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Here is another offering from the Sokol team, which in the past has brought us Shakespeare's Legal Language (2000), as well as several articles on Shakespeare and the law. This latest focuses on the institution of marriage, and especially its legal aspects, in relation to Shakespeare. The authors begin with the premise that since Shakespeare's plays are full of references to the many aspects of law relating to marriage, a clear grasp of just what the relevant law was will enhance our understanding of Shakespeare and the culture of which he formed a part. The final paragraph of the book expresses the hope that this premise has been justified: "Providing the often missing legal dimension to historical investigation can be like opening a curtain in a darkened room. And that sort of light, we hope we have shown, may shine onto Shakespeare's plays" (188). The light shed is brighter in some corners of the room than others. But in bringing current legal history to bear on Shakespeare's many references to marriage law, the authors have supplied a valuable resource.
Readers will find here excellent summaries of current scholarship on the legal and social dimensions of marriage, interleaved with sections that explicate some of the relevant passages in Shakespeare. The book, organized into chapters, each of which addresses a particular aspect of marriage law, follows "the chronological stages of marriage" (9), beginning with the question of what was held to constitute a valid marriage and going on to discuss arranged marriages, wardship, dowries and marriage portions, solemnization, "irregular marriage formation" (clandestine marriage, elopement, rape) (11), marriage and legal status, and the ends of marriage [End Page 484] (separation, divorce, death). This method of organization has the advantage of separating out each of these aspects for detailed discussion, while preserving through frequent cross-referencing a sense of how all the pieces fit together in individual lives. It also, unfortunately, works against an equally effective examination of marriage in Shakespeare, since the plays are, in effect, dismantled to provide evidence of each point under discussion. As a result, there are few extended discussions of how marriage law works in the design of the plays as a whole. The Sokols argue that their approach "can reveal true intricacy [in Shakespeare], for Shakespeare's fictions and problems often reflected how complexly contemporary marriage expressed a web of social, sexual, religious, ethical, jurisprudential, political and even constitutional issues" (10). The intricacy revealed, however, is one more of detail than of design; the book does a better job of identifying and glossing marriage-related legal references and situations in the plays than of explaining how and why Shakespeare goes about making those references. The Sokols do employ a serviceable taxonomy of three "Shakespearean modes" or distinguishable sets of assumptions Shakespeare makes when invoking the law: "mirrorland" (the more or less realistic representation of contemporary legal practices), "legal 'fableland'" ("where folkloric, biblical, or stereotypical images hold sway"), and "fantastical mooting" ("where impossibly complex contrived legal situations are premised") (8). This is a workable and reasonably accurate way of talking about Shakespeare's uses of the law, and the authors are quick to discern how the modes often shade from one into the other within a single play or even in a few lines of text. Still, sustained engagement with plays as wholes—engagement in which Shakespeare's management of particular legal matters is recast as a function of dramatic composition, genre, or design—is not much in evidence.
The most important exception is a detailed and interesting account of how a proper grasp of Petruchio's financial offer to Baptista in connection with Kate's marriage can color our understanding of The Taming of the Shrew. At issue is the provision of dower, the portion of a husband's estate reserved for his wife upon his death (and not to be confused—although Shakespeare is not entirely consistent in observing the distinction—with dowry, the marriage portion supplied along with the bride by...