Sunday, June 5, 2011

Shakespeare a Lawyer? - 24 - Alexander

A quote from a totally different source from what I’ve been posting:

“Taken together, the plays reflect much knowledge of legal intricacies. Legal themes of one kind or another run throughout. And woven all through, liked barbed wire sewn into a tapestry, are deftly cutting observations about law and lawyers, each glinting shard designed to draw just a little blood from the legal profession. Even where there are no legal terms and allusions, the plays have a style of philosophical debate and discourse aimed at lawyers. Law is essential to our understanding and interpretation of Shakespeare's works: great art is often inspired by a passion for justice”.
Daniel Kornstein

This is just one quotation that I hurriedly picked out. The whole article it came from needs to be read so that one can see how the debate of Shakespeare’s law has progressed, or at times hasn’t, over the last 200+ years. The author, Mark Andre Alexander, has taught legal writing to paralegals. He’s an Oxfordian in his authorship views and has carefully reviewed the debate over Shakespeare’s law, as did Nigel Cockburn (the Baconian), whose analysis I’ve posted here. Alexander did not know of Cockburn’s work and does not cite it. So they both reviewed the same evidence and came to the same conclusions, as far as I can tell. [Note:  except that Cockburn (1998) finished before the Sokal and Sokal Shakespeare dicitionary (2000, see below) and before the Burton article on Hamlet’s law in 2000].  I’m posting here only the “Conclusions” of Alexander’s Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Law: A Journey Through the History of the Arguments, 2001. The link to the full article will be at the end.

VII. Conclusions

Shakespeare used legal terminology with perfect accuracy. William C. Devecmon stated that "Though the frequent use of legal terms, with their proper technical meanings, has a cumulative effect, and tends strongly to prove a legal training; yet a very few errors in such use, if glaring and gross, would absolutely nullify that effect and proof". From this skeptic's statement we can infer that a writer who frequently uses legal terms, with their proper technical meanings, is likely one who has had legal training. But there is more.

What distinguishes the formally learned from the unlearned (or those who acquire information from second-hand sources) is how information transforms into a deeper understanding. Anyone who has studied long and deeply any field of study knows the experience of deeper mastery—how mastery of a subject begins to work on the consciousness in such a way that it transforms and informs one's view of the world. The master of mathematics sees a different world than the savvy student who knows the mere definitions, and who can memorize and correctly use advanced equations. And a master mathematician does not need much time to determine whether the pretender to mathematical mastery actually is a master. Furthermore, a master mathematician who reads an author whose series of literary works use mathematical terms, not only with perfect accuracy, but also metaphorically in contexts outside of mathematics—such a master mathematician will gradually presume that the author is also a master. Like minds respond to and recognize each other.

Mastery makes the terminology a part of one's world view. A master of legal studies and the history of law, and the philosophical implications of differing systems of justice, goes far beyond mere technical usage. Such a master begins to see the hidden similarities between the objects of the world and the distinctions that form the foundation of the master's discipline. Legal terms enter the realm of metaphor.

What distinguishes Shakespeare's use of legal terms has nothing to do with the quantity of terms or mere technical usage in legal matters: Shakespeare had a wide-ranging legal understanding integrated into his consciousness, the kind of consciousness that would draw on legal terms in non-legal contexts, where the apt legal metaphor of excellent understanding and quality is applied. It is this mastery and integration that judges and lawyers have responded to over the last two centuries. Malone, Rushton, Campbell, White, Greenwood, and others have all recognized a like-minded individual, a man of the craft, possessing even a greater understanding than theirs.

Stratfordians bent on quantitative analysis have acknowledged Shakespeare's metaphorical usage without realizing its implications. Irvin Matus in his Shakespeare, IN FACT unwittingly lets it slip through in praising Clarkson and Warren:

Clarkson and Warren's verdict is that Shakespeare's references "must be explained on some grounds other than that he was a lawyer, or an apprentice, or a student of the law." What separates him from the others is his knack for making legal terms serve his drama, in the opinion of Justice Dunbar Plunket Barton. "Where Shakespeare's legal allusions surpassed those of his contemporaries," he said, ". . . was in their quality and their aptness rather than in their quantity or technicality."

Our point exactly.

In 2000 as part of its Athlone Shakespeare Dictionary Series, The Athlone Press published Shakespeare's Legal Language: A Dictionary by Sokal and Sokal. The comprehensive dictionary fills over 400 pages of detailed discussion of Shakespeare's legal terms and concepts. Furthermore, an index of passages containing these terms and concepts fills 40 pages with approximately 1600 references using over 200 distinct terms and concepts (dramatically displaying the inadequacy of Clarkson and Warren's efforts).

The authors acknowledge in the introduction that, even though the bare statistics supports a case that Shakespeare was law-obsessed, other dramatists were law-obsessed as well; and that legal language "was common currency in Shakespeare's litigious age…". They warn against "legal word-spotting" as a reliable indicator that "Shakespeare took a precise or detailed account of substantive English law". Nevertheless:

[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.

Although as of 2000 it's still academically dangerous to say so, the authors clearly imply that this conveying of such matters, this deep and abiding interest in law as it relates to "social, moral, and intellectual substance," indicates legal mastery.

Finally, in the Fall 2000 and Winter 2000/2001 issues of The Shakespeare Newsletter, J. Anthony Burton successfully identifies the central legal theme of Hamlet, one that has gone unrecognized in its pervasiveness:

[In Hamlet ] there is a consistent and coherent pattern of legal allusions to defeated expectations of inheritance, which applies to every major character. The allusions run the gamut from points of common knowledge by landowners or litigants, to technical subtleties only lawyers would appreciate, but their common theme is disinheritance and the way it can occur. It has already been suggested that the many legal allusions in the play indicate it was written with a legally sophisticated audience in mind. Who else, after all, but lawyers and law students would appreciate the Gravedigger’s parody of legal reasoning in a forty-year old decision [Hales v Petit] written in the corrupted version of Norman-English known as Law French?

This seven-page article transforms the central perception of Hamlet's agony, and supplies us with a remarkable insight into the legal thinking of Shakespeare. Again, the author does not state outright Shakespeares legal qualifications, a declaration that would likely interfere with the publication of the article, but those qualifications are clearly implied. With Sokal and Sokal, and now Burton, perhaps the tide against acknowledging Shakespeare's legal mastery is turning.

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