Sunday, June 5, 2011

Shakespeare a Lawyer? - 21 - Hamlet, cautel, carve

Was Shake-Speare a lawyer?

Part 21

Valid Pointers to Shake-Speare being a Lawyer

2.  Hamlet - cautel, carve for self

In Hamlet 1.3.10-21, Laertes says to Ophelia:

                 "Think it no more.
For nature crescent does not grow alone
In thews and bulk, but as this temple waxes,
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal. Perhaps he loves you now,
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will; but you must fear,
His greatness weighed, his will is not his own
For he himself is subject to his birth;
He may not, as unvalu'd persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The sanity and health of this whole state".

Laertes is saying: "As our body declines, our mind expands. Perhaps Hamlet loves you now and no decree [cautel] impairs the sincerity of his intentions [will]. But he cannot do as he pleases [carve for himself]; he must think of the whole state."

In A Brief Treatise of Testaments and Last Wills (1590), by H. Swinburne, p. 61, he says: "And therefore, if a man make a testament and then sweareth never to revoke the same, yet notwithstanding he may make another testament and thereby revoke the former; for there is no cautel under heaven whereby the liberty of making or revoking his testament can be utterly taken away". Swinburne repeats the substance of this statement at pp. 263 and 266, both times using the word "cautel". And in the alphabetical list of contents of his treatise are the words: "No cautel can take away the liberty of making a testament". At p. 50 Swinburne writes: "for it is not lawful for legataries to carve for themselves, taking their legacies at their own pleasure, but must have them delivered by the executors". Swinburne repeats this statement at p. 289: "for he may not be his own carver".

"Carve for himself" was quite a common expression, but the combined parallels of language between Shake-Speare's lines and two different rules to Swinburne's treatise can hardly be coincidental. Shake-Speare's "will" is used in the ordinary sense, meaning "wish, intentions", and has nothing to do with testaments. But it seems that the word "will" put him in mind of testaments, and he then recalled (consciously or subconsciously) snatches of phraseology which he had read in Swinburne's treatise or (if he was Bacon) heard in legal discussion in Gray's Inn. Swinburne's "no cautel under heaven whereby the liberty of making or revoking his testament can be utterly taken away" becomes Shake-Speare's "no...cautel doth besmirch the virtue of his will". And the "carving" expression is also echoed.

The Stratfordian Kenneth Muir in his Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (1957), p. 7, accepts Shake-Speare's debt to Swinburne's treatise on this point, commenting: "It is difficult to believe that he was conscious of echoing Henry Swinburne's Brief Treatise of Testaments and Last Wills...and we may suppose that, like Coleridge, he created much of his poetry from forgotten reading".  Muir does not enlighten us as to how Will Shakspere would have read Swinburne's book (a legal treatise of no little tedium) to enable him to echo it subconsciously. Whether he remembered it consciously or subconsciously this is an excellent example of his legal knowledge "slipping out" in an unlikely context.

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