Sunday, June 5, 2011

Shakespeare a Lawyer? - 3 - Introduction 3

Was Shake-Speare a lawyer?

Part 3

2) Though some other dramatists exceed Shake-Speare "in the detail and complexity of their legal problems and allusions", this is only because they introduce actual matters of litigation, whereas Shake-Speare usually confines himself to legal phrases, as often as not used metaphorically. Dekker, for example, in his If it be not Good the Devil is in it presents a suit in Chancery concerning the redemption of a mortgage. This type of situation will naturally attract more legal detail and complexity (In fact, as Clarkson and Warren point out at p. 157, Dekker takes great liberties with the law in the suit, either through ignorance or dramatic need). Clarkson and Warren rightly refrain from regarding the relative dearth in Shake-Speare of matters of litigation as evidence that he was not a lawyer. A lawyer playwright is under no obligation to write shop. It just happens by chance that the plots Shake-Speare chose - mostly from English or classical history or continental romances - seldom include litigation.

3) Coming now to the crux of Clarkson and Warren's verdict, I am at a loss to understand their pronouncement that "what law there is in Shakespeare can, indeed must, be explained on some grounds other than that he was a lawyer". "Must" is wholly unwarranted and is inconsistent with their own agnostic conclusion in their last three sentences. I agree with that conclusion to this extent only - that (subject to one qualification) most of Shake-Speare's legal references shed no light on whether he was a lawyer. They are bits of knowledge he could have picked up, just as other non-lawyers picked them up. A sprinkling of law terms was part of the vocabulary of educated men.

My qualification is as to whether William Shakspere could have acquired them so early in his career. Shake-Speare's early plays contain at least as many legalisms as his later ones. Yet when the first of them were written Shakspere of Stratford had probably been in London for about a couple of years. This is part of the wider problem confronting Stratfordians as to the early acquisition of Shake-Speare's learning. I do not think any help can be gleaned from the many lawsuits Shakspere's father was involved in. A young man has better things to do than studying his father's law suits. This did not deter J.M. Robertson from suggesting in his The Baconian Heresy, p. 147, that, since John Shakespeare was illiterate, he may have got young William to read the legal documents to him! If so, pity William, for legal documents were very hard for glovers' sons to follow. One should add that many Shake-Speare's early law terms would not have been used in those suits which were mainly small debt claims.

A Stratfordian suggestion that Shakspere could have learnt an appreciable amount of Shake-Speare's law by listening to cases in the Courts of Westminster is absurd. He had more important things to do than frequenting law courts. And the public galleries seem to have been small. For example, in the Star Chamber, whose hearings were open to the public in the final stages, onlookers would start to arrive at 3 a.m. to get a seat. Besides, laymen listen to law cases for their human interest, not for their legal technicalities, and learn little or no law by doing so. Nor could Shakspere have learnt much law from the cases he himself was involved in, which were mostly debt and land disputes and occurred in the latter part of his life. He would probably have acquired most of his law from conversation and from references in the works of other writers. Stratfordians have prayed in aid two preachers, Thomas Adams and Richard Sibbes, who seem from their sermons to have known a good deal of law. If they could pick up law so easily, why not Shakspere? The answer is that Adams was chaplain to Sir Henry Montague, Chief Justice, and Sibbes from 1617 was the preacher at Gray's Inn.

Shake-Speare's early legal learning apart, I agree with Clarkson and Warren as to the neutral effect of most of Shake-Speare's legal allusions. But in my view there are some which wear a different complexion and do suggest that he was a lawyer. These will be listed and discussed later as first another supposed problem must be disposed of - Shake-Speare's alleged bad law.

end of Part 3

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