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Eternal Bonds, True Contracts

Law and Nature in Shakespeare's Problem Plays

A. G. Harmon

Publication Year: 2004

In Eternal Bonds, True Contracts, A. G. Harmon closely analyzes Shakespeare’s concentrated use of the law and its instruments in what have often been referred to as the problem plays: Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, and All’s Well That Ends Well. Contracts, bonds, sureties, wills—all ensure a changed relationship between parties, and in Shakespeare the terms are nearly always reserved for use in the contexts of marriage and fellowship. Harmon explores the theory and practice of contractual obligations in Renaissance England, especially those involving marriage and property, in order to identify contractual elements and their formation, execution, and breach in the plays. Using both legal and literary resources, Harmon reveals the larger significance of these contractual concepts by illustrating how Shakespeare develops them both dramatically and thematically. Harmon’s study ultimately enables the reader to perceive not only these plays but also all of Shakespeare’s writing—including his poetry—as integral with, and implicated in, the proliferating legalism that was helping to define early modern English culture.

Published by: State University of New York Press


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Title Page

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p. v

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pp. vii-9

Portions of chapter 4 were published in an article entitled “Lawful Deeds”: The Entitlements of Marriage in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.3 (summer 2001): 115–42. ...

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Chapter 1. The Semblance of Virtue: Law, Nature, and Shakespeare

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pp. 1-23

It is a fair generalization of our times to say that the law figures into literature as some type of ordeal the characters must battle through. If it takes the form of a trial, their plight is often unjust; heroes persevere against judicial badgering until they are exonerated. If the law takes the form of rules or imperatives, it often becomes a prohibition the characters labor under, an institutional ...

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Chapter 2. Things Seen and Unseen: The Contracts in Measure for Measure

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pp. 25-53

Of the four plays I discuss in this book, Measure for Measure is possibly the last to be composed and contains a particularly high concentration of contracts. Flaws in these contracts, involving two pseudomarriages, help complicate the action of the play, and their eventual correction helps resolve it. An analysis of the contracts in Measure for Measure will provide, sometimes by negative ...

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Chapter 3. Perfection in Reversion: The Mock Contract in Troilus and Cressida

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pp. 55-80

Whatever the reason for Shakespeare’s parody of Troilus and Cressida’s story, it has caused a great deal of consternation among critics.1 But as is often the case with Shakespearean comedy (if a comedy it is), themes of great weight lie below the surface. Amidst their ribaldry, different characters imply that the laws of the cosmos have slipped. There is not only the ...

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Chapter 4. Matching Meanings: Contracts, Bonds, and Sureties in The Merchant of Venice

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pp. 81-114

Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida reflect the two orientations toward nature that run throughout the plays under consideration here. They also demonstrate the different uses Shakespeare makes of the law, and particularly of the legal instrument. In Measure for Measure, those who cheat nature also bypass integrity, creating a disjunction between seeming and being. Nature’s agent rectifies this state of affairs by means of the ...

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Chapter 5. Lawful Ti t l e: Contractual Performance in All’s Well That Ends Well

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pp. 114-153

The folkloristic elements of All’s Well That Ends Well that W. W. Lawrence identifies as “the healing of the king” and the “fulfillment of the task,”1 have accounted for some of its specific unpopularity.2 But although there is a mixture of the realistic and the fairy-tale worlds, this qualit y exists in all of the dramas discussed here, and I consider it one of the groups’ virtues. Their existing ...

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Chapter 6. Nature’s Double Name: Beyond the Problem Plays

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pp. 145-164

In the plays discussed, unrealized contracts ref lect and exacerbate a societal disjunction between res and verba. They compromise marriage, justice, and legacies for the future. When contractual deficiencies are rectified, societal integrity is restored. Nature can then flourish. Measure for Measure is, in many ways, the most complete realization of this idea, and has served as a pattern ...


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pp. 165-184

Works Cited

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pp. 185-190


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pp. 191-195

E-ISBN-13: 9780791484920
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791461174
Print-ISBN-10: 0791461173

Page Count: 195
Publication Year: 2004

OCLC Number: 62365158
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Eternal Bonds, True Contracts

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Subject Headings

  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Knowledge -- Law.
  • Tragicomedy -- History and criticism.
  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Tragicomedies.
  • Nature in literature.
  • Law in literature.
  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Knowledge -- Natural history.
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