Law and Literature: Shakespeare Part I

January 1, 2022 | By Shane Phelps Law
Law and Literature: Shakespeare Part I

Most of us may not think of justice when reading Shakespeare unless it is the injustice of Romeo & Juliet or the justified revenge in Hamlet. However, William Shakespeare referenced the legal profession more than any other throughout his body of work.

Welcome back to our series, Law, and Literature where we explore the implications of law on novels and its inclusion in classic stories. In this installment, we are covering the body of work belonging to the king of iambic pentameter, William Shakespeare. However, we are taking a different approach to this entry. Instead of talking about how his works influenced law or which laws were included, we will be taking a deep dive into the interpretation of the law and how it plays a role in our understanding of justice today.

Enter: Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was a world renown playwright, poet, and wordsmith who many consider to be the greatest dramatist of all time. You may reserve your opinion on that, but regardless of personal preferences, Shakespeare was certainly one of the most prolifically published and printed playwrights in history.

Born in the mid-14th century, Shakespeare was the son of a burgess turned bailiff and a mother of ancient birth. The small town of Stratford was busy enough and included opportunities for education and experiences which young William took full advantage. While he did not go to university, he did marry at the age of eighteen to Anne Hathaway. Hathaway would be his muse and the mother of several children.

The time between family and fame is not detailed, but historians believe that Shakespeare was quite the troublemaker – never letting his youth give way to wisdom. By the time records pick up William once again, he had made friends in high places, some of whom thought very lowly of him.

Despite his wild reputation, Shakespeare did make honest efforts to uphold his family’s honor by carrying on the coat of arms and handing the family’s financial affairs. He was able to provide for himself, Anne, and their children and was able to afford a large house in his hometown of Stratford.

He took part in local theater productions and worked his way up until he became a full-time member of Lord Chamberlain’s company of players. His popularity and cleverness reached new heights and he dedicated the rest of his life to the art of drama.

Notable Experience Lost to Time

The nature of history in the 14th century, is that proof is often hard to find. Records are few and what historians can piece together, adds up to a bland and vague life for the world’s most famous playwright. However, his works have true staying power and are acted out and studied more prolifically than ever before.

Because his works are so readily available, we can deduct his influences through his writing. His knowledge of the legal system is surprisingly in depth and he regularly explores justice and law in his works. Where Shakespeare gained this knowledge is unclear, but what remains of his legacy is surprisingly intricately connected with the rule of law.

Law in Shakespeare: Perceptions of Justice

One of Shakespeare’s go-to themes is justice. How justice is enacted may change, but by the end of the play justice is served. While it is an oversimplification to say that he discusses justice accurately, going through each of his works would result in tomes of research on the matter.

The truth is, Shakespeare was popular as a poet for the people, casually enjoyed by the wealthy. Because of this, his connection with relatable subject matter provides context to his work and the idea of justice that might be lacking in another work.

For example, Measure for Measure facilitates back and forth on the fundamental questions behind law and morality. In Hamlet, Shakespeare goes through a unique perspective on justice – a more philosophical approach. Hamlet is a prime example of justice by way of revenge, a misconception that plagues the American justice system today.

In the U.S., the idea of bad guys vs. good guys is prevalent in the criminal justice system. When someone is wronged, they think the court is a tool they can use to get back at their aggressor. However, in the same way that Shakespeare’s play version shows that revenge is often hollow and unjust, so is the childish ideal of justice in America.

The purpose of the justice system is to utilize resources to gather evidence to present before a court of witnesses, peers, and well educated and experienced legal representatives. This carefully crafted framework relies on truth and evidence to convict or acquit and hold bad actors responsible. Revenge should never be the motivation behind a trial.

Shakespeare’s explorations of justice as a literary theme have unfortunately been influential for many works and media centered around the crime and the law. Humanity is far more complex than even William Shakespeare can attest to, and justice is never clear cut.

Join us next time as we continue to explore Shakespeare’s works and their connection to the law.