Paul Raffield, ‘Shakespeare and the theatre of early modern law’

Taking as my cue the Introduction to the First Folio edition of his plays, I examine Shakespeare’s particular interest in English law and juridical procedure. It is likely that his considerable, detailed knowledge of law derived at least in part from his association with the Middle Temple, whose members included neighbours and friends from Stratford-upon-Avon. I proceed to consider the profound influence of The Commentaries or Reports of Edmund Plowden (Plowden himself was a member of the Middle Temple) over the content of his plays, notably Plowden’s report of Hales v Petit to Shakespeare’s depiction of the death by suicide of Ophelia in Hamlet. I develop the thematic link with the Middle Temple by interrogating the thesis, proposed by various scholars, that an early version of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida was given a performance there during the revels of 1597-98. The theatrical transplantation of the city of Troy to London, described by writers and lawyers alike as Troynovant, the utopian city of commerce and the mythical birthplace of English law, leads me to analyze the predominant tropes of the marketplace which populate Troilus and Cressida. I conclude with the observation that in his epilogue to the play, Pandarus addresses in appropriately base terms the very people (lawyers) whose skills were supposed to redress the injustices engendered by commerce and the marketplace, but who failed to acknowledge the relevance of ethics and community to the attainment of societal cohesion.

Paul Raffield, Shakespeare and the theatre of early modern law, Law and Humanities. Published online: 7 July 2024.

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