Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Law

Here’s a peer-reviewed article I wrote in 2000 on Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Law: A Journey through the History of the Argument.

I make a strong case that Shakespeare had the kind of legal knowledge that comes with extraordinary and long-term exposure to the history, philosophy and Elizabethan practice of law.

Shakespeare’s mind displays a remarkable objectivity, the kind of objectivity and equipoise that offers his readers a wide variety of philosophies and positions. As stated by Russ McDonald in Shakespeare and the Arts of Language: “. . . the dramatist encourages in his audience a receptiveness to multiple points of view, a refusal of absolutes, an awareness of the competing claims of incompatible interpretations” (49). The consciousness of a lawyer is that of an advocate, one who takes sides, one who argues for or against something. The consciousness of an experienced judge is quite different. The judge examines all sides, tries to understand and argue for and against all sides. A judge who responds to the complexity of human action and experience often distrusts the easy fix, the quick solution, the thoughtless procedure, or rule, or custom. Judges experience over time how both sides of a case can be valid, how a case can uncover deeper related issues. The profession of a judge can mold a thoughtful mind into one of profound objectivity, depth, and range—exactly what we find in Shakespeare.

Chief Justice John C. Wu in Fountain of Justice, in an essay discussing “Natural Law in Shakespeare,” presents a series of examples punctuated by summary statements that support the notion that Shakespeare has the mind of a judge: “Shakespeare… know[s] his common law and natural law pretty well. He knows the psychological reason for case law. . . . He knows the importance of tempering the rigours of the law with equity. . . . He knows the importance of observing degree, proportion, form and order, which to him are objective standards of right and wrong because they have an ontological basis. . . . No one has painted more vividly ‘the majesty and power of law and justice.’” (86–87)

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