Shakespeare made extensive use of legal terms, ideas, and procedures in his drama. This course will examine the connections between Shakespeare and the law in two broad ways. First, we will look at how law and legal reasoning contributed to Shakespeare’s construction of drama, including his famed creation of vivid, life-like characters. We will explore how legal notions of intention, suspicion, and inference informed the “inwardness” or “interiority” of Shakespeare’s characters. Second, the course will explore the interrelationships between language, law, and power. The much-debated relationship between the crown and the law (rex v lex) was a central focus of Shakespeare’s history plays. We will examine the intersection of law and power politics in 2 Henry VI, a play famous for the rebel cry: “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers”. The line speaks to deep social grievances concerning the role and nature of law, the place of the commons, and the nature of authority. Students will examine important texts in the early modern understanding of kingship and authority, including case law, legal theory, and Elizabethan political theology. We will also examine Shakespeare’s treatment of the legal trial, the criteria for interpretation and judgement, and the connection between trial jury and theatre audience.
The course will examine: early modern law; early modern drama, including genre, dramaturgy, and dramatic character; early modern theatrical practice; early modern history; and the critical tradition.
The purpose of this course is to improve students’ skills of literary and legal analysis while introducing them to Shakespeare’s dramatic works. The course is designed to heighten understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s language as well as to encourage students to grapple with challenging questions of textual interpretation. It will introduce students to a long tradition of legal scholars and philosophers who have drawn on Shakespeare’s work. It will also ask encourage students to think of Shakespeare as a legal thinker who raises questions of interpretation and judgement that go to the heart of both the legal and literary disciplines.
- Describe and explain elements of the history and development of English law from c.1500-c.1640, including the development of the common law, and the origins and structure of institutions of legal education and training.
- Describe and discuss major works of Shakespearean drama, in their social and historical context.
- Demonstrate an awareness of the ways in which elements of language and rhetoric are shared between the fields of law and literature, and the ways in which these two fields may influence one another.
- Use relevant information about early modern legal practices and institutions, and about literary genre and form, to examine critically the discourses of power, authority and the rule of law contained in both legal and literary works of the period.
We will meet once a week for three hours. The class will be made up of formal lectures, group work, and class discussions. Each week different students will present a short discussion paper on a particular aspect of a play / legal text.
Attendance and Participation 10%
Oral Presentation 15%
Mid-term essay 25%
Final essay 50%
Shakespeare plays, including 2 Henry VI, and early modern legal texts. Exact details to be confirmed closer to the time.