized as binding, and their marriage lacks only the transfer of the dowry and a final public confirmation to be fully effective. While Claudio is technically guilty of a violation, both Elizabethan custom and the position of one side in the church's continuing dispute about the status of a contracted marriage seem to have sanctioned his enjoyment of the physical pleasures of marriage.32 In the source for Measure for Measure, Claudio's counterpart commits rape. Shakespeare has clearly chosen to mitigate the circumstances of his crime as much as possible while leaving it subject to the letter of the statute.

Regardless of the realistic Elizabethan status of Claudio's offenses, several characters in the play express an opinion about his offense, and the comments cover the spectrum. Claudio's sister, the saintly Isabella, who is preparing to enter an exceedingly strict convent, reacts with moralistic self-righteousness: "[it] is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice." (II.ii.29-30) Lucio, the resident rake, flippantly calls it "a game of tick-tack" (I.ii.185), and it is "[g]roping for trouts in a peculiar river" (I.ii.86) to Pompey the bawd. Each of these views is a bit partisan, but the judgment of the Provost (jailor), who is consistently depicted as wholly admirable, humane, and clear-headed, seems to strike the proper balance: "a young man / More fit to do another such offense / Than die for this." (II.iii.13-15)33

The play is not, however, neutral on the issue of sexual incontinence. The Duke frequently expresses concern about the effects of sexual license. (See, for instance, II.iii; II.iv.26-34; III.i.17-41; and III.i.94.) The law, while unwisely applied in this particular case, and unreasonably harsh as a general matter, does represent a serious attempt to deal with a serious problem. Were this not the case, Claudio's initial acceptance of a certain justice in his condemnation (I.ii.118-19), Isabella's acceptance of his supposed execution in the final scene (V.i.444-45), and the vacillation of Escalus, who recognizes both the injustice of Claudio's conviction and a certain necessity for strict enforcement of the law (see II.i.4-16; II.i.64; III.ii.234-38), would be themselves absurd. Claudio's eventual deliverance would become no more than the most elementary and obvious justice, and Isabella's agony over whether to sacrifice her chastity in return for her brother's life would be empty puffing about a non-issue. Clearly chastity, or at least a reasonable control of the sexual drive, is valued highly, and the harsh law Angelo chooses to enforce is an extreme manifestation of a legitimate concern.

In a slightly different sense, however, Angelo's law is "absurd" in that in essence it punishes people for being human and for having fundamental human drives. The several overtly comic scenes involving Lucio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone, the bawdy-house keeper, make it clear that thorough enforcement of such a law would depopulate the city in short order. This exchange between Pompey and Escalus puts the issue most succinctly:

PMPEY: Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow that would live.

ECALUS: How would you live, Pompey? By being a bawd? What do you think of the trade, Pompey? Is it a lawful trade?

POMPEY: If the law would allow it, sir.

ESCALUS: But the law will not allow it, Pompey; nor it shall not be allowed in Vienna.

POMPEY: Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?

ESCALUS: No, Pompey.

POMPEY: Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to'T then. If your worship will take order for the drabs and the knaves, you need not to fear the bawds.

ESCALUS: There is pretty orders beginning, I can tell you; it is but heading and hanging.

POMPEY: If you head and hang all that offend that way but for ten year together, you'Ll be glad to give out a commission for more heads. If this law hold in Vienna ten year, I'Ll rent the fairest house in it after three-pence a bay; if you live to see this come to pass, say Pompey told you so.


Pompey is right, and at the core of the problems of government the play explores will be the dilemma of establishing a livable relation between elemental human nature and a society ordered by law. That the law takes upon itself to forbid something does not by any means settle the question. Severely repressive law, although usually "absurd" in this sense, and usually doomed to failure as is Angelo's law, is a familiar phenomenon, and there have been periods in our legal history characterized by a similarly strict theory of criminal law.34 Shakespeare gives us, in essence, a plausible laboratory test of this type of law being administered at the farthest reach of its technical scope. This particular law deals with an element so basic to human character that all levels and types of characters can be vitally involved in the resolution of the issue. The testing is all the more interesting because of the nature of the judge who is also being tested.

As Angelo takes over the rule of Vienna, we know only that he seems virtuous and that his ability to govern is untested. (I.i.47-50) In I.ii Claudio's arrest is reported first in comic terms that deflate the solemnity of the passage of the reins of government in the preceding scene; the net effect so far has been to arrest a man for "groping for trouts," and to order all bawdy houses to be shut down, except for those in the city proper, which have been spared by the intervention of an influential businessman. (I.ii.82-100) So much for the initial wielding of "mortality and mercy in Vienna." The tone changes quickly, however, with the appearance of Claudio being led to prison as a public spectacle. (I.ii. 112-15) However comic the situation may appear in the abstract, Claudio is in grave jeopardy of losing his life, and Angelo's experiment in law enforcement raises serious questions about his ability to govern:

And the new deputy now for the Duke—
Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,
Or whether that the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets it straight feel the spur;
Whether the tyranny be in his place,
Or in his eminence that fills it up,
I stagger in—but this new governor
Awakes me all the enrolled penalties
Which have,...

(The entire section is 13820 words.)

Law In Comedy And Romance: Trials, Marriage, And Merciful Justice

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 37163 words.)

Law In The Histories: Property And Succession

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5643 words.)

King Lear: Divine Judgment And Natural Law

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 19912 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 626 words.)