Select your language

William Shakespeare

Last modified 26. September 2022

“I have been a truant in the law” (Henry VI, Part 1, 2.4.7)

As the most influential text in the English language, Shakespeare’s works have been a staple for the law and literature movement since its early beginnings. Law and justice are major themes in many of the plays and their dramatisation ranges from kings’ incompetence to civil ethics. Given the range of the plays, there is no monolithic idea of ‘the law’ that Shakespeare worked with but the potential conflict between law and justice finds itself in more plays than one. Accordingly, Shakespeare has been regarded a useful instrument in law schools all over this world since the early 20th century and the literary side of the law and literature movement has produced innumerable works on ‘the law’ in Shakespeare. Particular favourites in such discussions are quite obviously the early comedy The Merchant of Venice (1596–1597) and the later problem play Measure for Measure (1603–1604). However, both plays foreground not the power of law, but the uses of law to maintain or abuse power. Thus, most discussions of Shakespeare and the law both within the law and literature movement and beyond it are – initially or eventually – also inevitably discussions of politics, power and power politics. Machiavelli’s influence on Shakespeare has long been acknowledged and Machiavelli’s arbitrary position towards a rule of law is infamous, if not proverbial. Thus, there can be a great divide between law and justice in Shakespeare, but the ambiguity of plots and plays rarely presents a ‘view’ to be deciphered by the critic. This discussion of Shakespeare’s immanent importance for the field of law and literature therefore offers no ‘solution’ or general introduction of ‘the law’ in Shakespeare, but offers merely a myriad of ways in which the plays constitute seemingly inexhaustible groundwork for the field.

1. History

The history plays shape Shakespeare’s career significantly in its first decade and characterise much of what is often considered to be the ‘early’ Shakespeare. Dramatising the Wars of the Roses in the early 1590s, Shakespeare presents a world of royal succession out of order. In these plays, natural law is implicitly scrutinised as from the Henry VI plays to the second part of Henry IV, the right to rule is arbitrary and almost follows the principle of first come, first served. Less interested in historical accuracy than successful theatre, Shakespeare pits the Houses of York and Lancaster against each other in almost equal measure, making it increasingly difficult for a contemporary audience or a modern critic to decide with whom to side. The three parts of Henry VI and the subsequent Richard III especially portray a number of noblemen driven by Machiavellian might-makes-right policy and the dialogical nature of the drama that juxtaposes opposition leaves little room to decide who is right:

If that be right which Warwick says is right,
There is no wrong but everything is right. (Henry VI, Part 3, 2.2.131/132)

The charge is indicative of the moral muddle and sophistry of the history plays in which the rule of law is only established to be overthrown. Seemingly anticipating Hobbes’s idea of a state of nature as a state of war, the plays show the chaos, anarchy, destruction and despair of civil war. As both Houses strive for power, almost all plays display the ancient proverb inter arma silent leges and what Nicholas Grene has described as an endless “cycle of violence” (Grene 2002, 92). Laws are but matters of interpretation, human nature seemingly incapable of natural justice. Thus, Machiavelli’s realpolitik looms large: “By demythologizing nature, Machiavelli implied that our ideas of social justice, far from being universal and incontestable, are in fact arbitrary.” (Wells 2009, 175). It is the absence of the law that reigns in these plays as characters such as York and Richard III proclaim themselves ‘Machiavels’ and civil disobedience takes over:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. (Henry VI, Part 2, 4.2.71)

Until the end of Richard III (1592 – 1593), Shakespeare gives free reign to the absence of law and its consequences, juxtaposing opposing views on stage that leave no indication as to whose claim to the throne is legitimate and only the lifeless Earl of Richmond, future Henry VII, establishes law and order when he overcomes the most famous Machiavellian villain, Richard III. As one “rais’d in blood” and “in blood establish’d” (Richard III, 5.3.247), Richard is the last of Shakespeare’s noblemen who has ruthlessly and violently seized the throne and the character has long been regarded as an embodiment of the “ultimate collapse of civil society” (Jones 1977, 188). Almost “conventionally Machiavellian” (Roe 2002, 83), Richard forms the epitome of unjust and unconscionable rule: “conscience is but a word that cowards use” (Richard III, 5.3.309). More easily definable as a usurper than any other Shakespearean character, perhaps, Richard demonstrates in his play “the tyranny of a single voice” (Watt 2009, 199).

Only approximately three years later, Shakespeare uses a similar scenario in Richard II (1595), but posits the contrast between Richard II and Bolingbroke such that it has been impossible to decide who is the rightful ruler, who has the law on his side. This dramatic ambiguity has been proverbial in Shakespeare criticism at least since Norman Rabkin’s famous Shakespeare and the Common Understanding: “Always the dramatic structure sets up the opposed elements as equally valid, equally desirable, and equally destructive, so that the choice that the play forces the reader to make becomes impossible.” (Rabkin 1967, 12). While the wars of the early history plays at least emphasise the importance of law and justice through the absence of law and justice, any discussion of ‘the law’ in Shakespeare becomes increasingly more difficult as the plays set up contrasts that weigh in equal balance that right and wrong are much more flexible notions than one might wish: “It is in the very nature of such debate-plays to resist attempts to reduce them to a definitive meaning.” (Wells 2009, 189). Richard II is one of the earliest examples of such a debate-play that has left Shakespeare criticism wondering, “Who Deposed Richard II?” (French 1967).

The vast difference between the march to power in the early histories in contrast to Bolingbroke’s succession is easily perceptible in a significant turn in ‘political’ strategy. Yorkist power play – “By words or blows here let us win our right” (Henry VI, Part 3, 1.1.37) – seems archaic next to Bolingbroke’s sober appeal:

I am a subject
And I challenge law. Attorneys are denied me,
And therefore personally I lay my claim
To my inheritance of free descent. (Richard II, 2.3.133–136)

Accordingly, Bolingbroke’s proclaimed adherence to the spirit, if not the letter, of the law has left a majority of critics with the impression that he is not unjustified in his aggression against Richard as a ruler, whose “disregard of a subject’s right under the law” (Hamilton 1983, 15) makes him more vulnerable than any other of his political blunders. In fact, his incompetence in the law seems to foster the impression of the rightfulness of Bolingbroke’s aggression, for now it is Richard himself who has “furnished his subject with a precedent for side-stepping the law” (Hamilton 1983, 15). Analogous to Shakespeare’s dramatic ambiguity, it is equally impossible to tell whether criticism’s tendency to side with Bolingbroke is perhaps motivated by the reassurance of the law – especially in contrast to the lawlessness in the earlier history plays. Bolingbroke’s ascent to power is in any case not accompanied by war or violence, leaving the character notably less reprehensible in the eyes of most critics (see Rackin 1990, 68; Manheim 1973, 74; Winny 1968, 152). Moreover, the rebels’ attempts to rekindle civil war in both Henry IV plays – “Let order die!” (Henry IV, Part 2, 1.1.154) – makes for good theatre, but leaves no doubt that Bolingbroke is a capable ruler, so the rebellion is easily quenched and the rule of law never seriously threatened.

Given that the history plays indulge in the dramatic power of violence on stage, it is perhaps not surprising that they feature much less in law and literature research than other Shakespeare plays. They are noted for the absence of law and order, for “lawlessness achieving the apotheosis in civil war” (Berry 1975, 50). At the same time, they seem to express what Mark Fortier has recently called a deep “fear of lawlessness” (Fortier 2022, 14) embedded in many of Shakespeare’s plays. At the heart of these changes of power and the arbitrary right to rule that characterises much of the histories lies the question of the Divine Right of Kings, which made the plays politically charged even during the reign of Elizabeth I. As is well-known, she reacted strongly to Richard II, a play supposedly staged on the evening of the Essex rebellion in 1601 in order to suggest that the right to rule does not derive from the Grace of God, but lies in political capability. Her comment ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’ shows how much is at stake on the stage in the historical moment, as Bolingbroke’s politics overcome Richard’s divine right. However, as the play leaves the question who is right or just eventually unanswered due to Shakespeare’s ambidextrous handling of the plot, it seems to have failed as support for the Essex rebellion:

At the time, playwright, actors, and theatre emerged surprisingly unscathed. As the coup was unsuccessful, this might imply that the drama was not considered effectual – or it could mean that those who requested it to be performed were not aware of the different ways in which it could be ‘read’ by the audience. (Bolam 2002, 145)

The question of rightful succession looms large throughout the sixteenth century in England not just since Henry VIII’s difficulties to produce an heir and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, plunging the country into a conflict between the newly founded Anglican Church and Rome for decades. Therefore, it is possibly not surprising that almost all of the history plays circle around the question of legitimate rule and leave it mostly unanswered. While Bolingbroke’s ‘secular’ politics, sometimes referred to by critics as ‘Machiavellianism’, wins over Richard’s insistence that he is divinely placed, the subsequent plays 1Henry IV and 2Henry IV nevertheless portray a ruler who is at heart fundamentally unsure of the rightfulness of his position: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care” (1H4, 1.1.1) is Henry’s opening line in the eponymous plays. His position throughout both plays is presented as precarious, giving birth to one of his most famous lines at the end of part 2, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” (2H4, 3.1.31). Approximately two years later, Shakespeare again refers to the possible illegitimacy of Henry’s reign in what is arguably his last history play, Henry V, in 1599. In the small hours of the morning before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V pleads, “Not today, O Lord, | O not today, think not upon the fault | My father made in compassing the crown” (H5, 4.1.289–291), presumably confirming finally that Henry IV had no right to rule against a divinely anointed king such as Richard. Yet, since each play is a work of art on its own, critics have pointed out for decades that to seek an overarching unity in the story of the right to rule can also be grossly misleading. To force consistency is to stifle the plays’ meanings as Norman Rabkin already insisted in the 1960s.

2. Tragedy

Shakespeare’s famous ambiguity that leaves interpretations of plays like Richard II open for many generations of Shakespeare critics to come has a particular bearing on the law and literature approach in several ways. First, it has been suggested many times that the even juxtaposition of conflicts of law and justice on stage places the audience in the position of the judge, ultimately responsible for making up their own minds and passing judgement that Shakespeare seems to avoid: “Performance […] places all parties – including actor, director and audience – in the judgment seat” (Watt 2009, 198). Second, it has also been pointed out that in the early modern age, the ‘performance’ of law seems particularly close to theatrics:

If the legal themes of Shakespeare’s works reflect acquired knowledge of English law, gained probably from friends, relatives and acquaintances rather than from formal study of substantive law itself, they also demonstrate a crucial feature of Elizabethan jurisprudence, which is that government was conducted and represented as theatre. (Raffield and Watt 2008, 4)

And third, in reference to the ancient differentiation between law and equity, it seems that drama has the potential to evoke the spirit of the law against the letter: “Performance is one of the great exercises in ‘equity’ […] because it shows the infinite capacity of language to live beyond the letter” (Watt 2009, 198). All of these aspects create a close thematic and formal link between law and literature in Shakespeare’s case, but this relation varies concerning the genre of the play in question. The history plays evaded censorship somewhat surprisingly, because eventually they seem to abstain from judgement, leaving open the question who or what acts or is against the law. In Shakespearean tragedy one necessarily faces a different conflict that is a result of the inherent criteria of the genre. In tragedy, the protagonist is almost always inherently disposed to act against the law, both positive and natural: “The problem of reconciling the demands of natural law with those of a personal code of honour when the two are apparently in conflict is a classic formula for tragedy.” (Wells 2009, 176). This conflict is enhanced when ‘the law’ laid down as the play’s framework exceeds the demands of natural law by formulating clearly what is just by positive legislation, which is, admittedly, more often than not simply not the case in Shakespearean tragedy:

Nowhere is [the] clash between order and disruption more obvious than in the poetry of the plays, which depends like any language on the regularities of grammar and logic, yet is so profuse and polyvalent that is threatens to undermine its own foundations. Shakespeare’s belief in social order is jeopardised by the very language in which it is articulated. (Eagleton 2020, 70/71)

The play that tries to stage the opposition between lawful and unlawful behaviour in the most absolute terms is perhaps Romeo and Juliet (1595). Shakespeare works with the figure of the Prince as an embodiment of positive law in Verona that clearly forbids both Capulets and Montagues to engage any further in their vendetta: “If ever you disturb our streets again | Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.” (RJ, 1.1.94/95). Every ensuing action that is caused by the downward spiral of the ‘ethics’ of revenge is played against the law; every ensuing action that brings about the tragedy is unequivocally presented as a crime that breaks Verona law. The fact that the law is so clearly identifiable and firmly in place in the play is both unusual and cynical, for the Prince, a mere embodiment of order, is drawn as completely helpless to quench the violence with the laws of his own making. The brawls that lead to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt cannot be contained by law as the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ reigns instead and the play thus reiterates a fundamental doubt that occurs regularly throughout Shakespeare’s dramatic career whether the biblical commandment can ever be justified. ‘Measure for measure’ is a decree that almost always leads to fatal destruction in Shakespeare. It is crucial for the logic of Romeo and Juliet that the deaths of all constitute murder or else Romeo’s banishment and the resulting misinformation cannot work the plot to its tragic ending. Moreover, it is only due to the closed legal system in the world of this play as embodied by the Prince that the characters’ actions can be identified as crimes. Only the microcosm of Verona and the Prince’s appearances at points of conflict allow the audience to identify criminal actions and murder – such a system of right and wrong as it is in place in Romeo and Juliet is lacking in many other plays, which is why it is not only difficult, but also rarely undertaken to speak of ‘crime’ in Shakespeare:

Crime does not exist in a vacuum, independently of a network of relations. For crime to be understood it must be related first and foremost to law, which defines it as such, but also to law enforcement, which means the organized apparatus that presides over the detection and punishment of criminals. (Ascari 2016, 79)

As the early history plays show already, more often than not, there is no system in place in Shakespearean drama that allows crimes to be identified or punishment to be enforced. As we shall see later, the plays that are most likely to engage in crime and punishment are the comedies, in which by definition neither is supposed to be serious or harmful and the ‘police’ is easily turned into a laughing stock.

The Prince in Romeo and Juliet is not a laughable character, but he is hopelessly ineffectual – as is the law he lays down (cp. Carpi 2008, 122). While the Houses Capulet and Montague continue more or less unhindered in their vengeful aggression, his authoritative voice that is supposed to sound clearly in both exposition and catastrophe is reneged by the major actions in between, although appeals are made to him to distribute justice:

I beg for justice, which thou, Prince, must give.
Romeo slew Tybalt. Romeo must not live.
Romeo slew him, he slew Mercutio.
Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe?
Not Romeo, Prince, he was Mercutio’s friend;
His fault concludes but what the law should end,
The life of Tybalt.
And for that offence
Immediately we do exile him hence (RJ, 3.1.182–188).

The end rhyme in dialogue and the brevity of speech acts mimics the duel that has just passed as Capulet and Montague spar with the Prince about justice as if they were engaged in battle too. The law’s ineffectuality to contain the vendetta is pronounced throughout the play and tragically formulated by the Prince, who, as porte-parole, crosses over into quasi-epilogue at the play’s end:

Capulet, Montague,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love;
And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d. (RJ, 5.3.290–294)

All are punished, because so far none were punished (“wink’d at”), or not punished properly. The contrast between the explicit legal statute and the inevitability of the crime of breaking it is of course necessary for the plot – yet it is remarkable that a character that is explicitly and exclusively drawn as a representative of law and order is undermined at every turn. In keeping with the history plays, however, this seems to have a lot to do with the fact that the crime in Romeo and Juliet takes the form of a vendetta and its biblical principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ is never allowed to thrive in Shakespeare. The “archaic law of blood for blood” of the early histories (Goy-Blanquet 2003, 155) returns in this early tragedy as a principle that can only lead to the extinction of all order and morality. Retributive justice seems overwhelmingly often presented as a contradiction in terms and revenge is tricky business as Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy of all demonstrates.

Among the many problems that Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600–1601) poses, his seeming unwillingness to revenge his father is certainly the most dominant and the most famous. Yet, if one took his world quite literal, Hamlet’s dilemma is clear from a legal perspective, although he is mostly acknowledged more for his deliberations of the ethical side of things. However, murder is a crime; the deliberation of murdering the king is high treason and both are crimes punishable by death following intensive torture as Elizabethans generally were only too aware. So while Hamlet is not necessarily a staple in law and literature research, one might easily claim that it is a play about a criminal who ponders for a good long while whether to commit his favoured crime or not – unless one regard him merely as an assassin, carrying out the ghost’s will. In any case, in that sense, he is a successor of Brutus and a predecessor of Macbeth, who are both essentially plagued with the same problem, which is to kill or not to kill, and it is the nature of the genre all of these men find themselves in that saves them from merely being written off as general traitors. The deliberations of their deeds are noble, not base; their scruples honour them and their eventual murder is not damning, but tragic: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, 2.2.249/250). The differences between them, while they are all connected through the fact that even their thinking about what they are thinking about constitutes high treason, may only be that Hamlet, strictly speaking, has a legal right to the throne as Margreta de Grazia reminds us in her seminal book Hamlet Without Hamlet: “A prince bereft of his prospective kingdom, like any man deprived of his expected estate, must feel the injury. That the blow has been dealt legally – approved by the Danish Council, consolidated by marriage to the Queen – hardly lessens the damage.” (de Grazia 2007, 2). Moreover, Hamlet is inconveniently placed in a revenge play, which requires actions that seem far below his ethical standards – or so most critics since Samuel Taylor Coleridge have generally assumed:

We are witness here to the birth of a distinctively modern form of subjectivity – one which in its elusive, protean, impenetrably inward nature withstands all attempts to be cognitively grasped, as well as all demands to comply with social protocol. Revenge is a matter of tit-for-tat, and Hamlet’s sense of self as incommensurable refuses all such vulgar exchange-value. The symmetry of vengeance is at odds with the superfluity of his selfhood. (Eagleton 2020, 73)

Neither Brutus nor Macbeth are plagued with the same problem, for their motives are clearly identified. While Brutus acts to save the republic, Macbeth is spurred by ambition. In both plays, the notion of intention therefore looms large, but it is only Brutus, who is eventually acquitted both by play and audience – Macbeth is ‘the butcher’ whose head may legitimately be cut off in punishment for his deeds. Regicide and pre-emptive tyrannicide are two very different things it seems and the fact that Brutus’s acts plunge Rome into greater ruin than Caesar could have done does not gloss over the play’s attempt to make very clear that he acted out of the right intentions: “What villain touched his body, that did stab | And not for justice?” (Julius Caesar, 4.3.19/20). In the spirit of a true moment of recognition that arouses the audience’s pity and fear just like Aristotle asks, Brutus’s honourable suicide is heart-breaking: “Caesar, now be still. | I killed not thee with half so good a will.” (JC, 5.5.50/51). The epilogic eulogy spoken through Antony thus confirms that while Brutus may have broken the law, he is still the pitiable tragic hero of this play:

This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made one of them. (JC, 5.5.69–73)

A play like Julius Caesar (1599) thus fuels the idea that some Shakespearean drama may function as a kind of equity: “Like equity courts, which provide a corrective to harsh legal justice by offering pardon to condemned criminals, Shakespeare’s plays weigh up, and often pardon, various human failings.” (Lemon 2011, 554). Brutus is pardoned, because he has acted on the right intention, which is directed at the common good. Macbeth, the butcher, is condemned, because he acts out of ambition, which is solely directed at his own gain. Hamlet is pardoned, of course, for his regicide, because the long deliberation before the murder has demonstrated his scruples, if nothing else. All these plays’ plots and character constructions thus work crucially with the opposition between law and justice and the audience’s say in the matter. They weep for Romeo, although he has killed Tybalt and they weep for Brutus, although he has betrayed Caesar and hundreds of years of reception of both plays seem to confirm that judgement. The audience as judge has pitied Brutus or Romeo and has condemned Macbeth as often as these characters have strutted the stages, which goes to show that to say that ‘the law’ in Shakespeare is an arbitrary matter is a bit of an understatement.

3. Comedy

In Shakespeare, if not always, the laws of the genre necessarily interfere with natural or positive law. As much as Shakespearean drama is therefore called on to tell us something about law and ethics, it is vital that those utterances not be taken out of context. Shakespeare’s plays have always been a platform for critics and audiences and other enthusiasts to find in them what suits the present moment. In Ian Ward’s words, Shakespeare “has been used as a vehicle” (Ward 1995, 59) for studying various aspects of ‘the law,’ especially in historical perspective:

Hamlet has been used as a vehicle for studying the law of homicide, Henry V for the study of international law in medieval and early modern Europe, and a whole range of plays, including comedies and histories, for an exploration of the controversy which surrounded the Oath of Allegiance and the role of ecclesiastical courts in the effecting of the Elizabethan settlement.
(Ward 1995, 59)

Most of those approaches belong to the category of law in literature-research and sometimes critics and enthusiasts forget that literature may be regarded a historical source, but is rarely ever designed as such. Shakespeare especially will always prioritise dramatic potential over historical accuracy and all plays follow first and foremost their own inherent law, which is the law of genre. This can be seen in the tragedies in the composition of those tragic heroes, whose guilt in their run-ins with ‘the law’ is not determined by reference to those laws in the world without, but only in reference to the laws within, which may be one of the reasons why Mark Fortier has recently called Shakespeare’s relation to law “somewhat antagonistic” (Fortier 2022, 14). Most of the common comedies prove the point. What is at stake in Verona, Venice or Vienna is not the law of the land, but arbitrary decrees issued at the beginnings of these plays so that comic characters can break them. Law functions as a plot lever and is rarely important in its own right. It is one of two essential components of Shakespearean comedy in general:

Fundamentally, two forces set a Shakespeare comedy in motion. The first is a conflict between law and justice: an abuse of law or power creates tremors in an apparently stable society or household. […] The second is the arrival of one or more travellers or strangers with grounds for discontent or insecurity. The result is a state of confusion with consequences which, ultimately, are benign. (Creaser 2002, 84/85)

Unjust decrees issued in The Comedy of Errors (1594) or As You Like It (1599–1600) that often lead to banishment and the establishment of an alternative society or, at least, community, are never scrutinised but simply installed as a form of injustice that must be rectified at the end of the play. The ensuing twists always take priority over any form of ‘historical’ impression of Ephesus or an entirely conspicuous ‘region’ in France. Power is located in a single figure, who often shows tendencies towards tyranny and the couples and their allies must find ways to undermine that character, i.e. ‘the law’, to thrive and achieve their happy ending. In this sense, both The Merchant of Venice (1596–1597) and Measure for Measure (1603–1604), by now canonical texts in law and literature research, do not even differ from the general comic formula, but they have been given special attention for their treatment of the triptych law, justice and mercy. In other words, both plays engage in lengthy pleas for lenity and have served arguments that the respective speeches have ethical weight beyond the plays (Weisberg 1992, 22). Portia’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice is often singled out as a particularly instructive piece of argumentation for mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
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 then his crown.
His scepter 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 sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like Gods
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 course of Venice
Must needs give sentence ’gainst the Merchant there. (The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.180–201)

A very similar protestation occurs in the much later Measure for Measure, when Isabella pleads with Angelo mercy for her brother. In both cases, however, what is commonly overlooked is that their speeches have little to do with law – in fact, they are opposed to law, for both try to motivate waiving the decrees, not work within them as Jeremy Tambling has pointed out in the case of Measure for Measure:

The law cannot contain mercy, because that implies something inside the law, overriding it. The law either condemns me or sets me free because I am innocent. It cannot condemn me and then show mercy to me; if it does that, it is not the law. Mercy is opposite to law, not contained in it. (Tambling 2009, 190)

Neither play thus acts as equity as Gary Watt has emphasised, because while Portia may demand of Shylock to show mercy, neither she nor any other character feels the need to do the same and Shylock is unceremoniously destroyed and banished from the social community of the play: “[W]hichever type of mercy she exhorts in Shylock, she herself shows none to him. Her speech is rhetorically powerful, but ultimately insincere”:

Portia’s rhetorical eulogy to mercy is undermined because she immediately assures Shylock that he will succeed if he continues on his present course. Portia then traps Shylock by applying the law even more strictly than he himself had applied it. […] The equitable character is absent from the play, but there is no shortage of inequitable characters who insist on, or indulge, their own rights and powers at the expense of others… (Watt 2009, 214–215)

Similarly, Isabella’s argument for justice is, much like in Romeo and Juliet, an argument for revenge (cp. Tambling 2009, 205) and so is fundamentally opposed to mercy or equity or lenity or any other action that is often understood to work around the letter of the law: “Altering without having achieved anything of the ‘justice’ she craved, Isabella gives up the idea of measure being followed by measure, which also means surrendering any idea that justice is what Derrida calls ‘calculable’” (Tambling 2009, 206).

The law makes for good theatre in both the early and the late play, but it would be difficult to draw any ‘lessons’ from either the plot or the beautiful speeches. After all, comedy’s powerful hierarchy will never let a character such as Shylock receive justice; as a villain, he needs to be overcome and the rigorousness of his exclusion from the play a broken man has justly troubled generations of scholars and critics, for his punishment is unequivocally tied to his Jewishness. It is important to note, therefore, that Portia’s speech is blatant hypocrisy – the play makes the point that Shylock is treated unfairly as the ruling characters glorify themselves as merciful Christians: “The Merchant of Venice is not a study in equity; it is a study in the absence of equity.” (Watt 2009, 217). Shylock is broken and dispensed with like many other comic villains before and after him, but the fact that his villainy is inextricably linked to his status as a Jewish outsider in a Christian community is consequently much less easily stomached than the dramatic destruction of a stock character such as Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (1599) or a pompous twit such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1601). Villains provide at least in part the complication comedy needs, but it is certainly notable that Shakespeare’s more mature comedies do not work with ethnically marked characters, who are consequently much more easily overcome – if much less psychologically complex or dramatically compelling. As stated earlier, a discussion of ‘the law’ in Shakespeare is necessarily subordinate to a discussion of power and both comedies that have such canonical status in law and literature research are of course meticulous studies in the nature of power and its appeal to human kind. The fact that Portia’s power in court decides the outcome of the characters’ fate has been made much of in feminist criticism, for although she holds this power only in male disguise that allows her to enter into the otherwise barred public legal sphere, her dramatic power as a woman is nevertheless remarkable. She shares this power with many other comic heroines, who generally dominate Shakespearean comedy, but she has just as much propensity as her fellow male characters from other plays to overexert her position of power. A more or less sudden access to power is always highly problematic for characters in Shakespeare as Measure for Measure explores in full, since Angelo is infected by the charms of tyranny immediately. At the very beginning of his career, Shakespeare has Suffolk exclaim, “I have been a truant in the law | And never yet could frame my will to it, | And therefore frame the law unto my will.” (Henry VI, Part 1, 2.4.7–9). It is the theme of any person’s willingness (men or women) to break the law or even become the law that runs throughout Shakespeare’s whole dramatic career as one of the most important psychological insights into human nature.

Law enforcement can also serve as a joke in Shakespeare. Dogberry and his Watch in Much Ado About Nothing (1599) are memorable for their satire of early modern civil obedience and Shakespeare’s open ridicule of “the inefficiency of communal forms of surveillance” (Ascari 2016, 82). It is owing to the particular composition of Dogberry that while a great source of comedy in the play, he is nevertheless efficient in eventually exposing the slander and bringing the villain to justice. In comparison with the Prince in Romeo and Juliet, who is entirely ineffective as a source of law, Dogberry exemplifies perfectly how the rules of tragedy and comedy differ respectively: “The presence of Dogberry in Messina makes possible an evenhanded comic justice” (Allen 1973, 43), for no matter how often this constable is wrong in his assessment of crime or criminals, his shortcomings are merely a matter of comedy and he can still serve as deus ex machina to ensure that law and order prevail in the end (cp. Allen 1973, 38). The Prince’s ineffectiveness in the face of the laws of vendetta in Verona marks the contrast to Dogberry’s intellectual incompetence within the laws of comedy, where ultimately nothing can obstruct the true course of justice. It is the genre, not the police, that wins the day, as is true for so many Shakespearean comedies in which idiosyncratic laws are made to create confusion until the right order is restored. Dogberry thus shows that these plays follow their own logic and such logic is far from synonymous with probability in many cases. Northrop Frye argued famously, “it is very seldom that a genuinely comic resolution to a play seems the ‘logical’ outcome of the action” (Frye 1983, 37).

Law and order have as much to do with genre in Shakespeare as with general ideas of morals or justice and it is rare that a statement or scene that seems particularly pithy from a law and literature-perspective can be taken out of context. As Rebecca Lemon reminds us, “for an imaginative, humanistic writer like Shakespeare, the copia of the law—its various histories, courts, and social dimensions—provided ingredients for legally-themed plays that move far beyond technicalities and proceduralism” (Lemon 2011, 555). Abuses of law and power make for good theatre – not just because inevitably they create at least two sides to every story, but because they have an almost equal potential to cause both tragic demise and comic resolution. While the comedies seem prima facie more outspoken about the letters of the law in the respective fictional states of the plays, they are far less likely to provide an analytical idea of ‘the law’ for it may simply serve as perfunctory an idea of comic confusion as any other hardly convincing stock character. The absence of law and order is highly entertaining beyond the laws of genre as Shakespeare’s trajectories through history, tragedy and comedy indicate, but at the heart of these plays lies the very interesting, the very frightening and the very timely notion that most of all, the world is peopled with those who are always ready to frame the law unto their will.

Works Cited

John A. Allen (1973): Dogberry, Shakespeare Quarterly 24:1, 35–53.

Maurizio Ascari (2016): The Shades of a Shadow: Crime as the Dark Projection of Authority in Early Modern England, Critical Survey 28:1, 78–92.

Edward I. Berry (1975): Patterns of Decay. Shakespeare’s Early Histories. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Robyn Bolam (2002): Richard II: Shakespeare and the Languages of the Stage, in: Michael Hattaway (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays, Cambridge: CUP, 141–157.

Daniela Carpi (2008): Law and Its Subversion in Romeo and Juliet, in: Paul Raffield and Gary Watt (eds.), Shakespeare and the Law, Oxford: Hart, 119–134.

John Creaser (2002): Forms of Confusion, in: Alexander Leggatt (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy, Cambridge: CUP, 81–101.

Margreta De Grazia (2007): Hamlet Without Hamlet, Cambridge: CUP.

Terry Eagleton (2020): Tragedy, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Mark Fortier (2022): Shakespeare’s Law, New York: Routledge.

A. L. French (1967): Who Deposed Richard II?, Essays in Criticism 17, 411–433.

Northrop Frye (1983): The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies, Brighton: Harvester Press.

Dominique Goy-Blanquet (2003): Shakespeare’s Early History Plays. From Chronicle to Stage, New York: OUP.

Nicholas Grene (2002): Shakespeare’s Serial History Plays, Cambridge: CUP.

Donna B. Hamilton (1983): The State of Law in Richard II, Shakespeare Quarterly 34:1,5–17.

Emry Jones (1977): The Origins of Shakespeare, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Rebecca Lemon (2011): Shakespeare and Law, in: Arthur F. Kinney (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare, Oxford: OUP, 554–570.

Michael Manheim (1973): The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Norman Rabkin (1967): Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, New York: The Free Press.

Phyllis Rackin (1990): Stages of History. Shakespeare’s English Chronicles, London: Routledge.

Paul Raffield / Gary Watt (eds.) (2008): Shakespeare and the Law, Oxford: Hart.

John Roe (2022): Shakespeare and Machiavelli, Cambridge: CUP.

William Shakespeare: King Henry VI, Part 1, in: Edward Burns (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, London: Thomson Learning, 2000.

---: King Henry VI, Part 2, in: Ronald Knowles (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, London: Methuen, 1999.

---: King Henry VI, Part 3, in: John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen (eds.), The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, London: Thomson Learning, 2001.

---: King Richard III, in: James R. Siemon (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, London: Methuen Drama, 2009.

---: King Richard II, in: Charles R. Forker (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, London: Thomson Learning, 2002.

---: King Henry IV, Part 1, in: David Scott Kastan (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, London: Thomson Learning, 2002.

---: King Henry IV, Part 2, in: A. R. Humphreys (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Second Series, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1966.

---: Henry V, in: T. W. Craik (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1998.

---: Julius Caesar, in: David Daniell (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, London: Thomson Learning, 1998.

---: Romeo and Juliet, in: Brian Gibbons (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Second Series, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1980.

---: Hamlet, in: Harold Jenkins (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Second Series, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1982.

---: Measure for Measure, in:. J. W. Lever (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Second Series, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1965.

---: The Merchant of Venice, in: John Drakakis (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, London: Methuen Drama, 2010.

Jeremy Tambling (2009): Law and Will in Measure for Measure, Essay in Criticism 59:3, 189–210.

Gary Watt (2009): Equity Stirring. The Story of Justice Beyond Law, Oxford: Hart.

Ian Ward (1995): Law and Literature. Possibilities and Perspectives, Cambridge: CUP

Richard Weisberg (1992): Poethics and Other Strategies of Law and Literature, New York: Columbia University Press.

Robin Headlam Wells (2009): Shakespeare’s Politics. A Contextual Introduction, New York: Continuum.

James Winny (1968): The Player King. A Theme of Shakespeare’s Histories, London: Chatto & Windus.

Copyright © 2022 by
Franziska Quabeck fquabeck[at]uni-muenster[dot]de
CC-Icon BY ND. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.

How to cite this entry

Franziska Quabeck (2022): William Shakespeare, in: Thomas Gutmann, Eberhard Ortland, Klaus Stierstorfer, eds., Encyclopedia of Law and Literature,
doi: 10.17879/12009577118



Pdf, accessible version.

SFB 1385

Domplatz 6 | 48143 Münster | Deutschland/Germany
Tel: +49 251 83-24804 | encyclop[at]uni-muenster[dot]de