Sunday, June 5, 2011

Shakespeare a Lawyer? - 23 - Sonnets - Conclusion

Was Shake-Speare a lawyer?

Part 23

Valid Pointers to Shake-Speare being a Lawyer

Legalisms in Shake-Speare's Sonnets

Elizabethan sonnet sequences did not customarily abound in legal metaphors. Yet there appear to be law terms in 19 of the 154 sonnets of Shake-Speare. These are in Nos. 4, 13, 14, 18, 30, 35, 46, 49, 58, 74, 87, 88, 92, 120, 124, 126, 133, 134, and 146. Of the many sonnet sequences written in the 1590's, only two approach or surpass Shake-Speare's in density of legal allusions. One of these other two authors was anonymous and so may have been a lawyer. The other is not known to have been a lawyer but he had the sort of background which would normally had led to schooling in one of the inns of court. This person, like
Bacon, was part of the Earl of Essex's circle, and so is likely to have been known by Bacon.

I won't repost any of the above sonnets here as readers likely have copies of them. But I'll add some of Cockburn's comments on 4 of them. Cockburn says that Shake-Speare handles his legal allusions with great assurance in the sonnets, and in two of them displays knowledge that he wouldn't expect Will Shakspere of Stratford to possess, or at any rate to use.

Sonnet 46 is an elaborate analogy based on a partition action, available to joint owners who could not agree on how to divide their property. The issue would be decided by a jury (a "quest"; or an inquest). Even if Will Shakspere knew of partition actions, would he have thought of basing a sonnet on one? Such a legal action is not mentioned by any of the other 16 playwrights in the Clarkson and Warren study.

Sonnet 87 bases his friend's love successively on a charter, bonds, a gift and a patent. The patent reverts to a friend, its grantor, because the poet is unworthy of his love. This is a reference to the legal doctrine of "consideration", a contractual promise being unenforceable unless it is supported by a quid pro quo. Lines 10-11 refer to the avoidance of a contract made under a 'mistake' (misprision). It's extremely hard to believe that a non-lawyer would have both topics in mind for writing a sonnet.

In Sonnet 30 the legal references seem less conscious and so as having "slipped" from the author casually. The words "sessions", "summon up", "dateless", and "cancelled" all have a legal connotation. Bonds and leases expire at their "date". And the woe is like a bond or debt which may be "cancelled".

Sonnet 146 is intended as a devout poem on the Soul, and so is not the sort of piece into which a poet would introduce legal metaphors just to be clever. It was certainly not the fashion to use them in the many other Elizabethan poems about the Soul. But here they percolate in - "lease", "inheritors", "terms".


In conclusion on this topic, this list of legalisms in the plays and sonnets collectively, and sometimes individually (as in the King John case and the three Hamlet cases) are sufficient to establish that Shake-Speare was probably a lawyer. This becomes a strong probability when considering also the early acquisition of his legal knowledge. And much of it is of a kind which would not have been learnt by a clerk in an attorney's office, even disregarding Shakspere's youth. Overall then, Shake-Speare's law is that of a barrister.

This, along with other internal evidence, such as the author having been a student of Cambridge and a member of Gray's Inn, makes it extremely unlikely that Will Shakspere of Stratford could have been the author. 

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