Taking Exception to the Law: Materializing Injustice in Early Modern English Literature ed. by Donald Beecher et al. (review)
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Reviewed by
Donald Beecher, Travis DeCook, Andrew Wallace, and Grant Williams, eds. Taking Exception to the Law: Materializing Injustice in Early Modern English Literature. University of Toronto Press. x, 318. $70.00

In its generic diversity and attention to non-canonical authors, this collection makes a valuable addition to the ever-expanding field of early modern law and literature. While Shakespeare is first among equals, with four of the twelve chapters dedicated to his plays, there are chapters here dedicated to Spenserian romance, Humanist education manuals, Miltonic epic, and criminal biography in popular pamphlets. The opening chapter on law and the production of literature functions as an "introductory perspective," covering the expected ground of how "legal apparatus is not a totalizing, oppressive instrument wielded from above but a cultural player," and how literature is uniquely suited to interrogate – or "take exception to" – the law's central cultural position. I would perhaps quibble with the book's subtitle about "materializing injustice," when for the most part analyses [End Page 155] are firmly historical and literary, without venturing into material cultural. One exception to this is Bradin Cormack's exploration of how the fundamental legal materials of paper and parchment find expression in Shakespeare. This wide-ranging piece is one of the book's highlights; the title references Hamlet's riddling engagement with legal writs and commissions, but there are insights here on engrossment in Richard III, indentures in 1 Henry IV, and paperwork in Henry VIII. For Cormack, what attracts Shakespeare is how the material legal documents create "a textual culture that could be said to be in immediate relation to a world, for exactly the reason that its world is not quite the real one."

Credit must be given for contributors' emphasis on aspects of early modern law too often overlooked. A good example of this is Judith Owens' attention to the Court of Wards as a highly influential – and controversial – site of judicial power, which makes its presence felt in Spenser's depiction of Artegall in The Faerie Queene. Under-used literary sources are also explored, as with Virginia Lee Strain's work on Elizabethan coterie literature, giving much-needed attention to the imbrication of early modern law with poetry as opposed to drama. Deborah Shuger's analysis of Archbishop Laud's prison diaries from the 1640s gives us a rare external perspective on English common law, from the position of someone trained in canon and civil law. Laud's account of his unfair trial in Parliament is used to provide a healthy counterbalance to the inordinate focus on common law, sullying the carefully manufactured image of a superior and impartial common law in the process. The value here is the inclusion of novel critical points of view; elsewhere, Tim Stretton struggles to find an original angle on legal instruments in The Merchant of Venice, which is perhaps inevitable with such a well-trodden text for law and literature critics.

In places, the twin poles of law and literature provide the starting point, before receding into the background. Elizabeth Hanson's connection between Humanist educational theory and distributive justice remains elusive, while her analogy between modern US school policy – "No Child Left Behind" – and the paradoxes of Tudor schooling is provocative, if not fully convincing. John D. Staines makes a compelling case that torture as a judicial strategy fell out of favour in early modern England in response to texts like Foxe's Actes and Monuments, which persistently linked the practice with tyranny. However, the culminating reading of the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear feels like an afterthought, working by analogy rather than creating concrete links. The final two contributions, by Elliott Visconsi and Paul Stevens, while excellent in their own right, could have sat as easily in handbooks on religious toleration or Milton's political theology, respectively, as they do in a law and literature volume. [End Page 156]

The collection is at its strongest when probing the fissures in early modern law, and how legal practice is often at odds with the laudatory accounts of Fortescue and Coke. Chapter lengths vary widely, from over thirty pages to barely half that, giving the volume a...


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