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Shakespeare and the Law...
One sign of the growing public ferment over the Shakespeare authorship question is the recent involvement of several U.S. Supreme Court Justices in the debate.
In 1987 three Justices -- Blackmun, Brennan and Stevens -- in a moot court covered in the May 10 1989 issue of The New Yorker, heard arguments on the authorship question. Stevens and Blackmun subsequently voiced support for the Oxford case. John Paul Stevens, noted on the bench for his independent integrity, offered an extended encouragement to the Oxford case in his "The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction", first published in the Pennsylvania Law Review in 1992.
Several other justices are also deeply sympathetic to the Oxford case.
Harry Blackmun, in a personal letter to the late Charlton Ogburn, declared: "the debate continues and it is well that it does. We need this enlightenment in these otherwise somewhat dismal days." Blackmun added that on the merits of the case, in his view,the Oxfordians hold the upper hand.
For a synopsis of other comments by legal authorities who are impressed by the case for Oxford's authorship, please tour the Shakespeare Skeptics Hall of Fame.
Why have Justices Blackmun, Stevens, and Powell been persuaded to think more highly of the Oxfordian position than the average English Professor?
That question we hope to answer in some detail as this site expands: principally it involves two elements: 1) the skeptical manner in which lawyers and judges are trained to assess evidence; 2) their sensitivity to deception; 3) their ability to assess the implications of circumstantial evidence; and 4) their interest in the profuse and erudite manner in which Shakespeare employs legal terminology and concepts.
Shakespeare's Legal Knowledge
The history of scholarship on the way Shakespeare employs legal terminology and concepts is complex, controversial, and closely tied to the authorship question. Adherents of the traditional view of authorship traditionally deprecate Shakespeare's alleged knowledge of the law, while often simultaneously invoking all sorts of unsupported theories about how the author might have acquired this knowledge.
Skeptics of the traditional view like George Greenwood and Mark Twain have insisted, on the contrary, that Shakespeare's legal knowledge is acutely honed and precise -- and that it indicates a mind well-trained and practiced in the idioms and conceptual habits characteristic of lawyers and judges.
Currently the tide is shifting dramatically against those who continue to insist, usually on the basis of their own ignorance of Shakespeare, the law, or both, that Shakespeare is not a legal thinker of the highest order.
One recent contribution to the debate, Shakespeare's Legal Language: A Dictionary, by Sokal and Sokal, published in 2000 in the Athlone Shakespeare Dictionary Series fills over 400 pages of detailed discussion of Shakespeare's legal terms and concepts.
Sokal and Sokal conclude that
"[T]he overall impression given by this Dictionary may well contradict frequently reiterated claims that Shakespeare's interest in law was at best superficial, and that Shakespeare exploited legal ideas, circumstances, and language with no regard for any factor aside from 'poetic' effect. It is our view, derived from cumulative evidence, that on the contrary Shakespeare shows a quite precise and mainly serious interest in the capacity of legal language to convey matters of social, moral, and intellectual substance." (3)
Resources on Shakespeare and the Law
Shakespeare's Knowledge of the Law: A Journey through the History of the Argument. Serious study of Shakespeare and the Law should begin with Mark Alexander's in-depth study, orginally published in the 2001 edition of The Oxfordian.
Shakespeare's "Bad Law". A shorter survey focusing on Shakespeare's supposed misuse of legal terms.
The Legally Annotated Hamlet. A complete annotation of the 1604 (Quarto 2) edition of Hamlet.
"An Unrecognized Theme in Hamlet". Tony Burton's important article first appeared in the Fall 2000 edition of The Shakespeare Newsletter: [In Hamlet ] there is a consistent and coherent pattern of legal allusions to defeated expectations of inheritance, which applies to every major character. (71)
"Laertes's Rebellion as a Defense of His Inheritance: Further Aspects of Inheritance Law in Hamlet" Tony Burton's follow up article provides further corroborating detail.
"Could Shakespeare Think Like a Lawyer? How Inheritance Law Issues in Hamlet May Shed Light on the Authorship Question." Thomas Regnier's outstanding 2003 University of Miami Law Review article.
The Shakespeare Law Library. Numerous original early source texts on Shakespeare's knowledge of law, by George Greenwood and others.
Shakespeare's Legal Knowledge. The orthodox response, presented by David Kathman.
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