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Seminar 9: Legal Perspectives on Shakespearean Theatre

Call for papers

Convenors: Daniela Carpi (University of Verona), Jeanne Gaakeer (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

The Renaissance scene frequently stages legal issues; in particular, the imagination of the period deeply engaged with trials, their implicit theatricality, their insistence on performance and the disputes between defendants and lawyers (the latter generally seen as villains), or judges and witnesses. Moreover legal issues such as problems concerning inheritances, contracts and their validity, marriages and property, relationships between children and fathers are frequently analysed within the representation of different voices of power (see for example Sokol and Sokol [1], Gary Watt [2], John Drakakis [3], Daniela Carpi [4], Jeanne Gaakeer, Richard Weisberg, Costas Douzinas).

Many critics have underlined the connection between theatre and law in the Renaissance cultural context (see for example Subha Mukherji [5], Paul Raffield, Ian Ward); actually, many English dramatists of the period studied law at the Inns of Court and could well reproduce legal debates on the scene, as well as make use of forensic models of narrative. The poetic language and the legal one both use imagination to reach a universal representation of human actions. Just like the playwright, who moves his audience with the logical and psychological power he possesses (for example manipulating the feelings of fear and pity of his spectators), so operates the lawyer, employing the same strategies during trials. Moreover, the shared final aim of both the tragic performance and legal procedure can be defined as the disposition toward making right judgements. [6]

In the context of a strong popular participation in the system of justice, the representation of uncertainty about legal issues represented a rich potential for causing strong reactions in the public (as is the case of resistance to tyranny).
Shakespeare was fascinated by law, which permeated Elizabethan everyday life. The general impression one derives from the analysis of many Shakespearean plays is that of a legal context in transformation and of a dynamically changing relation between law and society, law and the jurisdiction of Renaissance times. The legal situation does not appear to be a static but rather a mutable one, which is aware of and tries to cope with the new needs of the age. Shakespeare provides the kind of literary supplement that can better illustrate the legal context and the legal texts of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; his jurisprudential insight in specific matters (Ward, Carpi, Jeanne Gaakeer [7]) at the same time creates and develops within the legal imagination of the period [8]. As Paul Raffield highlights, we will better understand the nature of the early modern constitution by means of Shakespeare’s description of it. [9]

In this context, the seminar aims at highlighting the many legal perspectives and debates emplotted in Shakespearean plays, underlining the juridical nature of the cases portrayed and the proposed solutions as well as the comments to the specific situations themselves. It aims at a critical consideration and comparison among the many critical texts that have been produced during the latest years on Shakespeare’s legal aspects favouring the proposal of new legal perspectives on selected topics. The proposals may address works of the Shakespearean canon as well as rereadings of it in interdisciplinary fields such as film studies, visual arts, performing arts.

Proposals should be sent to by July 1st, 2013. Please include name, email, affiliation, abstract (250 words) and title of your contribution.

Latest update: Sunday 17 March 2013, by Admin


[1Sokol, M Sokol, Shakespeare, Law and Marriage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003

[2G. Watt, P. Raffield, Shakespeare and the Law, Hart, Oxford, 2008.

[3J. Drakakis, “Shakespeare against Genre”, Polemos, 1/2013.

[4D. Carpi, Shakespeare and the Law, Longo, Ravenna, 2003; D. Carpi, The Concept of Equity, Winter, Heidelberg, 2007; D. Carpi, Practising Equity, Addressing Law, Winter, Heidelberg, 2008.

[5S. Mukherji, Law and Representation in Early Modern Drama, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006

[6K. Eden, Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1986, p. 62.

[7“The Bloody Book of Law”, some remarks on the interrelation of law, medicine, and the behavioral sciences in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice’, in: Simonsen, K.-M. and D. Tams (eds), Law and Literature, interdisciplinary methods of reading, DJØF Publishing Copenhagen, 2010, pp.21-32.

[8I. Ward, Shakespeare and the Legal Imagination, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.

[9P. Raffield, Shakespeare’s Imaginary Constitution, Hart, Oxford, 2010.

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